Recently estranged from his family, John Moon—Sam Rockwell's character in a A Single Shot—is a rugged, but kind-hearted loner who can't seem to commit to much of anything apart from keeping himself alive. Moon is kind of guy who ventures into a forest with a shotgun to look for dinner as naturally as most of us walk into a restaurant. He can't stomach the thought of holding down a nine-to-five. However miserable Moon's life appears at first, it takes a definitive turn for the worse when, on one of his hunting forays, he accidentally shoots and kills a girl carrying a big box of money. Instead of reporting himself to the authorities, Moon hides the body and claims the cash, hoping to use it as a springboard for a new start for him and his family. Unfortunately, things don't work out that way.
What follows is a tense and profusely bloody rural noir thriller set in a mountain community in which everyone seems to have a sin to atone for. William H. Macy play small town lawyer Pitt, seemingly Moon's sole confidant, and Jeffrey Wright fills the role of Simon, Moon's less than trustworthy best friend. Though at times A Single Shot could do with more nuance, it's held aloft by the sheer efforts of Rockwell, who, as always, offers a powerfully compelling performance.
Ahead of the film's premiere I sat down with the film's director, David M. Rosenthal, to discuss his inspirations, what makes Rockwell so damn good, and their upcoming project together.
Your last film was Janis Jones, a sentimental story about a father and daughter reconnecting. What made you want to do a crime thriller? I’ve always loved noir films. I’m very attracted to these dark themes, and dark characters. I think there's something very cathartic/classically tragic about these stories. It’s obviously far more interesting to watch people in crisis, even when they’ve done something reprehensible, than it is to watch a character who may be less conflicted.
Noir is classically set in an urban setting, but here it’s rural. Was that a challenge? There's a tension to poor little towns ‘cause it feels like anything’s possible. I don’t know if you’ve driven through these places, but you feel like, Oh, someone could come up and shoot me, get rid of my body and fuckin’ nobody would know the difference.
You have an MFA in poetry. Are there any poets that really elicited the vibe you were going for with this movie? Do you know Ted Hughes? Do you know that book Crow that he did? It’s a very dark book that I think was done after the death of Sylvia Plath. And then there's of course Edgar Allan Poe. The other big one that came to me and this is not poetry per se was The Inferno. I started to look at one of the editions of The Inferno, there was a guy named Gustave Dore who did these amazing etchings of scenes from The Inferno. They were great and I put them up in the production office as just visual references.
How’d you get Sam Rockwell on the project? Well, Sam is one of these actors who was on my list of, I-hope-someday-to-work-with-these people. Sam Rockwell is definitely high up. I saw him in Moon, and Assassination of Jesse James, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and I thought he would be perfect. And when he read it, responded to it, and wanted to meet, I was excited and nervous. But he's just the most down to earth guy.
What is it about Sam Rockwell that he seems only to do really great projects? It’s funny, isn’t it. This term is bandied about in the acting world, but “inner life”—you know, when you can watch someone like Daniel Day-Lewis opening up a candy bar in a way that [keeps you] riveted. Sam’s got such depth, there's such inner life. And Sam’s unusual in that he has this tremendous range, cause he can do comedic stuff, and then do a movie like Moon, or A Single Shot. That’s rare. I think people recognize that in him, and are drawn to it. Everybody says the same thing: if it’s a Sam Rockwell movie, it’s going to be good. Now we’re really close friends and he’ll tell me about things that he's up for, projects, and you know, he really chews it over. It’s not like, how much are they paying me? How long is the shoot? He doesn’t care about that shit.
Do you know what your next project is? Sam and I are doing another thing together.
Can you talk about it? Well, Sam has been boxing for over ten years and is a really good boxer. And I’m into it as well and we want to make a boxing movie. Someone told me a story about this folk hero, like a journeyman boxer from the 1920s, a guy named Billy Miske. Google "inspirational sports stories," and his will be one of the stories that would come up. [Miske] was diagnosed with a fatal liver disease and they gave him a death sentence. He was really sick, so he went to his doctor and [the doctor] said, "You're dying. Obviously you have to stop boxing, and get your affairs in order." And he was like, "Okay, this is between you and I, don’t tell anybody anything." [Miske] had a lot of money problems—he wasn’t very good with money—and he has these two young children and a wife, and he just keeps boxing. He keeps getting in the ring. And this was a time when boxers were boxing, like, twice a month. They were just tough as nails. He gets so weak that he can't even train anymore. Then he gets cancer, he can't even really fight anymore. He stops fighting, and things get worse, you know, things are bad for him financially still, and they come and take the furniture out of his house, and Christmas is coming.
He begs his trainer to get him one more bout. His trainer’s like, "I’m not going to be a part of your death in the ring. Someone’s going to hit you and you're going to die, and I don’t want to be a part of that." And [Miske’s] like, "I’m going to die anyway. I would rather die in the ring, and leave my family something." He made a very emotional plea. And he gets a bout, and he sets up a fight with a serious heavyweight boxer. He can't even train. The press is coming around, they want to see him in training camp, and he's like, nowhere to be found, he's up in the country. They're like, Oh, he's doing special country training but he couldn’t even get out of bed. The bout comes and he barely gets to the ring. He gets in and he's getting the shit beat out of him, and in the fourth round, like, you think he's gonna just get murdered.
And out of nowhere, in the fourth round, from god knows where, he gets the strength, and he starts fighting this guy, and he knocks him out It’s just like, a miracle. He wins the purse and he's able to put furniture back in his house, and buy a Christmas tree, and buy gifts for his family, buy a standup piano for his wife. And then the next day he crawls to the phone—the day after Christmas—and calls his trainer and says, I gotta go to the hospital, I’m dying. And his wife comes down and on the way to the hospital is when he tells her that he's dying. He goes into a coma and four days later, he's dead. He dies on New Year’s Day. And then it comes out, he becomes a kind of folk hero because of this tremendous sacrifice. It’s like a perfect movie.
That’s a great story. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been turned into a movie. I told Sam, and Sam was like, Oh, this is amazing, it’s fantastic, let’s do this.
Do you have a title for that?
We don’t have a title for it. The guy’s name was Billy Miske. He was known as the St. Paul Thunder Bolt, but I don’t know if that’s the title for the movie, I think it’s gotta be something a little bit more interesting than that.
A Single Shot opens nationwide starting today.