The Pyramid of Power: Todd Field on “Tár”

By Robert Koehler 

After a protracted absence, Todd Field is back, and with a film that more than compensates for the wait. However, Tár shouldn’t be gauged in terms of some value system based on the number of years that Field has gone without a new movie (16, following his second feature, Little Children [2006]), any more than the gap of years between new works by Field’s mentor, Stanley Kubrick, should have been a measure for his movies. Tár is, on its own and without any context for this particular filmmaker, a gigantic and bold film spilling over with ideas, emotions, and a sneakily transgressive notion that cinema can still express the biggest concepts on the most personal level while delivering a weighty entertainment. 

It isn’t that Field has just stepped into the batter’s box and swung for the fences—though he has indeed done that—but that he has done so in such a precise way. Tár arrives at a moment when the art-cinema movie meant to play in larger venues than “specialty” houses, cinematheques, cine-clubs, museums, or festivals is being declared, effectively, dead. With a backer like Focus Features and a star like Cate Blanchett, Field knows that he has a wider range of responsibilities and pressures than fine-cinema artisans who know they will never be in an Oscar race. Given this, his movie is all the more astonishing for its brazen artistic daring on every level, never mind its willingness to run full throttle into the messy culture-war battles over workplace sexual harassment and how these intersect in complicated ways with the long-overdue elevation of women to positions of real power in culture and business.

This is Field’s first original produced screenplay, following a filmmaking career in which he’s collaborated with or adapted many serious fiction writers, including Andre Dubus (whose story “Killings” he adapted for In the Bedroom [2001]), Tom Perotta (Little Children), Joan Didion (a political thriller titled As it Happens), Boston Teran (his Mexican Revolution novel, The Creed of Violence), and Jonathan Franzen and David Hare (an unmade streaming series titled Purity). Most of these projects are unmade or discarded (accounting for much of the time in which Field has been out of view), but given that Tár is such a notable leap forward from his fine two previously completed features, the sensitive viewer can possibly detect traces of all of that unrealized work in this one. This is particularly true in how the film persistently operates on multiple levels at once, much more along the lines of a novel than a conventional narrative feature. Immediately, in the odd and instantly dislocating opening shot that both aesthetically and thematically bookends the equally destabilizing closing shot, a cell-phone screen image captures Blanchett’s conductor-composer Lydia Tár in her seat in a plane’s first-class section along with snarky and disturbing DMs about her. Who is sending them? Who is responding? The answer arrives much later, but the point isn’t so much to sow the seeds of a mystery, but rather to declare that in the analogue-heavy world of classical music—in which Tár is a superstar—another, digitally driven, online, social-media world is gradually taking over and draining her of power. 

For it is power that first defines the character of Tár in Field’s conception, and it is this which declares her as a protagonist from whom we might want to keep some wary distance. Nearly every scene in the movie’s first half presents a different facet of her Shakespearean-sized character, a highly complex weave of imperious confidence, intimidating intelligence, cultural savoir faire, gnawing insecurities, pernicious bullying, disarming affection, political craftiness, and profound cowardice. When we first see her, in a moment when Blanchett provides a glimpse of Lydia’s off-stage jitters, she quickly shifts from a bundle of nerves to skilled interviewee with The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, whose Q&A intro can be summed up by the Lydia Tár Twitter account: “EGOT winner. Chief Conductor of Berliner Philharmoniker. Forthcoming book Tár on Tár available for pre-order now. Certified U-Haul Lesbian. Petra’s father.” She’s about to record Mahler’s massive Fifth Symphony as the completion of a Mahler cycle for Deutsche Grammophon, and oh, by the way, overhaul key positions inside Berlin’s artistic brain trust, and, later, scramble to try and cover up a sex-abuse scandal with a gifted former pupil who has killed herself. As head of the Berlin orchestra, Lydia has reached the pinnacle of classical music, and she knows it—and, again, Blanchett allows a few moments in which this massively egotistical artist is amazed that she’s made it. 

Like everything else in Tár, two realities are clashing at once: the outward and lusty embrace of power, embodied perfectly in the form of a commanding, physically strong symphony conductor, and the inward fissures of surprise that she’s here at all. The benefits of humility and vulnerability grounding any healthy artistic practice has bled out of this woman, perhaps out of the necessity of imposing her will in her male-dominated profession (something that Field rigorously infers and doesn’t dramatize), perhaps more deeply because of severe personal defects. Lydia is not unlike the Berlin home that she shares with Sharon (Nina Hoss), her spouse and concertmaster, and their adopted six-year-old daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic): a warren of Brutalist passageways and spaces bounded by hard stone walls and surfaces, and, outside, a grey Berlin sky that’s insistently cold and foreboding. Even the manner in which Field frames the intimate relationship of audience seating to the performing stage inside the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall suggests that Lydia is being surrounded, or trapped, or is deluded as to her actual power and imperviousness to outside forces. 

This, combined with her hypersensitivity to sound—and the nocturnal disturbances that grow to disrupt her sleep and her subconscious mind, breeding a creeping paranoia—create something remarkable: a wildly contradictory protagonist exposed, through cinematic means, in all her beauty and horror, a perfect subject of a tragic fall from what Field terms a “pyramid of power” where the desired career destination is a hellhole of deceits, abuses, and self-destruction.

Cinema Scope: The viewer might wonder what came first in the creation of the script: the extremely complicated character of Lydia Tár—whose very name is a personal invention, the world of contemporary classical music—or the drama surrounding Lydia. Or was it something else?

Todd Field: It was the character. The character had been haunting me for ten years or more. At different periods, I sat with this character and wondered if I could do anything with it. All of the writing I’ve done since 2005 has involved adapting existing work, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, which could be fortunately with authors of that material. But this character was always mocking me on my shoulder or standing on my desk. 

At the beginning of March 2020, [Focus Features chairman] Peter Kujawski and [Focus vice chairman] Jason Cassidy spoke with me. They had been talking about doing a film that involved a male conductor, and I told them that wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. I had agreed that I would write something for them, and they had told me that I could write whatever I wanted. That was hugely liberating, particularly in that moment when the world had just locked down in the pandemic; I wasn’t going anywhere. So, I wondered what I wanted to write about, and there was this character staring me in the face. I thought, “Okay, so she’s a conductor.” And everything followed from that. 

There’s an apocryphal story about Stravinsky when he came to Hollywood: everybody came to him saying, “Maestro, you can write anything you want,” and he said, “No, I actually can’t do that. You have to tell me what you want. Do you want a Symphony in B flat, or do you want a small quartet piece? I need a container in which to pour whatever my efforts are.” This was a little like that. It was a good thing to have that form of a conductor, because it was the perfect position to put her in, since her character had to do with hierarchy and power. So, visually—forget about the sound aspect—you have a pyramid of power and she’s sitting at the tippy-top. This job provided a good way for me to walk around that pyramid and see how it’s formed, and why she’s on top, and who’s on the bottom, and considering the cost–benefit for being involved in that pyramid. One thing followed the other.    

Scope: The role is so huge and dominating—only a Bette Davis or a Glenn Close could have played her in an earlier era. Was it clear to you who would play her?

Field: It was always Cate. I knew that from the beginning. I don’t know why. When you read fiction, you tend to make the movie in your head, and you have a composite of human beings in the roles of those characters. You don’t really want to be thinking of actors when you’re adapting. About ten years ago, Joan Didion and I had been working on a script for quite a while, and Cate wanted to play the character we had in mind for her. We met in New York to talk about it, but that film never happened. Still, out of that discussion, I could tell that she would be an absolutely extraordinary collaborator, so I was desperate to work with her if I had the chance. 

That’s probably why she showed up the first day I was writing. I had her name on a Post-it on my desk, and said “Hello” to it every morning. When I submitted the script to Focus, the first thing they told me, surprisingly, is that they wanted to do the movie, and the second thing was asking me if I had anyone in mind for the role—they weren’t suggesting anyone. I’m a superstitious person, as my children will tell you, and I told them, “No, I have no idea.” Focus didn’t have a list of any particular actors. Letting me write whatever I wanted without giving any notes or anything was a very unusual situation, to say the least. They were being incredibly generous and respectful, and I was trying to live up to that.

Scope: Can you describe your creative process with Blanchett?

Field: Once Cate said she’d do the role, we got right to work. We were going to be together in Berlin. I turned in the script in July 2020; she read it in August, agreed to it, and then we were going to start in October 2020. We were going really fast. Then there was a second lockdown in Berlin, and we had to pivot since I wanted to film in November, shoot our interiors ahead of time—anything you could see out the window would have to be in November, because I wanted to have that flat sky, the leafless trees you get in Berlin that time of year. By necessity we had to wait a year, because of the weather. During that period of time, Cate made two other films; we also hadn’t seen each other face to face in over ten years, so we were just on the phone together just starting to work. We had a year to do that. By the time we got on the ground together in Berlin in 2021, much had been discussed and worked through. 

The challenges in terms of what was necessary for Cate to play the role were manifest. She was going to have to play Bach on the piano; she was going to do an American accent; she was going to speak German; she was going to have to conduct. She would do a myriad of practical tasks just to be able to play the character. The other part was working through who this character was. That really changed throughout the year as we brought on other collaborators, like Hildur Guðnadóttir to compose the score, Nina Hoss to play Sharon, Noémie Merlant arriving to play Lydia’s assistant Francesca, and then Sophie Kauer, the cellist that our casting director Avy Kaufman found to play Olga. The conversation was enlarged. We had very talented, very sharp brains. 

By the time we got to the point of rehearsing with the Dresdner Philharmonie, it turned out that the only available window for them was at the top of our schedule. I’d originally wanted to do all of that at the end. This meant that we had to do all of the most technical work at the beginning. I would normally have three-plus weeks of rehearsal with my cast before shooting, but half of that was split with an accompanist in Berlin before we went to Dresden, and Cate rehearsing in front of a mirror with her conducting coach, Natalie Murray Beale, and working out the music details with Nina on violin and Sophie on cello. It was a real monster to start with. We all jumped off the cliff together and hoped we’d grow wings on the way down. Because of all of this, the year that Cate and I had together turned out to be incredibly important in terms of having the space to be able to talk about the character, and not worry about the performance and skill aspects that she would have to later have at her fingertips.

Scope: It’s pretty remarkable to consider, because the viewer is aware of observing a performance onscreen while also being involved in the story. This is heightened by the movie’s extreme attention to the myriad details of the profession and the Berlin institution, down to things like photographing the DG cover.

Field: Well, after all, it is a rehearsal film. We meet Lydia when she’s talking with Adam Gopnik in the public Q&A—already, that’s a performance. We’re meeting someone who’s playing a role, and then we see her again, at a lunch, and she seems different here. And then we see her in the classroom, and she seems again very different. By the time she gets home, it feels like Zeus has come down from Mt. Olympus and is just brushing his teeth or something—we’re seeing that this person is made of flesh and blood. I agree with what you’re saying: there are all these masks that she’s wearing, and we see one mask after another at the beginning, so there is a meta part of that, certainly. And when she’s standing in front of the orchestra, she’s performing for them as well: she’s instructing the orchestra, and later, that orchestra is almost like judge and jury with her standing in the box testifying before them. 

But I don’t feel as much a wonder at the actors’ skill sets, because I was too involved with that process. Any actor would say this, that the actor’s job is invisibility, in the same way that you shouldn’t notice the visual effects.

Scope: The movie allows us to consider how interpretive art is different from creative, or originalist, art. I was thinking after my first viewing that you may have drawn parallels between the interpretive art of acting, from your past life as an actor, and that of performing composed music, as well as the risk of the interpretive actor and musician drifting into a kind of mania—the process by which, say, an actor can lose herself in the role. Did any of this seep into the conception of the character and the story?

Field: It’s an interesting question. I understand the parallels between the actor and performer that you’re drawing, between an actor and musician or conductor. As an actor, you’re interpreting other people’s music, so to speak, just as a conductor is also interpreting other people’s music. Having respect for the playwright is fundamental for the actor, which can be quite different in film, since screenplays are meant to be more plastic and malleable. But this conductor is dealing with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony—that’s like dealing with Shakespeare or Chekhov, a foundational text. If you look at the Fifth Symphony, the very first thing Tár is conducting is the funeral march section. There’s a clarion call that she conceives as coming from the wings; she’s trying to push that call of death even further away from her. There are these wild love themes in there as well—there’s a cultural cauldron inside the work, a mixture of different emotions and themes, and there are incidents running through the symphony that she’s interpreting at that moment in time. There are different masks in every movement of that symphony, and that’s what we’re dealing with—we’re dealing with this period of time, and she’s moving through that period of time focused on those matters.

Scope: The tragedy in Tár traces Lydia’s fall from the pinnacle where we see her at the beginning, and the essence of the tragedy may be how she loses touch with the artist’s inherent responsibility to remain humble. The humility she describes in Bach in the amazing sequence at Julliard, or that same sense when she watches back her recordings of her hero Leonard Bernstein and his Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra, and how far she’s drifted from the original idealism he expresses.

Field: Yes, she stumbled on something as a young person that she saw would be her personal salvation, and she embraced it in a very pure way that brought her joy and made her feel conscious and empowered and that was an escape hatch from her humble origins. It allowed her to summit a mountain that people living around that mountain would never have allowed themselves to imagine because they knew how hard it would be to climb. The problem with her is that she’s gotten to the top of the mountain, and the top of that mountain isn’t pure: it’s a pyramid, and that pyramid is on the shoulders and backs of many other people who keep the promise of that pyramid intact. She’s sitting on top of a bureaucracy, and she has to serve that position and that position is political; it can be very cold and very nasty, and a lot of it has nothing to do with making art. It’s the Peter Principle, right? She’s high enough now to be ruined. She was a great musician and a great artist, but she probably should never have held that kind of power in that sort of place, and that wasn’t her goal in the first place. We’re meeting her at a particular moment in her life, when she’s been doing this long enough that she’s drifted into a place that’s very different from when she was as a girl watching Leonard Bernstein.

Scope: The ideal of art is how it can bring out our better selves, elevate us, but here we see the opposite. Has making the film affected your view of art-making, making you a little more skeptical of that ideal, or has it maybe reinforced that ideal? 

Field: Well, Bertolt Brecht said that art isn’t a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it. I think that’s very true. Stanley Kubrick famously said that anyone who’s had the privilege to make a motion picture knows what a magnificent experience it is. That’s also true. But I think that having that kind of freedom of expression is extremely rare in certain areas, especially when you’re being backed by quantifiable forces, as opposed to being a young person doing something for the simple pleasure of doing it. 

Scope: You have money involved and greater responsibilities, a studio division backing you, and many people around you. Many livelihoods are involved. 

Field: Yeah, that’s a very powerful thing, and no matter how much freedom you’ve been given, there’s that reality that never leaves the room. This is where I really envy my fiction-writing friends, who can just sit down at their desk with their pen and paper or computer and that’s it. Same with painters or sculptors. This discipline involves a lot more people’s lives, so it’s a much more complicated business than showing up at your work desk every day. And it’s more than what a symphony conductor faces, because you’re playing music that’s never been played before, and you have a much greater chance of crashing and burning. How do you try to get everybody inside the tent to do the same thing when most of those people are going to leave your film and go work on another film, and another film? You’re not handing them Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, you’re handing them a script you wrote, and they may be rightly skeptical or don’t fully understand, and you have to explain it to them properly—all of these things. There’s a real challenge in making a film of any size. It’s not for the faint of heart. I wish I was cut out for different stuff, because I probably wouldn’t make more films. It takes a great deal out of me to make a film; I don’t know that I’ll ever make another one. 

Scope: Another film?

Field: I don’t think so. 

Scope: You think this is your final film?

Field: Yes, I think so. 

Scope: Really?

Field: I didn’t think about it until just now. It’s highly likely.

Scope: But that’s how you feel now. Maybe with some time passing, you might be open to making another one.

Field: I suppose that’s possible. I hope it’s possible. 

Scope: Yes, hopefully. Maybe it’s like what Hemingway said, that once the creative well is dry, you need time to let it fill up again. Your film feels like an explosion of all of these things you haven’t been able to let out for 16 years, and you let it all out. Maybe the well needs to fill again? 

Field: It’s not a creative thing for me, it’s really more of a physical thing. I spent a year on a daily basis working with Jonathan Franzen, and in six months we wrote 1,200 pages together. That was as thrilling as anything I’ve had as far as the excitement of freedom of expression, and I’m looking forward to getting in a room with Jon again. The writing part of it, going to the desk every day, that won’t change. The reason I went to the American Film Institute, the reason I started directing—people roll their eyes at this when I tell them, but it’s how I feel—I was taking a vow of chastity in terms of going into an order, the Order of Cinema, and kneeling at an altar that you’ve constructed yourself and praying to this deity which is this cinema material, and putting yourself into an insane head space and making people around you totally insane, until a spirit appears. It’s a very strange thing to do, and it doesn’t come at any small cost to you and the people around you. 

That’s what I mean: it’s not about not having anything to say. If it were nice and easy, I would film all the time. I make commercials all the time, but that doesn’t take much out of me. I like the play, the techniques, experimenting with new equipment that comes out before it ever reaches the feature world, because I’m a technical geek at heart too. But those aren’t my things; those technical tools belong to multinational corporations. But if something is really yours, and really matters—and it had better matter, for the length of time it takes to make a film—you have to give it everything. And as you get older, you realize how valuable time is, there’s only so much time in that hourglass. I’m not in my twenties or thirties anymore—I’ll be 60 in year and a half. You start thinking about these things.