Oren Moverman has directed only two features, namely 2010’s The Messenger and the new Rampart. But his name has popped up elsewhere. Moverman’s largely served as a screenwriting collaborator on oft-structurally adventurous projects. Starting with Jesus’ Son, which condensed a Denis Johnson novel into an appropriately episodic experience, his work tends to skirt the notion of an earth-quaking third act where the drama is neatly tied up. Instead, his narratives wind up in unexpected places, acknowledging that people live on after tragedies or that potential powder kegs tend to fizzle out rather than explode. His latest, Rampart, stars Woody Harrelson as a wildly corrupt and racist LAPD officer during the notorious Rampart Scandal of the late ’90s. Moverman spoke with PW after this year’s annoyingly safe Oscar race failed to nominate Harrelson for his arguably career peak work.
PW: What made you want to make this the second feature you directed?
Oren Moverman: I was really fascinated by Dave Brown and that kind of male behavior that falls apart when reality strikes it. Here’s a guy who refuses to change, and I thought this was an opportunity to work with a script that does the opposite of what movies do, which is to take a character through an arc where he changes, maybe redeems himself. [Dave] refuses to have an arc. Everybody else in the movie moves on while he refuses.
PW: You came to the project after James Ellroy had already put in several drafts. What kind of relationship did you have?
OM: We were never in the same room. He saw the draft I was working on and gave me notes. It was very respectful. It’s always strange—and I know this from being a writer myself—it’s always strange to have someone come in and start reshaping material you’ve worked on. I really appreciated that rather than him saying, “Do whatever the fuck you want because I can’t control it.” He stayed engaged and really interested.
PW: Was Dave Brown based on anyone in particular?
OM: It was a compilation. I don’t think it was based on one particular cop. It was really based on, first, Ellroy’s imagination, which we know is unique. A lot of cops he was familiar with made it into the Dave Brown character.
PW: The Rampart Scandal doesn’t have the same resonance as the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots. What was the motivation, far as you know, to examine LAPD corruption through this event?
OM: First of all, it was not only the biggest corruption scandal in the LAPD, it was also the biggest corruption scandal in U.S. history. I guess people don’t really know about it. The movie doesn’t really address it head-on. It’s the backdrop. In James’ version it was more out front. I proceeded to put in the background, mostly because it’s a very complicated scandal. But also because, for me, it’s about how change is coming. Every cop is being examined, and they can’t really get away with some of the bad behavior of the past. Dave refuses to change, which is his downfall. It’s really a character piece set against a big backdrop.
PW: In what ways did you want to evolve as a director on your second directing job?
OM: My approach is simple: You take a look at the script and from there you get all the cues to what the movie needs to be. It’s not about imposing something on the script. The Messenger was a much more simple film, because it was about a subject matter that was sensitive and was happening while the movie was being shot. We really needed to be respectful, so the movie’s quite restrained. Rampart is much more adventurous visually, and structurally more complicated. It’s not about loss and love and staying alive in a time of traumatic events. It’s about a certain dark corner of a man’s psyche. It had to have a certain energy and some cinematic flourishes.
PW: The filmmaking has a hazy quality to it that seems to mirror Dave’s increasingly disjointed connection to the world.
OM: Absolutely. The movie changes all the time. It goes from one genre to another, and we wanted to push that as far as we could. At a certain point it becomes so subjective that it really just goes into his head. You realize that everything we see is really a reflection of his mind.
Harrelson’s back with a vengeance in this movie, which starts strong, quickly drifts into terrible and only works on the rare occasions when Harrelson’s searing performance is allowed to shine. Harrelson plays Dave “Date Rape” Brown, a piggish patrolman caught in the late-1990’s Rampart division scandal. Starved down to sinew and raw attitude, Dave seems to subsist on cigarettes, martinis and xenophobic bluster. The running joke in the movie is that he doesn’t even eat.