Oren Moverman on Rampart and Directing Woody Harrelson
We talk to the filmmaker behind this week's cop drama set in a corruption-riddled precinct of the LAPD.
Director Oren Moverman worked as a screenwriter before making his feature debut with 2009's The Messenger, a moving, well-received war drama that garnered Oscar nominations both for his screenplay and supporting actor Woody Harrelson. This week, Moverman reunites with Harrelson for Rampart, in which the actor plays an unstable Los Angeles cop whose life unravels after he's caught on tape beating a suspect. Playing deliberately with audience expectations of the genre, Moverman and Harrelson (working from an original draft by James Ellroy) craft a character piece that begins as a crime drama and gradually dismantles the reality of its world as the paranoia escalates. We sat down with the director recently to talk about the film and his collaboration with Harrelson.
What drew you to this as your next project after The Messenger?
Oren Moverman: Well I was basically brought in to work on a James Ellroy first draft of Rampart, and my job was to prepare the script for somebody to direct it -- not necessarily me; that wasn't even talked about. He wrote a very ambitious, huge script, and I had to streamline it and make the leaner version of what he was doing. In the process I was offered the directing and so the writing process became more intense. It never really stopped through pre-production and production and post-production; we always kept working on it and changing it and making it better, hopefully -- we treated it as something that was constantly evolving until we locked it into the structure that is the film.
There are certain things that carry through thematically from The Messenger. Did you write them into the script, or were they in the Ellroy draft?
Well, we didn't really work together. Once I started working on the script he gave me notes and things like that, but we never really turned it back to him to write, because you have contracts and things that you have to take into consideration. I wasn't aware of the things that were naturally continuing from The Messenger; I think that there was nothing intentional in it. There were certain themes and certain kinds of characters that sometimes had similar backgrounds, and of course there's the military thing, though it was a smaller element this time; it's another movie about a guy in uniform and the emotional whirlwind that he goes through. So there's definitely a connection, whether I acknowledge it or not.
Were you looking to work with Woody Harrelson again after The Messenger?
Yeah. I mean, that wasn't as planned, as well. Ben [Foster] and I have a company together and we were developing things and trying to get things going, and when this came around we talked about it and said this is a good project for our company to do. So there was definitely an intention of working with Ben again in any capacity. Woody was just a natural idea. The character just felt like a natural for him to get into and interpret. And obviously we're all good friends and we have a way of communicating that's shorthand, so it felt very natural to just keep going with this team.
Woody apparently expressed discomfort with playing a police officer. What was it about him made you think he could do it?
Well he wasn't comfortable with the idea of playing a soldier either [in The Messenger] and I think that's the most interesting thing for me -- taking an actor who's that talented out of his comfort zone, or what he perceives to be his comfort zone, and giving him a challenge in proving to himself that the can be that character. I think it gets a lot more out of him, and that's been the process. I think if I had roles that read like "Woody Harrelson roles" off the page, whatever that means, it would be a lot less interesting.
What is it about your relationship that works so well?
I think it's that we established a lot of trust. It wasn't there from the beginning. When you start working with people for the first time, there's always this period of testing each other and earning respect, and we earned each others' respect. I think that once we learned, on The Messenger, to trust each other, it was very easy to translate that into a different kind of character and still very safe to experiment to get lost in the scenes, and to fail sometimes, and to come up with new ideas. It was just a very dynamic way of working together. And Woody, who claims to love rehearsing and all that kind of stuff, is actually a quick-thinking, great improviser, and we definitely used that in the movie.
The corrupt cop is one of movies' more well-worn staples, and James Ellroy has written them before, but this sets out to be a different kind of take -- a man imploding. Were you consciously trying to redefine the archetype?
Not redefine but deconstruct it and sort of reconfigure it for the purpose of this movie, by concentrating less on plot as something that needs to be resolved, and concentrating more on character and on observations of behavior, and his movements through these situations and who he is -- really giving that the emphasis over a neatly packaged narrative that comes to a resolution and you walk away with that satisfaction of "It's all figured out and it's this guy's fault or that guy's fault." By keeping it more abstract and by constructing a movie that hopefully surprises you. I do think that one of the goals we set out for ourselves was to have a movie that cuts to a place that you don't see coming, and that it keeps you guessing and keeps you involved and keeps you seduced by a very complicated character. Hopefully by the time you're done with it you have your thoughts and observations on this character and then he loses us, as the audience, and we lose him, and we're just in his head. We walk away with that, and hopefully that will spark certain conversations that are not so much about "I didn't see that coming," "I didn't believe that guy was the actual murderer" or anything like that; instead of that you're forced to think about who he was, and whether you liked him or not, whether you felt compassion for it -- the kind that becomes a human conversation, rather than about plot.