Film Interview: Oren Moverman – Rampart (Millennium Entertainment)

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by Rock ‘n Roll Ghost

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Woody Harrelson in Rampart

Oren Moverman doesn’t make “nice” films or easily compartmentalized ones, either.  Moverman is far more interested in characters and what motivates them to do what they do.  His previous film, The Messenger, his first directorial effort, garnered him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay (along with co-writer Alessandro Camon) and a nomination for Woody Harrelson as Best Supporting Actor.  Harrelson has re-teamed with Moverman on his latest film, Rampart, the story of member of the LAPD’s Rampart Division in 1999 whose life is spinning irrevocably out of control.

Harrelson plays Dave Brown, a Vietnam veteran (something he likes to bring up when people start questioning the motives for his actions) and long standing tough guy with a badge who compares policing akin to being in a war zone.  Brown lives in delusion at home, with his two exes, both of whom have had children by him.  His life, something that moves along through Brown’s sheer will, begins to slide when he’s caught on tape beating a man who collided into his squad car.  A seemingly simple cash grab from an underground card game goes wrong and his version of events is questioned.  From there Brown’s grasp on reality slips until the audience is never sure if what he’s saying is really happening or if he’s suffering paranoid delusions.

Oren Moverman (left) and Woody Harrelson (right) on the set of their newest film, Rampart

Rampart is a throwback to the great films of the 1970s, where character mattered more than action.  Moverman’s work is comparable to the films of Hal Ashby, Don Siegel or Walter Hill.  The journalist in Moverman lays out the facts and gets to the heart of who a person is.  The filmmaker in him then takes that and expands upon it to make compelling drama.  But it all comes down to one thing: Woody Harrelson.  Harrelson has been an actor of great note for awhile now, but this may be his edgiest role to date.  The character of Dave Brown is not sympathetic, but Harrelson manages to grab the viewer’s interest without turning the character into a despicable clown.  You’re still compelled to follow Brown even as it becomes obvious that the man will in no way be redeemed.

Rampart is in theaters now and stars, along with Harrelson, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ben Foster, Ice Cube and Steve Buscemi.  I recently had the chance to speak to Moverman about Rampart, as well as touch on some of his other upcoming projects.  What follows is an edited transcription of that conversation.

Oren Moverman and Ben Foster at the premiere of Rampart in Los Angeles.

Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: Is the idea to not go down an original road or to break preconceived notions on the viewers’ part something you’re constantly working on as you write a script?

Oren Moverman: Yeah, absolutely.  Especially when your working within a genre that’s been done.  More specifically the LAPD genre.  Our assignment, our challenge was to look at these movies in the same arena and think how are we different and how are we going to make this a less expected narrative and less of an expected experience?  We spent a lot of time talking about it – not only in the script stage but in production and in post-production.

What sort of input do you get from the other people you work with?

Oren Moverman: Everybody.  Everyone from my actors to my producers to the catering people.  Anybody who has anything to say I want to hear about it.  Because I like that kind of engagement, that kind of interaction where there’s a feeling that everyone is making the movie at the same time.  There are specific people that I call on to give me the hard news.  Ben Foster is my producing partner and he was there every day to put his two cents in and watch my back and to keep everything honest.

I read a quote from Woody Harrelson about not initially liking the film after seeing a rough cut.  What was different about that initial cut from the final cut that he saw to change his mind?

Oren Moverman: The process doesn’t change.  What changes is the outcome.  The process is always the same in the sense that it’s always a search.  It’s crafting, an attempt to sculpt something new, unexpected, that feels dangerous and takes a left turn when you were expecting a right.  So that’s the way we wrote the movie, that’s the way we shot the movie and that’s the way we edited the movie.  The thing is that when you’re editing the movie, there’s not a lot of people around, so you’re in your own process with the editor.  So by the time other people come back to see the movie, you’ve sort of moved on from where you were shooting it, but they’re still shooting it in their heads. So I think that when Woody saw the first cut, the film wasn’t finished, he was really expecting certain things.  Also, it’s not unusual for an actor to sit in front of a movie where he’s in every scene, carrying the entire film, and be overwhelmed by it.  The fact that the sound wasn’t done, the color and the final edit wasn’t really done, I think it was a little too early to see it.  He’ll tell you also that I advised him not to watch it when he did.  He walked away quite hurt by it and disappointed by it.  Then a month and a half later, thankfully, he came back and saw the final movie.  When he saw it, he had a complete turnaround.  He came to me and apologized.  He was such a man about it.  He was so honest and open.  Then we wept like school girls or school boys (depending on the school). Then we moved forward with it locked and loaded.

Oren Moverman and Woody Harrelson at the Toronto International Film Festival

Did you find getting financing easier for Rampart than it was for your previous film The Messenger?  Also, you shot the film on digital, did this help move the shooting of the film along faster?

Oren Moverman: I’m very lucky in the fact I’m not the one to go looking for financing for a movie.  We have producers who rope me into meetings when it’s becoming more real.  We shot for thirty-five days after eight weeks of pre-production.  It was a very lucky situation to have eight weeks of pre-production.  We really got to prepare and be ready by the time we sat down to start making the movie.  Then we shot on the Alexa, which is an Arriflex camera, but it’s digital.  Arriflex is known as a film camera house.  But this is their first digital camera.  This was perfect for us because it’s very sensitive to light. It gives you a lot of latitude in low light situations.  We were shooting with available light, practicals, lamps, not really utilizing a lot of the classic kind of film lighting.

Did you find that you moved that much faster shooting on digital?

Oren Moverman: Not so much.  We moved fast, but I worked with Bob Bukowski, who moves fast no matter what.  It was right for us, it was the right medium.  I didn’t see this movie on film, for some reason.  I imagined it as a movie that came out of the cops caught on tape era.  I thought that there should be a different aesthetic to it.  This one felt right to use digital.

Woody Harrelson rages in the rain in Oren Moverman's Rampart

There was one shot that I really took to for some reason is the pool scene where Woody’s character is swimming while it’s raining out.  How did that scene come about?

Oren Moverman: This is one case where, if you’re open to the process of change, you can do some interesting things.  We had a scene that took place at the front of the house where the character that Robin Wright plays shows up and Woody, as Dave Brown, is waiting for her there.  We lost that location – the woman who owned the house asked for too much money.  So we went across the street and found this other house, which had a swimming pool.  Originally the scene was going to be in the rain and walking in the back of the house and seeing the pool I thought, okay we found the scene.  It has to be in the rain in the pool, he’s already in so what does it matter.  It really is about this kind of I’m drowning in this, no one is on my side and I’m going to get the Robin Wright character, Linda, to join me and therefore prove to me that she’s absolutely loyal.  Which of course she won’t do.  Not that she isn’t loyal, but because it’s crazy.  He’s acting crazy.

Shooting the scene there was one moment where Woody said I’m just going to go down and lie on the bottom.  Just rest for a second.  We went down with him and shot it and it became part of the scene.  It’s a very unconventional cut.  A lot of the movie works in a way where we wanted it to cut to a place where you don’t see coming.

You’ve started producing with Ben Foster, what was it about him that made you want to produce films with him?

Oren Moverman: It’s the mere fact that he’s one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met.  Ben is brilliant in so many ways.  He’s such a smart guy.  His intelligence is invigorating. He’s an excellent writer.  A beautiful eye – as a visual person.  Brilliant actor.  And also a great friend.  Someone who is very loyal and understands friendship.  It was a no brainer.  He moved to New York and we started this company together.  He said let’s just make things.  It almost doesn’t matter what it is.  That’s the heart of it.  A great, brilliant guy who also wants to work together.  Not much thought goes into it beyond that.

With Rampart, what has the reaction been like from people so far?  Have people been receiving it well?

Oren Moverman: I think any reaction is legitimate.  I’m grateful for people to see the movie and to have a reaction and feeling passionate enough to have a reaction, even if it’s not positive.  By the sheer nature of the set up on the job, I don’t tend to get a lot of negative reactions directed at me.  People don’t tend to engage you personally when they have something bad to say as the director. From what I’ve read and from people I’ve talked to there’s been a very strong, positive reaction.  People have found their way through the movie, which is really great because the movie really begs the audience to interact with them as opposed to just watch it and walk away.  We hope for the audience to get involved in the movie, and have an opinion at the end and to have a dialogue at the end.

How did you originally come into the project? I saw that James Ellroy had originally written the first script and you re-wrote that?

Oren Moverman: Yeah, I was brought in as a writer to work with James’s version and to get it under control so that we could make it into a movie because it was a very big, expensive script.  After I finished my draft they offered it to me as a director.

Is it a great deal different from his script?

Oren Moverman: Yes and no.  There are certain things that are, but I can safely say that he created this world, he created this character, he really created a lot of the setups.  It was a different script for sure, but I have to give him credit for the character, because ultimately it’s a character piece and he’s the guy who came up with him.

With some of your upcoming films, I was wondering if you could touch on the statuses of some of them?  I read that you were working on something with Ben Stiller on David O. Selznick, possibly for HBO?

Oren Moverman: Yeah, it’s an HBO movie that I wrote the script for and am attached to direct with Ben Stiller.  Uh…pending.  Like everything else in the film world.  I finished the script and it’s in your hands and they’re looking at schedules.

Rampart writer/director Oren Moverman

I saw that you wrote an adaptation of the William S. Burroughs book Queer with Steve Buscemi slated to direct.  Has that started shooting yet?

Oren Moverman: No, we’re trying to make it happen for next fall when Steve’s done shooting the new season of Boardwalk Empire.  This is another case where I wrote the script, Steve is directing, Ben Foster is an actor in the movie and our production company is involved with Olive Productions, which is Steve’s production company with Stanley Tucci and Wren Arthur.

I also read that you’re working on something about Brian Wilson.

Oren Moverman: Yeah, that’s a script that I’m writing for Bill Pohlad and John Wells about the incredible life of a musical genius.

Was this something that you were hired to do or you wrote on your own?

Oren Moverman: They came to me with it. They had a script but they wanted to start from scratch.  I pitched them an idea on how to do it and they liked it.

What was your connection to Brian Wilson before that?

Oren Moverman: Before then my connection was…everything I learned about Brian Wilson before that was from Lawrence Inglee, who was a producer on The Messenger and on Rampart.  He is a huge Brian Wilson fan, almost a scholar of Brian Wilson.  He taught me everything about him.

Also read that you’re attached to The Terrorist Search Engine?

Oren Moverman: It’s being written as we speak.

Woody Harrelson in Rampart

 

Official Rampart Website

 

Read Oren Moverman’s article about police brutality here

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