Sam Rockwell in A Single Shot

A Single Shot, starring Sam Rockwell and directed by David M. Rosenthal, opened nationwide on September 20th, 2013. In advance, I sat down with Rosenthal to film an interview with him for The Jewish Channel, and we discussed his approach to portraying morality in stories for the big screen:

Why did you decide to set the film in West Virginia?

The novel is set in upstate New York, in the northernmost part of the Appalachian Mountains, which has a particular dialect to it. It was something that we considered. You know, “Do we chase that dialect?” It almost sounds a little Vermont-like. It’s very specific. And corralling all of those actors into that very narrow accent mode was something that made me very nervous. Because it takes a lot of preparation. It would have been interesting. But I figured, “Let’s just move it south. Let’s make it a little easier on everyone.” We’re not changing the story in any way. Because it’s not about the specificity of place. There’s a universality to this story. And it’s not so much where it takes place, but what happens in this little universe.

Were you at all influenced by the Coen brothers when portraying the moral aspects of the story?

I love the Coen brothers. I absolutely revere their work. So I’m very conscious to any nods that I make towards them. And one of the things that attracted me to A Single Shot when I first read it, is there is a deeply moral through line. In some ways, it almost plays in a very subtle way as a morality tale, in a very sort of classical way. Because you have this guy who makes a decision — a moral, ethical decision — when he’s backed against a wall. And he makes two very bad decisions. And as a consequence of those decisions, the world comes crashing down on him. And we watch that unfold. We know it’s coming. We see it happening. And that’s classical storytelling. It’s very Greek, in some ways. And I think the Coen brothers definitely do that. You know, I mean No Country For Old Men had similar themes. Fargo has similar themes. And I don’t know that they would say that morality is something that they chase. But it’s something that they’re probably just drawn to, whether consciously or unconsciously. Kurosawa, you’ll read about him, and that humanism and some sort of morality as a part of the storytelling was very important to him — very important to his way of telling stories. So I don’t know that it’s writ large over everything that I wanna do. But I think it’s just there. It’s part of my genetic makeup, in terms of the way I approach stories and the things that I’m drawn to.

Where do suppose people pick up their moral codes?

I think we learn morality through religion. Some people learn it through religion. And it’s passed down from our parents in concerns with lineage. But I believe that, as humans, we know deep down inside what’s right and wrong. And even when people haven’t been brought up in a religious way. Like if you do something horrible — if you steal something from someone; god forbid, if you kill someone — I think anyone would have this horrific reaction. But maybe that’s the humanist and the optimist in me.

How does rural poverty play into how John Moon acts when he comes across the money?

You know, I like to say there’s two deadly sins in this story. Particularly, there’s pride and greed. And probably, pride is even the bigger thing. Pride is his biggest sin. And actually, in Dante’s world, pride was the bigger sin. Bigger than greed. And his pride is what probably leads him to hide the body, and take the money. And that’s an interesting thing to follow. And when you start to tie in his socioeconomic background, and the fact that he was already a poor farmer before he lost everything… Sustaining yourself is a very important piece of character for someone who grows up in this community, or in communities like that. So yeah, I very much wanted to get it right. It was in the novel that he grew up in this poor farming community, and it was a time when independent farms are collapsing. And it’s still very hard for independent farmers to make it. The agrarian life is a way of life that’s changing. I mean, 60-70 years ago it was a completely different thing. And now, people are sort of scraping by. There’s so much poverty in owning your land, and working the land. It’s very hard. So these people who are so connected to the land, there’s a lot of pride in that. So there’s this double-edged sword of the pride of having that life, but then of not having anything at the same time, and being backed off a cliff. [Moon] is someone who lost his parents, probably because they lost their farm — and because of that, perhaps died early, and it shattered [Moon]‘s life. And one of the things that his wife keeps repeating to him is that “This is the thing that you have to let go.” And it’s the thing that ultimately, that’s how he redeems himself.