Director’s Art

March 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: “In The Bedroom” is a decided underdog in this year’s best picture Oscar race, overshadowed by fellow nominees “A Beautiful Mind” and “Lord of the Rings.” But this small-budget film has been a surprise hit, and won plenty of critical acclaim for its focus on grief, marriage, and revenge in a small town in Maine. The plot revolves around Matt Fowler, played by actor Tom Wilkinson, and his wife, Ruth, played by Sissy Spacek. The couple is worried about their son frank’s relationship with an older woman with two small children.

WIFE: She’s not divorced yet, you know.

HUSBAND: It’s the same thing, okay? Maine has crazy laws, that’s all. Anyway, he loves her boys.

WIFE: Oh, god, you don’t think he was…

HUSBAND: No, he’s not going to marry her.

WIFE: Well, then, what’s he doing with her?

HUSBAND: She probably loves him. Girls always have.

RAY SUAREZ: The danger, though, comes not from girlfriend Natalie, played by Marisa Tomei, but from her violent, estranged husband, who kills Frank in a jealous rage.


RAY SUAREZ: The fowlers are overwhelmed by grief for their son, hurling blame and looking for revenge until the final scenes.

HUSBAND: I know what you think: That I was too lenient, that I let him get away with…

WIFE: Everything. Everything!

HUSBAND: Yes, yes, yes, and why? Why did he never come to you?

WIFE: He wouldn’t listen to me, matt. He wouldn’t trust me. You made sure of that.

HUSBAND: He never listened to you because you never listened to him.

WIFE: No. You did. You were winking at him the whole time. You encouraged him. You wanted what he had.

HUSBAND: You’ve got to be kidding.

WIFE: I knew it.

RAY SUAREZ: The movie has picked up five Oscar nominations, including best picture, best actor for Tom Wilkinson, and best actress for Sissy Spacek. It has also won praise for its first-time director and writer, Todd Field, who picked up an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, adapted from an Andre Dubus’ short story. Todd field talked with us recently.

RAY SUAREZ: I got a kick out of you saying that you’re glad, on reflection, that you couldn’t make this movie from its original short story when you first wanted to. Why?

TODD FIELD: Well, when I first wanted to make it, it was in ’92 and I was at the American Film Institute, and so I was still in the throes of making 30- minute films, and this story was 18 pages and was much in that time span.

RAY SUAREZ: even when you started to raise the money, the vision of the picture, your concept of it, continued to change, evolve?

TODD FIELD: In a sense, yes, because when you make a film, it’s at the forefront of your consciousness all the time, and you’re sort… you sort of ignore anything that doesn’t inform it, and yet you’re open to it being informed all the time. So you see an exchange at a supermarket, at a counter, or you hear a remark that your neighbor makes over dinner or something like, that and you’re always looking for something to deepen and specify the material that you’re working on.

RAY SUAREZ: The story of murder in a small town, and a family that’s brought to the breaking point by the killing of their son, is one where a lot of the action actually happens in people’s heads, rather than in places that a movie audience can see. What’s the challenge for you?

TODD FIELD: Well, the challenge is to trust the audience and to allow the audience, if they’re to become engaged with the picture, to possess it, and have their interpretation be paramount and more important than anything I could possibly show them or tell them. By them imagining what they don’t see, potentially they personalize the story in the way you do, say, when you read a book. And so they’re reinventing the movie for themselves.

RAY SUAREZ: Having been an actor yourself for a long time, how did that inform your relationship with actors once you became a director?

TODD FIELD: Every actor is different, and what that situation is, is different for every actor. So in a certain way, it’s helpful. But in other ways, with other actors, you have to start from square one because everyone has their own way of working. It’s a very sensitive process. You come together all as strangers. None of these actors knew each other either, so in a sense, we were all starting from ground zero. And when you come together into a rehearsal process, everyone is equal. There isn’t a director or an actor or someone who’s done this or that or the other thing. It’s really just trying to find what the story is about, and the best way to serve the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’ve gotten a lot of good feedback so far- – a shelf full of awards. That’s before the five Oscar nominations. Feeling vindicated, confirmed in your vision?

TODD FIELD: It could have been a terrible disaster, and it all came together in a very, very mysterious way. But you don’t really know that until you show it to an audience. And I remember the first screening last year at the Sundance Film Festival in January, after that first screening, feeling a huge sense of relief, because I had no idea how people were going to respond to it. No one had seen the film. The actors hadn’t seen the film. I was as nervous about showing it to them as to anyone.

RAY SUAREZ: Was it a surprise to you to see it?

TODD FIELD: No, I had very strong feelings about it. Once we had put the cut together very early on, Frank Reynolds, my editor, and I turned to each other and said, “Okay, it works.” And it affected us in a very, very visceral way because when you’re making a film, it’s very abstract. You don’t really know what it’s going to be until you see it put together. You have ideas, you have hopes, you think, okay, this and that and the other thing; you don’t really know until you see it in a run. And I remember we turned to each other and said, “Well, it’s terrific, but how are we going to watch this, you know, 500 times now?”, because it really affected us in a very emotional way.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I had people, when I saw the movie, in front of me, to my side, and behind me all crying. I don’t know how you see that, as the father of this, the creator of it.

TODD FIELD: I’ve experienced similar reactions in every screening that I’ve attended. What really shocked me– and I suppose I should have been prepared for, but I wasn’t– was after almost every public screening that the film has had where I’ve been in attendance, at least one person has tracked me down after the screening, or a couple of days later in a hotel lobby or whatever, and told me intensely personal stories of their own, usually beginning with, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but…” I wasn’t prepared for that.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it’s your first feature-length film, a freshman home run. What do you do now?

TODD FIELD: Well, I’m not going to Disneyland.

RAY SUAREZ: (Laughs)

TODD FIELD: I’ll just… you know, I have another story that I’m interested in, and I’ll just try to make it quietly and, you know, hopefully I’ll still be interested in it when I’m finished with it. And maybe a few other people will be, or maybe they won’t. But I’d like to keep making films.

RAY SUAREZ: As a practical and as a business matter, is it easier to get the second one made, especially when the first got such a good reaction in the marketplace?

TODD FIELD: Yes, it will be very different this time, trying to get financing for a picture, which is a great relief, but also a bit terrifying, also, because I have just enough rope now to hang myself, or as Robert Altman said to me the other night, “now you can get yourself in some real trouble.”

RAY SUAREZ: Todd Field, thanks for talking to us.

TODD FIELD: Thank you.