Interview: Todd Field reflects on his influences, intentions and collaborations that formed his long-awaited return with ‘TÁR’
In the opening conversation in TÁR, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) speaks to the idea of time and how a conductor controls it within a performance. By doing this, they can bend the players to their will and allow the piece to flow at their pace and not allow time to slip away from her. It is ironic given the artist who’s written the scene, writer-director Todd Field, and how his absence has been missed through filmmaking over the last decade and a half.
As a graduate of the AFI Conservatory, Field began his career as a jack of all trades, serving as an actor, director, producer, screenwriter, and even composer on various projects. He gained notoriety for being cast in films like Radio Days, Twister, Walking and Talking, Broken Vessels, and Eyes Wide Shut, the latter of which he bonded with the late director Stanley Kubrick. In this time, Kubrick gave Field the inspiration, and nudge, to go ahead and direct his first feature film.
In 2001, Field delivered In the Bedroom, a dynamic drama centered around a family who must try to pick up the pieces of their life after an unspeakable tragedy occurs. The film was a critical and commercial hit, garnering five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, with two nominations for Field as both the writer and producer on the film. In just a short amount of time, he became one of the hottest names in the business. His follow up came five years later with Little Children, a romantic psychological drama based on the novel by author Tom Perrotta. The film was regarded as one of the best films of 2006 and earned three more Oscar nominations, with Field landing another nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
In the sixteen years since Little Children, Field has been working on getting various projects off the ground, but with no luck. Either due to budgets being too high or the evolving landscape of the Hollywood system, Field’s brand of filmmaking has seemed to become niche, with a small window to get midlevel adult dramas made. But as the pandemic occurred, an idea formed, and conversations began with Blanchett, and thus his triumphant return to the big screen assembled with TÁR.
In my length conversation with the acclaimed writer-director, we discussed his return to a film set, the collaborations with his actresses and crew, the intention of the project, and who are some of his past and present influences as an artist today. Candid, relaxed, and humorous, the once up and coming Field is now a seasoned veteran, delivering his best film of his career. While talking with him, he is eager to talk about the process of making his new film, and in doing so, he leaves us ready for whatever comes next, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Ryan McQuade: Okay. Awesome. Well, Mr. Field, thank you so much for letting me speak with you today.
Todd Field: Yeah, nice to speak with you. Are you in Los Angeles? Are you in New York? Where are you?
RM: I am in San Antonio, Texas.
TF: Oh, wow. San Antonio. I know it well.
RM: TÁR is a cinematic return for you after 16 years, and with that time, what did you miss the most about making a movie that you were grateful for when you got back on the first day on the set and started making the film?
TF: Working with actors. I’ve been shooting for 16 years, I hadn’t stopped shooting, I’d just been working in advertising. So, I’d worked with some very fine crew and done things that were pleasurable technically. But in advertising, most of the time you’re working with people, but you’re not working with performers. So, to be able to start your first day and to be able to collaborate with people like Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss. I had a “Oh yeah, oh yes, that’s what this was like. Oh, I remember now, yeah.” And it was like getting back on a bicycle that you hadn’t ridden in 16 years, and just amazing, the agency you had to be able to tell a story that you couldn’t possibly have without these incredible collaborators.
RM: Your screenplay is exquisitely detailed. How long was the research process before you started putting words onto paper? What went into the decision process to pick the pieces of music that you depicted in the film?
TF: The research process was ongoing, but before it was sort of a binging, intense binging, for about three and a half weeks, four weeks. It was at the beginning of the lockdown, and I was binging with John Mauceri. John Mauceri had agreed to act as my tutor. And John, if you don’t know, is a prominent conductor, very fine conductor. He conducted the Movie Nights for the LA Phil for many years at the Hollywood Bowl. He also was one of Leonard Bernstein’s assistants, he taught at Yale, he’s written many books on the subject of conducting, which I would highly recommend if you have any interest.
And so, John, I told him we were dealing with a very particular milieu, and it would be great if people that are in that milieu didn’t say, “Bullshit.” Some people will, because no one will ever be completely happy with anything. But I’d seen too many films over the years about painters or writers or people in the movie industry to where you saw it and you would go, “Okay, well, that’s the movie version of this backdrop.” And it was important that not be the case. It was important that this character, formidable as she is, really knew her onions, and that we didn’t have to know how to peel those onions, but we had to know that she did, you know?
Ryan: Throughout the film, Lydia speaks about the intention of an artist when they’re looking or making a piece of music. What would you say was your overall intent, whether it’s on the script or filming, for making Tar?
TF: Well, if you put it in acting terms, you would say super objective, I guess. But I think the main intent was to try to… Do something that could fail miserably, and in some cases will, no matter what happens, which is to try to take this character, meet this character in a way where you could see different faces of a character, and see how people interacted with those different faces of a character. And in doing so, allow the audience room to be one of those people that’s spending time with those many faces, and come to draw their own questions and conclusions about how they feel about that character, and try to stay out of their way.
That was sort of the super objective, or the main intent, because the script really came out of me asking my own questions about this character, and I’d been thinking about this character for 10 years. So, mainly to try to do something that didn’t feel equational, to try to take any bias I could possibly have out and allow room for conversation. It could be lively, spirited, angry, wrongheaded to some, right to others, as long as it wasn’t indifferent, you know?
RM: The locations in the film feel so unique. What was the process in finding the locations for both of the apartments where Lydia lives within the film?
TF: Exhausting, terrifying. (Laughs) And we didn’t get those locations until very late, almost up until the first day of shooting did we have those locations. And that was very stressful for Marco Bittner Rosser, our production designer, because sometimes you can communicate something very well between people, and sometimes you can’t. And I had a feeling for what I wanted out of those two locations that was very particular in terms of how I knew I wanted to be able to move with this character and we just weren’t finding it. So it was a long process. It was probably three months to find those two locations.
RM: You stated that you made Lydia for Cate to specifically play. What about her made you want to craft this film around her, and what was the collaboration process like when you were making the film with Cate?
TF: Oh boy. We don’t have much time, Ryan. (Both laugh) Yes, I wrote the film for Cate. I didn’t do it consciously, when I sat down to start, she just kept showing up. And so I paid attention to that, I didn’t really doubt it. So by the time I got through to the end of the script, I’d spent a few months with her saying good morning at my desk. So, in terms of… I’m sorry, what was the second part of the question?
RM: What was it like collaborating with her in the process of making the film?
TF: Just intensely exciting, watching somebody, taking somebody and saying, without even telling them, watching them climb the manila line all the way up to a high wire and then saying, “Okay, pull the net out.” And then saying, “Well, could you go higher?” “Yeah, sure, I can go higher.” “Could you go higher still?” “Yeah.” “Can you leave the big top? How high can you go? And then what can you do on that tight rope?”
You can see, if you’ve seen the film, you can see I don’t like to cover scenes very much, and especially for this character and for this film, the rules were that she had a very particular tempo. And that was one of the first conversations I had with Hildur Guðnadóttir, she asked this very obvious question, which is, “What’s her gait? How does she move? What’s the tempo?” And so it’s very important that, once that tempo was found, 120 beats per minute, that she was the internal clock of every scene. So that, even if the camera were to move, which occasionally it does, not often, that we were… If you’re looking for a different, like, say, in the Julliard scene, there’s 36 camera setups in that scene, we never cut, but within that scene, there’s what would’ve been 36 camera setups. The only difference being that instead of Monika Willi and I cutting those 36 setups, Cate Blanchett is editing, because she’s moving at a very particular tempo. So, if that makes sense? Does that make sense?
RM: No, it makes sense.
RM: I recently spoke with Nina, and she had nothing but glowing things to say about her time working with you and Cate on the film. What was your experience like working with her as you were crafting Sharon?
TF: Well, Cate and I had worked for months together, and we started talking about who might play Sharon, and I think we both said at the exact same time, Nina Hoss. And so, when I called her, there was no plan B or anything. I’d been a huge admirer of Nina’s work, obviously Christian Petzold’s films that she’d made with him, and of that film, The Audition, I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, where she plays…
RM: Yes, I’ve seen it.
TF: So I really wanted to work with her, and that first conversation I had with her, she’s just such a special actor, and there’s no one like her, and she’s infinitely watchable, and I never tire of watching her. And she’s such a smart actor, very much like Cate, these are classically trained actors, and the way that they break down a character and the way they go about their work is… There’s nothing mechanical about it, because I think a lot of times when you think about stage actors, you can think about a very different style of acting, very presentational, and large machine kind of acting. It’s all invisible, but the works of that machine are under the hood, and you just don’t see them, but they’re there.
She’s also very much like Cate, she’s looking at, again, in a very theatrical thing, she’s looking at the play, not just the character. What is the play? How does this character service the idea, and what is that idea? And the very first time we spoke, at the very end, she said, “Yes, yes, I want to do it. Let’s do it. Oh, by the way, there’s just this one thing…” She kind of very gently said, and I said, “Well, what is that?” She said, “Well, there’s this one scene here, and I don’t know, I think we might do it differently.”
And that started a conversation, that then expanded into a conversation with Nina and Cate and I, that very much informed that relationship and very much informed the film in a very fundamental way that, had it not been Nina, I don’t know that we would’ve gotten there. If we had, we certainly wouldn’t have gotten there so quickly. So that’s how the conversation started, and that was my experience. That was a perfect representation of my experience with her on a moment-to-moment basis throughout production. She really is, if there is a kind of heart of the film, it’s really this character as played by Nina Hoss, and if there’s a point of view, point-counterpoint, she really is the counterpoint. And she’s so economical, she’s able to do amazing things with the smallest amount of effort.
RM: It’s not just your work with the cast but a big collaboration was working with composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. How early in making TÁR did you start working with her on the music for the film?
TF: Very, very early, like three months before I ever wound up coming to Berlin. And we started our conversations, then she started asking me about, not even about music, just about sound, like, “How does she hear? What are the sounds?” Well, some of the sounds, they were very specific, some of them I had, she said, “Well, can you record them? Can you send them to me?” We started at that specific a level, so that by the time I got into Berlin, one of the first people I met with in Berlin was Hildur. And we sat and she said, “Let’s spot the movie.” I said, “Well, we don’t have it.” She says, “No, let’s spot the script.”
And so, we went through page by page by page together, and started to talk about an approach. What kind of sound? What kind of music? What did it need to do? What did it not need to do? Again, the internal tempo of these characters, the gait with which they moved, if there was a piece of music, what would it be? She started writing music for that. She brought players in and recorded music so that we could play that on set or in the actor’s ears.
And that continued all the way through production. She came in and worked with Cate in terms of what it would be like to sit and sketch as a piece of composition, all the way through her conceptualizing for this concept album, this Lydia Tar parallel universe concept album for Deutsche Gramophone, which we recorded in six different countries with all different kinds of players, culminating in last recording sessions at Abbey Road in July. So yeah, very unusually long process. Incredible to have that kind of ability to collaborate with a composer, you don’t normally have that luxury. But she wasn’t looking at the clock, she just was interested in doing it, and she was going to do it the way that she wanted to. So, we were collaborating for 14 months together.
RM: The film is an examination of a downfall, recognition, and even potential rebuild of an artist abusing power that they’ve gained over time. How difficult was it to create a balance on this issue without tilting your hand to one side or the other when making it? And do you think the audience should remain neutral when looking at Lydia and her actions?
TF: I think the audience has to do what the audience wants to do. We built this thing for a very particular purpose. We built this thing so that there was the ability to ask questions about her behavior and to have a real stake in your feelings about it, whether you judged her one way or the other, or maybe you changed your mind about her, or…
When Monika Willi and I were editing, we were out in the middle of nowhere working seven-day weeks, and when we would watch the film down, at different points, we would always turn to each other and say the same thing. It was, “How did you feel about her today?” And sometimes those feelings would be very contradictory from the previous viewing. So, it wasn’t like… We really tried to approach it, if I can be so bold as to say, in a humble way, which is that we weren’t trying to draw any lines about… We weren’t looking for outcome, we weren’t looking to do equational narrative. We were looking for as much possibility of interpretation as possible. Not to be intentionally vague or obscure or anything like that, just that all of it was available, and there’s no wrong answer, you know?
RM: The opening and ending of the film are wonderful bookends to one another. I’m not going to ask you to speak about the intent of them, but can you talk about the idea and the creation of those moments? Specifically, the song used in the opening credits, and the costume design and overall aesthetics of essentially creating a genre convention.
TF: Well, the opening… Much is said in that first interview about her (Lydia) time in the eastern Amazon up the Ucayali River in 1989, 1990, when she’s getting her doctorate from the University of Vienna in Musicology. And that’s a philosophy degree. It’s considered the highest doctoral degree a person can get. And some of her biography is self-concocted and trotted out by Adam Gopnik, as it is in these Q&As, and some of it’s real, that part of its real. And it seemed important, since she makes so much hay about talking about her interpretation, with a piece of work being more in line with an icaro [a South American indigenous colloquialism for magic song], that we get to hear one. And that was really the only opportunity to be able to hear it.
Now, that wasn’t the original intent, I had always intended to start with the credits in that manner, but I knew there’d be some sound over it; I didn’t know it would be that. And to get that was quite involved. It meant sending my sound designer’s nephew, who’d just come out of college, to the Amazon. He went upriver for two days to record Elisa Vargas Fernandez, who’s a shaman there, to sing that icaro for us and to allow us to record that icaro music. So, that’s where the beginning came from.
In terms of the end, if you’re a conductor, you have a human instrument. It a lot like Antonia Brico, who is mentioned in the film. She had been a guest conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, and for New York Philharmonic, and others. But there was a certain point where the novelty of having a female conductor evaporated in America, and Antonia Brico no longer had an orchestra to conduct. So, when you hear stories like that, you think, “What would be the greatest tragedy for such a musician?” And that would be to lose the ability to conduct, yet she’s (Lydia) still conducting.
And she’s conducting in a place where she’s not sitting at the top of a bureaucracy and a power structure that probably hasn’t served some of her less than admirable instincts, and has corrupted her, and has gotten her very, very far away from wherever she was as a young person who fell in love with this idea of concert music and interpretation in whatever fashion, whether watching Lenny Bernstein in reruns on PBS or whatever it was. She’s in a very different place. She’s conducting and interpreting dead music by people who died a long time ago. And while that’s absolutely valid, and in her world, extremely important, what do you do next? And she’s 50 years old, and she’s sitting at top of, presumably, the most important classical music organization on the planet. What do you do next? And so, artistically, outside the boundaries of what this character may have done out in the world that’s going to change her course, it feels like, at the end, she’s not conducting dead music, and she has a fairly captive audience, you know?
RM: Yeah, no, for sure. My last question is the characters in the film speak a lot about their musical influences, and how they shape them as artists, and their passions to get into classical music. Who are the filmmakers for you that inspired you to get into filmmaking? And who are some potential new filmmakers that inspired you in your absence to potentially get back behind the camera to create Tar?
TF: That’s a very good question, and this is always a dangerous question, because inevitably you’re going to leave somebody out that you shouldn’t have left out. That’s why it’s always easier to talk about people who’ve passed away. But I think as a young person, the directors that really inspired me were like George Roy Hill, who died way too young; Alan Pakula; Robert Redford, Ordinary People; Steven Spielberg, I’d seen all of his films. I was a projectionist at a second-run movie house, so I must have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, with no exaggeration, probably 350 times, I built those reels. I went through a couple prints when they would break getting new reels sent from the studio.
But things really changed for me when I moved to New York as an actor and was waiting tables across the street from Lincoln Center, and somebody sort of shoved me over to the New York Film Festival, and that year it was like dropping acid; that was Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise; that was Blood Simple, the Coen brothers’ first film; there was a Truffaut retrospective. There was all this… It was like discovering another planet. And I went from just thinking about movies, we never thought about movies growing up, we never said, “Oh, that’s a good movie,” or “It’s a bad movie.” It was like, “No, all movies are good, because it’s a movie.” We never talked about movies like that, that idea of thumbs up or thumbs down came very late in my development. But suddenly, watching those movies, I suddenly realized, “Oh… Oh, yeah, movies can do other things.” And that was hugely exciting and really made me desperately want to get behind a camera and see what was possible.
I had the same heroes that all of us have, and they won’t surprise you. From a young age, I was obsessed with the great American filmmakers, and that would include John Ford, and Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg, and the aforementioned Pakula, George Roy Hill, and a lot of people like that.
I think when I finally went to AFI, during that period of time, there were people that were not accessible on video. So, if they were at a repertory situation, you dropped everything. You changed your life to see everything. And the obvious things would’ve been like all of Cassavetes’s films, or the Dekalog, because the Dekalog was tied up, the video rights, you couldn’t get them, so you could only see it in the theater. And that was the first time I’d been in a movie theater where they would show two at a time. So, they’d show the first and the second one, and it was the first time I’d been in a theater where you could hear a pin drop, and where people would walk out of the theater, and no one talked. No one spoke. And that really did something very powerful to me, that made a gigantic impression.
I remember there was a story about Piesiewicz, who is Kieslowski’s writing partner for much of the films that we think about, where they had a meeting over at Warner Brothers, and this was after Red, and they were saying, “Well, you can have anything you want. We’ll just give you a million dollars overhead, and we just want you to make films here at Warner Brothers.” And Piesiewicz was saying, “Yeah, of course, yes, we’ll do it.” And under the table, Kieslowski was kicking him. And they walked out on the lot afterwards, and Piesiewicz’s leg was all bruised up. He said, “Why were you kicking me?” He goes, “If we ever take that money, we’re finished.” And that’s true. There’s been a lot of wonderful filmmakers, foreign and otherwise, who come and get offered certain things that can’t work within the system.
So, I’m digressing with you, Ryan. You asked a very simple question, and I’m… In terms of new filmmakers, there’s too many. There’re so many people, from Noah Baumbach, to Sarah Polley, to Nuri Bilge Ceylan, to Andrea Arnold, to Lucrecia Martel, to Susanne Bier, to, of course, Bennett Miller. Obviously I love Paul Thomas Anderson, like the rest of us. I remember the first time I saw his stuff, and I remember the first time I met him. Quentin, who I met before he’d ever made a film. So many wonderful voices out there.
RM: Absolutely. Well, I hope it’s not another 16 years before we’re having another conversation, sir. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for this wonderful film.
TF: Thank you. I appreciate the conversation, Ryan. Thanks.
TÁR is currently in theaters from Focus Features and available on VOD.
Photo: lev radin / Shutterstock