By Stephen Farber
DIRECTOR'S VISION: McCarthy was inspired to direct his first film,
The Station Agent, and learned how to do it on the job
Tom McCarthy didn't plan to direct The Station Agent, his auspicious 2003 debut comic drama about an alienated dwarf and the unlikely locals who gather around him at an abandoned New Jersey train station. Not at first. But after years of doing improv work and sketch comedy in Boston, Minneapolis, and Chicago, after a degree in acting from the Yale School of Drama, and after dues-paying time spent in New York as a working actor in theater, TV, and indie films, McCarthy knew what made a premise hang together. He knew he had a good story, one that would let actors shine. And as he wrote the screenplay, he realized something else: "I could see the movie very clearly. I thought, if I could see it so clearly, how hard could it be to direct it? I was wrong. But the inspiration was there."
Inspiration and a capacity for learning from others: McCarthy's development as a director, with skills acquired on the job, has been a process of observation and collaboration in all three of his feature films, which also include The Visitor and, most recently, Win Win.
As he was getting started, McCarthy's top-quality mentor on The Station Agent was no small boost. Through cast member Bobby Cannavale, McCarthy met Sidney Lumet, who became a trusted sounding board for the first-timer. Concerned about camera placement and blocking scenes, the novice director talked out problems with the veteran, learning from the master that "when you understand the scene, you understand where the camera goes." The Station Agent went on to receive a clutch of awards, including the Audience Award at Sundance. And McCarthy, a friendly, down-to-earth, regular guy of an artist who values disciplined work habits, went on to establish a hyphenate career—director-screenwriter-actor—of enviable independence.
His second project as a director-writer, The Visitor, won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for best director. Shot in his hometown of New Providence, New Jersey, last year's Win Win was his third hit right out of the gate. Yet the 46-year-old McCarthy didn't begin to immerse himself in an intellectual study of films until he was out of Yale and in his late 20s. "I discovered the French New Wave, Bergman, and Ozu, who I always lean on—wow, there's a really simple, still-waters kind of technical approach. Deceptively simple." Ozu's sensibility matches McCarthy's own, with his interest in stories about isolated men who find unlikely salvation in connecting with equally vulnerable outsiders.
Also influential was Erick Zonca's subtle, drifty, César Award-winning 1998 film The Dreamlife of Angels, about the friendship between two bruised outsider young women buffeted by life. "Humanist," an adjective of critical praise often applied to McCarthy's work, is also how McCarthy describes the French filmmaker's approach to solitude and the randomness of characters coming together. "The opening shot [of Dreamlife] stays behind the protagonist—you're over her shoulder—and the movie immediately feels intimate. You're curious and excited about who this girl is. The movie sucks you in without seeming too manipulative."
DOWN AND DIRTY: McCarthy tires to give actors what they need,
including young Marcia Haufrecht in Win Win.
Key to McCarthy's directorial approach is his collaborative work with actors, a generosity born of his own ongoing career in front of the camera in projects as varied as HBO's critically acclaimed The Wire and Roland Emmerich's apocalyptic 2009 blockbuster 2012. "Being an actor makes me sympathetic and understanding of how much a director can help or get in the way," he explains. "Writer-directors can sometimes be too precious with their work, cutting off the greatest resource—which is good actors! Most very good actors like to be directed. They want to get lost. Our job [as directors] is helping them maintain their place."
For a seasoned pro like Richard Jenkins, who plays a solitary widower drawn into the lives of a couple of illegal immigrants in The Visitor, McCarthy knew to get out of the way. On the other hand, for Alex Shaffer, the real-life high school wrestling star and non-actor cast in the center of Win Win (with Paul Giamatti as a small-town lawyer and his coach), a different kind of attention was required. "Alex is a happy kid," says McCarthy, "and we needed to help him find his darker side." To that end, McCarthy values rehearsal "for getting everyone on the same page. I use rehearsals as the final tweak on the script so we can work as quickly as possible on set. It's not necessarily about getting a performance right, or even fine-tuning it." (Don't look for on-the-set improv exercises coming from this former improv player; there's no time.)
And another thing, McCarthy sees his films as... film. The Station Agent was shot in about 19 days in Super 16, the other two features in 35 mm. "I like the look of film, the feel of it. It's almost a visceral response, the texture of it. I like how it breathes, and I guess there's a rhythm on set to working with film that is slightly different than working with digital. Even if it's simple things like changing a magazine—I'm comfortable with that. When the right project comes along, I'll be willing to explore digital. But my feeling about digital is, people keep saying you can keep shooting and grabbing. I don't think you need to do that if you know what you want. And if you know how you want it."
Indispensible in McCarthy's process is his partnership with German-born cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, who has worked on all three of the director's features. The two men have developed a close and pleasing professional relationship. "We begin by talking about the script as a whole, talking about themes, visual patterns. I'll describe what's important and what I see; a lot of times we'll visit locations and create a visual library so that usually, by the time I hand over a script to my production team, I have a book of photos for reference." A loose shot list is developed. Rehearsals commence. "And then," he says, as if it's simple, "I turn it over to the actors."
In part because of his already established career as an actor, and in even greater part because his movies have done well critically and financially, McCarthy is in the rare position of being able to stay independent while waiting for the financing he needs. Miramax distributed his first movie; Overture (which later became Relativity) took the second; and Focus Features handled Win Win, giving McCarthy the luxury of being able to do things his way, project by project. But that doesn't mean he doesn't keep a close eye on the bottom line. While shooting The Visitor on a particularly tight budget in New York at a time when massive productions including I Am Legend were soaking up resources, the crew was jokingly encouraged to feed at the Big Guys' craft services table.
For McCarthy, freedom equals possibility—and there are a number of projects he is pursuing, even if he's not inclined to be specific. He's got a hankering to do some acting again. He's fielded queries to take on various big Hollywood movies. "I can't connect with size or budget, only with story and character," he says. For such a productive filmmaker, McCarthy can be almost ‘aw-shucks' about his learning curve as a director. He still sees room for greater production efficiency. A deeper understanding of camera movement, composition, and the range of choices available to him as a director are other areas he wants to continue to explore.
"For me, it's always about improving, how to get better. That helps determine where I go next, whether it's playing with a bigger story, or bigger worlds. Look at Ang Lee, he's made some interesting choices, he's zigged and zagged. It comes down to what I'm excited about. How do I stay true to what I want to do and stay flexible to great possibilities? It's a challenging but exciting place to be creatively."