Frequent moviegoers have gotten used to seeing Sam Rockwell play smart and funny characters in a wide variety of movies, but more recently, he’s had more success with comedic roles like the one in the recent Sundance hit The Way, Way Back. As much as it’s always fun to see Rockwell’s trademark wit on screen, he’s an actor first and foremost so it’s just as great seeing him do more dramatic roles like the one he plays in David M. Rosenthal’s A Single Shot.
Based on the novel by Matthew Jones, who adapted it into a screenplay, Rockwell plays John Moon, a solitary hunter who accidentally shoots a young woman who has in her possession a box full of money. It doesn’t take long before the criminals that the money belongs to–including Jason Isaacs, almost unrecognizable with a beard–come after Moon.
The moody thriller set mostly in the backwoods of West Virginia–doubled by Vancouver, British Columbia–is not only noteworthy for Rockwell’s performance but also Rosenthal’s ability to capture the look and tone of films by respected filmmakers like Terrence Malick and PT Anderson. The fact it bypassed many of the more prominent yearly film festivals after being picked up by Tribeca Film following its Berlin Film Festival premiere is a mystery.
“He’s an amazing comedic actor, but I just think he has so much range,” director David M. Rosenthal told us over the phone about the unconventional casting of Rockwell as John Moon a few weeks back. “Seeing him in Moon’ and in The Assassination of Jesse James’ and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ and seeing him in other films in his career where you know that there’s tremendous depth and breath to his work. He’s one of a handful of actors in his generation that are always good so he was high on our list of people that I wanted to work with and hoped to be able to work with. I had no doubt that he could handle it and I thought this may appeal to him for that very reason, that it is a very different character for him and therefore, maybe a challenge and maybe an exploration. I guess you had a filmmaker proving themselves and Sam doing something different so that made it interesting for both of us.”
“It’s always fun to do these kinds of parts. It’s real meaty stuff. I just like to do different parts,” Rockwell said to explain his decision to take on such a different character. “I liked the director and the actors involved and we just got lucky with all of these actors. I just like this kind of story about this guy who is off the grid and isolated.”
Anyone familiar with Rosenthal’s previous work–which includes Seth Meyer’s early movie role in See This Movie and the light indie Janie Jones–may be surprised to see him taking such a dark turn with his latest movie. “I actually started off at a film school wanting to track towards films like this and got a little distracted, but I’m excited to get a chance to get back into this kind of filmmaking,” he told us. “The very first script I wrote out of film school was a very dark, psychological thriller that was not as violent as this movie but those were the kinds of films that I was drawn to. I was drawn to the different brands of European and American filmmaking that was dark and arthouse and weird, so it was kind of a coming home to me since I feel like I got diverted off of that path. I had this dual interest in comedy as well and was involved with the Groundlings and I came up with an idea that I pitched and that got off the ground really quickly and I ended up doing a couple comedies that took me off my track.”
Not having a movie anything like A Single Shot under his belt meant that Rosenthal had to work a little harder to convince the producers that he could direct it. “I had a more visualist short film, but I had to convince the producers to let me direct the movie,” he admitted. “In the process of hustling for the job, I ended up creating a visual flipbook. I cut together a bunch of different scenes and sequences from films that I thought were appropriate and filmmakers that I revered cut to the music that I wanted to have in the film, modernist composers like Philip Glass and more atonal kind of stuff like Penderecki, then I would take clips There Will Be Blood’ and No Country for Old Men’ and Insomnia’ to approximate tone and pace and style of the film I wanted to put up, and that actually won the job for me and then it became a terrific leaping off point for all my discussions in both hiring department heads and DPs and production designers and then once they were hired, saying I understand exactly where you want to go visually.”
Rockwell explained to us why he was confident that Rosenthal would be able to achieve what he was hoping with the film despite it being so different from his previous work. “I think it was mainly the way he talked to me about it and the movies he referenced that we were going to be on the same page about it. He wanted to make the same kind of movie that I wanted to make. There’s something about the way he talked about it. We both agreed that visually it really need to be pretty looking, like PT Anderson or Terrence Malick or Michael Cimino. It really had to have a classic look to it because it’s very much a visual storywe’re telling the story with images more than dialogue.”
Rosenthal talked to us about the origins of the project before he came on board as director, specifically how it came to be that Jones adapted his own novel. “When it was originally optioned in ’97, the original producer brought in a screenwriter and Matt had nothing to do with that and that script, according to Matt, wasn’t very good, and then the rights reverted back to Matt and he had been working with a British producer who wanted to get the rights to it and have Matt adapt it. He jumped on that chance and it was the first time he had written a screenplay. I want to say this was five or six years ago, but at that point, he hadn’t written a screenplay and he had enough time away from writing the book that it was almost foreign to him, so he was able to dive back into it and make some sense of things that he might not have been able to earlier on in the process.”
“One of the things that occurred to me when I read the screenplay was what a terrific literary sensibility it had and terrific writing that was embodied in the action and what specificity and uniqueness there were to the characters and to all that dialogue,” Rosenthal said about reading the screenplay before reading the novel. Rockwell, on the other hand, first read the novel right before shooting and enjoyed having access to the author to provide the book’s subtext and what his character was thinking.
For Rosenthal, it was somewhat nervewracking having the novel’s author around even though he found him to be just as beneficial to the project. “It’s a different level of responsibility for me and a different level of interaction with the screenwriter, so we were working on redrafts and polishes of the script, I was very careful to be very respectful of his work because I really liked it but at the same time, certain things that work in a novel don’t work on screen and sometimes it’s hard to let go of your baby even when you are a screenwriter. Even when you’re a director, you have to let go of things you already shot that wind up on the cutting room floor. There was a lot of cool interesting specific stuff that we ended up bringing back from the book, so it was a fun process even though it did have its level of responsibility.”
Possibly the most interesting aspect of Rockwell playing John Moon besides how different a character he is from previous roles, is how much outdoorsy activities we see him do from shooting a rifle to skinning deer, although Rockwell didn’t think it was that big a deal. “I did a program called Urban Pioneers where I was outdoors a lot where I did hiking and rappelling and stuff like that, but I’m a city kid, so I have to learn some of these things, but that stuff is really fun, guy stuff to do, it’s really like boy camp. It’s like going to the Boy Scouts.”
“You just do all your homework and work on the dialects with the dialect coach and my acting coach and be prepared really. Learn how to shoot the gun and pick up different things you need to do. I had a guy from West Virginia tape my lines into a tape recorder, stuff like that,” Rockwell said about his preparation to take on the role.
“He did a tremendous amount of preparation and I think that’s part of what he does anyway but he deconstructed the book to create his backstory for the character,” the director said about what his star went through to become Moon. “He did a tremendous amount of accent work. He talked to people in the region, he did research on hunting, he was shooting shotguns and handguns and living with this character, and then we did a bunch of rehearsal. He real does his homework and it shows.”
Another surprising aspect of the film is the impressive cast Rosenthal was able to assemble, which includes the likes of William H. Macy, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Wright and Kelly Reilly, but the director gives much of the credit to Rockwell for helping get the other actors on board. “The material had a good reputation around town, but I think ultimately the truth is that they came for Sam, and as the cast got bigger, people could see that the material was attracting good people, but everybody wants to work with Sam. On a personal level, he just has such a tremendous amount of respect among his own peers.”
“It was kind of like David and I throwing a big party and all these guests would show up and we’d entertain them for a while and they’d entertain us,” Rockwell said in his own way. “We had some amazing actors. At one point, Melissa Leo was in the film and we had to cut the scene and she was amazing, so the cast is just phenomenal. Jeffrey Wright just killing it.”
Apparently at a loss for words on the day we spoke, Rockwell only had this to say about seeing the finished film and what surprised him about it. “I thought it was a beautifully shot film and I was really impressed with how pretty it looked and how well he was able to tell the story.”
Rosenthal just wrote a “slightly more action-oriented” thriller set in a mining town in Alaska and he plans on working with Rockwell again on a boxing movie about Billy Miske, “a journeyman boxer from the 20s.”
“We have to get the script written but hopefully we can get it financed and shoot it,” Rockwell told us about the planned project. “I have to get into really good shape for it so we should probably do it in the near future before I get too old.”
A Single Shot opens in New York and other cities on Friday, September 20, following its month-long run on VOD.