There are many unusual and suspicious things going on in “A Single Shot,” but perhaps it was seeing Sam Rockwell as the straight man amongst oddballs and eccentrics that is the most unnerving.
“It was a fun challenge for me,” says Rockwell of John Moon, a hunter who’s the only one who shoots straight in a berg of bizarros in rural West Virginia. “I really liked the guy’s temperment, that kind of internal character. It’s really fun to do that kind of stuff, a man of little words.”
While Moon doesn’t speak much in the aftermath of the one time he misses – inadvertently killing someone while hunting deer, an accident that leads to an unexpected satchel of cash and even more unexpected danger from the others looking for it — all one needs to do is listen to the way Rockwell curls his lips around the tangy and often darkly funny dialogue in David M. Rosenthal’s adaptation of Matthew F. Jones neo-noir novel to understand why he and an impressive cast that includes William H. Macy, Jeffrey Wright, Jason Isaacs, Kelly Reilly and Ted Levine wanted to appear in it.
But no one was perhaps as eager to tap into Jones’ twisty way with words and plot as Rosenthal, who throws a curveball himself for anyone who’s followed his career thus far. After the semiautobiographical father-daughter dramedy “Janie Jones” and the out and out Seth Meyers-John Cho comedy “See This Movie,” Rosenthal proves himself to be as dedicated a marksman as John Moon, bringing out the bleak beauty and desperation in the West Virginia woods through some exquisite attention to detail visually and aurally. Recently, Rosenthal took the time to talk about how his background in poetry has helped shape him as a filmmaker, why you should care about someone who commits a murder of an innocent in the opening scene of the film, and what he and Rockwell are already working on for a second film together.
I was hoping for this kind of film to change direction and actually, I was very much wanting to go back to the first film I was trying to make out of film school. I wrote a film that was a very darkly-hued psychological thriller. It was a strange movie, and a hard one to get made and I wound up getting a comedy made first, so it took me in another direction. But I was thrilled that this came in my lap because I was specifically looking for a noirish movie to do, and this kind of juicy, gothic, backwoodsy noir was really appealing to me.
Does that setting appeal to your poetic side? I understand you actually have a masters’ degree in poetry and you seem to have applied it to this film, both in its visuals and the wonderfully colorful language used by the characters.
My mind rolls around with language and with images, and when I was writing poetry, that was the way that I was writing. I was very into lyrical poetry, but it was a lot of intense imagery. It wasn’t just an auditory thing; it wasn’t just an oral thing. It was very visual and at the same time, I’ve always been very into photography. Since I was 11, I had a darkroom, and I was the photo editor geek in my high school, and as I was getting my degree in poetry, I picked up a film camera and I started to play around with moving image. It just was such an obvious synthesis of all these things. But the poetry was the cement there because I’ve always been drawn to lyrical filmmakers, like [Terrence] Malick and [Akira] Kurosawa and [Ingmar] Bergman and [Theodor] Dryer. Maybe it’s an odd progression from poetry to filmmaking, but I feel like it’s also served me well in some strange way.
I’d say so. Let me ask about the auditory aspect since it seems equally crucial here to creating the atmosphere. I was fascinated by the way each of the gunshots in the film have a specific significance and a slightly different sound. Was this something you put a lot of thought into?
I’ve always been kind of nutty and meticulous about sound design and I get very specific with the editors and my sound-designing team, and I love that whole process so much and they love it that I geek out on it. We get really into it. I want a punch to sound like a punch. I want a 12-gauge shotgun to really have a psychological and physical impact in the theater. Then all of those things big and small need to conflate with the way the score is working.
There’s just so much more latitude in a film like this to play around with that and to do interesting things, so it was so much fun doing all of that. I also got to work with [Atli Örvarsson] a composer who I love and who is doing this minimal Arvo Pärt/Philip Glass-esque score.
Was it hard to find a leading man? Sam Rockwell’s one of the only guys I could think of who could kill an innocent person in the opening moments of a film and you’d want to follow him the rest of the way.
I was very conscious of that, like you can’t just cast anyone because we have to still root for him even though he’s done something morally repugnant. Not every actor and carry an audience like that. Sam can do something like, “Oh shit. You hid the body and just took the money?” but you still root for him because he has that intrinsic likeability. He also has an inner light as an actor, which is one of the most important qualities that I focus on for people that I want to work with. Because there’s so much inner life, we’re willing to go further and be quieter than you would normally.
It seems like a rare opportunity to be able to have the author of the novel onboard as the screenwriter, though it’s your first film that you haven’t written by yourself. Was it an interesting experience?
It was great for me to do something where I was not the writer, and it was great to do something that was adapted from a really cool book, then to have this experience of working with the novelist. He wasn’t there the entire time we were shooting, but there were a number of days that he was there in the beginning and the end, and that was great for some of the actors to have him to talk to and be able to continue to allow the film version of this story evolve in an organic way on top of this other creative work that had been done.
Is it true there was a completely different cast in place at one point?
In 2011, yes, there was another cast onboard and there was a version of it with another director and Michael Fassbender that never really got off the ground. In 2010, we had a version where it almost got off the ground and there was a different cast. I had come onboard [again] when two people that I’d worked with already, one of the producers [Keith Kjarval] and Alessandro Nivola [who was in “Janie Jones”], [were attached]. That version of the movie unraveled for financial reasons and then when we went to put it back together, I had to recast because there was timing conflicts. But I was able to go to Sam, and felt so fortunate that we could because he’s someone who I’ve really always wanted to work with.
You guys box together, right?
We boxed at the same gym and we met actually right across the street from that gym for the first time, and when we did, I was like, “Hey do you …?” because I knew he had just worked out. He’s like a much more serious boxer than I am. I’ve only done it so many times, and I love it, but Sam is really committed to it and he’s actually a beautiful boxer, which is why we’re doing a boxing movie together.
That’s what I read. Was it because of the sport or the subject you wanted to do that?
It’s the subject. We really want to boxing as a story, but when I found this story about a journeyman boxer from the ‘20s named Billy Miske, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been turned into a movie yet, and we’re going to do it. It’s a really beautiful story about sacrifice and this boxer who is diagnosed with a fatal disease and decides to keep it quiet just so he can stay in the ring to feed his family; and then a miracle happens right before Christmas. It’s just crazy.