“I would not have chosen to direct my first film in the middle of a global pandemic,” Graham Moore said wryly of his move from scribe to auteur.
In 2015, the novelist and screenwriter won an Academy Award for his adaptation “The Imitation Game,” in which Benedict Cumberbatch played World War II codebreaker Alan Turing. Now, Moore makes his directorial debut with “The Outfit,” which gets its world premiere as a Berlinale Special Gala on Feb 14.
The feature, which stars Mark Rylance as a Savile Row tailor who finds himself embroiled in a mobster turf war in 1950s Chicago, was in part inspired by Moore’s grandfather, a doctor. He was “the kindest, most gentle man I’ve ever known in my life,” said Moore, which made it all the more surprising when he found out that one of his grandfather’s patients was the infamous mobster Jerry Catena. “I’d always been interested in that idea,” said Moore. “What do you tell yourself if you’re a decent person working in the service of someone not so decent at all?”
When “The Outfit” co-writer Jonathan McClain suggested he and Moore work on a project about Savile Row — a globally renowned center of men’s tailoring in London — the duo knew they had the makings of a character but they were still lacking a story. It wasn’t until they stumbled across a single sentence in a reference book that said the first bug in the history of the FBI was planted in a tailor’s shop in Chicago in 1956 that “it instantly all connected,” Moore recalled. “We said, ‘Oh that’s a story. It’s about a tailor who works for the mob and makes them these clothes and the FBI is interested.’”
After co-writing the script with McClain, Moore then spent years in pre-production — “designing the space and testing cameras and figuring out exactly how we wanted it to look, how we wanted it to sound” — and by the time they were ready to shoot the world was in the middle of a global pandemic. Nonetheless, Moore and his cast, which includes Zoey Deutch (“The Politician”) and Dylan O’Brien (“Teen Wolf”) spent 24 days shooting in a studio in North London, with Rylance pretty much walking off the set of “Don’t Look Up,” in which he plays an egotistical billionaire opposite Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio, and onto “The Outfit.”
“I think he finished that movie on a Thursday or Friday and Monday morning he was in ‘The Outfit’ rehearsals, which says, a lot about the immense skill that that man possesses,” Moore said.
While pandemic restrictions meant there was less time to rehearse, Moore was able to fulfil his dream of shooting the film in order. “[It] was really important to me,” he explained. “That’s a rare luxury to have a film where we get to do that.”
Given the entire feature is set within the confines of a tailor’s shop, out of which the characters come and go, the chronological shooting schedule gives “The Outfit” even more of a theatrical quality. “Especially in COVID times it becomes difficult, but I think well worth it,” Moore said of shooting the scenes in order. “As we’re all kind of feeling out the story together and so much of the story where every character is lying to every other character — every character has secrets.”
Pandemic aside, Moore encountered plenty of challenges — “there’s never enough money, there’s never enough time,” he said — but, perhaps unusually, he is happy with the finished product. “It is exactly what I wanted to do,” said Moore. “It is exactly the film I wanted to make. I know enough other filmmakers to get the impression that that is a rare thing to be able to say at the completion of a film.”
While “The Outfit” will debut theatrically in Berlin, with Moore planning to be in attendance alongside some of the film’s cast, the pandemic has undoubtedly brought cinema to its knees. Although he is grateful for the breadth of content now available via streaming services — “I have access to more old films and classic films at a couple clicks of my mouse than I’ve ever had in my life” — Moore said the collective experience of watching a film with an audience is still “truly valuable.” “I’m hopeful about the future of cinematic experience,” he said.
Having spent most of his career writing, Moore always knew he would make his theatrical debut with “The Outfit.” “I wanted to try my hand at making a film myself,” he said. “And this felt like the right size. It was small and it was a world that I knew very well.”
“I think for me, directing a film for the first time was all about taking responsibility,” he said. “[About] saying, ‘I believe in this film, I love this film, I think this film could be great.’ And rather than sort of having to hand the script to someone else and say, ‘Hey, can you please make this for me because I don’t know how,’ wouldn’t it be more responsible to take it on my own shoulders and learn how.”