Interview: ‘Wakefield’ director Robin Swicord

1st August 2017

This year's thought provoking indie original comes in the form of Robin Swicord’s Wakefield. Adapted from the short story of the same name by acclaimed American author E. L. Doctorow (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate), the film marks her second directorial effort, (she helmed 2007’s The Jane Austen Book Club), after a successful career writing adaptations like Little Women (1994), Matilda (1996), Memoirs of a Geisha and a story credit in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008).

Starring multiple Emmy-winner and Oscar-nominee Bryan Cranston in the title role of successful New York attorney and suburban husband Howard Wakefield, this peculiar drama is bound to provoke some philosophical musings or at the very least unsettling thoughts about our own lives and where it’s all headed.
The story follows Howard as he comes home late one night from work in the city. Back in wealthy suburbia, where he resides with wife Diana (Jennifer Gardner) and his two teenage daughters, he spots a raccoon infiltrating his garage attic and chases after the animal to kick it out of his property but once up there, he winds up metaphorically swallowed into another dimension.

Pausing to observe his family from this vantage point he sees his worried wife phoning him but he doesn’t pick up, resulting in the frustrated woman throwing his now cold dinner straight into the bin. Our protagonist’s interior monologue, often lifted off the original prose to great effect, provides an insightful commentary not just on the state of this man’s troubled marriage but of his entire life. Howard in fact decides to remain hidden in the attic as days, weeks and months inexorably pass.

Soon enough he decides to live off whatever he manages to scrap off here and there, practically living like a homeless man but still observing his family from the safe distance. Will he manage to figure himself out and come home or is he destined to become a lost, wandering soul? That is for the audience to find out but we can guarantee the result is pretty powerful with Cranston offering a powerhouse performance worthy of awards season buzz.
We caught up with writer/director Robin Swicord to chat about the challenges of adapting this unique story for the screen and how things are progressing for women filmmakers in Hollywood.

What was the biggest challenge in tackling this adaption?
Narratively, it was the fact this man is largely alone in a room and in order to give voice to his thoughts he would need a confidant but he doesn’t have one. When I started to think about how to externalise his inner journey I had to make some decisions about how verbal he would be and the way in which we would achieve that, given the circumstances. Out of my experience with the films I’ve made so far and all the ones that I’ve watched, I’ve learned that a character’s inner journey comes down to the actor’s performance. So I came up with the idea of an interior monologue but when the draft was done, I pulled out all the voiceover to make sure we could still follow this man’s journey without it. The whole movie was a risk. I remember my editor and I looking at each other in the editing room and having a hard time trying to find another film to compare it to and we really couldn’t.

Is there anything in particular that you hope the audience will take home from the film, especially given the ending?
I don’t think the core message of the film is contained in the ending. I think we are here to watch this man grapple with himself, face himself and change. And he does. In order to do what he does at the very end of the film, he has to have changed. What happens after that is really for the audience to answer. Ever since my first conception and my first notes about it, all the way through the drafts and working with Bryan and in the editing room, the film has been really designed to create opportunity for discussion about your own life, about marriage and a lot more. It’s not meant to be watched alone and if you did watch it alone then you should talk about it with somebody else who’s already seen it.

Was it ever daunting as a woman to write and direct a film told entirely through a man’s head or was that actually the stimulating challenge that drew you to this project?
Probably people won’t believe it but I’ve never thought about this aspect when choosing the project. I’ve been writing for a long time both female and male characters and I’ve felt equally comfortable because I’ve always approached them both just as people. Your question makes me think of a recent Q&A I did at this fantastic art-house theatre in rural Washington. Someone in the audience asked a question that was more of a statement. He said: “Did you set out to make a portrait of the male psyche because that’s what you’ve got.” I don’t know if that’s true because I don’t necessarily think that all men are exactly the same, just as I don’t think there is a female psyche. I just thought of him as a human being who had walled himself off of his family already on emotional level. He had become estranged from them and the only attempted connection he still had with his wife was that sort of game playing. There was something at the core wrong in their marriage and through the story we slowly learn what it was, how he was responsible for it and how it affected his life. For me that was just a human story.

How do you see things at the moment for women in Hollywood? Are they progressing or is there still a long way to go?
Obviously we have moved in the right direction since 1980 when I sold my first screenplay. Nancy Meyers started writing and getting her movies made around the same time but when I first came into the business I didn’t realise I was one of the first working female screenwriters of my generation. I didn’t know what I was walking into but I spent a lot of time educating about accepting women in the industry and what I’m seeing now is that many others have joined that. More people are awake about the issue now and some are actually trying to make a difference. Not even eight years ago there was this project I was trying to direct and we managed to find independent financing for it so we had started putting the cast together and someone whom I cast brought their management along.

The producers thought it was okay – the more, the merrier – until they got asked to take me off the project because I wasn’t considered able to manage the budget. That is outright sexism. I don’t think it could happen in such a simple way now as proven by the very recent example of films like Wonder Woman. Yet we have to just dismantle step by step these ridiculous things that are said about women and their inability to do certain things simply because they’re women. It’s getting better, it’s a little different now but we do have a long way to go. Just think about that cultural bias of pink and blue coding: it’s ok for us to do Wonder Woman but we probably wouldn’t be entrusted with directing Spider-Man

We were surprised that despite the presence of Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Gardner, the film is not even getting just a small theatrical release in the UK and it’s going straight to digital download and DVD. What are your thoughts?
We chose to follow this model, which is the only feasible one nowadays for small art-house films to still make it to theatres and yet have the investors get their money back since we can’t obviously compete with big blockbusters in terms of theatrical saturation. It’s based on having a small cinema release, with a smallish social media campaign to build word of mouth and soon you make it available for download on a premium cable provider for a certain number of weeks.

Then the DVD release runs along a digital download on iTunes and similar platforms before it goes to air on cable like Showtime. I haven’t been involved in the day-to-day plans for the international release and especially how it may differ from country to country so I wasn’t aware that in the UK there’s not going to be a small theatrical release. But the truth is that since not every town in America or even every city has an art-house cinema, three times as many people who have seen it in theatres here in the US have downloaded the film because of this model.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia

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