One of the best films I saw at Toronto–and I suspected it going in from the trailer–was Rampart, Oren Moverman’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Messenger. Here’s our full Q & A on how Rampart came into being and why Israeli Moverman is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Millennium scooped up this tough 90s era L.A. cop film written by James Ellroy and starring Woody Harrelson, who rejoins his director from The Messenger, for which he earned a best supporting actor nomination. Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Steve Buscemi, and Ice Cube lend support. A sampling of TIFF reviews is also below.
Q: The Messenger was so well-received that you had many options afterwards. Why was Rampart the film you decided to do?
Oren Moverman: I didn’t really plan on it, but that is probably the best strategy for me, because things happen in ways that I can’t explain. I was working on several projects, and this one came to me as a screenwriter, around the time of The Messenger, from one of its producers, Lawrence Inglee. They had developed a James Ellroy script that needed to be streamlined, it was ambitious and big, it couldn’t be an independent film in that shape. I approached it as a fun project, where I was studying James Ellroy. It was a privilege to write a script, to somehow be in his world in his head. He created all these great characters, it needed shaping.
When I was done, Lawrence said, ‘Why don’t you direct it, you’re done with The Messenger. I said, ‘Well I’ll direct if you let Woody Harrelson be the guy, I can’t think of anyone else who would be more perfect with it.’ I had such a great experience with him doing The Messenger. By that time Ben [Foster] and I had formed company together to develop things for ourselves. I thought, ‘what a great opportunity to work with Woody again in a very intense way, and also have Ben on board as a creative producer, friend and contributor.’ It came out of the Messenger as a great opportunity for our collective to work together again. I recognized how different this is from The Messenger. It was always my goal and my hope to make different films in different styles and approaches, and this was inviting.
Q: I could see why. How did your filmmaking approach evolve on the two films?
OM: It’s hard to define but I can tell you my process, I don’t approach it as an evolution. I keep hoping I keep growing, learning and getting better at this mysterious thing called film directing. My approach is programmatic, I think of myself as not having a particular style. I am always looking for cues from the script to tell me how the movie needs to be made. For The Messenger, I knew based on some practical things like the shooting schedule and the material, that the filmmaking needed to get out of the way, it needed to be very simple. It was not going to be a calling card for me, ‘hey look what I can do on-screen.’ It had to really be respectful and sensitive to the acting and the emotions that come from real life that these actors had to portray. And so the whole strategy on how to shoot The Messenger–long takes, and this non-rehearsal thing–was based on that.
On this one the script was so intense, and so in your face, and so bold, coming straight out of Ellroy’s unique mind, that I felt we had to be extreme, with extreme characters and situations. First we were shooting in Los Angeles, which for me is a very oppressive city in terms of sunlight, so I wanted sunlight to dominate the movie and the colors of Los Angeles, and because it was a movie of extremes I wanted it to be super-saturated and very contrasty.
It’s also an unstable story that keeps changing, about a character who refuses to change in times of great change, that’s his downfall. I felt we should be loose with the camera, but not handheld, so my cameraman Bobby Bukowski, we talked about having a loose camera, some scenes handheld, which meant that the camera was never really locked onto a tripod, it was always on a bungee cord, or a pole, very loose, so that Bobby and the second camera guy, their breathing was part of the way it was shot.
Q: Is this standard operating procedure?
OM: Many years ago when I started I was a production assistant on Vanya on 42nd Street, Louis Malle’s last movie. That whole movie was a stage play in a rehearsal space. That was the first time I saw the movie shot entirely with the camera tied to a bungee cord, it’s elastic and bouncy, unless you control it and hold it tightly. The camera is suspended from a hook, a crane or dolly, something keeps it suspended from above, there’s no support underneath. There’s no way to have perfect composition that’s still and not moving. The way the camera operator moves and breathes, will be the way the camera gets its motion. So you rarely lock the camera down, sometimes we’d put it on the tripod, something soft held it so it wouldn’t fall off, so it really was fluid. That was really important for me because it’s an unstable movie and character, even though as far as he’s concerned, he’s completely stable and never changing. We made a set of rules, and said ‘let’s stick to them, follow that strategy.’ We looked at a lot of LA films; we had to justify the existence of this movie, we’re not exactly inventing a new genre.
Q: What is the genre, like Colors or William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA?
OM: Officially, it’s an LAPD movie. We looked at all those films and had our own observations. That’s your genre, where you’re coming from, that’s fine. But I also felt that Ellroy’s movies and books describe great characters, the movies are an external journey, you see interesting action and relationships, but I thought maybe this is an opportunity to go into an Ellroy character and investigate it from within, and because we’re dealing with a story about change. Ellroy had a quote from Rilke on his original draft: “For here, there is no place that cannot see you, you must change your life.”
Q: You’re saying that this character cannot do that.
OM: Yup. He insists on not doing that. Every ten minutes we went into a new genre: so it opens as a buddy movie, a young rookie is trained by an older cop, then it becomes a family drama, and it evolves into a conspiracy movie. We keep changing the genre as if to say to the character: ‘look around, things are changing, adapt.’ And he’s refusing, he’s not willing to change, he’s steadfast, right, everybody’s wrong. Everyone is under scrutiny, all things from the past are going to come back. SPOILER ALERT: It’s an inner stripping away of him and the things he has in his life, slowly the movie takes away everything from his life.
At the end, we are left with a guy who hasn’t changed. We have no way of capturing him in the end, he’s devoid of any context, he’s lost everything, he’s left in this existential void, ironically he’s become an eponymous identity as a human being, he doesn’t recognize the level of human suffering that’s created around him, the people that he went after and his family. He lost his family, to me it’s so much about family.
The Messenger comes down to one sentence. We said, ‘OK, the movie is about: go home make love.’ For us, Rampart is: ‘go home hug your kids.’
Q: One of the things I enjoyed at the beginning is his arrival at his house, which sister is his wife, Anne Heche or Cynthia Nixon? You’re keeping us confused.
OM: We’re at a period of time in filmmaking where we have to think about what we’re doing, with so many good things happening on TV, that’s exciting in a way, but challenging. What is different about how we tell stories on the big screen? One thing to me that is interesting, is to throw the audience into a situation where all the characters know what’s going on in their lives, but we are walking into the middle of something. And to start the audience interacting with the movie in a way by not being confusing or esoteric, but giving small clues that add up to, ‘what is this relationship, who are these people, what are they doing? What is their function in our characters’ life?’
The movie was always going to be a strict point of view. Every scene is an outer reflection of what is going on in his mind. But I wanted to sprinkle it in, build up the information, so that hopefully you’re interested in asking ‘who are these women, why are they so casual, and go to the back of his house, and there’s two girls, and one of them calls him Date Rape, and he says ‘don’t call me that.’ It’s mysterious but without being dramatic about it, with enough information to keep the audience asking questions like ‘who are they?’ and being seduced into the story.
Q: Woody Harrelson is so good; you’re close on him the entire time.
OM: Harrelson did something special here. When I started working on this script, I wanted to give the character a physical limitation or problem. I originally wrote him as overweight, maybe it would be another indication, that he was moving out of his comfort spot. Woody said, ‘there’s no way for me to gain that weight, not because I don’t want to, I can’t, I’m a vegan, I eat vegetables all day long. I can go the other way, are you interested in that?’ I said ‘huh.’
Then I remembered I met a gaffer, a Vietnam vet, you always saw him smoke and drink, but no one saw him eat. Woody liked that, he lost almost 30 pounds on a liquid diet, it was an interesting dramatic process, he created a body for the character. In Messenger he ran a lot, here he slimmed down and became very chiseled, with not an ounce of fat on him, and once he created his body for the character he started filling in the substance and emotional life and back story. Woody created a rigid approach to how to create a rigid character, and it morphed. His performance is terrific, but Woody’s not a method actor, he’s so opposite from the character. In between takes Woody is just Woody. He said the character was messing with his head, creating paranoia for him, which was useful to him, the character goes dark for him, goes to emotional places that were frightening. But he was able to be Woody between takes. To me that was remarkable, I would have thought someone needed to stay in character.
Q: Is the cop already surviving on a thin thread when we first meet him, but he doesn’t know he’s running out of time?
OM: In a way. When we put together the opening sequence, of him driving at a very rigid angle that keeps repeating, day and night, driving straight through, this guy is locked into ‘Look, I’m going forward, I’m doing everything right, nothing is going to change, everything is the same, I am in total control.’
SPOILERS: At the end of the movie the driving sequence is in one scene, not chopped up, everything is impressionistic lights, he’s lost the ability to say ‘everything is going to be fine, nothing is changing, I’m in control, I’m king of the hill.’ That’s his journey.
It’s an extra-filmic thing, people will go to this movie with some knowledge of what it is, we know ahead of him that he’s about to go on an adventure, he’s that kind of character that doesn’t want to change. Part of what I love about the way the movie ends is that once he loses us as his audience he’s done, we’re the only people in his life. When we turn off the lights, that’s it.
It’s very much about movies, about a character like that going through an adventure he goes through with his life spiralling, he ultimately makes the biggest mistake a human being can make: he cuts himelf off from other human beings. At the end, we the viewer can still hear the ride in the car, the image is gone, and with the credits he’s lost us too.
Q: What was your relationship with Ellroy like?
OM: Ellroy has written and collaborated on several screenplays. He’s a novelist, writes memoirs, his relationship with movies is actually unique, he doesn’t watch a lot of movies. He’s a man of literature, one of the most unique screenwriters around, because he’s not influenced by anyone. Ellroy wrote the script with a very specific POV, which is not mine by the way, which exonerates the LAPD of all the accusations attributed to that period. In his mind, he’s very close to the LAPD, he’s a crime writer, one of the greats, he loves cops, he has lot of connection to them. In his mind he was writing a beautiful disturbing fictional portrayal of a certain kind of image that people have of cops. I recognized that element, but I wanted to go deeper into the character and also challenge us to be better than that the character and to find our humanity in the story, as opposed to his. There was tension associated with that when I came on board. Ellroy came from one place and I came from another. I tried to exploit that.
When I showed him the film he was quite a gentleman, at least with me–we’re the same height. He shook my hand, and said, ‘we’re going to disagree about some things but I am nothing but happy about this. I appreciate it.’ I consider myself his collaborator here, I hope he feels the same.
Q: Where did the money for the movie come from?
OM: The movie was financed by Waypoint, the sole investor. It’s a daring film because it takes chances; it may fail on some levels. One reason I was able to make a film that tries to be different, is because we were allowed to, because the company that invested in the movie really gave us artistic freedom, and they were supportive the entire time. It was a remarkable experience that I don’t know if I’ll ever have again, where the producers were there along with us to serve the movie, and not to impose anything on it, with genuine respect and belief in what we were doing. It shows in the movie that we took some chances, that no one was there to say, ‘oh, that’s too risky,’ or ‘that’s not how it’s done, it needs to be more conventional.’ There was some permission here that we really benefitted from.
Q: Where are you on finding a distributor?
OM: They’re talking to a bunch of people, I try to block it out.
Q: What are you going to do next?
OM: I am involved in several projects that are at different stages of development, they’re the ones that we didn’t do. They’re still possible: the film about Kurt Cobain, that Working Title hopefully will get a green light. There’s a project at HBO about David O. Selznick with Ben Stiller. One with Ridley Scott, The Big Blow, a hurricane movie, I feel very strongly about. But all these things are still alive, I have not said ‘no’ to them. For some reason, my involvement is personal, to get to work on actual scripts, I come from screenwriting. Hopefully one will work out or new ones will come up or all of them will work out.
“Played by Woody Harrelson with an intensity that sears the screen, Dave Brown is a loathsome protagonist in a movie that fails to acknowledge any truly good person can possibly exist..Thanks to a fine cast and solid production values that plunge a viewer into a complex environment of pungent sights and sounds, Rampart could speak to some but most viewers may regard the film’s obsession with such a corrupt soul as more pretentious than enlightening.”
“Moverman’s film is really two portraits: one of the grimy Los Angeles that we don’t see very often in the usual steel-and-glass depictions, and another of a cop slowly losing his sanity as he tries to keep a balance between a complicated home life and a career that is unraveling before his eyes. But don’t get it twisted, this is not your usual Training Day-style portrayal of a cop descending to into paranoia and madness,..Moverman isn’t just concerned with the singular breakdown of a character but the ramifications that spread out like an oil slick to engulf his family and his colleagues, all pitched against a real-life backdrop. It’s a wildly ambitious slow burn that succeeds immensely, powered by one of the best performances of Woody Harrelson’s career.”
“There’s a lot more filmmaking in Rampart [than in The Messenger], with lots of jiggly handheld camera work, plenty of extreme close-ups and some craftily edited circular pans. Moverman doesn’t have to work that hard. Still, he keeps us following this somewhat shaggy story to its abrupt but appropriate ending. And Harrelson thrives within this nonstructured structure. His performance is disarming, at times borderline unhinged — the character’s unlikability fuses with Harrelson’s innate ragamuffin charm, and the result is both unnerving and alluring. Rampart isn’t a particularly glamorous vehicle for Harrelson, but he’s in control of it every moment.”