Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting down with director David M. Rosenthal to discuss his latest film: A Single Shot. It’s a gritty crime noir that stars Sam Rockwell as a man whose life changes after a morning hunting session in the woods goes bad, and he finds himself in a sticky situation that turns his world inside out.
We spoke about what brought him to the film, the visual look-book he used to get the job, and what its like working with great actors such as Sam Rockwell.
A Single Shot is available to stream now on VOD, and comes out in select theaters tomorrow (9/20). Check out my interview with David below.
What made you choose A Single Shot as your next feature?
David: I was looking specifically to do a crime noir film. Something gritty, down and dirty. I came across a book I loved called Galveston and was trying to get the rights and talking to producers. It ended up getting scooped by another producer. However, the producer who I worked with on my last film, told me that the director was falling out from A Single Shot andthey were looking for a new director and recommended that I should get in the mix. I read it and it was a revelation to me. It was all those things I wanted to do. Had so much atmosphere, specificity of place, and character. I set about to try and win that job and thankfully I did.
Before you took over, the film got passed around and changed hands quite a bit. When a film goes through so many hands and processes is there any hesitation when trying to take over and direct it?
D: I think there is some hesitation. You think: does this film have some bad luck on it? Is there a sneer that this film isn’t fresh? But for me, I saw how so many amazing people had been attached to this movie, so obviously its a good piece of material. As is a case with most independent films, they go through these things. Ultimately, it tends to be about if you have the money to shoot the film. You can get actors attached and money attached but if the money falls apart, then the actors go away. There are so many films, where the cast goes in and out. You’ll have actors who get hired then with schedule changes or actor drop outs unceremoniously, its all a part of the game.
When you were trying to get the job, you made a “visual look-book” to demonstrate to the film’s producers what kind of feel you had in mind. You used certain clips from directors such as The Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson, both of whose influence I saw in the film. Can you tell me a little bit more about this?
Yes, I actually used that to help me get the job. I referenced There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, Insomina (the original Swedish version), a documentary film called Harlan County, USA that was huge in relation to setting. There are other films and filmmakers who I would reference personally to someone like my DP or Producers such as Terrance Malck, (Akira) Kurosawa, Peter Weir. Generally atmospheric taught, type of movies where tension doesn’t necessarily come from a gun being pointed at your face, where it can be built slowly and can come from other places like the music. I set all that to music that I thought was right such as Phillip Glass and other modernist composters who ended being huge references for me and my composer for the movie.
The music reminded me of Johnny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood score.
D: Yeah, well he was a big reference for us. What was a real reference for the composer and I was this guy named (Krzysztof) Penderecki, who was actually the biggest reference for Greenwood. He actually lifted stuff from Penderecki, with his knowledge, and ended up working with him. Greenwood is a brilliant composer in his own right, and was smart enough to grab some of these atonal compositions from people like Penderecki, György Ligeti these modernist composers that are able to make you feel uncomfortable listening to it.
Matthew Jones, the author of the A Single Shot novel, also wrote the screenplay. How does this come into play with your vision as director?
D: There’s a little more responsibility for me as a director to honor the creation and underlying material that he’s made in the novel. It’s a bad idea for a film to be reverential towards a novel cause that can bog you down. I actually had this conversation with someone recently, we were talking about how the adaptations of books that are average are sometimes better than adaptations of great novels because there’s so much expectation on them. But in terms of this he adapted it and we set out to bring more things out of the book, bring some things back from earlier drafts, take some things out that were in the book that worked brilliantly as imagery and devices but weren’t going to work as well as a film. It became a process. One of the things I was happiest about was at the end of the process that I showed the film to Matt, how pleased and happy he was with how it turned out, how happy he was with Sam’s performeance and how it was the way he wanted to see this movie unfold. So that was high praise for me. We became close in the process, he’s a terrific guy, a terrific writer and someone who I would definitely work with again.
How was it working with such a fantastic talented actor such as Sam Rockwell?
D: Tremendous, one of my favorite experiences with an actor. We became such good friends on the movie, and he’s a tremounds collaborator and very open in the process. That set the tone. The way he was, set the tone for all the other actors, and our own relationship set the tone for the rest of my relationship with all the other actors. It’s not often that artists and actors that you revere that live up to that when you meet them on a human level, but that’s Sam.
I think he’s one of the most underappreciated actors around today. Everyone knows who he is, but I think we take his talent for granted.
D: He is. He is one of the best around, in the sense that hes not carry much bigger movies on his shoulders. I think that’s going to change.
He was astonishingly great in The Way Way Back.
D: He was tremendous. He stole the film.
There were a lot of casting changes, but I can’t imagine the film without Sam Rockwell, Jefferey Wright, William H. Macy and Jason Issaac, who it took me a while to recognize.
D: He’s (Jason Issaac) one of those chameleon type actors. If you look at him in this movie or Green Zone, or one of the Harry Potter movies, and you’ll be like, who are these 3 people? I think that’s a tremendous compliment to an actor, when they can…not disappear, but become not themselves, total embody a character that they become that character rather than a variation of Jason.
A big part of the film was the use of nature and the natural elements of the land. Tell me about their importance to your telling of this story.
D: Hugely important. Totally intrinsic. It was one of the things that drew me to the story from the beginning. When I read the novel, I realized that this was a big, big thing for the writer. The nature was a character. The woods, the land, that this guy lives on is a part of this guy and how he defines himself. In some ways the hardscrabble geography is a way that this town is defined. There’s also classical themes in the story. I see this as a morality play, as a classical tragedy in a lot of ways. He’s a poor indigent farmer that hunts for sustenance going off one dark morning into the woods, through fog, transcending into another area, going into his subconscious in a way. His experience with nature is critical. How I portrayed nature photographically and design wise was important. I talked obsessively with my production designer, David Brisbin, and director of photography, Eduard Grau, on how we would create nature, and how we would go deep into it and where we would pick where things happen.
What would you hope for audiences to walk away from A Single Shot with?
D: On the first level, I wan it to be an exciting experience, a visceral experience in the way that noir thrillers can be. You know, you’re total sucked in until nothing else is there. But I guess at its core there’s a redemption element to its story. It’s not a public redemption. It’s not a redemption amongst his peers, or to the authorities. It’s a redemption to nature, to god, to what he hold dearest. The last scene is something very reverential. I hope that there’s something there to take away.
What’s next for you?
D: I’m looking at a few thrillers, and Sam and I have this boxing movie coming up about a real life American journeyman boxer from the 20s.