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Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard explore extreme activism in 'Night Moves'

Dakota Fanning
Dakota Fanning

The dramatic film “Night Moves” (directed and co-written by Kelly Reichardt) is the story of three radical environmentalists coming together to execute the most intense protest of their lives: the bombing of a hydroelectric dam — the very source and symbol of the energy-sucking, resource-devouring industrial culture they despise. The movie’s title comes from name of the boat that was used to carry out the bombing. The trio’s plan to bomb the dam takes an unexpected turn when tragedy strikes and their lives are changed forever

Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard at the New York City press junket for "Night Moves"
Carla Hay

Harmon (played by Peter Sarsgaard) is a former Marine, radicalized by tours of duty overseas. Dena (played by Dakota Fanning) is a high-society dropout, sickened by the consumer economy into which she was born. And Josh, their leader (played by Jesse Eisenberg), is a self-made militant, devoted to the protection of the Earth by any means necessary. Here is what Fanning and Sarsgaard said during a roundtable interview with me and other journalists at the New York City press junket for “Night Moves.”

Peter, Kelly Reichardt has said you brought a different interpretation to the role of Harmon than how she originally envisioned it. You made him more menacing, possibly a little more mysterious — and she like your interpretation. When you read the script, what initially sparked you to play the character the way that you did?

Sarsgaard: I thought you were going to say more affable, a little bit funnier … I pretty much always have my interpretation. So it will inevitably be different than someone else's interpretation, just like if you and I read the same book, it will be the same story, in some sense. But I don't know what her [original] interpretation was.

When we were first working on [“Night Moves”], she was definitely saying, "This is different than I thought it would be." But it wasn't like she said, "Stop what you're doing." When she was cutting [the movie], she emailed me and said, "I really like what you did. It wasn't what I thought it would be." I was like, "Oh, I'm glad I almost disappointed you, but pulled it out at the last minute."

Dakota, can you talk about your Dena leaving behind her privileged life to become an environmental activist who lives in sustainable community? Did you work on your character's back story with Kelly Reichardt?

Fanning: Do indie films not have back story?

Sarsgaard: I think of studio films as not having back story?

Fanning: I usually find, for any kind of film, I usually focus on the present of the person that I'm playing and what's in the script and what’s in the story. So I never really put a lot of importance on back story.

But Kelly did say some things that helped me in talking about the character, more so than in playing her. She said perhaps [Dena] comes from a wealthy background, but is now leaving that behind. For her, this act they're committing is about being independent and a big move she's making on her own, away from her family or her parents.

I can relate to that, obviously being the same age as her, feeling that you want to do something important and leave something behind, and also actually do something you can actually see. Everybody can say they're going to do things, but when you do something that you can actually see the effects of pretty immediately, like blowing up a dam. I can understand the motivation. So that was the little bit of back story, which I never really thought about while I was making the film.

Are either of you activists in your own lives? And if so, did you bring that to your “Night Moves” characters?

Sarsgaard: I'm an anti-death penalty activist. The first movie I ever did was “Dead Man Walking.” I met Sister Helen Prejean [played by Susan Sarandon in the movie]. For the last 20 years, that's been the thing I feel most intensely about. I consider that humanism, while other people would consider it betrayal to normal society.

My character's reasons for doing this are different than Dakota's character's reasons, which are different from Jesse's. But deep down in for all of us, even for Harmon, I think they believe they're doing something positive for the world. So there's good will feeling amongst them. Of course, my character being a former Marine makes it more complicated, in terms of why he thinks blowing things up is a good idea.

Fanning: I don't know if I can call myself an activist for one particular thing. I feel like everybody is an activist in something.

Sarsgaard: There is a lay threshold. Like, what have I actually down in terms of the death penalty? I've done a few things over the past 20 years, and I talk about it. When you in conversation when you find yourself talking about something, I’d say that that’s being an activist. You don't need lay down your body on the tracks or blow something up.

Fanning: I've never done anything like that. But in terms of the issues in this film, like the environment, I think I'm as much of an activist as everyone should be.

Sarsgaard: I support Sea Shepherd. I give them money. Is that activism or supporting people who are really intense activists? What they do is pretty [intense]. They’re ramming into ships on the high seas.

Was there anything from your own lives that you brought to your characters?

Fanning: No. Well, being other than being a person of the same generation and seeing things that frustrate you, and feeling there's nothing you can do, that the problems are so big that you’ll never be able fix it — and always looking at the big picture and thinking everything's so terrible, instead of looking at the small picture and what you can do to make a change.

Sarsgaard: In a Kelly Reichardt movie, to me, most of what you bring is yourself. That's mostly what she wants … She would totally lose her mind if you [made suggestions on how the character should walk and talk]. It's not like she casts people and expects them to transform completely. That’s not what she wants. She's not interested in that.

Fanning: I dyed my hair dark.

Sarsgaard: There you go. The way Harmon lived, I actually camped out for some of the filming. It was too cold for a lot of it. I had this whole plan that I was going to camp out the whole time. It was so cold!

But in terms of the way he's living, that's very appealing to me — isolated in nature. His whole camp looks like it was made after some sort of nuclear holocaust, as he just scrapped together a bunch of things.

Did you know each other before you began filming “Night Moves”?

Sarsgaard: We [Dakota and I] knew each other before we began filming.

Fanning: Yes, Peter and I knew each other before. I met Jesse the day before we started shooting. He drove me to work and then home every day, so that gave us a lot of time to get to know each other.

The way this movie was filmed was that we had a very small group of people, and everyone was together all the time. There was a big RV where me, Peter, Jesse, hair, makeup, wardrobe, producers — anyone else who needed a place to sit — we were all together.

There was no, "OK, I'm going back to my trailer until you need to come get me." There was none of that. So there was no way you couldn't get to know people well and become close.

Sarsgaard: But I lived in a different town during the filming [of “Night Moves” in Oregon], but it’s because I'm an adamant long-distance runner, and I wanted to be at the trail head. So I lived right at the trail head. My friend owns a running store across the street from where I was staying.

I ran up in the mountains. It’s a runner's paradise partly because the drainage is so good, so the trails are soft but never muddy.

Fanning: Boy, the things you think about: soft but not muddy! [She laughs.]

Sarsgaard: You want the pines, because it’s all evergreen, and then the pine needles come down on the trail. It’s all drained. It’s like running on a bed of pine needles. It’s amazing.

Do you both find it easier working on a smaller film than a bigger-budget movie, in terms of relating to each other?

Sarsgaard: I don't know. In a big budget movie, there's so much time, which can be nice if you're someone who likes that. They can say, "We're going to shoot this long scene over three days." You're like, "Oh good, I don't have to learn it then." So that's easy.

Fanning: I was thinking about that. On bigger films, you can start a sequence, and then you’re doing it for three weeks. That's so different, but I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing.

Kelly would never be able to do that. Kelly does one take for just about everything, and then moves on. She's really fast.

Sarsgaard: She did one take of …

Fanning: A four-page scene with a ton of dialogue. Yeah, she did one take, and then she said, “We’re done.” I was like, "OK, wow."

Sarsgaard: I remembered it, but just barely. I think she wants it all like that. I think the tendency for all of us, because we're so media saturated, is to make every movie we're in like other movies we've seen. It's sort of natural. You go, “This pause is too long,” or “I need to take a little longer pause.” It’s all BS based on other movies. That's absolutely what she's trying to avoid. If there's an awkward pause, if there’s an awkward moment, that’s fine.

Did you have any time to improvise?

Sarsgaard: I don’t think we ever improv’ed. I actually don't really like improv.

Fanning: Me, neither. I'm much happier saying what the writer written me to say, unless it sounds completely unnatural.

Sarsgaard: I feel the need to improvise in a more structured Hollywood movie, because it’s so sterile, and I want to wake it up. But this is so alive, why would I improvise? It would make it seem muddy.

What do you hope “Night Moves” conveys about activism?

Sarsgaard: I don't think if it's meant to do that. But it's interesting that I am an activist, so I am interested in what it does convey. But I don't think its intention is to convey any kind of message in regard to that. One reason why I think you may be asking that question is that in the movie, t’s not exactly crystal-clear

Basically, it starts at one point, and it ends at another. It doesn’t have,
O, now there’s one to grow on, and there’s the big scene where he feels bad about what he's done and confesses it and has a talk with a priest,” or something like that, which is in other movies. Even in talking about the movie [Kelly Reichardt] would say, “Just don’t get into that.”

Fanning: Kelly would say, "This movie doesn't have a message."

Sarsgaard: The message that I take away from it though? I've heard people say, “This is condemning a certain type of environmental activism.” It’s basically showing consequences of an action.

My character is as much a Marine as much as he's an environmental activist. So what does that say about Marines or war, as much as it says about environmental activism? In my opinion, [Josh and Dena] wouldn't be able to do what they did without a Marine who knew what he was doing. They didn't know how to blow anything up.

They need a guy who was trained to blow things up. Who was he trained by? He was trained by the U.S. government. I don't think Kelly's meaning to say anything in that regard, either. That’s another little trail it takes, and she’s trying to create a wealth of different meanings.

Fanning: I agree. I think by being in this film and talking about it, I've realized the need for people to have a message for the film. “What does it mean for you, or what does it mean to people?”

I think sometimes it's not supposed to mean anything. I think going to see a film or any art is about the individual experience you have with it. If it takes on some sort of meaning for you, that's great. I think with this one, it isn’t really clear what sort of message it would be. It wasn’t made with the intention of a message.

Sarsgaard: If it were made by a right-wing person, and they were trying to condemn extreme left-wing, liberal behavior, it wouldn't be this morally complex. It would be more straight, in terms of trying to convey its meaning.

So I think anyone who might have some sort of problem with it might be some extreme left-wing person who is so self-preserving, in terms of what they believe. They might say this a right wing attack, but it's profoundly not that. That's the only thing I've heard, in terms of people coming away from [watching “Night Moves”]: "Well, you're attacking lefties." It’s about these three people.

Would you like to say anything about Jesse Eisenberg's Josh character, since he's not here?

Sarsgaard: He has so much anxiety. I used to watch him in scenes, and I'd be like, "Is he pulling his nail off his finger?" To me, what's kind of extraordinary about his performance is the pitch he keeps his performance at throughout the story.

[Dena] is someone who disassociates. [Harmon] is someone who disassociates in this movie. The person who's disassociating the least is him. So [Josh] is carrying the weight for so much of the movie until the sh*t hit the fan.

You both have something else in common with Jesse Eisenberg: You’ve played villains in big-budget movies based on popular fantasy books: He’s in “Batman vs. Superman,” Dakota has done “Twilight” movies and Peter was in “Green Lantern.” What’s the most important thing you learned from those experiences?

Fanning: I didn’t really work on those films that much. I was there three or five days. The most I was there was three weeks for the last one [“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2”]. So I think people think you were there all the time, and I just really wasn’t.

It wasn’t the first time I had done something that was bigger-budget. It was my first experience with a big thing with some of the other actors in the movie. I don’t know what I learned.

Sarsgaard: When I play a villain in something like “Green Lantern,” I used to say it was putting a 14-year-old version of me in a chair right there, and I’m going to entertain the crap out of him. I’m going to make him, make him squeal with delight — all that stuff that a 14-year-old wants.

And I had a blast doing it. I wanted to have fun in a movie like that. That’s what it means to play a villain in “Green Lantern.” I had a prosthetic head. There’s all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t be having fun.

I did actually have a good time because I knew I could [he says in a menacing voice] talk like this. I could do whatever. It didn’t matter. This could be anything.

Fanning: [She laughs] I couldn’t talk like that [in a villain voice].

But you had a menacing stare in the “Twilight” movies.

Fanning: That was just because of the contact lenses. I didn’t have to do anything. I had red eyes. You just had to open your eyes and you’re good. [She laughs.]

Dakota, why did you change your hair color from blonde to brunette for “Night Moves”?

Fanning: Kelly, in a polite way, said she didn't really think it would be believable for me to have really blonde hair as this character in this world. I had already been thinking that.

Sarsgaard: Look at the poster and how different it would look.

Fanning: It would be so different! In these areas of Oregon that we were in, and seeing these activists and environmentalists ....

Sarsgaard: She’s being polite. She's too pretty. They had to take her down a notch. It's not believable that such a pretty girl would do something so intense. That's what it is, Dakota.

Fanning: Too blonde!

Sarsgaard: [He says jokingly] Blondes don’t have minds!

Some of the big moments in “Night Moves” happened off screen, such as the bombing. We also don’t see Harmon talking on the phone when he has phone conversations with Josh. What was that like for you?

Sarsgaard: We actually didn't shoot the phone calls. It was always just going to be my voice. I consider that most significant aspects of my performance. We recorded it in the back of a car in about 10 minutes. I was into the presence for the phone calls via the second half of the movie. There's something about a disembodied voice that's almost like it's in [Josh's] head.

Fanning: I think I would have hated it in this movie if you were watching us [Dena, Harmon and Josh] see the dam blow up. I think because we don’t see any of that, and this movie is about these three people and their experiences with everything, I think you were getting to experience what we actually experience. We don’t know what it looked like because we were in the car driving away. That’s where the audience goes with us.

Sarsgaard: I think Kelly at every step tries to make the questions as complicated as possible. The way she was cutting [the movie] was very thin, which I like.

For more info: "Night Moves" website

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