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. Prologue
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The independent

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It took Tom McCarthy just 15 years to achieve overnight success

Tom McCarthy at the Angelika Film Center,  New York City. By William Moree

BY tim townsend '91

Tom McCarthy '88 had never been to the Sundance Film Festival before. So, as he walked through the snowy streets of Park City, Utah, early one morning last January, toward the first screening of the first film he had written and directed, he asked his producer Mary Jane Skalski about festival etiquette.

"Tom asked me if Sundance audiences ever boo the movie they're watching," Skalski said. "I told him if they hate a movie they don't boo, they just walk out."

After three years of writing, rewriting, rehearsing, composing, dubbing, and editing, McCarthy had finished his movie, The Station Agent, just days before; the reels of film had been flown into Utah from New York by his brother the previous evening.

Ten days later, The Station Agent had collected three Sundance prizes--the Dramatic Audience Award, the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for McCarthy, and a Special Jury Performance Award for actress Patricia Clarkson. And McCarthy, a professional actor (Meet the Parents, Noises Off) who tested his craft in the improvisation troupe My Mother's Fleabag at Boston College and trained at the Yale School of Drama, had an agreement with Miramax for his film's distribution.

"We used to say, ‘Tom, what are you doing in the School of Management?'" remembers Maile Flanagan '87, a co-Fleabagger. "Then he switched to philosophy, and Nancy Walls [another Fleabagger and future regular on Saturday Night Live] would say, ‘Oh, Tom, you're slowly spiraling downward.'" McCarthy knew he wanted to act for a living by the time he graduated from Boston College. He and fellow Fleabaggers rented a house on Cape Cod that summer and performed improv comedy in bars and basement theaters. Toward the season's end, lounging one day on the beach, the group discussed their future. They wanted to stay together, and they wanted to leave Boston. New York, it was decided, was too expensive. There was already too much improv in Chicago. Someone suggested Minneapolis--good arts scene, plenty of jobs. Minneapolis it was.

A few nights after McCarthy told his parents he was going to move to Minneapolis to be an actor, Carol and Gene McCarthy came up to the Cape from their home in New Jersey to see their son's troupe. "It was in some awful bar," remembers Flanagan. "And I can tell you one thing, Tom's dad was not happy. We could feel the white-hot fire of a thousand suns directed at us on stage." Tom McCarthy was the artistic kid in the McCarthy clan of four boys and a girl. Two brothers also graduated from Boston College, Jay '84 and Bill '92, and went on to careers with Morgan Stanley and EMC Corporation, respectively. "I bought Tom his first suit his senior year"--for job interviews--says Gene McCarthy, "and I think he wore it exactly once. I'm not sure where that suit is. Maybe he sold it to help fund the movie," the father says now, with a laugh.

In Minneapolis, after a year or so of living together in
a house and performing in theaters and comedy clubs, the troupe, rechristened Every Mother's Nightmare, split up. McCarthy moved to Chicago to try his hand at more serious theater. He had little experience--he hadn't even acted in BC's theater department productions--but says, "I was tired of just doing comedy." The year he was in Chicago, he was cast in three plays, and in the third, McCarthy won the lead role. He felt inadequate, however, around his fellow actors. "I knew less than anyone," he says. So, in 1992, at the age of 24, McCarthy enrolled in the three-year master's program at the Yale School of Drama, where he took classes in writing and directing as well as acting.

"It was clear to all of us that he had a really great directorial imagination," says Yale classmate and current dean of Yale Drama School James Bundy. "If you spent any time with Tom at all you knew that he was curious about life and completely his own thinker. He was unafraid of trying something different."

While at Yale, McCarthy cowrote (with Trevor Anthony) a well-reviewed burlesque play called The Napoleonade, about the French general and a field marshal who betrays him. McCarthy didn't act in The Napoleonade, but instead directed it, and found he enjoyed being in charge of a production.

Based on the success of the play, McCarthy, still a Yale student, received a Fox Fellowship to write another script. The result was The Killing Act, a play about P.T. Barnum that McCarthy directed off-Broadway. The Killing Act featured the actor Peter Dinklage as Tom Thumb, in a performance McCarthy describes as "Iago on crack." The two became friends, and as McCarthy watched people on the streets or in bars interact with Dinklage (who is 4'5", a dwarf), he began thinking about how he might work with the actor again.

Robert De Niro, Tom McCarthy, and Owen Wilson in Meet the Parents (2000). By Phillip V. Caruso/Universal Studios

In the meantime, McCarthy's acting career was taking off. Between 1995 and 2002, he won roles in made-for-television movies and series, feature films, and Broadway productions. He had a recurring role on the Fox series Boston Public; played Dr. Bob Banks in Meet the Parents, with Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller; and trod the boards on Broadway in the revival of Michael Frayn's farce Noises Off, which was nominated for a Tony Award in 2002.

"He's a very skilled actor," says Glenn Jordan, who directed McCarthy and Candace Bergen in Mary and Tim, a 1996 television movie adaptation of Colleen McCullough's novel, Tim. "We saw quite a few actors for the part, and Candy Bergen and I thought Tom was by far the best. There's a sweetness and openness in his personality that comes through in his acting."

McCarthy is boyishly handsome--with his short brown hair, glasses, button-down shirt, and jeans, he would look in place at a tailgate party. He's smart, funny, and self-deprecating. Back in New Haven one recent afternoon for a screening of The Station Agent, he chomped on a cheeseburger, while cheerfully recounting the "surreal" past year of his life. He seems taken aback by the accolades his movie has so far received, despite the years he put in to ensure that result. At the same time, he's acquired some of his business's aura, fielding cell phone calls over lunch (with apologies); at the screening later, whispers of "there he is" can be heard from Yale Film Society undergraduates when McCarthy steps into the room.

The Newfoundland train station. By Tom McCarthy

McCarthy says his thoughts began turning increasingly to filmmaking in the late 1990s, even as his acting career was gaining momentum. "I was doing a lot of acting, but
I wanted to work on the kinds of movies I like to see, and I wasn't finding them," he says. About four years ago, while driving out to see a brother's new lake house in western New Jersey, he spotted an abandoned train depot in the rural community of Newfoundland. Feeling there might be something to this little white clapboard building--but not sure what--he pulled over, took some photos, and left a note for the owner.

"The guy was a little odd," says McCarthy. He was a "railfan," one of the subset of Americans enthralled with the history and culture of the U.S. rail system. "He invited me to a railfan meeting, and after that I spent three months researching railfans." Characters and themes of connection and disconnection took shape as McCarthy used the long periods when actors wait around on movie sets to write his script.

The San Francisco Chronicle describes The Station Agent as "a character study about a dwarf who inherits a run-down train station and forms a friendship with two other misfits." The New York Times says the film depicts "an eccentric ad hoc family that grows out of the low-key, charismatic powers of a train-obsessed loner of a dwarf."

"Everyone at Sundance was calling it ‘the dwarf movie,' as in, ‘You have to go see the dwarf movie,'" says Arianna Bocco, a senior vice president of acquisitions for Miramax Films. The Station Agent is about Dinklage's character, Finbar McBride--a man who watches trains and makes his living repairing models of them in a cluttered shop beneath his apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. When a fellow railfan dies, Fin inherits the abandoned depot in Newfoundland.

Fin is a diffident, lonely man, settled into living out his life with trains. But when he moves into the depot, he is confronted with a garrulous Cuban hot dog vendor named Joe (played by Bobby Cannavale), who cheerfully sets up his van for business outside Fin's depot each morning. Despite his deft brush-offs, Fin can't discourage Joe into leaving him alone. Olivia, a sad, distracted artist who has recently lost her child, completes McCarthy's trio, and is portrayed by Patricia Clarkson. The story, a quotidian unfolding of mostly small events, shows how these three people repel and need one another. And that's about it.

"Try to describe this film to someone--a friendship between a dwarf, a hot dog vendor, and a bereaved mother--no one would see it," says Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, in an interview. "But these characters are beautifully drawn. They never feel overdone, and McCarthy isn't pandering to the audience." Following the film's opening in New York City and Los Angeles at the beginning of October, Anthony Lane in the New Yorker called The Station Agent "a fine movie." In the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell pronounced it "thoughtful and often hilarious . . . the kind of appetizing movie you want to share with others." There are murmurings of Oscar nominations for Cannavale, Clarkson, and Dinklage, and the film's first week's box office receipts represented the highest per-screen average of any movie showing in the country, according to the trade publication Daily Variety. The weekend of October 17 saw the film open in 20 major markets. By November 9 The Station Agent had taken in roughly $1,560,000 in gross sales, from 94 theaters.

Filming of The Station Agent began in the summer of 2002. In preparing to make his first movie, McCarthy sought out the expertise of one of his directing heroes, Sidney Lumet. The father-in-law of Bobby Cannavale, Lumet talked about the script with McCarthy and gave him advice about running a movie set. McCarthy says he watched Lumet's The Verdict over and over before the filming of his own movie began, in order to emulate the feel of the 1982 classic with Paul Newman and Charlotte Rampling.

Peter Dinklage as Finbar McBride in The Station Agent. Courtesy of Miramax Films

McCarthy had been forming his characters in his mind for some time, but he wrote the script for Dinklage, Cannavale, and Clarkson. The actors began rehearsing even as he and producer Mary Jane Skalski searched for financing. "Between the protagonist being a dwarf and my inexperience as a director, no one would touch the script," says McCarthy. His break came from SenArt Films, a two-year-old production company started by a former security industry executive. McCarthy had $500,000 to work with, enough for 20 days of filming. Actor friends from New York and elsewhere, including Fleabag alumni, converged on the New Jersey set to volunteer their help.

"I was barely holding it together," says McCarthy now. "Working with the actors is where I felt the most comfortable, but I was learning the technical stuff on the fly. You're the captain of this ship and you don't know how 80 percent of the ship works." The key members of his crew came from associations McCarthy had made on other productions as an actor. He met the cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, for instance, in the late 1990s while acting in The Citizen in Costa Rica. McCarthy shot his movie with Super 16 film to save money. He later had the final cut enlarged to standard 35 millimeter for showing in theaters.

After the lights went up at the first screening of The Station Agent at Sundance, recalls Skalski, "people got to their feet and cheered." Emanuel Levy, a film critic and scholar of independent filmmaking, was on the Sundance grand jury (with the director David O. Russell and the actors Forest Whitaker, Tilda Swinton, and Steve Buscemi), and he was present at the screening. "This is a 1,200-seat theater," he says. "And it's early in the morning, and it gets a standing ovation? I'm thinking, ‘This movie is playing very, very well.'"

Arianna Bocco, the acquisitions executive from Miramax, was also there. She got on the phone right away, trying to get in touch with the film's producers to let them know Miramax was interested in buying the distribution rights. Word got around Park City, and by the evening screening "every studio was there," says McCarthy. Again, a standing ovation followed the film. "If it wasn't the best night of my life, it was certainly one of the great ones," he says.

The next morning, business took over. Producers talked to agents who got together with buyers who phoned reps who powwowed with lawyers. All the while, the movie continued to impress audiences. "The next thing I hear, Harvey is coming in on the Miramax jet to screen the movie privately," says McCarthy, referring to the cochairman of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein screened the movie in Salt Lake City, met with McCarthy and his producers, and approved an offer. After
an all-night legal meeting, The Station Agent became a Miramax film for the reported price of $1.5 million. McCarthy went back to the condo he was sharing with Dinklage and Cannavale and woke them up. It was 5:30 a.m. "We had some scotch and just laughed a lot," he says. "This was a little movie made by a bunch of friends. What had happened over the last few days was just surreal--you really just had to laugh."

Since then, McCarthy's life has been a swirl of film festivals, special screenings, and media interviews. At a festival in San Sebastian, Spain, recently, the filmmakers and actors were chased down the road by autograph seekers after the movie was screened for 1,800 people. "It was like Beatlemania," says Dinklage.

For all that has happened, McCarthy seems, in his way, undistracted. He's concentrating on his acting at the moment, and will appear with Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, and Calista Flockhart in The Last Shot, a film comedy due out in 2004. He has a girlfriend, though they haven't seen much of each other lately, which he isn't very happy about, and a place in the Village in New York.

McCarthy says he's not ready to talk in detail about his next writing/directing effort. He will say only that it's "something about academia."

 

Tim Townsend '91 is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut.

 

Photos (from top):

Tom McCarthy at the Angelika Film Center,  New York City. By William Moree

 

Robert De Niro, Tom McCarthy, and Owen Wilson in Meet the Parents (2000). By Phillip V. Caruso/Universal Studios

 

The Newfoundland train station. By Tom McCarthy

 

Peter Dinklage as Finbar McBride in The Station Agent. Courtesy of Miramax Films

 

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