Tod Williams interview
Tod William's first feature, The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (sadly not available in the UK), brought this director to prominence when it was selected for the official competition at the Sundance Film Festival 1999. Despite his relative inexperience, Williams was chosen to adapt and direct John Irving's novel A Widow For a Year, the first 183 pages of which form the basis of The Door in the Floor.
John Irving's work had been previously translated to the screen with The World According to Garp starring Robin Williams and Glenn Close and The Cider House Rules, which won Irving an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
The Door in the Floor is released on DVD this week and was nominated for two independent Spirit awards (Best male lead - Jeff Bridges and Best Screenplay - Tod Williams). Jeff Bridges was cited as one of the year's best performances in the Village Voice Film Critics' Poll.
LF: Can you explain how you came to work with John Irving's novel A Widow For a Year?
TW: I was writing something of my own - and struggling with it - which dealt with similar themes of loss and it was set in part of the world that I know and love. I read John's book one night, to take my mind off it and I realised that that was the version of the story I wanted to tell. Then, it was a question of how do I get the rights to it?
My first film [The Adventures of Sebastian Cole], while successful in its own right, didn't put me on the same level as John; at the time, John had just won the Oscar for Cider House Rules and A Widow for One Year was his best-selling novel of all time - so it was hard to figure out how to get to him.
But I hooked up with a terrifc New York production company at the time, Good Machine, because they'd done a movie called The Ice Storm, and I thought that The Ice Storm could be a reference point for what I wanted to do. It was the kind of movie that I wanted to make out of John's book, compared to some of the movies [of his books] which had been made which were bigger. I found out that John was no longer interested in selling his movies to the studios. He was just interested in seeing them being made in a way that he liked.
LF: Why was that? Was he simply disenchanted with the studios?
TW: Certainly, at the beginning of his career he needed money. And I think that [now] he'd achieved enough success that he didn't need to do something that would make him uncomfortable, for money. He loves movies, but I think it's more fun for him to believe that the movie's going to be good.
LF: Do you mean 'good' in an 'authentic' sense?
TW: Well, I think that he's pretty open about that… I mean, in the end, some people might think it weird that I threw away two-thirds of the novel. One might have expected him to object to that. But he didn't.
LF: How tough was it to translate the book to the screen?
TW: I think that where a lot of adaptations go wrong is they look at a book and say: 'people love this book so let's make a movie of it' for some kind of audience who are too lazy to read. So, then you're putting the cart before the horse, in my mind. If I hadn't seen the movie in John's book, I wouldn't have gone and thought: "Boy, I need to figure out how to get a movie out of this book." Do you know what I mean?
LF: Sure. Are you bringing Irving's work to a wider audience?
TW: I kind of doubt it. [laughs] I wonder how many people have watched The Door in the Floor compared to how many people bought that novel? You can't assume that you can change the way people go and watch movies.
I think the same people can read a book and get a lot out of it, as [the] people who go to a movie to get away for two hours from their life. There are people out there who remember movies that are different and I hope there are enough of those people out there to basically allow me to do what I want to do.
The studios always try to work out how to market the film to an audience. Sometimes the best responses you get are from people who don't fit the market or target, you know? I certainly don't think that this is an easy movie to market. But it helps that the guy who helped me with this movie is also the head of the studio. Not many people realise that James Schamus [head of Focus Features] is also the author of all of Ang Lee's work.
Every movie has it's own different requirements. One of the things I'm working on now is kind of a big action movie - in that case, you want somebody to who knows how to make a teaser that going to get everybody excited about six months in advance. So it's different things for different movies.
LF: Are you allowed to say what action movie that is?
TW: Probably not [laughs]
LF: Did you have much input into the casting of the film?
The good thing about being the director is that you can take credit for everybody else's brilliant ideas [laughs]. The way Focus Features works is that it's a filmmaker-driven company. I had Jeff Bridges in mind from the very first time I read the book and thought: 'This could be a good movie'. Because I think that he's the finest actor that we have. I think the funny thing is that everybody goes: "Boy, that was his best performance", but the last movie you've seen [of his] is always his best performance.
LF: What made you see him in that role when you first read the book?
TW: The thing I liked about the character was this moral ambiguity; Jeff always looks like a hero, but in all of his roles you never know what he's going to do next. He looks like the leading man, but you never know he's going to win. What I love with great actors is that their unpredictable; always alive, but you never start feeling that: "well, I know what movie I'm in and I know who he is, so I know what's going to happen."
LF: It's almost the antithesis of being a star, isn't it?
TW: It really is. I was thinking about that when I watched Fat City [starring Jeff Bridges, dir. John Huston] last night. There's a boxing match in this movie, but you say: 'I don't know who's going to win this fight'. With any other boxing movie you know who's going win the fight; if you're close to the end the hero's going to win, if you're near the beginning, he's probably going to lose.
LF:What are the key themes that interest you?
TW: Door in the Floor for me is about figuring out what to do with loss. At the time I was working on the film, it became a big theme in my life. In a certain way, you can work through that stuff by putting it into a movie.
LF: It's really early to be looking into my own work. One thing I noticed is that I'm definitely more of a wimp than I thought I was, in the sense that I make movies that are, like sensitive movies, about emotions and stuff. I never thought I was that guy - you sort of find out who you are. In both cases, they're sort of arthouse, wimpy - well, not wimpy, but they're not exactly hard-boiled, tough guy movies.
TW: The other thing I've noticed about my first two films is that they both try to figure out whether people are doing things out of generosity or for self-serving motives and that it's totally impossible to figure it out. At any given moment, somebody could be doing something and it's figuring out selfish and selfless motives, especially for people in relationships that are loving. That's one thing that I think is important to me.
LF: Did you think much about the audience and how they might react to what has been termed the 'European' plot strands, involving an older woman and younger man?
TW: Yeah, I did. I also know that in this country [US] we have a big problem with the little girl saying that line about the dead penis. And it has for some people proven to be an awkward and awful moment.
I think in both films I try to get out of the way. I try to create a world that gives the viewer the opportunity to bring their own wisdom to that assessment. That's probably the most consistent thing that I've noticed that I'd like to do. It's funny, because I worked on this movie for four years, and then when I came to shoot it, there was this spate of 'older woman - younger man' movies in America. And I lost some of my controversial mojo!
In some weird way, that part … interested me very little. I mean it interested me why Marianne would do it, and that John [Irving] had created characters so complex that even in his book, he doesn't give you the answer. I thought that that was extremely compelling, but in terms of how audiences will react - I always underestimate how people…[tails off] John actually told me this about [the reaction to] his work: He finds that he gets good reviews, he gets bad reviews, but the worst reviews he gets are always these rejections on a profound and fundamental level about values in the universe. And then the last line is always something to do with the 'unnecessary sex scene'. As soon as he sees that line, he knows that that's what it's all about [for the reviewer]. I don't know what it'll be like in England, but people here are clearly prudish, but don't want to admit it.
LF: Is that a puritanical aspect of US culture?
TW: There's puritanical, but there's a flip-side to the puritanical thing, which is that it's puritanical-slash-pornographic. We can't do healthy sex here. We can do disgusting - we're the capital of hardcore sleaze - as well as Puritanism. It's the middle we can't do.
I was watching Murmurs of the Heart [Louis Malle's Souffle au Coeur] recently. And I realised that I had stolen unconsciously many, many thing from that film. And specifically his tone. It's the closest thing to what I was trying to achieve with The Door in the Floor. He's so compassionate, he's such a humanist that I hope that I've got some of that.
Wai Mun Yoon