To say that filmmaker Todd Field and leading actress Cate Blanchett are a meeting of minds would be an understatement. The Oscar‑nominated TÁR pair peel back the covers on their personal and professional friendship.

Before collaborating on TÁR, Cate Blanchett and Todd Field had met only once, a decade earlier, to discuss a different project that never came to fruition. But when Screen International joins them on Zoom in early February — Blanchett calling from East Sussex, England; Field from Los Angeles — they have the easy rapport of old friends, with a long shared history.

In a sense, they have shared a lifetime together. But it is the lifetime of Lydia Tár, the fictional composer created by former actor Field (making a comeback after 16 years with only his third film as a writer/director) and brought by Blanchett to astonishing, unvarnished reality. Tár is a woman at the peak of her career, psychically unravelling amid seemingly well-founded accusations of abuse, of the kind typically levelled at men.

Blanchett and Field are sharing the afterlife of Lydia Tár, too — a journey that has showered them with largely rapturous reviews and award nominations, including Oscar nods for best actress and director, as well as in the best picture, screenplay, cinematography (for Florian Hoffmeister) and editing (for Monika Willi) categories.

But, with a film so visceral and unafraid to punch certain cultural buttons, that journey has also brought them the heat of controversy. Not that this bothers them. In fact, they welcome even the negative responses TÁR has evoked, as they cheerily and amiably discuss this remarkable, difficult character they have parented.

What has surprised you most about the way people have responded to TÁR, now it has been released?

Cate Blanchett: One of the most rewarding things for me is encountering people I’m not related to saying they’ve seen the film three times. It’s like they’ve been emotionally shocked by it, and then they’ve gone back to try and intellectually process it. Which I never anticipated. I mean, certainly it was a very dense and dangerous experience making it, but how that experience has translated to audiences has superseded all my expectations. What about you, Todd?

Todd Field: I feel similarly. We had a screening a little while ago and the person moderating the discussion afterwards asked the audience, “How many of you have seen the film before?” And nearly half the hands shot up. Then he said, “Okay, how many times have you seen it?” One person said, “Nine times.”

Blanchett: That’s deeply concerning [laughs].

Field: But actually I’ve heard that number more than once!

Does it worry you at all to know some people are delving that deeply into your film, in terms of how intensely they might be scrutinising it?

Field: It’s a fair question. But, having been a projectionist in a second-run movie house, running six projectors every night during high school, I saw lots of movies hundreds of times. And the ones that engaged me, I know every cut of those pictures. So I don’t think it’s unusual. I think that occasionally a film activates something in a person where you can look at it more than once. But I never thought I was making a film that people would watch over repeat viewings like this.

Blanchett: It’s interesting you mention knowing all the cuts in those films that you’ve imbibed over and over, because TÁR is so exquisitely edited. The work you did with Monika was extraordinary. For a film about music, it has a rhythmic quality. I felt that on the first read of the screenplay — it made rhythmic sense.

Field: But I think it’s also obviously a testament to Cate’s artistry. There’s a reason that people are wondering about this character, and if she’s real. And that’s because Cate so utterly disappears within her skin. When Monika and I sat down to start cutting this, the very first scene with Lydia Tár and [The New Yorker staff writer] Adam Gopnik, within three minutes Cate had disappeared. And the problem was, we started to believe Lydia was real, too. It felt like we were cutting a documentary. So we really had to think, “Are we giving this real, living human being a fair shake? Are we being too kind or too cruel to her?” That was a tricky balance to contemplate.

How was that dilemma for you, Cate, as the person embodying this complex, problematic character? Do you have to sympathise with someone to play them effectively?

Blanchett: It’s not for me to judge a character. I’m not interested in that. I think you have to understand the circumstances and the atmospheres they find themselves in. For me, it quickly became clear that something was broiling within Lydia. You don’t know exactly what until you peel back the layers of the story-onion. What’s been interesting about the conversation that’s emanated from her personal crisis is that Todd, in almost an imperceptible way, has been able to weave in these questions of really vast moment.

That single person’s crisis comes to represent somehow a collective societal crisis. Once you reach, as Lydia has, a certain position of authority and power, how can you continue to evolve? Without wanting to sound too highfalutin, we’re asking ourselves that in the societies in which we live. How can we start again? How do we undo these toxic situations that we’ve found ourselves in?

The film has attracted some controversy. Were you anticipating the criticisms TÀR has received, with regard to its perspective on cancel culture and depiction of a woman as an abuser?

Field: Yeah. Our hope was that there would be a very lively discussion, informed by where people were coming from in their own lives, and that perhaps there would be some kind of ability in that debate for people to see things differently, in terms of expanding their own ideas and their own points of view. That’s a fairly high-flown goal for a movie, but we just wanted there to be a potent conversation, and it not just be a shrug or indifference about it.

Blanchett: The conversation was everything, as it was in the process of making it. I do think this is a film that will stand the test of time. And I don’t say that flippantly. I’m not trying to sell you a car [laughs]. But you have to be conscious of the time in which the film is first seen by a public. So all of that discourse is incredibly hot. People have identified their tribes, and the way they respond to anything has to fit into that tribal language. So that was absolutely to be expected. But there are very few places to have public, open, nuanced discourse about these huge things that are happening to us all collectively. When I was growing up, cinema, theatre, performing arts… The foyers of those places and the bars you rolled on to were the places that you started to try and pick that stuff apart. So… We knew it was going to be interesting!

Cate Blanchett  Todd Field with Dresdner Philarmonie©Lorenzo Zama

Source: Dresdner Philarmonie / Lorenzo Zama

Cate Blanchett and Todd Field on the set of ‘TAR’

When you first met more than a decade ago to discuss a different film, what did you see in each other that would eventually make this collaboration possible?

Blanchett: Obviously I knew Todd’s work, so that was a huge magnet. And then it was just the quality of conversation. I felt Todd was somebody I could talk to about anything. And he asks really interesting questions.

Field: Oh my goodness, Cate. Wow. [Laughs]

Blanchett: You do! Does that feel like it’s a lie?

Field: I don’t know, but it sounds wonderful. Can you tell my family what you just said? But that meeting was really important for me, because what Cate and I were talking about was another fascinating character — who was the creation of Joan Didion — in a script we had written together [political thriller As It Happens]. And we thought only of Cate for that role, even though I’d never met her. Cate and I sat down in New York and had a very long conversation. The way she talked about the film made me think I was talking to another great filmmaker who just happens to be one of the greatest actors who has ever lived. And who also is really one of the great intellectuals of our time…

Blanchett: [Blows a raspberry] Can you do my eulogy? [Laughs] It’s in my contract somewhere…

Field: [Laughs] All kidding aside, I’m not trying to be hyperbolic. I’m giving it to you straight, you know? I left that meeting so activated and so excited we would be making this film together that, unfortunately, never came to be. So it’s not for nothing that I thought about Cate when I started writing TÁR. But I wasn’t thinking about Cate because of her skill as an actor — I was thinking about the impression I was left with after that meeting, and what it would be like to be in dialogue with her and lock arms and make a film together. It was a nerve-wracking thing, because when I finished writing the script, of course she knew nothing about it. We hadn’t spoken in 10 years. I was really frightened she was going to say no, because there was no backup plan.

Blanchett: The thing is, when you get a call saying, “Todd Field’s written a script, which he’s going to direct,” in your mind you’ve already said yes. So then you open the script shaking, because you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. And this was a character that was… She’s beyond a character, in a way. She certainly stripped me bare.

What was the toughest scene to shoot, and how did you work together to get through it?

Field: By design, we were going to be doing all the conducting stuff at the end of the schedule. But we got told fairly late that it was going to be moved up front, because that was the only time we had available with the orchestra.

Blanchett: I had said to Todd, “I’m very slow. Maybe we could start [the shoot] with a couple of long shots of me walking by the camera for the first day. I’d really appreciate it.” He said, “Absolutely.” And then he called and said, “Here’s the thing, we’re gonna lose the orchestra.”

Field: That was really something, because we had to throw everything at that collectively. Because we had a very limited amount of time with this orchestra, there were challenges for Florian [Hoffmeister] in terms of lighting, and we had 95 camera set-ups the very first day; the camera has to be in a very specific place to where Cate is pointing for the tremolo, or where she’s pointing to the horns, or the contrabasses. There were challenges in terms of the sound team, and [costume designer] Bina Daigeler in terms of wardrobe changes with 100-plus people…

Blanchett: Also the orchestra themselves only had limited availability to rehearse.

Field: And we were asking them to not be a band for hire, and to actually perform as characters in significant supporting roles. But also Cate had to just jump off the cliff, and hopefully the wings she had grown were gonna work on the way down. And they did. It was remarkable.

Blanchett: For me, just from an emotional perspective, I viscerally understood what it felt like to be at the epicentre of that sound. So I knew the stakes for the character. But it was a strange gift, in a way. After that, there were so many technical and logistical things happening, like losing locations and constantly having to change, that I don’t think either of us slept at all. It felt like we were in this fever dream for the rest of the shoot. But it did feel like we’d hit the ground running: “If we can surmount that, then let’s just set the bar higher here and make the risk of falling and failure even greater!” [Laughs] That’s why it was so exhilarating. Just the experience of making it… I said it to you the other night, Todd [at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards]: “I’ll be stalking you from here to eternity, but this particular moment will never happen again.”

Do you plan to work together again?

Blanchett: Todd is a very secretive soul. I’ve made it blatantly clear that I’d love to work with him again. But yes, it’s interesting you ask that question. Um, Todd?

Field: I’ve got something cookin’ [laughs].

Blanchett: That’s all you’ll get. That’s all I’ll get… For another 10 years.

Field: Cate says that, but I’m gonna be just as nervous the next time I go to her. It’ll be the same thing. We’ll see. I’ll be lucky if I get to dance with her again.