The Station Agent : Tom McCarthy
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Already a successful actor, with roles in films such as Meet The Parents and a number of TV appearances including a role in Ally McBeal, and the director of several plays, Tom McCarthy has turned his considerable talents to writing and directing his first feature film. The Station Agent is a funny, warm-hearted film about a dwarf called Fin - played by the wonderful Peter Dinklage - who is just trying to get on with his life, despite people finding it necessary to constantly draw attention to the fact that he is different. counterculture caught up with Tom McCarthy at the London Film Festival to talk about the film . . .
counterculture: The film doesn't try too hard to be loved or drive home a message about dwarfism. Was that an intention of yours?
Tom McCarthy: Absolutely. The last thing we wanted to do was to make it a 'coming of height' story, you know, some sort of saccharin emotional journey about what it means to be small. I chose Pete for that role because I felt like he would really connect with the character and with the idea of disconnecting. I felt that people would see him and take a visual cue, and I wouldn't need to waste any time with back story or exposition. It was just a case of 'there it is, this is why, now let's get into the world of these characters'. That was our earliest premise to the story, that Peter being a dwarf would never come to the forefront. I hear time and time again, 'Oh, I forgot he's a dwarf', and that's absolutely down to Pete's performance.
cc: He is extremely watchable on the screen . . .
TM: He's just so magnetic. I directed him in a play years ago, and he had long hair and was playing this crazy drunk, and he was just so fascinating to watch. The combination of his body and his voice and his charisma, and he's such an intelligent guy. He's just a really unique soul in that way, there's something about him, that leading man thing, and I mean that in the best sense of the word, not just the pretty boy thing but a true leading man like Cary Grant, or Steve McQueen, or John Wayne. That quality.
cc: Decades ago, black actors were put into roles that were just black roles, and very rarely leading roles. Do you see a time when dwarf actors will be afforded the same level playing field that black actors more or less have today?
TM: Exactly, that's exactly it, yes, very soon. Why shouldn't he appear on any television show, you know - why shouldn't Pete be on The West Wing? There are already a lot of stations that have approached him and asked what he'd be interested in doing. It was very similar putting the financing together for this film as it would have been making a film with an African-American in the lead 30 years ago, you know, people saying, 'Think about this, people aren't ready to watch a dwarf in the lead role of a movie'. I'd be like 'How do you know that?' A lot of the time I'd be talking to people about the film and, almost as an aside they'd say to me 'I have to say, he's very sexy'. You know, if it was George Clooney, they wouldn't be whispering that to me, they'd just come out and say it. It is almost taboo.
cc: You've said previously that you wrote the script with the three main actors in mind. Peter is a close friend of yours - why the other two?
TM: It wasn't something I set out to do, it was more that I started to write the movie and I had the character of Olivia in mind as this sort of 40-ish separated suburban mother, sort of trapped out in this lake house, and then I saw Patty [Patricia Clarkson] in this play off Broadway and she just had this voice, this rawness that she brings to each of her roles, and I started to write with her voice in mind. Bobby [Cannavale] was a character that, as I started to develop the character . . . we have a similar sense of humour and we're good friends and I'd seen his work and I know that side of Bobby, and the character Joe is that side of Bobby. It's not the complete him, but he has that ability to be annoyingly ingratiating - kind of charming one moment and then driving you crazy the next - and I felt like I needed someone who would galvanise the other two characters and pull them together.
cc: There were certainly scenes throughout the film, particularly the final scene, that make it hard to imagine three other characters playing the roles . . .
TM: Yeah, I've always felt that. When we were trying to put the movie together, people had suggestions for every character, and Bobby was one of them. Bobby's a well known actor in America, but there were certain people who were like 'Ah, but we could get a star to play that part', and I was like 'What does that mean? If we can get a great actor, why do we need a star?' As soon as anyone saw Bobby read the script, and now they've seen him in the movie, now he is becoming a star as a result of the film. Miramax is crazy about him, he's just finished a big movie with them, and that's what happens when people have this conviction to do exactly the kind of work they want to do. It pays off I think, it's just tough to stick to that sometimes.
cc: How many countries have you shown the film in, and has the reaction been largely consistent?
TM: Well, we were in Canada with it; in Toronto. And we've been to Paris, Stockholm, Spain, and now London. Most of the work has been in the States, just showing it regionally there. The reaction has been pretty much consistent, yeah. Spain I thought was the most interesting because there were subtitles and I wasn't sure how it would come across, but they loved the movie, they were crazy for it. A lot of the humour is very colloquial to our country, and the translation was kind of funny, so it was great to see it being picked up on.
cc: What kind of budget did you have for the film, and did the fact that you were a first time director make raising the finance more difficult?
TM: The budget was $500,000, and yeah, this being my first film did certainly make it harder to raise. Whenever you write an independent film that doesn't read like a sellable Hollywood script, people get a bit nervous, and if it's from a first time writer/director then people get nervous, and when you've got a dwarf in the lead role people get nervous. You put that combination together, and it doesn't add up to fast cash. So, yeah, it took a while, but we were all pretty busy acting anyway - I was appearing on Broadway for a year, then I was doing a TV show for a year, so it wasn't like we were just sat around in our living rooms thinking 'Where's the cash?' When it actually happened, I was sitting with my agent, and I was like 'Wow, that was easy!' and my agent was like 'Not really, it's been three years'. I'd forgotten - it seemed like it just happened. I can't blame anyone for not wanting to get involved because it is a lot of money, even though by movie standards it is pretty low, it's a big gamble. We put together this financial package for the film and a friend of mine who is a banker and a lawyer structured this thing, and you read it and you get into the financial side of it all and you think 'Why would anyone invest in any movie?'. It is just a horrible, horrible business. My brother is a financier and he was reading through it and he said 'This is really well put together', and he read the whole thing and was like 'You've got to be fucking kidding me! Who would invest in this stuff?'. Mind you, now he's been to Sundance and Spain with us, and he calls me up every day about getting into the movie business. I have to explain to him that it doesn't always happen like this - we just got lucky I guess.
cc: You'd never even directed a short film before . . .
TM: That's right. The closest I'd come to that was when me, Pete and Bobby all sat in some guy's backyard with a digital camera and just tried out one of the scenes from the film. That was actually very interesting, because it gave me a really great idea of pace for the movie. It really helped me start to think about pace and rhythm, because I knew I wanted to slow the movie down right from the first scene, I wanted people to put on the brakes a bit and sort of ease into the film, and it was kind of interesting to watch that.
cc: The film is not an overly technical effort, but there is obviously a technical side to getting any film made. How did you approach that?
TM: Well, I've been on a lot of film sets myself and asked a lot of questions, but that was about it as far as my own knowledge went. I basically just hired very good people who I knew and trusted, and I think the editing of the film in particular is fantastic. I don't really watch the film anymore in its entirety, but I can pick out elements. One night I'll think 'Oh, I'm gonna watch Patty', and I'll just watch everything she does no matter what else is happening on the screen, and that's like a lesson in acting. Or perhaps I'll sit and just concentrate on the editing and think about where I might have done something a bit differently. I think my editor did an amazing job for the comedy; he really got the sense of rhythm that was on the page, and a lot of the time he had very little to go on as far how many takes we had shot. Sometimes we would only have two shots for a scene, and there are a couple of scenes that he just worked magic with.
cc: Have you had any feedback about the film from other dwarves?
TM: Yeah, that's been pretty amazing actually. We had a screening at Sundance and there was a gentleman there who's making a documentary called No Bigger Than A Minute, which is a film about dwarves and midgets, and it was interesting to talk to him. There was one instance in Minneapolis when five dwarves from LPA, Little People of America, which is this really large organisation, showed up to a screening. It was really interesting for me because we were sitting in the lobby waiting for this screening to start and all of a sudden these five dwarves walk in, and people couldn't help but notice these five dwarves entering together, and I went and introduced myself and they were pretty excited about the film. They went in and sat down, and it completely changed the mood of the audience - it became a much more empathetic reaction, and it was very very interesting. I met up with them afterwards and we sat and talked for about 45 minutes. They were really moved by the film and really moved by Peter's performance.
cc: So, having discovered that you can direct, and direct well at that, is it something you want to do again?
TM: Yeah, absolutely. It'll be nice to go through the process when I know what it is like to go from A to Z, when I know what it is like to go from the idea to the press tour. Every stage for this was like opening a door and thinking 'Oh, ok, this is what we do now'. Going into pre-production for the first time, first day of shooting, last day of shooting, first day in the editing room, last day in the editing room, going to a festival for the first time, being in a marketing meeting. I was just so wide-eyed about it all, but it was pretty exciting for that reason.
It can be sickening sometimes how effortlessly talented people like Tom McCarthy can seem. Still, if the end result is a genuinely wonderful film such as The Station Agent, who are we to complain . . .
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