The Outfit, a period crime thriller from Focus Features co-written by Graham Moore and Johnathan McClain, opens in theaters March 18.
Moore, who won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 2014 biographical dramatic thriller The Imitation Game, is making his feature film directorial debut with The Outfit.
Produced by Ben Browning, Amy Jackson, and Scoop Wasserstein, the film stars Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Steven Spielberg’s 2015 historical Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies.
England’s world-famous Savile Row is a street in central London known for its traditional bespoke tailoring for men. In the film, Rylance plays Leonard, a Savile Row tailor and cutter who now owns and operates his own shop in 1956 Chicago. (A cutter produces tailored garments that are cut and made to a unique pattern for each customer.) In preparation for the role, Rylance interned at Huntsman & Sons, a high-end fashion house on Savile Row, to develop an understanding of the craft. Rylance even took up shears and cut the suit that his character wears in the film.
This is exactly the movie I always wanted to make from the very beginning.
Set entirely in Leonard’s shop, the Hitchcockian thriller depicts a fateful night during which Leonard must outwit a group of mobsters in order to survive. (The title has a dual meaning. The Chicago Outfit is an organized crime syndicate.) Packed with its share of twists, the narrative is designed to keep audiences on the edge of their seats and keep them guessing.
Shot by two-time Oscar nominee Dick Pope, edited by Oscar winner William Goldenberg, and scored by two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat, the film co-stars Zoey Deutch, Dylan O’Brien, Johnny Flynn, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Simon Russell Beale.
"I am so lucky to be able to say something that I get the impression from friends and colleagues that not too many first time filmmakers get to say, which is: this is exactly the movie I always wanted to make from the very beginning," Moore shares.
Moore spoke to A.frame to answer everything from how many drafts of the script he and McClain ended up writing to what it was like working with the film editor who cut Michael Mann’s 1995 heist crime drama Heat. The conversation below has been edited for brevity.
A.frame: Let's talk about when the script was born. When did you start working on it? How many drafts did you work on?
Moore: My co-writer Johnathan McClain and I must have done certainly over a hundred – who even knows how many drafts of the script. You know, I think our process is very fluid. We don't even label drafts by draft number. There's no draft one, draft two, draft three. There's just the date. It’s. . . here's January 1st. Here's January 2nd. Here's January 3rd. Because it's changing every day. Through the writing process, through the prep process, through the production process. The idea first sort of came up when Johnathan said to me one day over dinner, 'How come no one's ever made a movie about a Savile Row tailor before?' And I got so excited as soon as he said it. I sort of thought, 'How come no one's ever made a movie about a Savile Row tailor before?' It seemed like such an interesting world. We got so fascinated by the psychology of these people, these craftspeople who spend decades and decades of their lives training to perfect such an esoteric and precise craft. So, we spent a lot of time with tailors. We spent a lot of time learning to make clothes. We spent a lot of time researching the history of tailoring. And then, we got really excited when one day we read this single sentence in a book about 20th century tailoring history that mentioned – and this is true – that the first bug the FBI ever planted in its history was planted in Chicago, Illinois, in 1956 inside a tailor shop. And they did it to get the Mob. And once we read that, that's where things really took off. We sort of realized that using this tailor shop and using our Savile Row tailor protagonist could provide this really fascinating lens into this sort of taut Hitchcockian thriller or mid-century noir that we both love so much. So, it was probably a few years of research up to that point. And then, once we found that little nugget of a story that we could sort of tell a crime thriller centered around a tailor shop, then we had a script you could read from start to finish in about six months.
A.frame: How long ago was that dinner?
Moore: My guess is that it was 2017. Something like that. We were just talking about it for a while. We loved this character. The character of Leonard played by Mark Rylance is the core of the piece. We knew we wanted to center the film on this character. For about a year, we just met for breakfast every Thursday morning. And just talked about him. And, separately, read up on tailoring history. Separately, met with tailors and spent time in tailor shops. Fortunately for me, my co-writer Johnathan has forgotten more about the art of bespoke men’s clothes making than I will ever know. He provided this great lens into this very neat, very curious world.
A.frame: Did you two write alone, and then, show each other your work? How exactly did you co-write this script?
Moore: It’s always funny when you have a really close friend who then becomes a creative collaborator. We’ve been close friends for a long time. Johnathan was literally the first friend I made when I moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago. And he’s been such a dear friend this whole time. It's always interesting figuring out how creative collaborations will go. But I think what really helped is that we have very much the same taste. We like a lot of the same things. And this film was just exactly in the center of the Venn diagram of our respective tastes and obsessions. We're both really interested in film noir. We're both really interested in the twisty, knotty crime thrillers. We’re both fascinated by expertise, by expert craftspeople. So, it started with these once a week breakfasts. Talking through the characters. Talking through what we were learning. And then, we kind of started outlining, bouncing pieces of paper back and forth. I’d do a pass on something. He’d do a pass on something. I love writing treatments and early paragraphs. And statements of intent. I produce a lot of extra documents. I find it really helpful. Here’s a piece of paper that lays out what we’re trying to do. And then, six months later, you’re going through the slog of draft after draft and some things aren’t quite working right. I find it really helpful to go back and look at those initial statements of intent. To make sure we haven’t lost that initial spark – the thing that initially seemed so intriguing to us. Then we started bouncing documents back and forth, and then, eventually, scripts back and forth. I think because we know each other so well and we trust each other so much, we could rewrite each other without explanation. If I sent him a scene and he sent it back rewritten, I’d know there was a reason he changed something. I trust his taste well enough to know that there’s a good reason for that. And vice versa.
A.frame: Which films specifically would you say you were going back to and taking a look at while you were making The Outfit?
Moore: Yeah, it's a great question. So, obviously, I'm fascinated by contained thrillers and dramas. So, starting with something like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. I think anyone who’s seen The Outfit can tell that 12 Angry Men must be one of my favorite films. 12 Angry Men was probably the film we talked about every single day making The Outfit. It’s such a masterclass in taking a confined space, and a limited group of characters, and pressing them up against each other so that the tension only increases as the piece goes along. I love Hitchcock’s Rope. There are some direct homages -- or perhaps outright thefts -- from Rope over the course of The Outfit. I’m not ashamed to admit it. If you’re looking for advice on a good place to hide a body on a film set, one could do a lot worse than borrowing from Rope. And we certainly did.
I also think Hitchcock’s Lifeboat is a not so frequently discussed masterpiece of contained thriller cinema. In terms of ‘40s and ‘50s film noir and crime thrillers, things from The Asphalt Jungle to Night and the City. Rififi was actually something we talked a lot about even though Rififi goes all over Paris. There was this sort of effortless cool to Rififi that we got very excited about. I know I talked about it with Mark a lot. He and I talked about – in terms of performance – that we loved so much performances that give you hints of what a character is thinking or feeling, but not exposing too much. I think the work on Rififi is such a masterclass on that. Mark would say to me frequently on set, 'How much of my inner thoughts and feelings do you want to be able to read on my face in this scene? Do you want forty percent? Do you want eighty percent? Do you want twenty percent?' Mark is such a great craftsperson that he can modulate that down to the last decimal point.
A.frame: What made Mark Rylance so perfect for Leonard? What had you seen that let you know he would be the right actor for the role?
Moore: I mean, like everyone else in the world, I've been a huge admirer of Mark Rylance for so long. In some ways, he reminds me so much of Leonard, his character. Leonard is this expert craftsman who has spent decades perfecting his craft. And I think Mark is similar. Mark has spent decades of his life training to perfect the mysterious, esoteric, and sometimes spooky craft of acting. What I love about Mark is that he’s such an actor’s actor. Other actors love him. There is no detail that escapes his attention. Mark knows the contents of every single drawer on set. Mark knows where every thimble is in his character’s workroom. He knows where every piece of fabric is. He knows where every needle is. Every piece of thread. If genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains, then I think no one takes so many pains as Mark Rylance. We had an extensive rehearsal process before we started shooting. Mark spent some time training at the basement of a Savile Row tailor shop. He spent some time learning from the head cutter at a shop called Huntsman, which is a 200-year-old shop along Savile Row.
I think Mark and I both believed that the way to make it look like someone is an expert on-screen is to make them an expert. Don’t fake it – actually do it. And that takes a lot of work. But it pays off. I remember so vividly the first day his work table came in. They bring it in. They plop it down. Mark stands up to it, puts his hands on the table, and the first thing he says is, 'It’s an inch too high.' And that was the level of specificity Mark had put into all the work. He knew exactly how high the table was supposed to be. And he knew it was an inch too high. He could feel it. Because we had so much time in the space ahead of time, it actually gives a freedom to the performance that we otherwise would not have had. There’s a scene where Johnny Flynn points a gun at Mark and tells him, 'I need you to sew up this wound on this man’s stomach.' And Mark goes to a very specific drawer to get a needle to sew the wound. But not just any needle. He gets this specific shape of needle because that’s the needle you would want if you were sewing skin. If you look at the film, you can see the camera motion gets a little wonky on that shot. Our camera operator didn’t quite know where Mark was going. He just did it. Mark uses all the research and all the training and all the experience to then create a situation where, after I say action, anything goes.
A.frame: You worked with William Goldenberg on this project – who has cut so many great films. What did you learn from him while you were editing the film?
Moore: Oh gosh. You know, Billy Goldberg and I did the Imitation Game together. So, we became very close doing that film. I feel like I would use the word mentor to describe my relationship with Billy Goldenberg. Except I think if he heard me use that, he would laugh at me. So, I should probably avoid it. I’m so privileged to work with him and call him my friend. Billy has cut some of my favorite movies ever made – Heat, The Insider, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty. All these wonderful films. Doing this film, because we know each other so well, and because we were in the middle of COVID, our whole editing process was quite casual. It was all done in his house. We did it all in his living room. He took all this black fabric and blacked out the doors and windows in his living room. Set up his big Avid rig there. Our editorial process was just – I would put my dog in the car and I would drive to Billy’s house. I’d sit on his couch. The dogs would play. There were no producers there. There was no studio. There was literally just the two of us.
And then, his kids on Zoom high school upstairs. His daughter would have these tests upstairs. And we couldn’t edit any of the scenes with gunfire when she had a test, because it was just too loud. So, our whole editing schedule was determined by Billy’s daughter’s testing schedule. In a way, it was so much fun. He and I got to play around with stuff. Billy has this ability to look at footage for the thousandth time as if he’s never seen it before. It’s this remarkable thing getting to sit next to him and watch him do this. He and I have similar tastes too. I think, for Billy, the only thing that really matters in a cut is performance. Billy cuts for performance and performance and performance. If the shot’s out of focus – whatever. If the camera motion is a little wonky – whatever. I think he really believes – and I agree – if, at the end of the day, if a performance doesn’t work, you don’t have a film. But if the performances are great, the audience will forgive a lot. So, as we’re cutting, all of my planning goes out the window. And the only thing that he is looking at is the performances that came through that camera lens.
A.frame: Tell us what it was like having Alexandre Desplat as your film composer?
Moore: Every day that someone asks me about Alexandre Desplat is a good day. I had worked with Alexandre on Imitation as well. And he and Billy have done films together. So, they’re really close. It’s funny, I was so bashful about asking Alexandre to do the film. It’s such a small movie. We had a budget of about five million dollars. So, I was so bashful about calling Alexandre and asking him to do something of this size. It was actually Billy who called him. I was too embarrassed. Billy says, 'Do you want to talk to Alexandre about music?' And I said, 'We can’t ask Alexandre Desplat to do this tiny film.' And then Billy said, 'Well... I’m doing it. Let’s just call.' We just called him and we sent him the script. The next day, Alexandre called up and said, 'Oh my God. This is great. Of course, I’m in. This script? With Mark Rylance? Yes.'
Alexandre has this really interesting process. One thing I said to him as we started was, 'How can I help create the environment where you feel like you can do your best work?' Which is, I think, a question I asked every department head. And Alexandre said, 'Usually when I work on a film, by the time I get sent a cut of it, there's an hour of temp music they've already kind of thrown in that I’m hearing as I'm watching a film. And it’s annoying and distracting, and limits where my creativity goes.' Alexandre said, 'You know, I'd love – for just this once – could you send me the film, for the first time that I’ll see it, with no music at all? Completely dry. Then, just give me some time to just imagine. To just try strange and unexpected things.' And I said, 'Of course. Let’s do it!'
Alexandre composes by hand. It’s all written out. So, we sent him the film dry. Basically a month later, he comes back with six completely different tones for the music of the film. He sent us suites of music. Six different suites of utterly different tonal elements. From a kind of Bernard Herrmann mid-century Hitchcockian thriller score to the kind of jazz that’s in the film now to kind of almost atonal orchestral music of the 1950s. All sorts of different experiments. And then, we could kind of play around with them and figure out what we wanted. It was such a great, freeing thing to get to work with him from a blank canvas like that. I feel like the jazz tone that we found was basically number five of the six things. We had spent a lot of time talking about music before he was composing. And I had been a little bit wary of jazz. He had mentioned, 'I want you to try some jazz themes.' And I said, 'Yeah, it could work. But I don’t know. I really don’t want it to sound like film noir pastiche. Like a sort of pastiche of the Miles Davis scores from the mid-twentieth century.' Alexandre said, 'Okay. Just let me try this one thing.' He was composing in Paris. And Billy and I were in his living room in Santa Monica. And as soon as we heard it, we both just went, 'Oh my God. This is... this is the film.'
A.frame: With The Outfit being your directorial debut, if you could go back and talk to Graham from 2018 or 2019 and tell yourself a few of the things you've learned, what are some of the things that you would share with Graham from a few years ago?
Moore: Oh, that's a great question. Um. . . it's okay to admit what you don't know. And that's why you're surrounding yourself with all of these great craftspeople in every department. I think a mistake I made early on was feeling like I needed to learn the technical language which every department spoke in order to be able to communicate with them. I learned this from Adam [Inglis], our colorist. I would talk to him with Dick Pope, our wonderful cinematographer. I would try to talk about saturation. More red, more yellow. I was speaking in color terms. Adam said, 'You will communicate better if you use purely emotional language. Tell me you want it to feel more hopeful. Tell me you want it to feel sadder. Tell me you want it to feel scarier. And I can work on trying to achieve that.' Once I heard that, it opened up this great door for me. I realized I could do that with every department. My job as a filmmaker is to set a tone, to set a standard, and create an environment in which every person can do his or her very best work. I found that it was better for me to talk about the emotion of what was going on, and let the people who are world-class craftspeople at this, work on how best to bring that to the screen.
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