Alex Moreland chats with Robin Swicord about her new movie Wakefield…
Can you tell us a little bit about the development of Wakefield?
Well, it was something that I wanted to do on my own. It didn’t go through the standard development process – I found the short story, which had been in the New Yorker in about 2008, and I was already a big fan of E. L. Doctorow’s work. I had always loved his novels – he was one of the few authors where I just bought every book that came out. So, of course I was predisposed to love this short story.
But I didn’t immediately pursue it, and a couple of years after it was published, a friend of mine who is a producer actually brought me a copy of E. L. Doctorow’s short stories, and said “is there anything here you’d be interested in doing?” – and one of them was Wakefield. So, I soon approached Doctorow, and said I want to make a film of your short story, and we began a process of getting to know each other and talking it over, and he let me have the short story to run with.
I wrote my first draft after this, in early 2012, and then we did a bit of research for the right actor, and waiting for Bryan when we could fit him in, because he’s the hardest actor who’s ever worked. We finally got to make it in 2015.
Something you said which I found quite interesting was that the character Wakefield is only really able to do what he does because of his privilege. Could you tell us a little bit more about that, and how you went about portraying it?
You know, when I read the short story for the first time, I kind of hooked into that character in an interesting way – I didn’t even realise that it was happening. I wasn’t thinking about a person of privilege. When I read it a second time, the thing that struck me so much was that I really didn’t like the guy. I felt that he was doing something that he could only do because he had money and he was male. I had to find my way into him a little bit, in terms of trying to understand what was underneath the short story.
I began to see that, yes, he had done it out of privilege, but he had been in some kind of crisis. Rich people are allowed to have crises, whether they’re privileged or not! So, I began to look into his more human elements, and I realised that it was actually an opportunity to talk about how privilege doesn’t protect us from the things that are most painful in our lives. He had built his marriage on a false foundation; he had to step out of his life in order to see himself and understand his part in his own unhappiness.
None of that was written on the surface of E. L. Doctorow’s short story; that was something that came out of my exploration of it, once I was making notes on the screenplay, and I did talk about these things with Doctorow. I often saw it as a meditation on marriage, in a marriage, not just a marriage based on privilege. That was something also that Doctorow said – “I hadn’t thought of that, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be about that”.
Do you think what you’re saying there, about how privilege doesn’t always protect us, runs counter to prevailing interpretations of privilege within movies and popular culture?
Yes, I mean any time ever want to create an all-powerful villain, he’s always wealthy, isn’t he? Like in the Spider-Man movies – where did he get all this money, with this giant lab with all these things?
But, yeah. I think privilege is usually seen as this thing that’s more specifically negative in people who are powerful. I mean, he makes himself powerless, but also he’s just acknowledging the changes he sees in his life.
How important is it, do you think, to have a likeable protagonist?
I feel like cinema has been hurt by the studios insistence on protagonists always being initially likeable. I can understand that we don’t want to spend an entire evening with an unpleasant person, but I feel that drama is about change, it’s about the changes that happen to the protagonist. Whenever you question who the protagonist is in an ensemble movie, among that ensemble you just have to look for the person who changes the most – it’s kind of the definition.
So, if it starts where they have one minor flaw, which they then begin to grapple with, they’re not contending with very much. So, I like movies where the person has to contend with a great deal, like The Godfather – they can be someone that we don’t like, but we understand anyway. For me, what I’m looking for in a protagonist is someone who can act like a reminder, because I have felt what they have felt, because I am willing to have them be my avatar as we go through the film.
I definitely felt an initial repulsion about this man who would just walk out on his family – and then my next question was why would he do that? Why would he walk out? Once I started to understand why he would do such a thing, I was aligned with him. I was that way all the way through shooting, all the way through editing. In movies, that’s what I want – that’s the experience I was after.
Do you feel that the film is critical in its portrayal of Howard Wakefield?
Definitely, it’s definitely critical of Howard. I don’t think we’re standing outside judging him, but I do think we’re looking at him and saying “why are you doing this?” when it first started out. When it becomes clear that he’s involved in some kind of project we don’t necessarily understand particularly that starts to define the person Howard Wakefield is going to be. I feel we go on that journey, and we go from being judgemental to a point where, I feel, we start to root for him to find some way back home.
On a more practical level, then – Wakefield was shot in twenty days on a $3.7 million-dollar budget. Was it difficult to work that way? Is there anything you would have liked to do differently, had you more time and resources?
I can honestly say that I don’t feel we would have put different images on necessarily if we’d had more time, but I feel that everything would have been much easier. It was very physically arduous, on every member of the crew, on every member of the staff. We had to shoot the movie that way, though I wouldn’t recommend it; it was something that we all survived, though.
Part of the reason why the film doesn’t look like it was shot in twenty days was because I had an extraordinary editor, who had a black belt in visual effects. When we had things that were going to be inevitable, like a pan on the camera that was kinda shakey, when we liked that take better than the second take which doesn’t have the shakey camera, he would be able to adjust the film so that I could use the better take, without that little wobble.
So, there were lots of little tricks that he did like that, which made the twenty days not look terrible. But I don’t recommend it [as a way to work] – it’s not something I think there should be more of. It was hard on everyone, and particularly on Bryan. He was in and out of makeup, because we had to shoot like block shooting all the time, so that everything in the movie could be shot from a certain angle during a certain season. We couldn’t move all the equipment every time, so we had to take him through the seasons, from a certain angle at different points in the days. It put a lot of pressure on us, and these are the sort of technical things that the general audience wouldn’t necessarily notice, but it was how we managed to make each day feel longer – and it was extremely hard on Bryan.
When you’re trying to create a sense of interiority to your characters – in this case, Howard Wakefield – what are the differences in approach necessary for film, in comparison to prose?
You’re speaking about the process of adapting, of how you move from prose to film. I’ve done quite a bit of adaptation so I had found my own way of working through it. The key thing is that in all stories, drama is derived from characters.
In a story like Wakefield, which is a short story so it’s not highly developed, I had to really go underneath the story, to the part that wasn’t there, to the part that I imagined. I made some decisions about that and what that would mean; for example, his wife is a much more prominent figure in the movie than in the story. Because Doctorow is alive, I had someone I could talk to about it, and essentially get his blessing to just go forward and make changes – something that was just a paragraph of the short story could become a central moment of change for Howard in the movie. In the end, I think he could have written a novel, actually.
Is your approach significantly different there, in comparison to when you’re doing original work?
Yes, it is, because so much is given when you’re doing an adaptation – so you have a beginning, and you already somewhat know what’s going to happen because you’ve read the book. When you’re writing something original, you’re trying to develop a full person and a full life, you have to think much more deeply about what you are trying to say with the story.
Across the course of your career, what sort of changes have you noticed in the film industry?
Well, when I first entered the industry, it was just one giant black hole of development. It was not unusual for a studio to have seven or eight different story developers working on projects, each of whom might have a hundred different ideas they were working on across a year. There was so much development that literally you’d walk into a room and someone would say ‘we have a story idea for you’! And that was it, that was the extent of their thinking, and they would send you off in general terms until you found an original story within it.
It was sort of crazy, and it was a great place to learn how to write, because scripts essentially became disposable in that sort of environment – you would write with no expectation that it would ever get made, because they were only going to make, say, twenty films that year. Now, the studios make tentpole movies, and for a while when that began to happen, as studios began to turn toward these tentpoles, we saw that the indie world began to win the Oscars. Interesting filmmaking has begun to move to smaller screens, which is where you get movies like Wakefield or The Big Sick, which my daughter is in [Swicord’s daughter, Zoe Kazan, is the female lead].
Finally, then – what’s the most important thing you’d want an audience member to take away from your work?
The most important thing is for them to walk out of that movie with a whole bunch of questions. The editor and I used to laugh together imagine what an audience would think of the film, and how they’d respond to it – we used to say the tagline should be “see the movie, then have dinner”!
Robin Swicord, thank you very much!
Wakefield is out on digital platforms on July 28th on DVD from July 31st