Interview: Oren Moverman on “The Dinner” with Richard Gere and Steve Coogan

Posted on May 5, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Oren Moverman directed “The Dinner,” a provocative film about mental illness and its impact on the family, about the challenges of being a parent, about marriage, politics, and insanely pretentious food. It stars Richard Gere as a politician and Steve Coogan as his estranged and bitter brother, with Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney as their wives. They meet at a very exclusive and expensive restaurant for a difficult conversation about their teenage sons, who have done something terrible. It is based on a book by Dutch author Herman Koch.

“The movie is an annotation of the book,” Moverman said in an interview, “It really touched upon the lead character’s mental health, the kids’ mental health, where genetics and learned behavior kind of intersect. All these things seem very interesting to me and I’ve been involved in the last few years with The Campaign to Change Direction which is a mental health organization. When given the opportunity to write the script for me to direct I thought that should be a big part of it because I think it’s a big part of a discussion that’s actually never really discussed fully. I think that there is a certain kind of stigma within families, within groups about the person who is suffering from this, a lot of kind of burying this in the family vault. It’s dirty laundry. There’s not a lot of discussion that we have very openly about mental health issues. This movie can’t really avoid that — it’s at the core of the main character’s behavior, the core of the way the family was shaped, the extended family and then the kids. And so I wanted it to be a discussion and since we had a politician in the movie, I thought well he’s a man of grand gestures let’s give him an issue to fight for that is mental health and the bill that he is trying to pass and have that be sort of the ticking clock for that night. So, it all kind of came together from the book, it’s at the core of the story and hopefully it kind of shakes people up a little bit and gets them talking about that as well.”

Moverman supports the recent statements from celebrities like Prince Harry about the importance of destigmatizing mental health and mental health treatment. “I think the impact is tremendous. He started it, Prince William joined him, in talking about their relationship and their mental health as brothers who experienced traumatic events. I think that when people like Lady Gaga and Bruce Springsteen come out and talk about these things, people are listening because everybody feel so alone, so isolated in these problems. When you start the conversations, just like anything else you realize, well this is not that far-fetched, this is not just my problem, there are people out there suffering. The truth is that one out of five adults everywhere is experiencing some sort of mental health issue and so it’s not something that’s unfamiliar and kind of remote and over there. It’s really something that we all have in our lives. Not talking about it, not dealing with it, not treating it, not trying to prevent it is at the core of so many problems we have as a society. So, I applaud people of influence who step forward and say, ‘I have been dealing with these issues and I’m not going to hide it anymore. I’m going to talk about it and hopefully be able to help other people deal or take an active step towards kind of resolving these issues.’ If we all understand that there’s so much of it, our lives are complicated, our existence are complicated, our genetics are complicated, this world, the modern world is creating a lot more isolation than before, the feelings that people have to go through every day could be quite impactful on the rest of our lives and the rest of the people around us in their lives. So it’s something very fundamental that’s kind of been lost in the way we bury the conversation which is the loss of community, the loss of people finding common ground and helping each other or looking out for each other. I think it’s at core of a lot of our problems, this kind of disintegration of the community as the building block of the society.”

He wanted to set the difficult, painful conversation in the ultra-exclusive restaurant because “that was a fun part of the book. It was the comedic element of the book. I felt a little comedy could help there but also I think that there is a reason why this restaurant is so absurd is because these people are very privileged and they’ll be coming to a place that’s very civilized, very civil, that has its own rules and behavior and they’re bringing a subject matter that is quite savage and vile into this pretend world and all the pretense goes away by the end of the night. It’s kind of a battle without a lot of civility over the savage act. So, I thought the setting was appropriate, of course the problem with a setting like this is the idea that this should be a private conversation. So ultimately, they do find a private place to talk it out.”

Nothing is more painful than being the parent of a child with a big, awful problem that you cannot fix for him, as we see in the different ways that the four parents respond, and especially as they reveals some surprises about their strengths and weaknesses. “We talked about starting one place and finishing at another and really revealing layers upon layers of complexities that you don’t really see when we start off. I have to say that that was one of the finer things about the book. You start off thinking our narrator is to be trusted, Paul, the Coogan character. You feel like you can walk down this road with him because he’s like us, he makes fun of the pretenses at the restaurant, he’s really kind of a guy, he’s kind of a dude in the book and so we trust him and then we go through this whole process of the story to realize at the end how troubled he really is. I think every single character in the book goes that way and then what we tried to do is sort of imitate that in the movie. You see Richard Gere and he’s a politician and you say, ‘I know exactly who this guy is and I know exactly what he is going to stand for and I don’t like him because he’s a politician.’ and then he turns out to be something completely different but then he? Is he fooling us? Is he charming us? All these things kind of become really fun to mix in and to really understand that our way of assessing people is not necessarily the way they really are and if you go into sort of a deep painful place something emerges that make maybe their true self are their true self in that moment and that can be quite dramatic.”

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