Fresh off an Oscar nomination for The Messenger, writer-director Oren Moverman takes on a massive, “weird, brilliant” James Ellroy script to make the dirty cop drama Rampart.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(February 24, 2012)
Anyone familiar with the obsessively smart, blackly cynical work of James Ellroy can imagine how brain-busting adapting one of his byzantine historical crime noirs for the screen might be. Oren Moverman, the writer-director behind the new Ellroy-conceived dirty cop drama Rampart starring Woody Harrelson, knows exactly.
Moverman, who received an Oscar nomination in 2010 for his screenplay for The Messenger, was originally brought in only as a writer to reinterpret a behemoth script and intricately detailed outline written by Ellroy in long hand. His job was to shape it into something they could realistically shoot.
Though Ellroy’s original material was far more complex, both his script and the final movie center on veteran LAPD officer Dave Brown, a rogue cop from a bygone era, struggling to hold onto his massively dysfunctional family while somehow staving off his own imminent professional demise.
Moverman spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about grappling with Ellroy’s enormous original script, which he calls weird, brilliant, and unlike anything he’s ever read, and how, for him, planning and outlining his scripts negates the essential joy that makes screenwriting his love.
So, if I understand correctly, you came in here, grappled with and rewrote a brilliant but massive James Ellroy script?
Yeah, that’s exactly where it started for me. I get the timeline a little confused because I’m getting older, but from what I remember, I was told originally they were looking for a writer. They brought me in to streamline it. I thought it was an absolutely brilliant script, but it was enormous.
How enormous are we talking about?
Photo: ©2012 Millennium Entertainment
Woody Harrelson in Rampart.
In terms of pages it’s hard to tell because he writes everything longhand, and then it’s all typed and put into screenplay format. He’s very old school about everything. But in terms of the amount scenes, the amount of locations and the amount of things going on, the action combined with the characters and a whole subplot that actually starts before this version of the movie even starts, it was just massive with layers upon layers.
It was great in many ways as a read, but we knew this was going to be an independent film and that no studio would get behind it because it was very, very expensive and very, very dark.
My job was really to come in as the idiot and simplify things and make them a little less brilliant and a little more doable.
To what extent did the script he created feel novelistic?
In many ways it was, yeah. In many ways it was something that probably made sense in his head for him on the page, but many people were grappling with trying to understand certain things about it. It was like nothing I’ve read before or since. It was a really wild, brilliant experiment that had so many good films in it, but could not be made as the whole thing.
I wasn’t told at first that I was being considered for directing the film, so working on it as a writer only [was interesting].
What was your approach here to handle this huge piece? Did you use index cards or an eraserboard? How did you break it down?
To me, it’s really just a process of reading the script, making some mental notes and then sitting down to rewrite. The thrill I get from screenwriting are the risks you take on a daily basis with the safety net being that you can change it the next day if you fail.
You’re not a big outliner?
Oh, I’m the opposite of a big outliner – I hate outlining. The reason I hate outlining is because, if I outline something, and I know where I’m going, then I’ve already been there, and I can’t find the motivation to go there again.
Do you feel like it robs you of some of the more brilliant stuff you come up with when you’re out there without a net?
It doesn’t rob you of it, but it robs you of the thrill of discovering it within the body of the work. As you know, different writers have different approaches. I feel like if I’ve been really, really methodical about it and outlined every beat and worked out the architecture of the movie, then there’s a lot of filling out of blank spaces in the actual process of writing the script.
The writing – the experimenting and going in different directions – is the most thrilling part for me. I just like diving into things, trying to find my way through them and trying to control the chaos, basically.
How much of this dialogue is culled from Ellroy’s original work and how much did you add using his voice?
I have to say that at that point, I really don’t know. To me the process of writing, especially [here], when I was given the job of directing, never really stops. I was writing every day and every weekend while shooting.
And I know you like to shape stuff in the editing room as well. To what extent do you consider the editing of the film itself the final leg of the screenwriting process?
Yes. You absolutely nailed it. Editing is writing. If we were to be absolutely honest, we would say that every film goes through this process. Every film goes into the editing room and takes on a shape that is not necessarily the same as the script…
Ultimately, the shaping of the film comes together in the editing room. Sculpting and locking things in the editing room is really the final station of the writing process.
To me shaping a film in the editing process is no different than shaping it in the writing process or in the shooting process. You’re sculpting all the time, but in the editing, you make the final choices, and you have to live with them.