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Little Children - Todd Field interview

Todd Field, director of Little Children

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TODD Field talks about the challenge of directing Little Children and why he chose not to judge one of its most controversial characters – namely, a paedophile…

Q. What have you been doing for the past five years?
Todd Field: We completed In The Bedroom in 2001. It was acquired by Miramax and then there was a very long period of promoting that film – all the way until April ’02. I took about six months off and then started on another project which I worked on for about a year, year and a half. I had trouble getting funding for it. Then I read Tom’s book in 2003 and began working on the script.

Q. Was Kate the first person on board in terms of casting?
Todd Field: Kate was the first person that I asked to come and make the film with me.

Q. Is it true that the film itself evolved from another book that you couldn’t get the rights to?
Todd Field: One of the things that I’d thought about doing after In The Bedroom was another book but yes, there were rights problems and I didn’t pursue it. There was an idea in that book among many things that resonated for me in Perrotta’s novel that I thought were present in this book. So that was probably a large part of the attraction.

Q. Do you have any personal stories or experiences of suburbia that influenced the creation of the version of it we seen on-screen?
Todd Field: In terms of the suburbia component of Tom’s book, it’s probably the one thing that probably made me hesitate from actually doing this story. Only because there’s a long tradition for exploring what you call suburban angst, or the lack of identity in America based on the homogeny of culture and the hijacking of culture. But I don’t think that in the time we’re living in right now there really is suburbia. If you go to the middle of Ohio, or the Upper West Side of New York City, everyone is wearing the same Banana Republic sweater, they’re listening to the same music, they’re talking about the same things…

For instance, the first couple of lines in the movie are these women that Sarah sort of audibly editorializes for herself that came in on things that justify her paranoia?? about them before the camera turns around and we realise that we’re listening through her ears. They’re lines that were said in a fairly Tony area of the Upper East Side of Manhattan in Central Park. They couldn’t be further from suburbia. These are very well-heeled women living in multi-million dollar town houses.

I think what interested me about his book had to do with a much political nature. By that I mean playground politics, parental anxiety, the judgement we have of ourselves and others, characters in search of an identity and how that is berated and bridged with this idea of the opposite of that, which is in passion and turning the other cheek, giving the other fella the benefit of the doubt, and encouragement and lack of judgement. Those two things are what attracted me to the book. The fact that it’s set in some kind of area outside of Boston, Massachusetts, supposedly, is really beside the point. I wouldn’t have really cared where the setting was.

In terms of what’s visually depicted in the movie, it’s not real; it’s not meant to be real. The playground is a playground from my imagination about the way I remember a playground when I was a boy. Those play structures don’t exist. My children never played on play structures that old – they’re from 1965. That house full of clocks… I grew up in a house full of clocks. Those hummel figures at the beginning with the little children, those are from Tom Perrotta’s house as a boy growing up in New Jersey. We tried to find a setting, or almost dreamscape, that had meaning for us personally as children. It was never meant to be a realistic depiction of suburbia in any way, shape or form.

Q. How did you approach the nude scenes as a director?
Todd Field: As an actor, I’ve certainly had to do my lion’s share of that – you know, really embarrassing situations where typically your sitting in an abandoned building in the Philippines on a Roger Corman movie with some Filipino girl on a long lens where they’re going to dissolve some body parts with some kind of synthesized music underneath and everybody’s drunk….

So I had no desire to do that. Yes, these people are making love but there’s more happening in those scenes other than two people shagging. It is about the emotional forward movement for the two of these characters, first and foremost. Other than the titillation factor of shooting those kinds of scenes with maybe 200 crew members standing around holding robes, for the actors they know that they have to be acted like anything else, and so you approach them just like any other scene. Both Kate and Patrick have had experience of having to do something like that, so we talked about it like any other scene. Truthfully, it was probably the easiest thing that we did during the entire shoot. We were fairly alone when we did those scenes – there was only a sound man, a camera assistant and the three of us for a couple of days. So we were able to work very efficiently and really focus on what these scenes were about as opposed to “okay now let’s do the bit where you guys are climbing the wall…” It was much more about what had to be accomplished dramatically in these scenes for these two characters.

Q. A festival report praised the film but described it as controversial, probably because of what may be perceived as a sympathetic portrayal of a sex offender. How important was that element of the film for you? Where do you see this film in comparison to Happiness or The Woodsman?
Todd Field: For me, that character represents a very heightened living and breathing expression of the fear, anxiety, paranoia and destructive nature that comes out of that fear for these other characters. In terms of depicting someone who may or may not have that kind of abhorrent behaviour, I’m a father of three children and I have no desire to explore that certainty. The aforementioned films are deep explorations of people who have that kind of psychosis. This character and his circumstances are intentionally mysterious and circumstantial. The only thing we know about him is that he has been accused of exhibiting himself to a minor. That could be a 17-year-old or someone younger, we don’t really know. He’s accused of all sorts of things by another character and consequently by the media and by the community. He’s used as a conversation topic at dinner party chit-chat and a lot of other things. Every other character in this piece is introduced and an interior part of their life is reflected through a third person narration with the exception of Ronny McGorvey and there’s a reason for that.

What was important to me about that character was that he would be up for grabs for you – you can damn him, or you can pardon him or you can think about him in any fashion that you wish to. But as far as I’m concerned he is not a devil and he is not a saint. I don’t know what he’s done; you can decide that for yourself. There was never any impulse that I had of trying to explore a clinical explanation of somebody who may have extreme behavioural problems that would make me not interested in spending time with that character. The only important thing about that character was almost in a fable-like way – that he would be almost like the troll under the bridge. What if the troll under the bridge had a mother, and what if the troll under the bridge could experience pain and self-examination, but the troll under the bridge is also a troll so be careful. That was it…

Q. How much of the narration springs from the book or was your decision?
Todd Field: The narration is performed by an actor out of Boston, a theatre actor named Will Lyman who I had known from a programme called Frontline. I like that programme very much mainly because it’s framed in an incredibly even-handed way. You can’t really classify it as being armchair liberalism or conservatism. It’s probably the most even-handed form of reportage that we have in our country and his voice has a really unique authority to it that’s probably the closest thing in terms of my generation to what we would have as Edward R Murrow or Walter Cronkite. The thing that struck me about his voice is that I would believe him if he told me anything and that was very important for this narration. As soon as I proposed this idea to Tom while we were in the room together and starting on the script, I said I knew what the voice is and started doing very bad imitations of Will Lyman for him. Having said that, I didn’t ask Will to do it until after the script was complete, so had he said no I don’t know what I would have done.

Q. Comeback of the year must go to Jackie Earle Haley. What made you choose him?
Todd Field: Well, I hadn’t started looking for that character yet. Typically, we don’t have this problem in theatre but we have this problem in film which is that typically if you’re what’s considered a “character actor” there’s only five people that get those roles, male or female. There were all kinds of reasons because we’re not going to meet this character until about an hour into the picture and most of what we assume about him is through the eyes of other people, so I didn’t want to spend two reels trying to forget “oh, it’s that actor playing this role”. I wanted to really find someone who I hadn’t seen before. I hadn’t started looking, honestly, but this tape arrived and somehow Jackie had got his hands on a very, very early draft of Little Children that I’d never circulated. To this day, I still don’t know how he got it but he made this 20-minute film of himself playing this character which was extraordinary.

The next day I saw Kate and said: “When you were down in Louisiana on Steven Zaillian’s film did you happen to come across Jackie Earle Haley?” And she said: “Oh my God, yes of course I did and he’s wonderful, he’s marvelous, are you thinking about him for this part?” I told her about the film and said I didn’t know where it came from. But she said: “Well, if you have him in you have to let me come in and read with him, I want to read with him.” So I rang him up and asked him to come to New York, he did, and they played the last scene together. It was one of those really beautiful moments that you have as an actor if you’re very fortunate sometimes, where you want something really badly and you come and you take it for yourself. No one gave him that role; he wanted it. He was very nervous but Kate was rooting for him, I was rooting for him because it had been a long time since Jackie had really played a role. It was a fantastic thing – actors wear their hearts on their sleeve – they have to, it’s an occupational hazard – and it’s wonderful when it works out like that.

Kate Winslet: Todd gave him the part on the spot; that’s such an actor’s dream and Jackie actually burst into tears.

Read our review of Little Children

Read our interview with Kate Winslet