Oren Moverman Talks Taking A Paranoid Woody Harrelson To Dark Places For The Searing Police Drama 'Rampart'

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by Jen Vineyard
February 10, 2012 11:57 AM
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Oren Moverman's directorial debut, 2009's "The Messenger," nabbed two Oscar nominations -- for Best Original Screenplay, and for Woody Harrelson as Best Supporting Actor. Moverman and Harrelson's critically acclaimed follow-up "Rampart" seemed to be on the path for a repeat performance, especially given the actor's harrowing portrayal of a corrupt police officer on a downward spiral of paranoia and self-destructive behavior. In our review, which you can read here, The Playlist called it "a wildly ambitious slow burn that succeeds immensely, powered by one of the best performances of Woody Harrelson's career." But it was snubbed by the Academy this time around, receiving not one Oscar nod. "Who knows how these things work?" Moverman asked The Playlist. "I'm not disappointed though. You know what would disappoint me? If people don't go see the movie. That would really disappoint me, because we want people to see it, to talk about it, to get something from it, to interact with the movie, if you will." To aid that interaction, then, Moverman shared some insights about the making of "Rampart" that might get those conversations going.

Woody Harrelson Went To Dark Places
Not only did the actor do everything he could to get into the mindset of his character, from the usual tasks of reading books, watching documentaries, and going on ridealongs with the LAPD, but he actually lost nearly 30 pounds and started getting paranoid to better embody his character. "His starvation and sanity is really part of who he is," Moverman said. "He's not one of those actors that stays in character all the time, but his mindset definitely shifted, and he became -- we all became -- more paranoid."

Harrelson would later laugh about how his friends would be joking around, and then he would get very serious and say, "What do you mean? What are you talking about?" "They all said, 'We got to get you back. You're really in [the character] Dave Brown's head,' " Moverman related.

During one scene when they were shooting at a burger joint in Los Angeles, they were trying to lock the shoot down, when a woman in a wheelchair wanted to get through. "This cop stops her and she starts screaming and disrupted the shot," Moverman said. "She was screaming, 'You can't stop me. I have a right to get my burger.' And Woody was sitting in the car, and he started yelling back, yelling obscenities at her, making fun of her for the wheelchair, and we were all in shock. Ben Foster was trying to hide himself. He was so ashamed of this guy who's this crazy cop and just thinks he can say whatever the fuck he wants. And even Woody afterwards said, 'I've got to get this guy out of my head. This is not me.' " It took two months for Harrelson to feel like himself again.

Woody Harrelson, Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche in "Rampart."
Mr. B And The Women
 "Rampart," which has a background of the late '90s corruption scandal that plagued the LAPD, follows an officer with a case of excess testosterone. But "Date Rape" Dave Brown, as his fellow officers call him, is surrounded by estrogen. He has two ex-wives (played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) who are sisters that live together (or next to each other) raising their two daughters, who are both half-sisters and cousins. Dave pops in and out, asking each ex-wife to go to bed with him -- as if they're interchangeable or part of his harem. This takes place in the presence of the other and in front of the children, since they're all at the dinner table. When he can't get what he wants from them, he moves on to pick up a woman at a bar (Robin Wright).

"James Ellroy wrote it after he was divorced," Moverman explained. "He had all kinds of crazy experiences with women, and he was trying to put that in the movie. On the one hand, Dave Brown is just sort of super masculine, a macho man of the streets, beating people up, intimidating people, and on the other hand, with women, he's pretty much pacified."

For instance, when the ex-wives finally kick him out, "He doesn't say a word." Originally the script had him say the word, "Okay," but then that was cut, and he exits silently, "Because he doesn't know what to do," Moverman said. "This is change staring him completely in the eye, and he will never be able to fully understand it. So in many ways, I wanted to make it a movie about a guy that is so populated by women, where you realize women are the future. Somebody saw the movie and said, 'Oh, this is about the end of the American male.' "

Sex For Paranoids 
Although Dave has a seemingly successful sexual relationship with a lawyer named Linda who he meets at a bar, the pairing quickly disintegrates, because he can't accept that someone would accept him.

"Robin Wright's character is almost a mirror image of himself in female form," Moverman said. "It's really messed up. Every time he goes with her, you see the progression of his state of mind. At first, he's very playful, and it's, 'Hey, I'm into you here, let's make something of it,' and they have sex. And then the next time, he's interrogating her, because the game that they were playing turned out to have too many lies."

Once Dave suspects that Linda is a lawyer who might only be interested in him so she can prosecute him for one of the many crimes of which he's been accused, he can't trust her. (Never mind that she appears to be a defense lawyer, which might be of some use to him).

"He's so sure that whatever's happening to him is everybody else's fault," Moverman said. "He's in a place where he has to attack and he tears into her, she tears back into him, and it's a fight scene straight out of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." They're basically a couple that's already had its best days behind them."

In one scene, he goes to her home, jumps in her pool, and yells at her from the water. "He just basically wants her to be on his side, to lie to him, to literally get in the pool with him," the director said. But his words and actions say otherwise, and push her away. "His rejection of her is part of what's tragic about him. He can't see the one person on his side, because the more she's on his side, the more he'll suspect her of not being on his side," Moverman said. "It's really about his path of self destruction."

Saying Goodbye
Ellroy's version of the script, which Moverman rewrote, once had a voiceover narration that included a line at the beginning of the film: "This is my end of the watch report and my goodbye to the women."

Though the voiceover was cut, the director discovered that he still wanted to show a goodbye to at least one of the women -- the eldest daughter (played by Brie Larson), whose tension with her father was something he augmented.

"Certain resentments of the eldest daughter, in my version, weren't in his script," Moverman said. "And it's something that throws Dave off, because she has all this animosity against him." (And he towards her, because he suspects she's a lesbian, which he doesn't understand).

Throughout the film, the two spar, but at one point three weeks into the shoot, they did a scene where Dave goes to the house and watches her from afar as she smokes on the porch. "This was not supposed to be the last scene of the movie," Moverman said, "but when we shot it, I remember I turned to [cinematographer] Bobby Bukowski, who was shooting the movie, and I said, I think we just shot the last scene." Bukowsi looked at Moverman, and told him not to think about that, "because you never know what will happen."

By the end of the shoot, Moverman said, they had enough for a four-hour movie, and could conceivably have had multiple endings. "Everyone has a different movie in their head when we shoot it," he said. "It's really what happens in the editing room that's fascinating."

Little Cuts, Big Cuts
So many changes happened from Ellroy's script to his combined draft, to shooting, to the edit, and to the final cut, including adding the idea that Dave was a Vietnam vet and a lawyer who had failed the bar, pushing the Rampart scandal to the background, making the family the core of the movie, changing one character from male to female, cutting out routine subplots, and making the paranoia an unanswered exploration.

"In the first version of the film," Moverman said, "he had more awareness of his paranoia. He was starting to suspect the people he works with. He was spying. There was more insight into it."

Two cop characters, played by Jon Foster and Jon Bernthal, previously had bigger roles, because they were the characters Dave interacted with in the police department." And he started suspecting them of being behind what was happening to him," Moverman said. "He kind of bought what the Ned Beatty character told him in the first scene, that somebody set him up, somebody is out to get him."

Moverman then decided to reduce this element, and cut those scenes. "I felt like it was a distraction," he said. And echoing the casualty notifications of "The Messenger," the director notified the actors affected by the cuts and let them know why he did what he did. "Actually, what that does is allow me to understand the narrative process," he said.

Only small parts were cut, he said, "none of the major things." "There was a bit more violence in the movie," he said, "and I generally don't like violence in movies, so it wasn't a big surprise to anyone that I got rid of that." Oh, and one other small thing: "George Clooney had a storyline but we cut him out because he's in too many movies. I'm kidding!" – Additional Reporting by Rodrigo Perez

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