Monday, April 2, 2012

TV Bites: The Station Agent

Chuletas con Cebolla (Cuban Pork Chops & Onion)

Howdy. Hope all is well by you. Not too much going on here, though I'm in New York this week and so we have a movie made by a group of New York actors and set just over the river in New Jersey.

If you're in Austin and have been thinking of taking my upcoming Cinema Paradiso class, if you buy your tickets before April 6th and use the code "BLOOM" you'll save 10 dollars. Not a bad deal at all. Hope to see you there!

I'm not sure where to start with this film. I feel strangely at a loss for words. Perhaps it's because this is a film whose characters seem to often have a loss for words themselves. I know this for sure: The Station Agent is nearly a perfect movie. It's not a kid's movie. It's a movie for grown-ups. It's about trying to negotiate your way through life, struggling to get out of your comfort zone, struggling to be a grown-up, and struggling to create friendships while you're struggling to be a grown-up. It's almost never about what people are saying but rather revealed through subtext and what's not said. And none of that would work if not for its amazing, fantastic cast. And it makes you smile. You get to spend some time with some people, watch them bounce off each other like electrons through a microscope, and in the end they come together to form something greater than their individual properties. And it does all that in only 88 minutes.

Charles Taylor wrote in his review of the film at "It’s hard to say why The Station Agent sends you out feeling so benevolent. It may have something to do with being in the presence of a director who treats you with respect. [Tom] McCarthy allows us to feel without telling us how and what we should feel. He’s made exactly the type of movie that American independent cinema was meant to encourage. The Station Agent never leaves its sleepy patch of New Jersey. But when it’s over, you know you’ve been somewhere." I think that says it pretty nicely.

The Station Agent is available for purchase @ Amazon.


"So, did the conductor guy used to live here?"
"No. The conductor worked on the train. The station agent worked in here."
"Doing what?"
"A lot of things."

For a basic synopsis of the movie I'd say is that it's about a dwarf named Fin (Peter Dinklage) who, as we meet him, lives a fairly solitary and mundane existence working in a hobby shop repairing toy trains. Trains are his hobby and his life, but he never goes anywhere. The owner of the store dies and leaves Fin a small dilapidated train depot in New Jersey. There he meets Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a Cuban-American who can barely stop talking long enough to focus on anything, and is running his father's Cuban coffee truck parked next to the train station while his father is in the hospital. Then he meets Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who is living nearby, desperately trying to function while attempting to come to terms with the death of her son two years earlier. And seemingly against their will and the odds, they form themselves into what one reviewer called "an accidental family." (Though the reviewer has been proven wrong in predicting that "in a year or so, despite the glowing reviews, you may find that no one remembers it much at all." In fact, everyone I ever mention the film to recalls it fondly. And, McCarthy has now made a total of three films all with the same sensibility, all equally remarkable and unforgettable.)

"In writing [The Station Agent] and thinking about the script on a broader level," said writer/director McCarthy, "I was using words like community. It was all about community, and the margins, things like that." He also sees the three lead actors forming themselves into something like a family. "If you saw these guys from a distance, the three of them, you might even think its a family... but the interesting thing about this family would be that Peter is kind of the father, Patty would be the mother, and Bobby would be the kid."

Bobby Cannavale, who plays Joe, said, "It was important to us that this movie should not be about kids, it's about adults. It's not about 'twenty-somethings.' It was about people at a time in their life when, if you're not married, if you don’t have your career set, you tend to go inward and say, 'What the fuck am I doin' wrong?' And it makes you disconnect from people, whether you realize it or not. And that’s an important thing, because then it becomes harder to make friends with people, harder to make a friend, when you're that age and you don’t have, seemingly, anything going for yourself."

"There were so many different things, probably what was going on in my life personally, professionally," said McCarthy of the genesis of the film's story. "If there was a physical manifestation of the idea, of the inspiration, it was probably the depot."

It was sometime in the late 1990's, when McCarthy noticed the abandoned train depot in the small rural community of Newfoundland which would eventually become his movie's key location.

"It’s out in a part of Jersey where my brother has a lake house," he recalled. "When I saw it I immediately thought it was a great location for a film, and then it got me thinking about trains. I was going through a weird phase. I spent three months in the public library researching trains. I had volumes of accident reports, these completely mundane things that only I was fascinated with. I got sucked into that subculture of rail fans. Then I met the guy who owned the depot; he was a rail fan and he took me to meetings of rail fans. It was an amazing world.

"About that same time I was dating a woman who was quite ill physically and was cutting herself off from the world around her. Her response to her illness was to shut everybody out of her life. I was the one person she kept around, but one person can’t bring everything to another person. [Her disease] wasn’t fatal, but it went on for a while, and I started to notice her isolationist behavior. Then I saw it in others around me. Actors who said they weren’t getting the work they wanted to and would stay home, not calling others; it is a human instinct to withdraw when we are injured. It’s like we are going off to die, but ultimately that’s the most unhealthy thing we can do. It’s our pride that gets in the way of letting other people in. I became interested in these themes of isolation and connection and disconnection. The train is such an obvious metaphor — how it connected everything. I think some of us forget the history, the impact of the train. It is already a technological fossil, but what it did for this country was amazing!

Peter Dinklage, who plays Fin, expounded on the train metaphor in an interview: "It's the old fashioned way to have people connected in the old days. And in the same way... you'll notice how much cell phones are used in this movie. How somebody is always on a cell phone. Every time Bobby is sitting by the truck he's always using his cell phone. It's like that lonely connection. And Patty's cell phone is always ringing in the movie and she never answers. That connectedness. That sort of isolated connectedness." (The only one without a cell phone is Fin.) "That's what trains were, you know? It's sort of: everybody is so isolated but that's the only way to connect. And trains are so soothing. Something about them is just sort of so safe. It's, like, just the sound of it."

Meanwhile, at the same time all these thought are going through his head, McCarthy himself was very busy acting. From the time he started researching the train station until the film was in production, he had guest spots on many popular television shows of the time including Ally McBeal, Law & Order, Spin City, and even had a recurring role on Boston Public. But for many he is probably still best known for his role in the Meet the Parents series of films as Dr. Bob Banks, and more post-The Station Agent, for his recurring role as reporter Scott Templeton on the acclaimed TV series The Wire in 2008.

McCarthy eventually wrote the first draft of the script in about six weeks, then spent another two years working on it - which was mostly due to trying to find the money to make it - but it more importantly gave him and his actors time to live with the script and each other, tweaking and reworking it. "I don’t know if [the script] was ever really finished," he said. "I was rewriting on the set, literally. When I got it to a place that I really thought was good I gave it to my acting agent. We started sending it out. I had a lot of meetings with the usual suspects, and people really started to respond to the script. That said, I couldn’t get anyone to make it for two years. I think a big part of it was Peter in the lead. People were nervous about him because he is a little person. I heard it again and again."

He hadn't initially envisioned the part of Fin as a dwarf, but he had run into Dinklage (whom he had directed in a play while studying at Yale) just as he was about to start putting his idea for the film on paper. "We were catching up, and it hit me right there with the visual. Two kids stopped behind him, stood watching him, and Peter said, 'Hey, how are you doing?' The kids said 'Fine' and left. Their curiosity was satisfied, and I thought, Man, Peter handles that so well," McCarthy recalled. "It is obviously something he is very used to. He has a lot of poise and strength and a great sense of humor. I had the idea of him as the lead in my film literally moments after leaving him. I thought, Wow, what if someone wasn’t as good as Peter is at dealing with the world? How would they retreat into themselves? I called him the next day, and we said, 'Let’s do this!' We were both very firm that this would not be a story about a dwarf or a little person or a 'coming of height' story. It was going to be a story about one man who chose to disconnect for this particular reason and his involvement with other people who were in a similar situation."

McCarthy didn't really know Patricia Clarkson but was a huge fan of hers. He had seen her recently in an off-Broadway play and as he began writing the character, he "could hear her voice," he said, "and I knew I wanted Olivia to be from this sort of WASPy, upper middle class New Jersey world that I knew growing up. Physically Petty represented that to me, but emotionally she brought so much more to the character. She brought a real complexity and depth to the character, a rawness and yet it was quite grounded as well."

"Bobby [Cannavale & I] have a similar sense of humor and we're good friends and I'd seen his work and I know that side of Bobby, and the character Joe is that side of Bobby," McCarthy explained. "It's not the complete him, but he has that ability to be annoyingly ingratiating - kind of charming one moment and then driving you crazy the next - and I felt like I needed someone who would galvanize the other two characters and pull them together."

"If you don’t have a character like Joe in the film, nothing happens," McCarthy continued elsewhere. "You need a guy who is going to stir things up and get people together. It was a very fun character to write because he is also the kind of character who can say exactly what is on his mind. He just asks the questions. He doesn’t understand why people can’t hang out together.."

"I remember two and a half years into [it]," Cannavale said, "running into Patty in a bar in New York, and we were both really busy - I was doing a TV series, she was doing a movie, both doing well - and I remember her walking up and going 'Bobby, we gotta make this fuckin movie! When are we gonna make it?' Tom was doing a play on Broadway, so we thought he’d given up on it. And I remember Patty that night saying 'I don’t care what we do. We gotta make this movie!'"

"I've known Peter for many years through New York theater," recalled Patricia Clarkson. "Bobby I didn't know but what was fortunate was that it took about two years for the movie to be made so in that process we got to know each other.... but over those two years the four of us [including McCarthy] became quite a quartet and quite close and so what was extraordinary was that suddenly we arrived at the moment to shoot and we had this second hand. We had a real ease and deep affection for one another, which I always believe that the energy off camera is what you see on. It was truly one of the most glorious times of my life shooting this film. I am so in love with Pete and Bobby and Tom I just want to work with them forever."

We had been living with the script for so long, and we were determined to make this film, but we weren’t going to make it if one of the pieces of the puzzle, one of us, were missing,” Dinklage said. “People have been telling Bobby, Patty and myself that they love the relationship between the three of us. There is something to be said for the fact that we are so close friends, we had so much fun making the movie. I guess that showed through.”

One thing McCarthy said in an interview struck me because I hadn't really looked at the movie this way, but now I can clearly see it: "Well, now it has become a joke, but I really think I made a big western! Maybe not so 'big,' but as big as I could make it with 20 days and half-a-million dollars on 16mm. In the film, a stranger comes to a small frontier town in the West, western New Jersey, and life revolves around the depot. There is a woman in distress, there is the funny guy and the package store and the library and the church — all these elements of a western. It’s dealing with archetypes. The film opens up, and we see Peter against the landscape, whether it’s walking on the tracks or at the depot. The physicality of these characters — their sizes, their dimensions, the space between them, the space around them — that was all very important."

Lastly, it is so remarkable that even though McCarthy had acted in movies and directed theater, he had never directed a film, not even a short, before the cameras rolled on The Station Agent.

"The closest I'd come to that was when me, Pete and Bobby all sat in some guy's backyard with a digital camera and just tried out one of the scenes from the film," he recalled. "That was actually very interesting, because it gave me a really great idea of pace for the movie. It really helped me start to think about pace and rhythm, because I knew I wanted to slow the movie down right from the first scene, I wanted people to put on the brakes a bit and sort of ease into the film, and it was kind of interesting to watch that."

"Every stage for this was like opening a door and thinking 'Oh, okay, this is what we do now,'" he continued. "Going into pre-production for the first time, first day of shooting, last day of shooting, first day in the editing room, last day in the editing room, going to a festival for the first time, being in a marketing meeting. I was just so wide-eyed about it all, but it was pretty exciting for that reason."

The film got into the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 and after its premiere, the buzz on it was incredible, recalled Cannavale. "It was a total Hollywood story. [The rep for] Miramax rang [Harvey] Weinstein. Weinstein flew in on this jet, saw it by himself in some little theatre in Salt Lake [City], had the print sent there. He watched it by himself, decided he wanted to buy it, made the deal, [then] flew back to New York... Wild, man! It was crazy! I couldn't believe it... Like, literally, overnight it changed."

The Station Agent picked up the Audience Award, Special Jury Prize, and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. It also won several prizes at the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as numerous other awards around the globe. Tom McCarthy has continued exploring the themes of isolation and adult friendship in his two subsequent films to date, The Visitor and Win Win.


Well, the first thing I learned was that while all "trainspotters" are railfans, not all railfans are "trainspotters."

A railfan is anyone who digs railroads, big trains and/or model trains. They could be enthusiasts who like photographing trains, documenting the history of railroads or railroad trains, people who record the sound of trains, people who enjoy riding on trains, people who collect railroad memorabilia, or just people who like to watch trains roll by as a hobby.

Trainspotters, according to Wikipedia are those who "make an effort to 'spot' all of a certain type of rolling stock. This might be a particular class of locomotive, a particular type of carriage or all the rolling stock of a particular company. To this end, they collect and exchange detailed information about the movements of locomotives and other equipment on the railway network, and become very knowledgeable about its operations."

Railfans are found obviously wherever there are trains to be seen and heard. The website Railfan Network has links to hundreds of railfan groups around the world, photos, and information, as does TrainWeb. Another site I found offers a handy beginner's guide to train watching (PDF).

Much as how Tom McCarthy and Peter Dinklage describe trains above, railfans are in love with the history, and the magic of trains. In this article, Why Watch Trains? railfan John Haynes tries to explain just what it is about trains that so fascinated fans such as himself. I thought he did a pretty good job of offering insight into at least one fan's obsession, so it's worth checking out.

Perhaps the most famous photographer/railfan was O. Winston Link who documented the end of the steam locomotive train era in the 1950s. According to Classic Trains magazine: "Indeed, no other photographer achieved greater fame for his railroad work than Link did. But decades before Link's photos were 'discovered' by art galleries and poster publishers, his sound recordings of Norfolk & Western engines were the talk of hi-fi magazines."

O. Winston Link photograph

And while I'm not an official railfan (though I did have an awesome Lionel train set as a kid), I've often lived near train lines (as I do now) and there's definitely something emotionally stirring about hearing that iconic lonesome whistle blowin'.


"Chuletas con cebolla, con arroz y con frijoles. Cuban surprise, in other words!"

In the film, Joe cooks dinner for Fin and Olivia in his truck. As he brings the food to the table, he recites the line above. So, this was an easy choice since I love Cuban food (see my post on Buena Vista Social Club for another Cuban recipe!).

Interestingly, Tom McCarthy points out in the DVD commentary track as Joe cooks the pork chops in a frying pan: "The pork chops, somehow they have grill marks on them." Oh, it's tough to be the director! So many details to pay attention to. Case in point, obviously these prop chops were cooked on a grill and when they were ready to shoot the scene they were put in the frying pan. And obviously, chops cooked in a frying pan won't magically have grill marks on them. Time to fire the continuity girl! (Of course, only the director would obsess on something like that.)

So, actually and alternately, you could grill the pork chops, and fry the onions with the marinade in a pan. Or, you could even bake the whole thing. Of course, you could grill then pan fry to make them exactly like the ones in the movie... but that would definitely border on obsession to detail.

Another interesting fact which comes out in the DVD commentary is that both Peter Dinklage and Patricia Clarkson are vegetarians. So, you'll notice in that dinner scene the only thing they eat is the rice.

And before you think of it, yes, later they are eating jerky then the trio go for a walk and take a break on a bridge. And yes, it's tofu jerky.

And with that, I think I'm done with this post. The pork chops came out delicious, so do give them a try. As always, cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Chuletas con Cebolla (Cuban Pork Chops & Onion)
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4

1 cup sour orange juice (from Seville Oranges)
-- or 1/2 cup juice orange and 1/4 cup each lemon & lime juices
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 pork chops, thick cut (about 1" thick)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 large onion, cut into thin rings
1/4 cup dry sherry (or Cuban vino seco)
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine juice, garlic, oregano, cumin, salt and white pepper. Place pork chops in a seal-able nonreactive bowl or container and pour juice mix over them. Cover with onion rings and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Remove chops from marinade and pat dry, reserving marinade and onions. Add oil to frying pan large enough to hold all the chops. Heat oil to medium heat and brown the chops on both sides (2-3 minutes per side). Then reduce the heat, add sherry and marinade, and the onions.

Cover and cook until chops are done, about 15 minutes. Adjust seasonings.

Serve with black beans and rice.

Official The Station Agent Site
The Station Agent (including interviews) @
Patricia Clarkson Fan Site
Bobby Cannvale Fan Site
Peter Dinklage Profile @ NY Times
The Railfan Network
US Cuban Food Restaurant Guide

The Station Agent DVD
The Last Steam Railroad in America, photos by O. Winston Link
The Sounds of Steam Railroading, recorded by O. Winston Link
Memories of a Cuban Kitchen: More Than 200 Classic Recipes, by Mary Urrutia Randelman & Joan Schwartz
Three Guys from Miami Cook Cuban, by Glenn M. Lindgren, Raul Musibay & Jorge Castillo
Goya Dry White Cooking Wine (Vino Seco Blanco)

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