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Karlovy Vary Interview: Oren Moverman Talks ‘Time Out Of Mind,’ The Process Of Storytelling, And More

Karlovy Vary Interview: Oren Moverman Talks 'Time Out Of Mind,' The Process Of Storytelling, And More

It will have been almost exactly a year since its TIFF 2014 premiere when Oren Moverman’s “Time Out Of Mind,” starring Richard Gere, comes to theaters. In the meantime, the film has been on the international festival circuit, most recently at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The film earned opening night slot —  a curious but bold choice for a festival opener in that it’s hardly the glitzy/feel-good/crowd-pleaser that the slot might usually suggest. Instead, Moverman’s film (our review here) is an unsparing look at the minute pivot points that separate a life on the bottom rung of society from a life unmoored altogether — those small desperate instances that mark the transition from hard times to homelessness.

Over the course of just three directorial films, Moverman, who is also a writer and has recently started producing (Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” sees him wear both those hats), has quietly established himself as one of the most confident and distinctive of independent directors. All three of his films to date (“The Messenger” and “Rampart” being the other two) have a quality of restrained intelligence, and are built around compelling central performances. However, Gere’s turn in “Time Out Of Mind” feels like it falls into a slightly different category from the powerhouse roles that actors, like Woody Harrelson, have embodied for the director previously. Having already spoken to him briefly by phone after TIFF last year, this disconnect was just one of the things we got to discuss with the articulate, thoughful Moverman when we met him (on his birthday!) in lovely Karlovy Vary.

It’s strange and admirable that Richard Gere brought you this project initially, yet you essentially spend the whole film erasing him.
Hah! Yes. But we were very clear about that approach and that was one of the things that he liked. He came to me with an old script and it was much more conventional, much more a classic narrative — there was a court case and all that. He’d been trying to make that movie for a long time. And I said, why don’t we just make it about process, why don’t we just go to the shelters, see what the world is like and work from there — make it about a character who nobody wants to look at. That was basically the concept.

But it also stuck me that it had to be him — it had to be a star, at least initially, because we have to have a reason to search him out in frames where he’s often backgrounded, almost lost.
Exactly. You look for him because it is him. I think he was very aware, even before we started to work on it, that this was an opportunity to highlight a cause that he cares about very deeply — he’s on the board of the Coalition for the Homeless, he’s been involved in homeless issues for a while. So to take that and call attention to it — how do you do that?  And I can tell you for a fact, that if we made this movie with someone you never heard of, we wouldn’t be talking about it now. And we’re very aware it is an honor and opportunity, to take someone who draws attention to himself, because of who he is, and then go in a completely different direction.

And he wanted to do that — not the Richard Gere persona, not the image he projects which has always been alpha male glamor, and star power and sex appeal. All of a sudden all that is erased, as you say. And what emerges is a human being that I think after a while, if you go with the movie — you can resist it, but if you go with it — you’re actually starting to feel, if this is happening to Richard Gere, who is immune? There but for the grace of God go I. We’re all two turns away, two mistakes away from ending up in a bad situation like that. And then it’s important to also make it as intimate as possible, so that you hopefully gradually forget that it’s Richard Gere — it’s simply someone you want to pay attention to.

So, much of the movie is about calling attention to the character because we’re in everybody else’s point of view except his. It’s like Where’s Waldo.

Ha, I think I wrote Where’s Waldo in my notes…
My son has this joke — everyone’s asking “Where’s Waldo?” and nobody’s asking “How’s Waldo?”! This is the movie where we ask, “How’s Waldo?”

And that exteriority is also something I noticed, instead of the embedded, subjective perspective of say “Heaven Knows What” — a film this calls to mind — we are only ever looking at him, from the standpoint of a passerby.
Well, yes. In many ways it’s about New York too, and that means it’s about community or lack of community — lack of awareness of the people around you. If we really let him blend into reality, then it becomes about that reality, about the world in which someone like this exists and not just about him. It’s about trying to find a perspective that allows us also to get closer and therefore feel compassion for the character. That’s the strategy.

It’s a film that feels destined to be lauded for Gere’s performance, and yet it kind of feels less like a traditional performance piece than, say, something like Robert Redford’s turn in “All Is Lost.”
That’s absolutely true and when we were talking to people about financing the movie we did mention “All is Lost.” It is a similar situation, someone very recognizable, who has a long extra-filmic history that’s beyond the movie you’re making right now, doing something unexpected. And also, he’s carrying it, but giving himself up to the movie at the same time, as opposed to taking it and leading it.

You mentioned an awareness, though, that some people may be resistant to this mode of storytelling. Have you a particular way you deal with negative criticism/reaction?
I don’t think of it as “negative criticism.” Every one of us comes from a different background and we have different references, aesthetics, ways of seeing the world, and, of course, we each have a different understanding and preferences for what narrative is, especially these days when a new narrative language is emerging in our living rooms, on our iPads and computer screens. I was a film critic for a while myself. I get it. Whatever turns you on, turns you up and keeps turning. When it doesn’t, it just doesn’t.

If we made a layered, demanding film that everyone liked, I would be worried. It would mean we were not trying hard enough to create friction, dialogue, provoke a reaction, go deep and test our compassion within the context of film language. Of course, that can backfire and be dismissed. I accept that in advance. But, then again, I’m human, certain things hurt more than others and you have to realize for yourself that this is a film that is trying for something different. If it is criticized beyond what we’ve seen up to now — and we’ve seen more good reactions than bad, by the way, including the Critics Prize at Toronto — so be it. At least it is criticized in context and after engaging the work. That’s a lot to ask for in itself.

You have perhaps a more eclectic writing resume than a directorial one, do you find you write differently if the project is not one you’ll direct?
Hm, it doesn’t affect how I write the project. I’ve always written from a director’s perspective; I think this is why I’ve had luck working with directors. And I don’t feel like I’m a true writer — and I don’t feel like screenwriting is true writing anyway, but that’s a whole other thing — so I tend to write director-friendly and actor-friendly scripts and I treat them all the same whether it’s for myself or in for someone else. I’m just writing what I’m seeing —  a lot of it is transcribing. It lets you be God for a little while, pick these characters and start them talking and then I’m really just transcribing what they’re saying. I know it sounds insane, it probably is, but it’s my livelihood, so what am I going to do? They are voices in my head, yes, but it’s under control I think. I haven’t been medicated. Yet.

Though “Time out of Mind,” now that you mention it, I did write that differently. I wrote it much more sparingly, and then I made it shorter and shorter, so the actual script was only 81 pages, knowing there’d be long takes and so on. So it’s the shortest script I’ve ever written and the longest film I’ve ever made.

And at the other end of the process, you’ve said elsewhere how you like “finding the film” in the edit. Did that happen here to the same extent?
Yes and no. I do love that process but in this case the visuals were pretty much constructed along with the script, with some changes. Of course, the process of color grading and visual effects is part of ‘finding” in post for me.  And what really evolved to a great degree was the sound. I wrote a few more off-screen scenes, and the sound team, the editor Alex Hall and I kept recording and finding new elements as the sound design grew to reflect the insane soundscape that is New York, but also what is going on in Gere’s character’s head.

Your fruitful partnership with Woody Harrelson was also to possibly continue on some sort of Manhattan murder mystery — is that still happening?
It’s happening in our heads, we keep talking about it, and it’s one of those things we’re going to brew for a while before we can move forward. Especially since he’s the busiest actor I know of right now, busy making sequels to sequels. It’s remarkable what has happened. Since ‘The Messenger,’ really his career looks completely different, which is fantastic of course. So we get together once in a while and we talk about what this movie is, but it’s not gonna be for a while.

And you’ve a TV project,  “Laughs Unlimited,” that’s been cast?
That’s not gone to pilot, it’s still in development and looking…iffy.

Is there a particular attraction to TV, to longform storytelling?
The attraction is getting people to see it. We live in an era when TV is dominant in the independent world, as you know. And its hard to get people to come to see indie films.

It does feel like for your style of character-based drama it might be a more natural progression than for others, though.
More necessary than natural I think! I tend to be more abstract than television likes…

So what is next?
I don’t know — there are some choices I have to make but right now I’ve been producing a few movies. So we’re editing, we’re in post — because I didn’t think I had enough hats. So “Time out of Mind” will come out, and “Love and Mercy” has its life around the world now.

You must be proud of “Love and Mercy” — how involved were you with it?
Oh yes, I was very involved, I was on set and I worked very closely with the director, he’s a close friend and he was one of the producers of “Time Out Of Mind.” And now we have a new movie that we’re working on together. It’s not official yet, but I will say it’s a historical piece

With Bill Pohlad?
With Bill Pohlad, that we wrote together and he will direct and I’m one of the producers. So the beat goes on…

And how about having “Raised Eyebrows,” the Groucho Marx biopic you wrote, recently announced for Rob Zombie. Was that a surprise to you?
Yes. But that’s the point. You want to be surprised. You want to mix things up and explore. That’s the idea! Rob is a brilliant horror filmmaker and the end of Groucho Marx’s life was an emotional horror show. Rob doing it really excites me.

Also the film mooted as Cate Blanchett’s directorial debut, “The Dinner” was a script from you. You seem to remain involved with your scripts even after they’re attached elsewhere so do you know what’s happening with that?  
I’m usually involved. I will remain involved in “The Dinner” although I’m not sure making it fits into Cate’s world right now. There may be a new director coming on board. I may know him well. You may too.

Intriguing! Finally, is there a script of yours that you consider your favorite? Do you play favorites?
I honestly don’t have one favorite. Each one of them (except the ones, the few, that were “just” a rewrite job) is deeply special to me and has a filmmaking story that I was emotionally involved with. I am partial, of course, to the films I direct, only because they were made with permission to be myself completely.  And that’s an overwhelming privilege.

“Time Out Of Mind” opens on September 9th.

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