Oren Moverman: An Actor’s Director, Almost by Accident


What changed everything, he said, was talking his way into a job on Louis Malle’s last film, “Vanya on 42nd Street.” On the set, he was befriended by Julianne Moore, who introduced him to the director Todd Haynes, and he also began writing screenplays. He finished a script loosely based on his experience on “Vanya” and almost got to direct it. The financing fell apart just three days before shooting was to begin, leaving him devastated. “I realized I’m never going to be a director, I’ll be a screenwriter,” he said. “It’s a semi-honorable profession, it has a name, I can live with it.”

Mr. Moverman never went to film school, never studied screenwriting. He learned on the job, not, as is customary, by trying to sell scripts to the studios, but by working with actors like Steve Buscemi, Kristin Scott Thomas and Willem Dafoe, who wanted to develop their own material. When writing, Mr. Moverman said, he never thinks about actors at all, but he nevertheless quickly developed a reputation as someone who writes parts that actors love to play. His credits include the Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” (which he wrote with Mr. Haynes) and “Love & Mercy,” the Beach Boys movie, written with Michael Alan Lerner. (Mr. Moverman also wrote, with Tamer Nafar, the Palestinian hip-hop drama “Junction 48,” released in March.)

After “The Messenger,” which starred Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as American servicemen who deliver death notifications, Mr. Moverman made “Rampart” (also starring Mr. Harrelson), and by then he had acquired a reputation as a director who was exceptionally actor-friendly.

Ms. Linney, who in “The Dinner” plays a seemingly benign and protective character who turns out to have a cold and ruthless side, said recently that she signed on because the part was so good and because she had heard so much about Mr. Moverman. “He’s so easygoing that at first it’s almost alarming,” she said. “But then you quickly realize how well you’re being taken care of. You never know what lens size is on. He zooms in and zooms out, and encourages you just to go and leave the responsibility of filming it to him. In some ways, it’s sort of like acting for the theater.”

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From left, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall in “The Dinner.”

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The Orchard

Mr. Moverman said that sometimes actors of the caliber of those in “The Dinner” try to do a director’s job for him. “It’s hard to get them to talk over each other, because they know I’m not going to get clean sound, and I’ll have problems in the editing room. I have to push them to let me figure it out later. I like messiness, because I think at the end of the day messiness comes across as a lot more polished.”

He doesn’t rehearse, and he doesn’t shoot scenes in fragments. “Every shot is the entire scene,” he said. “Every first take is the first time they do it, and I don’t do too many takes. That’s part of the danger and the fear, but also the pleasure of it. I’d rather get it raw and untested and unrehearsed and unsoiled.”

In an email, Mr. Coogan, who, like Ms. Linney, had never worked with Mr. Moverman before, said he particularly welcomed the no-rehearsal policy: “What a take lacked in refinement, it gained in an authentic spontaneity. Rather than paddling the shallows, it felt like jumping off a cliff.”

What interested Ms. Blanchett about “The Dinner,” Mr. Moverman said, was the question of parental responsibility. (Ms. Blanchett didn’t respond to queries seeking comment for this article.) He found himself equally fascinated by the theme of mental illness, embodied by the Coogan character, and decided that the movie itself should have a sort of nervous breakdown. He shot an extended scene, not in the book, when the two brothers visit the battlefield at Gettysburg together. “What I wanted to do, very pretentiously — as pretentious as the restaurant serving the food,” he said, “was to make a movie that has its own diagnosis and its own mental health issues and its own inability to keep it all together.”

He laughed and added: “I wanted to use all the flavors and textures and ingredients and seasonings and other clichés that I could.” He pointed out that besides being divided into “courses,” as the book is, his movie also has several narrative layers, and even different looks and soundtracks. “One of the many Hollywoodisms you hear when they give you notes,” he said, “is ‘Make a meal of it,’ and I thought, O.K., that’s one note I’m not going to get on this movie. We’re going to make a meal of every single element.” He paused a moment and said the point of the film, like the book, was to provoke a discussion and at the same time overwhelm it. If he had to come up with a tagline, he said, it would be: “‘The Dinner’: Get Angry.”

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