Writer-director Oren Moverman Discusses 'The Dinner' and Transforming Literature to Film
"The challenge and the beauty of the interaction between literature and cinema is to see the transformation, to see what it can be in this new interpretation through this different medium."
Israeli born writer-director Oren Moverman's The Dinner (2017), an adaptation of Herman Koch's novel, sees two continuations within his directorial body of work. Having established a collaboration with actor Woody Harrelson for his feature debut The Messenger (2009) and Rampart (2011), he has also forged a collaboration with Richard Gere, first in Time Out of Mind (2014) and now The Dinner. Thematically familial relationships have been a dominant theme in his works. His latest film perhaps connects back to Harrelson's ethical angst in The Messenger, while the emphasis on family, interwoven with a moral dimension at its core, connects it to both Rampart's corrupt police officer and Time Out of Mind's story of a father attempting to repair his broken relationship with his daughter.
Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), a popular congressman running for governor, invites his troubled younger brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) to join his wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) for an ornately prepared meal at a fashionable restaurant. While Stan and Paul share a distant relationship, an incident between their sons sets the stage for a tense and intimate ethical confrontation, as the two couples must decide on the best course of action. It is one that exposes the ignorant self-preservation of the middle class, weaving together metaphors from Paul's interest in the American Civil War to the way in which the ornate meal represents the superficiality of impression through public or social perception. Moverman skillfully accentuates the dark tones through an often cynical and bitter humour, unafraid to enter the moral abyss that compels the audiences' to contemplate what is an unsettling clash between individualism and social responsibility or participation.
In conversation with PopMatters, Moverman reflected on his ongoing search for a feeling, of filmmaking as a means to reconnect with his past. He also discussed the disappointments that can blight the creative journey, the transformative nature of adaptation and The Dinner as a series of musical comparisons.
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
It probably needs some therapy in order to answer it truthfully. I think for me it was just an obsession from an early age. I had one moment in my childhood that I always look back on thinking that was the inspiration, that was the moment. I can't tell you how that is true, I don't remember exactly, but I know the first film that I saw when I was growing up was in Israel. I was so horrified by it, so taken by the experience of the lights going down, and having those images onscreen that I did not knowing what they were doing or what they would do. It made me physically ill for a couple of weeks after that, and I always equated it with the experience of the movie.
I always felt like it was coming down with something, in a strange way like I was sick, and I've always thought of it as a physical reaction to the sensation I experienced watching that movie for the first time. From that point on I just started thinking about and imagining movies, of being in a creative space that really provided comfort, excitement and horror [laughs]. In a way that life is full of mysteries, a movie is a two hour mystery tour, and that feeling stayed with me, and I have gone looking for it ever since.
Through the act of searching for that feeling, how has your perspective of the craft of filmmaking changed across the course of your career?
Well I think the biggest change or the eventual shock is when you realise that while your intentions towards the craft are creative, there's a business to it. And the business of it is something that has to be learned and understood. It has to be a part of the creative process, and this is something you learn as you go into this field and you start producing more and more work. I think the perspective that it is a business and you have to take into account these considerations, how this works and how you fit into it, initially plays as a disappointment. But the more I understood, then the more it appeared the arcs could move and maybe could be broken. It changes your perspective, mainly if you are a little cynical about certain things, but you've tried to stay true to creative impulses while working within the financial system of making movies...
What led you to adapt The Dinner to the screen and how do you approach the screenwriting process?
Originally I was hired to write it for Cate Blanchett to direct, who was interested in doing it at the time. I wrote a draft for her after talking with her, going through the book and her intentions. But she was not able to continue with the project and so I was brought on to direct it. Through the process of taking a book that is based in Europe and adapting it to the United States, and also taking over as a director and setting off on a different path, I began exploring the scenes and the ideas that were interesting to me. These were mostly the mental health issues of characters and the impact on the familial tribal elements of any group of people that are connected by blood.
I write in a very peculiar way at this point in my career because I actually don't feel that it's writing at all. A lot of times it feels more like transcribing things that I'm seeing. I have done it for long enough, and I have worked on enough scripts to basically set the characters in motion in my head and then kind of record what they're doing. So it's a very hermetic world that I put my mind into, setting the characters in motion and the screenplay is basically just what I'm watching. In a way I'm sitting down to watch a movie with them, trying to find my favourite or the best scenes to create the screenplay.
If the process of adaptation is one in which you are attempting to be true to the essence of the source material and its author, is it not a literal or faithful act, but rather a spiritual one?
I think you're right about trying to capture the essence. It's interesting that you say it's spiritual because many years ago I met Kurt Vonnegut and I asked him how he felt about adaptations of his work. He said he felt absolutely fine, and that adaptation is really taking a book, tearing it down and then rebuilding it spiritually. ...[That] has been my approach to adaptation because I do think it is highly open for interpretation.
Most of the time I think if your views are bright, then the original author is not going to be completely pleased with it, because it's a whole other subject. But when an author writes the book, that's the representation of their complete intention, so when you transport that to a different medium, you are really breaking it apart. You are taking things away from their original intention and giving them new form and if you do it right, then it becomes something new as opposed to a replica of what was in the book.
To me, if you are trying to be unbelievably faithful, then I don't know why you would actually make [the film], other than for financial consideration if the book was very popular and you wanted to make a popular movie. The challenge and the beauty of the interaction between literature and cinema is to see the transformation, to see what it can be in this new interpretation through this different medium.
What immediately struck me watching the film was the presence of the actors -- the nuance of the performances. Looking at it in a musical way, the characters resemble musical instruments of an orchestra or small ensemble. How they can be individual instruments, yet form sections of an ensemble or orchestra as they play off of one another, possesses a striking beauty.
That's exactly right, and even though Steve Coogan has taken the lead throughout most of it, it's still an ensemble film. I look at it in terms of music as well, more specifically jazz, and how a particular group, you throw them together as you do with actors in this situation, and highly accomplished actors at that. You create a space where it's actually free enough to improvise, and free enough to play with the words, to feed off of one another and not make it very neat, but make it move, and give it a thrust that is very musical. Then somebody can take a solo where you have a moment with them, and that interaction is very exciting because it has a certain musical example.
But it also allows the actors be free within their characters to just be who they are, as opposed to being someone through the words. So the characters actually come through them, like music with a couple of instruments as opposed to classical music where you can have a lot of nuances and a lot of layers but is ultimately all about executing a plan that's set in stone. I like that chaotic feeling of life that exists on the set if the actors are as comfortable in who they are in their role, and that's why we spend a lot of time talking about them, as opposed to rehearsing or having a prescribed plan. It's so much like a bunch of musicians being thrown together, where for example in jazz, you see how they can randomly get into a status of playing together, to find what's right for the moment. I like that because of the presence of the actors that are completely in the moment, and how you can feel them.
A history teacher with an interest in the American Civil War, Paul feels like a product of the inherent convenience of storytelling. While it forms a tidy connection between him and his public servant brother Stan, it raises the question of whether character is a product of story, or vice versa? I ask this because I heard it remarked once that stories are gifted with a convenience that life is not.
The convenience of stories comes from having control. In life we often feel very little control over many things. We don't have the ability to re-write a certain chapter in our lives and make it work in more of a poetic or efficient way. So obviously there's a big difference, and there's a reason why certain people are drawn to fiction. The way of controlling characters and using situations that can be controlled, which they can put a notion of feeling in, of perhaps what we call convenience, is almost satisfying of a certain need for pattern and rhythm, or logic.
The older I get the more I find these things are quite randomly a part of life, where if you look at family and friends, or situations where certain people are stuck in the same story, how do they react to these similar circumstances? That's what makes the difference in their character. So you'll find there's quite a lot of that in life as well, it's just that it's not as neat, not as finite in terms of having a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end. It's interesting, and I am often quite surprised by how life situations and circumstances are sometimes more intriguing and much harder to believe than fiction. It still has a need, an organisational methodology, as does story, and a source of great comfort of that is being able to control story, to look at it as a finished piece and to still be alive.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: "You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it." If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Yeah, I think that's true, but I'm probably a little bit more extreme. I separate the two things. I really do believe, and only because I feel it, not because it looks right, but when I have finished a film I feel like it's gone from my mind. I generally feel satisfied with the experience. To me, there's nothing left and the only thing that can give it any kind of meaning or any kind of life, any kind of continuity is obviously the audience. It's completely theirs to experience, to like or dislike, or to be angry at.
It's like thinking to yourself that you know a certain craft, but you don't really know what you've made, because you haven't had the experience of an audience telling you that. They obviously don't do that directly because it's a personal experience. So the audience is the only thing that gives a movie a meaning, and at the end of the day that's why I personally shrug at reviews or any of the online madness where people respond to films, and write whatever they want. But everyone is telling you: I have had this experience. This is how it made me feel, think and react. I look at it and say: "Yes, that's absolutely true. That is your experience and your relationship to the movie, and it's as valid as anything I've done."
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: "You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Absolutely, but I would also say the person you are on Tuesday is not the person you are at the end of Wednesday - if you are living, if your eyes are open and you are trying to experience as much as possible while you are still here. So yeah, it's quite an intense experience and it's obviously quite a journey that you take.
The truth is that what happens, and this is probably why he said that, but you start off thinking that you are doing one thing, then the reality of actually shooting changes it completely. It doesn't matter how controlling you are, there are going to be surprises and there are going to be problems. You are going to be confused and there are going to be challenges. There are going to be great moments of joy and there are going to be great moments of tension. Those things can almost effect you on a chromosomal level, but by the time you are done with production, you are pretty beat up because you have gone through an experience that's very quick, very intense, and ultimately very surprising. Then you become a little more relaxed in the editing before you realise what you've done, and you start trying to shape it.
By the time you're done, you've gone through so many different perspectives on the experience that you can't help but be changed by it.