“Bryan Cranston gave me what was needed plus more”: In The Spotlight… Robin Swicord
Robin Swicord is an award-winning writer, director and producer.
Primarily known for her work as a screenwriter, her credits include Memoirs Of A Geisha (Satellite Award for best screenplay); Little Women, (co-producer, Writers Guild award nomination); Matilda (co-written and co-produced with Nicholas Kazan); the cult comedy Shag; The Perez Family; and Practical Magic. Swicord also received an Oscar nomination for her contribution to The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.
Swicord made her feature-directing debut with The Jane Austen Book Club, for which she also adapted the screenplay. Her new feature, Wakefield, marks a triumphant return to directing her own screenplay adaptations.
Originally a short story by E.L. Doctorow, Wakefield follows successful suburbanite commuter Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) on his perverse detour from work and family life. He vanishes without a trace, taking refuge in the attic of his carriage house garage. Surviving by scavenging at night, Wakefield covertly observes the everyday lives of his wife (Jennifer Garner), children and neighbours.
WFTV were lucky enough to talk with Robin about the film and her process.
You said that one of the hooks of Wakefield as a character for you when reading Doctorow’s story was the sensation of ‘You know me’. What can writers do to create that sensation in their own work?
That’s such a great question. I think that’s a sensation that every writer must find for every character. It’s not a one size fits all, “Oh I know what to do” in every situation. That’s what is so terrifying about the blank page. I think it’s about approaching your character with tremendous compassion and trying to find their most human elements … which are always emotional. It’s always their suffering which brings us to them.
In the case of Wakefield, I didn’t like the character. I wouldn’t think, “let’s have dinner with Howard Wakefield!” but I felt for him in his situation. He was in crisis and didn’t realise it. I think that one of the things that all humans struggle with is letting themselves feel what they’re really feeling as it’s happening. We all try to be so brave, to block it out and not experience our emotions.
Howard is a deeply barricaded man. What we get to see is the unravelling of himself, which is something that we all must do. For me, that was the human approach to Howard; accepting him as he was and understanding that even this man with so much privilege and who has been so careless is someone who deserves to live a fully realised life.
That leads seamlessly into my next question. “This could be you…” is another sensation that comes across clearly, despite the fantastical and surreal set up. What choices did you make to convey that idea in the film?
One of the things I brought to E.L Doctorow when he and I were first talking about his short story was that I thought it was a meditation on marriage. Anyone who has been in a relationship for some time begins to develop their own private resentments, their own moments of duplicity or deceit, their own moments of omission, their own moments of avoiding the conversation because they don’t want to get into a fight.
Meeting Howard at that moment, we feel for him – he doesn’t want to go into the house, because he’s had this unpleasant argument. It’s frightening to think he’s going to have to meet her authenticity and he doesn’t know how. That is the thing he is running from, although he doesn’t understand that at the beginning. And because he doesn’t understand it, and the film is entirely subjective from his point of view, then we can’t understand it either. There’s a mystery there at the beginning.
“Surveillance” is another key theme – particularly of Wakefield’s wife, Diana. How did you approach creating a strong and active female character in a situation where she is essentially subject to the male gaze throughout?
She has been objectified by her husband. He doesn’t know that. Even as he is proceeding with his project of trying to find the true Howard Wakefield, he continues to feel he’s in possession of her. As the viewer we get to test our own version of reality against Howard. As he’s saying things about her that are negative, we are watching her and thinking “She seems okay?”
Jennifer Garner really is a tremendous actor – so professional, prepared, available, transparent. I wrote a script for her in the house that I never gave to Bryan Cranston – so he never got to see what was really going on in the house. They had real scenes to play, with relationship and character work, real dialogue – that allowed her to be active. We really see her coming into her own – grieving, moving on. She is active in her own life. Everything he’s going through, she’s going through, backwards.
Leaving that space for subjectivity in the narrative means, as a viewer, you kind of get to write your own story, too. It’s a lovely experience for an audience.
Where there any challenging aspects of directing your own work?
By the time you’ve written very deeply, directing just becomes a management job that attaches itself to that. I knew intimately what the meaning of all the moments were. I had a fabulous young DP that I had been stalking since she was 19 and at film school and we had a very strong creative connection, so that part of it didn’t feel hard.
What was hard was shooting in twenty days. When you make a little art film like this you don’t get many days to shoot, particularly because I had to build an expensive set.
That was the hardest part, the twenty days. It was hardest of all, not on the crew but on Bryan, who was the mensch of all time! He had to put up with so much discomfort – everything in one angle, in one set, moving through the seasons, beard upon beard, wig upon wig, and having to do it in a hurry. We had an incredible hair and makeup team. I was very blessed with my crew.
You talked briefly about Bryan Cranston there. He is known for his playfulness and invention – how can a director work in collaboration with an actor with such ingenuity?
I think you go to Bryan Cranston because you want that stuff. So the first thing is, have no resistance to the thing you just asked for. We rehearsed by going inch by inch through the entire script. Line by line, moment by moment, image by image, with him riffing on it, thinking about it, throwing out lines, making little suggestions. Some of these things ended up in the movie. The important thing with someone like Bryan is you don’t say in the moment yes or no to something. You take very good notes and incorporate what you can.
Then when you get to the set, there’s a whole other layer of him finding things physically. He’s a very physical actor. What I realised with him in terms of shooting was that I had to shoot everything in two sizes simultaneously. Working with two cameras, I could pick whatever I wanted, whatever part I felt, “well that takes it a little further than I want to go”. Then I’ve got another size which allows me in the editing room to cut out of that. It was a very good technique.
I really quickly realised – day one – “I see what he has going for me and I don’t want to step on any of that!” There weren’t that many takes of anything. He’s such a pro he understood it. He gave me what was needed plus more.
You approached this film with the question “How do you photograph the inner journey?” You’ve spoken a little bit about using two cameras simultaneously, but what devices did you employ to explore the inner world of Wakefield?
The eyes are very important. The eyes of the actor really lead you into the soul and the inner life, and so being unafraid both with the camera and in the editing room to just stay on his face, to let us reside in him and have confidence that an actor as strong as Bryan Cranston could hold our gaze and our attention. In the editing room, what we discovered was that when we cut away from him, it would literally drop – he has tremendous stage presence.
I guess the real answer to that is hire Bryan Cranston.
Another “inner world” narrative device that I loved was your use of Voice Over. The sound in general played a key role in the storytelling. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with your composer, Aaron Zigman?
Well there were two people responsible for that. One – Aaron Zigman, who I truly do think is a genius. He’s gifted beyond just being a film composer. For some reason – he and I, when we met on the Jane Austen Book Club, we connected creatively. He will often send me pieces of music that he’s working on for his own enjoyment – he’s really an artist.
So, because of that friendship, when I finished the first draft of Wakefield, I sent it to him and said I want a real movie score for this. I felt that we needed that connection to these characters in order to put up with a film that is as spare as this. I didn’t want something modernistic, just sound and some percussion. There’s a way that modern music has gotten away from melodic theme.
He understood exactly what I needed and he immediately started giving me little pieces of scenes. I didn’t make any decisions until after I had a cut that I could show him. Then there was a little transitional part with him. He had certain things in his head from having read the script so much. He’d lived with the script for four years, so he had to kind of get a divorce from the script and understand that he was marrying the movie. After we got through that little patch, all of a sudden it ignited with him and everything started happening. It was a very beautiful working experience.
Then there was Zach Seivers who was our sound designer, and he was part of the reason why the film feels so intimate and yet so full, because of the pre-edits that he did, the sound that he brought in and the way that he would play with subjective sound. The sound becomes distorted at times in ways so subtle we may not even be aware of it. He’s an extraordinary young sound designer, who has very quickly been embraced and works all the time because he’s so talented.
Finally, the film itself is beautifully genre defying. How would you define it if you had to categorise it?
I can’t categorise it.
Though I can tell you when Bryan and Jennifer met me they both had the same immediate greeting for me, which was “This is a strange movie!” It’s not strange in the sense of not being able to get your arms around it, I think you absolutely can. But when we sat in the editing room, very often Matt Maddox, our editor- who is fantastic- and I would look at each other, as co-conspirators, kind of aghast, thinking – “have you ever seen a movie like this? Are we really going to do this cut? I guess we are!” We couldn’t think of what it was like. When I was trying to describe it at the very beginning to Doctorow I said it was kind of like a suburban Taxi Driver. The sense of this man on this quest or journey alone, who begins to find his way. Except of course Taxi Driver is very dark – it’s about assassination. This is more of an awakening, this is Howard coming into himself. My producer quotes back to me something I said when we first started making it: This is a film about a man, becoming a man.
So I guess it belongs in any kind of category of films that is about that.
I think that really is one of the great strengths of it too, that it’s impossible to define in some ways. Congratulations on the film, and thank you for your time!
Wakefield is out on digital platforms on 28th July and on DVD from 31st July, 2017.