Scenes From a Marriage

First-Time Filmmaker Todd Field Goes Behind Closed Doors

To hear him tell it, Field negotiated the thicket of development obstacles by being at once protective and combative. He found an early champion in producer Ted Hope, who had, coincidentally, grown up near Dubus in Massachusetts, and whose company, Good Machine, had made Walking and Talking. Field's sales pitch was notable for its brutal candor. Meeting with the eventual co-financiers, GreenStreet Films, he says, "I told them, look, there's a very good chance this will be a huge disaster. You could lose your shirts on this. Ted kept kicking me under the table, but I thought there was a leap of faith that had to be taken."

Dubus has said that "Killings" was informed by the lingering malaise of Haverhill's depressed economy; Field relocated the story to bucolic Camden, Maine, close to where he has lived on and off since 1996. "It's idyllic, but there's a dark side too. There was not one homicide in the entire state last year, and yet it has one of the highest gun ownerships per capita. . . . The thing about Maine is there's always people from away—even if you're across the border in New Hampshire, and could spit and hit the state of Maine, you're from away."

The third of four kids, Field describes his upbringing as "middle-class and semi-rural—about 10 miles outside of Portland, [Oregon,] surrounded by woods, open fields, and berry farms, all of which is gone now, unfortunately. It was very much like that area of midcoast Maine [of In the Bedroom]." When he first read "Killings," Field was reminded of his own parents. "They're of a generation that you could in psychobabble terms describe as repressed. Or you could argue that they had the good grace to edit themselves. Most of what was important in that marriage happened behind closed doors, in the bedroom at night. That's where their life unfolded. It didn't play out in front of us. We had very interior, private lives as children, and I had to imagine what went on between my parents."

"The core of the movie is that there's no formula for grieving."
Photograph by Robin Holland
"The core of the movie is that there's no formula for grieving."

At 16, he got a part-time job as a projectionist at the local second-run cinema. "I saw Diner and thought, There's other people like me and I can get out of here. I remember going down to the Salvation Army in downtown Portland, and looking for thin-lapelled suits, and trying to find somebody to go with me to Denny's and pretend like it was a diner." A jazz trombonist in his teens, Field planned to study music, but he switched his major when he "met a girl in the theater department at Southern Oregon State." He soon made his way to New York, where his passion for movies deepened. "I was waiting tables across from Lincoln Center and stumbled on the New York Film Festival, where I saw Stranger Than Paradise, and thought, Oh my God, they let somebody do this? And then thinking, No, no, he just did it, wow."

He started volunteering on NYU student films, but focused his attention on acting full-time after landing his first professional job, on Woody Allen's Radio Days. In 1992, emerging from what he calls "a very bad time in my life," Field enrolled at AFI—where he was threatened with expulsion for the highest recorded absences in their history. "I was always prepping something or working odd jobs and I only wanted to go to directing classes." His film school experience proved invaluable on In the Bedroom's 30-day shoot, which was "10 days fewer than we needed" and necessitated a day-for-night schedule. Adamant that the film be shot on wide-screen, Field picked up the tab for the additional cost, and also paid the licensing fee for the Red Sox games Wilkinson's character listens to on the radio.

One of the success stories of Sundance 2001, In the Bedroom won a Grand Jury Prize for Wilkinson and Spacek and was scooped up by Miramax—a transaction that sent a shudder through fans of the film, given the immaculately measured two-hour-plus running time and Harvey Weinstein's track record of snip-happy interference. "They have a reputation that precedes them," says Field, "so you're ready for it, which is not a bad thing. Their instinct was initially to trim the film. I knew they needed to feel comfortable no matter what, so I sat down with an editor and cut out 20 minutes, and it didn't test as well." Field ultimately won his battle for final cut but won't get into details on the record (though the film's Web site still features a page of Sundance blurbs from Premiere, Indiewire, and the Voice, under the heading "The Critics Wonder What Will Happen? HARVEY SCISSORHANDS!!!!!!!"). "I'm not going to lie and say that it wasn't excruciating or terrifying," he says, "but I'm ultimately really grateful to them for respecting my wishes."

He considers himself a "hobbyist" filmmaker. "I see myself making a living as an actor, even though film acting is drudgery. I know there's this preconception about actors who direct, like models who act. Even I'm guilty of it." On the other hand, Field seems acutely aware too of the romantic myth and legacy of American indie film's greatest actor-director, John Cassavetes. "I'm a huge Cassavetes fan," says Field, who proves his point by excitedly annotating and acting out scenes from Faces and A Woman Under the Influence. "But I just cringe when actors who direct bring up Cassavetes."

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