- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Depots like it can be found all over New Jersey,” Tom McCarthy says in describing the Newfoundland, N.J., train station featured in his directorial debut, “The Station Agent.” The film was acquired by Miramax at the last Sundance Film Festival and opens tomorrow at the Cinema Arts, Landmark Bethesda Row and Loews Georgetown.

Raised in New Jersey, Mr. McCarthy, one of five children, retains fond memories of a setting similar to the one in his film. “My father used to commute to work in New York City, where he worked for a textile company,” he explains. “We’d wait for him at the depot in the evenings when the weather was nice and walk home. There’s quite a bit of nostalgic appeal in trains for me.”

The particular depot in Mr. McCarthy’s movie is abandoned. It becomes the inherited residence of a reclusive dwarf named Fin, played by Peter Dinklage, an acting colleague from the New York theater whom Mr. McCarthy was keen on showcasing.

While “The Station Agent” was in preproduction, the novice writer-director was a member of the cast in a Broadway revival of Michael Frayn’s knockabout farce “Noises Off.” His stage credits also include “La Ronde,” “Hamlet,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “School for Wives” and “Twelfth Night.” He had supporting film roles in “Meet the Parents” and “The Guru” and TV roles on “Boston Public,” “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” “Spin City” and “Law & Order.”

Mr. McCarthy stuck close to home in choosing the Newfoundland location, and the proximity made things easier for his cast and crew, who had 20 days to complete the film on a modest budget of $500,000.

“One of my brothers lives in that area,” Mr. McCarthy says. “I visit on weekends. There were once massive houses and hotels near the lakes that also dot the landscape. It used to be a popular weekend resort for people who worked on Wall Street or in the entertainment business. I’m not sure why it declined. Maybe people started to shift upstate or to the Hamptons. There are still beautiful homes, and the residents sort of like the fact that it’s become less fashionable and more of a well-kept secret. It’s 50 minutes from the city, but it feels like Vermont or Maine.”

Emerging from acting ensembles as an independent filmmaker, Mr. McCarthy opted to write for a small group of actors he either knew personally or admired. “I met Peter when I directed him in a workshop theater piece I had written, ‘The Killing Act,’ which was about P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb,” he recalls. “I ran into Peter right before I started the movie script, and while he wasn’t the specific inspiration, I tailored the role of Fin for him. The idea of the character came first: someone very solitary and socially disconnected who was fascinated with trains, which are all about connecting.”

The positive responses to Mr. Dinklage have been especially gratifying to Mr. McCarthy. “Peter looks so good in this movie,” he observes. “He’s been making the magazine spreads as a new sex symbol. And that’s not entirely hype. He does very well for himself. It’s a tough task I gave him, because he’s in almost every frame, but Fin is reluctant to confide in anyone. There’s a sense of mystery about Peter. People feel he’s lived a life apart from their own and that he’s holding back emotionally.”

Mr. McCarthy also had worked with another principal cast member, Bobby Cannavale, on the stage. Cast as a cheerful and voluble vendor named Joe who insists on befriending Fin, Mr. Cannavale gets to be as outgoing as Mr. Dinklage is reserved. Mr. McCarthy did not personally know Patricia Clarkson, who plays a third misfit, Olivia, a despondent and lovelorn divorcee.

“I had admired Patty from afar,” he explains. “I was more of a fan than an acquaintance. We had never worked together. I think she’s one of the great American actresses, hands down. Very few have her range. She adjusts very easily from stage to screen to TV.”

Mr. McCarthy recalls the compressed shooting schedule as more of a burden for his cinematographer, Oliver Bokelberg, a relatively recent transplant from Germany. “I’d be blow-drying leaves for a shot, and Oliver would be shaking his head at the indignity of seeing a director stoop to such tasks,” the filmmaker says. “You do anything you need to get a shot. Oliver and I had to get everything we could out of each workday. Then we’d stay up planning the next day’s shot list until we conked out.”

Anticipating a second film, Mr. McCarthy says he believes he would hold out for a 30-day shooting schedule and 35 mm cameras. “The Station Agent” was photographed in Super16 and blown up for theatrical release. Nevertheless, he’s inclined to “keep it small” because “if you get too expensive, you become beholden to too many people.”

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