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Eyes Wide Open 

Todd Field watches and learns

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001
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”Bill . . . I’ve seen a few things in my life, but never anything like this.“

That‘s actor Todd Field as piano player Nick Nightingale in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 release, Eyes Wide Shut, warning a guileless Tom Cruise off the whole Long Island ”Fidelio“ scene. In the year between the two successive World Series he watched with Kubrick on location in London (Florida Marlins over the Cleveland Indians in seven; Yankees sweep the Padres in four), Field went off and wrote his own script, at the director‘s explicit encouragement. The result is In the Bedroom, a delicate postmortem of loss and grief that would have made the director of Paths of Glory proud -- had he lived to see it.

”He was just very supportive,“ Field recalls, declining, in the interest of preserving a modicum of privacy, to elaborate. ”That’s really one thing I‘d like not to turn into anecdotes.“

It was Kubrick, albeit from beyond the grave, who contributed the last-minute suggestion of British actor Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty) for the lead role of the husband and heartland paragon who is thrown into emotional freefall. ”I had written the role for another actor I had in mind,“ Field recalls, ”but it didn’t work out. And I was three days from rehearsal. I got on my mobile phone and called Stanley Kubrick‘s assistant in England, and I said, ’Look, you know the script. I don‘t want all these guys they’re telling me I have to use. I want a man. Get me a man.‘ Leon [Vitali] had done all the casting for Stanley’s movies. He knew everybody. He said, ‘Well, there’s a guy Stanley adored, and he wanted to use him, but he never did. His name is Tom Wilkinson. He‘s perfect. He’s exactly what you‘re looking for.’“ (Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek went on to win a shared Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January.)

Field‘s hallmark as an actor has always been his unstinting naturalism -- whether as an exemplary boyfriend in Victor Nuñez’s Ruby in Paradise or as a heroin-besotted ambulance driver in Scott Ziehl‘s Broken Vessels, which he also co-produced. So it should come as no surprise that In the Bedroom, set amid the quiet stoicism of the Maine lobster fishermen he now calls his neighbors, should open on a visual tableau that quotes Andrew Wyeth, unfold at the languorous pace of lived experience, and convey a silent dread of a kind that is all but unseen in movies, though it comes unmistakably from real life.

Still, why should anyone care about the prospect of one more actor making his directorial debut? ”I almost thought of using a nom de plume,“ Field says, ”as I had for my first couple of shorts in film school. Actors wanting to be directors -- it’s sort of like models wanting to be actors. But if you go back and think of all the directors ever, most of them -- Milos Forman, Elia Kazan, whoever -- had acting backgrounds, because they all had theater backgrounds. They just weren‘t known as actors. It’s a recent phenomenon that people came out of film schools or commercials or music videos.

“I tried to impress upon Miramax that I would really prefer it if they just kept me out of the press for the film and focused on the actors,” he continues, “because I care too much about this film, and I didn‘t want to get in the way. Miramax disagreed. They told me to get my ass on the press junket.”

Although loath to publicize the fact, Field is also an accomplished photographer (one published monograph from a small fine-arts press) and jazz musician (piano and trombone, for which he attended college in Oregon on a scholarship), and enough of a writer that when the late Andre Dubus read Field’s script for In the Bedroom, adapted from one of Dubus‘ short stories, he invited him to join his celebrated writing group in Boston. (In an odd twist of fate, Field was the last person to speak to Dubus before his untimely death in 1999 -- on Field’s 35th birthday.) And although, in much the same vein, he routinely refers to acting as “self-deception,” characterizing all but a handful of his roles as “non-roles,” Field‘s circuitous path to writing and directing reflects, to a large extent, an accretion of detail acquired over a lifetime of inhabiting roles and calibrating them to perfection -- or at least struggling with them from the inside out.

“Actors are really, really smart,” he says. “You want them to fill in the blanks, so you have to give them very simple direction -- or misdirection -- and then hope that they curve and they wind, that they fall and get up. You just hope that they don’t go there in a straight line.”

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