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All Aboard! Talking with “The Station Agent” writer/director Thomas McCarthy

Thomas McCarthy’s debut film The Station Agent is too short in every sense of the word. For starters, it’s the story of a dwarf. Theater veteran Peter Dinklage fills the shoes of Fin, the title character who, sick of the cold shoulder he repeatedly gets from society, moves into an abandoned train depot in southern Jersey.

It’s all short on time, clocking in at a scant 88 minutes. Right around the time you get used to having Fin and his companions around – he makes fast friends with hot dog vendor Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and grieving divorcee Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) – the movie abruptly ends and leaves us hungry for more.

That, according to McCarthy, was the plan. ‘That was pretty much what I set out to do,’ he responds when asked if he thought these characters had different places to go. ‘I knew we didn’t have a lot of time, and we certainly didn’t have a lot of film.’ In fact, Agent was shot on location in Jersey in 20 days, working from a script McCarthy polished at different intervals over the course of three years.

McCarthy’s wonderfully imagined trio of quirky characters slips snuggly into his enriching scenarios. Though most of his film is conversational, he mentions that ‘a lot of it was scripted dialogue.’ His casting coup was Clarkson, an actress McCarthy admired from a far but never dreamed of getting. Schedules worked out – which had to be difficult given Clarkson’s penchant for starring in everything this year – and Agent caught a break. McCarthy calls the casting of Cannavale icing on the cake. The actor injects Joe with the wide-eyed sincerity and determination of a puppy dog, and barely hides a loneliness which shines brighter than his eagerness to please.

But McCarthy wrote the movie for his star, Dinklage, and always envisioned him in the role of Fin. ‘From day one, from the minute I wrote page one, I knew I wanted to work with Peter. He just fit the character I wanted.’

Agent made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where McCarthy won the Waldo Salt screenwriting prize and the film took home the audience award. The film was purchased by Miramax, and was held for a planned November release date to capitalize on positive buzz and make an Oscar push.

It’s working. Entertainment Weekly recently placed Dinklage in the running for a Best Actor trophy in their annual awards preview piece. And Agent is receiving rave reviews. It’s all a little too much for McCarthy, a first-time director, to swallow. ‘It’s wonderful,’ he said, ‘but I really am having problems with it. Now that I keep having this conversation, where people keep mentioning the Oscars, I may have to start wrapping my brain around it. If it gets people in to see the movie, then so be it. Because that’s the goal, right? That’s the goal.’

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