Oren Moverman is a true auteur – though he may be too humble to admit it. Having written, produced and directed some of the most resonant and unique films of the past two decades, he’s an artistic force to be reckoned with. I had the privilege to chat with Moverman about the latest feature, Kent Jones’ lyrical character study Diane and his thoughts on the future of filmmaking.
The latest film you produced, Diane, is coming out this Friday. Can you talk a little bit about how the project came together?
The script came to me from Caroline Kaplan. She’s a great producer who worked with me on Time Out of Mind and a really good friend. She said Kent had a script that was very special. I was getting more and more interested in producing at that time. I may be getting less and less today, not sure (Laughing). I read it and it was like nothing I’ve ever read. It wasn’t a script in the conventional sense. It was a movie on the page. You could feel Kent’s heart beating through the words.
Now, I only met Kent around Time Out of Mind. He programmed the movie at the New York Film Festival that year, and I got to spend some time with him around the festivities. I always respected him from afar, so as soon as I met him, I liked him. I called him “The Designated Mourner of Independent Cinema.” And I meant it. He’s done so much as a programmer, critic, historian and documentary filmmaker to keep what we do in the conversation. Or some conversation. Somewhere. So when I read the script, I felt like I knew him completely.
Luca Borghese and Ben Howe joined the producing team and the four of us started figuring out how to get it done. It was always going to be a small film, but it was also very specific, profoundly so, about spiritual matters of life and death – mostly death – conveyed through small moments of extraordinary simplicity that are beautifully layered. So the contradictions were built in. Not exactly easy to get done.
At that time, I joined producers Julia Lebedev and Eddie Vaisman to create a NY/LA-based production company, Sight Unseen Pictures. We were literally just starting and we had access to financing. I was in LA talking with Eddie and Julie and told them about the project. There was a small window to shoot it as Mary Kay [Place] was available and it had to be Mary Kay. No one ever doubted that.
Eddie and Julie worked with Mary Kay on State Like Sleep and they adored her. They read the script and said, “of course, let’s do it. It’s a no brainer.” I thought it was very indicative of the kind of sensitivity and vision they each, and both, had to what makes a good movie, what’s still possible in cinema. It was an unbelievably happy moment when I delivered the news back in New York to Kent and the gang. We took off from there and here we are.
“…it was very indicative of the kind of sensitivity and vision…what’s still possible in cinema.”
After over three decades of supporting roles, Mary Kay Place delivers a riveting central performance in Diane. You mentioned she was always the first choice for the titular character. How did she approach the role?
Absolutely. It had to be her. Kent wrote the role for her. They developed it over the years. They were a team. In sync from the beginning. Kent said it was her movie to make or no ones. I really respected that. Good things come out of dedication that is so complete, although most divorce lawyers would probably refute that assertion.
I can’t quite say how she approached the role. Acting is so mysterious and actors have their own process. I can only say that she understood Diane in 3D when the camera rolled there was a complete human being there. It’s a testament to what a great actress she is. It’s not Mary Kay on screen. It’s Diane. And yet it is completely and only Mary Kay.
Diane marks Kent Jones’ impressive feature directorial debut. Was this a passion project of his from inception?
I would say Yes and No. It was a passion project in the sense that he was very passionate about it. It was in his genes to make this movie. It had to be made in this lifetime, as far as he was concerned. There was no choice. He never let it go. I think it was a passion project in that sense.
But in another sense, Kent is a filmmaker and an artist, and I would think any film for him is an expression of a moment, a thought, and an esthetic. This project, in my opinion, is the first of many, a step, and a pursuit that is as professional as it is passionate. I’m not quite sure my answer makes sense, but there’s a coherent answer somewhere in there. I guess I feel that maybe “passion project” sometimes diminishes from the accomplishment. I mean, what are we without passion? It should be a given with a film like Diane.
Diane reprimands her seemingly-hopeless son Brian (played by Jake Lacy) for using drugs, yet refuses to succumb when he pressures her to turn to religion for guidance. The film seems to juxtapose drug addiction and blind faith in the Bible, both stemming from trauma and neither providing redemption. What are your thoughts on the subject?
Where do I start? I think that at the core there’s a very truthful premise: it is very hard and painful to be a human being. Shit happens all the time. I think our fragility is expressed in many ways and at the end of the day the pursuit of stability, what some would call normalcy, the easing of our pain, involves “medicines” of different kinds. We are all a product of our DNA and our childhood, traumas included; we are all complex organisms full of hard-to-grasp malfunctions, we all need the same thing, to give and receive love, but the path to that place, well… God and drugs, you know, it’s the same release.
I love how that is expressed in Diane, but there’s still freedom of the will for her, she can pick and choose some things. That’s the wisdom that comes with age. I hope.
“…at the end of the day the pursuit of stability, what some would call normalcy, the easing of our pain, involves ‘medicines’ of different kinds.”
Most films are terrified to leave things off on either unanswered or pessimistic note. Diane’s ending is heartbreaking and brave. Was there ever a discussion about providing the character with a modicum of salvation?
Oh, I think there is salvation at the end, if that’s the word we want to use. Death is not the end, as Mr. Robert Zimmerman wrote. Heartbreak is salvation, death is salvation, it’s a brave act to stay alive, it’s a beautiful thing to know how to die. I think it’s all there. We never discussed changing the ending.
We did talk about where was the best place to cut out. When you have a movie about endings (as we define them) the hardest thing is probably to end it, but Diane ends at the most profound place, in my opinion, it ends where we are all going. I’d like to learn to celebrate that.
Diane brings to mind some of Martin Scorsese’s earlier low-key films, like Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, as well as several films he produced, such as Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me. Can you talk about working with the great filmmaker on this project, and whether he brought any of that affecting sensibility to Diane?
The movie is Kent’s sensibility. No doubt. He and Marty have a beautiful, long-standing relationship that has to do with their love of cinema, but it’s much deeper than that, from what I can tell. They have a love for each other that is based on who they are in each other’s lives. They’ve been collaborators for many years. They have their own language with each other.
Of course, I’m saying all this knowing very little from the outside about their relationship. There’s a mystery to it that belongs to them. It’s an intimate relationship. A true one. And so I can only guess that there’s influence going back and forth and it is completely their own. It’s like nuclear fusion, they’re making their own plasma at whatever temperature.
From Jesus’ Son and I’m Not There, both of which you wrote, to your directorial efforts like Rampart, Time Out of Mind (which was my favorite film of 2014) and The Dinner, it seems like the theme of identity and societal expectations are quite important to you. Can you elaborate?
I think that’s basically it. It’s at the center of everything to me. Identity—the individual—versus society. Of course, I never think about it that way. But I know enough in my dotage to accept that I like to work on films that examine paths of individuals struggling to understand who they are in comparison to others and fighting expectations put upon them. I guess I’m limited that way (Laughs).
“Limited” is the last word that comes to mind when I think about your work. You have a tremendously elegant aesthetic, from your visual style to your incisive character explorations and themes. It is quite evident in Diane. What staple “Moverman” motifs can be glimpsed in the film?
Well, thanks, mate. That’s a very nice thing to say. Diane is Kent’s movie. It’s his aesthetic. I wouldn’t dare look at it and find my motifs as a screenwriter and director, I would never even think I had any influence on it that way. My job, along with everyone else, was to get Kent’s film on the screen.
I watch it as an audience member and it moves me to the depths of my soul. It teaches me things I didn’t know about myself, not just thematically but also artistically, and, I dare say, spiritually. I got to be a part of the making of the movie, I’m eternally grateful for that. “Moverman” doesn’t factor in at all. Whoever he is.
“It’s at the center of everything to me. Identity—the individual—versus society.”
Who are some of your favorite independent filmmakers working right now?
For the purpose of this interview, I would say: Kent Jones (Laughs).
First, it’s true. Second, I work with lots of filmmakers and I admire many of them along with others I’ve never met. I don’t want to make lists out of people, of artists.
Third, what the fuck is an independent filmmaker these days?
With the recent #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, what are your thoughts on the future of filmmaking?
That’s actually a tougher question than it seems, as I am really serious when I say I don’t know what filmmaking is anymore. Everything is changing. I think we need new terms for some of what’s going on: content-making, premium-cable-making, platform art, image supplying, corporate mission constructionism, narrative bricklaying, streamer-making, attention-spanning… I don’t know. Some would argue a story is a story and visual language is visual language. I’m personally confused by it all.
But when you ask me about #TimesUp and #MeToo, we’re talking about cultural change and opportunities and a shift that is greatly welcomed, of course. The future is female, for sure. But so was the past. All history is the history of women. The state of the world always stood where women were, for good and bad. There’s so much to fix…
You also produced Guy Nattiv’s Skin. It deals with a young man (Jamie Bell) trying to escape his White Supremacy past. What can you reveal about this feature and its relevance to the current sociopolitical climate?
It’s as relevant as it can get, not just because Guy made a brilliant film about a very extreme story, but also because it is an emotional film that challenges our compassion, that really brings the conversation to forgiveness and redemption. Bryan (Jamie’s character) experiences tremendous change. He is literally flipped from a hater to a person who understands love. It takes me back to what we spoke about before: The need to love and be loved. The wounds we carry. If he can learn to love Bryan at the end of the movie and erase hate, there’s hope. There’s hope for the future despite these dark and unforgiving times.
Our main mission at Film Threat is helping independent filmmakers find a voice. What advice would you give talented writers and directors, about to embark on this tumultuous and exciting journey?
I wish I had advice to give. I don’t. It’s all very basic if you want to write, write. And if you want to direct, direct. Make something out of nothing and you become a creative person. Doesn’t matter what level it’s at. Doesn’t even matter if it’s any good in the beginning. It’s the perseverance, it’s the stick-to-it-ness that gets you there. And it will fuck with you. So fuck back with it. Just don’t let others get you too down. It’s what they need to do, not what you need to absorb.
And maybe, most importantly – and here I am saying I had no advice to give – Live goddamnit! Live! (Laughs) Or something like that.