Woody Harrelson stars as Dave Brown in RAMPART, a film by Oren Moverman. Picture courtesy Millennium Entertainment. All rights reserved.
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Opened: 02/10/2012 Limited
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Trailer: Click for trailer
Genre: Crime Drama
Rated: R for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence.
The 1990s Los Angeles police family drama explores the dark soul and misadventures of an LAPD cop whose past finally catches up with him in a department-wide corruption scandal. He is forced to answer to his family and the police department heads for his misdeeds.
Woody Harrelson stars in the drama Rampart, directed by Oren Moverman from a screenplay by James Ellroy and Moverman. Also starring Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube, Ben Foster, Brie Larson, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, the film is produced by Lawrence Inglee, Clark Peterson, Ben Foster and Ken Kao. Michael DeFranco serves as executive producer.
Shooting on location on the streets of L.A., Moverman's artistic team includes director of photography Bobby Bukowksi (The Messenger), production designer David Wasco (Inglorious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, The Royal Tennanbaums), editor Jay Rabinowitz (Requiem For a Dream. Tree of Life) and costume designer Catherine George (The Messenger, We Need To Talk About Kevin.)
About the Production
At the heart of Oren Moverman's Rampart is a riveting parable about what happens to a man who refuses to change, even when change is the only thing that can save him. That man is Dave Brown, played by Woody Harrelson as a cop whose personal life is propelled into a dizzying downward spiral when he comes under suspicion for roughing up a suspect. More than just a police officer who plays things fast and loose, Brown exposes the inner workings of a certain type of personality everyone recognizes around them, a personality very much part of American culture, yet not often examined. He is the kind of man inexorably drawn to authority and power, yet seems destined to abuse it; a man who has dreams of being a great masculine hero, yet is beholden to women; who has undeniable charm, yet whose stubborn refusal to take responsibility for his actions becomes a destructive force against family, community and ultimately himself.
In the late 1990s, Brown is a Vietnam vet and precinct cop working in Los Angeles' notorious Rampart division. He sees himself as dedicated to "doing the people's dirty work" . . . even if that means purposely crossing the line between right and wrong to maintain his action-hero state of mind . . . and even if it means obstinately following his own amoral code of "street justice."
But when Dave gets caught on tape crossing the line, suddenly all the things he has ever done and the man he has become come back to haunt him, as the reality that he cannot change, or won't change, unravels his fate. Director Oren Moverman (The Messenger), who co-wrote the screenplay with celebrated crime novelist James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), probes inside Brown's raw fear, anguish and paranoia as the noose tightens and the ramifications spread through his relationships with two ex-wives who happen to be sisters, with his disconnected young daughters, with an aging mentor dispensing bad advice, and a parade of police investigators and random women. Stripped of all his former pretense -- of the machismo, arrogance, prejudice, sexuality, aggression and misanthropy that he has let define him -- Dave Brown is left with nothing but the most unsettling question of all: is there anything left to redeem him as a man?
The Rampart State of Mind: Oren Moverman's Take on James Ellroy
"This is not a movie about the Rampart scandal, but it is a movie about Rampart as a state of mind," says Rampart's director Oren Moverman, who co-wrote the original screenplay with James Ellroy, one of America's leading hardboiled crime writers. Though the film is set in the 1990s, when scandal rocked the LAPD's Rampart division, the film hones in on a single fictional cop: Dave Brown, a man who has taken the "no guts, no glory" American mythos to heart, without questioning what it is doing to him and those he holds dear.
The character emerges out of the volatile mix of Ellroy's sharp, raw dialogue with Moverman's social critique of unchecked aggression, and the result crackles with the tension between Brown's hard-edged allure and the reality of the damage he brings down on those around him.
Ellroy is renowned for forging tough, shadowy characters from the worlds of crime and law enforcement -- and with Dave Brown, he created a cop as devoted to his personal ideal of the job as he is corrupted by it. Moverman took that character and utilizes him to explore the darker undercurrents of masculine anger in American culture, delving into the questions of where that comes from, how it operates in the world, and most importantly, where it leads.
"Ellroy is an amazing writer whose depiction of Dave Brown caused me to ask: who really is this character, what are his relationships with family and women like, and what lies at the heart of the things he's done?" explains Moverman.
Ellroy had initially set out to probe the most headline-grabbing police scandal of recent times: the revelations in the late 1990s of seemingly widespread, seething corruption in Rampart, the most densely populated urban area west of the Mississippi. There, one cop's confessions and subsequent investigations unspooled a shocking parade of supposed misconduct among an elite anti-gang unit known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums). The alleged CRASH crimes read like a laundry list of the most heinous of police offences, including unprovoked shootings, beatings, planting of evidence, framing of suspects, narcotics dealing and extensive cover-ups.
Though the scope of the allegations would later come into question, the episode brought a particularly corrosive type of entitled, above-the-law mentality -- perhaps not widespread but very real among some drawn to become police, as well as other authority figures -- into the public spotlight as it had never been before.
The media-fueled nature of the Rampart scandal intrigued Ellroy, but it was the more intimate question of what goes down when a dirty cop takes a big fall that he started to follow. "I wanted to recreate part of the real story of Rampart but also make it the story of one very twisted man," says Ellroy. "I had recently gone through a divorce and a lot of crazy misadventures with women, and also wanted to incorporate my personal life into the story."
Ellroy's partner, Clark Peterson (who previously produced the Oscar® winning Monster), brought an initial draft to producer Lawrence Inglee, who found Ellroy's subject and characters compelling. It was Inglee who suggested bringing in Moverman, the writer-director for whom he had just produced the award-winning and Oscar®-nominated The Messenger, about two Casualty Notification Officers coming to grips with the aftermath of war. The films were diametrically opposed in many ways, but Inglee knew that Moverman had a knack for tackling intriguing human questions with no easy answers.
"Ellroy is a dazzling storyteller and Oren loved his material -- but he wanted to put his own take on it," says Inglee. It's the combination, and the contrasts, between their two very different creative impulses that make the final script so distinctive."
It was always important to the filmmakers that the film have the stamp of Ellroy's jazzy, slangy dialogue and intense pacing all over it. "Oren crawled inside of Ellroy's voice. The tone remains the same, he just brings a different emphasis," says Inglee. Adds Peterson: "Oren owned that Ellroy style."
Within that style, however, Moverman began to dissect Dave Brown's human complexity. "I would never want to deal with this kind of main character in a way where the conclusions about him are simply attained," explains Moverman. "Part of the pleasure of making this film is that Dave is nuanced and layered -- and that creates a lot of contradictory feelings in the audience. I like that there's a full life going on inside him. Someone can be a terrible human being but also do a variety of things that make you think they are nice or kind in the moment."
He continues: "To me, Dave Brown is a character who refuses to change in a time of great change, and that is his downfall. What interested me was the chance to go so deeply into this one man's POV, into his journey through paranoia, anxiety and retribution. It's a study of all the things that this man has done, and who he is, coming back to haunt him."
Even as he found captivating and likeable elements of Brown, Moverman never equivocated in his moral assessment. "As a filmmaker, you want to approach any character from a compassionate, human place," he explains. "But ultimately, the reality is Dave is a bad cop and a bad human being. He has his ways of rationalizing what he does, and you can say it comes from his background or that he's working in a battle zone, and there's something to that. And you can appreciate the way he tries to keep a family life at all costs. But you can't do the things Dave does and still be a good person. At the end of the day, we all have to make choices and live with the consequences, and Dave is going to pay for his choices, he's going to lose his family, and the twist of the knife is that he knows he did it to himself."
It was especially important to Moverman that while Brown moves through his own kind of macho fantasy of how the world works, he is surrounded by women -- including his ex-wives, his daughters, his lawyer and the D.A. who is after him -- who tantalize him, confuse him and often see through him. Through the emphasis on female characters, Movement subtly turned the seduction of Dave Brown's hard-bitten world upside down.
"I thought it would be interesting to have Dave moving through an emotional world of women, where you sense a kind of feminine spirit taking over," he says. "It's all of these contradictions that are pushing him into his downward spiral."
Moverman continues: "What's so interesting about Dave's downfall is that there are moments all along when he could find redemption or love or shelter or a way to connect with his daughters, but he doesn't do any of those things. He insists on never changing. It comes from arrogance and it also comes from fear; it has a great cost."
He also explored Brown's quirks, including an almost anorexic disdain for eating. "I think Dave Brown does not eat because his soul is corrupted to the point where the only sustenances that keeps him going are power and sex," the writer-director explains. "He is a man who tries to control his life and so mastering his body is a part of that. To him, food is weak. Maybe it is also a kind of anxiety, a menacing state of alertness or fear that left his appetite in Vietnam. Dave is constantly hungry, but he feeds his hunger with elements of power -- and food is not power. Food, like love, makes you too human. And human is weak in his mind. Dave doesn't want that. Starvation is his daily atonement for sins he refuses to recognize."
An outsider to Los Angeles, Moverman wrapped the story in a visual style that further subverts the crime-thriller world to which Brown would like to belong. His searingly bright, sun-lit vision of L.A. has an inescapability that contrasts with the ink-black events of Brown's story -- and the loose camerawork that increasingly obscures Brown reveals how a man who resists changing with the world ultimately begins to disappear. "I wanted the feeling of the sun, the colors, the way the city moves. I wanted that feeling of something volatile and unhinged," he sums up.
No Demon Spared: Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown
The impact of Rampart would necessarily rest on the performance of the actor playing Dave Brown, who would have to fearlessly ply the most vexing of human demons -- from apathy and addiction to racism and sexism to out-and-out degeneracy -- which is why from the beginning both Oren Moverman and James Ellroy had in mind Woody Harrelson. Harrelson plays Brown not just as a live wire, but as a man so invested in never changing his POV, he can't see the toll it is taking.
"Woody is able to convey a wild, cocky, nihilist sense of humor and the kind of enormous ego that cracks in the course of the facade being ripped off Dave Brown," comments Ellroy.
Adds Moverman, who also cast Harrelson in an intriguingly different role in The Messenger: "It was always clear to us that he was the guy to do it. In addition to being an incredibly gifted actor, Woody is a rare combination of many contradictory elements. He has charm and humor but also the ability to go dark really fast, to connect with anger and to express a kind of masculinity that can be very strong or silly and childlike. He has access to so many contrasting things all at the same time."
As with The Messenger, Harrelson took on a deceptively intricate character he was surprised to find himself playing. "There are two particular characters as an actor that I didn't feel confident in playing: a soldier and a cop," he explains. "Oren first cast me as a soldier, and now as a cop. I didn't think I could believe myself as a police officer, partly because I am a little anti-authoritarian in my beliefs, and also because a big part of being an actor is what you connect from your own life to the character and what you find in common with the character. I never felt I had much in common with cops." But that was about to change.
Despite his qualms, Harrelson immersed himself into Dave Brown's world with complete dedication. "It was a fascinating descent into a hellish quagmire and deep paranoia," he says.
To prepare for all of that, Harrelson spent months prior to shooting getting into the skin of Dave Brown. On the physical side, he lost more than 25 pounds to reflect Brown's rejection of food in favor of power as his fuel. He honed his firearm skills at the shooting range and trained physically. But most importantly, the actor spent a lot of time with the L.A.P.D., getting to know several cops personally, riding with them through gang-heavy neighborhoods and observing them in action. It was during this time that Harrelson not only found the voice of Dave Brown, but also common ground between himself and the men wearing the uniform, even those like Dave Brown whose actions sometimes sabotage its intended meaning.
"I spent a lot of time with these guys in the Newton division and they're just amazing. I saw the humanity and the reality of these people, and I also started to feel that I could be one of these guys, and that was the key thing for me--to believe that I could be a cop," says Harrelson.
At the same time, Harrelson's performance took him deeply inward, into the subtleties of how Dave Brown navigates his universe with a mix of tightly-wound confidence and caustic self-deception.
He continues: "To be able to play this role, I had to really find out who the person is, and understand his rationale for being a cop. Cops can be the greatest guys in the world, or they can be your worst nightmare. I found that some cops just want to become cops so they can exert their power and influence over people, but others really do want to help. I believe that deep down, Dave Brown's impulse was to do good things for people, but then he crossed that line. In his mind, though, he only does bad things to bad people. He doesn't look at himself as a bad cop. He believes he does violence to those who deserve it. There's an actual police slogan -- 'we intimidate those who intimidate others' -- and I think that's the way Dave Brown looks at it. And in that way he's able to carry on and believe in what he's doing."
There was another major lure for Harrelson. "I think that Oren is one of the best directors I've ever worked with," he summarizes. "He has this incredibly deep sensitivity to all kinds of people, lives and situations. He doesn't shoot like anyone else I've ever encountered and he has his own very personal vision, and that's one of the things I most admire about him. He's a true artist with a burning passion for what he does."
A Changing World: The Supporting Cast
Surrounding Woody Harrelson's Dave Brown as he resists the necessity of change is a cast of characters -- many of them women -- who challenge, defy and ultimately take him down.
As the cast came together for Rampart, Moverman was exhilarated by their willingness to work in his spontaneous, improvisational style. "It's all about enriching the characters," he says. "I don't really like to rehearse. We just go into a scene after talking about it and doing all the prep work and then we just find it. In this way, every day the actors teach me things about the characters and show me things I didn't know or expect."
The actors include Golden Globe nominee Robin Wright as Linda Fentress, the defense lawyer Dave Brown picks up in a bar. Moverman says casting Wright was "a no-brainer. She is one of the greatest actresses out there, and I felt incredibly lucky to get anywhere near her."
Wright was drawn right away to working with Moverman. "I loved Oren's style in The Messenger," she says. "You can feel the way he doesn't cut away from the actors. He's a director who lets you play the game, like a good coach, and only comes in after the play to talk about it. It's about following the life of the character, instead of designing the character in the editing. It's a very freeing way to work."
Multiple Academy Award® nominee Sigourney Weaver, who took on the role of Assistant D.A. Joan Confrey, was similarly compelled, despite the brevity of her screen time. "I'm not interested in the size of the part," says Weaver. "The question I ask myself is, 'is this a story I want to be a part of?' This script was amazing. Even the stage directions were beautifully written. I've never been in any film remotely like Rampart."
Rapper-turned-actor-and-filmmaker Ice Cube takes on the role of D.A. Investigator Kyle Timkins, marking the first time he has played a detective. "This is definitely a character I've never played, and I haven't been in a heavy drama like this in a while," he says. "It felt good to take on this part, because Kyle is a pivotal role. He changes the trajectory of the movie, and that's all an actor could want."
Moverman was impressed with what Cube brought to the mix. "Right away I could see that he was going to bring something really unusual and even contradictory to what the role is probably expected to be. He immediately had ideas I really liked and embraced," says the director.
Reuniting with both Moverman and Harrelson in Rampart is The Messenger star Ben Foster, who not only takes the role of the homeless veteran who witnesses Dave Brown's crimes, but also came on board as one of the film's producers. Moverman always expected to work with him again. "Ben's role on The Messenger was more than just an actor," says the director. "I recognized in him so many things I liked, and our sensibilities are so similar. I knew that Ben is someone I always want to work with, no matter what I do."
Adds Moverman: "Woody and Ben have such charisma and chemistry together, that it'd be foolish not to try to keep mining that."
Foster says: "What attracted me was the chance to work again with Oren and Woody, to support Oren and to help create an environment where Woody could get lost in a role that is really demanding psychologically and takes its toll. As an actor, Woody goes so deep, and getting to play with someone like that is just rare. He's got so much power in him and seeing that explode on screen is terrifying. Plenty of times just watching him I had to look away, because he shows parts of himself that a normal person would never allow someone else to see."
As for his character, Foster comments: "We decided to make him a vet, playing on some of the themes we touched on in The Messenger and allowing Dave to explore his own experience of service in Vietnam. I spent some time down on Skid Row, eventually sleeping out there, bringing back things I'd heard and seen and integrating stuff from the streets into the character."
The accomplished cast also includes Golden Globe winner Steve Buscemi as Bill Blago, Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon as Dave Brown's two related ex-wives and Academy Award® nominee Ned Beatty, who plays a retired cop turned informant. Despites its urban setting, Beatty saw his character, and the whole tale, in a Shakespearean light. "Every time I turned a page, I was thinking more and more about 'King Lear,'" says Beatty of the Rampart script. "I thought Woody's character is like King Lear, and my character is like the Fool. He is closer to this man than almost anyone, and like most jesters or fools, they get to tell the truth when other people can't or won't tell it."
All enjoyed working in Moverman's style. Sums up Foster: "The most exciting thing was watching all these incredible actors coming in and finding these performances. Seeing these fantastic actors given that kind of permission to take chances is explosive. Oren is able to see what works and, when he likes it, it is immediate."
The Persistence of Sunlight: The Look of Rampart
There was never any doubt in Oren Moverman's mind that Rampart had to be shot entirely on the streets of Los Angeles, the only way to fully capture the environment in which Dave Brown roams, thrives and then falls. He worked with a particularly crack crew, including director of photography Bobby Bukowksi, with whom he shot The Messenger -- and here brings a hand-held immediacy that penetrates the subjective reality of Brown -- along with production designer David Wasco, a frequent collaborator with Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson; editor Jay Rabinowitz known for his work with Darren Aronofsky and Jim Jarmusch; and costume designer Catherine George, who also collaborated with Moverman on The Messenger.
They shot across L.A., at landmarks including City Hall, the L.A. Times building and the Original Tommy's Burgers, as well as more marginal locales. "From the beginning, James Ellroy wrote into the script a lot of iconic L.A. locations that were integral to the storytelling," says producer Clark Peterson, "so it was imperative that we get these locations."
The relatively low-budget production was able to take advantage of California's tax incentives for filmmakers, although it was uncertain if or when they would get the approval for the program. "We kept moving forward without knowing for sure whether we were going to get it," says producer Ken Kao. "As the start date of shooting got close, we still had not gotten the okay. It was important from a morale perspective and certainly a bonus financially, but we were prepared to shoot in L.A. even if we had not gotten it. I can't underscore how important the authenticity and the look and feel of the film were to us."
"Downtown Los Angeles is definitely a character in this movie," states Moverman. "Because I'm not from L.A., what grabbed my eye are things that are very specific to the city."
Moverman especially wanted to capture the oppressive blaze of the California sun and the city's omnipresent brightness and chose to shoot many of the key scenes in the film in broad daylight, doing a 180 on film noir expectations and embracing a more raw aesthetic.
That feeling of lit rawness marked the way Moverman and director of photography Bobby Bukowski chose to shoot the entire film. Throughout the seven week period of shooting, almost every shot was done with an unlocked, loosely held camera, often times taking in a 360-degree scope. When the camera wasn't handheld, it was placed unlocked on a tripod or balanced on a bungee cord to keep that constant fluidity. Natural and available light were always the preferred sources for lighting. Having had such a great experience with Bukowski on The Messenger, Moverman could not wait to work with him again.
"Bobby Bukowski is a wonder of a human being before you even start talking about how gifted and dedicated he is as a cinematographer," says the director. "On The Messenger, I fell in love with him on a human level and on an artistic level. The way we work together, if you put him in the right place, he'll lose himself in the scene and his eye goes to the places that his desire wants to go and that's usually what works for me. I feel so lucky to know him and work with him and have him be part of my family."
Bukowski says: "When I read this script, I kept thinking of Dante's Inferno. It's a man's descent into hell and I thought it was going to be a great opportunity emotionally and visually. I was excited about it right away."
Moverman presented Bukowski immediately with a single photograph that summed up his vision. "It was a photo of a police car in Los Angeles, with very high contrast, with very bright colors and with searing highlights coming from the streetlights -- and he just placed that in my hands and said this is how I see the movie," recalls Bukowski. "That's how I work with Oren. He drops these little keys into my hands and then he lets me explore the doors that will open as a result of those keys."
Bukowksi goes on: "We talk very much in arcs and one arc we talked about from the beginning is that as this film progresses, Dave Brown disappears. An application of that is that in the earlier scenes there's a lot of color saturation and focus-wise Dave is very clear and as the film goes on, we start to drain color from him and start to introduce elements of foreground that obscure him from the lens. He starts to get sucked in to the environment around him. Catherine George also started to change the color saturation of his clothes during these scenes. And you start to get a more spectral image of him, rather than a more solid image of him."
Bukowski also allowed the sun to flare into the camera. "We really embraced flares because it's the most visceral depiction of the sun. When you feel the sun burning the lens, as an audience you feel the sun burning you," he comments. "By the end of the film, it's almost like the sun is consuming Dave."
Shooting in MacArthur Park -- once a classic centerpiece of the city that has since become known for gang warfare, drug-dealing and shoot-outs -- was especially important for Moverman. "There's a certain energy and rhythm to it that to me seem very unique to L.A.," he says. "It's the heart of the Rampart distract in many ways and there I think you can see all the elements coming together -- the colors, the sound, the music -- and the way they all overlap."
For Moverman, the camera should service the work of the actors, and not the other way around, a way of shooting the actors found inspiring. "Oren will let the camera roll and you can make any number of mistakes, and he'll let you have that experience and then you go back and you do it again and do some refining, but he always has the camera rolling, which I think is a great idea, because you never know when he's going to get 'that moment,'" says Ned Beatty. "I'm definitely getting towards the end of my film career, and I wouldn't have missed this experience for anything."
"This is the most unusual experience I've ever had in a movie," adds Sigourney Weaver. "The text is just a jumping off point for the characters and you're encouraged to improvise from A to Z. You have amazing freedom, and it's great to be asked to go beyond the usual."
Sums up executive producer Mike DeFranco: "Oren has this ability to establish trust and an interpersonal relationship the very first time you meet him. Actors truly love him because he's able to share and elucidate his vision with the talent to ultimately pull it out in their performances."
For Moverman, the visceral power of the film rests in the characters, and he wanted the actors to have maximum freedom to explore them fearlessly. "My feeling is that an actor is always going to know more about the character than I will, because he's bringing that character to life," he concludes. "I can give instructions and I can talk to them about ideas that I have about the character, but I always give them the option that I'm wrong, and that their ideas might work better. It's about putting people in spaces where it becomes effortless, where they bring you completely into that moment."