THE STATION AGENT - Q&A with TOM McCARTHY
An award winning tale of loyalty, friendship and the misleading nature of first appearances, THE STATION AGENT is written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who recently received the BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay. Originally an actor - he appeared in such films as THE GURU and MEET THE PARENTS - the film marks his debut behind the camera.
When you were shooting THE STATION AGENT did you imagine it would travel all over the world?
I don't think THE STATION AGENT could have had a smaller ambition to start with: I simply wanted to complete my first screenplay. Once I completed it the goal was to try to make it and try to direct it. Even that was less about ambition and more about academic curiosity. I literally thought it would be wonderful to have that experience, to help me in my approach to film acting. So it really began there, and every step has been a really wonderful surprise.
The real strength of the film is that is doesn't conform to expectations, which must surely be really difficult to write.
I've seen many movies where I think writers and/or directors are purposely trying to shock the audience. It's like 'oh you never thought we'd turn left here but we are', and 'you never thought we would push it this far, but we're going to'. To me that's just as bad as falling into a formula. How I approached it was just letting Fin's character and his experience play out in as natural and organic a way as possible. So I was never really trying in any way to force the action. Rather like Fin I wasn't in a rush to get anywhere, I just wanted to go along on the journey.
Was the character of Fin originally supposed to be a dwarf?
Not at all. I think there's a difference between writing for a character and acknowledging who that character is, in terms of race or height or sexuality or whatever it might be. But then the idea is not to let whatever trait that is define that character, or stereotype them. Like 'he's the black kid from the ghetto', 'or the prostitute with a heart of gold', that becomes very clichèd very quickly. With Pete we do acknowledge his dwarfism very quickly but it's not his defining characteristic. He's a multi dimensional character, and you can't ignore it. What we really set out to do was to not sentimentalise that fact, and not let it define either the character or the story.
Of course it doesn't matter how tall Peter Dinklage is, he's obviously a very fine actor.
People constantly say what a great thing I've done for Pete here, but that's bull. I have a lot of friends who are actors, both good and bad, and I would never have put this guy in my film if he wasn't a great actor. The first thing I considered when I thought of him was how he'd connect to the material. Then I asked myself if he could do it, does he have the acting chops? I had to think about it for about 30 seconds, because it was a given. And I wouldn't say that about everybody I know as an actor. It's not an easy job, but I knew Pete has it. He's confident, he has a wonderful work ethic and he can do this. I think he gave such a beautifully nuanced performance.
Do you see a lot of him in Fin?
Actually he's nothing like the character. Pete's so charming and funny, he's much more outgoing and ironic. He's got a wicked wit and we had to strip him of a lot of that. The character of Fin is not armed with irony or sarcasm - it's just not in his repertoire, but Pete can say so much with just a look. We had to really contain his sense of humour for this.
But the strength of the film is that it's not a one man show, isn't it?
As an actor I know that you're only as good as the people you're acting with, and no one character can carry the film. For me it was always going to be an ensemble movie. This was a perfect example of actors playing off each other and sharing a scene, knowing when to hold the ball and when to run with it. I think they all do that beautifully.
Patricia Clarkson seems to be at the height of her powers right now, especially in light her recent Oscar nomination. What was it that made you cast her?
Patty is someone I didn't know, though I had met her a couple of times in New York. But I was a huge fan of her work. I was writing this character and she came to mind and I thought 'absolutely, she has to do this'. I could hear her voice, and I knew I wanted Olivia to be from this sort of WASPy, upper middle class New Jersey world that I knew growing up. Physically Petty represented that to me, but emotionally she brought so much more to the character. She brought a real complexity and depth to the character, a rawness and yet it was quite grounded as well.
She plays the role with incredible subtlety, doesn't she?
I remember at one point one of my producers - who shall remain nameless - said to me 'I don't think she's really trying that hard'. But Patty doesn't know 'not trying', she bleeds acting. What is true, is when you watch her film a scene you might not be sure it's all there, but then you get in the editing room and you realise what a subtle and seasoned film actress she is.
The film was made incredibly quickly in 20 days, but the remarkable thing is that it doesn't show on screen.
We just stuck to the script and the tempo that gave us. People ask me if I wish I had acted in the film too. My first answer is 'of course I do, now it's a big hit and these guys are all getting big jobs'. I'd be lying if I said otherwise. But there's just no way I could have been, because as a first timer I was a frantic mess. You're juggling a hundred things, on a very small budget and in a very small amount of time. I couldn't imagine suddenly getting in front of the camera, I would have been a vibrating blur. It just wouldn't have worked. What these actors did was they arrived at this place in New Jersey, and they stayed in that world.
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