The Woodsman arrives at a time when pedophilia is the one guaranteed hot-button topic across the entire politico-cultural spectrum. (Read the review) Yet despite the disturbing subject matter it’s at heart a quiet character study of Walter, an ex-convict pedophile expertly played by Kevin Bacon. Co-screenwriter and first-time director Nicole Kassell keeps an unflinching focus on Walter, helping the audience understand (if not forgive) his compulsions and conflicts. Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon’s real-life wife, plays Walter’s unexpected adult love interest Vicki, herself both a victim and a survivor. Grin without a Cat’s Editor-in-Chief Adam Blair got a chance to speak with all three, learning about the project’s transition from stage to screen and the collaborative conflicts that created the finished film.
Nicole Kassell: “I personally don’t want to live in a world in which I don’t believe people can change.”
Q: What was your inspiration for doing a film about pedophiles?
NICOLE KASSELL: The Woodsman is based on a play that the co-writer, Steven Fechter, had written. I saw the play, not knowing what it was about or looking to do an adaptation, and I was just so profoundly affected that I felt it was a really important story to tell. I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I pursued the playwright and asked him to let me take it on. After a bit of negotiation, because I had nothing to show at the time, he agreed, based on his being the co-writer.
Q: Were you still in NYU’s graduate film school at the time?
KASSELL: Yes, I was, and I had only done one short film, so I did a first draft on spec to show him I was serious about it, and to show him what I was thinking. I think he was impressed by both, and so he agreed to let me option the material.
Q: How different is the play from the movie? I know they’re totally different media, but were there a lot of changes in the characters and situations?
KASSELL: I think it’s quite different but the heart is still there. All the workplace scenes in the film didn’t exist in the play. The play was very minimal — just Walter on the stage, and characters would enter and exit; there was no set, just three simple chairs. And Walter’s character evolved a lot in the making of the film; in the play he was much more extroverted, and kind of aggressive and sarcastic, and in the adaptation I was able to make him much quieter and understated and internalized, because it was a visual medium, and the face would speak a thousand words.
Q: Can you talk about how either the character or the script changed once Kevin became involved? How did the two of you work on creating the character?
KASSELL: Once Kevin became involved, we sat down one on one and read the script together. I would play the actor across from him, and then we would stop and discuss the scene. If something didn’t ring true to him, he would bring it up; and if it was important to me, it was my homework to go home and think about why it was so important, to convince him, or lead him to that place — or to cut it. I think of Kevin as this incredible truth barometer. If there was anything extraneous or out of character to him, he would bring it up to me, and then we would go back and forth to see if it could go.
Q: What were some of the fundamental changes to a scene?
KASSELL: The scene we probably grappled with most was the park bench scene with the little girl. Ultimately we were grappling over one paragraph of dialogue, which we got down to two lines. He was happy to see the whole paragraph go and I had to fight for the two lines; and I got the two lines. But it was always a very constructive and valuable conflict; because he couldn’t have acted it unless he agreed with it.
Q: Was that scene in the play?
Q: Word for word?
KASSELL: No. The play was so much more dialogue-heavy — while a lot of the scenes are almost word for word, they’re still probably five pages shorter than in the play. We cut it back from the play a lot; it was much more simplified in the film. But we shot one scene, and then we also edited it down even further in the cutting room. But that scene was very much the heart of the play.
Q: Who did you imagine as Walter when you wrote the script?
KASSELL: I had a wish list. I knew it was going to be my first feature; I thought it would be a credit-card, low low low budget indie digital movie, even though I had my fantasy list. Kevin was right there on that list, and I just can’t believe that he took the part.
Q: The film is very assured, but on that first day of shooting, did you have butterflies in the stomach?
KASSELL: Absolutely. Fortunately there was no dialogue on the first day; it was just ‘Walk up these stairs.’ It was beyond exhilarating. And there are funny things — I didn’t know about the whole food thing, that I could walk up and order my breakfast and not have to pay. But I had to get over it really fast, and get comfortable. I worked with Kevin a lot before shooting, so it wasn’t like I’d never met him before.
Q: The character of Vicki wasn’t as developed in the play; could you talk about her?
KASSELL: Vicki was still a key character in the play, but I’d say she’s more evenly dispersed throughout the film. Again, because the workplace scenes didn’t exist in the play, the only scenes with her were the bedroom or apartment scenes with Vicki, so her presence in the outside world was part of the adaptation. It was kind of surprising to realize, as we developed the script, that it was also very much a love story between these two very damaged characters.
Q: Did you find it at all surprising that Walter would be able to relate, physically, to a woman his age?
KASSELL: I didn’t find it surprising, but I found it essential. If Walter is going to have any hope, or rehabilitation — I use that word cautiously, because I’m not saying he’s cured — but if he’s going to be able to walk the straight and narrow, a key factor to his being rehabilitated is being able to identify to a woman his age, to have a healthy, intimate relationship with somebody who is his peer.
Q: Were you going after a wider audience when you chose Eve and Mos Def?
KASSELL: From the beginning of the making of the film, even in the writing stage, it was essential to me that this was a diverse cast in this world that we created, because that’s the world I live in. Lee Daniels signed on to produce, and he’s a black filmmaker-producer. Kevin talks about one of the really fun thing in casting this film — we would look at the characters, but we weren’t casting for race or age. I mean, Mary Kay’s character was written as a middle-aged white woman, and Kevin was like ‘How about Eve?’ And why not? And the part that Mos Def took, Sgt. Lucas — at one point we were considering having a woman play that part.
I just love when we all get together and we look at the diversity of this cast and the women and men involved — to me it’s a real role model; may all filmmaking continue to be this way.
Q: Your film presents two pedophiles, one who specifically preys on young boys. Were you worried at all about perpetuating this religious right idea, that pedophilia is a recruiting method for homosexuals?
KASSELL: No, I was worried more about saying ‘Oh, so the worse offender is the homosexual one.’ But the reason I created that dynamic is that Walter has a thing for young girls, and I didn’t want to depict only that kind of scenario, because the fact is that it crosses all genders and ages. I was really just trying to depict the different ways in which it could come out.
Q: Can you talk about Kevin’s style as an actor and a person? I know you said you were able to cut a lot of dialogue because he was so expressive — can you talk about what he personally brought?
KASSELL: One of the things Kevin told me up front when we were rehearsing is that he would always give me something a little different with each take, and that was true. So because we’d done so much work together and we were so on the same page of who this character was, I was really able to let him go once we were rolling, and see where he was going to go. If it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, I would tweak until I got what I wanted, but often I would do two more takes that was just his thing, to see what he was doing.
Q: The subject of pedophilia is so hot-button and controversial — has the film gotten any protests? Have you heard about anyone objecting to the film or the portrayal?
KASSELL: There have not been protests. There have been objections to it only by people who have heard what it’s about, not by people who have seen it.
Q: What is your reaction to that?
KASSELL: Please watch the film. I’m happy to enter into a conversation with anyone who has given it a chance.
Q: Is rehabilitation possible? You’ve done a lot of research — I think a lot of people think the leopard will never change its spots, but is that wrong?
KASSELL: I hope so. I personally don’t want to live in a world in which I don’t believe people can change. But I think in terms of public opinion, [people believe] there’s a 100% re-offending rate, but that’s not the case. The research has shown that with treatment, the recidivism rate drops drastically. Like an alcoholic can reform, I do believe an offender can, but it takes a lot, a lot, a lot of work.
Q: Do you think that if a pedophile saw this film that they might see a reason to heal themselves after watching it?
KASSELL: I hope so. I guess if an offender saw this film, my hope would be that they see that they’re not alone in their struggle, but all of these safety measures need to be in place. They need help.
Q: Do you have another project coming up?
KASSELL: I’m doing an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, for Michael Douglas.
Kevin Bacon: “The days are long since over when I was afraid that somebody wouldn’t find me cute.”
Q: What was your preparation like for this role?
KEVIN BACON: I have a pretty similar preparation for pretty much anything. I like to do an autobiography of the character. I start with whatever information I’ve been given from the script; if it’s something like Mystic River I have a book to draw on. And I start with, I was born in Philadelphia, my parents’ names were Jack and Mary, I have a brother and 2 sisters — if it’s not there I make it up.
I continue on to ask myself questions that maybe will be important or maybe won’t be, but it’s important for me to know the answer to them: Do I drink coffee or do I drink tea? What kind of music do I like? What’s my favorite color? Then I take all that stuff, all that history, including in this case the 12 years in prison, and think about how it would manifest itself in the character externally. I don’t necessarily want him to walk like I would — it’s about how does Walter walk, how does he talk, how does he look, what’s his hair and makeup — all those pieces of the puzzle are going into the character.
Q: Did you interview any pedophiles?
Q: Did you read the literature, do any research?
BACON: Yeah. Nicole had done a lot of research, had a lot of literature and psychological profiles, case histories.
Q: What was the most surprising thing that you learned?
BACON: I don’t know about surprising — I suppose how widespread this issue is was kind of shocking to me. Once you have kids you start to become more hyper-tuned to it, you start to notice these stories in the paper, and in schools in elsewhere, people start saying ‘Talk to your kids, look at the signs, make sure you teach them how to defend themselves.’ Even so, you aren’t really aware of how widespread it is.
We’ve been all over the world with The Woodsman, countless screenings and Q&A sessions, everywhere we go people say ‘This is a real problem here.’ Often they’ll say, thanks for making the movie, because people are pretending this doesn’t exist or not talking about it, or in some way demonizing it in films. And you just have to see if we can figure out a way to stop this.
Q: Is there any particular message you want the audience to take away?
BACON: I think just to open up a discussion, to get people thinking about it, talking about it. I don’t think the movie is saying ‘This is what we do about the problem, this is the magic bullet,’ because there isn’t one. I just wanted to tell one guy’s story, and if it sparks some kind of dialogue about this very tragic situation, then I think it would be good.
Q: What did the city of Philadelphia, since it’s your hometown, add to the movie? What was it like shooting it there?
BACON: It was great. Walter is getting out of prison and coming home, and I left home when I was 17 and I haven’t lived there since then, although I’ve obviously visited a lot. My father still lives in the same house that I grew up in, and it was a couple of blocks from the hotel Kyra and I were staying in. These are the streets that I spent 0 to 17 in, and that is definitely a nice emotional source to tap into, because you go through a lot of feelings and have a lot of experiences, good and bad, by the time you’re 17. I didn’t pick Philly but it was kind of perfect.
Q: Is this the biggest risk you’ve ever taken with your career, playing this part?
BACON: You know, I don’t know. I don’t look at it as a risk in the sense of oh, people won’t like me, or it will change Kevin Bacon’s image. I mean, I really couldn’t give a shit about Kevin Bacon’s image. All I want to be judged on is the work; I’m not trying to put across anything. The days are long since over when I was afraid that somebody wouldn’t find me cute, or whatever the hell it is. I’m just an actor. In terms of who I am, that’s more something that my family knows, my friends, children and wife know — that’s not something I’m worried about.
The risk is more about, will we put our heart, and soul, and time, and work for free, and spend month after month on the road with the movie, and put ourselves out there — and [the risk is] nobody will see it. I don’t make films just for my friends and family — I’d like some people to see it. We didn’t know, having made the movie, if we’d get distribution. We went to Sundance without distribution, and luckily Bob Berney at Newmarket Films was courageous enough to take it on.
And the risk is also, will I do a good job? Will I play the part? Will I be able to make it work? Will Nicole Kassell, as a first-time director, be able to realize this vision that she’s lived with for so long.
Q: What was the hardest part of the role for you?
BACON: I think just living with that shame all the time, tapping into that shame every day, and making sure that it was always there.
Q: Can you talk about Loverboy?
BACON: Loverboy is a book that Kyra and I optioned; we developed the screenplay, and I directed it after we had finished The Woodsman. It’s the story of a woman who has this passion to have a child, and she gets pregnant — there’s no man involved, there was in the pregnancy but he’s out of the picture now. She has a son and tries to create this insular, kind of utopian world for the two of them to live in. And the little boy, as all kids will do, decides to step out and experience other things outside in the world, and she’s incapable of letting him go, and it has these kind of tragic consequences. And we come to realize that she’s unstable. We’re going to premiere it at Sundance, and we’ll be back in the same situation that we are now, trying to roll it out.
Q: Do you like directing vs. acting? Do they feed each other?
BACON: I like them both. I think acting is kind of a young man’s gig in a way; you have to sit around waiting for the phone to ring, you’re working for the man, people are messing around with your clothes all the time, and putting makeup on you and tinkering with your wardrobe. I find it ultimately kind of emasculating. I think that most people, by the time you have a successful career, and you’re in your 40s or even late 30s, you’re usually running the show. So I think it’s kind of a natural extension for actors — you see actors do it often. They spend so much of their lives on a set, they say, ‘Let me be calling the shots every once in a while.’
That being said, it’s really about having a story that you want to tell. Because all directing is is storytelling. With everything you do you tell the story, with the shots, the casting, the direction, the wardrobe, hair, editing, it’s all just about telling these stories.
Q: Both you and Kyra are excellent in the film. Are you the exception to the rule that says couples shouldn’t act together?
BACON: I wish I had some examples. I mean Paul [Newman] and Joanne [Woodward] obviously did O.K. Kyra was very very reticent to take the part, based on this time-honored ‘curse,’ or she was afraid it would take people out of the film or be distracting. I convinced her, first that I thought we could do it as actors, second that she was the perfect person for the part. I don’t think we can be accused, in a movie like The Woodsman, of trying to trade on some kind of a tabloid relationship.
Q: I have to ask, does it make the sex scenes any easier?
BACON: I don’t think it makes them easier. I think it’s important to note that the sex scenes are not a glimpse into Kyra and Kev’s bedroom. That’s Walter and Vicki, that’s the way they’re making love.
Doing those kinds of scenes, I tend to feel more concerned with the woman than I do for myself, because I think it’s just a more difficult, vulnerable place for a woman to go — because the crew is usually male, and it’s generally more difficult. If anything the concerned was heightened, because the woman happened to be my wife.
Q: The scene on the bench with the girl — Nicole said that was one scene where you had quite a bit of discussion.
BACON: Yeah. We did.
Q: You wanted to cut a lot of the dialogue.
BACON: There were a lot of things that I didn’t think worked; I think they were vestiges of the play; and there was a lot of stuff that she really loved that was left from the play. And movies are movies and theater is theater. And there was also something kind of fundamentally that we weren’t quite connecting on. But it doesn’t really matter, because the scene really works.
I think it would someday be an interesting film class, to see the different rewrites the scene went through as Nicole and I battled it out, up until the shooting, and then the scene that we shot, and then the scene that it ended up being from the editing standpoint. Because there’s a lot of the scene that’s not there.
Q: Are there specifics that you miss about Philly?
BACON: Oh, yeah, but I got them all delivered to my trailer. Cheese steaks, and cannoli and hoagies — they all came my way.
Kyra Sedgwick: “I think this film questions one’s ability to forgive — certainly never to forget.”
Q: What was the preparation for this role, Kyra?
SEDGWICK: I prepare for it like any other role; I make a biography for the character, think about who they are, where they come from, what their life has been like before the movie starts. You know, family situation, how they dress, how they eat, what kind of music they like. I’m very interested in the history of the character.
Q: Was it easy to do this character knowing that the person you fall in love with is a pedophile, or was a pedophile at one time?
SEDGWICK: I think that we sometimes don’t have a choice about who we fall in love with. I don’t think she falls in love with him knowing anything about him; I think she falls in love with him because of who he is at his essence. What she sees is a man who has a lot of good in him, and what she learns about him is that he’s a man who has a lot of good in him who also has a lot of demons in him, who has done some bad things, and is struggling to get well. I think she thinks that’s beautiful and ultimately redeeming enough to stay with him. But initially she falls in love with him knowing very little about him.
Q: Have you given any thought to what might happen to these people after the movie is over?
SEDGWICK: I think that he struggles with recovery one day at a time. I think that it’s possible that he may fall again. My hopeful nature is that he will stay on the right path to wellness, but that he will understand that he has an incurable disease that he needs to be vigilant about.
Q: Is that the way you see it, that his problem is in fact a disease, something that he can’t help?
SEDGWICK: Absolutely. It’s an illness. To me, it’s like being an alcoholic or a drug addict.
Q: This is such a despicable subject — what made you decide to do this film?
SEDGWICK: Well, I live in the real world, and there are a lot of people who are very sick in this world, and I think that the greatest thing that we can do as human beings is to try and understand each other, to have compassion for each other — that’s what separates us from the animals. I find it to be a subject that people may not want to talk about but is prevalent everywhere. And if it starts a dialogue, that’s the greatest thing we can do. This isn’t anything that’s going to go away.
I think this film questions one’s ability to forgive — certainly never to forget. But I mostly find this movie to be a journey about a really sick guy who is trying with every cell in his body to get well. I feel like I struggle every day to be a better person, I struggle with my own demons.
Q: What do you look for in a role?
SEDGWICK: What I look for in a role is a depth of character, something I can do something with. I don’t care about the size of the role, I don’t care if it’s a cameo. I like to try and choose roles that are different from the last thing that I played. My interest lies in exploring the human condition. Often flawed characters — I like if my characters have a sense of humor about themselves, I don’t like them to be too serious. I’m really looking for a comedy — let me put that out in the universe, in a really big way!
Q: What are the plusses of acting with your husband? You must get something out of it, you’ve done it a couple of times.
SEDGWICK: We’ve done it very rarely, this is the first time in many years — he did a small part in Cavedweller for me as a favor, being the producer. I thought he would be great in that character and I just wanted him to do it.
The plusses are that he is an extraordinary actor — when you throw the ball at him you know you’re going to get a lot back. And he is an incredibly supportive man, and fellow actor, and he’s really there in every way for the other person.
Q: Do both of you take your characters home with you, and if so, what must that be like?
SEDGWICK: I think what both these characters share is a deep sense of shame; Walter for the obvious reasons; Vicki, although she is the victim, often I think victims feel complicit in the abuse. I know that for myself, I know that for those people I’ve spoken to who have been abused. There’s a great deal of shame that these characters share.
Though we’re grown-ups and we’ve been in this business a long time, and we don’t take it home as much as you would think, you have to keep that shame thing right there, to easily access it.
Q: What was your reaction to the script?
SEDGWICK: It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, if not the best script I’ve ever read. It was spare, it was sparse, it was clean, didn’t have a lot of fat on it. It was a powerful story on paper. I had all these conflicting emotions reading it, but by the end I was really rooting for him not to screw up again, not just for the child’s sake but for his own, because I had grown to really invest in him.
Q: I wonder if there had been any discussion during the development stage of the fact that pedophiles are attracted to very young girls, and why Walter was attracted to an older woman, a woman his own age?
SEDGWICK: I don’t know that he was, actually. I get the sense that he thought she was gay, for one thing. She pounces on him, she seduces him.
Q: Yeah, but they have good sex.
SEDGWICK: I think that it’s possible. He probably went into it thinking, oh my God, am I going to be able to be aroused here? But in terms of the actual development of the script, that would really be something you would have to ask Nicki. She’s done a great deal of research about everything, and I think she felt very obligated, as we all did, to tell a story that could happen.
Q: What was it like working with a first-time director? And what are you typically looking for from a director?
SEDGWICK: You know, I’ve worked with so many first-time directors — they don’t hire me again …
Q: What does that say?
SEDGWICK: And I’m so nice to work with, I really am, and I’m sure they’d all say nice things about me. What do I look for? When someone says O.K., it’s a first-time director, you sit down with this person and talk about the script, you talk about the shooting, you talk about your character, you talk about how they see the film, and then you leave the meeting. Then your agent calls you and says ‘Well, what do you think?’ ‘Well, he’s nice, she’s nice.’ ‘Well, do you think he can do it?’ And I have no idea; I couldn’t tell you. I mean, I know when I think someone’s an idiot, but it doesn’t mean they’re a bad director or they can’t put a movie together. It’s such a crapshoot, the whole thing is such a roll of the dice, even when you’re working with someone amazing who has done other things. You just don’t know.
What I want in a first-time director is someone who really has respect for me and for what I can bring to the table — that’s very important to me. You know, I’ve been in this business a long time, and I want to feel like my commitment will be heard and listened to. I like to feel that the director is going to be able to manage a crew and a set, in a nice, human way, not yell and scream — I’m too old for that too.
Q: Did that happen here? Did you feel you had input with Nicole?
SEDGWICK: She was very collaborative. Certainly there were discussions about scenes I had questions about, things were changed or added. I think the greatest thing about Nicole is that she was able to say ‘I don’t know’ sometimes.
The other thing that’s great about her is she has this quiet wisdom and quiet power to her. She’s done a tremendous amount of research on the script — she co-wrote the thing, but she also has commitment to this material, a commitment to Vicki, a commitment to me. Another great thing is that she didn’t sit by the monitor, she sat next to the camera, and just sat there with you, journeying with you through these really difficult emotional scenes.
Q: What’s the first movie that you remember seeing, and what kind of impression did it make on you?
SEDGWICK: I think it was a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, probably Top Hat or something like that. And I just thought it was magical and mythical and beautiful.
Q: Did you become a musicals buff after that?
SEDGWICK: You know I really liked old movies, black-and-white movies. I’d flip the channels and look for a black-and-white film. And I still do, and my kids are like ‘What?’ It’s so funny, I was obsessed with them. My mother and I would curl up at the TV and watch Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movies, we watched His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell.
Q: Did you wish you could dance like Ginger Rogers?
SEDGWICK: Yes, but I knew I never could.
Q: Did you take lessons?
SEDGWICK: I did, and I was a good ballet dancer, but I could never do jazz or partner dancing. But I do love to dance and sing. I hope to be like Brooke Shields and have another career in musicals.
Q: What’s your next project?
SEDGWICK: We’re going to Sundance with Loverboy, that Kevin directed and I star in and we both produced. I got nominated for a Best Actress Independent Spirit Award for Cavedweller, a Lisa Cholodenko film. I don’t know, job-wise I’m really not sure. But I’m really looking for a comedy!
Q: Are you thinking about directing one?
SEDGWICK: Directing? I produce. I just don’t think I have the eye for it. I mean I think you have to have a sense of the whole. I have a sense of the whole as an actor in a piece, but the technical aspects of how I would shoot a scene, the leitmotif, the mise-en-scene. Maybe it was my fault, because I studied film a lot so I know all the things I can’t do right. Kevin has that mindset, of knowing how it’s all going to fit together. I just don’t think I’d have the stuff.