WASHINGTON -- Tom McCarthy isn't ready to say he's made it. But he may be closer than he's willing to admit.
That's what happens when a first-time writer-director's movie -- in this case, The Station Agent, a quiet character study of three unlikely friends and the train tracks that help bring them together -- turns out to be a major hit at the Sundance Festival. It also helps when, within days, the movie gets picked up by Miramax for a cool $3.2 million. And a handful of glowing reviews don't hurt.
At the least, all that helps a man enjoy life a little bit more.
"One morning, the night after we sold the movie to Miramax," McCarthy begins, unable to suppress a grin at the memory, "I was sleeping, it was like 8 in the morning, and Pete [Dinklage, the movie's star], who had been out until like 6 in the morning, was there at the end of my bed. And he's saying, 'Tom, we have a press engagement.' "
Ah, the luxuries afforded by success. "It was for some small Park City radio station, and we'd just sold our movie to Miramax. I was like, 'Hey, we don't care anymore.' And he said, 'I am so glad you said that.' "
Not that McCarthy's boasting; it's more like a mix of relief and incredulity. Known until now for a handful of TV roles (Boston Public, episodes of Law & Order and Ally McBeal) and small movie parts (The Guru, Meet the Parents), McCarthy seems poised to make a far bigger splash on the other side of the camera. Nine months removed from the festival, safely ensconced in a Georgetown hotel room, he's glad to bask in the glow of a film that's far from conventional.
Sounds like a joke
Dinklage stars as Finbar McBride, a dwarf who inherits an abandoned railroad station in the tiny nowhere burg of Newfoundland, N.J. A train devotee who'd just as soon stare at an empty track than engage in actual conversation, he is eased out of his shell by the combined efforts of Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a gregarious neighborhood hot-dog vendor who doesn't know how to take no for an answer, and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a painter with some relationship issues of her own. By McCarthy's own admission, not much happens in The Station Agent; the drama comes from simply watching these three characters interact and slowly leaven each other's rough edges. It's a brave film for a director to make, especially a first-timer anxious for enough success to become a second-timer.
"True, nothing happens in a traditional, structured way," he admits, "but I'm all for that."
Still, think about it: Would you want to trust your future to a movie that sounds like the beginning of a joke? See, a dwarf, a hot-dog vendor and an artist walk into this bar ...
McCarthy laughs at the possible punch lines. The truth is, he says, that he didn't envision a dwarf as his central character at first. But then he ran into Dink-lage on the street, and all manner of light bulbs started turning on in his head.
Keeping it simple
"It was literally just a matter of running into Peter on the street and thinking, 'This would be really exciting if I could do this.'
"I mean, with Peter, here's a guy who visually ... we're going to understand why this guy disconnects, we're not going to need a back story, we're not going to need flashbacks, we're not going to have to be told why. We're going to see a few people looking at him in the opening scene and realize, if you were Peter, you'd feel disconnected, too."
But in a sense, McCarthy contends, Fin is very much a traditional cinematic character.
"I think he is a bit of an anti-hero," Fin's creator says. "I think he is a bit in the mold of John Wayne, Steve McQueen. He's really handsome, he's quiet, he's strong, he has a lot of integrity, he doesn't put up with a lot of bull, he only talks when he needs to, doesn't waste his time on trivial banter. And he's polite. He's not rude, he's just not overly effusive. I think people can relate to that a little bit."
And then there's Cannavale's Joe, who's effusive to spare. As garrulous as Fin is quiet, he's a perfect counterbalance to his newfound friend. And yet, the two aren't as dissimilar as they might seem.
"Joe is as cut off as Fin is," McCarthy says, "but he's not a guy who likes to be disconnected. He's calling New York all the time to find out what he's missed, to find out what's been said about him.
"And somewhere between those two is Olivia, who wants to be connected, but isn't very good at it. You get the sense, when her ex-husband comes in, that these guys were an urban-suburban couple, probably lived in New York at some point, were very sophisticated. ... She came from a very different life."
The Station Agent is all about watching these three characters grow on each other, and the film's success rests on their ability to grow on audiences as well. McCarthy doesn't see that as a problem.
"I feel like we all know these people," he says. "In a way, it's like the old Westerns. You've got the stranger coming into town on the train, and life revolves around the depot. You've got the woman in distress, and then there's the package store, and the church. You've got all the elements of a frontier town.
"In my mind," McCarthy notes, "it was just a matter of keeping it simple. I just kept coming back to that."