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TORONTO — New Line Cinema’s “Little Children” is just the second film directed by Todd Field, who earned writing and best picture Oscar nominations for his first film, “In the Bedroom.” Having proven himself as an actor, writer and director, Field is something of a talented triple threat who gives the adjective single-minded new meaning. After a strong debut at the Telluride Film Festival, Field this week accompanied his new film to the Toronto International Film Festival, where its star, Kate Winslet, earned raves for her performance as a brainy stay-at-home mom who has an affair with a neighborhood fellow parent, played by Patrick Wilson. So what makes Field such a singular sensation?
He’s an actor. Woody Allen gave Field his first film role in 1987’s “Radio Days,” and Victor Nunez starred him as Ashley Judd’s romantic leading man in 1993’s “Ruby in Paradise.” Like many actors, Field’s emotions run close to the surface; after the first screening of “Bedroom” at Sundance, he broke down as he talked about losing his two mentors before they could see the film: author Andre Dubus, who wrote the short story on which the film was based, and his influential “Eyes Wide Shut” director Stanley Kubrick. Field’s experience makes him a brilliant actor’s director.
He’s stubborn. Very few people have gone up against Harvey Weinstein and gotten their way. After Miramax Films picked up “Bedroom,” then-Miramax head Weinstein recommended cuts. But even though Field had earned little money on the film, he didn’t move on to an acting job. Instead, he guarded his print with his life. Weinstein was not pleased, but when many critics hailed “Bedroom,” Miramax pulled out the stops on an Oscar campaign. The film won the New York Film Critics prize for best first film and five Oscar noms. During production on “Children,” when New Line worried that Field was making Winslet too plain, Field stood firm. “She comes off as too unlikable,” the studio told him. “I said, I know, isn’t it great?” he recalls. “They gave me just enough rope to hang myself.”
He’s a writer. After “Bedroom,” Field hung his hat at DreamWorks, where he felt protected by former New Line executive Michael De Luca. While agencies and studios were sending Field small-town family dramas, for eight months he and De Luca developed the screenplay “Time Between Trains,” a Civil War-era biopic of the great stage actor Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. After De Luca left DreamWorks, “the response was, ‘Who cares about a dead actor?’ ” Field says. Steven Spielberg himself delivered the news that DreamWorks wouldn’t finance the expensive period epic. “How can you get someone to put $50 million-$80 million on a movie that has no explosions?” Field says. “I can’t argue with that. It was partly my own naivete saying, I can make whatever I want to make.”
He never gives up. Because he didn’t own the rights to the Booth project, Field moved on to “Little Children,” a Tom Perrotta novel sent to him in galley form by Bonafide Prods.’ Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger. The “Little Miss Sunshine” producers had a long relationship with the novelist dating back to “Election.” Field immediately responded to the book about several suburban families, especially liking its “intimate observational prose,” he says. But he initially envisioned an eight-hour HBO-style miniseries.
With the New York Times Book Review giving front-page praise to the novel, producer Scott Rudin also was throwing big money at Perrotta. Field desperately tried to pitch his idea to HBO, but he couldn’t in good conscience ask Perrotta to give up the Rudin deal. Finally willing to treat the project as a conventional two-hour movie, Field accompanied it to Paramount but backed out when Rudin refused to give him final cut. Field’s then-agent, Endeavor’s John Lesher, told him that the only way to get the project away from Rudin was to find it another home. Rudin agreed to give the movie back if someone else would match his rich offer. New Line Cinema executives Toby Emmerich and Kent Alterman finally did.
He likes creating characters. Field and Perrotta holed up in a Boston hotel room for a month and hammered out a first draft. “I’m not interested in suburbia,” Field says. “It’s boring. It’s been done to death. I saw ‘The Swimmer’ and ‘American Beauty.’ That milieu doesn’t interest me. I was interested in these people. Somehow I had to suck the blood out of Tom’s book and have something happen that could be meaningful anywhere. Parental anxiety interests me. These are archetypal dynamics. I had to figure out how to frame them.”
Using Perrotta’s omniscient narrator was one answer; Field watched movies that he admired with third-person voice narration, like Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” Comedy was another. “Humor is based on one thing,” Field says. “Pain. That’s why we like the Three Stooges. Pain is funny. This is satirical melodrama. Not black comedy, not drama, not ironic. It’s satirical like Thackeray.”
And he likes finding the right actors to play them. Field says actors are the audience’s route into “Children.” “I was trying to dramatize these characters in such a way that they’re not likable, but the audience gets involved with them,” he says. Wilson plays an immature househusband with a roving eye, and Jennifer Connelly is his dominating, careerist wife. The other key roles are a paroled sex offender, played sympathetically by Jackie Earle Haley (“Breaking Away”) in his first major role in 27 years, and his doting mother, played by veteran theater actress Phyllis Somerville.
He likes accidents. When Somerville “walked in and read with me alone,” recalls Field, she performed a pivotal scene when her son asks her what she loves about him. “I thought, She’s so good. So I threw her a curveball. I kept asking, What else? She got the part, and what she said wound up in the movie.”
He listens to his wife. Based in Maine, Serena Rathbun is a forthright woman who backs her husband all the way. After 10 years of watching Field enjoy making shorts and showing them to his friends, she pushed him into directing. So Field enrolled in the AFI’s directing program in 1992. “She told me, ‘Do what you want to do. Don’t get distracted,’ ” Field says. Rathbun encourages Field to keep searching for the right answers to things that aren’t working. On the “Children” script, she and Field figured out a vital missing scene one night while they were in bed.
He loves editing. Finding the movie in the editing room is half the battle for Field. “I figure it out there,” he says. “I have no idea what it is when I start.”
He frets about the details. All directors are control freaks to some degree, and Field is no exception. He fusses and worries and drives many people around him crazy. “He thinks he knows more than everyone else,” says one producer who worked with Field as an actor on 2000’s “Stranger Than Fiction.” But clearly, directing is his medium. Although Berger and Yerxa are the producers of “Children,” they understood that getting out of Field’s way was the only way to go. “He carries the weight of everything on his shoulders,” one source close to the production says. “He makes the movie in his head and sweats and bleeds for it. He’s absolutely fully committed to what he’s doing. How to achieve what he’s trying to do is the only thing he cares about. He’s wedded to actualizing his vision. He’s one complicated dude.”
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