Little Children takes its title from Tom Perrotta's novel set in the suburbs
, which Todd Field
adapted in collaboration with Perrotta. There are young mothers, baby carriages, swimming pools and artifact children, but that's as far as the stereotypes go here. Two unsatisfied parents meet in a park and soon begin an affair. Their leafy liaison is overshadowed by another story, as the picture of a local man convicted of child molesting (Jackie Earle Haley
) is posted all over town by a former cop who's out to punish evil.
True to form, Field, the former actor, has cast and directed his actors with a sure hand for nuance and rhythm, getting at raw emotions in a setting that's all about appearances, whether those appearances are "proper" family life or the paranoid perceived threat of a molester in our midst.
I spoke to Todd Field about childhood, sex and adaptation when he was in New York for the New York Film Festival
The two principal characters in your film, played by Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, seem to be little children - biologically mature, but emotionally childlike. You also have a complicated character who's an abuser, who's been accused of molesting a 17-year old girl, but who's also preyed upon by a town bully (Noah Emmerich), a big kid who claims that he's protecting the town's children. You also have a whole group of middle-aged guys trying to prove themselves at football, a child's game.
I grew up in the suburbs. I don't have a bone to pick with the suburbs. I don't believe that there's "those little people" in the suburbs. I find that the people I grew up with are the same kind of people that I meet in New York, or in London, or in Maine, for that matter. What I didn't find in my generation - my generation being parents now - is that my parents seemed to take on their identity and responsibility as adults much sooner, and were able to take that on sooner. I don't know if that's because we're groomed to be consumers and worship youth culture and everlasting childhood. I do know that when I was growing up there were terrible people out there, there were people you needed to be careful of, but my parents didn't let that get in the way of my childhood. They allowed me to have a tremendous amount of freedom to do what I wanted. It gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. My time wasn't overscheduled. There was no such term as "play date," and they weren't clawing and overprotective.
In raising my own children, I'm noticing how much fear I'm bombarded with constantly about things to look out for, and I see that affect other parents. It's a different time. We're living in a paranoid time in our history. We're told that there are evildoers everywhere. We're constantly short-handing everything, stereotyping the people around us.
What interests you so much about adultery?
I don't know that I'm so interested in adultery. I'm interested in where these characters are in their lives. One woman (Sarah/Kate Winslett) whom we see has made a decision to have a child at probably the last possible second in her life and move into this enormous house and marry a guy almost by default. She's made a choice to try to wake herself up in a way, not knowing where that choice is going to lead her. The affair itself feels almost like kids in the back of a car making out, a fairly shallow relationship, but a necessary one ultimately for these characters.
In that relationship, there's Brad (Patrick Wilson), who has the best of intentions. For three and a half years, he's been trying to become a lawyer [by passing the bar exam] and it still hasn't happened. His wife is starting to get impatient. You could say that she's been incredibly impatient, in that this three and a half year period is beginning to get longer and longer. His mother died when he was fifteen years old, his adolescence got cut short, and he hasn't been able to cross over that bridge. He enters into this affair with woman just like he enters everything else. He's led around by many people. A woman says, "come here," on the playground, and he comes. He's a guy who hasn't been able to figure out how to take that next step. He literally has to get the wind knocked out of him, and wake up in Oz and wonder, "How did I get here?" They are characters looking for self-identity, and ultimately, they end up doing that through other people. That's why these people are having an affair.
You've been an actor. How do cast people for those roles, which are characters that are not altogether likeable?
You look for somebody who is going to take whatever your best hope is for that character and best it. This film is framed in a heightened fashion. You're dealing with satire and melodrama, and the acting requires a certain kind of acting. It's not pure realism. It's not underplaying. It's not things that you'd normally think are your bread and butter as an actor.
Initially, the actor has to understand what it is that they're doing. The approach that they take is going to have to be that character going from despicable to foolish to wise to absurd to absolutely present in a moment, even if it's in a melodramatic sense, and all the while without broadcasting that, and keeping ten balls in the air at the same time. It has to be an actor who is going to be able to surprise you as they modulate through that terrain. That's a tall order, and the casting of the film is incredibly specific because of that, because it's not something that everyone can do.
The first person cast was Kate. My first experience with her in the movies that had left an indelible impression was the moment in Michel Gondry
's film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
, when she punched Jim Carrey
in the arm. I literally jumped out of my chair. From that moment on, she had me. I didn't know what she was going to do next. She continually surprised me with that character. I learned later on that it wasn't scripted. She is a very, very special actor, someone who's completely fearless, constantly surprising.
Patrick Wilson is a guy whose background mainly is in musical theater, so he understood the idea of humor and melodrama and could access that in a way that was very rare. He could reference almost anything.
How much rehearsing did you get to do with the cast?
Quite a bit, several weeks.
That's a real advantage.
It's everything, That's when you really figure it out. You talk about the characters - it's mostly talking - you talk about the scenes. The actors bring something completely fresh and practical to it. There's nothing fanciful. That's where you really make a film, in rehearsal.
The film begins with the emerging relationship involving Kate and Patrick, but soon the sub-plot involving the child molester played by Jackie Earle Haley becomes just as important. Here's a character who's under siege, protected only by his elderly mother, and then she dies under stress from defending him, and he's left completely isolated. You get a sense of just how fragile the bonds are that hold any of our lives together, and how isolated we are when those bonds are broken.
That was what struck me about Tom's book. There are two things going on. The first is people judging each other and judging themselves, people ghettoizing each other and pigeon-holing each other, because they haven't figured out their own identity. The second is the matriarchy that runs through every relationship in that story. When Ronnie experiences that loss, he realizes how thin that line is between a meaningful relationship with another human being or being completely isolated.
Let's talk about adapting a work of literature for the screen. Can you cite any successful examples of the transition from page to screen being done well?
I'll mention them in the holiest sense, removing myself from even touching the hem of the gown of these movies.
To Kill a Mockingbird
. I think Horton Foote
probably wrote the greatest screen adaptation of all time from Harper Lee
. You might say Great Expectations
, but: Oliver Twist
. That's a pretty terrific adaptation in black and white with Alec Guinness
wearing a big putty nose playing Fagan.
Certainly A Clockwork Orange
; even The Shining
. Maybe Stephen King
wasn't very happy with that adaptation, but you could argue that it was a hell of an adaptation.
You worked with Tom Perrotta on Little Children. You don't always get the chance to work with the original author on these projects. Certainly Dickens wasn't around to help David Lean. What made it work?
I thought that he would be a good person to write with. It turned out that he was. I knew, sitting down with him, that it would be better to work with
him. I didn't have to worry about him looking over my shoulder, wondering what he thought of the script. I had him in the room with me.
In the process, some screenwriters and directors worry about what they can't keep, because you have to throw out so much to compress a novel into a film.
Part of what's really beautiful about the book is that here are very long digressions, almost Tristram Shandy
-like digressions that are very long and very funny, incredibly entertaining, all back story, and they go on forever. But you'd be hard-pressed to try to do that in two hours. A lot of my favorite things as a reader in the book were things that we had to decide about early on when we talked about what we would keep and what was to go.
What do you look for in the book? Do you for things that immediately lend themselves to cinema, or do you look for ways in which you can reinvent what's in the book for cinema on your own?
I look for stuff that I can't stop thinking about and that interest me for two or three reasons - and that I know there are a hundred more hiding around the corner that hopefully, in the course of this very long process, two or three years of my life, that I'm going to discover as I round each corner, so that I won't lose interest in it. I want to know that I'm interested enough so that I can't forget about it, but that I also can't digest everything immediately and be able to articulate for myself. If I were able to do that, I probably wouldn't want to spend two years on a project. The worst thing that can ever happen to you is to lose interest. You've got to pace yourself.
Is adaptation your thing? Is it what you want to continue doing, working from literature, from a pre-existing text?
The first film that I ever made was at AFI, and it was completely autobiographical. It was well-received, and probably over-praised by everyone who saw it. In looking for material, you really wear your heart on your sleeve when you make a film and then it's just open for good or for bad, where the chips fall. To do an autobiographical story, you'd better have a good reason to tell it. I've written scripts that are very personal, that I'll probably make when I'm fifty, that I'm not ready to make yet. What I like about reading a book or a story, and hearing someone else's voice that I can relate to, that I recognize myself in, is that ultimately they become personal stories, even if it's by proxy.