THE BLOG
02/07/2012 04:53 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2012

To Protect and Serve: Patriarchy and Power in Rampart

By Karen Kemmerle

Rampart, the sophomore film by writer/director Oren Moverman, provides a dark, visceral character study of a man unhinged. Set in 1999, the film centers on Dave Brown (played ferociously by Woody Harrelson), a Vietnam veteran and one of the most corrupt and brutal cops working in LA. Brown, with his laundry list of vices (booze, pills, and promiscuity to name a few), is a remnant of the old system of police work at a time when change is necessary for the department. His personal life is no better than his professional life: Brown lives uneasily with his two daughters (Brie Larson, Sammy Boyarsky), who were mothered by a pair of sisters (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon), both married to Brown at different points in his chaotic life.

Dave Brown

Credit: Merrick Morton/Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

Moverman manages to portray Brown as a complex figure who, despite his obvious flaws, evokes an unlikely sympathy from the audience. Fans of Moverman’s The Messenger will no doubt welcome the reunion of Moverman, Harrelson and Ben Foster, who acts in the film as well as serving as one of its producers. Co-written by novelist James Ellroy, Rampart takes viewers on a guttural trip through the streets of Los Angeles during a particularly turbulent period of social upheaval, ferried by one of the most corrupt cinematic cops in recent years.

Tribeca: You usually write your screenplays with a partner, but on this script you collaborated with the legendary James Ellroy. Can you talk about how this collaboration worked and the ways in which you may have had to adapt your usual process?

Oren Moverman: Well, first of all, I wish I had a usual process. Every time you write, you just have to re-invent it. With James, it was a unique situation because everything is unique about James Ellroy. He had the idea for the film and wrote a draft of the script, going as far as he wanted to go with the project. I was then brought in to work with the script, which was very complicated and very sophisticated but also sprawling. So we never really worked together on the script; it was this process of development where he really created the world and I just carried it to the inevitable end, which resulted in the movie. It needed to get to a place where it could be made as an independent film.

Once we got close to shooting, I showed him drafts and he gave me notes and I responded to those notes. It was a very respectful, very separate process. Things changed a lot from his original script, but really the character and the world were deeply rooted in what James envisioned.

Dave Brown

Credit: Merrick Morton/Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

Tribeca: Your last film, The Messenger, and Rampart both feature men in uniform. Is there something about a career in the service—whether the military or the policethat interests you?

Oren Moverman: Well, don’t we all love men in uniform? [laughs] I was just saying to someone that it wasn’t planned. I can tell you that for sure. The films just happened, just one after the other. They are similar in some ways. Both films deal with a certain breakdown of the usual approach to masculinity. The main characters are both in traditionally male dominated professions. They are either a step behind or a step ahead but never in line, never quite adapting to the norm.

I think when you take the modern male, whatever that means, and add the emotional elements and obstacles that go with men in uniform, you basically realize that they have to bury their own feelings and play a part. There is a lot of theatre involved with being in uniform.

Tribeca: This is the second time you have worked with Woody Harrelson. The first time you directed him in an Academy Award-nominated performance. Can you talk about how you got him involved in Rampart? What drew him to the role of Dave Brown?

Oren Moverman: He got involved because when they offered me the movie, I told them I had a couple of conditions. Number one was that Woody would have to play Dave Brown. We both wanted to continue what we started with The Messenger, along with Ben Foster, and I knew Woody could do something very interesting with the character. The character fell way outside his comfort zone, and that’s always good with actors in general and with Woody in particular. I knew he could go very deep with this character. We offered it to him and he immediately said yes. The role was dark and disturbing in many ways, but Woody said it was one of the best characters he’s ever been offered and he didn’t say no to me. So we got lucky. [laughs]

Woody Harrelson & Ben Foster

Credit: Merrick Morton/Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

Tribeca: You mentioned Ben Foster already, but Rampart has a great ensemble cast which, in addition to Foster, includes Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Cynthia Nixon, Brie Larson and many others. How did you go about assembling such a stellar group? 

Oren Moverman: It was really through the normal casting process. With Ben, it was different because we have a company together, the company that produced Rampart. We wanted to develop more projects and Ben wanted to get involved on the production end as well as acting. He is interested in directing, writing, all those things. That was actually condition number two. [laughs] For me to direct the movie, Ben would have to be a producer, and our production company would have to be involved in the decision-making. Ben was a huge part of this movie, on and off screen.

With the other actors, it was a process of sitting with our casting directors in NY and LA and going through the lists. To their credit, there were a lot of people of note. You mentioned some of them—serious actors that were willing to come in for a couple of days and do a small role. The movie is really about Woody’s character, and every other character is almost a reflection of what’s going on with Woody. It’s not really about them, and they don’t have developed personal narratives of their own. I would also like to think that actors who saw The Messenger thought it would be a great idea to work with me. [laughs] Ultimately, too, I think the idea of working with Woody Harrelson is a very exciting one for any actor. They were just excited to come in and play with Woody.

Tribeca: Did you have any rehearsal period with your actors?

Oren Moverman: No, I don’t rehearse with my actors or have a traditional table reading. We never go through scenes before we shoot them. My process is to basically do a lot of talking beforehand, explore the character and do the research. We talk a lot about who the characters are, but also we talk about the actors themselves and what’s going on in their lives. I think this approach allows the actors get to know each other and develop a language. Once we have that language, coming to set means knowing their characters and knowing that anything could happen—changes will happen, you can get off script, new ideas will start developing, improvisation will take place. No one really says, “Cut,” and I don’t tell the actors what to do.

I try to create an environment that fosters creativity from the actors’ perspective. They are not expected to nail everything on the page; they are expected to live in the moment and interact with each other in a very present way. So I guess the rehearsal period is really just to do a lot of talking and for the actor to do a little soul searching.

Tribeca: We talked a bit about the concept of masculinity in Rampart, but some of the most memorable scenes in the film focused on Brown at home with his two daughters, his ex-wife, and his soon to be ex-wife, who are sisters. Can you talk about why these scenes are important? In other words, what do Dave Brown’s relationships with these women reveal about his character?

Oren Moverman: Well, it’s partly James Ellroy, because he wrote these characters, but if you are going to make a movie about masculinity, you have to show the alternative. I think in many ways this movie is about change and about how things are going to be different for a guy who doesn’t want to change and tries to refuse the process. Some of the strongest catalysts for this change are the women who dominate Dave’s world. His masculine façade breaks down because the theatricality of his manhood doesn’t align with his reality and the emotional situations in which he finds himself.

If there was ever going to be any change in Dave Brown, it was going to be brought about by the women in his life. They break apart his old ideas of patriarchy and masculinity. It was really important to show this character that belongs to a predatory world of pursuit trying to live out all these sexual fantasies of power, and realizing, ultimately, that they are a dead end. There’s a scene at the beginning of the film with a young female cop when Dave says, “This used to be a glorified soldier department, and now it’s you.” In other words, it used to be a Dave Brown world and, hopefully, the women in his life are going to change all that.

Dave Brown

Credit: Merrick Morton/Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

Tribeca: Another interesting element to Dave Brown was his attitude towards food. The opening scene of the movie shows him screaming at a rookie when she leaves her French fries on her plate, and a memorable later shot has him devouring the burrito at Klub Satan. Did Woody add this twist to the character, or was his enjoyment of food part of the script all along?

Oren Moverman: When I was initially working on the script, I wanted some psychical change in Dave Brown to show that his time is up. My first thought was that he should be a little overweight and that his relationship with food should not be beneficial to him. When Woody came on and understood what I was doing with the food element, he said: “That’s cool, but I’m a vegan. I can gain a little bit, but I can’t gain 30 or 40 pounds.” Then he suggested that he could lose weight.

I remembered this guy I met 8 or 9 years ago, who was a Vietnam vet, and he was one of those guys that you never saw eat. He’d smoke and drink, but you never saw him with food. This was a guy who was in total control of his body, but it wasn’t a healthy body. So it would be a great thing for Dave Brown to be somebody that doesn’t receive nourishment, which is a basic human need of growth, time and change. If someone is so vain to think that food is a weakness, you know he has control issues. When he gets really low and screwed up, we filmed him devouring food. You just see how starved this man is and how he is lacking in some very basic human things. 

Tribeca: Were there scenes left on the cutting room floor that you regret losing?

Oren Moverman: Yes and no. There were scenes left on the metaphorical floor, or rather, the hard drive. They are beautiful scenes, but I don’t regret losing any of them. I knew from the beginning that we were going to overshoot this movie. If we cut this movie the way it was shot, it would have been almost four hours long. It wouldn’t be a great four hours, only a good four hours. We sculpted a movie that we’re proud of and really like. It’s hard to cut out beautiful scenes with beautiful acting and visuals, but that’s part of my job. Unfortunately, part of improvising and creating new scenes like we did has the downfall of producing too much material.

Tribeca: Rampart was the first film from the company you own with Ben Foster, Third Mind Pictures. What prompted you and Ben to form your own production company? What are your plans for your next film?

Oren Moverman: Generally, we’re looking for projects we want to do together in various roles: producer, writer, director and, obviously with Ben, acting. There’s nothing specific to talk about right now. We’re now in production for a script that I wrote, and Steve Buscemi will be directing the film. It’s called Queer, and it’s based on the writings of William Burroughs. We are producing it, and Ben is also going to have a role in the film. Hopefully, there will be more down the line. The company was built as a projection of our friendship. We just want to work on good projects together that get us excited.

Rampart opens in limited release on Friday, February 10. Click here to find theater information and tickets in your area.

Watch the trailer: