Man Down: Ira Sachs Interviews Writer/Director Oren Moverman about Time Out of Mind
The following interview was originally published in Filmmaker‘s Summer, 2015 issue. It is appearing online today for the first time. Time Out of Mind opens today via IFC Films.
Alongside his biggest professional success as a screenwriter — he co-wrote Bill Pohlad’s hit Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy — Oren Moverman returns to theaters this summer as a director with an equally striking yet very different film. Time Out of Mind, which premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, joins Moverman’s previous features — The Messenger and Rampart — in its politically aware depiction of compromised masculinity, but it does so with an austerely beautiful dramatic restraint. Whereas those previous works had their share of heated confrontations, Time Out of Mind is a quiet film, albeit one set in a noticeably noisy city. Richard Gere, whose company developed the project, stars as the suddenly homeless George Hammond — weathered, lost and living day-by-day on the streets of New York. We are introduced to his daughter (Jena Malone) and various fellow travelers, but the real relationship depicted in the film is between Gere’s character and the urban environment, which is clarified here not just as a dramatic adversary and place of sensory overload but as a network of personal and social relationships both unsparing and compassionate. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s work here is extraordinary, the frame exploding with color while using zoom lenses to capture Gere from afar as he interacts with real and unsuspecting New Yorkers who simply pass him by.
When The Messenger was released in 2009, Filmmaker asked friend and fellow filmmaker Ira Sachs to interview Moverman. Six years later, we repeat the invitation, leading to this conversation between two mid-career filmmakers, both still dedicated to independent filmmaking and both having used New York City as a character in their works. (Sachs’s recent films include Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange.) Below, they talk about the politics of independent filmmaking, not relying too much on the script and what film might offer in this Golden Age of television. Time Out of Mind is released in theaters by IFC. — Scott Macaulay
So Oren, we were here two films ago. This is your third feature. And when you finished that film, you described the process of directing as joyous. [Laughs] Did I really say that?
Yeah, you said it was joyous. That was the word. When I read that I was impressed because it’s not a term that I would use myself, as a director. I’m curious how you relate now to that terminology. Do you still feel that way about making movies? Probably more so, you know? [Time Out of Mind] was only my third [feature], but it was an incredibly joyous process, fast and leaner than the other ones. It’s also different because the first two were not the same cast, but they were anchored with the same cast, with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster being a big part of [both of them]. Which was great, but this one was with a new leading man and all that. And it was joyous. [Laughs]
As your friend, I’m around during these processes, and I wonder if the word “joy” is one that comes up in the rearview mirror. Clearly, the joy is still a complicated experience. Absolutely. And when I say joyous, I mean the actual, physical production. The actual act of directing, being on set and working with actors and working with the crew is joyous for me. You came to the set, I think, one day.
Yeah. I smiled for most of it, didn’t I?
No. Okay. I was smiling inside. I was probably frustrated about something. I don’t know. It is a rearview mirror kind of situation, I think.
What’s the hardest part of directing? I think all the pressures of financing and casting because it’s where, probably, you have the least amount of control. You’re trying to push this rock up the mountain. I mean, it’s all hard. I don’t want to advertise it as a walk in the park.
I thought this film was going to be a real challenge for you. How do you depict, with detail and honesty, homelessness and New York City? That’s just technically a very difficult thing to do, craft wise, in terms of creating a universe. I think the movie is so much about process that it actually becomes its own process. You’re looking at a man who basically has nowhere else to go, and that’s where the movie starts. Everything then in the movie is about the immediate next step because time works differently when you’re in that situation and not like the rest of us, rushing to our next appointment or pursuing our next ambition. It’s minute to minute, so you almost have to kind of forensically piece [that experience] together. You try to make contact with someone, then you realize you’re no longer welcome. You go to the emergency room and you sit there, because you can, until they throw you out. And then, somebody points you in the direction of the intake center at Bellevue. And so, you go to the intake center, through an interview and a long waiting period. And if you don’t have documentation, for whatever reason — if you are suffering from a certain kind of illness, mental illness, substance abuse — everything becomes slower and much more labored. And so we approached the movie as like putting these pieces one in front of the other in a very linear way. The specificity comes from just paying attention to the step-by-step process.
That’s interesting. I was watching The 400 Blows yesterday in preparation for my own work and thinking about the French New Wave. And one of the things I noticed is that that film is all about process. One of the tenets of the New Wave is a lack of plot, in a certain way, and an interest in the details of everyday life. I wouldn’t call it lack of plot. I’d say going beyond plot, which I think is probably the same thing.
Lack of maybe a classical plot. Yes.
Well, I would guess you, as a screenwriter, think there’s a classical plot here. In Time Out of Mind? Yes. For me, it has a lot of plot, actually, but it didn’t need to. I don’t remember if we talked about this [in our last interview], because television was not as prominent in our lives as viewers. But I think in this era of plot being everything, all the time, we’re actually being trained to watch things in a very specific kind of way — in the way narrative is laid out in serial drama. But now is the opportunity for films to go beyond plot into a language that can defy or resist ways of becoming mainstream. I’m not fighting television; I have nothing but respect for it, and I love a lot of things on television. But television is, by definition, a product, and [it can be] the kind of mainstream that creates the kind of resistance expressed [earlier] by the New Wave.
Are you saying that independent film can be that resistance, or film in general? I’m saying [independent film] could be. If independent film is going to exist as its own thing, as opposed to an imitation of something, then there could be a certain impulse in independent film to go, “Well, that’s how they do it in the mainstream. That’s how the big boys do it with the budgets. What is our way of kind of shaking that up? What is our way of creating a visual language of cinema?” An alternative has to exist, you know? And that could be the $100,000 film that is made in a certain way that kind of breaks through. It could be a bigger film that goes beyond plot or beyond narrative in the way that people are very much trained to watch now. And that could create friction.
It’s very hard to find the economic space within a capitalist society, which I would guess would go back to Time Out of Mind, on some level. Where is the space for the Richard Gere character? Where is the space for him to live and to exist as someone outside of capitalism? And where is the space for the movie to exist, because it doesn’t speak in that language and it doesn’t give you a full three-act narrative. It asks you to take a look at a person.
I think it does give you a three-act narrative, by the way. I think so, too, but not in a way that people are used to. I also think it’s a movie that asks you to look at someone with quite a bit of patience, someone who you wouldn’t give the time of day on the street, because all of us, and I include myself, are very busy with our lives. We’re very busy with where we’re going, and there are a lot of homeless people on the streets, and we’re not paying attention to all of them. And here’s a movie that says, “Pay attention and take your time and watch the process and watch the various Stations of the Cross that a homeless man has to go through.”
How is that different for you as a writer than, for example, writing a film about Brian Wilson or Bob Dylan? It’s not. They’re all biopics, you know? Every movie I consider a biopic because it tells you some slice of a person’s life. I think my assumption is always that somebody will watch [a particular story] for whatever reason. It’s easier when [that story] is connected to popular music or iconic people. But, in a way, “the trick” here is that we have Richard Gere playing a homeless man. So it’s already stepping into the extraordinary and the improbable because he is also an icon. He has his own kind of image and persona, and that’s what we play with. This improbable piece of casting was actually the first thing that existed, because it was his project. We take that and work with it, hoping it will attract a certain kind of attention.
How has your approach as a film director changed in the course of making three features? I’m not sure I know the exact answer to that. I know I try to feel differently about each one of them and approach them differently. Obviously, the more experience you have, hopefully, the better you become, and less complacent, which is also a risk. But I think that, stylistically, this one is different from the other two. And even between them, I think they’re a little bit different. The approach is always to go to the script as if it’s a thing you haven’t seen before and say, “What is the script telling me about the way the movie should work? What’s the reality of the budget, and what’s the reality of the amount of shooting days, and what’s the construction that works best for that?” We knew that we were going to put Richard Gere in the real world and kind of leave him there. And so, to create a world that doesn’t have a footprint of a movie, we hid the camera. We put it behind glass. We put it inside apartments, inside a tent, inside a Starbucks. That allowed a certain kind of verisimilitude, where he’s just existing in these environments and we’re very still in capturing him. We used three zoom lenses for the whole movie, and we shot it anamorphic, and we never really dollied. The only dolly shot in the movie is the last shot of the movie. It was almost approached as a collection of postcards or photographs, very much influenced by Saul Leiter and the people of the New York School of Photography. So, for example, we don’t have a handheld shot in the entire movie, but we had a lot in Rampart and The Messenger. It was just different subject matter, a different city, and therefore, a different style.
Do you think of these films as a trilogy? I do now. I didn’t before, but they are three very strict point-of-view movies about men struggling. [There is] a certain kind of emotional chaos inside male-dominated institutions — the military, the police and a homeless shelter for men. And the character, in my mind, weirdly, is kind of growing up through them, because it starts with Ben Foster in his 20s, and then there’s Woody Harrelson in his late 40s and now Richard Gere in his 60s. So [there is] the evolution of man — or the de-evolution of man.
You could say this film is a form of melodrama because it takes the every day and pushes it to the extreme, in the sense that the separation is much more brutal. Right, absolutely. I also think [it’s a] melodrama in the way sound works as a piece of music. At least that’s how we approached it. I think it is almost literally a drama set to music, which is more of what a melodrama is.
What do you think are your biggest strengths as a director? What do you think you’re good at? And I ask you that knowing you’re humble. But I think, for a director, that somehow understanding what you’re good at is important. I think I have a pretty good bullshit barometer in terms of acting. I get really uncomfortable when I feel a certain kind of direction in the filmmaking and the acting is off from what I think it should be. I may be wrong, but I think I do have a certain consistency about what I like and what I don’t like. And so I think that keeps it in the same ballpark, for good or bad. And I like actors a lot, more than I imagined I would when I started.
When you see things you don’t like, what do you do? Just gently try to talk about them briefly in very clear language so that it doesn’t escalate into an intellectual conversation or a debate. I like the looseness of filmmaking where you’re not enslaved by the script. I know you do, too. I like to go into scenes where actors are sort of questioning certain things and without rehearsing, just say, “Let’s not worry about the script. Let’s just be in the character and feel our way through it.”
In terms of the dialogue, it’s improvised in Time Out of Mind? Sometimes, yes.
What scenes are improvised? There’s a lot of stuff that just comes in between pieces of dialogue or some things that are moving in a different direction from the way they were written. Because I make my living as a screenwriter, I have my suspicions of screenplays. And so I really try to encourage the actors not to get it right in terms of the script, but to get it right in terms of how they feel in a scene. It’s the closest I come to a technique.
I’m often asked if I consider my work political. It’s an interesting question because, on some level, I always feel like when I’m asked that question, I’m part of the marketing, and I’m always trying to figure out what the right answer is. So I’m asking you that. All filmmaking is political. The act of filmmaking is political. The system in which you make a film is political. And the world that you portray — even if it’s a lighthearted, romantic comedy — is very political. That’s how I see everything. I think every film in America is first and foremost about capitalism. And when you make movies that are socially conscious or touch a certain kind of social phenomena — like these three movies, in different ways — you shouldn’t be shy about the politics of them. I think The Messenger was an anti-war movie without showing the war. It was doing that by honoring the troops. The politics were on par with what’s going on today in our society, having learned the lessons of Vietnam, where we’re all very careful about saying, “We’re against the war, but we support the troops.” So that’s political, in that sense. Rampart I thought was very political — and it’s probably more appropriate now than when it was [released, though] police corruption and police brutality have always been there. But seeing the attitude of a cop who’s doing, in his mind, bad things to bad people, therefore, he’s good, even though he’s a bigot and a racist and all that kind of stuff, I thought it got pretty damn political. And then, watching the homeless shelter system in New York City and the way it works in Time Out of Mind is making a political statement and calling attention to something very unique that happens in New York State, which is the right to shelter. In fact, the movie is almost a paid advertisement for where to go to get to the intake center. If you want a bed in New York City, they have to give it to you because that’s been the law since 1981.
When you’re making a film, do you go to movies to keep you going? No, actually.
You don’t? Gosh. That’s very different with us. I’m always searching through my library and finding, “Oh, I want to see this, and I want to see that.” I usually sit down with Bobby Bukowski, who is the d.p. on the three films, and we watch certain films in the ballpark. Like, for Time Out of Mind, we watched movies that take place in New York that have a certain kind of realism to them.
Like what? Well, not realism, but Midnight Cowboy, for example, is one of the films we watched. It is shockingly homophobic and anti-ethnic, really, much more than I remembered, and shockingly, knowing the director. We watched a lot of those films and were a little snarky about them. We tried to reject certain things while accepting certain things. But most of the conversation was around photographs — just sitting down and talking about framing and the world we were trying to capture visually.
And for this film, it was Saul Leiter? Very much so, yeah. The framing is just completely inspired by him because, first of all, he worked in color early on, which was unusual in the art world of photography. He also framed things through windows, through crowds, through objects, and created frames where you’re not even sure what the subject of the frame is, and it’s very observational.
What about Altman? Altman’s always there. We don’t even have to talk about him. He’s always been sort of the language from which we pick up without even talking about it. A lot of it has to do with the zooms, with a particular kind of looseness, the approach to the scene, letting it happen and capturing it.
Talking about Altman made me think about Mike Nichols, who I know you were very close to. What has this year been like for you? Mike was a gift. He saw The Messenger, and he wrote to me, and we became friends. We would get together and talk for hours and hours and hours. And I think I don’t know what the influence is in terms of filmmaking, to tell you the truth. I know what the influence was in terms of the quality of time, talking about films and literature and life and women, talking about things that just sounded like they came from another world because he’d lived such a rich and complicated and amazing life. I was sort of in awe of every get-together. But then, those get-togethers were really friendly. He was very generous with his time and very generous with his stories, and I would just drink it all in. Some of it would be like a history lesson of cinema, or where he was, or excellent, excellent gossip, which I can’t [repeat]. He became more frail over the years, but he was so sharp that he gave you the impression that he was just going to keep going forever. He had all of these things that he wanted to do, movies that he was about to make. And so it was really shocking when he died so suddenly. Which, of course, I’m sure for him was the perfect way to do it. He just kind of immediately exited without warning and without needing to talk about it. But he gave me a lot of confidence — [he was] a sort of a father figure [who] gave a lot of approval, which, in a Freudian way, was really special to get. Time Out of Mind, I think, was one of the last films he saw before he died. He wanted to work with Bobby Bukowski after he saw it, and Bobby was going to shoot his HBO film.
By the way, we’re right now on the 35th floor of a building looking out on the Empire State Building. It’s an incredible view all around. Yeah, and that’s really it, you know? I mean, this is home. To go back to the first question, about joy, thinking back on it now, maybe it’s because this is home, and it was the first time I worked as a director at home. For me, the city has always been very black and white and gray. Scouting, walking around, recognizing how colorful the city is was actually a revelation for me. I didn’t realize that, and I also didn’t realize certain things that kind of made me feel ashamed in terms of homelessness and my awareness of the shelter system and the huge disparity between income levels in this town, which makes it a very special and very cruel and very complicated place. It was really informative and insightful to go deep into the places of those who have nothing and put that in context of our lives and become more aware of social programs and the way things work.
It was the same process that we had in Rampart — a process of defining a city. When we came to L.A. to do Rampart, the conversation with Bobby was, “What is this city? What is this element that oppresses us most as people living in this city so that we can turn that into drama?” In Rampart, it was the sunlight that just made everything too, too much. We asked the same question for Time Out of Mind with New York: What is that element that oppresses us, that makes this city really unbearable, and therefore, a place with drama? And that was sound. It was this unbelievable assault of sound that we’ve actually trained ourselves to block out so that we can exist inside this insanity. If you stand on the street corner and close your eyes and really listen to what’s going on, it is insane and on a level that is inhuman. And so we had a character who was not well in his head being hyper aware of all these sounds. How does that affect his mental state? How does that affect his moving about in the world? The process of collecting sounds and recording the movie in MS Stereo to get that kind of very sensitive, very aware sound was a lot of fun.
I run a series called Queer/Art/Film, and we always end the series with a question to our presenting artist, so I’m going to do that today. What creative challenge did you face yesterday, and how did you approach it, solve it, or did it solve you? I got back from Israel the day before yesterday. And the last day I was there, because my parents and sisters cleaned out the storage space, I got all these letters and notebooks that were mine from many, many years ago. I started reading through them, and I was shocked by the discovery that I had a creative background. And so I spent most of yesterday trying to reconcile my own impression of myself as a creative person and trying to understand where that came from, because there was a lot of writing going on that I didn’t remember. So the creative challenge that I faced yesterday was, “Who am I? Where do I come from? What am I doing here?” [Laughs] That’s too much.