Writer-director Todd Field made two acclaimed films in the early 2000s and then disappeared from the big screen for 16 years. “Tár,” about the scandalous downfall of a classical music conductor, marks his return. The movie burst forth in dramatic fashion: Its screenplay took him only three months to write.

In this episode of “The Envelope,” Field breaks down how a Górecki composition inspired the internal rhythm of lead character Lydia Tár and discusses what it was like collaborating with star Cate Blanchett, who “always wants to do things that are dangerous.” He also explains why he’s delighted by reactions to his film — even those that are ferociously dismissive. Listen now wherever you get your podcasts.

Mark Olsen: Hello, and welcome to another episode of “The Envelope.” We’re fresh into 2023, and our guest is sure to help us start the new year off right. Today we’re talking with writer and director Todd Field, whose latest film, “Tár,” has some really solid Oscar and awards season buzz. It’s an exploration of an artist’s fall from grace.

Yvonne Villarreal: Yeah, the movie stars Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár, this renowned musical conductor whose list of achievements is dizzying. We watch as Lydia’s career falls apart when her use and abuse of power comes to light.


Todd wrote and directed the film after a 16-year absence from filmmaking. His last movie was “Little Children,” which got three Oscar nominations, and critics say “Tár” is a triumphant return.

But the truly stunning part of all of this, Mark, especially as we face our own story deadlines today: He wrote “Tár” in three months. Three months! It’s quite the career turnaround for Todd, whose start in Hollywood was as an actor.

Filmmaker Todd Field.
Filmmaker Todd Field.
(Associated Press)

Olsen: Yeah, it’s funny: The sort of famous Quentin Tarantino monologue about “Top Gun” actually is delivered to Todd — like he’s the other person in that scene — which is particularly kind of funny in this, the year of “Top Gun’s” return. I think to most people, though, Todd as an actor, you think of the piano-playing Nick Nightingale in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, “Eyes Wide Shut” — a weird, marvelous, provocative movie. Which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad way to describe “Tár.”

Villarreal: Yes, exactly. And I have to give honorable mention to his role in “Twister,” which is a personal favorite of mine and which we do discuss later in the conversation. But I have to say, you know, he’s as thoughtful and intentional and coy as you might expect when discussing “Tár.”

So let’s get to the conversation.

Villarreal: Todd, thank you so much for joining us today.

Todd Field: Well, thank you for having me.

Villarreal: So, Todd, this is the first film you’ve written and directed in 16 years, but you were always busy. You spent much of those 16 years working on projects that ultimately didn’t make it to screen. What was it about “Tár” that was different?


Field: Well, uh, that somebody said yes, you know. Simply as that, really. But it was really Peter Kujawski and Kiska Higgs at Focus basically saying, “Write whatever you like.” That was a huge responsibility to be paid that privilege and respect to write whatever you wanted. And you know, I hadn’t written an original screenplay in years because typically that kind of thing is done on spec and I’ve never had a four-month runway where I didn’t have a lot of bills to pay. So most of my writing life is based on adaptation. So it was a very different opportunity, and one that I feel very, very lucky to have had.

Villarreal: Yeah, ‘cause what is it like to get a call like that? I know for me as a writer to be told, “You have free rein, do what you want,” it could seem freeing, but I would also feel so much pressure, feel handicapped by that freedom. How is that for you?

Field: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I remember our eldest child, our daughter, when she went away to the New School in New York City and she had called me up at one point and said that she was thinking of doing something very practical with her life that involved numbers. I went on a sort of polemical, long speech trying to tell her that that was exactly what I wouldn’t pay for and that she had to try to do more creative endeavors. I said, “You can do whatever you want.” And she said, “Do you understand what kind of pressure you’re putting on me? I don’t want that kind of freedom.”

Villarreal: Yes.

Field: You know, I felt a bit of my daughter’s pangs by giving a sort of similar speech from Peter and Kiska. On the other hand, I’ve been very privileged to work with some incredible writers over the years and I’d enjoyed that a lot, but I’ve also envied their solitude and their ability to world build from ground zero. That’s something when you’re adapting material that you only have a sort of vague acquaintance with. So that was incredibly exciting, and it was a very rich experience.

Villarreal: Where did the idea for Lydia Tár come from? I know it’s a character that’s been percolating in your mind for some years. Was there a part of the character that revealed itself to you first?

Field: Well, she’s sort of been waving at me for about 10 years. You know, I think this happens for a lot of writers, you know, and sometimes those are characters wind up in fiction if you’re a fiction writer. But if you’re not, there’s no place to house them other than a notebook.


There was sort of a vague idea to write something about classical music that involved a conductor. That was sort of it. Other than that, the studio really had no idea, nor did they tell me what they wanted. So it was a perfect opportunity to take this character and just say, “All right, here we go. It’s time.”

[Clip from “Tár”: LYDIA TÁR: Please please please please. You must watch. It’s got to be like just one person singing their heart out.]

Villarreal: Why did you choose the hyper-specific world of classical conducting?

Field: Well, the hierarchy is quite clear. The lines of power are very understandable. For someone standing at the front of that orchestra, it’s incredible. It’s the closest thing to being a god on Mount Olympus, you know, throwing down thunderbolts at mere mortals. So, that, along with what would be involved with any kind of cultural, bureaucratic machine — you know, the nods and winks and the decision making processes that involve other people, and them benefiting from power or not.

Villarreal: How did you decide to also take it to another country with another language? That would seem like an added challenge.

Field: There’s something about Berlin that’s not like anywhere else on the Earth. Anyone that’s spent time in Berlin will tell you that you can’t turn left or right without seeing somebody pulling a suitcase down the street. And those people are not tourists. They’re people that live there and commute to other cities and countries for business for a reason: because they love it there. So there’s a very particular kind of crossroads of many arts — fine and otherwise— and there has been a tradition for that for a long time.

But for classical music, it’s the very omphalos, everything’s sort of seated, and it’s the hub. Everything sort of spokes out from Germany. So that was the main reason. You know, it’s also this idea of, if you’re going to set something in this milieu and you’re going to have this character be an American and you’re going to have this character want to climb to the very heights, that is German-Austro territory. That is where Leonard Bernstein went and had his sort of last hurrah. There’s a reason for that. That’s where that music comes from.

Villarreal: The thing that I did immediately after exiting the theater, in addition to sort of sitting with my thoughts, was wanted to listen to Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 on my way home. It plays such a central role in the film. Why did you decide on Mahler?


Field: So, again, if you’re looking at an American, that’s sort of like setting their sights on a sort of heroic figure for themselves — in this case, this character’s obsessed with Leonard Bernstein — Mahler would be natural. Everything changes with Mahler, you know? I needed to get underneath that, and I needed to understand that.

I read the book “For the Love of Music” by John Mauceri. and John, John had been Leonard Bernstein’s assistant for 15 years. John was allowed to conduct Leonard Bernstein’s own compositions while Bernstein was alive. And he was the person that I was privileged to speak to before I started writing.

I had about three and a half weeks with John, and one of the first questions that John asked me was, “What’s your favorite piece of classical music?” And I said, in a very sort of apologist way, said, “Well, it’s Mahler’s Fifth.” And he said, “Well, why are you being so sheepish about that?” And I said, “Well, you know, everybody knows that.” And he said, “Yeah, everyone knows it for a good reason, you know. No one that’s serious about concert music would ever be cynical about Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It’s important, and here’s why.” And so he really took me through that.

And of course, he was absolutely right. I mean the first piece of conducting we see, the very first downbeat, is Bar 20 of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, and that of course is the Trauermarsch, or the Funeral March. So there’s a lot of foreshadowing for this character. There’s this sort of clarion call that she can hear that’s coming from across a vast landscape, that’s coming for her.

Villarreal: What did that mean for you in terms of writing? Like, what were you listening to while you were developing this project? Or are you someone that needs to sit in silence while you’re working?

Field: I didn’t develop it. I mean I just kind of wrote it in 12 weeks and handed it in, and they said yes. So, very strange situation, very unusual. But I was listening to a lot of music. I mean, one of the pieces I was listening to was a piece of music I’d been listening to for 30 years since I was a, my first year as a fellow at the American Film Institute. That was this piece by Górecki, that the Kronos Quartet recorded that is just a fantastic piece of music. It has a kind of propulsion to it that Hildur Guðnadóttir, our composer, she asked me the same thing, “What were you listening to?” And so we sat down and listened to this. And she said, “Well, that’s 120 beats per minute — bum bum bum bum — so that must be the internal rhythm of this character.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right. That’s exactly why I listened to it.” And she said, “OK, well now, let’s go through the other characters now.” That was a really rich and wonderful experience to be able to work like that, you know, from the inside out.


Villarreal: Why do you think the writing came together so quickly? How does that compare to your other films, which were, you know, of course, adaptation?

Field: I think it went quickly because it was a gigantic opportunity to dive into another world and escape for a minute, you know, from what was going through in the world. It was the beginning of March 2020. It was a lockdown. We were all trying to figure out if there was going to be anything resembling the world that we knew before that.

I’ve talked to other filmmakers who have films out right now, and I think we all had a very similar feeling, like, “Who am I? You know, what do I do?”

Villarreal: Right, hmm. One of the things that makes the music world in the film so authentic and the character of Lydia Tár seem so lifelike is that you blend these fictionalized elements with references to people who really do exist in history, like several famous composers. And of course you have Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker writer, playing himself in the opening scene of the movie. Why did you make that choice?

Field: Um, well, it’s a very simple thing. You know, really, there’s four points of view in the film, essentially. The first point of view is the unknown point of view. We’re seeing her asleep on this private aircraft and somebody’s texting snide comments back and forth, but we don’t know who that someone is. So there’s that point of view. That’s our way in.

The next point of view is fairly objective. We have proximity to her, and that’s seeing her for the very first time going through these sorts of rituals, and trying to prepare herself to go out and perform. That’s what these interviews are. They’re performances. I mean, this is a performance I’m giving to you right now. I’m trying to be charming and educated and impressive and all these things, but there’s a transaction between us.


Villarreal: You’re doing great.

Field: Yeah. I mean, we’re playing roles with one another and we’re in dialogue, but we’re in dialogue for a purpose, and she’s about ready to do this with Adam Gopnik. And the New Yorker talks would be exactly the kind of way to do that and to meet this person and see their ability to perform and to see the self-construction at its absolute before we deconstruct it.

So it was important. It was important because we’re able to see the phoniness behind that too, in so much as her assistant, Francesca Lentini, played by Noémie Merlant, when you see her mouthing what Adam’s trotting out in terms of that biography, you realize exactly how these things work. And it’s business, you know? But I wanted to keep her at arm’s length and get closer and closer and closer to her so that by the time she finally goes home and we see her, you know, brushing her gums and her teeth like the rest of us, that it felt like the most monumentally exciting moment to have that kind of access to her. You know, that’s how I feel because that’s sort of where the film begins. From that moment on, she has feet of clay. She walks among mortals. She’s no longer in these lofty heights, you know?

Villarreal: Hmm. It’s interesting ’cause with that distance, there’s several choices that you’re sort of making that sort of complicates our ability to sort of take a stance on Lydia’s culpability. I mean there’s the fact that Lydia’s a woman rather than a man, that the audience is sort of kept in the dark about the sexual relationship between Lydia and her victims, and we never sort of get that close up to the pain that Lydia experiences after falling from power. Talk about those particular vantage points.

Field: Well, the rules of the film are, again, we’re allowed sort of, four points of view. One of them is omnipotent, which is through some kinds of device. The other one is more objective, where we’re just with her and we’re allowed to experience in real time what she experiences. The third one would be things that we’re allowed access to within her interior life — imagination, dreams, what have you. Those are very sparse, but we do have access to them. And the fourth are really the watching of her assistant, Noémie Merlant, and then when she leaves, that’s really embodied in what would be the heart of our access, which is through Sharon Goodnow, her wife, played by Nina Hoss. So, those are the rules.

And I think when you’re talking about what she may or may have not done, we’re allowed access to what she’s doing in real time. What came before is none of our business. We are not allowed to have that access. We’re dropping in at a very particular moment for her and spending three weeks of her life with her. It’s really just following this character, in this period of time with three weeks, and then a very short denouement. And that’s sort of it. The reason for that is: Any lines that are drawn or conclusions that are drawn, just like in life, are left to us. So that’s sort of the exercise, which is: What do you make of her based on the time that you spend with her? And whatever that is, is kind of the point of the film.

Villarreal: Well, and it’s prompted a lot of conversation and analysis and theories. I mean, there was an article recently over on Slate that argued that the film’s final act might just be happening inside Lydia’s head. Like, what do you think of that reading?


Field: I think all these readings are incredibly exciting and valid insomuch as that they’re articulated by individuals in a really specific manner. And they feel convinced of their opinions. And again, that was the intent behind making this film so that there would be potential for that to happen. So it’s thrilling, you know, to hear people’s different readings. Even readings that are very strongly political or negative or dismissive — but ferociously dismissive, you know? As long as people are engaged, I mean, that’s sort of the point.

Villarreal: So are you aware of what people are saying? Are you someone that reads the reviews or reads the analysis that comes after it?

Field: I’ve had people send me a few things. I don’t read everything, um, but I’ve read enough to be delighted. There’s a broad spectrum of reactions for the film.

Villarreal: I know you want to sort of let the film speak for itself, but do you have an opinion on whether Lydia is a villain or a victim of cancel culture?

Field: I’m not interested in any of those terms. I don’t see people as heroes or victims. Um, yes, there’s a scandal element in this. But that scandal element could be in “The Scarlet Letter.” It could be in Shakespeare. I mean, the delivery system of that scandal and the way that that’s communicated is what it is because these are the times we live in. And these are the times we live in because we’ve been in a patriarchy for thousands of years, of a lot of bad behavior of people that hold the thunderbolts that do wield the power. And that power, you know, to use a tired phrase, corrupts. Corrupts absolutely. So that’s more what I was interested in, is what does power do? How does power benefit? And who’s complicit? And who benefits and who doesn’t? Because nobody has power without complicity. No one.

Villarreal: Well, how has working on the film made you rethink the power that you wield as a director and filmmaker?


Field: That’s a fair question. I don’t feel very powerful. Um, I feel really tired.

It’s not a glamorous job. It’s a physically intensive job, and it’s also, it’s a job where you worry about everything constantly. The wolf at the door is that you’re going to miss something. That you’re going to miss an opportunity that you shouldn’t have missed, and then you’ll have this thing out there and you’ll regret it forever. So it’s a very masochistic discipline. But I suppose, yeah, I mean, there are famous examples of very dictatorial, very menacing directors, but I haven’t encountered any of them.

Villarreal: And you don’t consider yourself that.

Field: Well, I mean, I really can’t speak to that. I’m sure others would disagree.

Villarreal: Now, Todd, let’s talk about what it was like to work with Cate Blanchett. You said before that you wrote the character Lydia Tár for her. I’m curious: How did seeing Cate perform that role, seeing her bring your writing to life, change the way you thought about the character?

Field: You know, Stanley Kubrick used to say, you know, “I write a script and I think, ‘Wow. Really talented screenwriter.’ And then I direct the script and I say, ‘That screenwriter was an idiot, but the director’s really smart.’ You know, and then I go into editing and I say, ‘God, that director’s a total hack,’ you know.”

I think that anybody that writes their own material, there’s always that thing because you’re always surprised by what happens. However, it’s not until the other artists, the other filmmakers, show up, where you really know what the thing is. The way that they approach material, the way they approach a character, the way they move or their intent or the sound of their voice is absolutely indescribably exciting. Or horrifying, you know.

For someone like Cate, you know, Cate Blanchett is a generational artist. There’s only one Cate Blanchett, and she approaches her material like a filmmaker. You know, she really walks around the thing and talks about the thing and tries to figure out what it is, above and beyond what the character is that she’s going to be inhabiting. That in itself is very rich and makes you look at your own material very differently.

Villarreal: How does that sort of inform your approach with her? How much of your job is guiding her performance versus just letting her loose?


Field: Well, um, that’s a good question. Cate, she always wants to do things that are dangerous. That’s a big word for her, “danger.” She never wants to take the easy route. She wants you to make it harder for her. And I remember her telling me, you know, “If I’m terrible, if I’m too loud or something, just say, ‘Stop it.’” And I thought, “What an odd thing. Of course I’m not going to do that.” You know, but she really forced me to push her different ways.

Because we started with her conducting — that’s how it worked out — she had in many ways become this character because she’d already experienced in a very real, visceral way what it’s like to conduct an orchestra. She understood the position inherently. And I think that really informed her performance a good deal.

But in terms of what that collaboration is like, that’s really — you know, at that point, you’ve done enough work together before you arrive. You’ve talked through what the character’s journey is. You’ve spoken about their relationships. You’ve talked about possibilities. You’ve done all this other work.

Typically, I would try to rehearse for several weeks with a cast. In this case, it was good that Cate and I had a lot of time together before starting the picture because, by necessity, a lot of that rehearsal was devoted to music and the preparation of music and everything that she and Nina Hoss and Sophie Kauer had had to do. We only had about half that amount of time to actually go through and do scene work together.

Villarreal: There’s a pivotal early scene in the film that unfolds in a single take, and it’s a BIPOC, pan-gender student sort of expressing discomfort playing music written by straight white men. And it becomes this, you know, highly charged generational face-off. And Cate’s performance is riveting. And like, what direction did you give her before that scene?

Field: “Direction” is a funny word. I mean, we talk, you know. That’s what you really do when you make stuff with people: You talk. And that conversation has parity, and hopefully, you’re finishing each other’s sentences or you’re pushing each other. I mean, on the surface, the things that you point out are there, but what’s beneath this scene really is, for me, is something else. That’s the first scene that I wrote. And the impetus for that scene was really just the age-old question: If your middle-aged self could go back and talk to your 24-year-old self and impart some wisdom, what would you say, you know?


So there’s a couple of things going on. On the one hand, when she was Max’s age, the student, she would’ve been Max. She would’ve been pushing every possible boundary she could. She would’ve been ignoring canonical work. She wouldn’t have cared about dead white man music. She would’ve been breaking every glass ceiling. She would’ve been working on atonal music. And we know from her biography that she was going down and trying to get at the root of what she thought was the purity of making noise, which is, in this case, was these icaros in the eastern Amazon.

That’s who she was. That kid sitting in that classroom, that’s who she was. So, why has she turned her back on that? Because when she did that at 24, that’s about shedding your ego. That’s about losing your id. And where we meet her right now, she’s certainly not there. She has a super ego, right? And she’s embraced this music that’s very patriarchal. And that she’s following in the footsteps of patriarchal icons like Bernstein or Von Karajan or Abbado, etc.

So where does that scene start? It starts with us hearing the sound. And that sound is “Ró.” It’s an incredible piece of music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, this Icelandic composer, who’s heralded and sung and well known in many circles. And the first thing she does is she makes fun of it. Now, why does she do that? Well, you know, in that scene, what does she say about Anna Thorvaldsdottir? She’s not giving you any interpretation. She’s basically indicating that she’s lost, which, Lydia Tár herself is having this moment where she’s lost. But she also is talking about a female composer who has a profile that she would probably like to have and, as she describes her herself, is young and beautiful. So that to me was you know, what was important about this, which is that she’s looking at legacy. She’s looking in the rearview mirror and saying, “How am I being perceived? Are there any mountains to climb? And if there are, will I actually reach them?”

Villarreal: Well, please allow me to be annoying, Todd. Like, at this stage in your life and career, what would you tell your younger self?

Field: Oh boy. What would I tell my younger self? Wow, this is going to get very confessional. You know what I would do? I would tell my younger self, and I would tell my children this too: Put 10 cents of every dollar away in the bank and don’t touch it.

Villarreal: Yes.

Field: If only I had listened.

Villarreal: Seriously. Oh my gosh.

Field: Seriously!

Villarreal: Beyond “Tár,” you made a lot of attempts at ambitious adaptations of novels since your last film, “Little Children,” but they ultimately didn’t make it to screen. Can you talk about what that felt like? Was there ever a moment where you considered, “Is this telling me something? Do I need to take my career in a different direction?” Like, what were you feeling in those moments?


Field: It takes an act of faith for anyone to sit down and work on material. You have to believe that this one is important enough to me, and it will be important enough to someone else and it will happen. I think it would be safe to say anyone who does this kind of work feels that way. They have to feel that way. And the question is: Are you built in such a manner that you can shake it off when somebody says the child is ugly or they don’t want to look at it? You have to keep hope alive and not get discouraged. And I think that’s the hardest part.

But it took me a long time to get my first film on. It took me five years after film school to get my first film on and five years after my first film to get my second film on. So it’s taken me three times that long to get this film.

So, yeah, I mean, I haven’t been sitting around crying in my soup or anything. But it has been a long time, and then actually being on set for the first time and, and turning over and watching — in this case, the very first scene that we shot was with you know, Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant. I mean, talk about just feeling like the luckiest person on Earth to be able to watch those three actors. You know, that’s quite a privilege, and it’s not something that I would ever take for granted. And if I’m never allowed to do it again, then I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet that I ever got the chance at all.

Villarreal: OK, I’m just going to do this, Todd. Before I let you go, my “Twister”-obsessed younger self has a question. It was recently announced that Lee Isaac Chung is in talks to direct the sequel of the 1996 film, which you had a role in. If Lee called you up and said, “Hey, we need Beltzer to drive the van again,” is that something you would ever consider? Todd, please think very carefully on this.

Field: I don’t know. You know, I was very lucky that Jan de Bont asked me to do that. I actually had been up for Phil Hoffman’s part.

Villarreal: Oh wow.

Field: Then when Phil got in, Jan had offered me this other part, Beltzer, and I was a little chapped about it ’cause I really wanted the Dusty part. But when I saw that I got to sing “Oklahoma,” you know, I said, “OK, I’ll do it. You know, I’ll do it.” And when we were shooting, it was a very, very tough, challenging shoot. And I remember Jan was talking about dropping that.


And I got very upset, let’s put it that way, and we ended up shooting it. So I feel completely satisfied. I had my “Twister” moment, and it was a wonderful cast. I have very, very happy memories of that shoot.

Villarreal: Well, I didn’t even know there was talks of a sequel and then it got me, like, knowing that I was doing this interview with you, I was like, what would a “Twister” sequel written and directed by Todd Field look like?

Field: As long as it could star Cate Blanchett, I’d be fine. You know, I’d love to get, yeah. Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant. “Twister.” Yeah. Very interesting. It’s an international team of storm chasers.

Villarreal: And then you do have to come in as Beltzer, though, in that case.

Field: In that case, I would do it. Yeah. For sure.

Villarreal: OK. Good, I like that. Well, Todd, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Field: Sure. Well, thank you. I really appreciate it, Yvonne.

The Team

The Envelope is a Los Angeles Times production. It is hosted by Mark Olsen and Yvonne Villarreal, produced by Téa Francesca Price and Rachel Cohn, edited by Mitra Kaboli and Lauren Raab and mixed and mastered by Mike Heflin. The executive producer is Heba Elorbany. Theme music by Mike Heflin. Special thanks to Matt Brennan, Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton, Elena Howe, Kayla Bell, Patricia Gardiner, Dylan Harris, Brandon Sides, David Viramontes and Vanessa Franko.