Tár’: Director Todd Field–“Anybody That Watches This Film Is the Final Filmmaker”

Todd Field on his Drama ‘Tár’: “Anybody That Watches This Film Is the Final Filmmaker”

Oscar voting is about to close on an awards season has been one of the most volatile in years. Even though a consensus may seem to have formed around certain titles, there is still a nagging sense that anything could happen — and well might. It’s entirely appropriate, then, that Todd Field’s Tár — a film about a mercurial artist trying to keep things together through a turbulent time — is still holding a dogged course through these choppy seas, with a campaign driven by Cate Blanchett’s universally acclaimed performance as the troubled conductor Lydia Tár.

Field discusses the strengths and the strangeness of a film that has somehow come to mean all things to all people.

TODD FIELD: It was important that there at least be an effort to create a world for Lydia that hopefully not too many people that spend their time and their lives within that milieu would say was bullsh*t. That was important. It was important that she really know her onions, not that we know them. I mean, it wasn’t like there’s going to be some test on concert music for the audience at the end, it was just important that she had a sense of mastery. So, I needed to talk to someone who had a sense of mastery, and I was very, very fortunate indeed in being able to be in dialogue — because this was at the middle of March 2020, and everyone was trapped in their homes — with John Mauceri. And John Mauceri, for those that are not familiar with him, has had a storied career. He was Leonard Bernstein’s assistant for 19 years. He taught at Yale. He’s written several great books. If you have any interest in the discipline of the conductor, I encourage you to read them.

But he also had been the musical director for movie nights with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, so, he’d been around films. He was the absolutely perfect companion to have for weeks and weeks and weeks on the telephone before I started writing this thing. And he really gave me all of the particulars that would be important, all the markers for a character like this, and the language in terms of what would be important to her. So, that that’s sort of where it started.

FIELD: No, it was very quick. I mean, three and a half weeks with John on the phone, then I wrote it in 12 weeks, handed it in, and that was it. The studio gave no notes. They said, “Let’s go make it,” and we were off. One of the benefits of writing scripts when there’s any kind of specifics involved that have to do with either history or, in this case, culture is to be able to do a deep dive very, very quickly in a cram-course kind of way. And so, you get intoxicated with the tempo of that, of trying to figure out something very fast and chasing things based upon that tempo. So, there is a rigor in the film, but you can also see the enthusiasms of an amateur from the outside.

Which came first, the world or the character?

FIELD: It was definitely the character first.  I’d been thinking about her for a long time, probably easily 10 years before the studio came to me and said, “Would you be interested in doing something about a conductor?” And that’s the only reason that she became a conductor. I had someplace to put her. That character had always lived for me at the top of a very clear power structure, and I’d always thought if I ever did anything with her, it’d be to examine power, to examine how power really functions as a phenomenon and how complicit it is that nobody holds power alone — they’re allowed to have it because there’s a cost benefit for others. So yeah, it was definitely the character first.

Tár as a story for our time?

FIELD: Well, the story is set in three weeks of 2022. Originally, I was going to have been making it in 2020 and thought, “OK. Well, that’ll give me enough time to finish the film and have it come out well ahead of that.” But as it happened, we got it out a month before November 2022. But given the themes of the film and examining the sort of scandal part of it and the abuse of power, those are just the circumstances that we live in [today]. I had no interest in pointing at the particulars of those things or the discussion around those things. Protests against hierarchical, essentially white male power, are something we all know about, that we’ve all experienced from the time we were young. Whether it was in the media or not, it was something we could passively observe on a day-to-day basis: we could see who held the power and who was able to get away with certain things that others were not. And was that right and was just? Where did those inequities lie? So, it’s a long overdue reckoning of that.

The question is, when you examine, and when you take any kind of stock of what that phenomenon is, how do you do that without being numb to the idea that white male power has been held for so long? And so, it was very clear that this character could not be a white male, because we’ve already made our decisions about that, and for a very good reason. How can you have just one opportunity to lean into looking at that phenomenon? What happens with anyone or any creature that holds power? And are the old saws true? Does power corrupt and does absolute power corrupt absolutely?

Todd Field and Cate Blanchett at the premiere of Tár in London. Getty Images

Was Cate Blanchett always on your mind?

FIELD: I had met with Cate 10 years previous to beginning the writing of the script for Tár on a project, a script that Joan Didion and I had written and that we had sent her to read. She agreed to do it, and we had a meeting in New York. And as anyone will tell you who’s sat with Cate Blanchett for an hour, that was fairly life changing. She has the ability to look at narrative outside of what would be presumably her primary function as one of the greatest practitioners of her art as an actor. She looks at it as a filmmaker, so you’re meeting more than you’re equal. And I came away from that meeting, though that film never happened, so energized and so excited to have been in dialogue with her. So, I reckon that that’s probably why she kind of appeared on my desk when I first started drafting this thing and wouldn’t go away, though she had no idea I was writing it for her at the time.

What kind of collaborator is she? 

FIELD: It’s a very alive conversation. I think we think very similarly, in terms of process. And this film was always about process, not about outcome. I mean, [Lydia Tár] is a woman in transition. She’s about ready to reach a very particular marker for herself, career-wise, and she’s in process to do that. She doesn’t know what’s on the other side, and she’s afraid of what’s on the other side. She’s looking back over her shoulder at her legacy, which is a death for any artist.

And for them to see Cate and I come along, wanting to experiment… oftentimes I would be chided by the script supervisor, who would say, “No, we can’t do that.” And I’d say, “Why?” And she’d say, “Because that’s not in the script,” or, “The script says this.” And I would say, “Yeah, well, some guy named Todd wrote that script, not God.” [Laughs] So Cate and I were holding onto each other as sort of dance partners that way. And we tried to keep a sense of play in it, which is what process is about. Oftentimes, we would be talking, and we would come to set in the morning and start walking around together and saying, “Well, this scene feels maybe a little too similar to a scene we did a week ago. What else can we do with it?” And then we might totally turn the scene on its side or on its head.

It was all German.  I was the only American on the film.

How do you think that affected the way you worked?

FIELD:  I think if you’d asked me that question 17 years ago, I would’ve said, “Terrifying,” and I would’ve been paranoid and lonely. But I had a huge, one huge advantage. And that advantage was for the last 17 years, I’ve been working in advertising, and I’ve worked with all manner of crews and foreign crews all over the planet. I’ve had to make order out of chaos very quickly. And one of the ways I’ve done that is with my first AD. And my first AD, Sebastian Fahr-Brix, and co-producer on this film is German and he’s Berlin-based. So that was everything. I would never have been able to walk into that situation without having a trusted colleague in Sebastian. So, it was very natural. I mean, yes, they were all new filmmakers I was working with, they were new department heads I was working with, but I was impressed and gratified by just how skilled they were and really how everyone believed in the film. They were very, very passionate about it.

Casting Nina Hoss?

FIELD: She’s one of my favorite actors. All you have to do is look at the work that she and Christian Petzold have done together historically, and that wonderful film she made [in 2019] with Ina Weisse, The Audition. And so, when Cate and I were talking early on about who was going to play the concertmaster, who was going to play Lydia’s partner, her wife, we both said at the same time, “Nina Hoss,” instantly. So, I sent her the script and we got on a call together and there was never anyone else for that part. I was just praying she would do it.

It’s been a long season, so forgive me. I’ve told these stories before, but this one still makes me laugh. She said, “There’s just one little thing.” And I said, “What is that, Nina?” And she said, “Well, there’s one thing here I think you might do a little differently.” And that still makes me laugh because that’s completely reflective of Nina Hoss. It’s a very nice way of saying, “I think you can do better.” And that started a very, very rich conversation.

Nina and Cate, oddly enough, happened to be working on a film while we were waiting to come out of the lockdown. They were on a film in Budapest. So, they ran into each other at their hotel there and started talking. And that was a kind of amazing thing. It was in rehearsal with Cate and Nina where I really thought, “OK, we have something here.” Because what she does as an actor is so magnificent and so has such a richness to it and a depth to it, with very, very little trouble, seemingly very little trouble. She does it exquisitely well. And if there is sort of a heart and soul in the film, in the audience’s eyes, it’s really through Nina Hoss.

(L-R) Nina Hoss and Cate Blanchett at the New York premiere of Tár.Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Writing a film that is so rich in ambiguity?

You began with the end credits?

FIELD: I’d always planned on doing it. You mean was I surprised by people’s reaction to it? It was a big conversation. Again, I would give so much credit to Peter Kujawski and the team at Focus, which is they were clearly concerned about it and they very gently kept expressing their concern about it. I remember Kiska Higgs saying, “But people are going to walk out and think the movie’s over, or they’re going to go to the projectionist.” And I said, “That’s OK. That’s OK.” And they didn’t force me otherwise.

And it was a long conversation with the Director’s Guild. That was a real conversation with them. They said, “Well, no one’s done this before, like this, and we’re not sure it’s allowed.” So, it took no small amount of effort, and it took no small amount of locking arms as a group and saying, “This is right for the film.” But it was never going to be any other way.

It’s there for three very practical reasons. The first of which is, thematically, this is a film about power, and power is a pyramid. And what are the cornerstones and how is the apex of that supported? That apex being whoever’s sitting at the top of that power structure. And that is about complicity and it’s about many other things that involves many people. So, there’s that. Then there’s the part of sitting through the pandemic, streaming Netflix like the rest of us, and watching the end credits on films fly up to the right-hand side of the screen as you scramble for your remote, trying to get them back on screen. The idea that those end credits aren’t part of a film, and that those end credits don’t matter to a viewer, and that that can be decided by Netflix or whoever, is patently absurd and I resent it. Thirdly, there’s much made about her biography in the first scene with Adam Gopnik. Some of that is true, and some of that is bull, it’s a complete fabrication. So, it was important that the one thing that is kind of the Rosetta Stone for her — when she left Harvard and went down to the Eastern Amazon, doing ethnographic field recording — be true. And she’s specifically talking about the source of music and her philosophical point of the source of music as opposed to others. And that has to do with the icaro [a song by the Shipibo-Konibo people of the Peruvian rainforest, sung by Shaman Elia Vargas Fernandez]. This was really the only opportunity to actually be able to hear that. So, running the end credits at the beginning served many purposes.

It screened very early at the Venice Film Fest?

I was terrified. I mean, you make something, and the old clichés are true. It’s like giving birth; you feel very protective about that creature, and you know that very soon you can no longer protect it. That’s it. It’s out in the world. It’s walking out in the world and things are going to happen however they’re going to happen for that creature, and it’s not yours anymore. So that was kind of horrifying. That’s always a horrifying sort of experience and you’re sort of relieved when people are kind. Not too kind, but kind enough.

It was a long time between this film and your last?

FIELD: Yes. I have something else that I’ll start writing once I have time. I’ll take a couple of days down next month and I’ll start writing.

Do you have an idea in mind?

FIELD: I know exactly what I’m going to do. Well, I’m going to attempt to do it.

Lydia Tár has captured people’s imagination?

FIELD: I think it’s the way different groups of people have taken ownership for the film who are diametrically opposed in their philosophies and diametrically opposed in terms of how they read the film. That has been fascinating.

The ending might just be a fantasy?

FIELD: I would like to stay out of the way of any and all interpretations. That’s sort of counterintuitive to why we made this thing in the first place. Anybody that watches this film is the final filmmaker. It’s theirs, they own it. It’s not mine anymore. I have no control over it.