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The Woodsman is a haunting and thought provoking film trying to be compassionate not sympathetic about a paedophile trying to re-make his life, with a career-best performance by Kevin Bacon that the Academy ignored. Jeff Sipe visited the sombre set in Philadelphia.

The setting is somber: a psychologist's gray office, dimly lit and sparsely decorated. Kevin Bacon as Walter, a child molester recently released from prison, sits across a desk from Michael Shannon, who plays a therapist. 

"By reflection we can derive a deeper meaning from our experience in life. We gain greater understanding about ourselves that can lead to making better choices in our relationships, our careers, and our goals," Shannon says. 

"Did you read that in the script?" queries Bacon. 

Shannon stays in character and continues the scene, despite the chorus of laughter from writer-director Nicole Kassell and the rest of the crew. Bacon, whose character is both sceptical of therapy and defensive towards the therapist, was supposed to say, “Did you read that in a book?” 

"the personal battles of a paedophile"

In the end, it didn’t really matter as that part of the lengthy scene did not make the final cut. Nevertheless, it was an uncharacteristically light moment on the set of The Woodsman, an indie production that examines the personal battles of a paedophile struggling with both himself and society as he re-enters the world after 11 years of incarceration. 

"Usually, when you start a movie, you know which days are going to be tough," Bacon says later. "With this movie, every day is grueling.” Bacon’s preparation for the role centered on reading as much as he could find about the psychology of paedophiles. His research left him with a strong sense of compassion, but no belief that they are not guilty of a horrendous crime.

“I think it’s important to understand that these people really don’t have any control over what they do,” he said. “I mean, yeah, they commit horrendous, monstrous crimes, but society simply dismisses them as despicable people. It’s a very complicated situation.”
No one really knows why paedophiles have developed their particular proclivities. Kassell said that her research showed that, in some cases, paedophiles themselves had been molested as children and, for some reason, had not matured sexually beyond that point. 

Recently, however, a study was released that showed that not all victims of childhood molestation necessarily suffer life-altering trauma. Other studies suggest that paedophiles actually show physical abnormalities in their hypothalamus.

“We’re not trying to solve that mystery with this film,” Kassell said. “We just want people to think. The end of the film is open-ended, without any real conclusion. I don’t want it to be sympathetic, but I do want it to be compassionate.”

"finding the depth of shame"

Bacon explained that in playing the role, he did not try to mentally recreate the experience of a paedophile. “For me, it's less about trying to understand what their experience would be than finding the depth of shame they feel," he said.

Everything about the set was a little surreal. Bacon’s tiny trailer sat just outside the entrance to an enormous and vacant shipbuilding facility on the grounds of the US Naval Yard in Philadelphia. Alongside the structure runs a canal that was chock-full of massive, grey ships, jammed together as if stuck in a watery traffic jam.

Inside the building, a skeleton crew waited patiently as the lighting crew worked to repair a light that had fallen out of place when the crew was “flipping” for the next take. Despite the heaviness of the film’s subject matter, the crew appeared relaxed and relatively unhurried. It had been a gruelling shoot, and on this last day of principal photography, it seems that a weight has lifted from everyone’s shoulders.

Truthfully, it was more than just the subject matter that made this production difficult on-set. No one really expected a movie about a paedophile to bring investors like flies to honey, but at a screening just a few months before the film’s Christmas Day release in New York and Los Angeles, Bacon said, “Getting money and distribution for this film has been like pulling teeth.”

Without Bacon’s involvement, The Woodsman would probably never have got off the ground. Director Kassell had only recently graduated from NYU’s Film School and, although her short films had received awards from various US film festivals, she did not have a feature under her belt.

“I was just hoping to get it made…somehow,” Kassell explained as she gazed across the enormous “sound stage” at the lighting crew. “I never expected THIS!”

“THIS” that she was referring to was Bacon as her star, supported by Mrs. Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgewick, Benjamin Bratt and rappers Mos’ Def and Eve. She seemed to be saying that one known actor would have been a god-send, let alone a cast of performers that in some circles, at least, are all well-known.

Kassell had seen The Woodsman on stage in New York, at an off-off-off Broadway venue where tickets cost just a few dollars. “I had just gotten out of school,” she said, “and it was the only theater I could afford.” Soon after seeing the play, she approached playwright Steven Fechter who gave her the OK to transform the play into a screenplay. His only stipulation was that he be her co-writer. Kassell’s manager was a friend of Lee Daniels, who runs both an artists’ management agency and a production company and who also produced Monster’s Ball. 

"Not really the best way to get a script, y’know"

From that point forward, little about The Woodsman’s journey to the screen was typical. In fact, Bacon was handed the script while vacationing in the Caribbean in December, 2002. “We go to this resort every year,” the actor explained between takes. “And there was this guy who I didn’t really know – I mean he was there every year, too, and we’d say ‘hello’ to each other, but that was it…Anyway, he came up to me on the beach and asked if I would take a look at this script. I guess I must have been in the holiday spirit, because I said, ‘yes.’ Not really the best way to get a script, y’know.”

The ‘guy,’ it turned out, was the CEO of a major US insurance company who also had ties to the entertainment industry. Although he soon left the project, the actor was hooked beyond any magnanimity brought on by Christmas cheer.

"The script was so haunting," he recalled. Upon returning to the US, he contacted Daniels who was already on board as producer. During production, the story that went out to the press was that funding and casting quickly followed Bacon’s commitment. Indeed, production did begin some six months after Bacon showered off the sunscreen and returned with wife and kids to his New York home. But the road to production was not as smooth as the Bacon family’s flight home.

On the set, Daniels described the budget as “just north” of Monster’s Ball’s US$4.5 million. If that is, indeed, the case, it is difficult to see where the money went. Like Monster’s Ball, The Woodsman is shot in the sparest of styles and, largely, on location along the back streets of Philadelphia. No Liberty Bell. No Constitution Hall. No handsomely refurbished townhouses and no statue of Rocky in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s gritty and grim, from start to finish.

To cobble together funding, Daniels approached Philadelphia moneyman Brook Lenfest for pre-production funds. Ultimately, Lenfest came up with more.

“I was looking at a situation where if we didn’t come up with additional funding, I was going to lose everything that I had already put in,” said Lenfest as he sat with his co executive producer and wife, Dawn, and Daniels in a trailer a teensy bit larger than Bacon’s. His participation has since been reported at $1 million. “So, I thought it made more sense to fund the actual production.”

Hip-hop impresario Damon Dash, also a Philadelphia native, pitched in with a significant investment, as well. For Dash, it would seem to be just another step in his quest to own, rule or, at least, run the entire world. In addition to his production company, Dash Films, the Philadelphia native has a music label, a clothing line and a vodka company. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

"It's good for my career," says Dash who, through his production company, had already produced a handful of urban features. "It shows that I'm doing something other than just hip-hop films. For me, it's the first time to do something like this outside of my culture." 

That said, it might also be the first time that he hits Hollywood indifference head-on. Just days after principal photography wrapped on The Woodsman, Dash told a reporter, “I’m already being measured for my tux. I’m gettin’ ready for that red carpet.”

Dash is going to have to look for another opportunity to hold his own Oscar in his hand, however. The Woodsman was ignored by the Academy. It was also ignored by the plethora of other awards organisations that lead up to the Oscars. (Bacon is also listed as an executive producer, which indicates that he came up with funding, as well.)

If there were any justice in the world, of course, Bacon would be rearranging his mantle to make room for the Best Acting trophies he should have won for his portrayal of Walter, the guilt-ridden pedophile who is struggling to get on with his life. But he’s been ignored, as well, despite the deserved and overwhelming praise showered on his performance.

It’s not that any of the Best Actor nominees for an Oscar are undeserving. But it raises the question of what exactly Academy members view as worthy of recognition. The more stylised a fine performance is, the more likely it is to be recognized with an award. Stylisation, perhaps, grants viewers a certain comfort zone, no matter how distasteful or, even, deranged, the character. Thus, a wholly imaginary serial killer, such as Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, garners votes while an extremely realistic performance of a paedophile does not. Voters seem to be saying, “If you’re going to scare us, then you have to entertain us, but – whatever you do – please don’t make us think.”

Bacon, of course, is not taking the slight as anything more than another example of the film industry’s quirkiness. “I’ve never been invited to the dance,” he said recently, “and if I’m not this year, then I’ll still be an actor.”

It’s impossible not to remember Jeremy Irons’ experience when he was nominated but did not win an Oscar for his performance in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. The following year, when he won for his portrayal of Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune, he admitted that it was anticlimactic. “I knew that I had done my best work ever in Dead Ringers,” he said, “so receiving an award for anything after that would not have as much meaning.”

Published May 5, 2005

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