Filmmaker Oren Moverman has never shied away from tackling difficult, seemingly impossible material to adapt to film with some of his writing work including the screenplays for Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There and the equally intriguing Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy.
As a director and producer he’s followed suit with his 2nd film Rampart starring Woody Harrelson as an L.A. police officer with questionable motives, followed by a meditative look at homelessness with Richard Gere in Time Out of Mind.
For his latest movie, The Dinner, Moverman adapts Dutch author Herman Koch’s novel, which on the surface is about a dinner between two related couples with all the requisite food porn. As it progresses, it explores a variety of topics including mental illness and the battle of Gettysburg.
At the core of the film is Steve Coogan and Richard Gere playing brothers, the former a history professor, the latter a politician running for Governor. As they have dinner with their respective wives (played by Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall), it becomes obvious there is something important they are avoiding. As the film advances, you learn that they have come together to discuss a horrific incident involving their respective sons and trying to figure out how to deal with it.
As with Moverman’s other work, it’s not a movie that’s easy to love, maybe because it’s a movie that mixes commercial storytelling with something far more artsy.
LRM had a chance to sit down with Moverman during the Tribeca Film Festival where his film had its U.S. premiere. We mostly talked about The Dinner as well as his recent foray into production with films like Norman (also starring Gere), Ido Fluk’s The Ticket and more.
LRM: I guess the most obvious first question is how you found Herman Koch’s book and what made you want to adapt it?
Oren Moverman: I always wish I had better stories than the reality. The reality is so practical...
LRM: The book didn’t fall down from the sky?
Oren Moverman: It kind of did, like most things in my life. I know Cuddy Chubb, who bought the rights to the book before it was even published, before it was even translated. He had a connection to the writer, so he’s the producer, and he told me to read it--he was coming to town--talked about. It was a nice book, a good book, and I could see how it could make movie, but I wasn’t interested at the time. Next, he called me a couple months later and said, “I have a director, she’s on board, and she wants you to write it,” and it was Cate Blanchett. She was flirting with the idea of directing and this would have been her first movie as a director, so I got together with her. We started working on it. I wrote a draft for her and then life caught up with her and she just couldn’t spend the time making a movie like that, and I got the nod and started developing it for what I thought it would be, and that’s really how I got involved. I wish I could tell stories like, “I read the book and I had to do it.”
LRM: When you’re writing yourself is it very different from when you’re writing for another director? I assume when you write for someone else to direct, you’re still working with them, or it’s different each time.
Oren Moverman: No, it’s mostly the same, actually, with directors, because when I write for a director, my job is to get into their head and figure out their vision, and I love that job actually, because it lets me get rid of myself. I’m not part of the process. You figure out what they want, and that’s an intriguing process, because you get to act. You get to be somebody else, so when I was working with her, I was trying to figure out what was interesting to her, what can I do to work for her vision? Once I was working on it for myself, I had to start exploring what was interesting to me and what was my vision for it as a director? I wasn’t thinking like a director before.
LRM: Was she looking at playing one of the roles, like maybe Laura Linney’s?
Oren Moverman: We didn’t really talk about that. My assumption was that if it came to her directing a movie, she would probably need to be in it for the financing, but I don’t think that was her original intention. Her original intention was purely to direct.
LRM: It’s interesting because the story could have been done very simply as a stageplay. It could be four actors on a stage, but you decided to get some flashbacks in there and some kids, and you probably made it more complicated than it needed to be.
Oren Moverman: It depends what you’re going after. It’s actually true to the book in the way it moves. The narrative construction is very much from the book, dividing it into courses and basically having these three strands of narrative, which is the night of the dinner, the night of the incident and then the flashbacks to portraits of family history. I took my cue from the book when it came to that. I thought this is a really well-regarded, well-liked book, kind of a worldwide bestseller. I knew that people would want to see what the film interpretation of the book was, and I wanted to stay close to the book and yet find what makes it a movie. That particular narrative structure, and strategy, really appealed to me.
LRM: You get to play with a few different things including food porn and the dining experience, which is amusing in its own right, but also the social issue about parents trying to protect their kids. Was the adopted son in the book and was he black in that, too?
Oren Moverman: Yup, yeah.
LRM: There’s a lot of things going on including how we communicate with electronics, so was that stuff you took from the book that you embellished?
Oren Moverman: Yeah, everything is kind of based on what’s in the book, and then we sort of took off and made it our own. It’s a Dutch book, it’s a different culture, so it doesn’t have certain elements that we have in terms of politician’s assistant being with him, the bill that he’s trying to pass, all those things are original, but the basic core of the book is interpreted into this movie, but the movie had to be somewhat like the book and forgive the awful pun...but it had to be a meal. It really had to be a lot of ingredients, a lot of things that may not necessarily go together when you make them in a kitchen, but when you make them at a fancy place, an absurd place, they start blending together, so there’s a lot of overwhelming elements to the movie that are somewhat over the top that are designed to be overwhelming. They’re designed to be the experience of the restaurant, but also the experience of these particular people and their strange was of thinking and motivations. All of these things were taken on by the movie. The core structure, like when it says “Aperitif,” and those kinds of things are really the core structure of the movie. They’re not the meal. The movie is the meal, and it’s all inside Steve Coogan’s head, so it’s quite a messy meal.
LRM: It also deals with mental illness, which is a huge topic on its own, so that’s also mixed in there.
Oren Moverman: I think there is a criticism to be said that it’s a lot, it’s really too much, but I think we live in the age of too much. If we look through our browser history, we go through a hundred different things in two hours, because it’s just such an unfocused information driven world, so I think the movie takes on a lot of themes, a lot of metaphors, and tries to blend them all into some sort of coherent structure.
LRM: The movie reminded me of Philip Roth, maybe because it’s a literary thing, Arthur Miller, because of the stageplay feel, and then Wim Wenders, of all things. I think there are people who love all of them, but they’re also very divisive.
Oren Moverman: I mean, I would never argue with that combination. I actually met Wim Wenders for the first time in Berlin a few months ago, and I told him about his influence on my life and my filmmaking, so yeah, that’s very astute.
LRM: You’ve worked with Richard before, so he’s a no-brainer, and Laura Linney is amazing because she can do anything, from “Ninja Turtles” to Broadway. Steve Coogan is not the most obvious choice for the role. He’s British and he’s done a lot of comic stuff. He’s done some dramatic stuff but he’s not the most obvious choice for the character. How did you wind up with him?
Oren Moverman: We had Richard on board first, and we were looking for Richard’s little brother. Who could be his brother? The list existed and we were going through names, and I got a call from Coogan’s agent, who basically said, “I have an actor for you, he’s read the script, he wants to do it.” Which is the best call you can ever get. I got on a call with Steve and we started talking. He was so clearly the character. He’s a passionate guy, a thoughtful guy. He gets angry about the injustices of the world. He understood this character very well--his interest in history and politics and philosophy and all those things, and a kind of off-kilter way of thinking, some opinionated approaches that are just out there, and it was pretty immediate. He joked, he said, “Playing Richard Gere’s less attractive, less glamorous brother? Yeah I can do that.”
LRM: I’ve met Steve a few times and I feel there’s a pathos to him, so even when he does “The Trip” movies with Michael Winterbottom, he’s pulling stuff out of Steve that’s based on his life.
Oren Moverman: The thing that I don’t think people realize about Steve is that he’s a very serious actor, and taking on a role like this, he didn’t come at it from comedy. He didn’t say, “You want me for this because of the comedy I’ve done.” It was pure drama, it was pure seriousness. He understood this character very well. He knew how to talk about him. His resentment towards his older brother is probably a resentment that Steve probably has, not to his brothers, but to the world, to the way the world functions when so much can be better.
LRM: He does carry at least the first two acts, the third act becomes more of an ensemble.
Oren Moverman: Yeah, the way it’s designed, it’s Steve’s movie until the brother takes it away from him, just like he takes away everything from him. The accusations are true.
LRM: Another aspect of the movie is the Battle of Gettysburg, which is this overlaying thing because it’s what he’s writing about, so what made you want to bring that into the mix? I assume that wasn’t in the original novel.
Oren Moverman: No, what was in the book--because Paul lives in Holland--was a trip he takes by himself to Berlin. In Berlin, he walks around the monuments. He starts to get really affected by them, and he has a nervous breakdown. What we did is try to find the equivalent of that. What would be a place of monuments where you can really lose it? I think Gettysburg is that place. It has over 3,000 monuments. It’s a really, really fascinating place, and it’s very quiet, very still, but 50,000 Americans were killed there, which is unlike anywhere else in America. We kind of chose that place to kind of stage that, brought Richard into it because I think it would be good to have the two brothers go there together, another grand gesture on behalf of the politician trying to heal his brother, but also brother against brother, the Civil War and we’re dealing with such savagery and the word “civil” is in there. All that stuff kind of played thematic sense, and his obsession as a history teacher, as someone who wants to express himself with history and then giving up on history was very much about the breakdown that he experienced over there, which is really the breakdown of the movie. The movie has a nervous breakdown.
That was kind of the idea behind that, and what I drew inspiration from was...do you know those Alain Resnais early ‘50s art documentaries? Very short. Some of them are online like Library or even Statues Die, which is something he did with Chris Marker. I’ve always loved those. They’re about objects, they’re not about people. There’s a lot of beautiful, moving shots about objects and then always a voiceover and music... very, very French. Those were kind of an inspiration to...“Okay, let’s make a little Alain Resnais, updated, color, crazy movie in the middle of all this,” and have that be inside his head but also in the structure of the movie being something that is damaged.
LRM: I definitely saw the French influences in the movie, but there’s a lot of different elements from Steve Coogan to the dinner with the waiter giving funny descriptions, then you have this strange Gettysburg sequence and then it gets very serious. How has that been received? I know it was at Berlin, but has it premiered here yet? I know it was at Sarasota when I was down there, too.
Oren Moverman: No, tonight...I didn’t even know it was at Sarasota. Look, you don’t make a movie like this and expect everybody to love it. You make a movie like this and you expect people to react to it. Even an angry reaction is a good one, because the idea of this movie is to provoke a conversation, and to talk about a lot of these issues and what you relate to or don’t relate to. I think it kind of splits audiences down the middle. I think some people really respond to it, and some people are really upset by it, but it’s not your average romantic comedy.
LRM: It’s interesting to watch the trailer for the movie after seeing it, because the trailer really spells out what the movie is about. While watching the movie, you don’t really know what this dinner is about until a good hour or more.
Oren Moverman: I wonder if it’s frustrating, but that frustration is built into it, because they’re really working hard not to talk about it.
LRM: To increase the tension. I wanted to ask about the music and working with Hal Wilner. I saw his name in the opening credits, and I thought it would be really interesting since I know his work, so had you worked with him before?
Oren Moverman: As a producer on Norman, he produced the music, but I’ve known him for a while, and he was really helpful on Time Out of Mind actually with some of the music, kind of offstage. Hal is amazing. I told this to him and Rachel Fox from the beginning (Rachel works with him), but the idea was that I wanted an overwhelming amount of music in it for it to be very, very eclectic. Part of the absurdity of the restaurant was that it’s also an art gallery, everything is curated. The food is curated, the music is curated. Every room has a different piece of music. There’s music playing outside. We needed a lot of music for it, and really pulling from a lot of different directions—world music and jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and alternative rock and country. All those things were everything that makes America, basically. Hal was really instrumental in that by helping to curate the music selection that Antonio, the owner of the restaurant, would have put together that night.
LRM: Was the physical location a real place?
Oren Moverman: It’s an empty mansion in Yonkers that we dressed up to be this restaurant. People have asked, ‘Where’s the restaurant?” They wanted to go.
LRM: That kind of experience is the exact opposite of what I like when I’m eating food.
Oren Moverman: I’m with Coogan when he says, “Can we go out and get some pizza?”
LRM: The whole thing of describing the food and the men and women getting separate dishes. That alone would annoy me. Was there any of the music that you had to play in the restaurant? I know you can’t play it while filming but if you played it as background to set up the scene.
Oren Moverman: No, no, we didn’t really have music on set. I always had it on my mind, but we never really played it on set. It’s kind of shame but you never know what you’re going to be able to clear, so you don’t want to record.
LRM: That’s partially why I asked, but I figured Hal has all the connections that he can get most of the music cleared.
Oren Moverman: The thing is that when you work with actors on this level, honestly, you don’t really need anything extra. They just go for it.
LRM: You’ve been producing a lot lately...
Oren Moverman: You’re the only one who is noticing.
LRM: I noticed it because two of the movies were at Tribeca last year and then “Norman” I noticed more recently, so how are you connecting with these filmmakers? Are they people you meet on the festival circuit?
Oren Moverman: No, they’re friends. I worked on Junction 48 also as a writer; the director Udi is a friend of mine. Ido Fluk who did The Ticket is someone who interviewed me when he was at NYU. We kept in touch, and he had this script and ultimately, I said, “Let me try helping you out.” Joseph Cedar is a friend of mine who I’ve known for a while, who was stuck without a producer and he was listing here and trying to put this script together, so I maybe stupidly said, “How hard can it be? Let me try...”
LRM: That’s a very complicated film, too, shooting in New York and the whole thing.
Oren Moverman: Yeah, I’ve been sucked into it. I have a few movies as a producer in post right now, and it’s not a job that makes you feel good. It’s really dealing with a lot of problems, and a lot of bad behavior, but it’s a job that’s really gratifying in the sense of seeing the accomplishment of somebody else. I’m in service of somebody else’s vision, much like the writing when I work for another director. If I can bring in my expertise, which is minimal but exists, some experience and some help, then it’s really gratifying.
LRM: Was it easier to go from writer to director or director to producer, or is it all one big mess that’s hard to determine?
Oren Moverman: It’s a bit of a messy thing right now, but probably writer to director was easier. Producer is a whole other set of skills.
LRM: You’re dealing with other people’s creative vision, and as a creative person yourself, you don’t want to impose on that but sometimes you have to tell someone...
Oren Moverman: Right, and you have to be very diplomatic and you have to be very careful, but also, the producing part is dealing with a lot of practical things, not creative things. A lot of problems as they occur and organizational things, so it’s juggling a lot of different balls, and it’s definitely something I’ll do in the future, but very carefully.
LRM: Do you still have time to write on a daily basis?
Oren Moverman: Yeah, yeah, I’m writing and developing different things--television, film and writing for other people, so I’m still doing everything, as long as they’ll let me.
LRM: What is this “Terrorist Search Engine” thing I found on IMDB?
Oren Moverman: Ancient history, yeah.
LRM: It’s a great title for a movie.
Oren Moverman: I know, I know. It’s a script that I wrote, but they don’t have the rights anymore. I think it was Sony. It’s a script about a terrorism expert, who is kind of a fraud.
LRM: Which we have a lot of them out there right now.
Oren Moverman: We have them in the White House right now.
LRM: Maybe it’s time to revive that project...
Oren Moverman: Well, life has taken over. You can’t come up with this sh*t anymore. It’s all in front of us.
The Dinner opens nationwide on Friday, May 5.