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Its classical themes and three-act structure notwithstanding, Todd Field's debut feature, In the Bedroom, alighted on the snowy peaks of Sundance last January as if from another universe. Here was a small miracle of patience and composure, so starkly removed from everything the festival had come to represent that it seemed almost to herald the overdue coming-of-age of American independent film, or at least sound the death knell of a decade of Park City bloat. A breathtakingly precise drama about a middle-aged Maine couple (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) fumbling through the aftermath of an unfathomable family tragedy, In the Bedroom(which opens on Friday) undertakes a detailed anatomy of sorrow, evoking the desperate, outsize shapelessness of grief even as it isolates the emotion's constituent toxins of blame, guilt, and rage.
All of which, the 37-year-old Field readily acknowledges, made the project a tough sell from the outset. "It's not a real sexy thing to go into a meeting and pitch," says the actor-turned-director (best known as the shady jazz pianist Nick Nightingale in Eyes Wide Shutand as Ashley Judd's sensitive love interest in Ruby in Paradise). "But there is a certain tedium to grief. One could argue that it's boring, like most forms of depression are. I suffered a personal tragedy in 1989 that I really was not able to deal with in a very healthy way for about three years. The film is informed by my own grief. The core of the movie is that there's no formula for grieving."
The seed for In the Bedroomwas planted nearly a decade ago, when Field was given a book of Andre Dubus's short fiction while he was a student at the American Film Institute. "Even though his stories take place in New England and I grew up in the Northwest, I knew all these people so well. These are my relatives, this was my neighborhood, this is the VFW Hall, this is the Elks Club." In 1993, his first year at AFI, Field made a short based on Dubus's "Delivering." He was also drawn to another story, the 18-page-long "Killings," but decided it was too dense for a short piece. His thesis film, Nonnie & Alex, a rueful, nostalgia-dappled tale of a young boy's first Halloween without his mother (written by Field's wife, Serena Rathbun), won a prize at Sundance. But upon graduation, instead of embarking on the arduous process of feature-film development, the father of three opted to pay off his student loans by taking a series of acting gigs, in Nicole Holofcener's indie rom-com Walking and Talking, the tornado blockbuster Twister, and Eyes Wide Shut.
Itching to finally direct his own movie, Field turned once again to "Killings." It turned out there was an existing adaptation, written by Rob Festinger and "more of a potboiler thriller." After working through the legal entanglements, Field was allowed to have a crack at it. "My intention was never to make a story about revenge," he says. "Nothing here is in keeping with a Cannon film starring Charles Bronson. You're required in that genre to give a certain amount of satisfaction, and that's not what this film is aboutit's about someone violating their own nature. The thing that stayed with me about Andre's story was what he leads you to imagine about this marriagehow together, for better or worse, they operate ultimately as a third character, separate from themselves, like in any marriage."
A pivotal moment in the evolution of In the Bedroomcame when Field traveled to Haverhill, Massachusetts, to pay his respects to Dubus. "He was pretty dubious. He asked me why I wanted to do this storywhat's it about? And I said, 'I may be completely wrong but it's the Scottish play.' And he said, 'Fucking right, that's what it is!' He warmed up after that, but it was two hours getting to that point. It was harrowing to send him the script, but his feedback was beyond what I could have hoped for. He was so supportive and really excited. We talked almost daily."
In fact, Field was the last person Dubus ever spoke to. The author died in 1999, on February 24, Field's birthday. "I was walking around not fully conscious for a while after that," he says. Eleven days later, he sustained another blow. "I was leaving for England and was actually going to see Stanley [Kubrick], and I got a call from Tom Cruise, who said, 'You're not going to believe this, but Stanley's dead.' And I just lost it. These were two of my heroes, who'd inspired me before I'd even met them, and who became mentors to me, these two bearded godheads. . . . "
Field had been a Kubrick fan since he saw 2001as a teenager. "When I first started acting, he was casting for Full Metal Jacket, and I remember getting drunk in London and calling information on a pay phone for Stanley Kubrick." Field was on set in England for more than half the duration of Eyes Wide Shut's 15-month shoot. "I had a good deal of downtime and he never kicked me away when I was hiding behind his shoulder looking at the monitor." True to form, Kubrick counseled Field on the importance of secrecy: "If you have an idea, he said, you need to kind of bury it. Stealthily make it happen, but be careful, because as soon as you give voice to something that's exciting to you, it becomes anecdotal, and you start to doubt it yourself. An idea before it's fully formed is vulnerable to attack."
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 awayeven 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-ruralabout 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."
At 16, he got a part-time job as a projectionist at the local second-run cinema. "I saw Dinerand 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 AFIwhere 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 Miramaxa 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 Facesand A Woman Under the Influence. "But I just cringe when actors who direct bring up Cassavetes."
Field admits he isn't in any position to be discussing a long-term career plan right now, as he's still busy juggling the "schizophrenic" roles an indie filmmaker assumes by default. "You're like a psychiatrist, a priest, a lover, a father, a janitor. It's like you're building a house and deciding that it's shaped a certain way, and you get everybody in, and you screw up and you fix it, but when they all leave, there's nobody left to maintain the building and so you're cleaning the toilets, and you're alone. And if you care, it never stops."
J. Hoberman's review of In the Bedroom