IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director David M. Rosenthal Talks 'A Single Shot'

Thursday, 19 September 2013 14:21 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director David M. Rosenthal Talks 'A Single Shot'

Currently available on VOD and opening in select theaters on September 20th is the new crime noir thriller A Single Shot from director David M. Rosenthal (Janie Jones, Falling Up, See This Movie). The film, which is based on the novel of the same name by Matthew F. Jones, who also wrote the screenplay, stars an impressive cast of actors that includes Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back), William H. Macy (The Sessions), Kelly Reilly (Flight), Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter series), Joe Anderson (The Grey), Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs), Jeffrey Wright (Broken City), and Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen). 

The movie features a powerful performance by Rockwell as a classic noir character named John Moon, an everyman-type hunter who can’t seem to catch a break. Recently separated from his family, Moon is struggling to make ends meet in West Virginia while living in his wilderness home. After the accidental death of a young girl, he stumbles upon a box of cash, which he thinks will change his luck for the better. But when the criminals that the box belongs to come looking for their money, it begins a chain of events that threatens both him and his estranged family. Now Moon must use his wits and skills to protect his family in the backwoods area that he knows so well, while surviving a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse between him and the killers who will stop at nothing to retrieve their cash. 

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with director David M. Rosenthal about his work on A Single Shot. The accomplished filmmaker discussed his new movie, what attracted him to the project, the noir genre, the visual pitch he used to get hired, other movies that influenced this film, why it was helpful to have author Matthew F. Jones adapt his own novel into the screenplay, working with actor Sam Rockwell, the classic noir character of John Moon, assembling the impressive ensemble cast, William H. Macy and Jason Isaacs unusual performances, and the film’s silent opening sequence. 

Here is what director David M. Rosenthal had to say about A Single Shot:

IAR: To begin with, can you talk a little bit about what attracted you to this project and why you wanted to make the film?

David M. Rosenthal: I’ve been dying to do some crime noir. I came out of film school and I had written a dark psychological thriller. It was a really weird movie and I was trying to get it off the ground. I probably should have done a genre movie right away, but I picked something really weird and it was probably stupid. That film almost got made a couple of times and then it ended up not getting made, and then I pitched something else, it was a comedy. Long story short, I got on a comedy tangent and by the time I corrected it I had to prove to everybody that I could do noir. So I was looking after I did my last movie for a crime noir and this producer I worked with before sent me this script. It was based on a novel. I read it and immediately it had all of these wonderful qualities, this terrific atmospheric tone to it, and all of this specificity of place. It was just weird, and the people were strange, unique and authentic. I thought this would be great to do. I ended up having to do it all on a story board and show them that I could make this movie. I put together a visual look book for them to give them a sense of the kind of movie I wanted to make.  

Did you find the visual look book to be helpful in the pitch? 

Rosenthal: I think that anything that shows your passion for something and how you see it helps people see what you want them to see. Because if you can just get them to see what’s in your head then you’re there. I wish I were a brilliant artist, I would have storyboarded the entire movie and handed it over to them. What I did was I took clips from a bunch of movies that I loved and what I thought were strong visual references for this movie, and then I strung them together and set them to music that I knew was appropriate for the movie. That ended up becoming the music references for the composer and I for the actual film.

What were some of the other movies that you referenced?

Rosenthal: There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, as well as a movie called Ratcatcher by Lynne Ramsay, which you probably know. Also A Prophet, which had some beautiful scenes. I cut some stuff in from The Thin Red Line, Badlands and those kinds of movies too. I even cut in some bits of West Virginia from Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, which is a great documentary about the mine strike. It’s all this amazing documentary footage of a tiny mining town in West Virginia that I thought that would be a great reference for place. All that combined gave people an idea of where I wanted to go with this movie. 

Did you find it helpful that the book’s author Matthew F. Jones also adapted the screenplay, rather than having another screenwriter come in and write it?

Rosenthal: It definitely did because in fact someone else in 1997 adapted the book. Some other producer got it and had somebody write it but apparently that script was not very good at all. When Matthew adapted it what he did was really smart. He infused it with all this terrific atmospheric stuff and he allowed it to be maybe more literary than other scripts might be. He held on to his good dialogue, however the script, as early drafts usually are, was probably too long for us and had too many scenes. But it was really strong piece of material.

I think Sam Rockwell is pound for pound probably one of the best actors working in films today. What was your experience like working with him?

Rosenthal: It was probably one of my favorite professional experiences to date. Sam has become like one of my best friends. He’s a tremendous guy and professionally he’s so committed, he’s such a hard worker, and he does so much preparation. At the same time he’s down to Earth. He’s human, he’s generous, he’s kind, and he sets such a great tone on set and off. He’s just terrific. He’s someone who’s acting abilities I revere so much, and like you, I feel like he’s a treasure. He’s got such a great range too. He was someone who I very much wanted early on. I thought it would be so great if we could get Sam Rockwell. Then when we met and hit it off, I told him what I wanted to do in the movie and we kind of thought in the same way. It was a character that he hadn’t done yet and he was very excited to do. It was terrific.

John Moon is the perfect noir character, can you talk about the role and as an actor what Sam Rockwell was able to bring to the part?

Rosenthal: He plays it really well on his heels as someone who fucks up, makes a bad decision and then everything comes just crashing down on him. It’s like Richard Widmark in Night and the City. While they’re still totally different kinds of character, you’re so sucked in by how they’re failing and how they react in each moment. Sam has such tremendous inner light that you want to be with him in the quiet moments and the dramatic moments. Like when he’s up against Wayland (Jason Isaacs), or he’s up against the Obadiah character (Joe Anderson) or anyone who is a threat to him in this movie, including his wife (Kelly Reilly) probably. To be up against that and everywhere you turn there’s no comfort except for the girl next door that comes to make him sandwiches, is very noir. Sam is one of those people who we can identify with so well. He’s a terrific everyman and I think noir is best when you are following the everyman and when we can get in their shoes. So I think he does that so well. 

In addition to Sam Rockwell, the film boasts a great cast of actors including William H. Macy, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Wright, and Melissa Leo. Can you talk about how you put together that great ensemble of actors?

Rosenthal: I think a lot of those people came together on the heels of Sam. Bill Macy was on board before when there was another incarnation of the cast in 2011. Bill had come on board in that incarnation and basically everybody else unraveled because of scheduling. Bill is a huge supporter of independent films was like, “No, I’m with you guys.” So Bill stayed on board and then Sam came on. Then we went to Jeffrey Wright, who Sam had worked with before and called for us. I think a lot of these people did the film because of Sam and because he’s the kind of actor you want to get in the ring with. 

William H. Macy is playing a very specific type of character in the film. Was the role written that way in the script or did he just bring that characterization to the part?

Rosenthal: It was in the book and in the script. But he brought his own Macy-esque flair to it.

Jason Isaacs is almost unrecognizable in the movie, was his role written that way too or did he just choose to play it like that?

Rosenthal: No, he did that. When you see him in Green Zone you’re almost like, who is that guy? I guess he’s more recognizable as himself in the Harry Potter movies. But if you took pictures of him from the Harry Potter films, Green Zone, and then A Single Shot you’d be like, that’s not the same person! With the kind of performances that he renders, it’s a great compliment to an actor that he can be such a chameleon like that. 

Finally, there’s no dialogue in the first ten to twelve minutes of the film. As a director, does it make it easier or harder to shoot a sequence when nobody is talking?

Rosenthal: I very much wanted to introduce Sam’s character and introduce the place with no dialogue, and it was written into the script as well. There was talk of adding a voiceover of the girl, which I recorded and we tried but it ended up working so much better and being sort of elegant to slowly immerse ourselves into this world of this guy with no dialogue. I have to acknowledge Paul Thomas Anderson and There Will Be Blood because he really did that amazingly with the beginning of that movie. I don’t know whether it’s harder I think you have to give a lot of thought. I always give a lot of thought to the beginnings and ends visually in a movie like this. It was definitely well plotted out and heavily storyboarded. 

A Single Shot is currently available on VOD and opens in select theaters on September 20th. 

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