An Interview with Badass Lady Director Robin Swicord on her new Film Starring Jennifer Garner & Bryan Cranston
This weekend the new independent film Wakefield opens, starring the unstoppable acting juggernaut, Bryan Cranston. It is a performance where he spends most of the movie by himself, and yet it’s tense, exciting, and represents the sort of character arc that keeps audiences connected and engaged. Writer/director Robin Swicord is best known for adapting literary works for the screen, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (for which she was nominated for an Oscar) as well as Memoirs of a Geisha, Matilda, and Little Women. She wrote and stepped into directing The Jane Austen Book Club. Wakefield she adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorow, who wrote Billy Bathgate and Ragtime. While the script is tight, it’s absolutely the Bryan Cranston show, which is as it should be.
Howard Wakefield is coming home from work in the city for what looks to be the thousandth time, his face haggard as he stares blankly out of the train. When there’s a power failure, he has to walk the rest of the way home, and getting there, he winds up in the attic across from his house. He spends some time staring out the window, watching his family from the dark confines of the cluttered out-of-the-way spot, and decides to stay there for a while, ignoring concerned calls from his wife Diane (Jennifer Garner). He falls asleep, and then is afraid to walk in without a good explanation for Diane, with whom he had just fought, and he’s been having rougher and rougher patches. As he makes himself as comfortable as possible, hours turn into days, the days into weeks, and the weeks into months. What he does up in the attic, how his identity crumbles, and his understanding of himself, those he loves, and the world changes, is the meat of the movie.
Cranston alternately grumbles, mumbles, analyzes, and philosophizes as he watches his family and inner circle react to his disappearance. He undergoes a transformation both inside and out, and the audience is witness to it all. There are few actors who could have pulled the role off, especially given Howard Wakefield starts out, at best, misanthropic. He cackles as he plumbs the dark depths of his intellect for insults about his extended family. Through the proceedings, Cranston is called upon to show minute incremental changes through his intonation, facial tics, and body language, instead of through any obvious dialogue. It may seem lunacy for the character to intentionally put himself from is own world, when it is only steps away. The story, however, makes sense, in that it’s certainly possible someone could be seduced into watching the world from the outside and find themselves trapped between wanting to disappear from their life and finding the courage to change it, even knowing they are inadvertently hurting the ones they love.
Jennifer Garner shows up in a way that goes beyond the occasional flashback or display of her experience as Howard is watching through binoculars from across the street. She must do much with little, and portrays a character, though well fleshed out by the script, as someone with more dimensionality than you’d expect, given how little dialogue she has to represent herself.
The real reason so see Wakefield is the tour-de-force performance Bryan Cranston brings to it. He travels through the spectrum of emotions, and essentially empties himself out to rebuilds himself in under two hours, and he is almost entire alone in doing so. By the time you reach the ambiguous ending, you may or may not love Howard Wakefield, but you can’t help but be in his corner. Where are his crazy choices leading? Wherever, you will want to be with him to find out.
I give it a B+
An Exclusive Interview with Director Robin Swicord
LC: Let’s talk about Bryan Cranston because I know he was your number one choice and it’s so wonderful that you would up having him because who could’ve done it the way he did? He finds either sympathy or draws recognition from his audiences, which I think is his best quality. What sort of specific additions did Bryan add to it that you noticed enhancing the character development? Were they all physical or did he sometimes improvise words?
Robin: I know, no kidding. I can’t imagine another actor could have done what he did. I think that we were open to every kind of play on this. This is one of the unique opportunities that you get when you have a man alone in a room and he’s talking aloud and he’s behaving. Is that I can give him the script and he can do all of that and then he can do whatever he wants to besides. And in the editing room I can decide what I’m going to use of that depending on pace and tone and so forth. So I welcomed it all, I welcomed it from the very start in our first conversation and then when we went through the script moment by moment and line by line and beat by beat. We talked through everything in a long process that went over a couple of weeks, many hours a day, and during that time he would sometimes make suggestions that were really wonderful, you know. Some of them I would say, “we don’t have time for that, let’s slow the moment down,” but I didn’t necessarily say that to him. I just would kind of file that in my – I wrote down everything and I would kind of file these little notes – knowing that when we got to the stage things could be different. And they were, you know. Once you step on the stage and you’re in character and you’re wearing your beard and you’ve got on your distressed clothing, the impulse you had in talking through the script might be very different on this day. So allowing him to have the freedom to play and to not be constrained was part of our deal, it’s part of why I chose him and I think part of why he chose me.
LC: There aren’t a lot of locations, and that can sometimes be quite claustrophobic for a filmmaker, but it really doesn’t feel that way in watching the film.
Robin: Right, well I would say that the attic set was pretty claustrophobic there was only five days of it. The rest of it was on location at the house or in Altadena or South Pasadena or even further afield when we did the nature preserve, so it’s deceptive, but there actually are quite a few stages, I mean location changes for this. I don’t think that we ever felt claustrophobic, I never did, and in fact we finished shooting in the attic and then we went sort of across the lot to shoot the New York scenes and the bar scene and then we were done. Except for one day we had to go to travel down to shoot all the train station stuff. And so basically those last three days were so jam packed there was no time for nostalgia, but while we were on the New York set and shooting the stuff in the past, I heard that they had dismantled the attic and I felt a tremendous pang that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
LC: So when you only have 20 days to shoot,, it becomes quite a partnership, since apart from the other crew, it’s mostly you and Bryan… how many takes did you often do of the same scenes?
Robin: We didn’t do that many takes of the same scenes, although that depending on what it was. By budgeting stuff that you knew you were going to get very quickly, you could then buy time on the attic set for instance, to let him try stuff three or four different ways. And he tends to do that, he’s not a perfectionistic, he’s not “oh let me get that again because I said that word kind of wrong”… you know. If he wants to do another take, it’s because he has another idea. And so I tried to give him as much of that kind of time as I would but I always had my first AD to my left shoulder saying we need to be out of here in 45 minutes, then I would have to decide, right there on the spot how much time am I going to spend here or am I going to change camera lenses and do something different. So there was a lot of organization and there was a lot of minute-to-minute pressure and I tried not to pass that onto the actors and just let them feel that they had all the time in the world to do stuff.
LC: It really comes in handy that he’s done so much stage work because it translates to the speed of making decisions around who his is in character.
Robin: That’s right and he could be in the moment. If he was in character and in the moment he could just do what was his instinct. He could say the line and it would come out and it would have its meaning, emotional meaning and also literal meaning. And so knowing that he was well trained, that he had spent all this time in TV where you’re shooting eight pages a day, he was a seasoned actor, not a diva, it just meant we could ask the impossible of him and his attitude stayed great. And I would be thrilled to work with him in a situation where I wasn’t having to ask the impossible of him. But in this case his attitude was fantastic through every frame, he literally would do anything that we asked him to as long as it was telling the story.
LC: I see this character as starting out pretty unlikable and certainly self-destructive, so there’s quite an arc there. What kind of trial and error did you go through in making it work as you wanted to in terms of being both the writer and the director once it became something you were translating onto the screen? Was there something you really thought was going to work that you needed to nuance or shift in some way?
Robin: I had to work a lot with the voiceover. That was the part that changed the most for me. Both in terms of how much voiceover was in the film, and also which verb tense he was speaking in, and I had to for myself settle questions of: Who is he telling the story to? From which vantage point? From which point in time and why? And so I had to sort of wrap my brain around that both as a writer and then later as a director in the editing room and when I had Bryan in recording. I knew from the outset that I wanted to record the voiceover a number of times all the way through as one script so that at different points in time his understanding of his own character would shift and grow because that’s what happens with actors, they begin and they’re full of ideas that come out of rehearsal or out of a reading of the script. As they do the work, they begin to have other ideas because they’re alive, and in the moment, and creative. That’s what happens. So I wanted to be able to capture all of that and sort of memorialize all of that. So we did a voiceover before we started, we did some during production, we did one at the end of production. At one point, I called him and I gave him some new voiceover lines which he put on his phone and sent to me, and then we recorded it all again at the very end of post. So we had a lot of things we could choose from in order to create that voiceover. That was the thing that shifted the most for me.
In terms of going to the adaptation, I knew that you had to work on issues of alignment, because, as you say, he’s not a character that people fall in love with instantly. He’s doing and saying things that we might not do or say. But he’s also tremendously vulnerable, he’s emotional, he’s thinking thoughts that we’ve also had, he doesn’t want to go in the house because he fears that his wife will be angry, and they’ll re-engage in another fight. He doesn’t want that to happen. So that thing of evading conflict all of us have felt or done that. And so as long as he was doing things that an audience could say or feel, “I have felt that way, I might do that as well,” then we were creating alignment, and it didn’t matter whether you approved of him as a character or whether you would think that’s the guy you want to marry. If you could say, “I’ve been like that and I have felt like that,” then that was enough for me. And so we built on that and Bryan also built on that because as you’ve pointed out, he is a truth teller. He really… it’s authentic with him.
LC: To me it seems like he’s pretending to be someone and he turns into someone in the span of the film.
Robin: Right, he’s a man at the beginning who doesn’t understand and he’s actually dislocated from his true self.
Everything he is doing is really not the way he feels inside. That he’s taken on certain kinds of roles without being even remotely aware of it.
He begins to evolve. But first he has to go through kind of a feral animal stage, it’s almost like he has to go through the stages of being a human being again in order to grow up again into this person who I can’t say with any confidence really does know himself at the end. But at least he knows what he loves.
LC: I love that. I love the ambiguity, because you either leave the film being optimistic or cynical and it’s all in your own perspective. That is a way of hooking in the viewer in a way that would have been very difficult to do any other way than the arc of the story.
Robin: That’s right, it is meant to be a subjective film so that even the ending is subjective depending on how the audience feels that it ends.
LC: So often men inhabit women as directors just by the nature of there being so many more hired to direct than women, but not so often do women inhabit men – and I’m talking about the male gaze versus the female gaze. Do you think that the approach is as individual as the directors or is there some commonality to women writing and directing a film featuring a strong male lead? What’s your perspective on that?
Robin: I think that that is a brilliant question, I really do, and I feel that I’m going to come up short in giving you an answer because it’s such a big subject. I would have to really make a study of movies that are directed by women that are about men in order to even begin to understand that. I can tell you that from my personal answer is: I am not sure that a man would have made this movie. Because I am actually interested in the male gaze and the idea of men projecting onto women, and I don’t think that there are just a legion of men or male directors who share that same fascination. So I’ve come to it in a certain way and I’m not sure that another person would have.
I love so many different kinds of movies – I love movies about men, I love movies about women, I love movies about animals. I don’t necessarily think of myself as only coming from a place of being a female viewer or a female writer or a female director. I really am just a tremendous appreciator of art in general, and I come to film or books or poetry I’m engaging with, I come to that for personal reasons and not for reasons of gender. But inevitably, because we have different experiences, men and women, we are shaped by the culture that we live in. To see a movie about a man who initially is objectifying his wife, is going to have a different meaning for me because I have been objectified quite a bit in my life. Whereas man might say, “Oh here’s a man who’s objectifying his wife,” but his approach would feel completely different because he hasn’t had that experience. So the personal and the gender politics end up being entwined even though we would like to think that we can escape that.
LC: As a writer/director who really mentors female writers, I was looking at Hedgebrook and all of the work you’ve been doing, what are your thoughts on more women creating films where it does analyze men through male leads? Or should there be more of a focus to bring more women into leads, and women working with each other on screen and that sort of thing? How do you believe we have to proceed in order to change things?
Robin: I think that’s another great question. Personally, I just want to see more women writing and directing period. I honestly don’t care whether they give us female or male protagonists to study. I think that there’s no should involved. The only “should” should be that these obstacles need to be cleared from the path of the women who are creative and who want to be making films and have a gift to do that. And if we do that we can then over time begin to see, what is it that women want to say what is it that they want to explore? We don’t even know because there’s been so much pink and blue coding in Hollywood that the kinds of movies that I’ve been suggested to write are ones that my husband Nicholas Kazan, who’s also a screenwriter, would never have been offered because he’s male. Likewise he’s always being offered stuff that I would never be offered. There’s so much coding going on that we don’t even really know what is it that women have to say. We’re still in the stage of what is it that women are allowed to say.
LC: Right and that to me is the reason I’m so grateful about this movie because it does show that a woman can write a movie that stars a man, that’s about a man, that’s about a relationship, and about an emotional arc –
Robin: Well we can, we just have to raise the money ourselves.
LC: Well that’s so different in Europe, so many more women are making movies in England than they are in the United States. The rules and the laws are different there.
Robin: Right and those are businesses that are supported by the government. Like if we could apply for grants to the United States government and say we want to make Wakefield and that money were available to us as long as we had real movie stars in it then there would be no problem. If we lived in Denmark, half of all the movies financed by their government would be directed by women, that’s their law.
LC: Australia, too.
Robin: Yeah. So we just don’t live in that world. We live in a world that is supposedly dictated by a marketplace but this marketplace is run and conceived of and by people who have an unconscious bias against letting women in and so women have to come in the side door, through film independent and Sundance and through the way we put this together, it was going and finding independent financing from a group of Broadway angels. So there’s no such thing as getting a grant or one-stop shopping. Every single movie has to be scrounged together for different voices to enter the film business and that’s not to say that people shouldn’t – there’s a lot of artistic freedom in being able to do that, and I say more power to all of us who are doing that, but you know there’s no gender parity yet in the film world here because some people get to come in the front door and are given big budgets and can make movies under the umbrella of a studio and everybody else who’s representing a point of view that is considered to be new or different is having to put it together piece by piece.
LC: Can you talk a little bit more about the screenwriters’ lab that you have been involved with?
Robin: Hedgebrook is a wonderful women’s writing retreat that was started some-40 years ago by a woman named Nancy Nordhoff on Whidbey Island. She had a piece of property and she had a little bit of money, and she decided that she would build some cottages there, that she would invite women to come in and use that as a room of one’s own, a place to write. And she couldn’t take more than six people, but she was open to whoever showed up for that. And they created an enclave there in which you apply for a residency, and if you’re lucky you get one, and then for that period of time you’re allowed to write, or not, you can walk the property and think your thoughts or you can write in the privacy of your room. They provide the meals for you and in the evenings for about an hour there’s a kind of communal friendship between all the other people who are staying there at the same time.
It’s a very simple idea, it’s not different from other kind of writing places but what’s radical about it was that it is only for women and that half of the people that they invite are women of color. And so right away you’re encouraging diverse voices and I’m interested in encouraging diverse voices. So I was offered an opportunity to teach a master class there, which I enjoyed doing, but what I brought to them was an idea of doing a screenwriting lab, and I was able to through Humanitas, which is another organization that is interested in encouraging diverse voices, Humanitas gave them a grant. They put together a group of women writers called The Wolf Pack and they had financed this screenwriting project for the past three years. And we’ve grown enormously, we can still only take five or six people for one of these writing labs because that’s how many people the property can house, but we went from like 125 submissions the first year to 260 the second year and this year we expect there to be more. There’s a tremendous demand for mentorship and for getting your hands on the tools to become a better writer and that’s what this workshop offers.
For more information about Hedgebrook, go to http://www.hedgebrook.org/
Wakefield opens in area theaters this weekend around the country. See it and support women in film.