Movies, men and Moverman
December 22, 2011
ASPEN – Why has Oren Moverman – who claims to be silly as a father (“You can ask my kids,” he said), who says he’d happily direct a lighthearted movie – developed a reputation for films with dark themes and morally reprehensible characters?
Moverman earned significant attention for 2009’s “The Messenger,” his directorial debut, about military officers whose assignment was to notify next of kin of the death of loved ones – and handling the delicate job with little regard for ethical behavior. His new film, “Rampart,” delves even deeper into the darkness, focusing on a Los Angeles cop who vies for the title of the most belligerent and morally compromised lawman ever to be depicted on-screen.
It’s been said that geography is destiny, and with Moverman, this appears to be the case. Moverman was born and raised in Israel, and his view of the country has colored the primary interests he brings to filmmaking – conflict, machismo, the role of the male in society.
“I think the Israeli part of it is growing up in a country that used to be, and still is very male-dominated,” the 45-year-old Moverman said from an office in New York City, where he has lived since the late ’80s. “Where men are warriors, where men go to war and play protective roles. Both ‘The Messenger’ and ‘Rampart’ are male-dominated movies, focused on men whose lives are falling apart, and they’re trying to figure out how to function in society. In both these films, I get to explore the moral breakdown of what men should be.”
In “Rampart,” which shows Monday, Dec. 26, in Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series before opening nationally next month, Moverman has found the ideal man to help him explore such issues. Woody Harrelson, who earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his performance in “The Messenger,” stars in “Rampart” as Dave Brown, a bullheaded and aggressive L.A. cop whose nickname is “Date Rape,” and who wears his corruption as a badge of honor. “Rampart” touches on the police procedural genre, but is in essence far more a character study, with the camera taking long, zoomed-in looks at Harrelson as he feuds with his two ex-wives (who happen to be sisters, played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), menaces drug dealers, and butts heads with his daughters and an assortment of LAPD administrators. For his work, Harrelson is again gathering nominations; he is up for an Independent Spirit Award and a Satellite Award as best actor.
“Rampart” originated with James Ellroy, the crime writer whose novel “L.A. Confidential” was adapted into the acclaimed 1997 film. Ellroy’s screenplay mentioned the veins visible in Dave Brown’s head, and Moverman, who was brought in as Ellroy’s co-writer and eventually became director as well, knew where to find such a vein.
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“There’s something about Harrelson’s face that is incredible. He’s one of those actors, you can see inside his mind, his being, just by looking at his face,” Moverman said.
Just as compelling as the scenes in “Rampart” when Harrelson beats and bullies are those when he simply drives alone in his cruiser, simultaneously focused and lost. The closer the camera gets, the more Moverman finds what he wants to express.
“The movie is about going into a man’s mind and his world,” he said. “You can’t do that without invasive surgery. So I try to get as close to him as possible. And the vein in his head was just popping all the time. You’re 100 percent with him, and you experience his world through his interactions with the world around him.
“I like complex stories. But more than that, I like complex characters. Especially men, to tell you the truth. Maybe because of the way I grew up, in a male-dominated society.”
Moverman adds a layer to the narrative by placing his characters in a state of change. In “The Messenger,” Ben Foster played a hardened soldier who accepts, under protest, a shift from the battlefield to the casualty notification team. “Rampart,” which is set in 1999, tracks Dave Brown in the LAPD post-Rodney King. The department, especially the notoriously troubled Rampart unit, is being cleaned up, and Brown resists what is happening. Change is particularly difficult for men in the military and police units, where conduct is structured.
“You put on a uniform and there’s an expected role and a language you know,” Moverman said. “The façade is breaking down; anxiety and PTSD come in, and how does that affect the rest of your dealings with reality?” In the case of Dave Brown, “a lot of women are around him; women are coming in and taking over. He thinks this is the end of the world.”
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The challenge is in taking a complex character like Dave Brown – and the complexity in Brown is how his fierce desire to punish bad people bleeds into punishing everyone around him – and making him palatable to an audience. The storyline for “Rampart” doesn’t do much in this regard; the story, in fact, is about Brown sinking deeper into the muck on both personal and professional levels. This is not a tale of redemption.
Instead of plot, Moverman relies on his actors to convey a level of humanity that gives filmgoers reason to relate to a character like Dave Brown. “That’s the lucky part of working with great actors – their b.s. radar is way up,” Moverman said. “They don’t make it a caricature. They don’t take it out of the realistic realm.”
“The Messenger” did marginal business. But it was a hit with critics, landing on top 10 lists of the New Yorker, The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and earning Academy Award nominations for Harrelson, and for Moverman, in his role as co-writer, with Alessandro Camon, of the original screenplay. Moverman can’t say how much momentum he got from “The Messenger,” but at least it has created room for Moverman and his team to work in a certain way.
“What we’ve done is create a world where actors are free to act, instead of being functioning items in the long list of things that have to work to make a movie,” Moverman said. “We’ve created an actor-friendly space, with an invitation for other actors, hopefully, to come join us. If we can have more films where actors can come in and work like this, that would be great.”
One role that Moverman won’t be casting is Kurt Cobain. Moverman was hired by a studio to write a script for a biopic about the late rock icon, but the two sides had different ideas about the project, and Moverman is no longer working on it.
“It was too punk rock for them to support. It’s an unconventional movie, too much so given what they wanted to spend on it,” Moverman, who co-wrote the experimental Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” said of his Cobain screenplay. “Which is unfortunate. The time is right for a Kurt Cobain movie. There’s a certain structure people have fallen into, a corporate structure, that people are comfortable with. What Kurt Cobain was about was poking holes in that, being a real contrarian. And also exploiting it to the max. There’s something very appropriate about that story now. It’s time to make some noise.”
So Moverman is still looking for his next project. And though his reputation is for wrenching material, he doesn’t rule out the lighter side.
“If you have a great romantic comedy for me, sign me up,” he said.