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With ‘Tár,’ Todd Field Returns to Directing. Where Has He Been?

Maybe Todd Field isn’t ready to reappear just yet.

After launching his directing career with the auspicious one-two punch of “In the Bedroom” (2001) and “Little Children” (2006), Field all but vanished from view. His first film in 16 years, the Cate Blanchett drama “Tár,” will make its highly anticipated premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday. But a few weeks ago, when Field signed on to Zoom to discuss his long absence from movie theaters, I found myself interviewing an empty screen.

“Sorry about that,” the 58-year-old filmmaker said, explaining that the laptop he’d shipped to his Maine home after a family vacation hadn’t yet arrived. “I’m at home on my desktop machine, and you’re talking to a filmmaker with no access to a camera.”

It’s a predicament Field knows all too well. After his first two movies both drew Oscar nominations, he was hailed by critics as one of the best new American directors, but all attempts to mount a third project were stymied. His film adaptations of the novels “Blood Meridian,” “The Creed of Violence” and “Beautiful Ruins” never made it into production, and though Field spent years working on a biopic of the deserting American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, co-writing a political thriller with Joan Didion, and scripting a huge Showtime series based on the Jonathan Franzen book “Purity,” those projects ultimately fell apart, too.

So Field has kept busy, even if audiences haven’t gotten to see the fruits of those labors. Soon, though, their patience will be rewarded with the juicy “Tár,” which casts Blanchett as Lydia Tár, a celebrated conductor who revels in the acclaim, attention and power of her station until the flames of controversy begin to singe her well-tailored pantsuits. Focus Features will release the film in theaters on Oct. 7; expect robust conversations to follow about the way “Tár” intersects with hot-button issues like identity politics and cancel culture.

Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson in “Little Children,” from 2006.Credit…Todd Field/New Line Cinema

Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson in Field’s feature debut, “In the Bedroom.”Credit…Miramax Films, via Everett Collection

Field is eager for that debate, though he’s less excited about the red carpets and klieg-light Hollywood attention he’ll face after years of being away. “It’s Oz, you know: All of a sudden you’re in a chair and they’re giving you new hair and new nails and they’re changing your gingham dress,” he said. “I think some people handle it particularly well and are super comfortable with it, and there’s a part of me that truly envies those individuals, but that is not me. I probably would make more films if I didn’t have to go through that.”

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

What do the next couple of weeks look like for you?

Very busy. The film will have its first public premiere on Sept. 1 at Venice, and it’ll be the first time that any of us will have seen it with an audience. So it will be very, very exciting and horrifying at the same time.

Has that always been your experience of a film premiere, both exciting and horrifying?

I think it has been, and I don’t know why. On “In the Bedroom,” I went to the emergency room with a very tight chest where I felt like I was having a heart attack.

Are you taking any steps to mitigate that this month?

You mean medication, meditation?

Either? Both?

Homeopathy? Prayer? Burning sage? I don’t know, Kyle. I’ve had a very long time between films, so I hope that I’ve found other ways to deal with that sort of anxiety, but we shall see.

What was it like to have all that time between films?

Very peaceful. I have three grown children, and we thought we were finished. Shortly after making “Little Children,” we had the surprise. I made a pledge to myself to not be running around unless I had a very good reason, and to actually have an opportunity to raise a child at this age. I wanted to be able to experience things like coaching Little League, being there at a P.T.A. meeting and going fishing. So I set my sights in a very particular way on certain material that was probably very tough to get made.

Material like “Purity,” which was meant to be a 20-hour limited series starring Daniel Craig?

Yeah, go big or go home, you know? We wrote 2,000 pages for that series, and that project was set up at Showtime, which, at that point in time, was still a cable television company. What we were proposing to them was, “Use this as a way to go through the door that is inevitable for you, into a streaming service. You need to do something that’s big and has some sweep to it.” But yes, it was large and ambitious, and they didn’t ultimately have the belly for it.

How were you able to pour so much into projects that may never be made, and to move on when they weren’t?

It’s kind of like, how can some actors audition and give everything for a part and not get it — how do they let it go and start all over again? I know some absolutely extraordinary actors who simply were not built to handle the rejection of auditions, but that’s part of this process. You have to believe every time that there will be light at the end of that, when it’s very, very likely there won’t be. [Field himself is a former actor whose credits include “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Ruby in Paradise.”]

Cate Blanchett as a celebrated conductor engulfed in controversy in “Tár.”Credit…Focus Features

It’s interesting that it took so long for you to make your next film because “Tár” doesn’t feel dated at all. The way it understands smartphone culture and the power of social media and modern identity politics makes it feel ruthlessly up to the minute.

I’m glad to hear you say that because that’s a real moving target. God forbid you should ever do anything contemporary, because it’s going to be stale tomorrow. Part of the reason for that is the tempo in which this happened. Focus went to extraordinary lengths once they read the script to say, “Yes, we want to make it. Let’s go.” From the time the script was handed in to the time you saw it is less than two years, and in Hollywood, that’s like light speed. That never happens, you know?

Did you feel like Focus had called your bluff?

Yeah, I was really upset with them. I’m so used to turning in scripts and having everybody say, “Wow, good job,” and then nothing happens, so I’ve sort of accepted that as part of my life. The idea that I was going to have to go away from home for over a year and actually make a film just seemed so absurd to me. I told them at the time, “You guys are out of your mind. You don’t want to make this movie.” But they were adamant about it.

Why did “Tár” feel like such a radical thing for them to make?

When you look at what are considered theatrical films now, that has changed radically since I was making my last film. And, in terms of putting a film like this on the big screen, which, as far as I’m concerned, is exactly where it belongs, I don’t think that a lot of other people outside Focus Features would believe in that. It takes a huge amount of faith and investment to say, “No, this is a story that is worth seeing in a collective atmosphere with other people, and not at home while grabbing your phone, or the remote, or cooking.” And that sort of philosophy is increasingly rare.

Lydia Tár is a fascinating character. She’s built herself to be bigger than just an artist — she’s an entire brand, luxuriating in her celebrity while also guarding it with no small measure of paranoia.

Yes, and can she trust her relationships? When you talk to anyone who has achieved any modicum of fame, they’re always suspicious about what someone’s angle is. “Why do they want to talk to me? Do they really care about me?” That elephant is always in the room, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy to either try to silo it from yourself, or to service it. But it’s not a particularly productive way to conduct a creative life.

Or to remain a person in public.

Especially today, because no one’s anonymous now. But your anonymity is absolutely essential as somebody that makes things because you have to be able to observe without being the observed.

Tár is audacious when it comes to her ambition. I’d imagine it requires a lot of audacity to become a filmmaker, too.

Absolutely. There’s parallels throughout with the making of a film. It’s very much like an orchestra with a conductor.

Has that audacity come easily to you?

This is a massive generalization, but I think when you’re a very young person, you have the ferocity of supposed know-how, and you’re very, very quick to make decisions. There’s a reason they send young people to war, you know? I think as you get older, the challenge is to try to have enough self-awareness to understand where your instincts take you and why they might be taking you there. Is it worth your time? Is it worth other peoples’ time? Those are the great unanswered questions, but they’re also not mitigating the fact that to do this sort of thing, you have to be an extreme masochist.

The cliché of filmmaking is that there’s nothing particularly glamorous or healthy about it. There has to be a reason you’re getting up in the middle of the night, you’re driving everyone that works with you absolutely crazy: You’re obsessed with this thing, you know what it looks like, and it can’t be anything but that. It takes on a life-and-death situation for you because you’ve forged that sword and you’ll die on that sword, and you’re deluded enough to believe that everyone else should die on that sword with you.

Field said he got so used to working on unfilmed projects that “the idea that I was going to have to go away from home for over a year and actually make a film just seemed so absurd to me.”Credit…Tim Barber for The New York Times

“Tár” grapples with issues of power and sex. Over the last few years, there has been a reckoning in Hollywood about those same issues. What have you made of it?

We’re talking about a story that revolves around power dynamics and transactional relationships, but those are two-way streets. No one’s innocent and no one’s entirely guilty, either. Absolutes are nonsense unless they’re sporting events.

You’re talking about a really scary human truth, which is how people take power and use power, or how power uses others. And this is like Arthur Miller or Nathaniel Hawthorne stuff, which is how we discern what we really think about situations based on a limited set of knowledge. What we’re told, what we know, what we don’t know — that does interest me a lot.

What are you most looking forward to about the conversations that this film will provoke over the next few months?

Well, I hope they’re healthy and lively and ferocious, and anything but indifferent. No two people see the same movie. What I have to say is irrelevant — it’s the person watching the film that’s ultimately the filmmaker, you know? I’d like to just keep my mouth shut and listen to what people have to say, because that’s why I made it.

It feels like a “parking lot” movie, the kind you want to discuss and debate with friends when you’re leaving the theater.

I hope that’s true. I’ve talked to people who have seen the movie twice, and that conversation was very different after the second viewing. The first time we screened the film, we flew to California and screened it for everyone at Focus. The lights came up. We were understandably anxious about what was coming next, and everyone turned around and they just stared at us blankly. I thought, “Uh-oh, we’re in real trouble.”

And then everyone started talking, and it became this four-hour conversation. They just wanted to talk about the film. The next day, we screened the film. It was supposed to be just for one person that was coming in to help us for a technical issue, and the door opened and the same room was filled again with everybody from Focus. I said, “What are you doing back here?” They said, “We want to see it again.”

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