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El Niño and a cannibal raccoon helped Robin Swicord make 'Wakefield' on a budget

Bryan Cranston in
Bryan Cranston in "Wakefield," written and directed by Robin Swicord.
Telluride Film Festival

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The new independent film, "Wakefield," written and directed by Robin Swicord, stars Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner as a couple stuck in a clearly troubled marriage. It's the kind of character-driven story that Hollywood studios don't have much interest in making.

Here's the plot: Cranston’s character is a successful businessman named Howard Wakefield, who one day doesn’t come home from work. Garner's character, Diana, thinks he’s vanished, but he’s actually living in the attic above their garage where he spends his time — ultimately, many months — spying on his family and foraging for food. Oh, he also grows a massive beard — and not in hipster fashion.

Writer-director Robin Swicord loosely adapted "Wakefield" from a short story by E.L. Doctorow that appeared in The New Yorker. That story was itself an adaptation from a Nathaniel Hawthorne story.

Before “Wakefield,” Swicord had written and directed the 2007 film, “The Jane Austen Book Club,” and written scripts for a number of other films, including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Memoirs of a Geisha."

When The Frame visited with Swicord early in 2016 on the set of "Wakefield," we learned a few things about making independent movies. 

1. Make something that can't be taken away from you.

Swicord didn't set out to have a 10-year gap between directing gigs, but after an experience she had with a film called "Alibi," she knew she'd have to set her sights smaller in order to get another chance to direct.

I had gotten a big movie star attached to ["Alibi"] and as soon as that person was attached, [the studio] took me off the film. They said, You know, it's going to be a $20 million movie and we're just not going to give that to you ... I was very hurt by it because I know that that could have made a wonderful film, and that I was really the ideal director. And, as a result, it was never made. So I knew that what I had to do was something that could not be taken away from me.

2.  If you hire a TV star to be the lead in your movie, it may not get you funding.

I really wanted to cast Bryan Cranston and we started talking about doing it as a feature. He hadn't done a lot of features yet, he had had some small roles in some features, but he hadn't been the central character ... The obstacle was when we started looking for financing, people weren't saying, Wow, you have Bryan Cranston! He's a giant movie star! There's always a wait-and-see attitude about cast. People are very reactive in the film business.

3. If you have your choice of animals to work with, raccoons are cheaper than crows.

In E.L. Doctorow's story, Wakefield watches crows dismantle a roadkill raccoon and we could not afford to have crows. But in the voiceover — Wakefield's inner voice — he's talking about the natural world being a savage world where there's only one thing that you can know for sure, which is that you are food, or you are the one who is eating the food. That's it — you're eating it or you are it. And so in this case I realized that we had an opportunity to [change it into] a raccoon eating a raccoon. I did research on the Internet and I found out that [raccoons] in fact will eat any entrails, even if it's their next of kin.

4. If you can't afford fake rain, hope for El Niño.

We have a ton of weather in this movie. No one's going to believe we made this movie for $3.7 million, I can tell you that ... El Niño has given us tremendous production value that we could never have paid for ... We did a trick-or-treating in the rain scene and it was so beautiful visually and we could never have paid for the rain towers to get that.

5. If you want to hire a great crew for less, shoot in Los Angeles over the holidays.

This was a secret that I learned on "Jane Austen Book Club": if you write something that other people have a mild interest in, and you can shoot it in Los Angeles in the months of December and January, you will get the best crew imaginable. Because people come off of giant movies, they want to stay home with their families for the holidays, they want to work at home, and they want a palate cleanser from their last big movie they did. 

To hear the full interview with Robin Swicord, click the blue player above.

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