Todd Field (‘Tár’) reveals Lydia is ‘a character I’d been thinking about for around 10 years’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Todd Field (“Tár“) was recently honored with three Oscar nominations for Focus Features’ psychological drama: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The auteur sat down with Gold Derby’s Daniel Montgomery to discuss every aspect of the movie, including when he originally conceived of the character of EGOT-winning composer Lydia Tár (Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett) and the correlation between filmmaking and conducting.

Field talks about there being several rules for the film and breaks down the “four points of view” in which audiences see Lydia at different moments. He was previously nominated at the Academy Awards for “In the Bedroom” (writing and producing, 2001) and “Little Children” (writing, 2006), and he’s now hoping to claim his first golden statue for “Tár.”

Watch the full video above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Daniel Montgomery: I’m Gold Derby editor Daniel Montgomery, here with Todd Field, the writer and director of Tár, about a world-renowned conductor who faces allegations of misconduct. What was the spark of inspiration that led you to create this, really larger-than-life kind of character?

Todd Field: I don’t know if it was a spark of inspiration, exactly. It was a character I’d been thinking about for around 10 years or so, I guess, you know? My writing life, like most people that work on scripts, is typically driven by underlying material. You know, there’s the assignments that I receive for fairly understandable reasons. You know, (laughs) people like to kind of have a mutual understanding of expectation in terms of of what they’re paying for. If you’re going to write an original script, you need like a four-month ramp, you know? And I have a big family. So I’ve never had (laughs) four months to just spec something out. So I’d been thinking about her forever and ever, not thinking that she might wind up anywhere except for in a notebook.

And then in March 2020, at the very beginning of the first lockdown for all of us, Peter Kujawski and Kiska Higgs, said, “Write a script for us.” They gave me complete freedom to write whatever it was that I wanted to do, and so I built her a house. And that’s essentially what happened.

DM: You yourself have a musical background. How much did your personal experiences kind of inform this, you know, cutthroat classical music world that you portray in the film?

TF: I’m not very… I mean, my musical background was in jazz. And I had a very rich and mostly friendly relationship with the bands that I was a part of and the players and my instructors as well. So, not really at all. I mean, I think other parts of life outside of music, I’ve certainly experienced some of the power dynamics that you know, that this film, tries to explore. For sure!

DM: You know these power dynamics, have they, you know, kind of shifted how you look at, you know, sort of the morality of people who make art, and, just that whole, you know tension, that’s sometimes there?

TF: Well, I don’t think art and morality have anything to do with each other. Just like I don’t think, riding a bicycle has anything to do with morality. They’re actions and they come from human impulses. And in and of themselves, they’re expressions of what human beings occupy themselves with. But I don’t think there’s a moral component behind them. If there is a moral component behind them, then it’s- that’s propaganda. That’s not something else. But in terms of the sort of the, you know, separating the art from the artist, you know, I think that really the mitigating factor is time, you know? As this character would say: “Time is a thing. You know, time is a great, piece of interpretation.” This story takes place in, a couple of weeks ago. And, you know, is set in the last three weeks of November 2022. And that we made it the year previously. The reason I wanted to ground it as the film was coming out at the time, it was contemplated it would actually come out in November, because time is the thing.

I think in terms of looking at the art and the artist in our present day, it’s absolutely fair and important that we have that conversation as a society. That regardless of someone’s background, regardless of their achievements in whatever field, we also have to be accountable for our actions. In terms of separating the art from the artist, a thousand years ago, I think that’s a very different conversation. I don’t think that any of us can be so- have so much hubris to believe that we understand, what society was like a thousand years ago, and, you know, what people went through, and what was accepted and unaccepted. And the sort of, gravitational pull of what society had on people based on religion and family structure and other, you know, other intangibles. Does that make sense?

DM: You know, you said you’d, been thinking of this character for 10 years. And you’ve also said Cate Blanchett is, was basically your only choice for this role. Did she bring out any details or nuances in this character that surprised you, even beyond what you’d written and been thinking about all that time?

TF: Oh, God, yeah. (laughs) Of course! Are you kidding? It’s Cate Blanchett! I mean, she’s really … I mean, she’s a generational performer. She is one, you know, she is one of the greatest actors who’s ever lived, you know? I mean, we weren’t around with Eleonora Duse and you know, and the Barrymores. So we don’t know; we didn’t see them on stage. But from what we know, she’s one of the great practitioners of the art of all time. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a simple fact. When you see a performer of her skill, I do something like this, inhabit a character in this manner, uh, forget about all the things that were manifest if she had to learn. She wouldn’t want us to talk about those, anyway. She’s those were givens. Those were in the script.

But beyond that, what she does in terms of her score of physical actions, in terms of how she calibrates the path of this character, was something, just incredible to watch while we were making the film. And even more so, when Monika Willi and I were editing the film. Because we had time, you know? We could sit and really examine that performance, and see just the tiniest decisions that were imperceptible, on set because we were moving so quickly. Um, and really appreciate, you know, what she’d achieved.

DM: It’s been 16 years, between films for you. You know, what was it like coming back to, you know, the director’s chair after that time? Was it like, you know, did you feel rusty? Or did you feel like you’ve grown as an artist, in the time between?

TF: Yeah, I felt like I’d grown a lot, actually. I mean, I’ve been working in advertising for 16 years. So as a technical, sort of, filmmaker, I was much stronger than even, coming out of school and making the other two films. I’d worked with some of the finest creatives and film artists that walked the planet. People that are top people in feature business too in advertising.

The difference was, not feeling rusty. The difference was, just that first moment of awe. you know, when you work in advertising, you’re shooting cars. Or you’re shooting human beings who are non-actors. They’re not Cate Blanchett. (laughs) They’re not Nina Hoss. They’re not Noémie Merlant. They’re Sophie Kauer. They’re not Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, you name it. These are top actors. And something happens, you know, the very first time we shot; and that is an apocryphal story. You know, and I’ve told this story many times.

But it bears repeating which is, the very first thing we shot was a post-rehearsal scene. Up in The Rake at the Dresden Philharmonie that’s supposed to be after the very first rehearsal that we see of the Mahler. And it was the three of them: it was Cate, uh, Nina, and Noémie.

And I remember that first take. And it just – you know, took my breath away. That’s a part of filmmaking. But it’s the magical part of filmmaking. It’s beyond the camera. It’s beyond the lighting. It’s beyond your lens choice. It’s beyond all of the art direction, everything else. It’s human beings in front of a camera that can do magical things. And that part of it felt like a long-overdue homecoming. You know? And that was something I appreciated every moment of every day, making this film.

DM: There are elements of mystery to the film, also. it doesn’t give us necessarily easy answers or spell out all the details of what Lydia might – hell, might not have done. What did you hope to … What effect did you hope to have by kind of leaving things to the audience’s imagination, and giving the audience that room for interpretation?

TF: Well, I mean, there were simple rules for the film. It was basically four points of view. The first point of view is an omnipotent point of view, is unseen. The very first shot in the film is Lydia Tár is asleep on a private jet. She’s being watched by someone on their smartphone, and they’re texting snide messages back and forth about her. So, that point of view is the same point of view as if you were in a dark theater, and a spot came up on, a king sleeping on his side. And maybe a young foot solder comes up and just sort of fingers their dagger on their belt. And you’re not sure if they’re going to use that dagger to plunge it through the king’s belly or if they’re just nervous. Because, “Oh, it’s the King,” after all. You know? That’s the first point of view.

The second point of view is, a much more objective, where we’re with her, but we don’t know her yet. We’re watching her. We’re about ready to see her in several different environments; one of them is, very performative. She’s giving an interview. She’s trying to be impressive and charming and articulate, like I am with you right now. She wants to impress, you know? The second one she is servicing a relationship that is clearly, practical but very transactional with her benefactor: this sort of amateur conductor-investment banker. The third one is where she would truly normally be alive, which is in this classroom situation, where she’s, um, having a very horrible, no good, bad day. For all kinds of reasons that we may not possibly be aware of yet. Which we could definitely talk about. (laughs)

And then finally, we’re with her. But mostly, that’s objective. It’s objective within different environments. And we only know what she knows in that moment. We’re spending time with her in a very particular three-week period of her life. So anything noises off that’s happened before, we don’t get access to that. Anything that’s happening in the future, we don’t have as you’re present day in the moment, get in late, get out early with her. And then the only other points of view, of course, are with her assistant, Francesca Lentini, played by Noémie Merlant. She was watching her and with her partner, Sharon Goodnow, played by Nina Hoss, who is a concert master at her orchestra; and in actual fact, holds more power than she herself holds, and is there at her pleasure. Because it’s a democratic orchestra that elects the principal conductor.

All of these people are benefiting out of this power structure. All of them. And so that’s sort of what’s important. It’s not, we’re looking at someone who is complicated; competent, to say the least; hypocritical, underhanded, sometimes untruthful; in short, she’s a human being. (laughs) And, does it make her guilty of the things she’s being accused of? It might. And it might not. But she’s definitely guilty of being a human being. So, it’s probably better to have her peers, other human beings, decide what they think about her, and not the filmmaker.

DM: Do you feel like there are parallels between, you know, filmmaking and conducting in that sense? Like, was there, like, a sense of directing a director in this story?

TF: Well, she’s sitting in a kind of position that’s extremely rarefied. There’s only, you know, a very few people on Earth that understand what she, a conductor of that stature, understands. And in fact, Cate Blanchett herself understands having conducted the Dresden Philharmonie, which is having an instrument, a human instrument of a hundred incredible artists at your fingertips instantaneously playing in harmony, or disharmony, depending on what’s required, all at once. You know? That’s a very special situation. I myself have never experienced that. I have not been on the podium. Filmmaking is, you know, I’ve been asked that question before. I can see the parallels of there being some kind of, hierarchy that involves process.

But the making of music happens in real time. And the results are instantly discernible. Where filmmaking, it’s very, very long. I mean, this is a very different process. It’s like a construction site, you know? What she’s doing is being able to have a hundred people and make things appear out of the air. I mean, that’s magical. That’s like being a god on Mount Olympus. That’s a very different, sort of situation, you know? You know, very theatrical and very performative; and it has elements of dance and musical – you know, all that. You know? But make no mistake. You’re watching someone who’s a musician who has an instrument, right? And that’s where it’s different, I think.

I don’t think of a crew as … I don’t think of myself as a musician. And I have a crew as an instrument. I feel like I have a lot of filmmakers I lock arms with, and we try to build something together.

DM: How did the final film take shape during the editing process? Like, were there surprises or changes? Did the film surprise you in any way? And, as you were going along there?

TF: Yeah, I mean, you know, I was very lucky. You know, Monika Willi is one of finest editors on the planet. You know, she’s one every possible award in Europe. She’s never edited on an American film. And it’s funny to actually call this (laughs) American film. Because I was the only American on the film. The intent behind the film, and what we were all trying to achieve, was a film where, you know, you could lift up a mirror and look at that part of your face. Or if you wanted to, you could kind of look at that part of your face. Or you could go, “Oh, look at that.” You know? And there was a certain point where Monika and I had the general shape of the film, where we would watch it down together, and really, honestly turn to one another at the end and say, “How did you feel about her today?” You know?

There was no … We hadn’t made decisions about her destination, if that makes sense. So in that way, it surprised both of us all the time. Because the film evolved, but also just in terms of when we saw it, what had happened to us earlier in the day; all of that stuff; you know? And we had very strong feelings about her at different points of the process. The main thing was that we just didn’t want to point at any of them. Do you know what I mean?

DM: Well, I want to congratulate you on your work on the film. And, all the recognition that it’s been, receiving thus far. It’s been a pleasure talking with you about it. Thank you so much.

TF: You too, Daniel. Thank you.

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