Writer/director Oren Moverman (“The Messenger,” “Rampart,” “Time Out Of Mind“) doesn’t do formulaic cinema. His latest movie, “The Dinner,” is no exception. The challenging film, with difficult characters, uncomfortable dialogue, and an intricate narrative structure, makes for an ambitious monster of a movie.
Richard Gere plays Stan Lohman, a controversial politician whose political life keeps being sidetracked by his clinically depressed brother Paul (Steve Coogan). Their strained relationship is calmly mediated, whenever a verbal slugfest is about to go down, by their wives, Kate (Rebecca Hall) and Claire (Laura Linney). The reason for this hostility is slowly revealed through a dinner scheduled between the two couples. The high-brow, five-star restaurant is the setting for a compulsively watchable, never boring and ultimately fascinating look at the human mind.
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The themes and motives are many, and one is reminded of Bergman and Lynch when watching “The Dinner.” Moverman’s film is a mix of the intense, grotesque and obscene, and yet it’s hard to 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 film’s 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. 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 adaptation. 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.
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What did you find so fascinating about [Herman Koch’s original] 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 really 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…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 dilemma, 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 zeitgeist 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.
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We have to talk about Steve Coogan. He’s transcendent 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 he has a good sense of 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.