In 2009, screenwriter-turned-director Oren Moverman was involved in two great feats. The first was by his own doing: making a powerful and absorbing directorial debut with “The Messenger” featuring outstanding performances by Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster and Samantha Morton. The second accomplishment he was somewhat peripherally involved in and directly responsible for. He directed Harrelson to an outstanding performance, but somehow, small indie company Oscilloscope Films were able to earn Harrelson an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor – no small accomplishment considering the lesser amount of weight indies hold compared to larger studios and a testament to how good Harrelson’s performance was (many had assumed, the picture was simply too small and Woody would go unnoticed).
In 2011, the screenwriter behind “Jesus’ Son,” the Bob Dylan kaleidoscope “I’m Not There” and “The Messenger” is trying to make lightning strike once again with “Rampart,” a seething, intense and brutal examination of the American male via a brutally corrupt cop in the ‘90s L.A.P.D. Played by Harrelson with smoldering focus, “Rampart” is easily one of the best films of the year and may be the actor’s finest moment to date. It’s also another bold and towering achievement for Moverman, and one that illustrates that his debut was no fluke. This is a filmmaker to watch, who is making perhaps some of the most exciting independent films in the United States right now. With Millennium Entertainment steering the ship, an indie distributor is once again taking aim at a crowded Oscar field for Best Actor, but if anyone can penetrate that turf, it’s Harrelson’s pitch-perfect turn as a self-destructive police officer whose crumbling psyche is a toxic spill you don’t want to be part of.
The Playlist recently spoke to Moverman about the film, his intentions, his atypical collaboration with writer James Ellroy on the project, making a film that almost bankrupted his relationship with Harrelson, and much, much more. “Rampart” opens in Oscar qualifying release today, Wednesday, November 23 for one week in New York and L.A. and then comes out in platform release on January 27th. If you’re lucky enough to be in one of those two cities, make sure you get a seat early.
So the screenplay is credited to you and [legendary crime fiction author] James Ellroy, but it’s not your traditional collaboration.
Oren Moverman: Right, but it was collaboration in its own way. James wrote the first draft and it was based on his idea, and he developed it for a company called LifeStream Pictures. One of the partners there produced "The Messenger" and he brought me on board and I liked the script – this was before I knew I was going to direct it. It was a job. I was brought in because the script was enormous it was not flowing, it was not practical from a perspective of an independent film.
So Ellroy’s version was sprawling?
It was way too expensive and covered too much ground. I was brought in, to come make sense of it and streamline it and make it tighter. And so I worked on it for a while and really got kind of excited about the idea of getting into James Ellroy’s head and kind of writing in his voice which is something I’ve enjoyed in the past, [when] working with directors.
I submitted it, they were very happy with it and they asked me if I wanted to direct it, but in terms of collaboration I always kept James in the picture. I showed him drafts, got his notes and very quickly realized that we had very different perspectives on it, and then we’re going to be very polite with each other and he gave me his blessing to go make the movie and with the idea that there will be things we’ll agree to disagree on. And some of what works in the movie as a kind of the tension between those two different approaches and two different agendas that are sort of at play at all times with a very contradictory character in the center.
So what would those agendas be?
I would say this in the most polite way but I could narrow it down to a few words and I will try to pick the most diplomatic ones and I would say probably authoritarian versus humanist.
And yours would be?
I would hope humanist.
One of the remarkable things about James is how he knows intimately the world of cops and how he has imagination but also his experience has led him to really have clear views about the way society should work. And you know he’s been called a lot of things in the past, ‘a fascist writer’ and some people have called him a provocateur and he’s a lot of different things but in our conversations he basically said, "Look, the police play a role, you don’t step out of line, you say yes sir, and no sir, you abide the law and you never have any problems."
So in his mind I think it was a very sort of pro-police attitude and I think he wanted to write the piece as a work of fiction to convey the idea that a lot of what’s thrown at the police in terms of accusations, a lot of it’s fiction. And there’s some truth to that. I don’t have such a loaded agenda. My agenda was basically a fascination with these characters, especially with Woody Harrelson’s character, I just thought what a great opportunity since we did have a lot of freedom in making this movie to go deep into the character and try to explore his state of mind rather then a clear cut narrative that is going to support any agenda.
There’s that now famous quote where Woody said he hated the movie when he first saw it. Did it the movie transform on a major level from script to shoot to editing?
Yeah, absolutely. That whole incident [with Woody] was pretty amazing. I feel very comfortable playing with the script and changing it and rewriting all the time and I did. So, to me the process doesn’t stop once you start shooting or once you start editing. It continues and it’s a process of finding the movie.
We threw out a lot of beautiful scenes but I like that process because I think the goal was basically finding and serving the movie and I thought that going into the interior world of [Woody’s character] was sort of elemental narrative deconstructed.
When Woody sat down to watch it, I said "look it’s a little early for you to watch this movie, it’s not really finished and it’s very different." He said, "I’m fine, I’ve done this a million times don’t worry about me" and when he saw it he saw it after four months of working in the editing room. It was such a shock and I think it was so harsh for him to see himself in every scene of the movie knowing that the movie was basically him, and it was actually hard for him to recognize the fact that this is a love letter to him in many ways and what I think of him as an actor and he walked away really, really upset and really unsure of what happened to what we shot.
Then he eventually agreed to screen it again right before the Toronto Film Festival.
Yes, I couldn’t even be there and had to get a couple of drinks. The movie was over, and it was just Woody sitting there. At some point he got up and then he saw me on the floor sitting there just not knowing what to expect. I thought he was either going to kick me or hug me, I didn’t know. He came over, he leaned down and he said, "It takes a big man to admit that he was wrong, will you be able to forgive me?" I don’t mind saying this at all, we both started crying and we sat down there on the floor, watched all the credits, stayed there in the dark and talked and cried and it was just an incredible relief because can you imagine a movie like this sitting on your shoulders? If he didn’t like it? It would have been the biggest failure in my entire life.
“Rampart” opens in New York and L.A. today, Wednesday, November 23. Much, much more to come from this interview.