If one were to look for a defining moment for Oren Moverman as a director, you might be wise to start not with the writer/director’s somber Oscar-nominated debut “The Messenger,” about the military officers who deliver news to the relatives of fallen soldiers, but rather his frenzied follow-up “Rampart.” In charting the accelerating breakdown of a corrupt cop (Woody Harrelson, in one of his finest performances), Moverman takes his cues from the character veering wildly off-track by letting all narrative pretense fall away into a bath of acid-stained visuals and sonic cacophony, where sounds were arranged on multiple levels to reflect a porous consciousness where you could actually hear inner demons overtaking the character’s better angels, to allow audiences to experience the same point of no return.
The abrupt shift in tone was upsetting — intentionally — on a number of levels, serving the story first as the gifted filmmaker behind the scripts for “I’m Not There” and Love & Mercy” always does, but particularly because stylistically the breakdown was so completely at odds with what came before. Based on his films that followed as a director – “Time Out of Mind,” the study of a homeless man (Richard Gere) in New York, and now “The Dinner,” an adaptation of Herman Koch’s incendiary bestseller – it appears Moverman himself has spent about as much time looking back as his harried anti-hero in “Rampart.”
“Don’t forget I worked a lot with Todd Haynes, so it’s not like I’m a foreigner to that territory,” Moverman tells me with a sly grin, when I pitch this theory about when he became such a formally audacious storyteller, though he’s quick to poke holes in it. “‘The Messenger’ is actually the exception to the way I think about movies. Being about something that was so of the moment, because the war was going on and soldiers would show up at the door in real life and notify families, I had to be very careful and very humble about the filmmaking. It was about real people, so I felt I had to stand aside and not let the formal elements of filmmaking that are so much in my nature take over. I don’t consider myself a formalist, but I do like playing with the formal elements and pushing the boundaries and seeing what kind of experimentation can come into narrative filmmaking.”
With “The Dinner,” it feels as if Moverman has found a perfect match for his ferocious sensibilities, planted firmly in Koch’s sturdy premise of two brothers and their wives who debate what to do in the wake of a violent incident involving their respective teenage sons, who are at odds over what happened. Naturally, their fathers Stan (Richard Gere) and Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) are as well, a divide that’s exacerbated by the implications for Stan’s political career as a New York state legislator. But while the film stays largely within the confines of a fortress-like restaurant in an undisclosed location, where the decadence of a multi-course meal involving baby vegetables in burnt pumpernickel soil and line-caught steelhead trout somehow seems tame in comparison to the egos of those sitting around the table, including Claire (Laura Linney) and Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), Stan and Paul’s wives, respectively, “The Dinner” evolves into a feverish extravaganza, ruminating on class and privilege, mental health, familial obligation and generational disconnect.
Moverman traverses between such complex subjects with ease, aided by the fiendishly brilliant performances one would expect of his gifted cast, but it’s the way in which “The Dinner” moves as a narrative that’s most impressive. Using all the filmmaking tools at his disposal, the writer/director doesn’t count on his characters to deliver long monologues to provide context, but instead immerses a viewer in a kind of sensory overload to feel the same disorientation as the characters do in grappling with an untenable situation. The past is rendered in the present tense through editing that borders on the subliminal as images and sounds pile onto one another, reflecting on events leading up to the dinner date from scenes of Stan’s past marriage that may have shaped his son’s awkwardness to the brothers’ visit to Gettysburg as part of Paul’s interest in the Civil War. The ability to see characters think through the decisions they make, punctuated by deliciously tart dialogue when they make their minds up is a mark of uncommonly bold filmmaking, inspiring in how well it brings to life the original source material, but also encouraging when you consider how much Moverman has shared what he knows with so many up-and-coming filmmakers, serving as an executive producer on such daring films as Anja Marquardt’s “She’s Lost Control” and Ido Fluk’s “The Ticket.”
“[Oren] understands the DNA of a story,” Joseph Cedar, the writer/director of “Norman,” recently told me about his film’s executive producer. “He was part of the very early drafts of this film, and [his story knowledge] makes the level of conversation much much higher than what I normally have with producers, so the collaboration with him was sometimes what you’d expect – be involved in raising the money, helping connect the cast, but his biggest contribution was helping me understand the story, the structure and making sure that the screenplay really reaches its potential.”
Someone who has learned the rules in order to break them, Moverman may just be one of the most exciting filmmaking forces out there today and on the eve of “The Dinner,” he spoke about pushing the limits of narrative cinema, how he got a particular flair for film from Nicholas Ray, and spreading the wealth of his own success to others as a producer.
How did you come to “The Dinner” and what intrigued you about it?
I came to it as a job, like most things I come to. It was a script I was developing for Cate Blanchett to direct and I don’t know how she chose me – picked me out of a hat – but she asked me to adapt this for her. We worked on a draft and then she had to move on and I got the opportunity to direct it. Once I said yes, it was a process of going in and changing it to fit my idea of a vision for the movie. I liked the book and the story I was developing for Cate, but once I was allowed to change it, I was really drawn to the possibilities in terms of the themes of the movie, especially mental health at its core, which wasn’t as big a deal for Cate’s draft or in the book, but in my own life and my activist life, bringing that into it got me really excited.
That seems like a major shift since the film is largely built around Paul, played by Steve Coogan. How did it evolve and how did you come to cast Coogan?
The trick of the book is that it had [Paul] as the unreliable narrator, who seems really reliable in the beginning, so it was always going to be him to some extent leading us into the movie. Coogan came to me as a gift. I got a call from his agent and we were looking for someone to be Richard Gere’s brother because Richard was already cast and his agent said, “Coogan read the script. He loves it and he wants to talk about it.” So I got on the phone with him, and as soon as I started talking with him, it was very clear that he’s the guy to do it because he basically said, “I understand this guy. All I have to do is just change my accent because this guy is me.” The ranting about the injustices of the world and getting angry at things that are over the top and posh and ridiculous like the restaurant are things that are instinctual to Steve. On top of all that, he famously imitated Richard Gere in “The Trip,” so I thought who’s better to be his brother than somebody who studied his mannerisms and can mimic him. All that put together, I thought that was a gift. And it was really going to be [Paul’s] movie, but much like the life of the brothers, it’s his movie until his brother takes it away from him and the last third of the movie is Richard’s movie because that’s the history of these guys.
When dealing with a horrific incident at the story’s core, was it much of a decision to depict it onscreen? Not because of its violence, but in terms of having ambiguity, which it nonetheless has.
I thought it was important. The movie is designed to be overwhelming. It’s a meal, to use a stupid pun, but it really is all these ingredients – all these issues and themes, so it’s about racism and white privilege, class, hate crimes, mental health. It’s about how do you define a human being, and [these] competing agendas within families. Just saying these things now, it feels like too much, and they’re all in the movie, so it was really about throwing all of them in and designing something that will hopefully provoke a conversation, which I think is what worked in the book.
So I did feel like there’s an opportunity [with] the incident not to do it. But there was always the danger of it feeling like a stage play, really confined by the restaurant. When I analyzed the book, I saw that there were three major strands of storytelling – there was the night of the dinner, the night of the incident and family history, and I thought that’s a good thing because on the one hand, horizontally, you have these courses [of the dinner] that the movie is divided into – the main course, dessert, [etc.] – but then vertically, you have all these stories and as a portrait of our time, there’s always fragmentation and messiness, [with] all these things are crammed in. So I thought it would pay off to follow these kids through the night to get a different version of what [the parents are] talking about. No one was there, so they can make excuses, like Laura Linney’s character Claire can come up with all these things like, “You weren’t there, I know you told me this is what they did…” Meanwhile, we’re seeing it and it’s nothing like what she says or [when we’re seeing it from [Coogan’s character] Paul’s point of view, which may not be the reality either, so it became this way to play visually with the idea of [asking] what is real, especially inside a movie.
You also have this great way of showing shifting perspectives through the camera movement, particularly at the scenes around the table. Were there certain ideas you built on there?
Yeah, in terms of the [scenes set around] the table, we had a whole arc of figuring out how to capture each scene [since] as you know, table scenes are the most uninspired scenes in filmmaking. It’s just people sitting around, so how many ways are there to shoot it? We challenged ourselves to find a way to have a progression, so some of it was just taking [the characters] out of the restaurant to [different areas], but some of it was about who do you capture first? How do you frame people together? If you watch the movie, you see Laura, Rebecca [Hall] and Steve can get their framing together in the beginning, but Richard [Gere]is always on his own. It’s like he’s different from them and he’s always going to be different from them – his agenda’s different, his celebrity is different. Then as they move to the next room, there’s more of an equilibrium – everybody gets their close-up. Then they’re avoiding the subject at hand, so there are all these still frames of how they’re arranged around the table, and when things start moving by the main course and the tension is building, they haven’t talked about [the incident] yet and everybody’s angling for something, so there’s a lot of these angles happening. The camera starts moving and there was one big scene around the table, before they go into the library. in particular, [where] we just basically built the circular track and we just did the scene over and over again. We just tracked around it because I knew every shot needed to cut on a movement and keep everybody guessing until it was about to explode. So it was really using the camera to build an emotional connection to what the characters are going through.
You also seem to use colors in that way as well, particularly the frequent flares of red. Were there certain colors you were drawn to?
I’m obsessed with red. I think I got that from Nicholas Ray. But this one in particular, even the poster feels like it’s on fire. We knew that we not only had scenes with fire outside the restaurant, but we always were going to have the crackle of fire burning inside the restaurant and a fireplace in every room. It just felt very hot, which is ironic because it was very, very cold shooting it, but the colors had to be extreme. Also, the Gettysburg section, which is this mental breakdown [for one of the characters], the movie is actually having a mental breakdown, so I felt that we can do something that hasn’t been done before – I worked with Joe Gawler, this amazing colorist and I said this is an emotional scene without people, so there’s no way to be emotional about it, so let’s use color in an emotional way. The way we did it, we rode the color like sound, so that the color changes within shots, and we do it a few times within the movie, [where people] are so unstable and so hard to follow and believe in terms of [their] motivation and who’s true and genuine and believes in what they’re saying, that the color can start betraying itself and move from very warm colors to cold and back to warm in the movement of the [Gettysburg] sequence, [specifically] but also throughout the movie. So the movie has three or four distinct looks and every strand of storytelling that we talked about – the night of the incident, the night of the dinner and the family history – has a different color strategy, and we played around with it.
You also do all these incredible things with the layers of sound – has that become a big part of your process, even from the script stage?
I love sound and I love the work of creating the mix, so I do try to write as much sound into the script as possible, but part of the pleasure of the process being ongoing until you’ve locked the movie is that once you finish shooting it, you can start to work on sound separately. I’m someone who will write separate scenes – new scenes – happening off-screen for scenes that were shot already. Or I collect sounds, like in “Time Out of Mind,” where I’d walk around the city and record sounds on a zoom recorder kind of covertly. I love bringing sound design into the total experience of filmmaking.
This is off-topic, but you’ve been ushering in all these bold filmmakers like yourself into the industry as an executive producer on films such as Joseph Cedar’s “Norman” and Anja Marquardt’s “She’s Lost Control.” Has it become more important to you or easier given your rising stature?
A lot of it is [because they’re] friends of mine, and it’s a privilege to work with and for your friends, but honestly, between us and whoever reads this, it would feel really weird and kind of shitty if all I was doing was on behalf of myself. I really want to encourage other filmmakers and be a part of their journeys. Sometimes I really like being in service of somebody’s vision as a writer, and as a producer and I’ve been very lucky – and it took a long time to be lucky and a lot of work – but ultimately, I feel very grateful and if I can share the access that I have, whether it’s [helping to find] financing or actors or crews or whatever it is, I just feel better about my place in this crazy creative form. It’s just my idea of service.
With such a provocative film like “The Dinner,” what’s it been like to bring it into the world?
It’s really interesting because it’s a movie of triggers – sometimes it triggers a reaction that is angry, sometimes hateful, sometimes overwhelmed or in awe. It runs the gamut, and you can’t make a movie like this and expect it to be loved by everyone. You’d have to be delusional to do that. But I think of this movie as a provocation and a call to arms on a certain level and I’ve probably never felt as secure about a movie as I do about this one. But I know it’s going to get very different reactions – not all of them good – and that’s good too.
“The Dinner” opens in limited release on May 5th. A list of theaters and times is here.