It took five years for director Todd Field to follow up his harrowing drama, the critically lauded “In the Bedroom,” with the equally praised new ensemble film “Little Children.” Starring Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly, the melodrama about a community of damaged husbands, wives, mothers and sex offenders is a biting satire that is just as likely to shock you as make you laugh. Field, the former character actor best known for flicks like “Twister” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” talked to MTV about his latest effort — the film is earning plenty of awards buzz, including a likely Oscar nod for its screenplay, which he co-wrote.
MTV: This film can provoke a lot of divergent reactions. Have you been surprised by any in particular?
Todd Field: It’s always surprising when you make a film and people begin to interpret it in various ways. When you finish making a film you think, “Who might respond to this?” It’s a very understandable question but also kind of a ridiculous one, because if you have an opinion about it, you’ll always be proven wrong. You say, “OK, it’s probably going to skew a bit younger than ’In the Bedroom,’ ” and then you have your first screening and the most meaningful conversation you have afterwards is with a couple who are 85 years old wearing cardigan sweaters. Then you come out of a screening and talk to a 23-year-old male Latino from East L.A. who has a real opinion about it. This idea of first impressions and snap judgments and forming opinions based on no facts whatsoever is ironically in the film itself.
MTV: The most disturbing character would have to be Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), the convicted pedophile. Is his onscreen portrayal similar to the one in the book the film is based on?
Field: In the book, you meet him much earlier and he’s a different
kind of character. He’s more wry and knowing and very funny. When we adapted the book, we wanted him to be more of an archetype. We framed the film with this third-person narrative, this voiceover which is effectively [author] Tom Perrotta’s voice. We sort of had this rule that the main characters were always allowed an introduction and some kind of interior life through that third-person narrative and the only person who would never have that would be Ronnie. So he’s kind of an island to himself. He’s up for grabs. You can make your own decisions about what he may or may not have done. He belongs to the audience and they have to fill in the blanks.
MTV: As great as Jackie was, the real revelation for me was Noah Emmerich’s performance as the damaged ex-cop, Larry.
Field: That’s what my wife said after she saw the film. I had to go to a lot of trouble to cast him. He’s always been one of my favorite actors. Larry is probably the most terrified creature in the entire piece, even more so than Ronnie. I think Noah is absolutely fascinating in it.
MTV: Did you always see political parallels in the story?
Field: My reaction to Tom’s book was, “This is our country. This is not about some neighborhood.” This is a passion play of anxiety. It’s not [Thornton Wilder’s play] “Our Town,” it’s our country. And that’s why we approached the script as a fable, in a more theatrical way. There’s nothing real about these settings. Everything is kind of based on memory and presented in a fairly theatrical way. It’s interesting that after the first screening we had one of those discussion groups and the people were asked what adjectives they’d use to describe the movie and everybody said, “It’s so real!” I was kind of surprised, and then I realized that what they were talking about was that the feeling they got from the film was real. There’s a feeling you get from any melodrama. The presentation is not real, nor is it intended to be. But I’m probably saying too much.
MTV: You ran the award gauntlet once before with “In the Bedroom.” Did you learn anything for this go-round?
Field: I don’t think you learn anything other than sort of closing your eyes like you’re a child in a ride very high up in the air and just hoping that you land OK without falling out of the seat.
MTV: Do you still have the acting bug? Have you acted onscreen since directing “In the Bedroom?”
Field: No, I haven’t, and I miss it. It has to be the greatest vocation in the world to be an actor. It’s a rare opportunity. I miss the momentum and being able to practice a discipline like that. But nobody is knocking my door down.
MTV: Have you ever been tempted to cast yourself in one of your films?
Field: That I would never do. Never! Kate Winslet begged me. She begged me to play her husband and I said, “No way!” It’s enough to try to do a decent job at one thing.
MTV: One of your last roles came in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” How did he cast you?
Field: He called me up out of nowhere. I didn’t even have an agent at the time. I had just gotten out of a directing fellowship at the American Film Institute and I did a couple films to pay off some loans and then I got this phone call. First, I got a call from somebody I had worked with who said, “Stanley Kubrick is trying to get in touch with you,” and I thought, “This is a really cruel joke.” It was a complete shock. It was a peculiar, wondrous and strange call to receive.
MTV: Do you remember your first chat with him?
Field: Yeah, I do.
MTV: And you’re not going to tell me anything about it, are you?
Field: No, I’m not. [He laughs.]
MTV: What’s next for you? Are you taking a break?
Field: There’s no rest for the wicked. I have another script I need
MTV: Something for you to direct?
MTV: And you’re going to tell me about that either?
Field: No. [He laughs.]
MTV: Suddenly you’re clamming up!
Field: Well, I told you way too much in the beginning! I talked way too much about process and symbolism and bullsh–. Don’t hang me out to dry!
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