Director David M. Rosenthal has made three little-seen features that still managed to capture the attention of certain critics, including his last film, JANIE JONES, a great little father-daughter story, starring Abigail Breslin and Alessandro Nivola. The film was very personal to Rosenthal, and the results are heart-wrenching to say the least. But his new film, A Single shot, is a far and away his finest work with as impressive a cast as you're likely to see this year in a single film.
Based on the novel my Matthew F. Jones (who also wrote the screenplay), the film begins with an accidental death and just gets worse from there. The ever-reliable Sam Rockwell plays hunter John Moon, whose sense of isolation after his wife left with their child has only gotten worse. And his actions when it comes to attempting to cover up this death stir up the criminal element in the tiny mountain town he calls home. The incredible cast includes William H. Macy, Ted Levine, Jeffrey Wright, Jason Isaacs, Kelly Reilly and Joe Anderson.
A Single Shot has been OnDemand for several weeks, and is now making its way into theaters beginning this weekend. The stunning and foreboding landscapes must be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated, and this is by far one of Rockwell's finest performances, perhaps second only to his work in Moon.
I got a chance to chat by phone to Rosenthal a few weeks ago about how he landed this directing gig after never really proven his ability to do a "mountain noir," working with this stellar cast, and why there is a cast member listed on IMDB that isn't in the final film. Please enjoy my chat with David M. Rosenthal…
David M. Rosenthal: Hey, man.
Capone: Hello, David. How are you?
DR: Good. How are you doing?
Capone: Great. Seriously, you did a tremendous job on this film.
DR: Oh wow, man. Thank you so much.
Capone: This is the first feature that you’ve directed that you didn’t write. Is that more or less desirable as a practice for you?
DR: Well, in my mind it’s less desirable, but in practice it’s really great; it’s freeing. If you get a piece of really terrific material, it’s like, okay, well now I can actually do something where I can separate myself from authorship a little bit and not be so concerned about that and just roll my sleeves up as a practitioner, as a director, and do my directing, just focus purely on that directing thing and how to get the visuals right, how to get the performances right, and how to get everything around the synthesis of music and editing and all that stuff right, and not have to worry about that underlying layer of story.
A lot of times when I’ve worked before, when you’re writing, it’s like you’re writing even during prep, and that can take you away massively from where focus needs to be in terms of the other stuff, Maybe I’m just not as good at it or scripts haven't been as defined as they should be leading up into that moment. Not that we didn’t do a lot of tweaking of this script, even right up until the end and during the shoot, which is always something that happens. But I think there’s a certain amount of freedom that I really enjoyed in not being the writer.
Capone: So you’re saying you felt slightly more prepared in advance with this one?
DR: I did, and it was the kind of movie that I had to be more prepared. I had a very specific desire to make my last film verite, and it’s the kind of filmmaking we were doing, but it also fit the story. It’s not like you have to put less preparation in, but there’s less construction in prep in terms of storyboarding and knowing exactly what you’re doing and shot listing and everything. Not that I didn’t shot list that film, because I certainly did, but when I was shot listing this film, I was much more specific and also had such a clear vision of how I wanted this movie to be done.
I’m repeating myself because I’ve said this before, but the first time I read the script it really did unfold in my head like a flip book. Scene to scene, it was like, “Oh fuck, I really know exactly how to do this.” And maybe because I had been preparing myself and really wanting to do a dark dramatic thriller like this, and it spoke to me on a lot of levels. But I just saw it, and when you really see it totally clearly, it makes doing all that preparation easier.
Capone: As much planning as you were able to do leading into shooting, you get up there to British Colombia, which is doubling for West Virginia, did the terrain and ominous landscape alter the preparation that you had done?
DR: When I came on the project, they had already scouted Vancouver, and I said, “Can we take a beat? I really would like to make sure this is the right place.” I went up there, and we scouted and I was like “Okay, this actually is the right place to do this.”
I don’t know if you know a little bit of the backstory of this movie, but we went up and had the movie fall apart once before in 2011. So I prepped this movie twice, which is interesting. [laughs] My storyboards from the first rounds of prep actually were my storyboards for the second round of prep, but what you allude to in your question is no matter how much preparation you do, when you get to the set or something changes on the day, you’re going to have to change, and that change can be a powerful expanding property. I think it was in this way, because whether it was from a new DP coming onboard or losing a location or having to rethink something, it forces you to look again and can change something for the better creatively. And sometimes it limits. Sometimes it doesn’t create something for the better.
Capone: You mentioned earlier the idea of a flipbook. I very rarely read production notes, but I did read your statement about the film, and you said something about a "video look book" that you put together. That sounded fascinating.
DR: Oh yeah! You can imagine, one of the producers I worked with before said, “You should come on board and pitch for this. Read this script.” I read it, and he was lik,e “I would really like you to pitch for this, because we're firing the director and we're hiring someone new and we're meeting with a bunch of people.” I said, “Okay great.” I talked to them first, and they liked me, but the other producer was like, “He hasn’t done a movie like this.” I said, “Look, let me put something together. Let me put together what they do in the commercial business, they call it a "ripomatic," like a visual look book.”
So I took a bunch of pieces of films that I thought were good references and films that I loved and broke them down into character and pace and tone and setting and set all of that to music that I thought was appropriate for the film, and they just flipped. They loved it and were like “Okay,” because that allowed them to see what the movie was going to be like, and that got me the job. Then I ended up using that with my department heads and everybody, even with cast that were like, “Well has this director done X, Y, and Z?” They would send it to them. So it was really helpful, especially not having done a film in this variety.
Capone: Some of the filmmakers that you used in this, I can see the connection--like the Coen brothers and Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson. But Kurosawa was listed there, and I’m curious which film or films of his you slotted in to your reel.
DR: I didn’t use any… Did I use anything? I might have used a scene from RAN, because I was trying to give an example of a sequence that becomes purely lyrical because of the music. I don’t know if you remember that scene with the Leer character is coming down the steps after he’s lost everything, and he’s dressed in white and the soil is black, and you have this amazing sequence--one of the most amazing sequences in film--of huge numbers of soldiers on horseback riding through the scene, arrows flying, and there’s this incredible angelic piece of music that is changing the nature of the entire experience.
I’m a huge Kurosawa fan and I think I reference Kurosawa too, because I talked about the humanism of Kurosawa. Kurosawa was really important. Morality was not a bludgeon, but as an underlying thread; that was very important to him in all of his films. He was a humanist, and I think there’s a quality to this story; it’s a real morality tale. It’s got a classical nature to it, you know? I don’t know if I would market it in that way. [laughs]
Capone: This is about as classic noir story as you could tell, but it’s been done in different ways in the past--Raimi did it with A SIMPLE PLAN, and WINTER’S BONE did it a bit-- but placing a noir storyline, which is typically identified with city living, into a nature-heavy setting like this is really unique. What is it about that combination that you like so much?
DR: One of the other films I referenced, I referenced Malick in that ripomatic, some stuff from A THIN RED LINE and BADLANDS. They are tremendously poetic movies, and he’s got a reverence for nature. He’s always bringing nature into story and it gives this grander, more epic quality to these stories that can be small or these moments that can be small. I think that’s one of the things that was very much a part of this book and very much a part of this script that I read and something that totally drew me to it, like, “Wow, there’s this terrific, really hardscrabble noir back country story here, but the setting makes it feel so much bigger and more classical.”
I don’t know, I just loved that in a way. WINTER’S BONE is often referenced as another one of these back country noir movies; it’s a different kind of movie. it’s the same setting almost exactly, but it was different because the central character is completely on another track, but it’s not necessarily a visualist experience. I don’t know where I’m going with this…
Capone: There is such a vast sense of isolation, both geographically and personally, in this film. Being geographically set off from the rest of the world, I think makes people think there are certain things they can get away with without consequences, and that’s certainly at play here.
DR: You’re bringing up a really interesting part of it, and it's something that occurred to me when I first did it, When I first started traveling through the south when I was driving across the country going to university, you’d stop in these little towns in Tennessee and places that are just cut off, and there still is a Wild West quality to them. You could do anything. Someone could come shoot you and fucking make your body disappear.
The level of accountability is just completely different, and it brings up that grand over-used philosophical question of “If you hit someone with a car and you were out on some country road and nobody saw and was an accident and you could get rid of the body and nobody would ever know. You know, one of those morality tales.” It brings up that very thing for people, so it becomes a game of putting yourself in that place.
The other things that’s interesting about these little communities that are very cut off, they feel cut off from time and from culture. Even now when you drive into some of these places, it’s totally anachronistic and I wanted that threaded into the film. I wanted no cell phones. I wanted older cars. I wanted it to feel like this could be 1975 or 1985, and there’s something cool to that when you’re telling a story and you remove those elements. It also helped, because the original story was written at a time when those things weren’t a factor. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Capone: It definitely does. I’d be remiss here if I didn’t at least ask you one question about Sam Rockwell. The balancing act that John has to engage in throughout this film is unreal; he’s dealing with so many things. What was most important to you about the performance and that character? What did you learn from him as you were working with him?
DR: Oh wow, those are two really good questions. The one thing I learned from Sam in working on this movie--and we became really good friends on the movie--was he has a level of patience and generosity and a lack of ego as an actor and as a professional that is really something that’s a terrific example for everybody on set and for me, just not bringing your ego to the game, coming to this work without that. It allows for so much exploration, because when you take that bullshit away, you’re really rolling up your sleeves to do the more important stuff
One of the things I revere the most about Sam’s work as an actor--whether comedic or not, from MOON to WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD or something broad or THE WAY WAY BACK--is his presence as a performer and his inner life. I talk about this a lot. There are certain things that an actor either has or they don’t have, and an inner life is one of those qualities; you can either turn the camera on Daniel Day Lewis and watch him unwrap a fucking piece of bubble gum like, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that” or you can’t, and that’s because he brings so much depth and inner life to everything he does and there’s so much presence in everything he does that he’s totally there. Sam is one of those guys, and that allows him to be a broad-ranging actor, to do comedy, to do all of these different things.
When you talk about John Moon’s life unfolding and unraveling, just tracking that unraveling was one of my important jobs, because you shoot everything out of sequence, and us working together knowing where he was at the time and place and space in terms of that stuff and where he was in that unraveling was very important and something that we worked on together.
Capone: I noticed Melissa Leo at one point had a credit in this film. Was she in this at one point?
DR: Melissa was very much in it at one point, and it was a scene that we brought back into the movie that was out of the movie, and it was a terrific scene from a terrific sequence in the book, and the movie was running really long, and we had tested it. Her performance is terrific. I’d actually love for people to see it. I hope it makes it onto the DVD as a deleted scene, but it was really taken out, having nothing to do with Melissa’s performance or Sam’s performance. Sam was great in the scene as well. It was just a story that bent out and took a turn at a moment where it was driving so much towards the third act.
It was heartbreaking for me to take it out and heartbreaking for me to tell Melissa that we had to do it, because it was the best thing for the movie. But she was such a lovely person in the way she dealt with it. She was so kind and generous, to the point where she’s like, “Well, use it for something. Put it on YouTube. Get some press with it.” But yeah, she was in the movie and terrific to work with.
Capone: You have one of the most impressive casts I have seen all year, even without her in it. When you have these great actors, like Jeffrey Wright or William H. Macy in just two or three scenes, are you tempted to try to find more for them to do at that point?
DR: It’s sad when they arrive into town and knowing that they were there for like two days or three days, and it’s like, “No! I want more!” Our shooting days were so tight. I talked about, “Well maybe we should shoot a little more of this,” and it would freak the producers out, and they would be like “Are you crazy? We can’t afford to do that.” But yeah, it was such a joy and a blessing and somewhat intimidating to be directing Sam Rockwell and Jeffrey Wright in a scene, or Sam Rockwell and Bill Macy in a scene. All the actors, up and down in the movie, were really so terrific.
Capone: So you’ve done a documentary. You’ve done a comedy. You’ve got this family drama that you did. Now you’ve got this thriller. And by the way, so few people get the tone of a thriller right. I hope you stick with it and don’t bounce around too much more for a little bit, because you’re really good at it.
DR: I actually want to make a bunch more thrillers.
Capone: Is the goal ultimately to mix it up and let people know you’re down for pretty much anything?
DR: Yeah, I’d like to do a couple more thrillers of varying kinds. I really want to do a Western, but maybe even something sort of Western nourish, and I want to do a sci-fi noir. But you know I don’t really want to get pigeonholed I guess.
Capone: Speaking of great actors that you have, the scenes with Ted Levine and Ophelia Lovibond at John’s old farm, those are some of the most hopeful moments in the movie and that automatically makes them feel like something horrible is going to happen. To you, why were those scenes important?
DR: They were important for the very reason that you’re talking about, because they were hopeful and provided this window into what John’s life could be and could still be, because he could still come clean, he could still let go. At this crucial moment where he’s still in decision time, the world has not come crashing down yet, and this guy is offering him a job and a way out, and we know that there’s no way he’s going to make it. It’s this tragic confluence of things that just when he makes this poor decision is when he gets offered this job, and he might be able to get some semblance of his farm back and that there’s this girl where maybe there’s another life for him. So I guess it draws into relief a little bit more the tragic nature of the story and heightens the choice that he’s making.
Capone: When I was talking to Jeffrey Wright earlier, he mentioned something about the language of the film--verything from the accents to just the actual word choices that seemed very region specific. There were a couple of times, I will admit, especially in Jeffrey's scenes, because he’s just blindingly drunk in those scenes, that I had to go back and listen to them again to make sure I caught everything he was saying. Tell me about preserving that.
DR: Have you ever seen someone play drunk as well as Jeffrey plays drunk?
Capone: The first two questions I had for him were about playing that drunk.
DR: And bringing in his own dialog, some of his own stuff, like, “He don’t buy no wolf tickets.” I don’t know if you remember that line.
Capone: I do, yes.
DR: I’ve never even heard that before! Jeffrey was pulling stuff in. He’s such a smart dude. He’s a cool dude. But yeah, Jeffrey and I were talking a lot about the white-trash poetics of this language.
Capone: There is a poetry to it, you’re right. I also read also in the production notes that after you read Matt’s screenplay that you went back and looked at the book as well as previous drafts of the script, and you brought back some elements that weren’t there any longer.
DR: I did. I brought back elements from the book and brought back elements from previous drafts.
Capone: Can you give some examples of things that you brought back in?
DR: Gosh. Well one of the things that I brought back in was that scene with Melissa, which I figure I shouldn’t have brought back in.
Capone: Oh, the irony.
DR: Exactly, but there were some other specifics that I’m totally forgetting right now that I brought back from the book. In reading the book, there was just some of Sam's dialog that had been changed in the script that I went back and saw in the book and was like, “Wait, the original dialog is better,” which is weird to say to a writer, because you’re complimenting him and at once being like, “I don’t like this, but I like that and they’re both yours.”
We put it back in, and then there were things that had to come out of the script that were too writerly, that worked in his world in the fiction of it, but didn’t work in the screenplay, like when he shoots the girl, he’s in that quarry, and there’s just one image after another of snakes and owls and ravens and all this portent. Symbol-wise, it would have just been way too much on film, but it works in the context of it as a piece of literature.
Capone: David, thank you so much for taking the time out and best of luck with this. Seriously, I can’t wait for people to start to see this.
DR: Thank you so much; I’m humbled. Talk to you soon.