It was the heart of winter when Tár writer-director Todd Field and editor Monika Willi unexpectedly took up residency at a 15th century Scottish nunnery outside Edinburgh. They had intended to meet up in London, but another COVID-19 lockdown in early January 2022 waylaid their plans. As it turned out, the nunnery and the silence were a perfect environment to foster the filmmaker’s storytelling tempo and sense of discipline. Amid long walks watching the seasons slowly change, he and Willi got to work, spending nearly four months stringing together the melody of his first film in 16 years.
Tár stars Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár, a fictional world-renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic who is brought down for exploiting power to pursue relationships with younger protegées, including a woman who commits suicide. The maestro is in denial regarding the influence of social media in the age of cancel culture; contributing to her undoing is a searing, impolitic exchange she has with a BIPOC Juilliard student that goes viral. While Field and Blanchett consider the film something of a fairy tale in that no top-tier orchestra today is led by a female conductor, Tár nevertheless upends the prevailing narrative in making a powerful woman a potential predator.
Tár has major Oscar ambitions and is widely expected to earn Blanchett her fifth nomination for best actress, as well as land a spot in the best picture race and other top categories. The Focus Features film has done relatively well for an art house pic, grossing nearly $4 million to date since its early October release, but is having a tough time striking a chord with mainstream audiences.
Field is a maestro in his own right, at least metaphorically. He studied music in college before setting his sights on the movie business (and his acting credits include Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, in which he played a jazz pianist). Field’s directorial debut, the 2001 drama In the Bedroom, scored five Oscar nominations, including for best picture. The only other film he’s directed until now was the acclaimed Little Children, which played in theaters in 2006. Several high-profile projects came his way in the intervening years, including the possibility of directing a political thriller written by Joan Didion, but they fell apart. Nor did he have interest in directing a studio tentpole based on superheroes or other IP.
Then, when the pandemic struck, Focus told him he could write anything he wished. “I sat down and started writing. It was a sprint, to be honest with you. It came together in about 12 weeks,” he says. “The studio gave me no notes and let me do exactly what I wanted. I have no excuses. If anybody has any problems with the film, then they can point their finger at me. It’s the most creatively free I’ve ever felt.”
Focus executives weren’t the only ones who were blown away by the script. “I inhaled it,” says Blanchett. “I had never read anything like it. Psychologically, it was totally uncompromising. It was a rhythmic challenge, and it dives into a world that I knew precious little about.”
Blanchett didn’t initially know that Field wrote Tár with her in mind, and her alone (they first met a decade ago, to discuss the Didion project). The actress, who was in Budapest shooting Eli Roth’s sci-fi action-comedy Borderlands when she received Field’s script, immediately said yes.
The director says he has long wanted to explore the structure of power. “If the story was about a white male, you’d know how to feel in five seconds,” he says. “But it was important to try to figure out another way to examine power itself. It seemed like there was perhaps a more nuanced way to look at the behavior as opposed to the mask.”
Blanchett says much the same thing. “We understand white male corruption. If you had a man in that role, it would have been a story about that, whereas Tár is so much more,” Blanchett says. “I do think that’s why I found it so challenging. I felt it was all up in the air and we weren’t trying to pin it down. We were just trying to have the conversation. I hope audiences can go into it to experience the film, not thinking about the politics of it. The gift for me was that there were also many physical things that I had to prepare for — the piano, the conducting, the reading of the score, the musical reference points.”
She continues: “It’s interesting that the character has been called a predator by various people. I think it’s reductive. That’s not what Tár is about. That is why I’ve been so reticent to talk about the film, because I feel it operates on so many levels.”
Blanchett didn’t want to talk about the film in relation to some of the high-profile men she’s worked with who have since been canceled, including Woody Allen (she won her first best actress Oscar for Allen’s Blue Jasmine).
Field says he could have set the story in any industry but chose the classical music world: “A concert band itself is shaped in a pyramid shape, and the fulcrum, the tip of that shape, is the conductor.”
Blanchett started prepping for the role in the early fall of 2020. She took German lessons and picked up the piano again (she’d played as a child). Because of the pandemic, she couldn’t see a real symphony in action, so she watched video after video of different conductors without the sound on. “Thank goodness for YouTube,” says Blanchett. She also worked with Natalie Murray Beale, a conductor whom she knew, and found a concert pianist in Budapest to help with her lessons.
Field had to deal with one caveat when assembling his crew and cast: He and Focus wanted the department heads and crew to be European, both for budgetary reasons and to make the story feel more authentic, given that most of Tár is set in Berlin. “For much of the last 16 years, I’ve either been writing or working in advertising, so I’m used to dealing with a lot of new people. But in this case, there wasn’t a single person I’d worked with before,” he says.
One of his first calls was to German production designer Marco Bittner Rosser, who has worked on a number of Hollywood productions shot in Germany or elsewhere in Europe, including Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Rosser was captivated, both by the storyline — “What the hell is this?” he remembers thinking — and the challenges of executing Field’s vision. “Todd wanted to shoot on location, rather than only build sets,” says Rosser.
Also an architect, Rosser began scouting potential locations all over Germany for the rehearsal venue where Lydia Tár prepares to record Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. He and his local team came upon the Dresden Hall, home of the Dresden Philharmonic. The new concert hall was vineyard style, where the seating surrounds the stage, only 18 months old and had barely been used because of the pandemic. It was perfect. There was more good news: The Dresden Philharmonic was willing to be in the film. But first, the members had to vote as to whether they would be willing to work more than four hours a day. Throughout Europe, orchestras — as reflected in the movie — operate as a democracy and vote on all key decisions.
Actors are intermingled among the real Dresden orchestra musicians seen in Tár. That includes German actress Nina Hoss, who plays Lydia’s wife, Sharon — they have a young daughter — and is the first violinist. (Hoss is a late bloomer in terms of the violin, but Tár is actually the second film in which she plays the instrument, after 2019’s The Audition.)
On a more psychological note, Hoss said she was struck by how those close to Lydia, including her character, enable what some might deem bad behavior, such as when Lydia insists on hiring a young Russian cellist, played by newcomer Sophie Kauer. It’s obvious that Hoss’ character, Sharon, is worried, but she stays silent. “Nothing is black and white. It’s all very nuanced and complicated, and Sharon is actually the one who organizes things the way Tár wants them to be,” says Hoss.
French actress Noémie Merlant, the breakout star of acclaimed indie film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was selected to play Francesca, Tár’s assistant. “This script is a masterpiece. I’ve never read something like it. And I think it was so risky to put a female in the main role and at the same time so intelligent,” says Merlant. “Lydia Tár has had to go through a lot of things to be part of a world that is completely patriarchal. And it’s interesting to talk with people after seeing the movie. It leaves you with a lot of questions, but no answers.”
Field’s own prep included reaching out to John Mauceri, a conductor and author who for years conducted the L.A. Philharmonic’s “movie night” at the Hollywood Bowl. “He was incredibly helpful in terms of just getting me across the river so that people didn’t point and say, ‘You got it wrong,’ ” says Field. When coming up through the conducting ranks, Mauceri was an assistant to Leonard Bernstein, who ranks among the most iconic conductors of the 20th century. In the film, Lydia likewise once worked under Bernstein.
None of the characters in Tár are based on real-life people, but Field paid homage subtly to Bernstein and others in the classical music world. In the “other” category is the late Gilbert Kaplan, a successful businessman who became a guest conductor of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at major orchestras around the world.
Field is a huge admirer of Kaplan, who died in 2016. The filmmaker hasn’t spoken much publicly about the connection between Gilbert Kaplan and the character Elliot Kaplan. Played by British actor Mark Strong, Elliot is a flush New York financial player who bankrolls Lydia’s foundation promoting young female conductors, in pursuit of his own conducting ambitions. Put another way, Elliot isn’t the greatest guy. “Mark’s character is Kaplan in name only,” says Field. “Gil Kaplan is a shining example of absolute courage and inspiration. He made a huge, huge contribution to classical music.”
Field didn’t touch down in Berlin until June 2021 for the European portion of the shoot, but had spent several months prepping in earnest, as well as shooting some scenes that take place in New York City. Field wanted long, sustained shots, as well as subtle lighting, and sought out German cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, who had caught Field’s eye for his work on AMC’s The Terror. Field’s approach “resonated deeply with me,” says Hoffmeister. “In so many instances, we as cinematographers use tools, like tracking, to increase the emotional tension. All that went out the window. Todd didn’t want us to do that at all.” The DP connects this choice to the tone of the script. “I thought about it and said to myself, ‘OK, this is a form of detachment.’ “
In total, the Tár shoot was 65 days, with Field and some of his team going to Asia, for crucial third-act scenes, after wrapping in Berlin. Next came the editing process amid the stillness at the nunnery, where Willi says much of the challenge had to do with soundwork. Field wanted the sound, and score, to be as subtle as the camerawork.
The film’s score is by acclaimed Icelandic musician and composer Hildur Gudnadóttir, who in 2020 became only the fourth woman to win the Oscar for original score, for her work on Joker. (She also scored another film in this year’s awards race, Women Talking.)
Her Tár score is understated and often barely heard by the audience. And some of her compositions were meant to inform Blanchett’s character, and were piped into earpieces worn by the actress, and Field, during certain scenes. “The music became part of the DNA of the script,” says Gudnadóttir, who also wrote the composition Lydia is privately working on throughout the film.
Field is exacting but compassionate. He didn’t want Willi to have to travel to the United States — Field lives on the East Coast — and be so far from her family in Germany, so he arranged for them to work at the nunnery when London fell through. He would walk in the morning, while Willi would run. They’d talk about the goals for their day, and then would take a long walk together before resuming work. “We saw lambing season and livestock being born. Then we would cut seven days a week,” Field says. “It was very rigorous.”
Blanchett understands that rigor all too well. “Certainly, Todd threw down the gauntlet. When we were shooting, I felt like I was going into battle every day, in a positive way,” she says. “It was much bigger than me or the sum of any of its parts. It was like climbing a mountain that I couldn’t see the top of. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alive.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of magazine. Click here to subscribe.