When Cate Blanchett stepped out of her first screening for “ Tár,” she wanted to immediately go back and watch it again.
Sure, she might be a little biased considering she stars in the film ( and learned how to speak German, conduct an orchestra and play piano for the role ), but it’s not an uncommon sentiment either. Writer-director Todd Field’s dense, literate drama about the fall of an artistic genius in a #MeToo scandal is one that begs discussion and another viewing. As Field has said, he sees a new film every time he watches it.
This weekend, “Tár,” which is sure to be a top contender this awards season, is expanding in theaters nationwide. Field and Blanchett spoke to The Associated Press about the inscrutable Lydia Tár, their inspirations and NOT showing her hands playing the piano.
Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: The film introduces Lydia at a New Yorker Festival-type event, with Adam Gopnik reading her introduction to a big auditorium. Was that just a way to give us her bio or is this commenting on the ideas conference industry and its complicity?
FIELD: The important thing was how do we meet her? You know, if you meet her at her very height, in a very public way, there’s an opportunity to see it in the same way that we’re in this interview right now, like we’re trying to have an honest conversation, but we’re performing for you.
BLANCHETT: Hey! This is ME. This is who I am.
FIELD: It’s an aspect of her. Then we see her sitting with her business partner, this investment banker and would be conductor (Mark Strong), and you can tell she doesn’t want to be there. Then you see her roll up your sleeves and she’s teaching, which is the thing that she truly, truly loves doing. But it’s not until 40 minutes into the film that we see her brushing her teeth. Then it’s, “Ah, she’s like me.” We learn a lot of back story about her, but it’s really about how and when we meet the person. There are all kinds of narrative rules about when we’re supposed to meet the person. Syd Field would tell you we have to know by page ten. But that’s not how this thing works. It was important to meet the character as they’re perceived in these other ways before we were allowed to have access to her.
AP: At one of the screenings in Venice, the audience was cheering for Lydia when she’s dressing down her Julliard student for dismissing Bach as irrelevant to him, which I don’t think they’d do on a second watch. Does that response surprise you?
FIELD: I don’t think it surprises me. But what you’re saying, that I don’t think that they would do that on the second watch, that’s kind of the idea. That scene can be seen through many lenses. The lens that we started with was simply the age-old question, if you could speak to younger self, what would you say? I think that this character, when she was 24 years old and in a similar position as Max is at Juilliard when she was at Harvard, she was trying to break the boundaries that were set up in terms of the German Austro canon. But she’s not 24 years old anymore. She’s turning 50.
AP: Though she pushed boundaries, is she also a woman who maybe only achieved this kind of success by playing within the rules of the patriarchy too?
BLANCHETT: That’s part of it. But she believes in the power of her being the exception. Once you surmount a mountain, you think, God, it’s beautiful up here. And the beauty makes you forget how difficult the journey was. She’s a consummate musician. And she’s a believer, a great believer in the grand narratives, in the grand tradition. She’s earned the right to play those big works. It’s the same thing that they teach at college. It’s like, sure, you can abstract, but first you have to learn how to paint the form. You’ve always got a buck against your teachers. But you forget.
AP: This film does a good job at making you feel like an insider in the world of classical music too.
FIELD: There’s not a lot of footage of conductors doing extensive rehearsals and it’s so much more interesting watching them rehearse than watching a performance. Our goal was can we take the viewer and make them feel like they’ve been in the front of the house, in the back of the house, and that they that they’re going through some kind of process with this character?
BLANCHETT: I learned a lot from watching the documentaries (on the likes of Carlos Kleiber, Herbert von Karajan). There are all of these backstage moments I found really fascinating. Abbado, after his first concert when he took over the role of principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, he came off and someone went to talk to him. He was covered in sweat and he moved away and he walked way up the corridor and just stood really still and put one hand against the wall. It was such a lonely, lonely image. You felt the burden that he was carrying, the responsibility for creating the sound and carrying that orchestra to the to that audience.
FIELD: We stole that image for the end.
AP: You cast some professional musicians here, but you also made the radical choice to have your actors, like Cate and Nina Hoss, learn how to play as well.
FIELD: The finest actors I have known and the finest musicians I have known are very similar because they understand very practical principles about touch and tempo and dynamics and sound. It was important that everyone who makes music on screen makes the music. There’s a kind of long-standing sort of joke, well I call it a joke, but maybe Cate feels differently about this, where she get rather bothered that I don’t show her hands at the Julliard scene playing the Bach.
FIELD: If it was Leonard Bernstein or somebody like that, you wouldn’t feel obliged to do it. If you go back and look at those Young People’s Concerts that he did in the 50s at Carnegie Hall, they’re not showing his hands. My point was that the only time we ever feel obliged to show actors hands on pianos is when they’re faking it.
BLANCHETT: Or if it’s for Academy consideration.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.
Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press