I spent about three months researching the history of railroads in preparation for my screenplay, a story inspired by an abandoned train depot in western New Jersey. The title was based on the person who ran and in many cases, lived in the small depots and train stations that dotted our country. This person was the railroad’s local representative and a key member of the community. Everybody knew the station agent. He was a romantic figure; a human link to the hope and adventure that the railroad represented at the turn of the century. My research led to an interest in themes of isolation and connection. Trains connected this country; they connected our cities, agriculture, industry and our people.
So I had the story and some of the central themes but I was still missing one key element and that element was my lead character. I had a loose idea of a young man who was intentionally isolated from his community. Someone who was, both, content with being alone and also very good at keeping people at bay. But I was still struggling with the narrative question of why this character would construct such a life. Every scenario that I came up with seemed instantly cliché. I wasn’t interested in creating a huge back-story to explain the characters disconnection and I didn’t feel like flashback was an appropriate device for the tone of the film that I had in mind. I was stuck. Then one day, I found the inspiration for the main character. Actually I ran into him on a street corner in New York City.
Peter Dinklage is a New York actor that I had directed in an off-off Broadway play called The Killing Act. The play revolved around the world of P.T. Barnum, the infamous showman. A central character in the play was Tom Thumb, who was one of Barnum’s greatest attractions. When I was trying to cast the play I searched the New York theatre community for a little person and all roads led to Peter Dinklage.
Peter was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. He had a reputation as being a great theatre actor who had also appeared in several films including Living in Oblivion and Safe Men. I cast him after our first meeting and his performance in the play was a highpoint of the production. Peter is a very intelligent actor with leading man looks and a real fearlessness to his work. His performance was both hilarious and heartbreaking. We became friends during the run of the show and kept in touch over the years.
As we stood on the street corner catching up with each other, I began to realize that just about every person who walked past would give Peter a second look. Finally two small kids walking with their mother stopped and stared at Peter. I could see them over Peter’s shoulder and chose to ignore them. We talked for a few more moments when Peter suddenly turned to the kids and said hello with a gentle ease that seemed to satisfy their curiosity. Up to that point I wasn’t even sure that Peter knew the kids were behind him. But then I realized that Peter is always aware of the unwanted attention that his physical condition attracts. He just does a very good job of tuning it out.
That’s when it hit me that a character based on Peter was exactly what I needed. It would make perfect sense that if a character is constantly bombarded with so much unsolicited attention he would naturally withdraw into his own world. I felt that an audience would almost immediately make a connection to that character as an outsider. We all go through phases in life when, for whatever the reason, we feel like we don’t fit in and we prefer to be alone. It’s just that sometimes those reasons for disconnecting are more apparent than others.
I called Peter the next day and we sat down over lunch where I gave him a general idea of the script. Peter’s character would inherit the abandoned depot and in doing so he would, unwittingly, inherit the social responsibilities of the station agent that came before him. I felt very strongly that to do it right, I was going to need Peter’s help. Although the themes of the story were certainly universal, Peter’s life experience as a dwarf was obviously very unique. One major point on which we both agreed on was that the movie would not be what we called “a coming of height” story about a small person who deals with the challenges of being small. But rather the story would deal with various people, who for different reasons choose to disconnect from their community. After a very long lunch my mind was made up that Peter Dinklage would be my leading man.
I developed the script over the next couple of years. Peter read every draft along the way helping to maintain the integrity, emotional honesty and humor of the character. I worked in a similar fashion with two other actor friends, Bobby Cannavele and Patricia Clarkson. And slowly but surely we found our story. And then eventually we found our producers and our money to make the film.
Three years after running into Pete on the street, we were at the Sundance Film Festival. We had sold the film and won the Audience Award for the Best Feature Film and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. They were achievements that went far beyond our wildest imaginations. One night, Pete and I were having a drink and I asked him if he remembered that day on the street. He said, “Yeah. I was walking home from my horrible day job thinking that I had to get a life.” Then he asked me what I remembered of it. “Almost the same thing,” I replied. “I was walking home thinking I had to get a life and a leading man.”