How Todd Field Found the Right Key for ‘Tár’

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Photo Source: Courtesy Focus Features

There’s the typical path to becoming a successful filmmaker, and then there’s the one taken by Todd Field. An accomplished musician and actor, his directorial output has been sporadic but consistently high-profile. His previous two features, “In the Bedroom” (2001) and “Little Children” (2006), both got awards attention, including Oscar and SAG Award nominations. 

His latest film, “Tár,” is continuing that trend, with six nods from the Academy and one from SAG-AFTRA. Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár, a world-renowned classical composer and conductor at the height of her career—until allegations of misconduct cause her world to unravel. 

“For years, I’d been enlisted to adapt material,” Field says; but “Tár” gave him free rein. With its knotty subject matter and arthouse sensibility, he knew the project was a risk. “I was fairly certain that the studio would say, ‘You’re crazy. We’re not making this.’ ” Instead, Focus Features didn’t “offer one note on the script,” a rarity that allowed him to “make the film [he] wanted to make.” The experience was “hugely affirming but also frightening.” 

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Field had been toying with the rough character concept of a classical conductor for years before he turned it into a full screenplay. Normally, he never writes with a specific actor in mind, to avoid “being reductive to something [he’s] seen that actor do before or to the piece itself.” But he had Blanchett in mind to play Lydia from the beginning.  

He’d known he wanted to work on something with the actor for years; the pair had met a decade earlier to discuss collaborating on a script co-written by Joan Didion. The filmmaker says that Blanchett is “one of the great minds I’ve ever come across, with a heart to match and an ability to view a project through the lens of a storyteller that went far above most expectations for a performer.” With “Tár,” he found the perfect opportunity to reach out to her.

Field says it was “unthinkable that anyone else play the role.” He knew that taking on the complex, contradictory Lydia, a woman prone to drastic shifts in tone and behavior, would allow Blanchett to demonstrate her full range as an actor. “This character can be generous; this character can be cruel; this character can be hypocritical and capricious, underhanded— you know, she’s a human being,” he explains.

TárCourtesy Focus Features

He brought a similar level of care and determination to assembling the rest of the cast. When Nina Hoss came on board as Sharon, Lydia’s professional and romantic partner, she “gently started to peel back the layers of the character, which created a huge opportunity thematically and in terms of our rehearsal process.” Noémie Merlant’s ability to “tell 10 stories at a glance” suits the internal, observant qualities of Lydia’s long-suffering assistant, Francesca. Mark Strong brings humor to the obsequious Eliot, and veteran actor Julian Glover lends a naturalistic flow to dialogue-heavy scenes. 

Olga, the young cellist Lydia takes a liking to, was proving difficult to cast until a self-tape from British-German cellist Sophie Kauer made a big impression on Field. He later discovered that she had watched YouTube videos to help mold the character’s Russian accent. The first-time actor delivers an unselfconscious performance as a woman who’s refreshingly immune to Lydia’s influence, presenting an enjoyable—and gripping—challenge for our protagonist.

Field tailored his preparation techniques to support his actors as they took his words from script to screen. While the writer-director sees a screenplay as a “practical and important” jumping-off point, he doesn’t want performers to be too rigid about what’s on the page. “Cate and I would come up with things that would invert a scene, turn it on its head, push it 180 degrees,” he recalls. “That’s where you’re lucky to have actors at the caliber of Cate, Nina Hoss, Noémie—trained stage actors who’ve been in a rehearsal room, who know the meat of the scene is not always apparent.”

To create the film’s visual language, Field and his team did extensive lighting and camera tests before rehearsals began to correspond with different points of view: one “omnipotent,” another in which the audience knows what Lydia knows, and another in which we’re following the “baton toss” from one character to the next. The movie’s varying, contradictory perspectives let viewers decide where their sympathy belongs. 

When it comes to his previous films, Field says, “I don’t feel much connection with them. I feel connected to the people I collaborated with, with the process of making it, [but] not the outcome. I don’t analyze too much. I’m not a plotter or a theme person. I approach my work more from my background in music or as an actor. It’s more about a feeling—an inside-out thing, not an outside-in thing.”  

Judging from the acclaim and discourse “Tár” has inspired, his approach has hit exactly the right note. 

This story originally appeared in the Mar. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.