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Director Series: Tom McCarthy

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By Bill Desowitz
Actor/writer Tom McCarthy (who appeared regularly on Boston Public) goes behind the directing chair for the first time with the indie fave, Station Agent (currently playing through Miramax). Drawing on his rural New Jersey roots, McCarthy fashions a funny, quirky fable concerning a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) who moves into an abandoned train depot and encounters a neurotic artist (Patricia Clarkson) and an overzealous hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) in overcoming his solitude. McCarthy tells of the crucial below-the-line contributions in a $500,000 film.

Below the Line: Given this was your first feature, the selection of department heads is very crucial, so let’s begin with cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg.
Tom McCarthy: Oliver actually shot a movie about five or six years ago that I acted in called The Citizen. It was an indie that got lost on the shelf and was a nightmare situation, but I thought it was beautifully shot. And Ollie and I became friends on that shoot in Manhattan. It was really our friendship that resulted in this collaboration; in the script process, I gave him the early drafts. He was someone I could trust and respect and wanted to work with. We could just get to the work. I really fought for him because he was in Europe shooting something and I even lost some of my prep time, but his involvement more than made up for that.
BTL: And his style too?
McCarthy: A little bit of both. He has a European style and I was really excited to see it through his lens. He would bring a wonderful texture to it—and he did. Ollie had a great appreciation for story, and I’m thrilled with how the film looks. What distinguishes it from other indies is the look. It has rich, textured look that goes a long way in telling the story.
BTL: What were some of his visual ideas?
McCarthy: First of all, it should be noted that we shot on Super 16, so you really have to work fast, and that’s not a film stock where you can make a lot of mistakes. So accuracy was key. Beyond that, we had talked for two-and-a-half years about the look of the film, referencing a lot of photographers and painters.
BTL: Such as?
McCarthy: Well, [Edward] Hopper was someone we kept coming back to. That solitude and color palette and loneliness. We looked at a lot of O. Winston Link just for his appreciation of trains and the shadow and fable-like quality of his art. There were so many moments when Ollie and I would make split second decisions. We’d set up and let the actors rehearse the scene and let them be comfortable with what they were doing before we imposed anything on them. And we would make adjustments right there. We had to shoot the movie in 20 days.
BTL: Tell me about production designer John Paino.
McCarthy: There’s a bit of magic in how John worked. We did not give him a lot of money and we did not give him a lot of time. So I just know that for the five weeks of preproduction I kept asking John if he could do this and this and this, and he kept nodding his head, saying yes, yes, yes. This may be insane and nothing’s going to get done, but it did. The depot. I mean, the depot is just a work of art. That depot stand was the inspiration for the movie; however, the owner perfectly renovated that depot…it was almost like a Starbucks. And I gave John three days to age that thing inside and out. That depot was the heart and soul of the movie and John was responsible.
BTL: How did you come by John in the first place?
McCarthy: I had one production designer in mind, and I met a lot of production designers, but there was something about John. I usually set up two meetings and John in the first meeting was great. But when he came to the second meeting, he came in with so much information and so much research that he had already committed to the project. And that really won me over. And he would constantly remind me of what I wanted to do originally, and that collaborative spirit – someone that listens and works hard to maintain the original integrity of what we were looking for – was wonderful.
The hotdog truck, “Gorgeous Franks,” makes me laugh. It was so random. I think that wonderful phrase actually came about as a miscommunication between John and I. I saw the truck the night before – they were furiously painting it—and I said, “Oh, my god, it’s gorgeous!” And John came out and I think he interpreted that as “Gorgeous Franks.”
BTL: And costume designer Jeanne DuPont?
McCarthy: Jeannie and I went to Yale together. I went to the drama school and she was a designer, and I literally ran into her before preproduction. I asked her if she was still designing and she said, yeah, for movies, and I asked her if she wanted to work on mine and she said great. I had worked with her on several theater productions, both as an actor and as a director, and we had an immediate rapport. She somehow had this concept of Fin [Dinklage] and Henry [Paul Benjamin] wearing black suits and ties, and it doesn’t, for some reason, come off as strange. And I think that’s because Jeannie combined the nostalgic with the contemporary. It gives the movie a unique look right from the start. She subtly captured every character, including Olivia’s [Clarkson] understated elegance, even with her summer wardrobe of a couple of shirts and a couple of shorts.
BTL: And your editor, Tom McArdle?
McCarthy: Quiet Tom – that’s what I call him. Tom I met in interviews. He’s from New York. I just knew he was right. He’s a very smart guy – comes from a long line of Dartmouth editors that have come to L.A. Tom’s a big fan of ‘70s films – macho and existential – and I thought, this is really a texture to bring to this project. Tom related to the character of Fin. By the time I got to see Tom’s cut, I just knew he got the movie. I had never been in the editing room before for the whole time, and it’s very collaborative. And I respected everything he brought to the table. It was like I went to school again. But Tom knew what I wanted out of the story and my sense of humor and respected that.

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