Winslet likely nom as desperate housewife

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"Children" conversation: If you think desperate housewives only live on Wisteria Lane, think again.

It turns out there also are some truly desperate housewives to be found in the suburban setting of Todd Field's "Little Children." Chief among them is Kate Winslet, who's likely to walk off with much deserved best actress Oscar and Golden Globes nominations for her performance as an unhappy wife-mother looking for and finding love outside her empty marriage.

The R-rated drama from New Line Cinema was written by Field & Tom Perrotta and is based on the novel by Perrotta. Produced by Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa and Todd Field, it was executive produced by Patrick Palmer, Toby Emmerich and Kent Alterman. Starring are Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley and Noah Emmerich.

"Children" revolves around events in a suburban community after a convicted sex offender is released to live there with his elderly mother. When the film opened in early October, it attracted critical acclaim -- as did Field's 2001 film, "In the Bedroom" -- scoring an 83% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer. "Bedroom" was nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, and three Golden Globes, including best picture-drama. Sissy Spacek, who starred in "Bedroom" opposite Tom Wilkinson, received a best actress Oscar nod and won the best actress-drama Globe. Winslet, who's affair is at the heart of "Children's" story, has been generating an awards buzz since the picture was first seen.

In this wide open awards season "Children" could emerge as a contender for more than best actress. Field's directing and writing have resonated in the past with Academy and Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. members and history could repeat itself. "Children" is the type of small, intense, carefully crafted drama that Oscar voters have applauded and nominated in past best picture races. And Jackie Earle Haley's performance as the film's convicted sex offender already has a supporting actor buzz going.

With that in mind, I was happy to have an opportunity recently to talk to Field about the making of "Children." I began by asking him about the unusual arrangement in which he co-wrote the film's screenplay with the author of the novel that it's based upon. "I had an opportunity in that Tom had already written several screenplays and that's another kind of writing that he does," he explained. "So when the idea came up that we might write the script together it was kind of as writing partners as opposed to having a novelist who is slumming or anything like that. That was a tremendous opportunity.

"First of all because when you're writing anything there's plenty that you throw out. Tom came into the room with all kinds of ideas and enthusiasm about how we might take the script forward because clearly we weren't going to just do a straight transcription of the novel. It would have been a little bit like trying to shove an elephant into a telephone booth. On paper people would say, 'Oh, wow, you're writing with the novelist. That might not be such a terrific idea.' But I couldn't have wanted a better writing partner than Tom."

Was Perrotta equally happy about proceeding on that basis? "Tom was very excited," Field replied. "He made it very clear from the very beginning that he was interested in working on the script. So there was never any question about that. It was always going to be something that we were going to write together."

Asked how they worked together and if, for instance, when they were writing they were together in the same room, Field told me, "We did. The book received quite a bit of attention right when it came out and we started working on the script together shortly thereafter. There were a couple of challenges for Tom in that the publisher still wanted him to go out and promote the book because it had gotten a lot of very positive response in print. So we began right away. Tom lives outside of Cambridge in Boston and I don't. I live up in Maine. So I went down and checked into a hotel room there and we rolled up our sleeves and just started working together.

"In terms of how you work with someone else, I think it's probably different with everyone. With Tom we probably spent several days just talking about ideas that we both had and a possible approach and then we just got down to it and started from the very beginning. We'd just start talking through scenes together and we would just take turns dictating to each other -- one of us writing and (then) the other one writing. We would rough stuff in in real time and then we would leave. When we left the room what we would try to do is work ahead of each other. So I'd say, 'Okay, I'll take this bit and you take this bit and I'll have pages for you by tomorrow and you have pages for me tomorrow.' And then we'd go through each other's work and we'd talk about it and we'd get to a place where we were of one mind on what each other had done and then we'd take the next chunk."

Reflecting about how it is when you're writing with someone else, Field added, "Writing is a very solitary discipline, sitting chained to a desk every morning, but there's something wonderful -- especially for a film -- about doing it with someone else in the room a lot of times for the simple reason of just being able to play a scene with someone. It's very different how a scene plays once you start to walk it around a room then necessarily how it starts on a page."

As for the mechanics of how he writes, there are times Field said when he breaks scenes down by putting them on index cards posted on walls: "I have done that and I tend to do that in later passes once there's what feels like an honest draft. Then you start going back through passes. That tends to be the time to do that (with cards). But on this script we really didn't. I think we didn't because we had such a strong idea of what we wanted to do with the book and it became apparent very quickly the things we wanted to change in terms of what the structure would be in terms of what would happen to characters when and when certain characters would be introduced and others would not.

"For instance, there's one character that encompasses all the sort of paranoia and fear of this world that these other characters are living in. That's Ronald James McGorvey (the convicted and recently released sex offender played by Jackie Earle Haley). Now in the book you meet him quite quickly. But as soon as we started working on the script we realized that would probably not be a terribly dramatic idea. It would be better to have him be talked about for a good hour or so by others before you ever have him appear because you have a potential to have an audience already be predisposed about him one way or the other, which presents opportunities in terms of a character being able to unfold for an audience in a way that they might not expect."

When we finally do get to see McGorvey in the film he doesn't quite look like the monster we've been imagining. He seems very vulnerable and childlike. "The idea was to try to create this fable -- like a fractured fairy tale, if you will," Field noted. "If you had a sort of fairy tale where you had a troll under a bridge, well what if the troll had a mother and what if the troll could experience pain and what if the troll didn't particularly want to really be a troll? But he's still a troll so you'd better be careful, you know. So when you first see him he may not look like much (to worry about), but to others he may look like the most terrifying thing that's appeared in front of them based on their own anxiety."

On the other hand, he observed, "If the picture were to begin with him arriving at the pool (McGorvey's first appearance comes in a powerful scene at a local swimming pool where when the assembled local mothers realize who he is they immediately snatch their children out of the water) you would say, 'Okay, well there's a middle aged man putting on some snorkeling gear and swimming around in a pool. And then people seem to be very frightened of him. What's going on here doesn't really make sense.' His behavior I don't think would seem out of the ordinary at all. He's in a very public venue that is populated basically by adults and their offspring.

"But meeting him in that way -- an hour plus into the movie with him entering this town pool and having heard second hand all these opinions and circumstantial evidence about this man -- every time he scratches his face it seems suspicious. Every time he looks at someone the wrong way, whether it's a child or anyone else, it seems suspicious. And that was a fundamental structural departure for us in terms of from the novel as opposed to the screenplay."

Their actual writing was done, Field added, "every which way. There was a big joke when Tom and I met because there's a particular kind of pencil that I've always used called a Blackwing 602. They don't make them anymore. They just sort of unceremoniously discontinued them. There's all kinds of theories why. Some people think that the crimp-at-the-end that holds the eraser machine got broken. I think they were probably just too expensive to manufacture, but they're a very nice pencil. They're a soft lead pencil and a favorite pencil by everyone -- composers especially like it a lot because of the soft lead. You can't get them anymore and I had read that the Boston Athenaeum Library had been bequeathed some ridiculous amount of them like a million pencils or something.

"I mentioned this to Tom because I was down to like my last two boxes and kind of panicking. And he said, 'Oh, well, I know somebody over at the Boston Athenaeum. I'll hook you up.' But it was this kind of strange three month odyssey of trying to get our hands on these pencils. I'm happy to say that I'm sitting in a room right now staring at a shelf of about 50 boxes of these things. It takes about five boxes a script."

While they were writing, of course, Field knew he was ultimately going to direct the script they were creating. I asked him if his director self ever tells his writer self to do or not do something? "There's an old saying, especially (about) people who write stuff that they're going to direct, which is that you finish a script and say, 'Wow, this is a really great script' and then you're directing it and you say, 'Gosh, what was that writer thinking?' And then you're editing and saying, 'God, the director was an idiot!' But I think when you know that you're going to be photographing the material, you're trying to organize the script in a way so that when you go back to those pages either in rehearsal or the night before a day's shooting you can see it as clearly as possible for yourself. And so the scene descriptions are absolutely essential for that reason.

"Dialogue is great in a script, but as a practical matter when you're shooting the most important thing that you have are your scene descriptions. I try to put as much detail into them as I can because by the time you get through the world weariness of pre-production and production and you arrive on a set and you've had very little sleep and you've got days and days behind you it's good (to have) anything that you can have to remind you of what excited you in a room when there weren't 200 people standing around."

While writing the screenplay, Field had no idea of who would play the roles he and Perrotta were bringing to life: "Whenever I'm working on something I only want to think about the characters and who the characters may or may not be. I may either try to find someone who I'm acquainted with or someone that I can attach a feeling to for a character that's personalized as much as possible and not so abstract as to be thinking about an actor one way or the other. There's probably more possibility involved with trying to figure out a composite of a character based on what's in front of you personally or what you know. And if you're thinking about an actor you probably will not do any justice to the character and you're probably not going to be doing any justice to the actor either because you're probably thinking about them for very reductive reasons in that they've done something that at that moment seems to remind you of the character and I think that's dangerous because then I think you start writing for past performances or roles that you've seen people do as opposed to trying to write for that character.

"So it's not until a script is completely finished that I ever start thinking about actors and then it's the most terrifying and exciting time because a script is like a tree in the woods -- you know, 'if a tree falls in the woods and no one's there, did it really fall?' kind of thing. It's not until the actors show up that somebody's there for the tree to fall. I try to have a very, very specific idea once we start the casting about who that actor is going to be because I want to already admire them. I want to already have a very specific sense of enthusiasm about why that actor would be right for this character. So I don't ever circulate my material. I don't send scripts out. I try not to expose the material at all. I try to think about who the actor is and why and then see if they're available and if they're interested in sitting down and talking about maybe working together."

It's only after that conversation, he said, "if it seems like both of us might be interested (that) I give them the material. The exciting thing about that for me is the next conversation because the next conversation is going to be probably surprising, full of a lot of questions and I'm going to give a talk to somebody with no bias whatsoever to what my intent was for a character. And out of that conversation I am probably going to find something very exciting that I or, in this case, Tom Perrotta and myself would never have imagined because actors approach things in a very practical way which is about doing."

Seeing the movie, I observed, it looks as though the role of Sarah Pierce was specifically written for Kate Winslet, who fits it like a glove. "You know, with 'In the Bedroom' when we started casting that the first character I was concerned about was Frank Fowler, the son, who was ultimately played by Nick Stahl," Field pointed out. "I knew that I had to get that character right. It was going to be a very, very particular thing that the actor was going to have to bring to that part. Randi Hiller, my casting director on 'In the Bedroom,' spent a long time looking for that character. Before we looked for who the parents were going to be (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek were cast) we wanted to know who Frank was going to be.

"So it's always different, but in this case I happened to go see Michel Gondry's film 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' right after Tom and I completed the script. I knew that Jim Carrey was in it. I didn't know much else. I also knew of Kate Winslet, but based on the fact that we work on movies for months at a time for whatever reason I'd never seen her in a film. Certainly, my wife had and everyone else I know had. When 'Titanic' came out I was working like two or three films back to back and I tend to not go to movies when I'm working on films. I have to see it now. I'm looking forward to seeing it (and) to seeing a lot of films now that I have free time."

When he saw "Eternal Sunshine," Field added, "There's a scene at the very beginning where Carrey is on some kind of public transportation and this woman gets up and she sits next to him and he seems frightened of her and then she just decks him. That was such a confusing moment and so scary. I jumped in my seat when that happened. Of course, that whole movie's really built around that moment because you don't know what to expect in that film the way Michel and (screenwriter) Charlie Kaufman play with time because they're ahead of you. But for the rest of the movie I was leaning forward in my seat saying, 'Okay, that's an American actress. She's really, really interesting. She's got so much going on.' And, 'Who is that? Who is that? I've never seen her before.'

"It wasn't until the very end when the credits came up and it said 'Kate Winslet' and I thought, 'Oh, my God? That's Kate Winslet?' So I walked out of that film and I thought, 'Well, Sarah Pierce is a very complicated creature and she is navigating so many things emotionally and she's at a point in her life when we meet her where she's very confused about herself. But her behavior goes from being incredibly confident -- almost arrogant, you could say -- when we meet her to being almost ridiculous and foolish in terms of where she allows herself to go and then ultimately being able to discover who she is. It was a difficult character because on the page there was the danger that if someone didn't bring something very specific to that character it could have been very two-dimensional. It had to be somebody who could navigate that, but also be able to make her alive in a very specific way."

When he left the theater Field was thinking, "'Well, that's it. It's got to be Kate Winslet. And clearly she has no problem playing an American' -- which is kind of surprising. There are very, very few British actors who can truly do it. I think people don't understand that when you're actor it's much easier for us as American actors to go do a British accent or an Indian accent or something else because there's a lot more music in most other cultures' languages. In our culture the way we vocalize is very flat. There's not as much that you can key in on and so a lot of times British actors come off sounding like John Wayne or they have some kind of Benny Hill southern dialect.

"There's a reason for that because they're looking for some kind of music that they can catch on to. But to really, truly play an American is a very, very difficult thing to do. There's only a couple of actors I can think of that I have seen that I would really say can pull it off and she's one of them. So that was a huge bonus -- here's one of the greatest actors I've ever seen who clearly can do anything. So I called up her agent, Hylda Queally of CAA, and said, 'I'd really like to talk to Kate Winslet about this role. Do you think she'd be interested and is she available?' She said, 'Well, I'll call you back.' And the phone rings about five minutes later and she said, 'Yes, she'd like to talk to you. Can you meet her in 10 minutes?' I said, okay."

When Field drove out to Santa Monica that day to meet Winslet, he told me, it was "two days before the Academy Awards. She was up for 'Eternal Sunshine.' And there she was sitting in this empty office building with no one there. Completely deserted. On the floor with her shoes off, pouring over Steve Zaillian's script next to the novel for 'All the King's Men.' I said, 'What are you doing? Have you just started this movie?' She said, 'No, no, no. I'm almost finished. It's a very tiny part.' I said, 'Well, what are you doing?' because there were markers and dog-ears and everything all over this material. She said, 'There's just something here. There's something here about this character. I just know I missed it.'

"I thought, here's this young woman who could be trotting around town getting all kinds of free gift baskets and being photographed in fabulous places and being wined and dined and she's sitting on the floor of a deserted office building pouring over this material for a part that's very part that she's nearly completed. The person who I met that day is the person I ended up working with and I can't imagine having had anyone else play that role."

Asked how he works with his actors, Field, who started his own career as an actor (Woody Allen's "Radio Days," Roland Joffe's "Fat Man and Little Boy" and Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" are among his many credits), replied, "I always have a long rehearsal period. A lot of people know that you make a movie in prep, but you also make a movie in a rehearsal room. It's important that you're able to have just as much time in rehearsal as you are in your prep. I think I began my rehearsals with Kate first and they started very much like they started with Sissy Spacek, which is it started on the telephone and we spent a lot of time on the phone. And then in New York we'd get together and basically just talk through the character. There were a lot of 'what ifs' before we ever began to rehearse. And then we would just talk through scenes and read through scenes. I did the same thing with Patrick Wilson and I did the same thing with Jackie Earle Hayley and Phyllis Somerville and Noah Emmerich and Jennifer Connelly.

"Once I have the beginning of a rehearsal period with a single actor then I start to pair people up so that everyone's kind of had a chance to have their say because it's a hard thing to walk into a rehearsal room with complete strangers, whether it's the director who's sitting across from you or another actor who you may have never worked with an not know, and be completely honest about how you feel about something without feeling ridiculously vulnerable. I've found that that's a pretty good way of working because you get used to each other and then by the time three people are in a room as opposed to two people it's a much easier thing to have a rehearsal period where everybody trusts they're going to discover something through the process of just doing it."

It's got to be a good way of working with actors since from "In the Bedroom" Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marisa Tomei were all Oscar nominated. In addition, Spacek won a Golden Globe and Tomei was a Globe nominee. "Well, there all very good actors," Field said. "It makes it very, very easy. I'm very fortunate to have been able to work with the kind of actors that I have on these two films. You know, actors wear their hearts on their sleeves. Wherever they are in their careers, it's a much harder job than I think most people realize unless they've had to do it. (They) come and put their trust in a filmmaker -- and they do because film is not an actors medium, it's very plastic and they make themselves completely vulnerable when they come and collaborate with a filmmaker.

"To have these kinds of actors come and give weeks and in some cases months of their lives is a really humbling thing. It's a tremendous thing that people give up that kind of energy and time and (have that much) faith in a project. I've been extraordinarily lucky that way that's I've been able to work with the kind of actors I have so far."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From July 14, 1988's column: "Kirk Kerkorian, who seems to hold more sales than Bloomingdales, is back on the front page again with yet another deal changing the ownership of MGM/UA. As is true of most Kerkorian deals, you really do need to be a rocket scientist to understand what's going on.

"In an effort to put the current situation at MGM/UA in some perspective I spoke Wednesday to Arthur E. Rockwell, who was vice president, corporate relations for the old MGM/UA Entertainment Co. when Kerkorian sold it to Turner Broadcasting two years ago...

"The key thing to look at is that for the Sugarman group this is a nice, low-cost, highly leveraged way of becoming a player," explains Rockwell. "For Kerkorian it's not a matter of taking in a partner so much as it is finding a way he can eventually cash out. That really is what I see as the intent of this $8 rights offering. He's not in it to remain a 57% to 75% partner with Burt Sugarman, but will backstop it financially until those people get going enough so that they can through a combination of bank and junk bond financing ultimately buy Kerkorian out at his $8 a share...'

"Before focusing on whether deal in which Sugarman and his partners Peter Guber and Jon Peters will put up $100 million and in return get 25% of MGM and take over its management is good for either side, Rockwell notes, 'This is not the kind of sale Kerkorian originally hoped he would have. From rumors and reports it appears that the bigger buyers who would have taken the whole thing at a much heftier price for the shareholders -- say, over $20 a share -- backed away when they looked at what they were buying and the price that was asked. There were a lot of big motivated buyers out there, but when those backed off, I think, Kirk had to find another way of extricating himself from the position he's in -- and that is an economic time bomb, which is the present company.'

"Why does Rockwell view it as an economic time bomb? 'It is so highly leveraged in terms of both excessive overhead and excessive debt levels that even a reasonably successful film slate would barely affect the bottom line,' he replies. 'What happened was that when Kerkorian created the United Artists Corporation spin-off it started out as an interesting lean operation with no debt and reasonable assets to work from. However, when Kerkorian bought MGM back from Turner in 1986, that basically put him in the position of a heavy debt load plus excessive corporate overhead...The economic time bomb is that the market value (of MGM/UA Communications) continued to struggle along. As cash and credit lines were used up they were about to run out of money and the value of the stock over time would have deteriorated.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com
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