September 23, 2006

Little Children press conference at the 44th New York Film Festival

Photo by Martin Tsai. Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña, Little Children director Todd Field, stars Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Noah Emmerich and novelist Tom Perrotta at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City on Sept. 22.

By Martin Tsai

“Family life is fascinating to me because that’s what I’ve known for a very long time and because there is so much drama and melodrama in family life. Things that happen in my household are mind-boggling to me,” Todd Field said. The director/co-writer of the Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom returns after a five-year hiatus with the big-screen adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s bestseller Little Children. With these two films, Field has already established a knack for the domestic relations milieu. Set in a suburb startled by the recent arrival of a newly-released sex offender, Field’s latest effort focuses on the unraveling lives of several families.

“There have been many fine movies of late that deal with – specifically in fine detail – characters with this kind of behavior as a whole film, and those are hard films for me. I have three children and I don’t really want to see that sort of thing,” Field said. “I always looked for reasons to say ‘no, I’m not gonna do this’ and I couldn’t. Its voice was so strong and it affected me in a way that I probably didn’t fully understand.”

The complex drama also attracted Kate Winslet in spite of the fact that she too grappled with its subject matter. “I was initially very hesitant to even read it, because I knew that there was this sex-offender character within the piece. One would just have an extremely powerful allergic reaction to that initially as an actor,” she said. “And then I knew it was Todd whom I had admired for a long time and also Tom. After Election and etc., I was very aware of the book. Then I read the script, and I not only really, really loved the script, the story and the dialogue, it was just so seamless somehow.”

Field credits Perrotta’s observant characterizations, as well as his “very sharp, very funny, and also appropriately kind” writing voice that has eased his qualms about the controversial subject matter. “Part of what struck me when I read Tom’s book about this character is that he is everybody’s nightmare. He is a receptacle to this whole form of McCarthyism by this community based on hearsay, and based on one man’s accusations in which this entire community turns against this man and his mother. We don’t really know what he’s done. We know there are things he’s battling with, but he is also in many ways more upfront about what his problems are than these other characters.”

The film features the relatively unknown Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley in two of its meatiest roles. Haley won the challenging part of sex offender Ronnie after an equally unconventional audition, and Winslet also gave him a raving recommendation. “When you think about a role like that, probably many people would have the same five ideas, and I heard them over and over and they were all good actors. But it was important that whoever played this role be somebody who wasn’t on that top-of-the-head list, but I had no idea who that would be,” Field said. “I came back to the hotel one night and there was a tape sitting there. It was from Jackie Earle Haley. So now he had gotten his hands, I don’t know how, on a very, very early draft of the script. He had made a short 20-minute film as this character. It was rather daunting actually, because Jackie for the last several years has been making his living as a regional commercial director. So you get tracking shots in this very involved thing. And I thought, oh Lord, this guy can really direct!”

Perrotta said the actors help fill in many blanks in the script, especially when many of their characters’ backstories in the book aren’t part of the shooting script. “There’s a lot of the book that just by default has to get lost. It’s a 350-page book with seven main characters. I think the interesting issue for Todd and I when we were writing the script was how to deal with the past and the whole background. The book actually begins with character sketches, and you really know a lot about who these characters are by the time you meet them,” he said. “What happens is somehow actors in their physical presence imply a past. I was surprised how little that stuff that was essential in the novel needs to be there. There was this ghostly presence of the past that just lingers around these characters.”

Despite all the acclaim that In the Bedroom received, Field said he had a tough time getting another film off the ground until he came across Little Children. Conveniently, his producers had already collaborated with Perrotta on Election which gave him first dibs on the novel.

“The strange thing for me is, you make a film, it goes out, and has a life of its own completely separate from you. And I think there’s a natural assumption, I certainly have this, that it will be easier to make another film. That simply isn’t true,” he said. “I spent five years trying to get another film going. I’ve not been able to get backing for kitchen-sink dramas. I’ve written scripts that no one wants to make. When I found this book of Tom’s, I wanted to make it like I wanted to make other things. I was just fortunate to have somebody that said ‘yes, let’s make the film’.”

© Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.