Interview: Oren Moverman on Rampart , Queer and More


Last week, you may have read Part 1 of our extensive interview with filmmaker Oren Moverman, talking about his new movie Rampart. Maybe you’ve even read our interview with the film’s star Woody Harrelson.

Now we have Part 2 with Oren where we get a bit deeper into some of the themes of the film like Dave Brown’s relationships with women, some of the more interesting locations, Ben Foster’s involvement as producer, and Moverman’s desire to make an artier film than we normally see with police dramas. We also spoke with Moverman about some of the things he’s developing including an adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ controversial novel “Queer,” to be directed by Steve Buscemi, and a biopic based on the life of Brian Wilson. Having seen the film a number of times, one of the most interesting aspects is Dave’s relationship with women, starting with Stella Schnabel as the female officer, Sigourney Weaver as the Internal Affairs woman, his wives and daughter and Robin Wright. He has all these interesting relationship with women. I’m not sure you could go through all of them, but I was curious how you felt these women are important to his life.

Ellroy had a little bit of voiceover in his version, and the first one was “Rampart. This is my end of watch report and my goodbye to the women.” I think a lot of the motivation for the writing of the original script for Ellroy was about exploring certain relationships that he wanted the character to have with women. To me, when I took the project on, I felt like, “Okay, here’s a guy who refuses to change in a time of great change,” and we said, “What is the future? What’s going to make things different and make him a dinosaur?” To me, the answer was women, the fact that women are becoming more powerful in his world, that he has to train a female cop, that he has to answer to a civilian, Sigourney Weaver, who is a woman, that he has two daughters and two ex-wives and he is just surrounded by women. Part of his kind of dual personality is that he’s a tough guy on the street and he can beat up people and he can do bad things to bad people, as he says. Yet with women, he’s kind of helpless. Ultimately, I mean, he can be nasty and he can be unpleasant, but ultimately, he wouldn’t do anything bad to them. I kind of felt like seeing him with all these women who reflect certain aspects of his life is really one of the more unusual things you can put in this genre, and I’ve never seen it, so I thought populate the movie with more women than even Ellroy had–and he had a lot–like the Stella Schnabel role used to be a guy. I changed it to a female cop because I really wanted to bring home that point that part of the change in his world is the fact that women are becoming more powerful than him. To me, that’s the only hope we have as men is that women will fix our world and the damage we’ve done, so that’s kind of the motivation behind it.

CS: Was there more to the Stella Schnabel storyline and more to some of these other stories that got cut out? A lot of these women come and go in Dave’s life, so was there more stuff shot or in the script?

It depends with who. We do a lot of improvisation, so we have four or five films in this film.

CS: Stella Schnabel was kind of interesting and was very pivotal to the beginning.

Yeah, she had a final scene in the movie that we cut out, but every character was designed to come in and out like that, so I think there was another scene with Sigourney that we cut out because it just felt a little too forgiving toward Woody’s character. All of Robin’s scenes are in. All of Cynthia and Anne’s scenes are in, the girls. So it’s really one scene with Stella that was cut at the end, which gave a much more kind of definitive ending to the movie, which I wanted to avoid. It was a good scene.

CS: She shoots him, doesn’t she?

Yeah. (Laughs)

CS: I was just kidding.

I’m sorry to cut it out because it’s a good scene, but you also can’t do a two-and-a-half hour movie like this, so we had to be aware of time.

CS: We talked briefly about the locations and I was curious about all these bars and clubs we see Dave drinking at – one time he’s in a flamenco club and then another there’s a lounge singer. Was this stuff from Ellroy’s script or just different places you found while location scounting?

Yeah, a lot of this stuff happens in the exploration of actually shooting the movie. To me, scouting is a big part of writing because what happens is you start going to places and you get inspired. I’ll give you an example. The piano bar, for example, I forget the location in the script, but we couldn’t get it, so we started looking around and we found this restaurant, the Del Ray Restaurant, and we walked in. I see a piano. I have a good friend named Billy Huff who’s in the movie playing piano. As soon as I saw the piano I thought, “We gotta get Billy here and we gotta get him to sing in the scene.” My son, who’s 13, kept on saying, “You gotta put ‘Downtown’ in the movie,” so I was like, “Yeah, this is true collaboration.” We brought Billy in and he sang “Downtown,” and then he sang a couple of other songs, and he became sort of the voice of that bar. The flamenco, again it was scouting. We came to this place called El Cid, which was actually originally built for either “Birth of a Nation” or “Intolerance,” one of those D.W. Griffith movies. They shot a little bit of television there, but no one’s ever shot a movie there since the ’40s I think. I saw the stage, and I loved the place, then someboy said, “Well, you know they do a flamenco show here.” I thought, “Flamenco is the most adult of dances. It’s all drama, it’s all sexual, it’s all about relationships between men and women. It’s perfect. Let’s have that be a part of the scene and that will make it noisier and then it will be harder for them to communicate.” That inspired me. It’s stuff like that. The pool scene was originally a scene outside her door, and we lost the location like a week or two before we started shooting. We went across the street and scouted this other house and then saw the pool and said, “Okay, I got it. The scene is in the pool.” That’s the most fun you can have without paying for your mistakes and kind of discovering these things and layering them in. It’s a big part of the process.

CS: As far as your co-producer, Ben Foster, I’m surprised he took such a small role in “Rampart” even if it’s a pivotal one. Did you guys decide very early on he was going to play the General?

Well, no, Ben was on it as a producer before the acting part. He was a real producer on it, a creative producer. He was there by my side all the time. He was very, very involved in the making of the film. So much of what is good about the acting in the film, I’ll have to give him credit for. I just said to him, “Look, I’m not going to allow one of my favorite actors in the world to be on set and not be in this movie. You have to take a role.” We thought about first like the Stella Schnabel role which was originally a guy. We did that, and I said, “No, I’m going to change that to a woman.” He didn’t want to be in uniform anymore. Then, we were looking at the General, and we had 10 different names for this guy. We ended up calling him General not because of the military, but just because he was the general idea of the homeless man. He said, “Yeah, let me try that,” which for Ben means that you don’t take a role and just show up that day and kind of wing it. He studied this guy. He went to Skid Row. He slept there for a week. He got to know the people. He got to understand the world, came back with a lot of great material and some of it’s in the movie. It’s pretty amazing to work with someone like Ben Foster. Nothing is treated lightly. Everything is treated with such enormous depth that by the end of it it’s almost easy.

CS: I think one of the times we spoke earlier that I didn’t recognize Ben for a good five or six minutes.

Yeah, and the beard was his own. Originally, we were going to have this wig for him with long hair. It just looked too much like Jesus. It was not going to work. It was too symbolic, so he shaved his head and we went from there.

CS: This could be a very commercial, almost mainstream, studio movie if you took things in a certain direction, but I feel you brought a lot of your artistic sensibilities to scenes to do them in a way that wouldn’t be done in a mainstream films. I was curious about balancing these sides of yourself to make a movie that appeals to your artistic side but still tells a story without alienating audiences?

That’s the whole challenge, you know? That’s the main part of my work is to try to balance those two things because I am attracted to the artifice of filmmaking. Really, when I came into it and working with people like Todd Haynes and even “Jesus’ Son” with Alison Maclean. All these movies had a certain artifice to them even if they were going for a certain naturalism in acting. But I mean, they’re stylized. There’s always a sense of stylization. With “The Messenger,” maybe I wasn’t brave enough, but I didn’t dare to do it because I felt like this is a subject matter that is so sensitive and is so based in reality and touches real people in such a direct way that any kind of artifice to it would just be me showing off or me kind of saying, “I’m more important than the movie.” I really felt like that movie had to be left alone, let it be, and the only artifice to it, in my mind, is the fact that it really doesn’t have any plot.

CS: It’s like a bunch of little episodes, right.

Yeah, episodes, and they’re like a bunch of short movies kind of put together and some of them are done in one take and there is a certain experimentation, if you want to call it, because in mainstream movies you don’t have a nine-minute scene in a kitchen with two people standing and talking, but “The Messenger” has that. It is a little bit outside what is accepted by a studio, but it’s still not that outrageous. Here, I started feeling like, “Okay, because the movie is so extreme, because the character is so extreme, it gives us opportunities for extreme ideas.” The truth of the matter is the only way you can make these kind of choices and be a little bit more artistic about certain things that are outside the mainstream, but still keep a mainstream flavor is that if you’re allowed to. The problem is I think a lot of directors will do a lot of these things, but the system doesn’t allow it. This is a truly independent film. This was a company that came in and financed a movie and the head of the company said, “I trust you. You go and you put this thing together as you see fit.” He was there all the time. He was there in editing. He was there just really close to the material and close to the evolution of the movie and he said he was into it. That’s a rare, very lucky thing. I don’t think that happens very often, but I do feel myself being pulled more and more toward where I think my roots are, which is sort of more stylized and more embracing of the artifice. The couple of scripts that I’ve written since, an HBO film and a Brian Wilson film and a Kurt Cobain film, both biopics, but I tried to find more of that balance. It’s a hard balance to find because you don’t want to alienate audiences, and yet you want to be, not inventive, but daring or creative in just pushing the envelope a little bit.

CS: I was curious about that. You’ve done two independent films as a director which gave you more control so as people see those films and want you to direct their movies, but is it a struggle to keep doing your own stuff and stay in this direction or just direct someone else’s script?

Yeah, you nailed it. It’s really at that point now where I’m looking at things that are more studio-friendly, knowing that there’s a different structure to it, there’s a different way to make those movies, and asking producers and financiers what’s possible? What’s allowed? The truth of the matter is that there are less and less movies made in the world of drama in the studio system that personally personally appeal to me, so I’m just looking for that one that would be a good fit between this kind of style and the entity that finances it and allows you to make it. If I have to stay in the independent world, it’s a struggle on either side, so it’s just a struggle that continues.

CS: What about collaborating with directors like Todd Haynes? When you finished working on the script, did they generally go off and do their own thing or did you stay onboard and come on set and what have you brought from that side of your career to your own directing?

I was lucky because the four films that I worked on as a co-writer and more specifically, with Todd Haynes and Ira Sachs, these guys were my friends, so they allowed me to be a part of the process without me ever interfering, but I was always involved. I was always involved in whatever the script went through in shooting and then in editing. I was always kind of either in the case of “Married Life,” I was in the editing room a lot or in the case of “I’m Not There” when Todd was editing in Portland, they would send me DVDs and I would look at them. But even “Jesus’ Son” and “Face,” which is Bertha Bay-Sa Pan’s movie, I was never pushed out of the process, so I got to learn a lot. Maybe the approach to the two films that I’ve directed comes from there because my whole thing was to sort of put my ego aside and be in service of a vision. Todd Haynes has a very specific vision. I’m not going to come in and say, “You know what I think? We’re going to do this differently.” The fun of it is to get into his head and try to work in his way, the same thing with Ira and all of them. To me, that was a great education, working in service of something. Now, I feel like if I’m directing a movie–and hopefully I’ll get to do more than these two, but maybe not, who knows? It’s a tough, tough world out there– that it’s really working in service of the movie. When you have that approach, it’s easier.

CS: You mentioned writing biopics. “I’m Not There” was a very different type of biopic, and you’ve worked on a couple others including a biopic on Brian Wilson, so are those things you do because you’re interested in the music?

Yeah, I mean, I like biopics because the number one rule for someone like me when he’s brought into a biopic is how do you do something that’s not the standard? You get to play with structure, you get to find the visual equivalent of a man’s life, the themes in a man or woman’s life. That’s fascinating, but I also think it’s a very practical thing. I don’t think that there are a lot of dramas out there, outside the TV world in the world of movies that are being developed on this level. A biopic is a very easy thing for financiers and for companies to get into because, “Hey, there’s a great story, here’s a great life, we’ll make a movie out of it.”

CS: As long as you can get the music and get some actor who can pull off playing him…

Exactly, yeah, yeah, and then it’s a built-in audience because there are people who like this guy and people who are into it. I think that in the world of drama work that’s out there on the studio level or sort of high-end independent level, a lot of it is biopics. My thing is also I think at this point every movie is a biopic.

CS: Sure, “Rampart” could be seen as a biopic about a period in Dave’s life.

Absolutely, and when you have that approach, you’re less daunted by going to do a Brian Wilson thing, which is obviously huge in terms of a big life and he’s still around and there’s so many things that happened. You can’t tell that story in two hours, but then you say, “Well, but it’s like any other movie. It’s about a period, an incident, a collection of things that kind of stands for what the man has gone through and puts the drama at play.” With that approach, it’s less daunting.

CS: You were also a part of developing a movie based on the life of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain which I understand didn’t work out, which is a shame.

Yeah, I don’t envy whoever gets (to work on that next). Between Benoiff’s and me, I don’t know how they’re going to approach this. It may be like the most mind-blowing thing ever, but I was kind of into what we were doing.

CS: So the next thing you’re producing is the adaptation of William Burrough’s “Queer” with Steve Buscemi directing.

We’re trying to put that together for this year. There’s also stuff that I’m developing with Ben with our company that hopefully will happen in the future.

CS: That book is almost a follow-up to Burroughs’ other book “Junkie” and it goes down to South America, so how are you getting around all the hurdles?

It’s not a naturalistic script. It has a little bit of those flourishes and the fantasies that Burroughs has in “Queer,” the routines that he invented. We actually dramatized the routines. It has a touch of surrealism to it. Strangely enough, it’s a fun script. We’ve been trying to do it on and off for a long time, and Steve, his career, as great as it was, it got even better.

CS: He actually was such a busy actor but he had time to direct movies, but now he has a TV show which has to be a bigger commitment.

Yeah, and so we have to find the window, the hiatus, where he can just come in. We’re hoping to do it this year and what we’re doing now is we’re touching up the script. We’re doing the budget and then we’ll start going out. We have a cast in Ben Foster, Guy Pearce and Kelly Macdonald. There will be more, but those are the three main roles, and we hope to do it this year. For me, the art of producing is different. It’s a lot of fun because it’s so much easier to beg for money for other people than it is for yourself, so I can go in and say like, “Steve Buscemi is directing it, look at the cast, it’s Burroughs”…

CS: Yeah, you’ll definitely want to wait to mention the Burroughs thing until later on…

Yeah. (laughs) “…And it’s called ‘Queer'” (laughs) But it’s a movie about love and Steve is such a beautiful director. I really hope that we’re doing that this year and maybe a couple of other things. Maybe Ben is doing something. I mean, the most important thing for me right now without a doubt, professionally and personally is to stay in New York. Being away and shooting in LA was a great big privilege, but I gotta stay in New York for a little while and just be home. It was too hard for me. I don’t want to sound like a cry baby, but I have two kids and a wife and a life here that I really like, so staying here and hopefully making a movie here would be great.

Rampart opens in select cities on Friday, February 3. Also check out our exclusive interview with Woody Harrelson here.

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Weekend: Dec. 13, 2018, Dec. 16, 2018

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