In the crime drama “A Single Shot,” director David M. Rosenthal (“Janie Jones”) tells the story of John Moon (Sam Rockwell), a hunter who accidently shoots and kills a young woman while hunting deer in backwoods West Virginia. John begins to receive threats from a group of criminals when he decides to take $100,000 he finds near her body.
During an interview with me last August, Rosenthal, 44, a graduate of the American Film Institute, talked about directing a film he didn’t write for the first time in his career and whether or not he feels it is important for filmmakers to get an education in cinema before picking up a camera and making a movie.
“A Single Shot” was recently released on Blu-ray/DVD Jan. 14.
“A Single Shot” is the first film of your career that you directed but didn’t write. Was it easy to let go of that responsibility and focus solely on your role as a director?
Yeah, it was refreshing. There was a definite plus to it. I didn’t have to spend any time having to worry about the authorship of the screenplay. When you’re a screenwriter, the script is always changing even during pre-production. So, there have been times where I’m prepping a movie as a director and doing rewrites at the same time. That can be intense. It can split your focus. This is also the first film I’ve worked on that is an adaptation of a novel – a novel I admire. I just want to make the best movies I can. If that comes from my script or someone else’s script, it doesn’t really matter to me.
Since it was author Matthew Jones who adapted his own novel into the screenplay, what was your working relationship with him like? Was he open to changing his story at all? Could you make directorial decisions that weren’t necessarily in his final script?
At the beginning I was a little more worried because I knew he was very close to the material as anyone would be as the author of the novel. It was his first screenplay, so I think it was difficult for him to let go of some of the things that we needed to let go of in the process of making the film. We spent a lot of time talking and working on the script. He started to become more aware of the things he needed to change. That process grew for us. We just needed to get the story where it needed to go. He was a terrific collaborator. I think a lot of writers in that situation would be more jaded, but he really cared about the story and the imagery. I would rather work with someone who cared that deeply and fought for the little things than someone who was checked out – like, “I wrote the novel, do what you want with it.”
What would’ve been a worst case scenario for you in this situation? Would it have been a screenwriter looking over your shoulder on set the whole time making sure you weren’t reworking his script without him?
I think there’s a worry amongst directors about screenwriters being on set asking, “Well, shouldn’t we do this? Shouldn’t we do that?” A screenplay is an architectural blueprint for a movie and things change sometimes – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. Sometimes [directors] can be a little nervous about that, but I don’t know if we should be. Worst case scenario would’ve been [Matthew] doing that and been intransigent about the changes I wanted to make. That could get pretty ugly.
You seem to understand how important a good framework is for a movie. What do you think about this movement by some filmmakers, for example writer/director Joe Swanberg, who sometimes makes movies without that framework – without a script? Swanberg recently did that with his film “Drinking Buddies.”
It’s funny because I think that is very valid, too. It’s just a different exploration. I was actually going to make my first film just like that. I had a treatment and I really just wanted to go out and be very improvisational with it. But I was working with producers who really encouraged me to write the script. At least you know where you’re going and won’t paint yourself into a corner. I thought that was good advice at the time. But truthfully, I think it would’ve been interesting to do it the way I intended. I think there is a lot of aspiration behind that decision, even just creatively. I think that’s the kind of creativity you want to have with smaller, independent films. I think it’s cool when it works. I think it might work particularly well for comedy because comedy is like catching lightning in a bottle. I think that’s why it works for Christopher Guest. There is a lot of value in that. But at the same time, I’m a big believer of structure and knowing where you’re going, especially for dramas like [“A Single Shot”]. Anything intricate visually, you can’t fly by the seat of your pants.
Speaking of structure, you have a very impressive educational background. You have a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking from the American Film Institute. Are you an advocate of filmmakers actually studying the medium or do you think anyone can just pick up a camera and make a movie?
I would say I’m a definite proponent of knowing as much as you can. But I want to be careful when I say something like that because we can draw tons of examples of brilliant filmmakers who weren’t indoctrinated into film in an academic way. I’m thinking of someone like [Quentin] Tarantino, but even then he is so seeped in cinema knowledge because he was an obsessive film watcher. So, he was studying. He was a student. I’m surprised when I run into filmmakers in Los Angeles who don’t know the history of film. I mean, you’d don’t have to know the entire history of film, but there are some who haven’t even watched a Billy Wilder movie. They are just in the dark. I think culturally, everyone wants to jump right into things. I was probably guilty of that myself, but I think the more you know, the better off you are even if you throw it all out the window later. I didn’t get my MFA in screenwriting. I think I had it in my head that the rules of screenwriting were so onerous. What were they good for if every movie is the same? If you have this sort of cookie-cutter mentality, films become so predictable. So, I would say study it all and then later on you can throw it away. It’s good to learn the rules, but there are no rules. You can be a great artist and not have done any training, but would you be even better if you were super talented and also trained under a master? I don’t know.
You don’t have to name names, but did you graduate with filmmakers who studied all the filmmaking books and finished all the programs and still didn’t know what the hell they were doing?
Look, there were certain people I went to film school with that I thought, “This person knows nothing! This person’s idea of filmmaking is such bullshit.” But you’re going to run into those kinds of people whether they come from film school or not. There are people making films that come from business school and don’t know much about filmmaking or the art of cinema. They work as a trainee at an agency and the next thing you know they’re working for a producer and then they’re producing themselves and bullshitting their way through everything. I mean, they’re smart people, but they don’t come from that world. It’s all about “the business of” rather than “the art of.” I definitely think that has done bad things for studios in terms of feature films. Just look at the studio system and the kinds of movies that get made. There are too many movies that are the same movie over and over again. They’re not being creative and not taking chances. There are, of course, tons of exceptions to that, but I think there was an age in filmmaking where a lot more interesting things were going on than there are today.
I thought you did some really interesting things with “A Single Shot.” At the same time, there are people out there who are going to compare it to something like the 1998 film “A Simple Plan.” Since you seem like a director who really wants to put a unique stamp on the industry, is a comparison like that OK with you or does it make you shrug? Would you rather your films not be compared to anything else that has come before? Some directors take it as a compliment.
(Laughs) It’s OK. Look, we’ve been compared to “A Simple Plan” and “No Country for Old Men.” Story wise, I knew we were going to be because it is a similar story. But in terms of how it’s told, I hope there is something at least a little bit different. I tried to do something unique and something that comes from me. I mean, has every story been told? I don’t know. You’re always going to be able to compare certain films to other films. In most cases it’s about the form more than what the story is about.