Blanchett and Field grapple with power, process in ‘Tár’

Cate Blanchett has heard the line before. “I wrote this part for you” is a director-actor pickup line, she said. It is not usually to be believed.

But what she didn’t know when Todd Field sent her his script for “Tár,” a modern-day parable about an extraordinary conductor and composer at the height of her career whose status begins to crumble amid misconduct allegations, was that he wouldn’t have done it without her. The production company and distributor Focus Features didn’t know this either. And he was dragging his feet a bit in sending it off to Blanchett. Not only would it be his first film in over 15 years, but it was the first wholly original screenplay he’d written since 1995. It was, he said, a scary moment.

Blanchett laughs about it now. Of course she was going to say yes. She was rapt by Field, the actor, writer and director who she’d met years earlier about a project he was working on with Joan Didion that never came to be, and by the complex story of “Tár” and the challenge of it. In the process of preparing for “Tár,” she’d learn to play piano, to speak German and conduct an orchestra, all of which she does really does in the film.

“I am still processing the experience, not only because it spoke to a lot of things that I had been thinking about, but I feel so expanded by having been in Todd’s orbit,” Blanchett said in an interview with Field earlier this week. “It was a very, very fluid, dangerous, alive process making the film.”

“Tár,” which is currently playing in limited release and expands nationwide on Oct. 28, was born out of a desire to scratch at questions about power that Field had thinking about for the past few years — the abuses of power, the structures of power and why those pyramids exist in the first place. And what better place to set that than the world of classical music?

“What kind of conversation is allowable to have? Is there room for rhetoric? Is there room for a conversation where we can step into each other’s shoes and find common ground?” Field said. “Those are really high-flown questions to ask. And I’m not going to pretend that this film asks all of those questions and definitely doesn’t answer any of them. But that was the essence of the idea.”

In the wake of #MeToo, he knew that to have a more nuanced conversation his protagonist needed to be someone in a position that’s unexpected. It needed to be more of fairy tale. Thus, Blanchett’s Lydia Tár wouldn’t be the CEO of a corporation or the head of an architectural firm, but the first female chief conductor of a major German orchestra, a position a woman has never actually occupied. She is a genius who we meet at high-profile moment on the eve of the release of her memoir and as the orchestra prepares to play Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

The film lets us into Lydia’s rarefied, first-class world and invites us to meet and ponder those around her, from her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss), the lead violinist in the orchestra, to her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) and wonder about their own complicities.

“I really hope that people are not put off by thinking this is an elitist film or an elitist topic. You don’t at all have to be a connoisseur. It’s about so many other things,” Hoss said. “It makes you think, hopefully, about who are the people supporting people in power positions to do certain things and do you sometimes do that because you actually profit from it. It’s also about being creative: Does leading such an institution as this big orchestra hinder you in doing what you actually want to do?”

Merlant, in her first English-language role, is still asking herself questions about Francesca, who wants to be a conductor like Tár but is at the moment is mainly fetching coffee, booking flights, managing schedules and other administrative tasks under the guise of mentorship. And she has to consider her role in the Tár machine as the allegations intensify.

“She would do anything for her, up to a certain point,” Merlant said. “That I found very interesting.”

The egos stayed in front of the camera, though. Behind the scenes of “Tár,” she said, Field and Blanchett fostered an atmosphere of respect and openness.

“Sometimes we have this sensation that in order to create an amazing piece of art, you have to struggle,” Merlant. “But it is possible to do great things in a nice environment.”

The production took pains to make the world of “Tár” to feel authentic, not like a “toy town” version of the classical music world. They enlisted the help of the Dresden Philharmonic, casting some of its members in speaking roles like Dorothea Plans Casal and Fabian Dirr, and looking to Concertmaster Wolfgang Hentrich for his expertise. Hildur Guðnadóttir, the Oscar-winning Icelandic composer, crafted the score. Hoss played the violin too. That Blanchett would conduct, Field said, was just a given.

“I didn’t even have to ask her,” Field said. “If I said, okay, this is about somebody that builds a skyscraper, I knew that she was going to build the skyscraper with no question that she would become Howard Roark.”

Still, it was a tense moment the first time Blanchett took the podium at the Dresden Hall to conduct a rehearsal scene. Then, Field said, someone “clammed.” Everyone laughed and the ice was broken.

It was a powerful moment when it came together, though. Hoss, who was sitting in the orchestra when Blanchett raised her arm for the first time and everyone started playing together, said that “all of us were on the verge of tears.” Merlant too would often sit and watch her co-star in awe.

They cast a first-time actor in the key role of Olga, a talented Russian cellist who Tár takes an interest in. Sophie Kauer, who is currently studying classical cello performance at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, beat out hundreds of cellists for the part.

“The first time I met Cate it was actually a conducting rehearsal, so I had to play for her,” Kauer said. “That was just mildly terrifying. But, you know, you got to do what you got to do. I think the thing about musicians is we’re very workman like we just always get the job done.”

This summer, Blanchett, Guðnadóttir, Kauer, and Field even met up again at Abbey Road Studios to record a Tár concept album that will be available to the public.

But Field’s biggest hope is that “Tár” is a film that audiences seek out in theaters. It was made as an aural and visual experience for the big screen.

“It’s not something to sit at home and watch,” Field said.

The reception for “Tár” has been roundly rapturous since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where Blanchett was awarded the top acting prize — which could be the first of many for the already decorated actor. But Field bristles at the mention of awards.

“Sincerely that’s not why the two of us made this film. We want people to go in and we want them to come out and hopefully be talking to each other in a lively manner in the parking lot on the way to their cars or to the subway or wherever they’re off to, you know?” Field said. “It’s a film that begs a conversation.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.

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