25 June 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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Oscar-nominated Todd Field discusses directing at IFTA Masterclass
09 May 2024 : Luke Shanahan
Todd Field
The Irish Film & Television Academy presented an IFTA Masterclass with Todd Field in the Irish Film Institute on May 8th.

Todd Field is the six-time Oscar nominated writer-director of Tár, Little Children and In The Bedroom. Also an acclaimed actor and screenwriter, Field has directed Oscar-nominated performances from Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Marisa Tomei, Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Jackie Earle Haley. His third feature, the acclaimed classical music thriller Tár, was nominated for six Oscars last year, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. For her role as fictional conductor Lydia Tár battling an impending scandal in modern Berlin, Cate Blanchett won the BAFTA for Best Actress.

At this special Academy Masterclass, Field discussed his entry point into filmmaking via a job as a projectionist and a career in acting, his philosophies on cinema in regards to when to move the camera and the importance of rehearsal, as well as other practical advice for filmmakers.

The event kicked off with IFTA CEO Áine Moriarty introducing Field to a packed audience of directors, cinematographers, and other industry professionals.

“You're all very, very welcome here to another IFTA Academy Masterclass. We welcome an absolutely brilliant writer and director in Todd Field. We're delighted to put on this masterclass with the support of Screen Ireland, and to have IFTA Award-winning filmmaker Ross Whitaker here to have this conversation with Todd Field.”

Whitaker began the masterclass by asking Field what first led him to filmmaking. Field went on to explain that he comes from a working class background with no artists in the family, and that the idea of pursuing art as a career “wouldn't have really been taken very seriously”.

Field’s interest in film began when he started working as a projectionist in a cinema, where he’d watch the same films again and again, hundreds of times over.

“I fell in love with movies because I hadn't seen movies, we weren't taken to the movies growing up.”

His journey into the world of cinema progressed further when he began acting. Field describes volunteering to act in NYU student films in order to better understand the process of filmmaking. Field was acting for five years before enrolling in the American Film Institute. During his time there, the last film he was in before “ostensibly retiring” from acting, Ruby in Paradise directed by Victor Nuñez, was released in cinemas which led to many acting offers.

“My phone rang off the hook for the next 10 years. I didn't have an agent, I didn't have a manager, but I just kept getting acting work that I couldn't turn down because I had to pay off my  student loans.”

This eventually led to working with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut. Although having a relatively small role, Field was on set on the first and last day of the shoot, 18 months apart. Field was originally told he’d be on set for three weeks, and ended up being there for nine months. He says he expected delays, but not to that extent. Nevertheless, this gave Field the opportunity to show up on set when he wasn’t acting, look at dailies and learn from one of the masters of 20th Century cinema. He describes the experience as “time well spent”.

After making five short films, and gearing up to make his first feature, In The Bedroom, Field went to Kubrick to seek advice.

“I gave him the script. We talked about it. He gave me some very gentle, very sage, very sober advice about certain things. There were a couple of technical things that I was interested in that he helped me with. He gave me some numbers.”

Following this the audience were shown a clip from In The Bedroom, featuring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, and Marisa Tomei. Whitaker focused the discussion on some of Field’s greatest strengths as a director: his incredibly intentional choices of when (and when not) to move the camera, and the performances he elicits from actors.

“From film school through now, my philosophy hasn't really changed a great deal, which is that the camera should move with intent.”

“Film is not really an actor's medium, any actor will tell you that. Every time there's a cut, you're aware of it, and that's fine if that's the vernacular of your filmmaking, but that's not really my vernacular. I want to watch somebody do stuff, and I don't want it to feel manipulated.”

Discussing these long unbroken shots that highlight the performances in his films, naturally leads Whitaker onto the subject of Field’s process with actors. Field swears by rehearsal:

“Rehearsal is everything. I always have three weeks of rehearsals with the actors and go to great lengths, even on this when we had no money, to make sure I have a set, even if it's not fully dressed, and that I'm alone with the actors for three weeks.”

Field dispels the idea of ‘finding it on the day’, and points out the fallacy of avoiding rehearsal in an attempt to make a scene feel fresh or live:

“I don't want to find it on the day ever. I wouldn't expect people to want to pay to watch actors run lines.”

He also notes that it can be “dangerous” to only do a little bit of rehearsal, as it can often take actors many weeks to play around with the material, break past their first instincts, and discover something new in the work that maybe even the director could not have foreseen.

Whitaker then moves the discussion forward to Little Children, Field’s second feature. The audience watches a clip from the film featuring Jennifer Connelly, Kate Winslet, and Patrick Wilson, and Whitaker continues the discussion on performance.

Whitaker asks: “It feels like such a perfect scene. Every little look and interaction underlines the sensitivity of each character to what's going on. How long does it take to figure something like that out?”

The scene involves Connelly’s character realising that her husband, portrayed by Wilson, is cheating on her with Winslet’s character, and we watch Connelly portray this with a look.

Field explains: “I think it was a one camera day. That was very intimate, because this scene for the most part is done medium close up.”

Praising the importance of the actors in a scene like this, Field continued:

“They’re exquisite actors. Everybody understood what they were doing, we'd rehearsed a fair amount, and there’s a story behind all those looks.”

The last film discussed at the masterclass was Field’s latest, Tár. There was a sixteen year gap between Little Children and Tár, which prompts Whitaker to ask if building the character of Tár took a long time, to which Field describes the surprisingly short turnaround for the Tár screenplay:

“I actually wrote the script really fast, 12 weeks. I did think about that character for a long time, she'd sort of been sitting in a notebook, but I didn't know where I’d put her.”

“I got offered a writing job when it seemed like a miracle that I would be employed, and I thought, ‘Okay, that's it, I know what to do with her now’.”

The audience watches a clip from the film in which the titular character, portrayed by Cate Blanchett, finds herself in an unusual underground corridor in Berlin, only to be pursued by a wild dog. Whitaker asks how this scene came about in the writing process, and Field describes how scouting for the film evolved this scene from script to screen:

“Well it really came from scouting. In the script I had her go into this labyrinth, it’s much more surreal. We found this incredible place in Berlin, but I just kept saying ‘This is not right, this is not right, it’s too much’. Then I was scouting another location and I said ‘What’s down there?’ And I went down there, and it was a post-soviet, kind of GDR area, asbestos everywhere… perfect! And I thought ‘It’s damp, there’s a dog, and that’s what gets her going.”

Field needed to have the scene conclude with Tár falling, and by adjusting the script to a new location, he was inspired to come up with a more grounded reason for that to happen, thereby highlighting the importance of location scouting.

Throughout the masterclass, the audience had the opportunity to ask Field about his craft. Field was able to give lots of practical advice, and share his own personal philosophies on filmmaking with the audience. For example, one audience member asked him about his use of POV shots, to which Field explained that beyond being useful as a tool for creating a subjective perspective, it was also a practical way of crossing the 180 line without the audience noticing.

He also elaborated on his rehearsal process, explaining that much of this time is spent talking through scenes, rather than simply running lines. Field describes this as the filmmaker’s first chance to see the film through another’s eyes, or rather an audience’s eyes, and make sure that what the scene is achieving in terms of story or character isn’t a repetition of an earlier scene.

Field also recommends not putting technical directions into the script, even if he knows all of the camera movements he intends to make when he will shoot the film, so that the script reads like fiction to the reader, and they are compelled to keep reading.

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