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'Whoever holds power, it's going to corrupt them,' says 'Tár' director Todd Field

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field's <em>Tár.</em>
Focus Features
Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár in director Todd Field's Tár.

In the Oscar-nominated film Tár, Cate Blanchett plays a conductor who's risen to the top of the male-dominated world of classical music. Lydia Tár is brilliant and charismatic, but questions have been raised about whether she uses her power to take sexual advantage of young women she is mentoring.

Screenwriter and director Todd Field sees the film as a meditation on the nature of power. "I firmly believe that whoever holds power, it's going to corrupt them," Field says. "That's just an unfortunate fact; we're part animal, sometimes the animal takes over our better angels."

Field initially conceived of Blanchett's character as a businesswoman, but then the studio approached him about making a film about a classical music conductor, and something clicked. Blanchett says the hierarchical nature of the music world made it an ideal setting for the story.

"It was the perfect place to place a character who is incredibly disciplined, who has devoted their life to their passions, and probably, as a result, has become quite inept at life," Blanchett says. "And also somebody who is obsessed with, and thinks that she can control, how she's perceived and how she moves through the world."

In order to prepare for the role, Blanchett watched hours of classical conductors at work, both in rehearsals and in performance. She learned how to play classical pieces on the piano, though Field deliberately obscured her hands when she plays in the film.

"She's still angry at me, because I'm not showing her hands," Field says. "I didn't show her hands because when you go back and you look at, say, Leonard Bernstein ... the camera's [focused on Bernstein's face] not at his hands, because none of us need to prove that he plays the piano. ... I wanted to make it a fact. I didn't want people watching her fingers. I wanted them watching her eyes."

Tár is nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, best actress for Blanchett, and best director and best original screenplay for Field.

Interview highlights

On studying the classical music world to write the screenplay

Field: My background in classical music is zilch, other than a passing interest, like most people, and having certain favorites. And in this case, I was very, very lucky because, ironically, the world had just locked down, it was the middle of March 2020 and orchestras couldn't play and conductors couldn't conduct. So we were all captive. And, in this case, I was very lucky to be able to have the tutelage of John Mauceri, who had been Leonard Bernstein's assistant, ... who taught at Yale and also, handily, had been the conductor for the LA Phil for movie nights at the Hollywood Bowl. So he had more than a passing acquaintance about moviemaking and wasn't bothered like a lot of people in classical music would be by some hedonist like me asking them a lot of funny questions.

Nobody holds power alone. There's a complicity in it.

And so I spoke to [Mauceri] for about three weeks. He pointed me in the right directions. He gave me a little mini masterclass. And then I wrote the script. For me, it was never really about classical music. It was about her. And it was about ... how do you look at power and why does power exist? And it's not a uni-directional situation. Nobody holds power alone. There's a complicity in it. And I think we find that in all walks of life.

On learning how to conduct and what it felt like physically

Blanchett: Conducting is a form of alchemy. ... Nothing can prepare you for the charge that moves through you when you get the down beat and the sound happens. Particularly with Mahler, it's magnificent and timeless. ...

Bernstein says that you prepare with an inhalation and the music sounds as exhalation. ... Conducting is a form of deep communication, and you have in your arsenal your fingertips, your hands, your arms, your chest, your facial postures — all of this is a form of communication in order to elicit sound. Also, of course, this is, as Todd said, this is not a film about conducting, nor is it a performance film. You see the music being made, which we made with the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra. It's being made in rehearsal, so I know from many hours on stage, the way you rehearse something is quite a different process from actually then going to perform it. So we see something being found or trying to discover something.

On Tár's relationship to sound

Blanchett: I think the character is obsessed with sound, and music is one of those things. Our backstory for her [is] she grew up in quite a silent household, and so music was a life raft for her. So in a way, it's not just an academic obsession. It's a kind of a lifelong obsession with sound. So every single sound can set her off. I think a lot of conductors I spoke to, that gift, that heightened awareness of sound, of acoustics, can also be a curse because it means that sounds in everyday life can derail them.

On choosing Mahler's Symphony No. 5 as the centerpiece of the movie

Field: It's almost as if it was written for the film. It has everything. It starts out [with] the funeral march. And the very first thing she does is she tries to put that sort of call of that funeral march further away from herself. She puts it off stage right. And then there's a storm, and then there's a love story. ... It's a very, very theatrical piece that Mahler kind of sits you deeply, deeply in and sort of demands your attention.

On conductor Marin Alsop's statementthat she was offended by the film, as a woman, as a conductor and as a lesbian

Field: It's an incredible statement. And I appreciate it. I think that it's a really important conversation to have. It's part of why we made the film. Some people were bound to be offended. I mean, in terms of Marin Alsop, she's a storied trailblazer. She was a first of a very, very still tiny subset of female conductors. She says any relationship to her is superficial. I mean, I'm in the masquerade business, so I wasn't interested in making a public service announcement about the evils of bad conductors or people abusing power in the classical music sphere. This is about a character and it's about the corrupting force of nature. ...

We've spoken to many female conductors at the top of their game that love the film. And they love the film because of the conversations that it inspires. ... I could pick apart what she said, but that's hardly the point and it's really not my place to do that.

On the impact of losing her father at a young age

Blanchett: It was pivotal, monumental, I mean life changing. Children tend to absorb, for better or for worse, traumatic events that happened to them in their childhood and they often don't become articulated or conscious until later in life. ... It changed probably the course of my life. I probably wouldn't be here right now. I probably wouldn't have been an actor. I mean, who knows? ... I certainly ran away from [acting] for a long time because I felt it was such an insecure profession, which, of course it is unstable, uncertain. And I think maybe that's why actors are good at navigating changing landscape because it's such an uncertain profession. But I thought I needed to do something more secure with my life because I'd seen how financially insecure we were as a family as a result of my father's death.

Audio interview produced and edited by: Lauren Krenzel and Susan Nyakundi.

Audio interview adapted to NPR.org by: Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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