Oren Moverman talks "The Dinner," his chance encounter with Kurt Vonnegut and a Bruce Springsteen biopic [Interview]

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Writer-Director Oren Moverman ("The Messenger," "Rampart," "Time out of Mind") doesn't do formulaic cinema. His latest movie, "The Dinner" is no exception. In fact, it can be quite the challenging sit through. Its difficult characters, uncomfortable dialogue, messily intricate narrative structure has already divided critics nationwide.  "The Dinner" is an ambitious monster of a movie.

Richard Gere plays Stan Lohman, a controversial politician hampered down by his mentally ill brother Paul, Steve Coogan stealing the show, their relationship is strained, to say the least, with their wives Kate (Rebecca Hall) and Claire (Laura Linney) seeming to act as mediators whenever a verbal slugfest, and at times physical, is about to happen. The reason for this hostility gets slowly revealed through a dinner scheduled between the two couples. The high brow, five star restaurant is the setting for a compusivley watchable, never boring and ultimately fascinating look at the human mind.
The themes and motives are many, Moverman seems to be in over his head with novelist Herman Koch's original source material, but it seems to give way for a remarkably formidable cinematic structure. One is reminded of Bergmand and Lynch when watching "The Dinner." Moverman's film is a mix of the intense, grotesque and obscene with added, sometimees mumblingly, derivative monologues. Even when the film flies off the rails you can't look away, because it conjures up everything that made you fall in love with the movies in the first place: That sense of mystery and dreaminess that lurks beneath in between the frames.

I spoke to Moverman about the films ambitions, the importance of music in his films and how a chance meeting with Kurt Vonnegut changed his screenwriting life.

This is a very complex, perplexing, ambitious, messy and passionate movie. So you were initially aboard just as the screenwriter, how did you end up directing the film?

Well, I was approached by the producer and he told me that Cate Blanchett wanted to write the apaptation. It just didn't work out schedule wise for her and so they were looking for a new director and I was the backup. So I took it over, started doing a new draft.

What did you find so fascinating about the book?

Actually everything you said when you started the interview. I just felt like it was an opportunity to do something so rich and so layered, with so many themes and metaphors and subjects. Just realy creating something that is messily structured and provocative and starting conversations which are full of questions. I wanted people to be angry and others to be absorbed by it. It just felt like a full meal with a lot of ingredients and a lot of flavors. It was very interesting for me to tackle it and see where it can go. There's a certain question in the book, there's also nostalgia, its central theme is how far would you go to protect your kids? What would be the moral, ethical, psychologically healthy thing to do here? There is no real good answer to that dillema, so that kind of question I knew would start a debate and I knew the movie would be provocative enough for the debate to be heated to people's lives in personal ways. It can speak to people in a very personal way even if the story is far removed from their personal lives. It's very easy for people to read the book and put themselves in the situation of its characters.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I found the film to be pretty pertinent and relevant to today's times. Is it fine in labelling this film "Trumpian"?

Yeah, I agree with you. I think this is a movie about very self-absorbed people, who are healthy, who are completely out of tune with the suffering of others, who are all about self-preservation. Within their family structure, the political system, alliances and adversaries. Also, the subject of mental illness, which is also a Trump-ian subject. All these things are very Trump-ian, but I wouldn't put it just on him. It is more the result of an era and not just the leader.

Do you feel like filmmakers have a duty to tackle the social zeitigeist we are currently in?

Well, I don't think they have a duty, but I do think it is inescapable. I think that whatever movie you are making is a product of its time. Even a movie with no political decors is very much a part of a system that reflects the mainstream. There is still social relevance in those movies, it still has something to say about what is going on. For me, I don't make escapist films. Instead of escaping I want people to feel alive and engaged. I want conversation to happen, conversations which lead to personal awakening if you will. I see that as my duty.

We have to talk about Steve Coogan, he's transcendant in this movie. How did you end up casting him?

It was really a normal process of casting. His name came up, I got word that he read it and liked it and was really interested in doing it. I didn't know him. The casting for that role was very important. We had to cast somebody that was Richard Gere's brother. We skyped and started talking, not much about the movie or the character, but about politics and he came across, as he is, a very passionate man with a lot of opinions and a lot of ideas, obviously humor as well and it was very clear that he understood this character, understood his anger, his sense of outrage at the existence of the world. Steven also has a history of imitating Richard Gere a little bit in "The Trip," and I know he got Richard's compliments on that, and so, I can imagine these two guys coming from the same place.

I read that critics of the book, particularly Americans, had a problem with how unlikable the characters were, did you try to humanize them in any way? They do seem a little more fleshed-out compared to the novel ...

At the end of the day, whatever behavior we are confronted with in life, as bad as they can be or as unlikable as they can be, it is still human behavior. This is the kind of movie where you react, you can be angry, forgiving, passionate, you can have a lot of different experiences with this movie. You must understand that their arguing it's coming from experience, places of hurt. There was never a time when I said ok let's make this character a little more likable  because doing that would be a little too easy. This is a tough subject, there's nothing wrong with being a little challenged by it.

The author of the book, Herman Koch, has not really been receptive or supportive of this adaptation. Do you know if he's seen the movie? 

Yeah, he's seen the movie. Perhaps wisely, I don't know, I've never met him. I have, from the very beggining, wanted his blessings for the project, but, I was told by my producer that I had the complete freedom to do whatever I wanted with this movie. To his credit I think it's wise because most authors have very complicated relationships with the film versions of their books. Uh, he stayed out of it, he saw the movie, but I did not talk to him, he did not say anything, I do not know what his reaction to it was, I would imagine his reaction to it was froth. I've dealt with a lot of authors in my career, for the most part these authors were happy with the way the movie interpreted their writing, but, I have to tell you, many years ago I was a stay at home dad and one day, middle of the afternoon, I was at a cafe where Kurt Vonnegut was sitting. I actually went up to him and asked if I could have coffee with him and he said "yeah." So I sat there, with Kurt Vonnegut, having coffee, and we talked for a bit and, at some point, I said "You've had adaptations of your books, how do you feel about them?" and he said "I feel absolutely fine about them, and I said "Oh, really? That's unusual because so many authors usually complain about them" and he said "Well, you know, my thinking about it is very simple: You have to take the book, you have to tear it down, and you have to rebuild it scriptually through the goal that you want as a filmmaker." And, I kind of took that to heart. If Kurt Vonnegut gave you that kind of approval for the process, then maybe I can please the authors of other adaptations. A movie can never work as a book, it's not the same language. Maybe one day I can talk to Herman Koch, or maybe not, but, in any event, I'm very grateful for him having written this book.

It takes guts to go up to Kurt Vonnegut and ask if you could have coffee on the spot with him [Laughs]

I have a lot of stories like that, you know I'm from Israel, we have that kind of attitude over there.

I've been to Israel, I know all about it, great time I had over there a few years 
ago. Bob Dylan is playing again in this movie and I know you have a connection with Dylan, you co-wrote "I'm Not There" with Todd Haynes, also your other movie, "Time Out Of Mind," shares a title with a Dylan song. What's the significance of that Bob Dylan song playing in the background during that bedroom scene in "The Dinner"?

It was a little wink. We sorted out different songs that would be good to play for that scene, and I always of Dylan and said "ok, let's just try this one." We popped the Vinyl in and it completely worked for us. Bob Dylan makes everything better and so he'd make this scene better [Laughs]

He sure does, and it's latter-day Dylan, I'm always very fond of that phase in his career.

Of course! Also, if you noticed, the record starts skipping ....

I was just going to ask you that. Was that purposely done?

Yeah. Sometimes we use sound as a motivation for movement. The scene was written that at a certain point, the character gets impatient, leaves bed, turns of the record player, which is skipping, and says let's go, but we thought it'd be fun if we made the record skip so that gets them out of bed and tells them ok "let's move on and get the hell outta here."

What you did with "I'm Not There" and its screenplay was just brilliant ditto your portrayal of Brian Wilson in "Love and Mercy." Is there any other musician you'd like to tackle in the near future?

All of them. I hope there's a movie about a musician in my future. I don't know who that would be, but obviously you can tell that I'm very passionate about music. Maybe Bruce Springsteen, that would be great.

I'm a big fan, maybe my favorite artist.

Well, he is the boss. If you have any contacts to get me in touch please let me know.
[Laughs] I'll look into it.

Thank you, maybe you can produce it if you want. 

Count me in.
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