“Holding Ruth, his cheek touching her breast, he shuddered with a sob that he kept silent in his heart.”
The final words of Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings” became a touchstone for writer-director Todd Field as he adapted the story with co-writer Rob Festinger for “In the Bedroom.” The words themselves also suggest one of the qualities that has helped propel the film into the center ring of Oscar contention.
“Dubus ends his account of Matt and Ruth, their avenging of their son Frank’s murder, with another killing,” says Field. “A part of Matt kills himself, right there next to her. I realized how many killings there actually were in this story of only 18 pages. Not only of Frank, and of Frank’s killer Richard, but of a marriage, a love affair, a father figure. It was endless, the depth. There was so much for me and Rob to explore.”
The poetry of silence
But it’s also the silence that Field made sure was the film’s dominant tone, and what separates “In the Bedroom” not only from loudly pitched music-driven studio fare, but from a lot of brassy indie work. Even when sound becomes a factor, it’s of a quiet sort.
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“From the first moments, when we see the young lovers running through grass, and the sound of the wind rustling through the large tree,” says Joe Morgenstern, film critic for the Wall Street Journal, “I was immediately taken with that. The quiet takes you in. And the silences between characters, either unsure of what to say or not needing words at all, became one of the most dramatic aspects of the movie.”
It’s probably not surprising to learn that Field doesn’t watch many new movies, and the ones he enthuses about, like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10-part masterpiece “The Decalogue” or Lynne Ramsay’s mesmerizing U.K. debut, “Ratcatcher,” are similarly quiet and contemplative, far from the commercial mainstream of styles and tastes.
Growing up in Portland, Ore., he spent some time in his midteens in a movie theater’s projection booth, “where I probably saw ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Diner’ 350 times. The films of the early ’70s stayed with me. And when I was a young actor in New York in the ’80s, I discovered foreign films. In ’70s movies, in the good foreign films, you see authentic human behavior, and words are used to improve the silence.”
Field is almost absurdly aware that he isn’t tailor-made for the cynical age, or for the moviemaking mentality — perhaps now on the wane, but ultrafashionable in the ’90s — for cleverness, homage and maximum gab.
“I even tried to write a script with Roger Corman in mind,” he says, “about a bunch of guys in the Philippines that was all talk, talk, talk, but it was terrible, because it wasn’t me.”
Yet Field was so determined to make films that he was willing to suspend a growing acting career, attend the American Film Institute, and make a series of short films there from 1992 to 1995, one of which, “Delivering,” was based on a Dubus short story.
“Someone recommended him,” Field recalls, “and his work just destroyed me. He wrote ‘Delivering’ in one sitting, and that’s how quickly I wrote an adaptation.”
During the course of writing “In the Bedroom,” Field established a close friendship with Dubus, who was injured in a near-fatal roadside accident, and who died in 1999, never able to see the final film.
“He never reduces his characters to types, so you can’t judge his characters,” says Field, who speaks of Dubus in the present tense. “and that becomes extremely important as you’re watching the film. They can create heinous acts, but you’ll stay with them. Andre speaks about human truths, real choices, not about tricky, clever choices. Being clever is so much easier, really, than opening up yourself to dramatize what you feel, since you open yourself up to charges that you’re being corny or sentimental.”
As Morgenstern observes, “what’s held as a rap against ‘In the Bedroom’ is really one of its best qualities, which is that it’s slow in most of the first half. Actually, it develops at the pace of life, and I was so moved that a director had that kind of trust in an audience to let the story develop gradually and subtly.”
The aim, Field reveals, was to create “a cumulative effect on the viewer. That’s why it’s so hard to simply sum up the film, because if you talk about it like it’s a revenge drama where the parents get back at the guy who killed their son, it starts sounding like a Charles Bronson movie. Or just showing one scene, the way TV forces you to show the film — no one scene does justice to the whole. It’s all the scenes together, building to a point.”
“What Todd has done,” says Sundance Film Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore, “seems like an ideal mix of the distanced observation of Stanley Kubrick and the humanity of Victor Nunez” — the two helmers with whom Field worked, and observed, most closely during the dozen-plus films he acted in: In Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise,” and as jazz pianist Nick Nightingale in Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”
“I was lucky in my friendship with Andre, with Victor letting me watch him work every step of the way, and Stanley talking with me for hours and hours, over 15 months of shooting. Stanley was like my grandfather. We talked about every aspect of ‘In the Bedroom,’ what to watch for, how to ward against the fear that sometimes consumes the filmmaking process, and having legal control of your film. Andre died 10 days before Stanley died. I hope I can carry on something of what they left me.”