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Interview: Oren Moverman on Rampart, Woody Harrelson, and More

On the phone from L.A., the writer-director chatted with Slant about his experience making Rampart.

Interview: Oren Moverman on Rampart, Woody Harrelson, and More
Photo: Millennium Entertainment

Israeli-born filmmaker Oren Moverman has been a successful screenwriter for more than a decade, collaborating on several well-regarded indie films including Jesus’ Son, I’m Not There, and Married Life. But it was his 2009 award-winning directorial debut, The Messenger, about two soldiers who notify next of kin about war casualties, that secured him international attention. For the film, Moverman was nominated for an Oscar.

Moverman’s sophomore effort, Rampart, is another tough story about men in uniform. Set in 1999, the film stars Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown, a corrupt cop from L.A.’s Rampart division who gets embroiled in one police scandal—beating a civilian—while trying to live down another ethically questionable incident from his past. Dave is also troubled by his home life, his sex life, and pressure from Internal Affairs. Moverman co-wrote Rampart’s script with the legendary James Ellroy, and the result is a gripping character study that has audiences riding along with Dave as he sinks further into despair.

On the phone from L.A., the writer-director chatted with Slant about his experience making the film.

How did you connect with James Ellroy to create this film, character and story?

It was actually the producers who approached me, Lawrence Inglee [who co-produced The Messenger], specifically. Ellroy was commissioned to write a draft, and then when that was done, they hired me because they needed someone to streamline the script. It was quite long, so I had to make a leaner version. Then they asked me to direct.

What decisions did you make regarding Dave’s character? He consistently emphasizes that he’s “just doing his job” or he’s doing his job “well.” He’s only fooling himself. How did you construct Dave’s morality, and make him such a self-destructive character?

It started with James and my work with Woody. In the drafts of script, he was living by the code that those who do bad things to bad people are good, so that rationalizes his behavior for going over the ethical and moral line in civil society. That’s how we “found” the movie—a loose exploration of him—by seeing the cracks in that logic. He had an unusual home life, but he kept it separate from his work life. They’re actually more intertwined. There would be a total collapse of all his worlds, and his refusal to change becomes his downfall.

What research did you do on corrupt cops? Did you get support/input from the LAPD in making this film? Do ride-alongs, etc.?

We spoke with a lot of cops, and Woody did ride-alongs. He lost weight to get the chiseled look—like someone who didn’t eat. We had consultants who were ex-LAPD. I had a long meeting with [L.A. councilman] Bernard Parks that gave me a solid understanding of what went down [with Rampart].

The film is very much about the past influencing the present. Was that a theme you had in mind?

Absolutely! So much of the movie is about Dave Brown’s past catching up with him, and his refusal to change being a real problem on a personal, a professional—on every level.

How did you work with Woody on his role? He seems to do his best work in your films—dramatic roles, where he’s acting against type.

He brought a lot of it himself. He’s very versatile as an actor. He does both drama and comedy very well. He was very committed to doing this even though it’s outside his comfort zone. He may deny it, but he works extra hard to believe he can “be” the character—and that kind of drive brings him to the emotional truth of the character. There’s no real technique to this work, it’s about creating an environment to make him feel safe to try new things, and fail, and then try something else. It brings out the best in actors who play on that level, to connect, and feel comfortable to get off script to invent and improvise.

You take a very intimate, observational approach to the narrative. His various encounters eschew a normal narrative arc. Can you discuss your method of storytelling?

We wanted to be close to him and observe him so the narrative thrust of the film becomes secondary to him. Creating an arc—his refusal to change—makes him a fixed character. There’s no big moment of redemption or acknowledgement. We created a world where everything around him changes, and putting him in that environment created the feeling of him losing everything around him. He ends up in a place where he has only us watching him. By the time he loses us, he’s done for. It’s literal and metaphorical—it’s an endless drive.

You use HD to saturate the look of Rampart. How did you decide on the visual scheme?

Ben Foster talked about the Alexa [camera] and we were excited to experiment with it. It fit our natural light and practical lighting scenes. We wanted to go for a supersaturated, high-contrast look and we could do that with this camera and this kind of technology. Once we figured out the look, it became the mode of operation for the film.

What can you say about the locations in the film. It’s very L.A., but not the L.A. of typical films?

Yeah, that’s built into the subject matter. Rampart is not an area most people go to in L.A. unless they have a compelling reason. It was a way for showing a part most people don’t go to. Ellroy is a native and he wrote the locations he knows inside out. I went to them and saw the world he created in a textured and interesting way. Pacific Dining Car and Tommy’s Burgers—which was an iconic downtown hangout. L.A. has some very cool locations. It was great to make an L.A. story in those locations.

There are some very mesmerizing sequences. Harrelson in the club is particularly jarring. How did you come up with this scene?

The nightclub was our own creation. We always had a club scene, but it was a specific kind. Through discussions and research we found an after-hours industrial space—a slaughter house, basically—and then built that world of depravity, which is a reflection of where his mind was at that moment.

Your film is very much about Dave’s masculinity in crisis. He’s often surrounded by women. Was this deliberate?

It was very deliberate. It started with James and I enhanced it. Women represent change and Dave doesn’t understand or can’t deal with either. It’s a direct metaphor that it’s going to take a lot of women to get rid of the Dave Browns of the world—but it’s a worthy cause.

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