Exclusive Interview: Rampart Director Oren Moverman – Part 1

After making waves and scoring two Oscar nominations for his 2009 drama The Messenger, director Oren Moverman’s follow-up, the police drama Rampart, came together relatively quickly.

Based around an original screenplay by one of of L.A.’s most respected crime-writers, James Ellroy, Rampart also stars Woody Harrelson, this time playing police officer Dave Brown, who has already been under investigation for his part in the Rampart scandal when he’s caught on camera severely beating a fleeing suspect. As much as it’s about Dave’s questionable police tactics, it also follows Dave’s relationship with his ex-wives who just happen to be sisters (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon), his rebellious teen daughter (Brie Larson) and other women he meets in bars, including a lawyer he gets serious with, played by Robin Wright. The film also reunites Moverman and Harrelson with The Messenger star Ben Foster (this time co-producing) and is rounded out by an impressive cast that includes Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Stella Schnabel and Ice Cube.

More than anything, it features another terrific performance by Harrelson that frankly, we’re shocked by the Academy’s oversight to nominate Harrelson for another Oscar, especially after handing Denzel Washington an Oscar for playing a similar but less-developed role in Training Day.

Even without awards nominations, Rampart is still worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of dark and gritty, reality-based police dramas, and it shows tremendous growth for Moverman as a director. Back before the holidays, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker for a lengthy interview on the movie and other things, which we’ve split into two sections for easier consumption.

ComingSoon.net: I’ve seen the movie a couple of times and I know you worked with Woody and Ben before, but how did you find this script and how did the three of you decide to make this the follow-up to “The Messenger”?

Oren Moverman:
It wasn’t by design. What happened was one of the producers of “The Messenger” was Lawrence Inglee, and one of the things he developed when he worked for Mark Gordon was a script that James Ellroy pitched to him and the company. It was something that Ellroy really wanted to get out of his system, there was a lot of personal stuff in it. It was going to be an original script and they commissioned Ellroy and they wrote the script. He turned in–as only Ellroy can–this sprawling, out of control, huge huge movie. I would assume the way he works is that when he’s done, he’s done. He wrote the script, he’s done. Here it is. They needed somebody to streamline the script and reign it in. There were talks about other directors at the time. I wasn’t brought in as a director. I was brought in as a screenwriter.

CS: This is before “The Messenger” even, I assume?

I think it’s just before “The Messenger” or just after “The Messenger.” They brought me in to rewrite it with the idea of some other director, and I guess they spoke with Stephen Frears at the time. It was not clear who’s going to direct it, but it was definitely not for me to direct. When I was finished with it–and my goal was to write something that was totally like Ellroy–I wanted to stay in his voice, it was a great exercise. I love getting into the heads of writers and directors, and it’s almost like acting, kind of taking on their role. When I finished it, I turned it in and Lawrence was already at another company called Lightstream, and somebody at that company said, “This is great. You should direct this.” I thought, “Ah, come on. There’s all these other people.” It didn’t take long before they made it official and they said, “You should direct this.” My first impulse was to say, “Okay, if I’m directing this I want Woody to play the lead and I want Ben to come in as a producer,” because we had started this production company together called the Third Mind Pictures.

CS: But that was before “The Messenger”?

No, this was right after “The Messenger.” Ben said, “I’m moving to New York. We’re starting a company.” The quote was, “Let’s do sh*t together” so that was the idea. We started this company, and they said “yes,” and we just got rolling. Got the script to Woody, he read it and said “Absolutely.” He said it was one of the best scripts he’s ever read, so everybody was happy and we proceeded to make a movie.

CS: It seemed like this came about so fast after “The Messenger,” almost a week after that came out and everyone was back together. What’s amazing is that you’re a New York guy, but this is very much an L.A. story, so did you spend time there to tap into the mindset to write this?

It was really, really weird because Ellroy was so specific about locations like, Tommy’s Burgers and do you know L.A. well?

CS: Not at all, no, so a lot of that’s very new for me.

It wasn’t that different for me because whenever I would go to L.A. it would be a week of meetings back to back to back and all I knew was cars and offices. I didn’t really know L.A. and when I rewrote the script, there was Tommy’s Burgers and the Pacific Dining Car, all these legendary places in downtown L.A. that I didn’t even know anything about. I didn’t know what they looked like, but I kept them and wrote them because they seemed important. When I got to L.A. and I started scouting I was like, “My god, this is such a gift. This is amazing. This is basically your writer doing location work.” We were very lucky we got to shoot in most of those places that were mentioned in the script. That’s when I started getting acquainted with downtown L.A., which is a whole other city. I mean, most Angelinos don’t really know downtown L.A. or don’t ever go there.

CS: What kind of help did you get from the L.A. police department? Did you have to go to them immediately and say “Hey, I’m making this movie and it’s based partially on this?” This is based on an incident that really happened, right?

Well, the backdrop is the L.A. Rampart scandal, which really happened and still is a very raw kind of thing in Los Angeles. We just approached them casually. We were never really looked for an endorsement or anybody to approve of what we were doing. They love James Ellroy. He’s always been a big supporter of the LAPD–good, bad or ugly, he’s always on their side–so that made it a little easier. I think those who knew about “The Messenger” felt like I was very respectful to men in uniform. It wasn’t really any large scale thing. There were some cops who helped us out who took us on ride-alongs. Obviously they got approval for that, so that was sort of the extent of it. I met with Bernard Parks, who was the Chief of Police in L.A. during the Rampart scandal, and that was totally initiated by him. When we met, I was almost ashamed to disappoint him and tell him, “Look, the movie is not really about the scandal. It’s really about one cop and the scandal is sort of the backdrop.” He wanted me to know the story from his point of view, and I was very grateful. I spent three hours in the Pacific Dining Car just drinking coffee and listening to Bernard Parks tell me what his perspective was of the scandal, which was intriguing. We did a lot of the background work and met with a lot of people, but there was never any kind of official LAPD support or grumblings. You know that the title was the one thing that we were unsure about because “The Shield” was originally called “Rampart,” and the LAPD asked them to change the name, so they changed the name. Then “Training Day” was originally called “Rampart.” And the LAPD asked them to change the name. Then when we called our movie “Rampart,” nobody asked us to do anything, so either that’s an indication of time has passed and people are a little bit more comfortable with it, or they understood that the movie is really not about the Rampart scandal, it’s about the neighborhood, which is called Rampart. It’s about the street, which is called Rampart Boulevard. It’s about the state of mind and it’s about a defensive sort of embankment of a castle.

CS: Because I’m not from L.A., I never knew about this scandal, nor did I realize the significance of the title, but when I mentioned it to someone from L.A., the first thing they asked was “Is this about the scandal?” So it’s surprising no one asked you to change the title.

Yeah, I think it may be an indication that the LAPD has changed enough to feel, “Okay, that’s in the past. That’s no longer a present tense kind of image problem.”

CS: I assume you’ve been to L.A. doing Q ‘n’ As, so have you had any police officers in the audience who have made interesting comments about it?

The weirdest things were people who came up to me afterwards and say, “I’m former LAPD and I knew this guy.” (Laughs) “I don’t envy you for knowing someone like that.” But, overall I haven’t gotten too many. I think there was some guy on Facebook who wrote something and was very unhappy. He didn’t see the film but he was just very unhappy because he was a cop caught during the Rampart scandal, he was dismissed and now he’s a security guard and he’s very, very bitter and is like, “You know, this movie’s going to be bullsh*t.” We just wrote back to him and said, “Look, do you want to see it? We’ll show it to you.”

CS: What was James Ellroy’s involvement during this whole process? After you were going to do rewrites, were you still working with him at all? Did he get involved when you went to L.A. looking for locations? How did that work?

Mostly I rewrote the script and I kept working on it because the way we worked is we kept just refining it and it kept evolving. I showed him a couple of drafts of the scripts and I asked for his blessing. That was important to me. He gave me some notes, specific things that he liked, specific things that he didn’t like. That was pretty much it. He came to set a couple of times. Obviously, we showed him the film when we were close to finishing it, and that was it. He was very respectful. I always kid and people think that I’m joking, but I always say that we’re pretty much the same height and we’re both bald, and that’s important to James. If I was a tiny guy with a lot of hair, he would’ve hated me a lot more.

CS: What about Woody’s involvement as far as when you’re shooting in L.A.? He must have tons of friends there. Did having him on board kind of help get things happening and stuff like that, even though he wasn’t a producer persé?

I always think a lot of people came on board from the acting side because of Woody. I’d like to pretend that they came on board because they saw “The Messenger” and they thought I was the most actor-friendly director in town, but I think they just wanted to either kiss or do scenes with Woody, and that was fine with me. We had a hell of a cast. Other than that, he was really deep in the role, and Woody is not the kind of actor who stays in character. He just does a lot of the research, physical work. He lost almost 30 pounds for this role, but what he basically does is kind of get into the state of mind, and he still stays there, but he’s fine. Except with this one, there was so much paranoia and there was so much darkness in this role that he was actually changing. A lot of his friends who were sort of seeing him on the weekends and stuff told him, “We can’t wait for you to finish this film because you’re losing your sense of humor. You’re taking things too seriously. You think everyone’s out to get you.” He was like that. He was like, “I’m about to lose my family. I can’t trust anyone.” People would tell him a joke and he’s like, “What do you mean? What do you mean? What are you saying?” It took him, he says, two or three months in Hawaii to sort of unwind and get it out of his head.

CS: It must be hard, especially if you live in L.A. and you have to see these places all the time, so were you able to shoot in any kind of order that made sense for the character? Or was that tough?

I wish. I wish. No, there’s just no way to do that and stay on budget. Most of the stuff was scheduled around actors, so an actor could come in for two, three days, do their thing and get out. We couldn’t really do it in sequence, and in a way, I prefer that, even though it’s obviously a bigger headache, but almost everybody works this way because it’s just practical. I think you keep your eye on all the balls in the air at the same time and you’re actually starting to see new things. The movie had started evolving in the shooting. It definitely started on point A where it was much more of a balanced kind of genre movie with family elements, and slowly it morphed into more sort of a family at the core kind of movie with genre elements kind of being subverted.

CS: Which is funny since I liked the second half of the movie better. There have obviously been a lot of movies about corrupt cops, like “Training Day,” but I don’t know of many that have that element. Was that something you brought to it or something you felt it needed to differentiate it from those other movies?

Yeah, absolutely, because it was going to be an interior movie. All those movies are about stories, and they have great characters in them, but ultimately there’s a story at work and there’s a resolution to it. I just thought that we have all those movies kind of stored in our memory banks. There’s a lot of stuff that we already know, and there’s a lot of stuff we can communicate very quickly without needing to kind of dwell on it. It really wasn’t going to be a narrative that brings down a character. It was really going to be a movie about a character who brings himself down despite the narrative, because there are ways out of narrative. There are ways for a character to grow and to learn more and get more information and then just kind of find a resolution. But this character refuses to change and that was what’s unusual about him. There’s no redemption for him in a “Bad Lieutenant” way and there’s no price involved in the story.

CS: Right, usually they either die or they somehow realize everything’s bad and they change. It’s not realistic at all.

No, not at all. So it was really about getting into his head, losing sight of what’s been true or not true about his paranoia and about what is really happening, and just going as deep as you can with him to feel that there’s a psychology at work here of a man who refuses to change at a time of great change, and he’s not going to make it. One of the things that was interesting to me is that he has these two worlds that he thinks are totally separate – he has the family life and he has police work. That’s East L.A. and that’s West L.A. and that’s always going to be separate. This is paradise and this is grunt, dirty work. He thinks that as long as he keeps that separate, they’ll never meet, but he doesn’t realize that the consequences of his actions in one world are going to come to a head in the other world. At the end of it, it all mixes up and he’s got nothing.

CS: This year, there have been many movies about flawed characters and how you get the audience on their side without softening them up, so how did you develop this character with Woody to make it work? I know some people who saw this movie who were immediately turned off by the character, just by his nature even though it’s grounded in reality.

Yeah, that was a big worry, mostly on Woody’s part. For me, it was less of a worry because I really think so much of the movie is about you finding yourself in the place of judgment and kind of feeling like, “How am I going to react and where do I find my compassion? Do I want to let this guy in or not?” I’m totally fine with people saying, “You know what? He’s a total *sshole. I hated him from the beginning to the end, and I’ll walk away with it feeling like this guy got what he deserved and that’s it, no matter what happens at the end because it’s a little bit open.” I’m fine with that. I mean, those people who tell me they found compassion for him and they actually cared about him despite the fact that he was so terrible, I mean, that says a lot about who they are, a lot more about what I was trying to feed them. I also feel like there’s a huge advantage in working with someone like Woody in putting together a dark character because despite the darkness and how dirty his world becomes and his behavior, which is reprehensible and many times, there’s still something about Woody that is absolutely charming and absolutely seductive.

CS: Exactly. I think that’s what’s great about Woody because you can watch him being bad and that’s part of his charm in some ways?

The thing is that that happens a lot with cops. We met a lot of cops, and these guys are entertainers, they’re funny, they’re absolutely charismatic. They know people so well, they know how to push buttons. They know how to cozy up to you. Me as a director, I can tell you, some of these cops were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met because they’re cops in L.A,. and here comes Mr. Director, so they were really, “Whatever you want, whatever you need, you’re in L.A. I’ll give you a story, I’ll give you an opinion. I’ll give you anything you want.” And they’re funny. There as one cop that Woody rode along with–and I won’t mention his name–but, originally from the East Coast, which is not unusual. There are a lot of cops who are from other places because the military brings a lot of people to California, so many of them have a military background. This guy is white, been on the department for 20 years, has been demoted many times for bad behavior and wrongdoing – of course, innocent according to him in all of them. He’s lost a lot of seniority and things like that so he was the guy who was kind of like, “I hate everybody.” He uses the worst derogatory words against blacks and Hispanics and women and gays and all that kind of stuff. Turns out his girlfriend is black, his brother’s gay, his sister is Jewish. (Laughs) So, it’s one of those things like Woody says, “I hate all people equally,” and this guy was a total performer.

CS: I guess that’s part of being that character of being an L.A. cop.

Yeah, and that’s the thing that I like about a character piece about cops is that putting on the uniform makes you immediately an actor. There’s a lot of theater in becoming cops. There’s also a lot of serious stuff, of course, but that’s part of what Woody does so well in the movie and in general, in life and in his work, is that he can bring that charm and he can bring that seduction and he can bring that play into his characters. And then there’s certain people who just fall for it.

That’s it for Part 1. We’ve have more with Oren talking about Rampart as well as some of the other projects he’s developing next week, as well as possibly some choice words from Woody himself.

Rampart opens in select cities on Friday, February 10.


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