Academy Award-winning screenwriter Graham Moore discusses new thriller ‘The Outfit’

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Graham Moore first arrived on the literary scene as a murder and mystery author with his 2010 book “The Sherlockian” before writing the screenplay for WWII historical drama “The Imitation Game.”

Now the Academy Award-winning screenwriter for the latter makes his directorial debut with “The Outfit,” which opens in theaters Friday.

The masterful thriller set in 1950s Chicago is about an expert tailor, played by Academy Award-winner Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies, “Wolf Hall”), who must outwit a dangerous group of mobsters.

Co-written by Moore and Johnathan McClain (“Liv and Maddie”), the film also stars Dylan O’Brien (“The Maze Runner,” “Teen Wolf”), Johnny Flynn (“Beast,” “Emma”) and Zoey Deutsch (“Set It Up,” “Zombieland: Double Tap”).

We recently caught up with Moore to discuss “The Outfit,” Alfred Hitchcock and the inimitable Mark Rylance.

Graham, congratulations on “The Outfit.” So first an author then screenwriter and now film director — has that been the plan all along?

I’ve never had a plan, and I only wish I could have had one. I’m not a good planner in that way, certainly not on a career level. I’m never one of those people who could think a couple projects ahead. I’m always kind of focused on what’s the next thing I really want to do. I feel so lucky I get to kind of jump around between media in this way, that I get to work on books, work on films and also work on films in different capacities. I don’t think I ever set out to be a film director. When we made “The Imitation Game” I had never been on a film set before so I had no idea how a film was even made. The idea of ​​directing that would have seemed insane, and it would have been terrible. Then we came to this film. It felt sort of so personal and dear to my heart. I had more experience that it felt like if I really think that this script could be turned into a film as wonderful as I’m telling everyone it could be, shouldn’t I take the responsibility of learning to make it myself?

In terms of storytelling, how did being an author inform screenwriting and ultimately directing a film?

Getting to work in novels and then in screenplays and films, I’ve learned there are bits of storytelling and kinds of stories that work really well in one medium versus the other. From the early days of writing “The Outfit,” you knew it had to be a feature film because you could not communicate on the page exactly how precise and detailed the level of craftsmanship Mark Ryland’s character applies to the clothes he makes. Also, we knew it was a story that would never work on a page. It’s a movie where frequently characters are talking about one thing but we’re showing you something else while they’re trying to figure out if they’re being lied to or not. It’s kind of this grand chess match between all of the characters. Because I came from a background as a novelist, it really helped to be able to tell this story has to be a proper feature film.

In terms of the thriller genre, who was your influence for “The Outfit?”

My inspiration began with Hitchcock, Hitchcock, Hitchcock. We really looked to the kind of great Hitchcockian thrillers of the ’40s and ’50s — something like “Rope” or “Lifeboat.” Both have a similar single location concept to even something like “Rear Window,” which goes into other places but still manages to get so much tension from this place of sort of deep character. What I love about Hitchcock’s thrillers from the ’40s and ’50s — and so much kind of noir filmmaking of that period, and the great gangster dramas of that period — is that you have these white-knuckle thrillers with real people at the center where the stakes feel terribly dangerous. What I love about so much of mid-century filmmaking was in finding the terrifying kind of thrill ride in our everyday lives and throwing real people into those journeys.

What’s interesting about “The Outfit” is it often feels like a play. Was that a goal?

In some ways. It was an exciting process making the film. We were taking the things we loved about a theatrical experience and making something that still felt uniquely cinematic. For example, we got to shoot the entire film completely in order, which is something that theatrical actors might do in the rehearsal process but I’ve never worked on a feature film that did that. I don’t think any of the featured actors had done something like that before. So, because of the one-big-set nature of the film, we got to bring elements of the theatrical experience into crafting something that feels hopefully quite cinematic.

Mark Rylance in “The Outfit,” which opens in theaters Friday. (Courtesy of Nick Wall/Focus Features)

Mark Rylance’s performance is amazing to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Was he your first choice?

As far as I can tell, every filmmaker is always thinking of Mark Rylance for every part in every film. And if they’re not, they should be. We never imagined getting an actor of Mark Rylance’s caliber for a film of this size. In part because I don’t think there are any other actors in the world of Mark Rylance’s caliber. He’s in a class all by himself. It was so gratifying when we sent him the script and he sort of called up very quickly excited about it. He got exactly what we were doing, why it was interesting and why it was interesting for him to do. For me as a first-time director, it took some of the weight off my shoulders to know that I could show up in the morning, point the camera at Mark Rylance and no matter how bad I was at my job, something exciting was going to happen in front of the camera.

An underlying theme of “The Outfit” appears to be no matter how far we run, we always gravitate back to our world.

I’m glad you picked up on that. The film is about someone who makes clothes. We spent a lot of time talking about, what are clothes? These are layers of fabric that we put on between ourselves and the world. They’re communication. We’re trying to tell people something. We’re trying to hide something. All clothes are concealing something and every character in this film is concealing something. They have sort of layers themselves that we’re going to kind of slowly peel back over the course of the film just like a suit of clothes. We got excited about the layers of these characters, that they’re all lying to each other but some of them are lying to themselves.

Well, congratulations. After watching “The Outfit,” we’ll never look at a suit the same way.

I’ll take that as a high compliment. Thank you.

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