Graham Moore won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for the 2014 film “The Imitation Game,” his first feature credit. It would take until 2022 for him to have another film in theaters, though Moore insists he has been anything but lazy in the intervening years.
“I did publish two novels between then and now,” Moore said recently during a phone conversation we had together. He added that in addition to his recent novels, “The Holdout” and “Last Days of Night,” he was always writing scripts and pitching ideas to the studios.
“I feel like when any movie ever gets made, it’s a minor miracle of various stars aligning in just the right way,” he said. “And that was certainly our case with this one.”
“This one” he refers to is called “The Outfit,” which Moore directed from an original screenplay he cowrote with Johnathan McClain. The film stars Oscar-winner Mark Rylance as Leonard, an English tailor who worked on London’s Savile Row before a tragedy stoked his move to America. Now in business in a mobster-infested area of Chicago, Leonard sews clothing for the city’s midcentury hoodlums, who also use the tailor shop as a depot to relay messages to a mysterious underworld syndicate known only as “the Outfit.”
Moore said that he and McClain loosely based their script around the story of a real tailor, whose Chicago operation was the first establishment to ever be “bugged” by the FBI as part of a sting operation in 1956.
“We were instantly fascinated by the dynamics between that tailor and the mob, what must it have been like to be this neat, quiet, expert tailor making clothes for these vicious killers whose secrets he has to keep,” Moore said.
Indeed, the entirety of “The Outfit” takes place inside Leonard’s shop, which not only makes the movie feel like a filmed play but heightens the claustrophobia as things go from bad to worse for Leonard during one rather chilly Chicago evening. Moore said he and McClain started out with the conceit of a single set merely as an experiment but rapidly realized this was key to unlocking their story.
“It felt so much more intriguing to us because…rather than being some kind of film school gimmick, the restrictions on [the] place were actually putting us further inside the psychological state of our main character,” said Moore. “Our main character, played by Mark Rylance, has locked himself away in his shop, making his beautiful things. He never leaves the shop over the course of the film, and so we never leave the shop. We only go where he goes. We only see what he sees. We only hear what he hears.
“So rather than a constraint, it actually felt psychologically and emotionally quite freeing.”
Moore, who is originally from Chicago, said that his cowriter McClain was the first friend he made upon moving to Los Angeles over a decade ago. Moore went to see McClain’s staging of a play by George Bernard Shaw, and the two became not only fast friends but kindred spirits in crafting stories.
“Jonathan saw me go through these strange couple years from living on a couch to making a film and winning an Oscar,” Moore said of his friend.
Moore said McClain “has forgotten more about the process of crafting bespoke men’s clothing than I will ever know,” and thus was a perfect resource as the pair researched the finer points of what would drive Leonard, the Savile Row tailor living in America, and his daily life. It also helped that he and McClain were so friendly that they could leave their egos at the door when crafting the screenplay.
“If I wrote something and Jonanthan hit the delete key over an entire page of something I had done, I trusted him enough to know he was probably right,” Moore said. “And vice versa.”
Rylance, the film’s star, was game to shoot the film in Chicago, but the pandemic forced the production to rethink their plan. Eventually, they settled on constructing the tailor shop on a soundstage in London, not far from Rylance’s home.
“We had to be able to completely design it from the floor to the ceiling so that we could shoot it exactly the way we wanted it,” Moore said. “It had to be sort of designed within an inch of its life.”
But rather than import an American cast—save for Zoey Deutch, who plays one of Leonard’s employees—Moore cast British actors and had them work with dialect coach Kate DeVore on approximating the Windy City gangster patois of the fifties.
“Kate is actually the head dialect coach at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, which is a few blocks from where I grew up,” Moore said of the vaunted theater company cofounded by Gary Sinise, and whose alumni include John Malkovich and Joan Allen. “Because of covid there weren’t a lot of plays going up in Chicago in the spring of 2021, so [DeVore] started talking with all of our actors on the phone and really figuring out the hyperspecificity of accents.”
The end result is a tense, claustrophobic exercise in screen craft that moves in unexpected ways and ratchets up the anxiety thanks to unexpected outbursts of violence and major plot twists. And in Leonard, Ryland portrays a man of business and craft who is plunged into a harrowing night of mayhem. However, he’s not someone who can simply fight his way out of the situation, so he has to rely on his wits to survive the horrific evening.
And Moore, who already has an Oscar to his credit, can now add the word “director” to his resume—even if it took so long to get his next movie made.
“It’s been quite an eight years for us all,” he said of the break following “The Imitation Game,” “but I’m so glad to have another film.”
“The Outfit” is in select theaters today.