Time Out of Mind’s Oren Moverman | Life Takes You in Wrong Directions

Oren Main“For me, there’s no absolute way of doing anything. Not in life, and not in movies.”

 




Oren 500

PLAYBACK:stl: Hi, Oren.

Oren Moverman: Hey, how are ya?

PBSTL: I guess I’ll just jump right in here, if you don’t mind. I know that you live in New York City, and you made a film about a homeless man in New York City. It makes me wonder, how do you treat homeless people when you see them in New York? Do you give them money, do you let them use your cell phone? Did the movie change your approach to them at all?

OM: For me, it’s a process that’s still ongoing. One of the reasons I wanted to make the movie is because it opened me up to a community and a sector of the population that I was not exposed to. I think we have an overwhelming problem. What I’ve gone through in making this movie was this privilege—I got to go to homeless shelters, I got to speak with people who are in that world, with all kinds of problems. My approach has changed only in the sense that I’ve become a little bit more open about it; I try to talk to people when I see them on the street and I try to hear their stories. I see if I can direct them towards a soup kitchen or a shelter or a service provider. And there are other ways to do it—in New York you can call 311 and ask homeless services to come take care of someone on a certain street corner. There’s an app called WeShelter that does the same thing…  I feel like I’m more engaged than I was before, but it’s not like I can walk around and give everyone a hundred dollar bill. It sounds like a neat concept, but I think just being mindful of seeing people and recognizing the enormity of the problem is just that—it’s one link in the process.

PBSTL: So you’re basically saying that the difference is that before the movie maybe you would have given them money, but now you actually try to help them with a capital “h”—is that correct?

OM: Yeah, I mean, you know, if I have something on hand I’ll give them something. If they’re hungry, I’ll buy them something to eat. A lot of times you ask people on the street and they say, “I’m willing to work. I’m willing to work. Do you know anyone who has a job?” …There are all kinds. That’s the same. The thing is that once you start paying attention to the population, a lot of them have problems that are beyond homelessness and sometimes involve substance abuse, mental illness. These are problems that we have to solve in our society. Sometimes it’s just one-on-one interaction, seeing the person in front of you and wishing them happiness, and just kind of like putting out a good vibe in the world. And sometimes it’s just, you know, “Can I help in any way?” or “Can I direct you toward somewhere where you can get a coat, or where you can get a meal?” There are all kinds.

PBSTL: You mentioned doing some research in homeless shelters; the press notes talk a little bit about the research Richard Gere did. What about you? What kind of research did you do while you were writing the Oren extrascreenplay?

OM: With Richard I would go to shelters, we would speak with guards and administrators, we would talk to people from the Coalition for the Homeless, which is this organization which is very involved with talking to city officials. We were trying to get a broad understanding on both a micro and macro level.

PBSTL: Richard Gere brought you this material, did he not?

OM: Yes he did.

PBSTL: How did it come about that you wrote the screenplay? How were you sold on it?

OM: I was sold on it the second Richard said something about wanting to play a homeless guy. I don’t think anyone apart from Richard Gere would come up with that idea. It’s not the Richard Gere that we know. An actor of that caliber told me that they want to play outside of their comfort zone—I’m interested. I read a very old script that he had, that was just not updated and had a morbid but conventional approach. It would have worked as a film, but I felt like it was more familiar. So, we decided to start from scratch, based on the idea of the original script. Our script is much more experiential, much more about the process of homelessness, and the various jobs of the every day. It’s almost like a neo-realist movie, as opposed to a plot-driven movie.

PBSTL: Right, that makes sense. In the first two films that you directed [2009’s The Messenger, where Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are military men on notification duty, and 2011’s Rampart, where Harrelson plays a police officer], the main characters were people who, on the surface at least, seemed to have something up on the people they encountered everyday as part of their job. And it seems like, again on the surface, Time Out of Mind is the complete opposite of that. How do you think [Gere’s character] George fits in with your other protagonists in the other films that you directed?

OM: I think of those three films that I’ve made over the last few years as a trilogy. A very loose one. In a way for me, they’re different films but each one of them is about a real character, struggling more with emotions in a particular moment in life. So, you know in The Messenger it was a kid in his 20s and he’s in this culture, and in Rampart it was a guy in his 40s and he’s with the police department and that kind of male-dominated system. And here we have a guy who’s older and he’s in a male homeless shelter, and kind of the most broken of all of them. But, I see a certain weird kind of progression from one to the other, where life takes you in wrong directions. So I see a lot more in common than I see differences. But you know I’m not objective about any of this.

PBSTL: Your scripts that you have a writing credit on but didn’t direct tend to be kind of non-linear, and then the three films that you’ve directed are much more linear. Is that intentional, or how does that happen?

OM: Well, I write all kinds of scripts. You know, I’ve been lucky to have been working on some more unusual scripts, and my tendency is actually non-linear. Somehow the connection between these movies that I’m directing is this sort of vibe where they’re more linear. I’m not an A to B to C kind of writer; it’s just not my instinct. Sometimes you sit down and you write and you tell yourself, “I’m going to write this straight out, and it’s going to be so simple,” and like half an hour into it you’re already complicating things and jumping around. It’s kind of like that—you know, I sit down to write something and my mind starts going in a hundred different directions and I try to capture everything at the same time. But you’re right—somehow the films I’ve directed end up being much more linear than some of the films I’ve written and were produced.

PBSTL: Yeah, I just wondered if you chose it to be that way or not.

OM: I like—I love both.

PBSTL: I do, too! So that works out well. I think one of your best traits, as a director specifically, is that you appear to be a very good leader—you’re very good at facilitating collaboration. I feel like the actors that work with you do about their best work with you, [Moverman’s usual cinematographer] Bobby Bukowski does incredible work with you—you seem to bring out the best in everyone that you work with. Do you have an approach of facilitating collaboration like that? Can you talk about your methods in that regard?

OM: Yeah, well first of all thank you; that’s very nice to hear. I think my method there, if there is a method, is openness. I think because my day job is as a screenwriter, I can still say that I think my experience with writing scripts is that for me, there’s no absolute way of doing anything. Not in life, and not in movies. And so what’s interesting for me is the exploration of the possibilities of what we have. So what I try to do is create a safe space, and a “safe space” is something you hear about a lot when filmmakers talk about film. But basically we take some risks, so we’re not going to rehearse, and we’re just going to talk a lot about things, but then when we begin to fill them out we have the patience and the intelligence and the class to start making things in the moment. And I make sure that the actors come first; everything is in service of the actor. We get a certain kind of comfort level, where the work is intense and it’s hard and there are always things that we struggle with, but then we’re always surprised when there are accidents and things that just happen in the moment and feel like we can play with them and make them into the ultimate shape of the movie.

PBSTL: Semi-relatedly, I think one of the most memorable aspects of Time Out of Mind is the shooting style, with Richard Gere often being in long shot, not in the center of the frame, being framed through windows of businesses and things like that. How did you and Bobby land on that style?

OM: We worked with a lot of on-set photography, and with the photography of Saul Leiter, the 40s, 50s, 60s photographer in New York and shot through glass, in a very observational kind of way. Very non-judgmental, sometimes not even spelling out the object of a particular shot. There’s something very true to New York about that kind of approach, especially since we’re making a movie about a guy who we wouldn’t really notice in the every day. I view the movie as making an effort to call attention to him from your point of view, from the city’s point of view. So it’s really a construct where you are not limited to a conventional way of paying attention to a character because he’s the star of the movie, but actually you’re mindful of the effort that it takes to get into somebody’s story.

PBSTL: I probably should have asked this back when we were talking about how you view the three films you’ve directed as a trilogy and you were talking about your male characters—I was wondering how much gender has to do with this movie. Like if it had focused on Kyra Sedgwick’s [also homeless] character instead, do you think it would have been a very different movie? What are we dealing with on that front?

OM: Yeah, that’s a very good question, and I think there would be differences for sure. I think that if we made a movie about a woman who lives in a homeless shelter, there’s a different dynamic to it; there are more layers of complications and different layers of complications. It was going to be a homeless family, and there have been a few movies made about that—homeless families have a very different experience than females and males. But I do think they’d all be trying to do the same thing, which is a social problem that we have to remind you are real stories that there are really people who live this kind of life. So, it’s a movie that’s driven by a male movie star, and that has its drawbacks and it has its advantages. I think the more stories like this that we are exposed to, hopefully the more we shine a light on the problem. If it was a woman’s story, it would have been different; I’m not exactly sure how I would have shot it differently, or what kind of a script I would have made, but it would have been simply a different story, and the different gender would lead to a different person. | Pete Timmermann

Time Out of Mind opens in general release in St. Louis at the Plaza Frontenac on October 9, but on Thursday, October 8 there will be a preview screening at the Tivoli at 6 p.m., with proceeds going toward providing housing for individuals and families who are homeless. Rams defensive ends William Hayes and Chris Long will be hosting this preview screening, to which tickets are $20 each (ticket price includes a small soda and popcorn), and there will be both a meet-and-greet before the film and a panel after the film where you can interact with the two defensive linesmen. Advance tickets to this event can be purchased here.

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