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Feature: 'Station Agent'

By KAREN BUTLER, United Press International

NEW YORK, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- When first-time filmmaker Tom McCarthy was shooting "The Station Agent" on a shoestring budget in rural New Jersey, he never imagined that his tale of three lonely people learning the importance of human connection would earn the extraordinary response it did from audiences and critics the world over.

"It was like: 'Let's make a movie. I've got a curtain,'" McCarthy laughed, recalling the film's humble beginnings. "It was a very unusual and unique ride."

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Shot in just 20 days on a budget of $400,000, this beautiful Sundance Film Festival favorite stars Patricia Clarkson ("Far from Heaven"), Peter Dinklage ("Living in Oblivion") and Bobby Cannavale (TV's "Oz") as outsiders who find friendship when they least expect it but need it most.

Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, a handsome dwarf more interested in trains than people, who takes up residence in an abandoned train depot in rural Newfoundland, N.J., in hopes of finding some much-needed peace and solitude. Clarkson plays Olivia, a grief-stricken painter who nearly runs Fin over, while Cannavale plays Joe, a conversation-starved hot-dog vendor.

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Before he wrote and directed "The Station Agent," McCarthy worked as an actor and stage director. He said the initial concept for his first film came to him when he spotted an abandoned train depot while out on a Dunkin' Donuts run one morning, and wondered what the old building's story was.

McCarthy contacted the owner, a man only too happy to introduce him to the world of railfans or train enthusiasts. Perhaps the element of rail history that most fascinated McCarthy was how trains had at one time connected isolated people all over the country.

McCarthy decided to incorporate that theme into the film and write parts specifically for three of his favorite actors -- Dinklage, Clarkson and Cannavale. It took three years to hone the script and get financing for the film, but McCarthy and the cast, all of whom were soon close friends, never lost their enthusiasm for the movie.

Recalling how the film was a bit of a tough sell, since he had never directed a movie before and his leading man was under five-feet-tall, McCarthy admitted "The Station Agent" was considered by many to be a risky project.

"It made a lot of people nervous," McCarthy said. "But the one thing I knew -- that a lot of people didn't know, because I had directed him -- was how good Peter was, and how handsome he was, and how charismatic he was. I've spent a lot of time both directing him on stage and drinking with him in bars in New York, and the guy is the real deal. .... I knew I had a really extraordinary talent on my hands and that is the only kind of actor who can carry a film for 90 minutes. That's a really difficult thing to do, and the same with Bobby. I knew no one had ever seen him perform this role. People knew him as this kind of hunky Latino actor from 'Third Watch' and '100 Centre Street,' some really great work with great people, but I thought he had never been given the chance to cut loose and be himself -- to be funny, to be annoying and charming and endearing all at once. So, that was really exciting."

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"Our connection is kind of deep, and we just loved the story so much," said Cannavale. "We really did love it, and we really wanted to make this movie because we wanted to make it for ourselves. In the end, it was three years. We just all wanted to make it to at least just have a copy to have on video to watch every now and then. I certainly didn't think people would even get to see it. ... When people reacted the way they did, I was shocked and thrilled."

"It's incredible," Dinklage said. "Every step of the way. We were amazed that we were finally able to make the movie, and then it got accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, and then we went to Sundance and we had a standing ovation, and then it kept going up and up and up and we were waiting, like 'When is this going to drop out from under us?' Because when you make a movie with your close friends that sort of personal project you don't know if other people are going to connect with it. We all love it, but anybody else? Maybe not. But it's been incredible."

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But Sundance wasn't the only place the film received a warm reception. Cannavale said he was bowled over by the reaction the movie got during a recent screening he attended in Spain, as well.

"We walked in," he remembered. "Peter, me and Tom, the motley crew, down the longest red carpet I have ever seen in my life and there was nobody on the red carpet. Zero. Not a photographer or reporter, just people waiting on line for their tickets -- 1,600 people. This beautiful theater. The movie ended, and we had to come out the staircase, down these stairs and they were all lined up screaming for us all the way out the theater, and we have to walk out to go back to the hotel, and they were following us -- 1,000 people screaming: 'Bobby! Fin! Bobby!' I was like: 'This is crazy.' Still, I can't believe this. We were at the Howard Johnson's last year in Jersey."

Cannavale isn't exaggerating about how much things have changed since the film was shot. McCarthy is the first to admit the shoot was "classic independent film," awash in camaraderie and creativity, but short on perks or creature comforts.

"It was very sad," McCarthy groaned. "I think at one point we had a horse trailer for Patty. It looked like a trailer, but we realized there were no windows and there was like a half-door on the back and I (said): 'It's really for ponies, and we have one of our great actresses in there changing.'

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"There were some very funny moments. Peter spent all of his time in a caboose. That was his changing room. We would yell, 'Cut!' and Peter would march back to his caboose, climb inside and go to sleep. No windows, no air conditioning. I was like: 'Someone better check on the Dink. Make sure he's still with us.' It was really a rough shoot, and then they had the luxury of going back to the Howard Johnson's in these little generic rooms, which was also very comical. Patty was so into it. She was like: 'This is great. Look at us.' We're on a balcony -- overlooking the pool -- which two people could fit on."

McCarthy said the film's "opening night party" consisted of Kentucky Fried Chicken, cold pasta salad and beer and noted that although the best photo he has of everyone together at the bash looks as though they were posed in front of an antique swing, they were in reality sitting on a "rusted-out HoJo luggage rack."

"How spectacular," he sighed. "The family was very impressed by Hollywood standards."

That said, McCarthy admitted that he found the whole process immensely satisfying.

"There is something to be said about the emotional commitment that comes over time that these actors put in over the past two or three years," he said. "We set out to tell a story that would hopefully entertain people and I think if you can touch or move people in the process, who can ask for anything more?"

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"The Station Agent" is in theaters now.

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