Actor Woody Harrelson in 2010. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Few words in the lexicon of contemporary Los Angeles come invested with as much back story and bad mojo as "Rampart." The 1990s police corruption scandal that saw some 70 officers implicated in criminal activity remains one of the most widespread instances of documented misconduct in American history.
But the new film "Rampart," which opens in Los Angeles on Wednesday for a one-week run before a broader release in January, does not attempt to fully address the scandal. Rather, director and co-writer Oren Moverman uses it as a backdrop for his portrait of corrupt cop Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), whose life comes crashing down around him after he's caught beating a suspect on tape.
"The title of the movie is not 'The Rampart Scandal,'" Moverman said during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "Rampart is a street, Rampart is a neighborhood, Rampart is a police district, rampart is a defensive embankment of a fort... The scandal was a great backdrop because it symbolized a time of great change, with a character who refused to change."
That character —a uniformed officer given the nickname "Date Rape" within the station house after he was rumored to have killed a serial rapist as an act of street-level justice — is played with ferocious conviction by Harrelson. His performance has spurred awards chatter since the film premiered on the festival circuit earlier in the fall.
"I've always been of the mind that an antihero is more interesting than a hero and that people are part angel and part devil," Harrelson said via email.
"Rampart" marks Harrelson's second collaboration with Moverman. Their previous effort, 2009's "The Messenger," an equally intense drama about military casualty notification officers, netted a supporting actor Oscar nomination for Harrelson and an Oscar nod for screenplay for Moverman.
Moverman was initially brought on to the project to rewrite an existing script by James Ellroy. The chronicler of the dark and seedy underbelly of Los Angeles has long displayed an ear for the internal workings of the local police force in novels such as "L.A. Confidential" and the screenplay for "Street Kings."
He shares the writing credit on "Rampart" with Israel-born, New York-based Moverman, who immersed himself in the culture and history of Los Angeles and the LAPD. He said he was determined to "out-Ellroy Ellroy," and he did substantially reconfigure the script. (Ellroy declined to be interviewed for this article.) "He was dealing with the scandal a lot more head-on than I was," Moverman said.
While Moverman maintained Ellroy's head-spinning plotting, he put the focus squarely on Brown, who finds himself warding off internal investigators and administrators all looking to bounce him from the force and possibly file criminal charges against him after the incriminating video surfaces.
As Brown becomes increasingly desperate, he also must contend with a rapidly disintegrating personal life, juggling two ex-wives (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon), who happen to be sisters, while finally realizing the emotional damage he has inflicted on his children, especially his oldest daughter (Brie Larson).
It is that change of focus to the family and the true toll of Brown's long downward slide, his emotional absence and indifference, that may have been Moverman's biggest change from Ellroy's original conception of the story, though that specific narrative didn't fully take shape until almost midway through the film's seven-week shoot.
"His method of allowing scenes to grow into something more substantial, as well as his ability to sculpt in the editing room, left him no choice but to go with the most compelling story line," Harrelson said. "It was appropriate to focus more on the family. Those are some of the most riveting scenes."
"We knew what we were serving in 'The Messenger' — it was all in service of this subject, grief," added actor Ben Foster, who appeared in both of Moverman's films and also was a producer on "Rampart." "But identifying that in the 'Rampart' material was trickier. We kept trying to strip it down to one word. Is it honor? Is it integrity? And it became family, and how do we lose sight of the things that are most important."
Though Moverman is well aware that his film may disappoint those looking for a blow-by-blow docudrama of the real-life police corruption scandal that floats behind its character study, he hopes with "Rampart" to convey the deeply internal, wounded animal sensation of a man who begins to understand the fallacy of his own cynical worldview.
"The thing I thought about the most in approaching the movie was we're not going to invent the LAPD genre — it's been done," Moverman said. "So, my thought was always, 'How are we going to be different? What are we going to bring that's new?' So many of these films are about a plot or a conspiracy, and the answer for me was an interior life."