With his new film Rampart (which ranked #4 on my Top 10 of 2011 list), writer-director Oren Moverman took the corrupt-cop genre and twisted it just like he did with The Messenger‘s soldier-PTSD story. He’s one of the more exciting filmmakers working today because of his ability to play against expectations and come out with a more powerful, realistic story as a result.
I got the chance to interview Moverman about the film and we talked about where the real Rampart scandal came into the story, re-teaming with Woody Harrelson, shooting the movie as if it were two different films, and more. Moverman also spoke about his collaboration with Ben Stiller for a David O. Selznic biopic for HBO, and we discussed his script for Steve Buscemi‘s upcoming film, Queer. Hit the jump to check out the interview. Rampart opens in select cities this Friday. Click here to read my full review.
Collider: You used the Rampart scandal as the backdrop of the film. I was wondering if you used that as inspiration for the movie or if you had the basic idea for the film and then incorporated the scandal into your script.
OREN MOVERMAN: It’s actually neither one. It’s number three. James Ellroy wrote the original script. His version had the scandal front and center. It was still a Dave Brown [Woody Harrelson] character and many of the things that are in the movie came from that draft, but when I took over the writing and also directing, it felt like a unique opportunity to really stay with one character, stay in his mind and use the Rampart scandal as a backdrop. To me, what it symbolized, to which part of what the movie is all about is, the Rampart scandal is a time of great change. Everything is changing. Cops are losing their jobs, behavior is being scrutinized, the department is being taken over. Much like a post-Western or something, when the law comes to town there are those who join it and just adapt and then move on with the new structure or the new system and then there are those who resist it, who are set in their way and want to continue the old way. That was the character of Dave Brown. He’s a guy who refuses to change. His story is fictional against a backdrop of a real thing that happened, but I felt it was too much to go into what the scandal was and do it any justice if the movie was not absolutely about that. To me, it was the perfect backdrop for a time of great change.
Dave Brown in James Ellroy’s script, was he closer to what he resembles now? What kind of changes did you make for him in your script?
MOVERMAN: There were a lot of things that were close: that kind of super-intelligent animal behavior was very much from James’s script. It’s hard to say because there are so many things that happened along the way, but to me he was a little bit more of a nuanced character than he was in Ellroy’s script. I think Ellroy was making a bigger point than I tried to make about the scandal and about the work that cops do and the fictional elements of how people perceive cops. To me, the family life was a little bit more important. I tried to integrate more of his relationship with his family and the problems within that into the movie so that ultimately they become the great loss in the movie as opposed to something that has to do with plot. His script was more plot-oriented and more about the narrative of Dave’s journey. For me, it was more of a character study where we get to sit with him, sometimes when he’s alone, and get to see as much as you can see into his mind.
It’s interesting, you talk about the side of the Rampart scandal and then his home life. The film is shot almost like two different movies with one seeming more like a conspiracy thriller and the other seeming like an objective take. When you were writing the script, did you have this approach in mind?
MOVERMAN: No. It really comes from the next step after you write the script which is where you just sit down and try to think about the script as a movie. There’s something that screenwriters won’t tell you or would hide from you when you talk to them which is that we sometimes forget that the screenplay is not the movie. It’s such a strange medium, because it’s really an in-between kind of medium. You’re trying to convey in words what’s going to be visual and what’s going to be on screen. I think the visual interpretation of the movie came once the script was ready for production and we started thinking about, “Well, what is this world?” and thinking about two different spaces that he created for himself: the world of his job and the world of his family, and how he wanted them to be so separate, and thinking that one would not influence the other even though he didn’t realize that what would influence both of them was him and the consequences of his actions. That led us to thinking about them as somewhat visually different, so what are the cues, even in sound, what are the cues that you get from these different worlds and then how do they integrate?
One of the things I really love about Rampart and also The Messenger is that you take a familiar genre and then come at it from a completely different angle that we’ve never seen before. I was wondering if the conventions of those genres influence how you approach your own films?
MOVERMAN: Yeah, absolutely. I think that working with a genre is a prescribed way of working and the challenge is always to reinvent and to find new ways of telling familiar stories. By finding new ways, hopefully you’re turning those stories into things that are evolved and are less familiar. We definitely sat down at an early stage knowing that combinations of Ellroy’s writing and some of the changes that I’d made created a script that really felt good on paper. We sat down and asked ourselves, “What’s the justification for this movie? Why should it exist if there was anything that was done like it before?” The conclusion to that was: it shouldn’t. So, what you have to do is justify its existence by going in different directions, by deconstructing the genre and then rebuilding it to create something different. That’s part of the challenge and part of the pleasure of making these movies.
MOVERMAN: Thank you.
As everyone has said, Harrelson is incredible in the movie and I agree that he deserves every bit of acclaim he receives. I was wondering if you always had him in mind for the part or if you thought he would be the right fit after having worked with him on The Messenger?
MOVERMAN: I think it’s both. Originally I was just working on the script. When they asked me to direct it, my first thing was, “Woody has to play this role.” That came from knowing him and working with him before and knowing what he’s capable of and how interesting he would make the character. That’s what happened. I offered it to him, he immediately said, “Yes,” and we jumped into it. So the old gang was back together again. He’s one of my favorite actors and I couldn’t think of anyone who should play that other than him.
You mentioned bringing the gang back together: Ben Foster is also fantastic in the film. Was that another situation where you had this part and you immediately thought of him?
MOVERMAN: No, with him it was different because Ben and I have a company together and this was our first film as a production company. He really worked his ass off as a producer. He was really a very present, very creative producer and partner in making the movie. But I couldn’t stand the idea of having Ben Foster on set and not putting him in front of the camera because he is such an enormously gifted actor; again, one of my favorites. We talked about who he could play and then we looked at this homeless guy and thought, “Hmm. That could be a nice little thing for him to take a stab at,” and we started developing that role for him from that.
MOVERMAN: Yeah, what happened there was I wrote the script and Steve Buscemi is the director of that one. Steve’s an old friend of mine and Ben is attached to play one of the parts and our company is also producing that with Steve’s company, Olive. Yeah, there’s a lot of cross-pollination going on in New York City these days.
I was curious, what’s it like working with Buscemi as a director instead of having him as one of your actors?
MOVERMAN: Well the funny thing is that Steve’s been a director I’ve worked with a lot more than he’s been my actor, so it was kind of strange that after all these years of working with him as a writer and looking at him as a director, I found him on set on the first day of shooting The Messenger. That was the first scene, the scene with Steve. There he was and he was an actor taking direction from me. It was very weird. But he’s one of the greatest people I know. Such a great, warm-hearted human being. He makes it very easy no matter what the role is.
Again, fantastic, the whole cast. Rampart was one of my favorite movies of the year.
MOVERMAN: Well thank you.
I found out you’re also developing a David O. Selznick biopic with Ben Stiller over at HBO. Could you talk a little bit about that one?
MOVERMAN: It’s a somewhat unconventional “day in the life” kind of story about one of the greatest producers of all time, if not the greatest. He has a fascinating story. Stiller came to me with that project and I submitted a draft to HBO and we’ll see what happens.
MOVERMAN: Oh yeah, at the total peak, at the time when films were overlapping. He was about to go do Gone with the Wind, he was preparing to do Rebecca with [Alfred] Hitchcock, he was editing Intermezzo [A Love Story], the Ingrid Bergman movie. So it was definitely in his heyday. It’s a movie full of…strangely enough, full of action and energy because it’s just a non-stop kind of Hollywood crazy day.
It’s interesting because that era was the “Producer as God” before the rise of the director coming in.
MOVERMAN: You can imagine how much fun I had with scenes where Selznick tells Hitchcock how directors are irrelevant.
Exactly. When you were developing that, did you have that in mind, how to convey to an audience that this is a different time? Today, a lot of people don’t understand what a producer does because they have such varied tasks.
MOVERMAN: I think there’s definitely a need for some explanation, some exposition there, but it’s all weaved into the conversation and the dialogue. As I said, there’s a big confrontation with Hitchcock in the movie, so that stuff is discussed.
Again, you’re right. Selznick is a fascinating figure in Hollywood history.
MOVERMAN: Yeah, absolutely.
MOVERMAN: Always planning, always hoping. We’ll see. Both of those films, I had incredible collaborators on. I enjoy the process of writing collaboration so there’s some stuff that already that may happen and then some stuff that I’m initiating that I may write on my own. I have no idea what the next project will be and if there’s a next project. I don’t even know if we’re all going to be here tomorrow, but I’m pretty optimistic.
I really do hope we’re all here tomorrow. I have plans this week and that would really screw it up.
MOVERMAN: I know, that’s the problem with plans.
You mentioned your production company. Has that given you more freedom in those responsibilities? How has that affected you as a writer and director, that new element to your career?
MOVERMAN: It gives it a home, it gives it a center. It gives me another chance for collaboration with Ben [Foster] that is something that we crave and we want to continue to do. It gave me a partner who’s someone I trust absolutely and believe in and who’s an incredible talent, not just as an actor and producer, but as a writer and a future director. He’s just really, really a Renaissance man in that way and I think that having that is very grounding; you always have somebody to give you a counterpoint or another way of looking at things. It just focused all of it into one place.
I wanted to go back to Rampart for a moment. I saw the film the first time at Toronto. What was the experience bringing the film to such a major festival and then taking it through the fall season? What has the reaction been when you’ve seen the film with an audience?
MOVERMAN: Toronto was great. It was a huge movie theater; I think it was 1,800 seats or something. It was a great place to unveil the movie because the audiences in Toronto are really fantastic. They come to like the movie; they’re not there to [laughs] judge it in any other way but wanting to really like it. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The reaction has been pretty strong. It’s a movie that, love it, hate it, or be indifferent to it, it’s built in a way that, hopefully, you can’t be indifferent to it too much. You have to see something and start, hopefully, a conversation about it. The question of release is obviously starting February 10th and we’ll see what people say. Before the commercial release happens, I’m at screenings and I do Q&As and very few people tell me how much they hated the film, so I don’t get exposed to that. But now, hopefully, it’ll come out and plenty of people are going to let me know how much they hate it.
Yes, everyone will just pile on. [laughs] I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think anyone would stand up and say, “I hate it,” or else they would just be wrong. But what has the reaction been like to the character of Dave Brown? He seems like a polarizing figure. How corrupt is he? Does he know he’s corrupt? Is he righteous? What have those reactions been like?
MOVERMAN: Different kinds of reactions. A lot of people are somewhat embarrassed and slightly ashamed even of liking him and feeling something for him. He is very charismatic like a lot of these cops are. And then there are people who find some compassion for him and see the humanity in his story and then there are people who absolutely loathe him. I think either reaction is great. I think cops are very provocative characters and I think that institution for all of us connotes a lot of different things. If there’s a strong reaction to it then I feel like we’ve done our job, no matter what the reaction is.
MOVERMAN: Yeah, we talked with a lot of cops and Woody spent a lot of time with cops and we really tried to get as far as we could in these conversations. I really tried to understand what their days are like and Woody went on ride-alongs and went to their station and really got a full tour of the practical side of their lives. Then, we spent a lot of time talking to them and having hearts-to-hearts with them and they told him how they feel and what they go through and I think all of that informed the character.
Did you speak with any cops who were actually in L.A. during the Rampart scandal?
What was their memory of it?
MOVERMAN: It depends on who it was. I spoke with some cops who were actually fired from the police department after the scandal and I spoke with guys who had nothing to do with it. It was painful, it was very painful. A lot of people were hurt on both sides and I think that, for many of them, they’d like to put it behind them; some of them are still living in it. It varies, but they’re definitely a big part of the world of the L.A.P.D., it’s a very, very crucial moment in the history of the department.