SFIFF: Tom McCarthy, The Station Agent, and this year’s Kanbar Award

The San Francisco International Film Festival‘s Kanbar Award used to go to a screenwriter. Now they’ve expanded it to “storytellers,” which can mean just about anyone who works in film. And so screenwriters remain the least visible people making movies.

This year, the award went to Tom McCarthy, who is a screenwriter, as well as a director and an actor. He’s currently riding high as the director and co-writer of last year’s Best Picture winner, Spotlight.

This year, the Kanbar event happened Tuesday night at the Pacific Film Archive. To my knowledge, this is the first major award event ever at the San Francisco Festival to not happen in San Francisco. [After posting this article, Brian Darr of Hell On Frisco Bay informed me that there has been at least one other]. That was good for me. I was able to bike to the theater.

Executive Director Noah Cowan MC’d the event. After a clip reel (I had no idea McCarthy had worked on Up), he brought McCarthy up front for a discussion, followed by Q&A with the audience. After that we were treated to a screening of McCarthy’s first film as a screenwriter and as a director, The Station Agent.

Cowan pointed out that they were showing a 35mm print, and that it was the only 35mm print screened at this year’s festival.

A lot of the questions from the audience appeared to be coming from budding writers just learning the craft.

Before I tell you about the film, here’s a few highlights from the discussion and Q&A:

  • On being faithful to the screenplay when shooting the film: I’m a big believer in rewriting.
  • On working with actors: I’ve been pretty fortunate with my casts…They bring the humanity.
  • On writing for another director: For me. It’s really fun because you’re there to service someone else’s vision. You have to let go. In every creative endeavor, you have to let go.
  • When I’m acting, I love direction. You need that as an actor, so there’s someone watching your back.
  • Working on Spotlight: We became very close to the reporters and in some cases the victims. You feel a certain responsibility turning a six-month investigation into two hours.
  • On casting Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent: When I was writing it, I was thinking of Ethan Hawke. I had directed Pete in a play right out of school and I knew he was naturally a leading man. Then one day I ran into Pete and we…talked. I noticed how many people were staring at him because he’s a dwarf. I called Pete that night to offer him the part.
  • Writer’s block and persevering: We all get stuck all the time. it’s exciting. I gravitate to bookstores when that happens. Or I go for walks.

The Station Agent


McCarthy’s first film (not including acting gigs) examines the healing effects of love. Not romantic or familial love, but the love we have for our friends.

Finn (Peter Dinklage in his breakout performance) loves trains passionately. When he inherits an old, no-longer-used train station in a very rural small town, he moves there.

He isn’t a social person. A dwarf, he’s used to people starring at him and making cruel comments. He’s built a thick wall around himself and is reluctant to let others in.

But in his new home town, two people break that wall. Joe (Bobby Cannavale) runs a food truck right outside the station (a bizarre place to run a business). Olivia (the always-amazing Patricia Clarkson) is separated from her husband and mourning the death of her child.

The film simply shows them warming to each other, becoming friends, and helping each other through emotional crises. McCarthy finds a lot of humor in these three people (Olivia almost runs over Finn twice before they actually meet). But he also finds love, care, and humanity in them.

It helps a lot if you like trains.

I first saw the Station Agent when it was new in 2003. I liked it then, but I had forgotten just how good it really is. I’m now giving it an A.

2 thoughts on “SFIFF: Tom McCarthy, The Station Agent, and this year’s Kanbar Award

  1. Both Station Agent and Monsoon Wedding were shown on 35mm at this year’s Festival. The Festival also included 16mm and 35mm shorts as part of the Cinematheque program as it usually does.

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