Check the Gate is a recurring column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Graham Moore about The Outfit and why the movie should look like a suit.
When it came time for Graham Moore to shoot his directorial debut, The Outfit, he wanted the movie to behave like his main character. Leonard (Mark Rylance) is a fastidious cutter, not a tailor; he does more with a suit than hang it on a skeleton. He’s a prideful craftsman who spent years learning the trade as an apprentice on Savile Row. For unclear reasons, he fled London and made his way to Chicago, establishing his own shop and fashioning gangsters with his threads.
Moore wanted his camera to move and observe the way Leonard slides through his store. The image is measured, peaceful, and pristine. Behind its construction, you sense an acute purpose and a lifetime of consideration. As co-screenwriter and director, Moore provides the intent and takes ultimate responsibility for the finished product. However, since The Outfit is his first time as helmsman, Moore also knew the movie required a master’s eye to match Leonard’s.
He needed Dick Pope, the cinematographer who has lensed more classics than we have room to celebrate here.
For Mike Leigh, Pope captured Naked, Secrets & Lies, Topsy–Turvy, Another Year, and many more. He’s been the go-to DP for other first-time directors like Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind). He nabbed Academy Award nominations for The Illusionist and Mr. Turner. If anyone could inhabit Leonard’s studious perspective, it was Pope, and when given the opportunity to speak on his genius, Moore burst into praise.
“I have been waiting for a year,” he exclaims, “to get to talk about my friend, Dick Pope. Gosh, what a man.”
A giddy wave takes over the director as he loses himself to his Pope fandom. His words come quickly and become more impassioned the longer he speaks. There’s no denying Pope’s artistry, but Moore still thinks people take the cinematographer for granted. Pope is more than the films that are most associated with him.
“I’m sure it would embarrass him to hear this,” Moore continues, “but I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid. Dick Pope was making beautiful films since before I was born. Just all the films he’s done with Mike Leigh, he’s done so much great work. And I think because he’s worked a lot with Mike Leigh, one forgets what a great variety of work he’s actually done. So many of those films are shot in wildly different styles.”
Moore was beside himself when he learned Pope wanted to shoot The Outfit, and their partnership injected an immediate jolt of confidence. Through their earliest conversation, they formulated a plan, a design built around their central character.
“From our early conversations,” says Moore, “we knew a lot of things we didn’t want to do. We had this one guiding light throughout the process of deciding how the film should look. It’s a film about Leonard, and Leonard is an aesthetician, so to speak, right? He has this very precise set of aesthetics about the things that he makes. So, it was very clear to us that the film should represent the same aesthetics. The film should look and feel like one of Leonard’s suits. It should look and sound like something he would’ve made himself.”
The Outfit couldn’t improv, at least not visually, not if it wanted to act like Leonard’s fabric baby. The movie required a plan and an ideology. Clarity and care were paramount to the creators. If they couldn’t supply it, they failed the script.
“What are the principles we can take from that?” he continues. “It means that everything is very precise, very measured, kind of lovely, but not heavy. The camera actually moves a lot, but every motion is quite precise. There is not a single moment of handheld camerawork in the entire film. It’s all choreographed and measured in the way a good suit would be. That forms the basis of what we wanted to do.”
But for all his precision talk, Moore doesn’t want to suggest The Outfit didn’t have room to swerve. In the beginning, Moore and Pope let loose. They threw whatever they could at the wall, moving forward with whatever stuck.
“I love Dick so much,” says Moore. “He’s as experimental as I am, especially in the prep phase. Should we do X or Y? What lenses should we use? The answer is always like, ‘Well, let’s just get some camera and some lenses and start shooting some stuff and see what we like. Let’s just look at a lot of footage and shoot some of the fabrics that we have against different light sources. We’ll try different cameras and see how they feel.'”
Through various factors, including a global pandemic, The Outfit received an extensive pre-production period. This allowed for rehearsals but also a massive stockpiling of ideas. Ideas that initially inundated his cinematographer.
“I think I overwhelmed him slightly,” he says. “I’d prepared this three hundred page booklet of storyboards and photographic references. I sent it to him and he was a little bit like, ‘All right, simmer down here.’ But even that was really valuable. In our long rehearsal period, without camera, before the film even started, we’d gotten to block out a lot of the scenes with the actors. What’s great about Dick and Mark is that they’re both meticulous preparers. They’re both really excited about really, really detailed shot lists and maps of camera locations and maps of actors’ motions.”
With the shots selected, and the stage built for their specifications, Moore was free to divert when necessary. The chaos in the room was Mark Rylance. He would go where the moment took him, and they had to be prepared for his sudden inspiration.
“We gave ourselves the flexibility,” says Moore, “to allow an actor like Mark Rylance to — if, in the moment, he wanted to do something else, to let him do that. If he wants to move somewhere we’re not expecting; he wants to say something we’re not expecting; he wants to stand up when we thought he was going to sit down, we can still let him do that. We’ve set things up in a flexible enough way that we can say, ‘Oh, you know what? No, that’s better. Let’s do that.’ We then follow that along.”
The true miracle within The Outfit‘s production is the order in which they were allowed to shoot. The first scene they filmed was the first scene in the script. The last scene they filmed was the last in the script.
“Because we shot the entire film in order,” he says, “starting from the first scene and going straight through to the end, we had a freedom to experiment in ways one might not have imagined while we were shooting. We were never locked into something. It was never like, ‘Oh, we already shot the scene after this, so today’s footage has to match something we’ve already shot.’ We never got bound up. We could allow experimentation to change the film going forward.”
Filming this way helped the actors fall into their character’s emotional states. Zoey Deutch, who plays Leonard’s receptionist, would disappear for a few scenes, and when she returned, the movie around her had radically switched genres. The experience was the same for the actor as for the character.
“The movie goes through these tonal shifts,” says Moore. “We would always joke that the movie starts as Phantom Thread and ends as Reservoir Dogs. You’re either with that journey, or you’re not. Zoey’s character leaves when the movie is Phantom Thread, and by the time she returns, Reservoir Dogs is happening. There’s this moment of like, ‘What movie am I doing again?’ But I think that’s really fun and exciting because her character is wondering the same thing, ‘Wait, people are getting killed now? Oh gosh, this is a very different situation than the one I just left.'”
The Outfit‘s climactic outburst only works because the filmmakers formulated a rigid structure with space to bend. Graham Moore and Dick Pope found perfection to appease their Leonard, but we’re happy to smash it to fit the story’s needs as they presented themselves.
They measured twice, maybe three times, maybe four times, but they only had one shot, one final cut.
Graham Moore’s The Outfit is now playing in select theaters.