TALKING TO WRITERS
Part three of my interview with writer/director Oren Moverman.
You've written films for other directors and now you've directed your own screenplay for "The Messenger". Was writing always a means for you to direct, or did you start out writing, and realize through the experience of having other people direct your work that you wanted to have more control over the entire process?
As you can tell from my nostalgic answers at the beginning, I set out to direct. That was the plan even before there was a plan. When A HIDING PLACE collapsed I tried to revive it. I wrote another screenplay, CORDLESS, to direct. We didn’t even come close to making it. I was always trying to direct, even when I was working with others or writing for others, that was the intention. But I also wanted to be home. With my wife and kids. I couldn’t reconcile working in film and being a dad and a husband except through writing. It shielded me.
After Roger Michel dropped out of THE MESSENGER, Ben Affleck was considering it to direct. When he dropped out the producers offered the job to me. I said No. It needed a real director, an experienced director, and I was almost ready to revive A HIDING PLACE as LOOKING GLASS. Finally convinced, I took over as the director and it all came together for me: Louis Malle, and Sydney and Nicholas Ray, and Ron and Walter – I’ve met all my teachers and now it was time to do it and stop hiding at home. And I must say, I enjoyed it tremendously. It was a gift.
How did The Messenger get developed and made? You've pulled together an incredible cast with Ben Foster, Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson for your first feature - what was it like for you finally being on the floor giving direction to these actors? What did you learn about your own writing by having to direct the script yourself this time? When is the film coming out?
Actors were drawn to THE MESSENGER and it was just a matter of finding the right ones for the roles. I knew Samantha Morton from JESUS’ SON and that was a no brainer. There’s no one like her. When I met Ben, when I looked into those piercing eyes, I knew he was our man for the lead. We spent hours drinking and talking and I loved the man as much as I liked the actor. He became a partner immediately. He’s really a brilliant guy and a very good writer in his own right. Woody was offered a smaller part, but when we met he told me we got it all wrong and that he is right for the second lead. He was so convincing that we shook on it then and there. He was absolutely right.
I’ve been told not to admit it too much, but I really enjoyed directing. The job was so clear, so pleasurable. I had a really terrific crew and my DP was Bobby Bukowski who is a great artist and a real collaborator. He made things very easy for me because he had all the questions and many of the answers. I wanted everything to be quiet and respectful on set. It was well run by Curtis Smith, my AD, and there was just a very still vibe to the work.
I learned that you could direct actors like a screenwriter, that you can communicate on character level and that is all you need. It’s a character driven film. I learned that I overwrite and that a script can be much more minimal, but that the overwriting informs what’s left on screen. I made a hundred mistakes every day, and corrected fifty the next day until there were no more days left and it was over. And I learned to ignore what’s on the page when needed, when you are making something in the moment that is better.
I read an interview with Krystof Kieslowski once where he talked about how in his most fully realized film - perhaps it was "Blue"? - he felt that he had achieved about thirty percent of what he had in his mind when he started out, and that guy was a master!
First, I'm curious about this notion of "what you have in mind" - do you start with a thematic idea, key visual images, the voice of a character, or a tone or mood or vibe when you start a project?
I think we all have little tricks here and there for starting a project. Mine is simple. I spend days thinking about the first line of the screenplay. That’s all I have in mind. The first line. I feel that once I have that I’ll be okay. Funny, but I don’t really think in terms of images anymore, I think in terms of translation – I think of how things look on the page and try to imagine how they translate to the screen. It’s really dangerous, but I often think in terms of the format, the script page, if it looks “right” to me, the layout on the page, not just the scene - does it have a script rhythm that is translatable?
Then, can you talk about how your films have evolved from concept to script to screen, the compromises along the way, and the end result?
Man, this is a question that needs to be answered seriously. And I’m not sure I have just one answer. Or any. At this point there are a lot of scripts to talk about, but only five produced films. One thing I can say truthfully is that I am never disappointed with a film I’m involved with because it’s so goddamn hard to get these things made and if they are, I’m very grateful. The compromises ARE the process, and the more specific they get, the easier they are to accept because they are about production logic - how much money we have versus what we can really do versus what we can turn into a miracle. Films are creative and economic structures, it’s that contradiction that gets them made. So I never feel like kicking and screaming at the injustices of the world that force artistic compromises. It doesn’t mean I won’t fight for what I believe in when I need to. It just means that I look for the best compromises and choose my battles carefully. We work in a very privileged field, our ideas become words on the page and some make the leap into images, and, wow, there’s a film there my kids could see, even though they’re too young for the rating. I try to keep that perspective, I try not to agonize. Film is my work and my passion, but life is short and there’s lots of living to do outside work, lots to be passionate about and with.
Not to touch on a touchy subject for most writers, but because I'm always learning in my role as a producer and I think others would be curious to know - what do you find helpful in both the development and filmmaking process when it comes to "notes"? Do you welcome other people's free and frank opinion as part of the process, or do you feel like it dilutes your voice or vision? How and when have notes helped you make something better, or conversely, how have they compromised what you were trying to do?
I have no problems with notes. Notes are never the problem. I like hearing other opinions and I like getting other perspectives. The problem is the way notes are communicated. I happen to think film scripts have no integrity. Now, I don’t mean that in a condescending way, it’s not to say they have no true intention behind them, but I can’t really think of them as fixed truths. Or truths at all. Films are lies in search of a real emotion. There are endless ways of telling a single story and there are departures that are just as interesting as the writer’s intentions. And intentions can change. People change. Writers develop as human beings and as craftsmen. Other people can help that development. So, if someone has an idea, I want to hear it, it may make things better, or make me clearer, it may bring a certain reality into the decision making process, a financial reality or a creative one.
How to communicate these notes in order to make them helpful? That’s the challenge. And that’s where everything becomes complicated. Because giving notes is a skill I think most people struggle with, and, frankly, it is personality and power based. It comes down to what kids are taught in third grade – constructive criticism is helpful, plain criticism can be harmful.
How to make notes constructive and not ego based is the challenge. I never think I’m more right than anyone else just because I wrote something, but I am more intimate with the material and I would expect the notes to address that. I loved the way Sydney gave notes, also Roger Michel, they presented questions, and by answering them we would come up with new ideas. It was like defending a thesis and it was a solid process.
When I get notes, some dictated down, some suggested, I always have to consider the source, not as a way of discounting their voice, but as a way of understanding what are they going after, what is their agenda, both creatively but also in terms of control of material. Producers give different notes from directors, but actors sometimes give similar notes to screenwriters’ notes, they often have the same agenda – the characters.
So, as I said, the problem, for me, is not the substance of notes but the way notes are presented and discussed, usually undiplomatically and indelicately, taking some but not all elements of the script into account. And so I learned how to listen to notes, I learned to try to find the essence of what someone is saying as opposed to what it sounds like they’re saying.
I don’t really think I have a voice. The characters have a voice and they are different from script to script, I’m more interested in finding their voice than mine. So I never feel my voice is attacked by notes, we’re all working on other voices.
I’ve gotten notes from people I didn’t like or respect that were given in a vulgar way and were ultimately very helpful. I’ve gotten notes from people I love and respect that were just never useful. My job is to always cut through the bullshit of the personal drive of notes, or to evade the way notes are sometimes given to demonstrate that someone is more powerful than the writer in the final decision-making process. I have to find something I could take or reject, but find something to consider. Because then we have a dialogue. And when there’s dialogue there’s a chance for solutions and a possibility of moving on toward finishing the script. It’s a dance of sorts, but my approach is that people are giving notes that usually have to do with who they are and where they come from and what they know and how they feel about themselves in the world. And that’s fine. That’s very human. If I hear something I like and can work with to make the script better, I’ll steal it and take credit for it.
Finally, what is next for you? What can we look forward to from the mind of Oren Moverman?
I don’t know what’s next. I feel very lucky to have directed a film, and I would love to do it again. I also need to work, to write, because nothing’s really changed for me, there are still bills to pay. I’d like to take a vacation. Or a nap.