First-time screenwriter/director Tom McCarthy didn’t stray too far from home when he decided to make his debut film The Station Agent. The film, set and shot about twenty-five minutes away from where McCarthy grew up in rural New Jersey, is a small-town story about an out-of-towner new to small-town life. Finbar McBride, played by veteran independent film actor Peter Dinklage, is the reclusive dwarf obsessed with trains at the center of McCarthy’s stirring film about personal connections and disconnections.
Three years after McCarthy first dreamed up the story of The Station Agent, while he was still a fulltime actor, the film won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival 2003, where it was picked up by Miramax, and in October, opened with a wide theatrical release to great acclaim. McCarthy, who continues to work as an actor, says he came to screenwriting and directing as someone accustomed to playing characters, memorizing lines, and being directed by someone else. For The Station Agent, he wanted to draw from his own experiences as an actor, particularly with regard to the actor’s relationship to the director, while also staying true to his vision. “It’s a tough conflict,” McCarthy said. “Because you want to be a strong leader, and you also want to be collaborative.” Not to mention get a film made on a twenty-day shoot schedule and a $500,000 budget.
There wasn’t much time for improvisational work, but McCarthy believed in the strength of his writing and was happy to stick solidly to the script to make the film he had envisioned. Still, there was a lot to juggle. “I was learning 100 new things a day,” McCarthy recalls. On the other side of the camera for the first time, he used humor and humility to balance his instinct for control with his desire to let the actors develop on their own. “One of the last things you want to do is control the action. You want to encourage [the actors]. Without the actors, it doesn’t work. You want to welcome their creativity, welcome what they do best—act.”
The truth is that McCarthy had begun to anticipate the performances by his three lead actors since the script’s inception. He recalls running into his friend Peter Dinklage when he was still trying to flesh out his main character, which at the time McCarthy had only imagined as a recluse who would communicate the theme of disconnection. Over drinks, McCarthy and Dinklage, who stands 4’ 5” because of a genetic mutation called achondroplasia that causes dwarfism, discussed the script and the ideas McCarthy wanted to convey through the main character. That’s when McCarthy was first inspired by the creative possibilities of casting a dwarf as his main character.
The visual contrast of a dwarf with the people and objects in the world appealed to McCarthy, and he felt an audience would immediately understand that the character hated the attention he drew as a dwarf, and had retreated into himself as a result. After meeting with Dinklage, McCarthy continued writing the script, knowing that he was writing the part of the main character, Fin McBride, specifically for Dinklage. McCarthy also decided on actors for the two other main characters before finishing the script: the role of Olivia Harris, an artist who has lost her son, was written for Patricia Clarkson; and the role of Joe Oramas, a winsome street vendor with his café-in-a-truck parked on a deserted street, was for Bobby Cannavale.
McCarthy then crafted a story based on how he thought each of his characters would relate to one another if they met at a particular moment in time: Fin’s only friend has just died; Joe’s ailing father has just given him control of the family business; and Olivia is mourning the death of her son. Using circumstance as a vehicle, McCarthy tells the story of Fin’s unlikely inheritance of an old train depot in Newfoundland, New Jersey, where he moves with the hope of avoiding contact with other people. However, Joe, whose mobile café operates just outside of Fin’s new home, is anxious to befriend Fin, who ultimately gives in with a grudging tolerance. Meanwhile, the character of Olivia makes a kind of slapstick entrance with erratic driving that runs Fin off the road and into the woods.
McCarthy recalls that the characters often brought something new to the table that he did not anticipate, like in the scene where Emily (Michelle Williams), a young, attractive librarian, kisses Fin. “Michelle’s character’s kiss was a surprise. It was a response to desperate times, not about rationality. It was about responding emotionally.” However, as McCarthy explains, this kiss, as well as Fin’s earlier kiss with Olivia, falls in line with the theme of the movie. “Both kisses are about connection . . . [characters saying] I need connection, I need it desperately right now.” And, because Fin, as McCarthy is quick to note, is a strong character, others seek him out even if he seems to be ignoring them.
With its paint peeling and its corners cluttered and dusty, the train depot itself serves as a character in the film, as well as an unexpected element of stability, both because it has weathered time and because it is the initial draw for Fin’s move to Newfoundland. The train depot, which McCarthy refers to as “the soul of the film,” is based on a depot near his home when he was growing up, and McCarthy hoped that its inclusion in the film would evoke the same kind of emotional starkness that the wild west did in the John Ford classics like The Searchers and Fort Apache.
In the end, McCarthy claims that it was a trust in the original story and not the actual writing or directing of the film that demanded the biggest leap of faith. “It was like laying train tracks as the train was coming.” But there is a sense of calm in McCarthy’s voice as he relays this analogy, as though he was never really worried that the tracks wouldn’t be laid in time. McCarthy says that what he wanted was for the story to stay ahead of the audience. And, remarkably, in a movie where the intrusive neighbor is finally befriended, and the reclusive dwarf reaches out for relationships in the end, the story not only stays ahead, but also manages to be not at all obvious or formulaic.