Berlin: Oren Moverman Talks 'The Dinner' and Making Films in the Trump Era (Q&A)
The provocative helmer tells THR why he felt a responsibility to get political with his Berlin competition entry and how he hopes to destigmatize mental illness with Steve Coogan's character.
Oren Moverman’s films — the military drama The Messenger; Rampart, about police corruption; or Time Out of Mind, an examination of the plight of the homeless in New York — are steadfastly, though never overtly, political. They have proven a tough sell in an industry that can favor escapism over realism and easy thrills over complexity (though The Messenger earned the Israel-born, New York-based director and screenwriter an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay in 2010).
In the Trump era, however, political activism is back in fashion. Moverman’s new film — The Dinner, which premieres in competition in Berlin on Feb. 10 — looks like just the political dish the times demand. An adaptation of the 2009 novel by Dutch author Herman Koch, it tells the story of an ambitious politician and his mentally unstable brother (played by Richard Gere and British comedian Steve Coogan) who meet for a fateful dinner with their wives (Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney). Their children have committed a violent crime, and the parents have to decide what to do about it.
Moverman spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about why he decided to make The Dinner, the film’s political implications and revealing a different side to funny man Coogan.
You initially were on board just as the writer on The Dinner, before you took over as director as well. How did that come about?
Yes, it is the Putin model of directing films. I came in as a writer for Cate Blanchett to direct, it was something she was interested in doing at the time as her first directorial effort. I developed it for her and with her. Then when it was done and ready, she couldn’t do it, because of other commitments, and the producer Caldecot Chubb, who has the rights to the book, asked me if I could do it. So I went through another period of rewrites.
What did you find so compelling about the book?
The great thing about the book is that it asks an impossible question, a horrible one, which is: How far would you go to protect your child who has done something wrong, in this case criminal, and has gotten away with it? What are the implications of turning them in and what are the implications of hiding it and letting them go on with their lives, knowing they are guilty and will never be punished? Are they more in danger of developing as human beings or more a danger to others by not being held accountable? What I also liked a lot is the idea of taking this book, which is really kind of satirical in nature and deals with a lot of issues, particularly mental illness, and then transport that to the United States and sort of make it more of a drama thriller.
Do you think the film has something to say about the current situation in America?
I think it absolutely ties into not just what’s happening in America, although America is perhaps the most shocking example. It’s about people of privilege who are basically locked into their world. It feels right for this post-humanist society we are living in. People are locked into their own existence, their own little tribe and everyone outside it is the other and should not be treated with any kind of compassion.The book very much touches on that. It think it is a Trumpian movie. Beyond that, with the Paul character, played by Steve Coogan, it is part of a discussion of destigmatizing mental illness. But the movie is also funny and has a big musical component.
In the Trump era, do you feel filmmakers have a particular duty to speak to the current situation?
I have to say yes, but I always have. My general approach as a director is that I wouldn’t want to make a film that doesn’t have some sort of hold, some sort of connection to reality. I don’t know if any film can change anything, but that is where my interest lies, in reflecting, in being relevant.
But is there a greater urgency now to be political, even activist, as a director?
I think that is how people feel about it, yes. I’m sure it affects me on some level as well. I don’t know if we had that in mind when we were shooting it, because we shot this film last February, when all this seemed impossible. But I do think that the current situation ultimately is not something that came out of nowhere.
How did you cast Steve Coogan?
I had Richard on board first. The challenge was to find someone who could live in that world, who would be funny but also quite disturbing and really, really smart, but without any filters. And that all added up to Steve Coogan.