Toronto 2011: Woody Harrelson and Oren Moverman build a rampart
Screenwriter Oren Moverman and comedy actor Woody Harrelson each made a notable transition with the 2009 drama "The Messenger." The film, about two army men (Harrelson and Ben Foster) dispatched to the homes of soldiers killed on the battlefield, was Harrelson's first major dramatic part in more than a decade (it landed him an Oscar nomination) and Moverman's first-ever directing gig.
The pair up the ante with "Rampart," a story about a corrupt cop that premiered Saturday night at the Toronto Film Festival and is seeking theatrical distribution. In "The Messenger," Harrelson puts on a uniform and tries, for the most part, to do the right thing. in "Rampart," he puts on a uniform and does almost anything but.
Featuring a script by Moverman and James Ellroy, "Rampart" tells of "Date Rape Dave" Brown (Harrelson), a loose-cannon LAPD officer who frequently colors outside the lines to practice his personal brand of violent, score-settling police work. Despite two ex-wives, Harrelson has created a not-terrible life for himself, living next door to those exes and his daughter. The walls start to close in on him, however, when he beats up a man who has driven into his police car and his pattern of unethical behavior begins to become exposed.
All of this plays out against the backdop of the late-90's LAPD "Rampart" scandals, which saw dozens of officers implicated in everything from narcotics trafficking to unprovoked shootings. Brown is hardly the only officer acting unethically, but he certainly epitomizes the corroded soul of the department.
As he did in "Messenger," Harrelson turns in an intense performance. But at a Toronto restaurant Sunday morning, Harrelson said he actually found dramas less comfortable than his on-screen actions would suggest.
"Frankly I prefer doing comedies. A drama has all these modes of emotionality that I spend my life working to avoid," he said, perhaps only half kidding. "But this guy, this guy," he said, pointing to Moverman.
Harrelson, looking a little foggy-eyed after an admittedly late night celebrating the film's premiere, added, "There are two things I never thought I'd play: a cop and a soldier. It's just my anti-authority mindset. But Oren makes everything an almost personal experience. There's just so much going on in a given scene."
Although he belives most officers try to do the right thing, Harrelson said he believes a not-insignificant-percentage engage in shady activities.
"I asked [one of the officers who was helping with the role] if he thought maybe 10% or 20% were corrupt," Harrelson said. And he said, 'It's probably closer to 20%.' "
The movie features many scenes shot in Los Angeles, including streets in Echo Park and the Pacific Dining Car, as Brown cruises in his patrol vehicle. Moverman said he set so much of the movie in that car because it allowed him to overcome a natural impediment to shooting his film in Los Angeles.
"This is a study of an interior life, and the challenge was 'How do we make a movie about that interior life in a city that's so spread out?' " Moverman said. "Having so much happen in the close confines of the car allowed us to do that."
Moverman and Hrrelson haven't set a new collaboration yet — Moverman said he wants to concentrate on writing; he's already working on scripts about Kurt Cobain and Brian Wilson — but the filmmaker acknowledges doing any kind of movie without Harrelson could be dicey. "I'm almost afraid of forcing the technique Woody and I have with someone else. I'm not sure they'd understand what Woody understands."
But Moverman added that they'd need to work together again, if only to complete an unofficial trilogy. "We've done two movies with Woody in uniform, as a soldier and a police officer," the director said. "So I guess now he has to play a postal worker."
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Woody Harrelson shoulders the burden that is Oren Moverman's head. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times.