Interview: Chicago Native Graham Moore on the Precision of The Outfit, the Art of the Reveal and Setting the Film in 1950s Chicago

When last we met Chicago native Graham Moore, he was picking up an Oscar for his first produced screenplay, 2014’s The Imitation Game. If memory serves, at the time, he also had a draft completed for an adaptation of Erik Larson’s bestselling book The Devil in the White City, which has since moved on to other writers and producers as far as we know. Since then, he and writing partner Johnathan McClain collaborated on a fantastic tale, set in 1950s Chicago, about an English tailor named Leonard (Mark Rylance) who operates a low-key shop with his assistant. Mable (Zoey Deutch), where he makes impeccable clothes for whoever can afford them, including a mob boss named Roy (Simon Russell Beale), and his lieutenants (Dylan O’Brien and Johnny Flynn). The mobsters also use Leonard’s shop to house a dropbox that gets filled up every day with protection money for Roy’s services, and as shady characters move in and out of Leonard’s shop, he keeps his head down, on his work, and he listens.

That’s the jumping-off point for The Outfit, which takes places mostly in one day and night, and only in the shop’s three rooms. But as the night goes on, a gang war sparks off and chaos ensues, all of which is seen and talked about from this modest establishment. We learn more about each character during the course of the film, both their backstories and details about who they really are today, with Leonard offering advice, observations, and even his sewing skills in lieu of an actual doctor to stitch up someone’s wounds. The film builds an incredible amount of tension, and the writing reveals itself to be note perfect and carefully crafted, revealing each detail at precisely the right moment. And to top it all off, Moore opted to make this his feature directing debut, making his deceptively simple screenplay (that could have easily been turned into a play) into something beautifully cinematic.

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Moore once again to discuss what went into getting The Outfit made during a pandemic, the usefulness of having a few world-renowned theater actors in key roles, and the art of the reveal. Please enjoy…

Hi, Graham. Good to see you again.

Good to see you. How long has it been?

I think you came to Chicago for an Oscar-push screening of The Imitation Game, maybe at the end of 2014.

Yeah, that whole Oscar thing. There were many trips for like six months, and the whole campaign felt like this train, you’d think “Are we going to get off here? Nope, we’re going to keep going, I guess. We’re still doing this.” I kept assuming that our train would get derailed at some point in the process, and then it would be over.

Technically, you were derailed by winning an Oscar.

[laughs] That did stop it, yeah.

At the time, I was writing under the name Capone for another website.

Oh, god. That’s right.

So gangster movies are a little bit my thing. This is not a traditional gangster movie, but it is a movie about gangsters, and there’s a difference. Was The Outfit a deliberate attempt to deconstruct what we know of as the gangster film? What I learned from this movie is that the guy in the room without the gun and who isn’t yelling is the one you have to keep your eye on more than anything.

Very much so, and I’m so glad that resonated with you. Like you, I am obsessed with the great gangster films and film noirs of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Those are some of my favorite films. So with this story, we got really excited about the idea of finding a new lens on these great crime thrillers, as well as the Hitchcockian thrillers, which are clearly an inspiration for this. By telling the story of this gangland warfare not from the perspective of the gangsters but from the perspective of this mild-mannered tailor who’s making their clothes, it’s providing us with a new lens into it. We would talk so much about how, in a more traditional film, you show a lot of things that we cut out, like massive gun battles. They happen in this film, but off screen. We don’t see them.

They are exactly nine gunshots in this entire film. It feels like there’s more, but there are only nine, and I know this precisely because our brilliant sound team worked very hard on each of them. They had just finished No Time To Die, where there are significantly more than nine gunshots. We wanted to do something where, in some ways, the more traditional gangster story is happening off-screen, and we’re looking at what’s happening in this strange little corner of a tailor shop hideout while World War III is happening in Chicago just out of frame.

Courtesy of Focus Features

You called Leonard a tailor a second ago, and almost every time someone calls him that, he corrects them by saying “I’m a cutter.” And every time he says that, I got a chill. That’s the first time I asked myself  “What’s that about? Why is that important to him?” I’ve seen a lot of films made during the pandemic now, and this struck me as one because of its single location and your use of a small group of actors. It feels like a play in some ways. You have a couple of prestigious British theater actors in this. Was that one of the things that drew you to them, because they knew how to dig into the material as they might a theater piece?

It’s funny, I’ve been a fan of Mark Rylance on screen and on stage for years; same with Simon Russell Beale, who’s obviously a titan of the West End stage. But it was always written to be a single-location film years before the pandemic. In fact, we were in prep and getting ready to shoot the movie when the pandemic broke out in the spring of 2020. And there was a moment, as there were with many films at the time, when we went “Are we not going to get to make this now?” But Mark was great and willing to wait for us for a while until we figured out how to shoot it safely and responsibly. On some level, we always wanted to play with the theatricality of the piece versus the purely cinematic things we could do in that space. For example, the really intricate opening sequence where we see Mark Rylance build a suit from scratch, and the camera gets so close to the fabric and threads and work and the intricacy of the work he’s doing. That scene would be something entirely different on stage, you’d be 100-feet back and you might not see all of that. And we got so excited about showing the work a master cutter does; it’s so intricate and dexterous, the precise finger work. How do we show that and communicate that skill to an audience? So at the same time, there were things about it that were theatrical, but in terms of the actors, they are just some of my favorite actors in the world.

Mark and Simon had never done anything together before, but they’ve known each other for years and got very excited about doing something together. They would be the first to say that they’ve been up for all the same parts throughout their careers, since they were around 20, and they’ve somehow never done anything on stage or on screen together. That scene where they’re on opposite sides of the table, and Simon puts his gun on the table and Mark puts his sheers on the table, was such a thrill to shoot. It was one of those times when I knew I just had to get out two cameras, point one at Simon, one at Mark, and then I was not going to say another word.

I literally have in my notes: “Did you just step back and let it happen?”

Yes! I don’t think I gave a single note or suggestion. There was some blocking to figure out, so we had to discuss how to move around the scene, but that was something where I wanted to just watch them. So we had a two-camera setup, and it was great having them, in real time, play off each other and really respond to every micro-move the other one was doing. And the other way it was like a play…

You’re about to take my next question.

Oh really? I was just going to say, we were able to shoot the whole thing in order.

There you go.

Great! It works out. We’re on the same wavelength.

Once we decided it was all going to be on the one big set, we started asking ourselves, “There are any number of challenges photographically and aesthetically, but what are some of the opportunities it presents? How do we use that to our advantage?” And one of the first ideas we had was shooting the entire thing in perfectly chronological order. I had never done that before; I don’t believe any of the actors had done it before. I called Mark up and asked him “Would you be excited about this?” And as a theater actor, he said, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never gotten to do this.” They were all thrilled. And what getting to shoot in order meant was that Scene 1 was him walking through the door of the shop—the first shot of the movie. On the last day, he leaves. What that meant was, for the actors, they had a lot more room to experiment with performance, counter-intuitively maybe, because they were never locked into a decision they’d made a week before. We never had a situation where they would try a scene at a different emotional temperature and have us say, “You can’t actually walk out of this scene really angry because we’ve already shot the scene after it, and you enter not looking angry. Sorry, you can’t do that.” Instead, if we found something that was exciting—as we did every day—they could carry that with them into future scenes. Even if there were ideas or new pieces of dialog, new little dynamics we found as we were shooting, we could go and make script changes to have something pay off later in the shooting schedule.

Leonard tells a story at one point about how, from almost the second he landed in Chicago, he was pulled into this world. You almost get a sense that he’s starting to think “I guess this is just the world I’m meant to be in,” meaning the criminal world. Are we meant to believe that he’s somehow fated to work for criminals?

Yeah. Leonard is someone who, when we meet him at the start of the film, all he wants to do is lock himself away inside the shop and pretend the outside world doesn’t exist. He just crafts these beautiful, perfect objects. He believes that if he just shuts the door tightly enough and locks it, the violence and horror that exists out in the streets won’t find its way in. He can make these beautiful things and pretend that the real world doesn’t exist. And what he finds out over the course of the story, as I think we all find out in real life, is that you can shut your eyes, but the world is still there. You can’t pretend. You can try to pretend that some of the horrors of the real world aren’t out there, but at some point, it’s going to come knocking on your door. And then the question is, what do you do about it?

I’m huge fan of films that show people doing their jobs. In most cases, you learn more about a person from watching them at work than you do from dialog. What did you want us to learn about Leonard from just watching the meticulous way in which he works?

I’m glad that resonated with you. That’s something I learned from Michael Mann, who is one of my favorite filmmakers in the world and someone I’ve worked with a little bit. If I used the word “mentor,” it would be to flatter me not him [laughs]. He would say, “Oh, yeah. Graham. He’s nice.” His work is so masterful at just showing you people doing things. In the opening scene of The Outfit, you don’t totally understand what he’s doing. There are these odd tools, and the audience doesn’t really know what the tools are. You get the basic gist of what’s happening, but it’s all perfectly real. It looks real because it is real. Mark actually trained with Savile Row tailors to be able to do that. We’re not faking it; you cannot fake expertise, you can’t fake skill. You have to actually do it, and that’s something I learned from Michael. He was always passionate about that. Just learn how to do it and then do it.

What we wanted to show with Leonard was, I was really interested in the psychology of someone who has spent decades and decades perfecting such an esoteric craft. I spent time with cutters and tailors, time in the basement of a Savile Row shop talking to these people who had devoted decades to learning how to do this really precise thing. Their customers don’t necessarily understand why they’re so good at it; they know it seems to work, but they don’t know how much skill and craft go into this kind of work. Maybe no one really does, unless you’re actually doing it yourself. To understand Leonard’s psychology, we need to see just how difficult it is to make clothing at the level that he’s learned how to make it.

Why did you set this film in Chicago in the 1950s?

The initial idea to set the film in Chicago came because it was inspired by this real story. The first bug that the FBI ever planted in its history, they planted to get at the mob in Chicago in 1956 inside a tailor shop. Once we found that out, we said, “That sounds like a movie.” We got the whole idea from that nugget. Why don’t we tell a classic mob film but set it inside this tailor shop? The Chicago underworld history of the 1950s is such a rich place. Every character in the film was inspired by a real figure from the Chicago underworld. All the bits of gangland turf war that’s going on outside were inspired by real turf wars that were going on then. In a way, the 1950s felt like a period in the Chicago underworld history that we don’t see as much, bizarrely. We see a lot of ’20s and ’30s material, with Al Capone, and then we’ve seen some from the ’70s and ’80s. But when we think of the 1950s, we think of The Godfather and the great families of the east coast criminal empires. But what was exciting about the Chicago underworld in the 1950s is that you’ve got these huge money estates on the east coast, like in The Godfather. In Chicago, this is what’s happening among these mid-level organizations on the streets.

Thank you so much, Graham.

Of course. This was really lovely. I’m so glad we got to have such a specific chat. Thank you.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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