Oren Moverman doesn’t suffer fools. And he doesn’t kowtow to Hollywood suits. So he has managed by sheer stubbornness to fashion a rather remarkable body of work. His films are lean, organic, and anchored in the real world. They embrace both its ugliness and beauty, from the films he has written (“I’m Not There,” co-written with Todd Haynes, “Married Life” with Ira Sachs, and Alison Maclean’s “Jesus’s Son”) to the ones he directed starring Woody Harrelson, military drama “The Messenger,” for which he earned an original Screenplay Oscar nomination, and hardboiled Los Angeles police story “Rampart.”
This year he wrote Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy” and wrote and directed “Time Out of Mind,” starring Richard Gere as a homeless New Yorker, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.
And he’s helping to foster Israeli talent as well. He produced a movie with Joseph Cedar (“Footnote”), as well as “The Ticket,” the second feature by Israeli born, Brooklyn-based Ido Fluk starring Dan Stevens (they’re in post-production), and the first American feature for Guy Nattiv (“The Flood,” “Magic Man”).
I sat down with Moverman at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles.
Anne Thompson: “Love & Mercy” feels like somebody dug deep into this material and saw what bubbled back up. Can you explain your process?
Oren Moverman: Lots of research, talking to a lot of people. But I think you’re onto something, because if you look at the actual process, it’s not that we wrote a perfect script and shot it, edited it like the script.
It doesn’t feel like a traditional structure.
The structure was there, intuitively, but we never felt “done.” I can give you an example: the way the movie begins — and, actually, maybe there are filmmakers out there who will say, “Oh, you guys fucked up,” but I actually am very proud — with Paul Dano at the piano. He’s kind of talking to himself, talking to someone — it’s not really clear what he’s doing. It’s just something that Bill arrived at in the editing.
Which I think is like Brian’s process. It was completely open. He had this piece of material. There was a dialogue scene with somebody else, off-screen — the guy who played Tony Asher — and Bill said, “What if we take Tony out of the scene? He doesn’t say anything.”
All of a sudden, Brian was talking to himself. He’s by himself, in the room, at the piano, smoking, doubting himself, and he put it in the beginning of the movie. That wasn’t supposed to be there; that was a scene later on. But I love that kind of organic process, where you really trust it, you know you have the material, and it’s about shaping it like it’s coming together. That’s how I make my films. That’s what I love about filmmaking.
You were a good choice for this. Did you have to convince them to do it, or did they have to convince you?
Can I tell you a secret? I actually haven’t told this to anyone. I got a call that Bill Pohlad wants me to consider working on a Brian Wilson film — and I immediately said “no.” I said, “I’m being pigeonholed, because I did a Bob Dylan movie, I did a Kurt Cobain script — I don’t want to be the music guy.” And even though I love Brian Wilson and knew a lot about him, I said, “I don’t really want to do it.” They said, “Okay, we’ll pass.”
So then they called me, and they said, “Bill wants to meet you, just for a general meeting.” I said, “Okay, but he knows I’m not going to do the Brian Wilson movie, right?” They said, “Yeah, no problem.” And so I meet with them, and he’s the loveliest guy. I say, “This is such a pure, beautiful guy, but I’m not going to do the Brian Wilson movie because I can’t only do music biopics.”
We’re talking, we’re having tea, and he says, “Go ahead. What’s your pitch? What’s your take on the Brian Wilson story?” And I realized I was being brought in to pitch a Brian Wilson movie.
What did you say?
There was a script that they sent, by Michael Lerner. The script was called “Heroes & Villains.” First off, I said, “It can’t be called ‘Heroes & Villains,’ because that’s not Brian Wilson. It’s ‘Love & Mercy.’” It’s about love, it’s about compassion, it’s about these emotional things; it’s not about good guys and bad guys. I don’t know that Brian Wilson is a good guy. That’s not how you look at that world. It’s ‘Love & Compassion.’”
And Brian’s always described mercy as a deeper feeling than love. I have a recording of him talking about it. The reason I called it “Love & Mercy” with parentheses — “Love & Mercy (Tonight)” — is because it’s a lyric from a song, but I also thought it would be so great to have a poster that says “tonight.” Like, “Oh, let’s go get some “Love & Mercy.”
I got to meet Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter in Sundance, when he was first being reintroduced to the public, and he was fragile — you could see it.
He’s still very fragile. I said to Bill, “I think the interesting part is the ‘60s. The ‘70s are sort of a transition with a lot of pain and illness. The ‘80s is the getting away from Landy, so it’s sort of like the movie moves toward Landy in the ‘60s and moves away from Landy in the ‘80s, and the ‘70s are like neutral, in-bed years.” So that’s the movie.
You realize the structure at some point and think, “How are they going to make that transition?” It’s more years than you could account for with one actor, and it works.
And, the truth is, Landy came in twice — in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the ‘80s, he became a maniac. So Bill said, “You mean there’s a Brian past, a Brian present, and a Brian future?” And I said “…uh, yeah, that’s what I mean.” He came up with it. And that’s how we had it in the script.
How did you work together? And tell me about the joys of The Vault.
The way we worked together is, once I met with him — and the truth of the matter is, I was such an idiot not to immediately jump at it and say, “Brian Wilson! Of course I’ll do it!” but instead I said “no” — I wanted to work with him. I pitched it to the operation, John Wells and all those people. Then everybody was onboard, and I went away and wrote the script.
How long did it take?
It took a few months, and I came back with 168 pages. I remember that email; I said, “This is too short.”
This is a dense movie, which I liked. You can see the richness of detail in there.
But it’s the shortest version. I wrote 168 pages and I felt I did a disservice to the material. Bill called and said, “You did 150% of what we need; now we need to do 100%.” So I did another draft. It was shorter. The original draft had 100 songs.
Did you hand in a CD with all the songs?
I did. I still have on my iPod songs with numbers next to them. Then I wrote a shorter draft and was really unhappy with it. I thought, “Wow. If that was a disservice, this is really too short.” Bill got on the phone, and said, “Yeah, it’s not exactly working the way I imagined.” So I said, “Can you do me a favor? Can you come to New York, sit down, and just talk about what the movie could be? Right now there’s so much I feel like I’m missing that’s not there.”
He got on the plane, came to New York, and, on the plane, he did an outline of what he thought could be the movie. He put down this outline and said, “This is how I see it working. It makes sense to me. That’s the movie.” And I said, “Thank you. Thanks for coming.” [Laughs] Then we start talking about these scenes, and, after a while, I realized that, because I have some experience doing this, that I’m working with him like I’m working with a director. I’m not working with him like he’s a producer.”
When did the conversation about him directing come up? What about you directing?
Well, that’s what happened. We finished the script, and he said, “I’m putting together a director’s list. Would you like to be on it?” I said, “No. I’d like for you to direct this movie.” That’s exactly what I said to him. I said, “Bill, this is your vision. I couldn’t have come up with this. You guided and directed me through the whole process. You know it better than anybody else. You should be directing this movie.”
Bill’s a very humble guy, and actually said, “I don’t think that’s going to go over very well with people.” It’s a big no-no in Hollywood when a financier does that. He never really told people that he wanted to direct. He was a financier, a producer, a great guy with an obviously amazing track record. Nobody knew he wanted to direct it, and I didn’t know he wanted to direct it — but my sense was, if he was directing me, he could probably direct everyday else.
And you’re a strong guy.
But I’m a collaborative guy. When I hear people’s vision, I’m delighted that people are making my job easier by giving guidance.
What did you lose that you felt really bad about?
I’m fine now, but it was a good lesson for me, because every day in the Brian Wilson story is a number of scenes you can do. You can make a scene out of just being in bed, eating junk food, and watching TV.
You almost left us to imagine. You did that very quickly, and it works.
Yeah. Which is shocking, because you see the before and after. You take out the gist of it and go, “Well, I could actually do it myself.” That was a great lesson.
I appreciate that you gave us the romance — which is not conventional at all, thank God.
It never was. [Laughs]
It almost seems like Melinda Ledbetter went after Brian in spite of herself, because she knew it would be tough. She knew she was taking on a lot.
She knew she was taking on a person who’s not well, and never was. Brian’s always had somebody in his life who is running the show. It was never him, really. It was his father, it was the band, it was Landy. He got lost when nobody was running the show.
I love that scene where he starts wandering around the streets, almost having her run into him.
And that really happened. I think the biggest challenge in making this movie was how much this story felt like a movie. The real story. Two years after Brian was free, rid of Landy, on his own, has a nurse who’s looking after him, she almost runs him over. How do you put him in a movie without making that look bad? It took a lot.
You give them time to grow that relationship. That was terribly important.
What was really amazing — and I was shocked it wasn’t in the original script, and I only found out by talking to Melinda — is that the note he left her, “Lonely. Frightened. Scared.” Really happened. That was followed-up by a phone call and going on a date, but the fact that somebody paid attention to him at a time when he wasn’t allowed to see anyone — not his daughters, his ex-wife, his family, his mother — no one was in his life. Friends didn’t come around. It was all Landy, and it was all the people running his life. All of a sudden, he’s free for one afternoon to go into a Cadillac dealership, and Landy, typical Landy, says, “You sure you don’t want a Maserati? Cadillac?” He goes in and is given 20 minutes with this person. He writes her that note and leaves it with her. My heart broke when I heard that story.
The way you play that scene out, she really pays attention to him. Cadillac dealers read people.
She’s good at that. Also, there’s an untold story that’s hinted at: where he’s sitting with her at a second date and does all that stuff about getting beat-up by his father, and he says, “Ah, listen to me. I’m talking about myself. What about you? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” She says, “There was someone who broke my heart.” Brian — and the movie doesn’t totally portray it this way, because it’s very tricky — when he met her, she was on the rebound. She had a long relationship with somebody who was quite famous in a different field. He turned out to be a really bad guy who had a lady at every port. She was broken. She was an ex-model, very successful at what she was doing, and ended up a Cadillac salesman. A very strange thing. It was that moment where she’s broken enough and he’s broken enough that it could only lead to —
The two puzzle pieces line up. Each is strong and fragile.
They’re both survivors. The fact that Brian was the last surviving Wilson… who’d have thought?
The conversation about casting both men must have been very interesting. Because that’s a very brave thing to do.
We were very open. We said, “Is it one person being aged, or is it two people?” We talked about actors, we talked about filmmaking processes, and then, ultimately, we sat down with pictures of Brian in the ‘60s and Brian in the ‘80s. It’s not the same person. There’s actually no comparison. You can’t even see… because, in the ‘80s, he went from 350 pounds to 190 pounds. When people lose that much weight, they become different people. He was already a darker, mature man — at least physically — that was not the same person. How do you age someone who’s young in the ‘60s era to play that guy in the ‘80s? Given the body language and the credibility, physically, who’s going to be able to do it?
You make him into a very lonely person. At the beginning he’s riddled with self-doubt. You keep going toward these crises, and then you cut to another scene where he’s back in the game again. It’s structural.
I also think it’s metaphorical. I think mental illness is a very lonely place to be, and I think you can fake it. He was faking it when he was a kid. He was an athlete, he was a popular kid, he was goofy, but he was already sick. Except that nobody knew how to recognize it. When they actually… the feeling I got, going into the late ‘60s, is that people knew it.
And then you get into the forces that drive any number of these people — you have the enablers keeping people going for their own self-interest.
He was making a lot of money for a lot of people. “Let Brian be Brian — whatever that means! He’s goofy, he’s crazy, he’s fun.” But I spoke to people who knew him in the ‘60s and ‘80s. They’d talk about the difference. They loved him in the ‘60s. It was the ‘60s! It felt like rebellion. But they didn’t know he was self-medicating and in a lot of pain with a lot of problems. It was just Brian being goofy and all that kind of stuff. By the ‘80s, they saw a very sick man.
You cover a lot of ground, but focus mostly on “Pet Sounds.” I agree with what Brian said in the press kit: that’s the most satisfying material. It’s such a beautiful thing, to watch the creative process. How did you learn about the music? You had to deconstruct that.
Luckily for us, not only is there enough material written about it. There’s also the “Pet Sounds Sessions,” a box set that came out a few years ago. You hear every version — mono, stereo, Brian talking on those sessions, and you get a sense of who he was. Then you read all the people from the crew working on that. The scene where the Hal Blaine character says, “We work with everyone,” we wrote that late. I remember writing that, and Bill said, “Name some of those people, because I think it’s really going to impress the audience when he says ‘Elvis, Sinatra, but you’re blowing my mind.’” That’s really smart. Because it’s not just, “Hey, kid, you’re gifted.” It’s, “We work with everyone, and you’re gifted.” He was 22 years old when he made “Pet Sounds.” 22 years old.
And he was competitive, too.
He was incredibly competitive. He heard “Rubber Soul” and said, “That’s really cool. I can do better.” Nobody understood what he was doing. Now we listen to it, and it’s one of the greatest albums ever made.
So, “Time Out of Mind.” A very different project.
Or is it? [Laughs]
Well, mental illness again.
And a piano player. But, yeah, it is different.
Where did that project come from? How long have you been dwelling on that?
A very short time. A few years ago, I ran into Richard Gere at a party. I hadn’t seen him since “I’m Not There.”
I forgot he was in that!
Harvey [Weinstein] would like to forget he was in that. Harvey hated his part in that. By the way: that was Bob Dylan’s favorite part of the movie, Richard Gere. Because it was an interpretation of the music, not of him. Anyway, I ran into him on “I’m Not There,” and he said to me at the party, “I have this script, and I can’t figure it out. I’ve had it for years.” I asked, “What’s it about?” And he said, “Homelessness.” I asked him to send it to me.
I read it. I could see why it wasn’t working. It was a very old script by Jeffrey Cain, who wrote “The Constant Gardener.” It was one of his first scripts. By the time Richard bought it, it was already fifteen years old, so it’s been around for about 20 years. It belonged to a different era. I said to him, “I really like that world. Can we start going to homeless shelters and start figuring it out?”
So that’s how we started. I wrote it very quickly and visited homeless shelters, talking to people on all sides.
The way you shot it really worked. What was the strategy? A long lens?
We shot the movie on three lenses that we had to import from Germany. They’re basically anamorphic zoom lenses that are hardly ever used. The whole idea was for us to be removed from the process of throwing Richard into the real world and capturing it from far away. A lot of those zoom lenses took us far.
It had a cool effect. There’s a blurriness and strange warping. And you’re playing around with windows a lot.
Yeah, because what I was saying was, “This is a story that we have to work in our real lives, to kind of work to pay attention to.” Because it’s a story that’s happening outside. It’s all out there. We put our shutters on. For legitimate reasons. I kept saying, “This is a movie where you look up from your phone.” So how do we do that? We do that by being inside stores or inside apartments. We also wanted it to be… “authentic” is a weird word for movies, but as organic as possible. When you shoot a movie on a New York street, if you have a camera, you create a set. When you create a set, everybody pays attention. If you hide the camera, nobody gives a shit. And to put Richard Gere, on the first day of shooting, in Astor Place, with no one paying attention to him for 45 minutes…
I love the way you made him look. I love the idea that he’s shut down, but still has that flicker of the old attractiveness.
And that was really important, because you can’t ignore it.
You can see who he was. He lived off of people’s assets, he charmed his way through, and then he ran out of time.
Yeah, exactly. That was the idea behind that. The movie starts with him becoming homeless. He’s not a guy who’s been homeless on the street for years. But he’s also experiencing the stuff that homeless people are experiencing, which is some sort of mental illness, some sort of substance abuse, some sort of tragic background. You kind of put it all on him.
And then the daughter.
I’m just a sucker for any father-child relationship.
I found it very moving, and for a lot of personal reasons. We all know somebody in our lives, there’s a black sheep somewhere; I’ve got one.
It’s so hard to pave the way to have access to your compassion. For all the right reasons, being human means judging every situation. You have your perspective on things, and to let go of that perspective is such a difficult exercise, and almost like a spiritual process.
You made an interesting decision to mix the real population with actors. And you went into real shelters.
Yeah. We shot in Bellevue, and we’re the first movie to shoot at the intake center. It’s so interesting. Ben Vereen’s son was in the shelter while we were shooting the movie. He kept saying in advance, “I apologize in advance if he shows up and disrupts us. I don’t know where he is.”
There were people who worked on the film who, in a quiet moment, would say, “I was in a shelter for a while. I was on the streets.” Richard told me a story that, when he was a young actor in Seattle — just starting out — he was living in his car. It just touched everyone in different ways.
No matter who you are, no matter how wealthy, somewhere you’re afraid that it could happen to you.
But that’s the thing: when I tell people, “I want to make a movie about a homeless guy with Richard Gere,” everybody’s like, “What? No. That’s the last person who should play a homeless guy.” But that’s the thing.
You’re stripping it all away.
You’re stripping it all away, and, almost subconsciously, you’re thinking, “If this could happen to Richard Gere, there but for the grace of God, it could happen to all of us.”
There is a weird safety net. The guy’s not starving, but it’s also not ideal, obviously.
Well, that’s the thing about New York: it’s the only right-to-shelter state in the union. You have to get a bed. If you ask for a bed, they have to give it to you. That’s the law since 1981. That’s kind of an interesting thing.
But there are a lot of people there who won’t go, who don’t want it.
Because it’s worse than prison to some people. I met contract killers staying at shelters, who were reformed. 30 years in prison, they were reformed, and they have to be in Bellevue. You talk to them, and they’re talking about, “Yeah, I cut vegetables.” You go, “That’s a pretty good life.” And they go, “Yeah. I worked for Gotti.” Beautiful stories. And I think what happened to some people, they see the movie and say it changed their perspective of the people they walk by, and now they talk to them.
Sometimes you just want to talk. “Hey, go to that place!” And, actually, that was sort of the built-in joke of the movie: we actually tried to make a public service announcement. We give the address for Bellevue in the movie. We tell them where there’s a food pantry. We put it in the movie: “If you need food, go over there. If you need a coat, go there.” I don’t blame anyone for whatever their reaction is, but acknowledging that there’s a human being over there, or talking to them? That’s such a huge step forward.
What is your next move?
“Time Out of Mind” comes out in September. There’s a lot going on with that. We’re screening it for Congress. Richard is doing this keynote address for a big convention in July, for homeless organizations. The AMC Corporation, which owns IFC, actually is getting behind the film on an activist level. We can use it as a tool, and show it in high schools and colleges.
Are you donating money to homeless organizations?
We’re directing people where to go, but we just want to have people pay attention. Clearly, it’s such a huge thing that’s going on. There are really interesting programs. I don’t know if you know about the Housing First program. They’ve tried it in different places. The whole idea is very simple —
If they have a place to stay, then they can function?
And it worked. There’s no homelessness in Utah. There’s a new program called Zero Veterans Homelessness. They have it in New Orleans, they have it in Utah, they have it in San Francisco, and now it’s coming to New York. It’s worked. No veteran is going to be on the street. They’re getting housing first, then services, then treatment. 95% of the people in Utah who received housing first and then started getting treatment held on to their apartments. There are all these exciting ideas. We’re trying to tap into it, and it’s an amazing privilege.
Do you know what your next directing gig is? You must be in great demand, especially as a writer.
I’m not sure. I have different things. I’m kind of a weird thing, because I’ve always been uncomfortable being associated with anything.
You’re an independent, and you’ll do better work that way. Studios are risky.
They are. And I like socially conscious movies. I’ve directed three movies in six years, which is insane. After many years of trying — so it’s not overnight. A movie about bereavement in the military, a movie about corrupt police policies, and a movie about homelessness. So I can’t start making movies about, I don’t know, tap-dancing.
Are you saying that what you like to do is harder to finance and get out?
Yeah. But there are good people out there. And I’ve started producing, which is a part that I didn’t have much experience in. Three films in the last year, which is insane. The last one was with Richard Gere, which is called “Oppenheimer Strategies,” with Joseph Seder. He’s an Israeli filmmaker who made “Footnote.” This is his first American film. We’re friends, and I don’t know how I ended up being producer on that movie. We’re just editing it now.