Writer-director Todd Field earned Oscar nominations for his first two films (2001’s In The Bedroom and 2006’s Little Children), and all but ensured he’d do the same with his third film, Tár, when he secured Cate Blanchett for the title role. Sure enough, Tár recently landed six nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay for Field and, of course, Best Actress for Blanchett’s latest remarkable performance.
While Field warns against writing a role with a specific actor in mind, the fact that Blanchett embraced both his script and her character suggests some cosmic destiny must have been at work. To hear Field tell it, the star’s performance not only wowed viewers, it left the cast and crew in hushed silence after some takes. The A.V. Club just had to ask Field, who also earned a Directors Guild Award nomination this year, more about our favorite film of 2022. We also got him to share some tantalizing ideas for upcoming films, which we hope aren’t another 16 years away.
The A.V. Club: First things first, could you elaborate on your idea for a project to unite Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet? What kind of film would you put them in together?
Todd Field: You know, that’s a really good question. I’ve been so lucky and worked with so many incredible actors, including the two great C/Kates. And I don’t know if other people think this way, but I’ve always felt [about Blanchett and Winslett] the same way that I used to think about [Al] Pacino and [Robert] De Niro, “When are they going to do a movie together?” That great scene in Heat between the two of them that had you leaning forward. I just feel like they’re destined to do something together. It’s interesting—different, though—I feel that way about Nina Hoss and Cate Blanchett. I really feel like they’re destined to do another film together. I might put them in a buddy movie or something.
AVC: People watch Tár and instinctively know this part was created for Cate Blanchett. What’s the difference between writing a character with an actor in mind versus just writing a character?
TF: When I write, I’m adapting material. That’s typical. And when you write original material, it’s on spec. And I have a large family and I never have the kind of time to sit down and write a spec script, you know? So the difference is, I try to come at the material ... as an amateur reader. And just like a reader of fiction, I make the person in my own head. And that person is probably not an actor. I try to stay in that feeling when I’m adapting material because there’s so much more possibility. Because if I’m thinking about an actor, I’m probably doing it for the wrong reasons from something that I’ve already seen them do. So I am doing a disservice to both the character and to that actor, because there’s a level of predictability to it.
Now, on this film, I had the great honor and privilege and surprise of having somebody tell me that I could write an original script. For whatever reason, which I think it’s pretty easy to imagine, Cate Blanchett just appeared on my desk one day and wouldn’t leave. So I couldn’t think about this character as anyone but her. Going back to talking about [Cate and Kate] or Nina Hoss, it’s different now because I’ve worked with all three of those actors and I’ve seen very particular sides to them. But I’ve also seen the breadth of their intellect and talent and ability to have very meaningful conversations. So if I were to write something original that they were even vaguely in the neighborhood of, I would be thinking about them. But I wouldn’t be thinking about them based on any work they did, I would be thinking about them just in terms of how delightful it would be to be in dialogue with them.
AVC: Can you pinpoint a lightbulb-moment reason why Cate appeared in your mind? You’re saying it wasn’t a screen performance of hers?
TF: No, it wasn’t about a performance at all. If it had been, I would have scrubbed it from my mind. I know what it was: there was a film that Joan Didion and I wrote about 10 years ago. And I met with Cate in New York City, and the way she talked about that material, it was like a writer or a filmmaker. She’s looking at the whole thing. She’s a very holistic artist. Very specific, but she also understands the thing itself, as opposed to just saying, “What about my character?”
That project never happened. But I was left with that feeling, thinking, “This would be very meaningful to be able to work with an artist such as this.” And I really didn’t think it would ever happen again. And even though I wrote this for her, I had not even a shred of hope or a guarantee that she would ever say yes. I was really terrified when I finished the script, that she would say no. Because I really did want to make it. And had she said no, I wouldn’t have.
AVC: So after the script writing process and Blanchett saying yes, what then surprised you in the filming? Was there anything you hadn’t known about her abilities before she brought Lydia to life?
TF: I mean, it’s the impossible question [Laughs]. Everyone wants to know that because you want to know, like, how did the elephant suddenly appear on stage? Did that surprise you? Because it surprised me! So I completely understand the question. But the enormity of her craft, the enormity of her art, is so breathtaking. There’s not like a moment, four weeks in, where you go, “Oh, yeah, she’s doing that great thing again.” You don’t ever get used to it. Every day you just go, “Holy moly. Where did that come from?”
And it’s not like she’s walking around in character, walking around like Lydia Tár. She’s walking around as Cate Blanchett, the most delightful dinner companion anyone would ever have, very courtly and kind and concerned about everyone that’s working on the film. And then when the camera rolls, something happens. There were moments on this film where a hush would come over the crew. And you would look at, in some cases, some very hardened, tough, German males that would just melt. They’d look like they were in church. Because they, we all, had seen something together that we never saw coming and that we’d never seen before. And that we knew we would never see again. Film sets can be very noisy places and it’s hard to keep people quiet. But there were a few moments on this film where, when I said “cut,” you could have heard a pin drop for 10 minutes.
AVC: I see how that’s impossible to put into words. It’s like the answer to “what is she doing” is just, “Watch the film.” Exhibit A.
TF: Yeah, Exhibit A. Like, you feel that way? Yeah, same here. You know?
AVC: You’re aware that audiences either mistakenly or jokingly treat Lydia as a real person. Did you ever think that could happen?
TF: Well, she’s been very real to me for 10 years. There’s a big difference between, as the author of this material, her being real to me and her being real to others. Her being real to others is really a testament to what we were just talking about, the art of Cate Blanchett.
AVC: What recent films have you seen that impressed or inspired you?
TF: I’ve seen some very strong work and lot of it was borne out of this pandemic. I saw Alejandro [Iñárritu]’s film Bardo, which I really admire. I saw Noah Baumbach’s film White Noise, which is just a huge achievement. Sarah Polley’s film Women Talking has some really incredible moments that resonate with me; I had to take a long walk. But I haven’t seen all the films that everyone’s talking about, so I’m a little jealous of everybody … This year was an explosion of work by so many incredible filmmakers.
AVC: Going off of that, what is the diagnosis of Hollywood today? The trend of how filmmaking creativity is borne out of the pandemic, for example, is fascinating to consider.
TF: I think the pandemic [had] people in life or death situations and wondering if there were still going to be cinema after the pandemic. And inevitably, they answered, “I hope so, and I need something to do.” So they made things. I don’t think that question ... certainly in North America, has been answered properly. I think there’s a lot around that conversation that I’m not hearing. For instance, 40 percent of the specialty houses, the kind of houses that people my age with my background frequented, were shuttered during the pandemic. I don’t go to the multiplex. No one I know goes to the multiplex! So it’s kind of like, what are you going to do? You’re going to wait to stream, probably, inevitably, unless you’re lucky enough to have a local arthouse. Now, I live in a town of 5,000 people and lo and behold, one of the greatest art houses in the country is in this town. So I’m very lucky.
But that arthouse has been suffering because of what we know, and this is something that you don’t read about: the exit polls on these films. For instance, Tár, our average age is 24 to 36. Now, that is not the target age for this movie, not by a long shot. And what we’re not seeing are college-educated people from the age of 40 to 70, 75 percent who have historically been women, show up to see films. And why aren’t they showing up? Well, a lot of people are still very leery about going into a collective airspace, especially if it’s a multiplex. And they’re simply not going to go—because of their age, because maybe they have health issues, or mainly just because there’s a lot of people who still believe that there’s an element of risk going into a crowded room with other people. So will that change depending on what happens with the pandemic? Will we be having the same conversation a year from now with the next crop of films that come out? I hope not. I hope that the sort of death knell that some of these journalists are writing about, about the state of adult cinema, is forgotten. But I think it’s premature to talk about it right now. This pandemic started two years ago. And I think we all, for understandable, human reasons, want to believe that it’s in the rearview mirror. But it is far from that.