Tom McCarthy, Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale talk The Station Agent.

The Station Agent

San Sebastian Film Festival, Spain, September 2003.
Tom McCarthy (writer-director), Peter Dinklage (actor), Bobby Cannavale (actor), The Station Agent.

Neil Young : The film seems to have gone down very well here, as elsewhere.

Bobby Cannavale (BC) : it has, yeah, but it’s still all surprising. i’m still shocked that we finished the movie, that we actually made the movie. took us so long, man three and a half years to make this film

How long did it take to shoot?

BC : 20 days. and then the whole thing’s been a struggle: are we gonna get it edited, get it finished, get it scored and everything that’s happened has just been really really nice gravy. we really just wanted to make the film. we were all together with it for so long.

At what point did you come in during those three and a half years?

BC : the very beginning. we all did. i remember two and a half years into, running into patty (clarkson) in a bar in new york, and we were both really busy–i was doing a tv series, she was doing a movie, both doing well and i remember her walking up and going “bobby, we gotta make this fuckin movie! when are we gonna make it?” tom (mccarthy) was doing a play on broadway, so we thought he’d given up on it, and i remember patty that night saying “i don’t care what we do, we gotta make this movie!” so anything that happens… yeah, the press has been really nice, the receptions have been incredible, like i said, it’s so surreal.

The audience were in gales of laughter at yesterday’s screening, until the film turned more serious–when they were really caught up in it. Is that the mix you were all aiming for?

BC : yeah, it’s really incredible, you know. now that we’ve seen it as many times as we have with audience, we know when to expect what. last night we were sweating, i remember turning to tom and saying “is it hot in here?” and he said “yes! but not temperature-wise”… really scary. when we saw the subtitles… we had no idea of how it was going to play. there’s a scene in the movie that we really love, because it’s one of our best friends in the scene–the rail fan meeting, where they’re watching a movie….

Are they real people?

BC : they’re all rail fans, except for the guy who’s narrating the movie, that’s one of our best friends, named josh pais who improvised that whole thing.

I thought it was cinema verite at that point, that you’d sneaked into a real meeting…

BC : it’s awesome, man, because that’s where it starts usually, at all the screenings that we have, that’s the first sign of a laugh, when he talks about one of the darker tunnels in canada. tommy put him in that ridiculous… checked suit… he said “that’s our warm-up act”, like the warm-up comedian that comes up before the show… but last night was weird because it didn’t quite happen there, that’s when we started sweating, you know. and then tom turned to me and said it’s ok, joe’s coming soon–and they started laughing then, so whew! they were a great audience… there’s always a different reason to be surprised and last night it was the language–we didn’t know how that was going to play…

You speak spanish?

BC : yeah, fluent.

Were the subtitles here accurate?

BC : very accurate, yeah.

The film is really about these three characters, very much an actors piece—the sort of thing that would have a long, intense rehearsal period. Or was it all written and set early on–were there changes?

BC : it changed very very much. the benefit about having the three years was… it was a double-edged sword: on the one hand there was the anxiety and frustration of “when are we gonna make it,” but on the other side we had three years to work on the script, and workshop it, and we’d get together every few months, and read it, and the more we got to know it, the more economical the script got. within the scenes, as well, you’d read it, and say “I don’t think i need that…” and that was right up until shooting. “I think I’m saying too much, we don’t need to say this, that.”

It’s quite a short movie, relatively speaking. when you saw the finished version… there’s a lot of little short scenes, which look as if they’ve originally been longer and edited down… how is that for an actor?

BC : with this film, it was… we all knew what this film was about–that’s one of the nice things about being with it as long as we have been… when we were shooting it, it was the only way we could have moved as quickly as we did… if i’d auditioned for this movie, and thought “what a great part”, there’d have been the tendency to indulge… the three of us always knew what the movie was about–we didn’t take those indulgent moments because we knew what the film was about.

You must have the most lines of anybody in the film

BC : i do, yeah

Because every time youre on screen, youre talking like ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta!

BC : but there were scenes, like… you know the scene where peter and i put our feet up on the can, on the bucket… there were lines in that scene, and in one take tom said “just sit there, see what happens”… that whole scene just… became that.

The last scene its a wonderful end-line. was that always the end line?

BC : no. we played with different things, filmed a different ending…

It might turn up on the dvd.

BC : i think there’ll be some deleted stuff on the dvd, because tom really did cut it back. originally it was i think about 20 minutes longer, he trimmed so much out of it, and that was really the right thing to do. the hardest part, for me… i’m not saying the part was an easy part but there’s certainly essences of each of us, who are in our own characters. for me i love to talk, man, so for me, this character… i knew what his pace was, i knew what his rhythm was gonna be very early on, and i knew that i’d have most of the lines. the person who had the really hard part was peter (dinklage). it’s incredible, because peter is not that guy–he’s a really sociable guy who loves to talk as well, and… that’s a hard performance, i think, to just… command the screen like he does, and hardly say anything!

It’s a low-budget film… was it a real shoestring when you were filming it?

BC : a total shoestring–still the best, most fun experience i’ve had in my entire life, my whole career. i’d do them all like this, if they could come out and the result be this good.

When did miramax come in?

BC : at sundance, like right after it premiered.

When you heard miramax had bought it, what did you think?

BC : yeah, right … it was a total hollywood story. miramax rang weinstein, harvey weinstein flew in on this jet, saw it by himself, in some little theatre in salt lake (city), had the print sent there, he watched it by himself, decided he wanted to buy it, made the deal, flew back to new york… wild, man! it was crazy, i couldn’t believe it. like, literally, overnight it changed.

Has it changed things for you in the movies?

BC : yeah, i just finished a movie two weeks ago, Shall We Dance?, a remake of the Japanese film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez. It’s the first time I had a big part in a big movie that was its own experience, totally different. They cast me in a really fun part–I get to be funny. I had to learn how to dance, we all did. We had to beg, borrow and steal to make Station Agent, this one, we have the money to literally hire the greatest dancers in the world to teach us how to dance!

Its quite a physical performance in Station Agent. A different kind of physical performance…

BC : we had talked about this too, that this guy should have the energy of a kid. he’s not a kid–he’s an adult. that was the hard part, maintaining that line. i’m not like joe, i’m not quite like that. i’m 33 years old, it was important to us that this movie should not be about kids, it’s about adults. it’s not about twentysomethings, it was about people at a time in their life when if youre not married, if you don’t have your career set, you tend to go inward and say “what the fuck am i doin’ wrong?” and it makes you disconnect from people, whether you realise it or not. and that’s an important thing, because then it becomes harder to make friends with people, harder to make a friend, when you’re that age and you don’t have, seemingly, anything going for yourself.

I thought joe’s dad was going to appear…

BC : poor joes dad! there was a scene with joe’s dad, its just not in the film any more!

I wondered whether he exists has Joe invented him?

BC : no he exists… that’s the other thing. if the character was 24, I don’t know whether if he would have been there quite as rapidly for his dad. but that’s a serious thing to joe–his father’s dying. this is what attracted me to the script – its about adults, adult themes, not just… petty kid things…

enter Tom McCarthy and Peter Dinklage. Introductions. Dinklage comments on the name Neil Young.

Dinklage isn’t a common name either! Is that an english name?

Peter Dinklage (PD) : german–it’s actually von dinklage (dink-lager).

And it was changed… when?

PD : after the war, because of the reputation that germans had, a lot of germans dropped “von” to disassociate from nazi germany.

Tom McCarthy (TM) : but we know he’s german!

PD : with an umlaut over the last a! but when your ancestry is half-german, half-irish, you consider yourself irish, because you lose touch with the german roots… whereas the irish roots are very prominent. you lose touch with the german side of the family tree. irish are very interested in their roots… germans aren’t as preoccupied with that. so basically i’m irish!

Germans are more concerned with the soil, and the irish more with the tree… but were getting into a real ethnographic nightmare here! moving rapidly along.

TM : i don’t know where this is going!

PD : neither do i!

It should be Anthropology Weekly I’m writing for.

PD : ambushed again!

The movie’s kind of about a family, in a way… is that what people keep saying to you?

PD : there’s the dinner scene, in the film, where were all sitting around, and bobby’s character is doing the ritual of grace… and for patty’s character and myself, its a new experience to us, that whole ritual.

Neither of you look too thrilled, the characters at that point

TM : in writing it, and thinking about the script on a broader level, i was using words like community, it was all about community, and the margins, things like that. people now are using words like family, it’s interesting this desire or necessity to make things more personal on some level. that’s kind of fascinating to me, but i always loved the concept that, erm… i knew i was going to direct it, i would have a visual of a scene, and think, oh, this would be great to see on a wide-shot, the three of them walking along the tracks. considering peter’s size, if you saw these guys from a distance, the three of them, you might even think it’s a family… but the interesting thing about this family would be that peter is kind of the father, patty would be the mother, and bobby would be the kid! and absolutely, not only the dinner-scene where he insists upon this, much to the parents’ chagrin, and another scene where you have dinner at the house, and bobby’s up dancing and performing for you–it’s like a classic family scenario of the kid-entertainer. that’s an element that recurs again and again, like a role-playing device in the movie a little bit. something that i think’s really exciting, and i think people respond to that on some level.

Bobby said that you made the film over three years ago so back then it was Clinton–“community”, now its Bush–“family”…

TM : we should avoid politics…

PD : i don’t like to avoid politics, but i’ll get angry.

TM : i guess what this gets back to for me, to avoid the politics slightly, is to the human connection. i think that’s maybe why people are connecting with it on some level, because it doesn’t deal with a lot of formality, or the politics, just gets back to the simplicity of what’s really important. and i think that today, in this day and age, that we really need to get back to….. just slow down, think about the human connection, the consequences, what’s being lost. i think we could all take the time to focus on that a little more. i think people really respond to the nostalgic quality on some level, that it really is a bit of a throwback that begins with the trains. but also primarily with peter’s character–he’s a guy who walks everywhere, doesn’t own a cell-phone, doesn’t really need a phone. It’s a simpler life–he carries all his belongings in a suitcase. I think there’s something about that simplicity in a day-and-age where life is anything but.

Ironic that a film about slowness, the thing that encapsulates the slowness is a train, which is faster than a car…

TM : right exactly. though he walks, he doesn’t take the train to Newfoundland. but there’s something about a train… flying is much faster than taking a train and much more impersonal. i’ve taken a train a little bit on my press junket in the states, and i gotta say that it’s an incredibly civilised way to travel. youre on something where you can get up and walk around, go to the cafe car, you end up talking. i was on a train and saw a friend i hadn’t seen in years, we sat in the cafe car, we had a cup of coffee and chatted for an hour and a half. I thought “You couldnt do this on a plane, we’d  end up standing near the bathrooms…” There’s something very civilised about that.

A great gift for moviemakers as well–Strangers on a Train, Murder on the Orient Express… you can’t do those films on an aeroplane, the only films you can do are kind of… sky-jacking…

TM : reading and talking to rail fans, something that appeals to them about train-travel is its connection to the earth. when you travel by train, you look out of the window, and there’s the world.

And hopefully you maintain that connection, because if you don’t, it’s problematic.

TM : something’s probably going wrong! on a plane you’re up, you’re off, you get maybe two minutes looking over the city you’re flying out of. on a train, not only can you see, but you can stop and get off along the way if there’s something nice along the way.

In england, trains have a different image–people always complaining. a film which is romantic about trains is going to strike an odd chord in england.

PD : it’s used a lot more.

It’s used, and if it isn’t perfect then people complain. our railways were underfunded for many years, like yours. amtrak is… semi state-owned?

TM : i guess it is. it’s basically funded… i think they’re about to go on strike if they don’t get more funding. i think they’ve really screwed amtrak up–there was originally more in the movie about that… the US is perfect for trains, its such a wonderful, economic way. and no-one… its just really not working out. maybe in the north-east corridor of DC, Boston, New York they’re popular. But, it’s like Miramax flew me down to Philadelphia. From New York to Philly, its about an hour and twenty minutes by the train. Now, to fly there I had to get to the airport two hours early, my plane was delayed… its a forty-minute flight, and it ended up as a six-hour trip. i got down there and i said “I’m taking the train back!” Cause youre city-to-city, ten blocks from my house is the train station…

In the old days, politicians used to tour the country on trains…

PD : people want instant gratification in so much of life… sorry to sound silly here, but i’m about to: the journey, when youre getting someplace. people want to be here, there… connect the dots! I took the train from LA to New York a couple of years ago, got a sleeper car. Its beautiful, an amazing experience. If you’ve got three days to spare–which a lot of Americans don’t.

TM : pete had a lot of time on his hands at that time pre-Station Agent!

PD : you know, you fall asleep in the desert, you wake up in the mountains…

Is it because there isn’t a train lobby in the USA, like there’s a car lobby?

TM : there was 100 years ago, 150 years ago. the train was it–people would build a depot, hoping to attract the train, i think Sergio Leone caught that wonderfully in Once upon a Time in the West… whenever i was describing this story to people, everyone would go “Oh, I love trains!” everyone has a train-story… the first toy you get as a kid, its either a train or a fire-truck.

PD : i had a big train set downstairs in the basement.

TM : it’s in the fabric of the culture.

In england, trainspotting is classic nerd activity… when they named the movie Trainspotting it was ironic–a cool movie, which isn’t about trainspotting. But this movie is about trainspotting…

PD : didn’t you see the heroin scene in our movie?!

Did you end up liking trains, because i presume you weren’t a big fan at the beginning?

PD : well, i love trains. they’re beautiful, so quiet, you fall asleep so easily. i can’t sleep on trains, but…

Are you really an expert on the gauges, etc?

PD : that was acting, darling!!

So are you trying to make trains cooler?

TM : i don’t know if were going to make trains cool, but i think its interesting that miramax who obviously embraced the theme of the train in the poster (!) (indicates poster showing main actors sitting round table near hot-dog van, smiling)

Is this also the american poster?

TM : yes. it’s lovely, i just wish there were something to do with trains in it.

And they’re all so happy in the poster as well…

TM : a pretty happy group, yeah…

PD : i look kind of insane!

TM : yeah, you look a little over-eager…

You could have had a great poster of Fin staring at the camera…

PD : yeah, i was fighting for the poster of just me

Is there some aspect of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener to this character, the idea of a man who just “prefers not to”?

TM : mostly after screenings, the comments are positive, kind of wow, this movie was so great on the subject of relationships, but then we had a screening at Yale, where I went to college, and a woman said this film taught me how to just say “No” to people. I was like, OK, you took a bit of a… different message! It’s true he does have a directness, of just saying “I’m on my own”– it’s refreshing. The wonderful thing is that he only speaks when he has to, very sort of John Wayne in that fashion.

PD : it was funny–Tommy was very instrumental in my performance. Trying to find the character–he’s not shy, a man of few words, but not sort of… timid. He’s direct. Questions and answers.

TM : I don’t see him as a passive character, he’s actively disconnected, and that’s fine. At the start of the movie he’s not a sad character, he’s not lost. He knows exactly where he is, he’s perfectly constructed this life of solitude, and there’s something to be said for that.

PD : he’s found his path that’s very comfortable… doesn’t know what he’s missing, but its like the first time you find what love is… youre just going along this little path, and then you go “Oh wait, wow, ah, that’s what life can be…”

In the movie you’re walking along the track, and you leave the track…

TM : getting on or getting off the tracks…

It’s a character who seems to get an excess of attention, both positive and negative, because people won’t leave him alone, whether its because they want to be his friend, or they want to mock him, whatever it is. what was it like to play a character like that who’s getting this attention, and that’s the last thing he wants.

PD : obviously i understand that, on a day-to-day basis, I deal with that. when i was younger and had less of a sense of humour about myself, and things… i was tapping into that a little bit. i think everybody builds some walls when youre a teenager, say the world doesn’t understand you… its funny to have those walls put back up (!) Tom’s incredible because… obviously, I am a dwarf, and this character is obviously a dwarf, and we would talk about personal day-to-say experiences.

Did that change the script?

TM : it did, because it’s such a unique personal experience. we talked initially, i wrote the script, gave it to him, it developed from there. but right through shooting we’d be in a scenario and would discuss how these characters would move, and peter would have input that was unique to peter. that’s when you have to listen not only to the character and to the actor.

(enter publicist Chris Aylott, signalling “time’s up”)

I’m being wound-up, but what was the starting-point?

TM : the depot, i was out visiting that part of New Jersey. My production designer perfectly aged it, it was perfectly renovated, it was just sitting in the middle of this field I thought “Man, that’s beautiful.” I got out, took some pictures, slipped a note under the door–it said “If you own this depot, can you call me?” This guy called me, he was a rail fan, and that’s how it began.”

transcript by Neil Young, completed 23rd March, 2004

For a review of The Station Agent click here.

For a lowdown of the other films and features at the San Sebastian Film Festival 2003 click here.