Director Oren Moverman worked as a screenwriter before making his feature debut with 2009’s The Messenger, a moving, well-received war drama that garnered Oscar nominations both for his screenplay and supporting actor Woody Harrelson. This week, Moverman reunites with Harrelson for Rampart, in which the actor plays an unstable Los Angeles cop whose life unravels after he’s caught on tape beating a suspect. Playing deliberately with audience expectations of the genre, Moverman and Harrelson (working from an original draft by James Ellroy) craft a character piece that begins as a crime drama and gradually dismantles the reality of its world as the paranoia escalates. We sat down with the director recently to talk about the film and his collaboration with Harrelson.
What drew you to this as your next project after The Messenger?
Oren Moverman: Well I was basically brought in to work on a James Ellroy first draft of Rampart, and my job was to prepare the script for somebody to direct it — not necessarily me; that wasn’t even talked about. He wrote a very ambitious, huge script, and I had to streamline it and make the leaner version of what he was doing. In the process I was offered the directing and so the writing process became more intense. It never really stopped through pre-production and production and post-production; we always kept working on it and changing it and making it better, hopefully — we treated it as something that was constantly evolving until we locked it into the structure that is the film.
There are certain things that carry through thematically from The Messenger. Did you write them into the script, or were they in the Ellroy draft?
Well, we didn’t really work together. Once I started working on the script he gave me notes and things like that, but we never really turned it back to him to write, because you have contracts and things that you have to take into consideration. I wasn’t aware of the things that were naturally continuing from The Messenger; I think that there was nothing intentional in it. There were certain themes and certain kinds of characters that sometimes had similar backgrounds, and of course there’s the military thing, though it was a smaller element this time; it’s another movie about a guy in uniform and the emotional whirlwind that he goes through. So there’s definitely a connection, whether I acknowledge it or not.
Were you looking to work with Woody Harrelson again after The Messenger?
Yeah. I mean, that wasn’t as planned, as well. Ben [Foster] and I have a company together and we were developing things and trying to get things going, and when this came around we talked about it and said this is a good project for our company to do. So there was definitely an intention of working with Ben again in any capacity. Woody was just a natural idea. The character just felt like a natural for him to get into and interpret. And obviously we’re all good friends and we have a way of communicating that’s shorthand, so it felt very natural to just keep going with this team.
Woody apparently expressed discomfort with playing a police officer. What was it about him made you think he could do it?
Well he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of playing a soldier either [in The Messenger] and I think that’s the most interesting thing for me — taking an actor who’s that talented out of his comfort zone, or what he perceives to be his comfort zone, and giving him a challenge in proving to himself that the can be that character. I think it gets a lot more out of him, and that’s been the process. I think if I had roles that read like “Woody Harrelson roles” off the page, whatever that means, it would be a lot less interesting.
What is it about your relationship that works so well?
I think it’s that we established a lot of trust. It wasn’t there from the beginning. When you start working with people for the first time, there’s always this period of testing each other and earning respect, and we earned each others’ respect. I think that once we learned, on The Messenger, to trust each other, it was very easy to translate that into a different kind of character and still very safe to experiment to get lost in the scenes, and to fail sometimes, and to come up with new ideas. It was just a very dynamic way of working together. And Woody, who claims to love rehearsing and all that kind of stuff, is actually a quick-thinking, great improviser, and we definitely used that in the movie.
The corrupt cop is one of movies’ more well-worn staples, and James Ellroy has written them before, but this sets out to be a different kind of take — a man imploding. Were you consciously trying to redefine the archetype?
Not redefine but deconstruct it and sort of reconfigure it for the purpose of this movie, by concentrating less on plot as something that needs to be resolved, and concentrating more on character and on observations of behavior, and his movements through these situations and who he is — really giving that the emphasis over a neatly packaged narrative that comes to a resolution and you walk away with that satisfaction of “It’s all figured out and it’s this guy’s fault or that guy’s fault.” By keeping it more abstract and by constructing a movie that hopefully surprises you. I do think that one of the goals we set out for ourselves was to have a movie that cuts to a place that you don’t see coming, and that it keeps you guessing and keeps you involved and keeps you seduced by a very complicated character. Hopefully by the time you’re done with it you have your thoughts and observations on this character and then he loses us, as the audience, and we lose him, and we’re just in his head. We walk away with that, and hopefully that will spark certain conversations that are not so much about “I didn’t see that coming,” “I didn’t believe that guy was the actual murderer” or anything like that; instead of that you’re forced to think about who he was, and whether you liked him or not, whether you felt compassion for it — the kind that becomes a human conversation, rather than about plot.
By the end he’s become almost a voyeur on his own life. With such a heightened, subjective angle to the film, how does that affect how you direct the performance on set?
It’s hard to describe. It’s setting the environment, you know — creating a space where you can be comfortable and present and be connected enough to the other characters to carry that through. It’s really kind of a mysterious thing. There’s no rulebook for it. We’d come up with certain ideas about how to choreograph scenes, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that we don?t choreograph them; that we understand the space and we understand what’s expected of the scenes. I don’t tell an actor where he needs to stand or what he needs to do while he’s standing there. There are things that evolve and things that come from the script. But overall the unrehearsed nature of it forces somebody who’s that good to be in the character throughout the entire scene, and to really find new things and keep evolving with them. So I think it’s just enriching every scene as much as possible — and then we pick the best takes. [Laughs]
Did you have discussions as to whether you thought the character was actually crazy? There was a point where I thought Ned Beatty’s character may have been a construct of Woody’s imagination, because you never really see him interact with anyone else.
Absolutely, yeah. We talked a lot about paranoia, and male fantasies, and we researched some of that stuff and spoke to a few people about it.
Did you speak to people on the police force?
And it’s a thing that genuinely happens?
Yeah. As you can imagine. There’s the paranoia. And then I spoke with a shrink about how that paranoia can manifest itself and the delusions and the fact that you start blaming everyone around you and the fact that you start seeing things that are not there; I think that’s very much how the movie is constructed. There’s a certain point in the movie where, to me, it feels like I can’t trust the movie anymore, because I’m so much in his point of view that I’m not sure what is really happening and what he’s imagining. And you’re absolutely right — the Ned character could be a total figment of his imagination. It’s a great way of looking at it. When you’re in tune with the character you can definitely imagine that these things are just all happening in his head and there’s nothing you can trust. That’s the thing about paranoia, or that mode of behavior, which is almost like a teenager — you lash out at everyone and blame everyone. It’s this kind of mad state of being and I think that’s where he’s at. And we talked about how to achieve that without going over the top or over-dramatizing it.
Did you develop an interest in the splintering of identity having written [Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan “biopic”] I’m Not There?
[Laughs] It’s close to me as a person. I don’t think that we’re the same person all the time. I think that we’re different people in our reactions to other people and sometimes to ourselves, and I think that he definitely has two worlds that he defined in a very clear way — or what he thought were very clear definitions. He thought he was keeping them separate and there’s nothing to connect those two worlds, not really paying attention the fact that he’s the connection, and he carries one world into another until everything kind of collapses around him. I do think that I’m Not There, if there’s anything in it, it’s the idea of contradictions — people in general are a series of contradictions and they act out their contradictions, and that’s kind of what’s interesting for me to watch in a character like this.
How did the character’s crumbling identity inform your directing, editing and sound choices? Compared to The Messenger the style here is a lot more adventurous. Did you feel more confident as a director?
It’s not a matter of confidence, it’s a matter of taking your cues from the script. On The Messenger it was very clear to me, and I spoke about it at the beginning, that we had to get out of the way of the movie. Its subject matter was so delicate and so tied to reality that all we could do was show respect, and the respect that I was thinking about was just being very restrained and not showing off or doing anything that says “Hey, look what we can do with the camera” but rather capturing things in a very elegant — if that’s the word — way and not accentuating the filmmaking. And then you look at something like Rampart and the script is telling you that it’s an extreme story about an extreme character, and the first thing that comes to my mind is the thought of extremes: extreme angles and an extreme look and a sort of shooting style and saturation and color contrast and all those things. It felt like much more of a cut-up movie, because it was a cut-up character who was a lot of different things at the same time. So I try to respond to what the material is saying. I don’t try to impose a style onto what I think the material is. I try to learn from the material what style is appropriate.
The sound design in the film is very effective.
I could put a lot of work into the sound — thanks. Yeah, I worked with Leslie Shatz.
He does such great work on Gus van Sant’s stuff.
Yeah, he’s brilliant. We had a lot of fun with sound. I think sound is kind of like a separate script we write after we finish shooting the movie. There’s a whole world of sound that creates more texture and information in the move that just makes it better.
You’re writing the screenplay for the Brian Wilson biopic. Will it be anything like I’m Not There?
It won’t be a similar approach.
That has to be a tough life to take on.
Absolutely. But fascinating and full of interesting episodes and chapters. I often think about that genre and what’s an interesting way to subvert it, and find different ways into it — especially when you have music and you have that as your driving force. So all those things add up. Things that you try to use as an experience for the next time.
Rampart opens in theaters this week.