Oren Moverman is an auteur many of you may not have heard of but should know by now. He directed and/or wrote two of my favorite films of 2015: Time Out of Mind and Love & Mercy. His visual style combined with his audio flair turn any film, regardless of pacing or content, into a cinematic feast for the senses. The feast this time comes in the form of The Dinner. I talk with Oren Moverman about his work with Cate Blanchett on The Dinner, the political messages in the film, the destigmatization of mental health, the “anti-intellectual” nature of musicals, and more!
The original story for ‘The Dinner’ is actually based on a novel. What originally drew you to Herman Koch’s novel?
Honestly, Cate Blanchett. I heard from the producer that Cate Blanchett was interested in directing and that she had picked me to write it and adapt it. I ask, ‘Why? Was no one else available?’ She said, ‘Because I really want to work with you.’ I read the book and I was really fascinated by her interest in it, first and foremost. We spent some time developing it for her and when we had a first draft ready, she had to drop out and do her own thing because I think she has a big other career. After that, I was then asked to direct it. When I dove in as director, it really became a different kind of process where I was finding my way through it and really focus on feelings that I thought were really popping out of the book and developed them to make their way into the movie.
How much did the screenplay change when you became the director since it was originally drafted with Blanchett’s vision in mind?
It changed a bit, but to be fair it changed because once I was done with Cate we only had a first draft so it was going to change no matter what. It was a few years ago, but from what I remember, I did bring in more of the mental health issues. Originally, in Cate’s draft, the role I had written for the campaign staffer that stays throughout the film with Richard Gere’s character was written for a man, so I changed that. Originally, Steve Coogan’s character takes a trip to Berlin and I changed that to Gettysburg and had his brother, Richard Gere’s character go with him so that the two brothers would go together and it would one more grand gesture on the part of Gere’s character. It was just stuff like that that was organically changing, which is not that unusual in a film.
The last few films you have worked on have dealt with the often socially taboo topic of mental health, with ‘The Dinner’ being no exception. How important is that topic to you personally?
I would have to say it’s very important, because it’s about every movie that I work on I think there are elements of that in every movie, period. I think mental health is at the core of understanding any person in any character, fiction or real, and I think that destigmatizing it has become probably more of a mission for me. Starting a conversation about it is one of the most appealing things to me about this project.
The film also deals with American politics and white privelege, which seem relevant now more than ever. Were you making a statement on America’s current situation?
One of the most exciting things for me about this project was having all these themes in one narrative. Definitely there’s something about white privilege, racism, hate crimes, affluenza, family politics, sibling rivalry, and to be able to put them in an American context was my favorite aspect of this film.
In the past, you’ve shown an interest in music, with films like ‘I’m Not There,’ ‘Love & Mercy,’ and ‘Junction 48.’ Is there a band or singer you’d like to make a film about in the future?
Probably too many. I think in terms of music. I love music and it’s a big part of the way I move in the world, and in any given time there’s a song in my head. I am itching to make music film. I’m not exactly sure what that would be right now but it is something I’ve been definitely thinking about. One of the things I do like about the film is that it gave us a ridiculous space for the film in the restaurant and we had a great chance to fill the film with songs and sounds to acentuatuate the art and curated food there. I haven’t directed a musical biopic yet but I think we used more songs in this movie than most musical biopics would use, and I’m pretty proud of that.
How about making your next film a flat out musical?
A musical? Oy, that’s tougher. That genre isn’t something that comes natural to me. I think it’s more challenging because I think musicals are, and I’m not saying this as a criticism, probably the most anti-intellectual genre of them all because the suspension of disbelief in letting people sing out relationships is really immediately plugged into emotions and that level of communication doesn’t come easily to me. A pure musical with an American heart would probably be very challenging for me.
While I do enjoy your music choices, I really enjoy the visual elements in every film. I found the visual cues that are meant to mirror Steve Coogan’s character’s mental state very interesting. Can you tell me about your visual style choices in this film?
I worked with Bobby Bukowski, my cinematographer, who I love, and we broke it down to three visual styles. There’s the visual style of the dinner itself and we focused on the opulence of it and the fireplace in every room, and all the saturation. The next visual storytelling is the night of the incident, and it’s really from Coogan’s character’s point of view as he imagines it happening, and that all tends to be colder even though we play with the visual design of it and the colors bleeding, having it start off with a very warm tough and turn into a very cool one. It was very important for us to differentiate that element of the story. And then there are the family history moments, or the flashbacks if you will, which were honey yellow and overblown, and the sunlight was over-pronounced, kind of like an old photograph.
How did the casting come together? I know you’ve worked with Gere before in the moving ‘Time Out of Mind’ and he was a great fit in the movie, but how did you know Steve Coogan was right for the part because with the rest of the cast, he seems like the odd man out?
I have to say that Steve was kind of given to me on a silver platter. What happened was we cast Richard first because we’ve worked on several films in the past and we have a great working relationship. Then we started looking for his brother, and we just went through the normal process of casting, putting together a list, talking about, etc. Then, I get a call from Coogan’s agent who said Steve had read the script and not only does he like it but he really wants to do it. Before I knew it, I was on a Skype call with Steve, really digging inside and getting a good read on him. I admired him from other films and I knew this would be a really interesting challenge for him and that he could totally pull it off.