on the set of “Wakefield
”: Gilles Mingasson
’s many writing credits span from ’90s family favorite “Matilda
” to Oscar-nominated drama “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
.” She made her directorial feature debut with 2007’s “The Jane Austen Book Club
.” Swicord’s new film, “Wakefield
,” intimately follows a suburban man’s decision to withdraw from his own life.
I spoke with Swicord about “Wakefield
’s” unconventional protagonist, the difficulties of launching a career in directing, and her commitment to expanding creative communities.
” opens May 19.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Kelsey Moore.
W&H: I watched the film yesterday, and I found it so interesting and so different from most things that I have seen previously. I felt that it was basically a monologue. Am I right in feeling that way?
Rs: Well, there is a monologue aspect to it because it’s how we see into the internal life of this character, Howard Wakefield
. We have no way of knowing what he’s thinking unless he tells us. So much of the time, we essentially are privy to his thoughts. There are shifts within this. At the beginning, he’s trying to tell you a story about a thing that happened to him. Later, the tense shifts, and we’re in his head as things are happening.
At one point, I pulled out all of the voiceover and looked at how long it was, because I was going to have to create a script that the film’s star, Bryan Cranston
, could then record. It was interesting to see how much of the film you could understand just from what he says.
W&H: It was surprising to see just how little other characters speak. I counted, and I found that the first 47 minutes of the film consists of Wakefield
’s internal monologue. That’s quite a challenge for a director, to put a movie like this together. What where the biggest challenges for you in terms of making a film that essentially focuses on a single voice?
Rs: There were certainly a lot of risks involved in taking this on. I wanted to do something that was hard, and I loved E.L. Doctorow
’s short story. One of the things I’ve always heard about movies is that they aren’t internal, yet so many movies that I’ve watched have felt internal.
So, one of the things I wanted to do was sort of push my own boundaries and see if I could make a film that was subjective and from one person’s point of view. On top
of that, this person would be changing — both perceptibly and imperceptibly — as the story proceeded.
The first challenge was to just have faith that this was a worthy experiment, and that I would figure out how to do it. The other thing that absolutely had to happen was that I had to have an actor that could hold the center of the screen like Bryan Cranston
The casting part was the scariest part for me, particularly because initial conversations with indie films always start the same way: Who can we get that would help us get our financing?
Bryan was first one my list, but at the time that we started having casting conversations, he was mostly known for television; he had been in several different series, including the now very important “Breaking Bad
,” which had not yet reached Europe at this time. So, he didn’t have a lot of international sales value, which is how indie films get financed. That’s sort of the backup plan, knowing that this or that film may always be made whole by its sale to Denmark.
We had to sort of sit it out a bit until “Breaking Bad
” was released in Europe. Then his foreign profile began to rise. He was cast as Dalton Trumbo
in my friend Jay Roach
,” and, having read the script, I figured that he would get an Oscar nomination, which he did.
So, again, it was an act of faith. I just felt that if I had the right actor, he was worth waiting for and fighting for. We got him, and the truth is that it could have gone another way, but Bryan is an unusually responsible actor. He is a man of his word, and a year and a half before we shot, he said, “I will shoot this movie with you.” I did not know him yet, and I had some anxiety about it coming true. It did because he held to his word.
W&H: And now he’s a big, big star.
Rs: He is a big, big star, and he should be. He’s really an amazing actor, director, writer, and producer. There’s nothing that he can’t do. He’s a person with many gifts and a huge heart. Every time I meet someone new that knows Bryan, they tell me some story about one of his wonderful acts of generosity.
W&H: When we are introduced to Bryan Cranston
’s character, he is really not a nice guy. As the film evolves, you see him sort of the shed the world’s masculinity and the toxicity of everyday life, and he kind of goes back to a feral character in some ways. Talk a bit about the evolution of this man from a “master of the universe” to a stripped down state.
Rs: Right. He isn’t that different from the rest of us in the sense that the world has asked a certain role of him. He is enacting that role, so, to his mind, he’s not a bad person. He’s a wage earner who commutes to the city, and he supports his family in the suburbs. He’s rarely there; their lives continue often without him. When he steps out of his life, he discovers how lonely he feels due to his choice to be that guy.
One of the of the first things to happen to him is the opportunity to reconnect and watch his kids. He’s not speaking to or interacting with them, but they are adolescents, so, as he points out to us, they don’t pay much attention to him anyway.
He is also in a marriage that he doesn’t understand. It got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning because of an action that he takes. He remembers it, and at first he finds some kind of amusement in it; he is still in a state of trying to bolster himself by these exploits. As time goes on, he begins to see his wife as less of an object.
There is something in the culture about the possession of women. He is very focused on possessing her — even watching her from afar becomes a way of possessing her. At some point, he realizes that he doesn’t possess her, and he never has. It’s a slow evolution.
It’s funny along the way because it’s meant to be funny, but also because Bryan is very funny. He has that background in comedy. At times, he reminded me of Charlie Chaplin
. I wrote a couple of shots that are homages that that because, in some sense, he became like the Little Tramp.
He really went after finding out what it was to abandon a family, and he had his own reasons for doing that. He took a very deep emotional dive into the logical reasons for someone to step out and leave the family behind. I think that Bryan’s own humanity helped infuse the character in a way that keeps us connected to Howard Wakefield
, even when we want to say, “I would never do that.”
W&H: Do you feel that your role as a writer helped you direct this piece?
Rs: It’s hard to imagine a director I would have given it to if I hadn’t been the director.
W&H: When did you decide direct as well as write? Was that something you knew early on but never got the opportunity? What was the transition like for you?
Rs: I have always wanted to direct. I made short films in the South during my 20s, and this was back when you had to drive your negative from Northwest Florida to Atlanta to get it processed in a lab. It was a cumbersome thing, because I had to scrounge together the short ends of 16 mm film and so forth. It’s much easier now.
But, the obstacles I faced are similar to those which women still face today. The first obstacle is that people don’t think of directors as being women. When I would turn a script in and the studio would ask who should direct, I would say that I would like to direct it. This was always met with a kind of embarrassed silence, and then they would go on and hire someone else.
In many cases, I was able to get a female director hired — just not me. I thought that the problem had to do with my short films, as they are outdated and don’t really show what I can do. So, I made a new short film called “The Red Coat
.” It was the closing film at the Aspen Shortsfest. I thought that, with this substantial piece of work and all of these other screen credits, it would easier to attach myself to a project. But that did not prove to be the case for a very long time.
Eventually producer John Calley
made a deal for me to write and direct “The Jane Austen Book Club
.” But even though it came out with moderate success, no subsequent jobs came my way. It was still very difficult to attach myself as the director of one of my own screenplays.
After trying for a few years, I found “Wakefield
.” I knew this was a film of the right size where I could somehow put together the financing. But, again, the casting was key.
W&H: Do you think that — having first made a film about women and this one is about a man — you will now be looked at differently? Do you feel that this film and its male-centric role is something that you can get a better calling card with?
Rs: I really have no idea. I had some expectations after “The Jane Austen Book Club
” came out because I was surrounded by examples of directors coming out of Sundance with offers to direct franchises. We always see people taking chances on young male talent.
I thought that all you needed to do was exhibit competence, and that if people want to be in business with you, they’ll get in business with you. I found that people didn’t want to be in business with me.
W&H: Do you feel any sense of change now?
Rs: I don’t know. I mean, I’m not holding a lot of expectations. I want audiences to find “Wakefield
.” I made it for audiences to see. I want them to have a big emotional experience like the way I did when I was writing the screenplay.
But, I don’t necessarily think it’ll be a game-changer in terms of people going, “Oh my God. Even though she’s female, she can direct a movie!” They’ve had that opportunity before.
W&H: Why do you think there’s still this fundamental thing in people’s brains where they associate “director” with “man?” What do you think that’s about?
Rs: I don’t think this is just in Hollywood. It’s a systemic problem everywhere. Women are not viewed as serious contenders for important jobs. Every woman has to kind of invent her own path, because the doors haven’t really opened.
W&H: You’re also a member of the writer’s branch of the Board of Governors for the Academy. Talk a bit about your leadership in that and what you think about its efforts to include more women and people of color.
Rs: This has been happening for some years now. Dawn Hudson
— who transformed Film Independent into the powerhouse for indie filmmakers — believes that the industry should be more inclusive. When she became the Academy’s CEO, she found that a number of others on the Board of Governors, shared that view — she wouldn’t have been hired otherwise.
So, given that we now had the leadership, we spent some time rewriting bylaws and taking care of things that should probably have been done previously. We redid our committee structure and other things that are really boring but necessary.
The Academy has been engaged in that process. At the same time, there’s been a constant discussion about how the Academy can help the entertainment business become a more inclusive environment. We decided that every branch would start to look for people who had been overlooked.
It’s important to know that every branch has its own standards for membership. One of things that we found in the writer’s branch is that we had to look at people who were women and minorities and realize that they may not have the three to four writing credits we normally look for — because it’s very hard for them to even get one. We have to instead look at the quality of their work and take a chance.
Now we have a system that wasn’t necessarily in place before. If you haven’t worked at least three times in 30 years, your membership may be up for review. This system allows the Academy to take more risks and admit those who may have not had that many opportunities.
W&H: Right, and you’ve made a huge change.
Rs: We have. It’s been a worldwide concerted effort. Over the last three years, we’ve let in enough people that now we have to turn outwards to industry and ask, “Where are the others?” Because if you don’t employ them, we can’t let them into the Academy.
One of these efforts is the Academy Gold Program, which was just announced this year. It is an inclusion program spearheaded by Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley. It is essentially creating a hub for internships through the Academy; 19 companies have already signed on, and we supply them with interns. We won’t see that change next year, or even three to four years from now — but ten years from now we’ll see a big difference because of this internship program.
W&H: One of the things that keeps going through my head is the “lost generation” of women — those female directors and creatives who just didn’t have opportunities — and how we can prevent that from continuing to happen. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Rs: Well, there’s still time for some of the so-called “lost women.” The hardest thing to overcome is that internal feeling of impossibility.
It’s kind of the feeling I’ve had. My husband has started watching “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and I’ve watched a few episodes. I recently told him that I wouldn’t be watching anymore of this, because I feel that the message thus far is that resistance is futile.
I don’t think that resistance is futile. In fact, I think that it’s the only thing that has gotten women where they are.
So, in terms of a “lost generation,” there is still time for many people to put their work out there and not take no for an answer. But, women do have to help each other in order to make that come true.
W&H: I think you should give “The Handmaid’s Tale” another chance because the resistance is coming.
I saw that you’re involved with Hedgebrook and their screenwriter’s lab over there. Tell us a bit about why you wanted to do that.
Rs: Hedgebrook is an interesting community. They serve a fairly small group of people every year; there are only six cabins that people stay in. But, they serve a very important group of women. For one thing, half or more of the people who receive residencies are women of color.
They have a mission to create the room of one’s one, to make a space, to caretake. They’ve been doing it for about 40 years, but they had never really welcomed screenwriters. They were interested in doing their first masterclass on screenwriting, and asked me to teach it. I did because I thought that their project was really extraordinary.
Since then, we’ve created a screenwriting workshop, which is an inclusion workshop. We’ve only done it for two years, and every year we have to get the money together. So far, it’s come from a group of women called the Woolf Pack, which came together out of the Humanitas programs under Cathleen Young
To me, the program isn’t just about serving the six residents. It is about creating a sort of movable program that can travel to the cities in order to do some of the workshops they do at Hedgebrook, but on a much larger scale.
Hedgebrook is also starting a documentary program. Holly Morris
, who did “The Babushkas of Chernobyl
” is helping with its design and recruitment.
She and I have put our heads together, and we’re going to try to expand this mission to cities like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles — wherever there is a creative community of women who don’t have the same access to these kinds of collaborative workshops.
W&H: I’m very interested in continuing to build the pipeline and creating opportunities for inclusion and new voices. Okay, last question: What do you want people to think about as they leave the theater after seeing “Wakefield
Rs: I want them to think about their own lives.
” Writer-Director Robin Swicord
on How She Got the Movie Made and Breaking into Directing was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.