“I wasn’t one of these directors who knew at the age of 8 that they wanted to be a director,” said David M. Rosenthal over a large plate of currywurst and fries in the cafe at Berlin’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. “I was a photo geek in high school, the photo editor of the newspaper, and that’s how I kind of started to see the world through a lens.”
Rosenthal is in der Stadt for the Berlinale, where his new film “A Single Shot” premiered Saturday night. (My review is here; THR director’s roundtable, pictured, is here.) Starring Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Wright and William H. Macy, “Shot” is a taut backwoods thriller, dark and dank and dirty, set in the kind of country place where shit tends to happen. In this case, that shit happens to Rockwell’s John Moon, a man living on the edge – of a forest, of a life and a former life. Estranged from his wife (Kelly Reilly) and their young son, he can’t afford to do anything further to alienate her. But when he goes deer hunting one cold morning, and in a nature conservancy yet – well, with the film’s title and all, you get the feeling that something bad’s about to happen. And it does. Real bad. And that’s just the beginning.
What happened next — in Rosenthal’s life, I mean? After high school he started writing, got into Sarah Lawrence, worked at the Paris Review. “And in the middle of getting my masters in poetry, I stumbled on a film camera, a Bolex. And I thought, wait a second, this brings together a lot of the things I want to do.” After that came the move to Los Angeles and the AFI, from which he graduated in 1998. He knew he wanted to direct, but he studied cinematography. And he also studied with Joanne Linville at the Actor’s Studio, to learn the language, he said, and the skills to work with actors.
These would both prove important in the making of “A Single Shot,” it seems, because you can sense the comfort level between Rosenthal and his DP, the Spaniard Edward Grau (“A Single Man”), whose dark, claustrophobic atmospherics color the film. “The story is so allegorical,” said Rosenthal, “this journey into the dark woods. I kept thinking of Dante and looking at Gustav Doré etchings of the ‘Inferno.’ It was the darkness of the forest, shrouded in mist — earthy, musty, dirty. And it’s such a brutal, dirty story.”
That goes for the actors, too: It may not be the subtlest acting ever seen, but you feel their world, believe in it. And that includes the bit players, right down to the cafe owner and the farmer. Notable are two serial creeps played by Joe Anderson and Jason Isaacs, and the women, played by Reilly, Ophelia Lovibond and Amy Sloan. The skill level down the line is strong enough to suggest an English film – perhaps because so many of the supporting cast are English. (Macy is American, Sloan is Canadian.) For his part, Rosenthal takes little credit. “I would probably attribute it more to good casting than to the brilliance of my direction,” he said. “The job of a director, really, is being a policeman and saying, ‘That’s false.’”
He may not have been able to say that to William H. Macy, whose small-town lawyer’s accoutrements — a gimpy arm, a bad toupee and a tragic sense of fashion – strike an unnecessarily false note, despite being true to the character in the novel. “Yeah, it’s delicate when you have a character with things going on,” admitted Rosenthal. Then again, it is William H. Macy. Plus, said the director, “I think it’s important to honor the underlying material. But it’s a tough thing, adapting; there are so many stories and so much exposition.”
The material he’s referring to is Matthew F. Jones’s novel, which Jones also adapted. When a producer brought the book to him, Rosenthal said, “He said, ‘You’re going to like this’ and I did. The book is so rich and atmospheric, and the characters are so oddball, special, Coen brothers-esque. And I got very excited about it.”
At that point, Rosenthal was involved with very different material. Just out of the AFI, he had written a dark script that found some interest but only that. Then he went in a different direction, directing the comedy “Watch This Movie,” starring Seth Myers, and a romantic comedy, “Falling Up,” that featured, among others, Snoop Dogg. After that he wrote and directed “Janie Jones,” starring Abigail Breslin and based on his own life and that of his daughter, who he didn’t meet until she was 11. (She’s now 24.) That opened up some opportunities, and when “A Single Shot” presented itself, Rosenthal put together a video look-book of film clips, including “There Will Be Blood,” “Harlan County USA,” “No Country For Old Men,” Kurasawa’s “Ran,” and music by Arvo Pärt. He got the job.
The movie has some interesting history, the project having “unraveled” in 2011, losing its financing and another good cast in the process. “Most films just go down when that happens,” said Rosenthal, but this one managed to come back thanks to the tenacity of Coen and the other producers. Distribution remains under discussion.
In any case, Rosenthal and Rockwell, both of whom work out/box at the Fortune Gym in Hollywood, are developing a project with producer Michael Costigan about the early 20th-century prize-fighter Billy Miske, who fought one last fight to provide Christmas gifts for his family despite being seriously ill and miraculously won only to die on New Year’s Day.
Obviously, these guys wanted something light and fluffy to follow up their sojourn in the dark woods.