Oren Moverman’s collaboration with Woody Harrelson earned the thesp a supporting actor Oscar nom for 2008’s “The Messenger” and a Spirit nom for “Rampart.” Moverman recently spoke with Variety’s Christy Grosz about how he uses the editing room to help shape his films, and his affinity for stories about conflicted men in uniform.
You didn’t come on to “Rampart” with the intention of directing it. Did that change your approach to writing the script at all once you dove into it?
Yes, a lot changed. They had a script that James (Ellroy) had already written. It was kind of brilliant. It was just huge and had a lot of very complicated things. It was either unfilmable or not fitting into the budget of what was going to be an independent movie. I was brought in to get it under control and streamline it. Once I got to enjoy getting into the James Ellroy voice, I guess I got hooked. When I submitted it, I was very proud of myself because I thought I had written something like James Ellroy or something where I faked his voice. I thought, “Wow, I guess they bought into it.” And they said, “Maybe you should direct it.” Once that process started, it was really about figuring out how to translate what is on the page onto the screen. That is a whole other process.
Does it make it easier to have somebody who has been nominated for an Academy Award attached to the project when you go out to find the financing?
(laughs) Well, it doesn’t make it harder. Of course (financing) is hard for everyone no matter what you have done. The fact that we could cast the movie around Woody and have a lot of people who are interested in working with Woody come on board, really helped secure financing.
Both “The Messenger” and “Rampart” have dealt with men whose face in society is a uniform. Is that a coincidence or is there something about a career in uniform that intrigues you?
The police and the military are very clear metaphors about masculinity. I never planned on directing “Rampart” and I really never planned on directing “The Messenger,” so in that respect I would say it could be a coincidence. But do we really believe in coincidence? I’m not sure. I think it definitely fits into what interests me. I come from Israel, so I spent a few years in the military, and I have a lot of friends who were in the military. It definitely intrigued me to see how that particular environment affects male behavior, both good and bad.
Can you tell me a little bit about how your process works? It’s been said that you like to find the heart of the film in the editing room.
The process is very focused and very open, but you know there are a lot of contradictions happening at the same time that you don’t rehearse. I like to prepare with the actors as much as possible, putting together their back stories and getting deep into the characters. But the expectation is that they bring the characters’ world into the scene so that we shoot without rehearsing and really find the scene as we go. It is not really that I am finding the movie in the editing room. It is that we are finding the movie together throughout the entire process. A lot of times, it is based on very practical things, like which locations we can get. There is a scene in the movie that takes places in a swimming pool in the rain, and originally that was scripted as a scene at the door of the house. It was just Robin (Wright) arriving and finding Woody outside her door in the rain, and that was the scene. But we lost that location a couple weeks before we were supposed to shoot it. We went across the street and found this house that was so much better — as soon as I saw the pool, I said, “Oh, OK, that is the scene.” I would like to be one of those writer-directors who says it was all on the page; it was a perfect vision executed onscreen. But the truth is that I like the process of finding things as we go and working them in organically. It’s on every level: not just the script, not just the acting, but obviously going into the editing room and shaping and sculpting it to find the best version. When we shot the scene where Bree Larson, who plays Woody’s older daughter, sees him outside the house looking in, I remember turning to the DP Bobby Bukowski and saying, “I think that is the end of the movie.” It wasn’t supposed to be the end of the movie in the script. But when you are on set, if you are open to it, a lot of things start to become clear in terms of where you are going. You really have to shoot as much as possible and get as much of the script as you plan to get, then sit in the comfort of the editing room and figure out whether your instincts are right or not.
Do you think you would be able to have that level of flexibility if you were working on a bigger studio movie?
I’m not sure that a studio would be comfortable working in this way. It’s one way of working, it is not the only way of working and it is not the only way I see myself working. With “The Messenger” and “Rampart,” I had the privilege of a lot of freedom and a lot of trust in the process because the people who were financing were open to that. I fully expect to find people who are not open to that. Then it becomes a whole other exercise, but that is just as exciting to me.
This is also your second collaboration with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. What works so well for you in collaborating with both of them?
I’m not exactly sure. The process of making “The Messenger” brought us really close to each other, and we really enjoy the process of working together. At this point, everything is sort of mixed up — the personal and the professional — and we just want to keep playing together.