n the last few weeks, the critics have happened upon Todd Field’s deeply affecting first film In the Bedroom as weary soldiers might stop to admire a flower. The New York Times raved, “When a film as profoundly quiet as In The Bedroom comes along, it feels almost miraculous, as if a shimmering piece of art had slipped below the radar and through the minefield of commerce.”
Todd is perhaps best known for having portrayed Nick Nightingale in Stanley Kubrick’s epic Eyes Wide Shut the piano player who steers Tom Cruise toward the film’s notorious orgy but his own film is a quieter, more human accomplishment. A lovingly assembled diorama of a family torn by loss, rage, and the
mounting appetite for revenge, the film seems particurly well-timed in a season when the nation is struggling with its own mix of bewilderment and rage. And of course even in the most inappropriate times, both in and out of the film, the ever-mischievous human libido makes itself heard.
In the Bedroom is about an austere couple (played by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek), living in rural Maine, whose lives are rocked by their son’s (Nick Stahl’s) relationship with an older single mother (Marisa Tomei). Tragedy befalls the family, putting the couple’s relationship to an unwelcomed test. I took a few moments over Thanksgiving weekend to ask Todd about his future, the challenge of treating sex intelligently and realistically in film, and as it came to pass, the ethics of ogling Christy Turlington.
RG: So, congratulations on all the great reviews! Do you have a sense this is a key turning point in your career? Do you feel any sense of concern or fear or . . .
RG: Yes, exactly. I mean, what happens when there’s all this affirmation and desire for you?
TF: It is a wonderful thing to have, but a lot to live up to. It’s a luxury to make a film very quietly without any trade announcements or production listings, thinking maybe we’ll do something, and maybe a few people will see it, and maybe it will be worth doing, and if it isn’t that’s ok too but it is not going to be like that anymore. Now there will be a ridiculous amount of scrutiny on whatever the next thing is and the dynamic will feel a lot different.
RG: I was interested in the New York Times reference to the relevance of your film after September 11, but I am guessing that this was not on your mind of course you made it long before these events.
TF: Yes. I mean, the story is about trying to explore grief. Most of us were probably raised that it was a dirty word. You judge people by “are they grieving too much? are they grieving too little?” it wasn’t something people were comfortable sharing. What the country is going through right now is quite the opposite, a national catharsis where people are openly expressing their grief in a very public way and embracing each other and holding each other’s hands. It is the opposite of what these characters are going through.
RG: In your movie, sex plays a subtle but interesting role, but it seems to me that in movies in general the sex scene is where a lot of films even great films fail. When the sex scene begins the music comes on, the lighting changes, and it becomes . . .
TF: The montage!
RG: Exactly. I think of the Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis scene in Top Gun; this choreographed, perfect lighting thing going on and it is so rarely realistic. One of my favorite scenes is the car in The Ice Storm. Terrible sex but a fantastic scene.
TF: You feel like you’re in the car. You feel like you’ve been there, in the cold.
RG: And the awkwardness of it . . . It seems too rare in film that you have truly realistic depictions of the sexual experience. Is that something you could imagine tackling?
TF: Sure. There are some films that have done it very well. They are mostly done by foreign directors, because they don’t have such a provincial idea of sexuality. We’re still a pretty repressed society. The idea of ideal lighting and having the earth move is almost like Indian musicals it is very presentational and very idealized.
RG: What foreign films do you have in mind?
TF: There is a movie out now called Intimacy, which seems pretty realistic in its depiction of this very intense sexual relationship that is purely sexual. When you are dealing with storytellers outside of this country, you find they don’t have the same hang-ups. Their cultural norms reverberate from the beginning of time. Our sexuality is informed by things that are completely ridiculous basically fashion, magazines, catalogues and it is completely unreal. This glossy version of sex that’s like going to the health club.
RG: In other countries you have kids living with their parents and older generations in closer proximity and you hear people having sex. It is a more normal part of life. In our puritan colony we block everyone off in separate suites of the house we’re more insulated.
TF: It is the act at the beginning of life. I mean, other cultures also don’t have the same hang-ups about death. We have this national obsession with immortality. That is what consumerism is. If you buy this you’ll live longer, you’ll seem younger, you won’t die.
RG: There are some moments of subtle sexuality in In The Bedroom brief understated moments, sometimes with no dialog, expressing deeper passions or sentiments. For instance, early in the film, Tom Wilkinson’s friend makes a sexual remark while looking at Marisa Tomei, there’s a shot of her leaning over and there is a little glimmer passing over Wilkinson’s face, and it raises the question of whether he’s attracted to his son’s girlfriend. Ever since then I have been a bit uncomfortable about the idea that my father might look at my girlfriend that way.
TF: Of course he does! In men everything passes through your mind because we’re like that. You walk through the forest, you start looking at the nut holes with the moss around them. That’s an animal truth, but that doesn’t mean you’d act it out or entertain it, but things pass in and out of your head all the time. When you walk down the streets of New York they pass in and out all the time and somehow if you deny that to yourself you will go crazy. That is just a part of being a man. What interests me is when his wife accuses him of desiring his son’s girlfriend and living vicariously, it is so off base but at the same time it is not off base because it has crossed through his mind. It doesn’t mean he’s guilty but of course when it is verbalized, he feels guilty.
RG: That’s interesting. My girlfriend and I had different opinions on what was going on in his head she thought the father was more preoccupied with the girl than I did, and that seemed to me like a classic split between male and female audience interpretations.
TF: Yeah, I’m sure he’s focused on that like any man but he also feels a moral responsibility toward that girl. It is much more complicated than thinking “wow, wouldn’t that be nice.” If you were walking down the street and Christy Turlington walked by, you wouldn’t make a point of ogling her, but it passes in and out of your head for a second. If twenty minutes later your girlfriend accuses you of it, you would be hard pressed to convince her that you didn’t think about it and in that moment when she accuses you, you would be guilty.
RG: Yeah, the thought crime.
TF: Yeah, the thought crime, exactly.
RG: Just a personal question: you’re married, and you have kids. Did that inform the film?
TF: It informs my whole life. That is my life and it always informs your work.
RG: I guess I’m just thinking about the theme in the film about protecting one’s family, the whole protective instinct toward the kid, which is something that seems deeply instinctual . . .
TF: Well, it is. It is not a logical response, it is just a response. It is like when you get your first girlfriend, you have these fantasies of being the protector. What would happen and what would I do . . . It’s a very masculine tendency I suppose.
RG: I went through a week of imagining wrestling terrorists in airplane aisles.
TF: Yeah, sure, that affects us when we are very young, as boys, when we play war with guns. It’s why James Bonds movies are so popular.
RG: I was a sucker for them, I have to admit.
TF: I still am. They are some of the best shot movies you’ll ever see. The visual executions on some of those movies are absolutely masterful. I mean beautiful work, beautiful work.