How ‘The Outfit’ Director Graham Moore Mined His Family History for a Twisty Crime Thriller About a Tailor

The Oscar-winning “The Imitation Game” screenwriter tells TheWrap about making his directorial debut

Mark Rylance and Zoey Deutch in "The Outfit" (Focus Features)

Graham Moore is, by his own admission, not a very good planner.

The jump from winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 2014 drama “The Imitation Game” to making his directorial debut with a noir-inspired crime thriller was not part of some grand design to one day get behind the camera. In fact, Moore followed the “surreal and overwhelming” experience of winning an Academy Award with writing a book.

“There was a lot of attention, and I went home at the end of all that with a gold trophy,” Moore told TheWrap during a recent interview. “And that was pretty surreal and a bit overwhelming, and then it was nice to get to spend some time writing another novel. And I bounced around after that between novels and films.”

Indeed, Moore said he still spends half his life writing books and the other half making films, but as the story for “The Outfit” germinated, it became clear this was personal enough that he should try directing it himself.

The Focus Features release, which is in now playing exclusively in theaters, is a contained gangster riff that takes place entirely in one location and follows Mark Rylance as the mild-mannered owner of a tailor shop who gets roped into a gang war. This principal idea was rooted deeply in Moore’s family history.

“The emotional core of this came from my grandfather,” Moore explained. “When I was about 7, my parents split up, and my grandfather became just this huge figure in my life… He was, I think, the kindest gentlest soul I’ve ever known and he was a doctor in a small town with a corner store family medical practice. And one of his patients happened to be the notorious mobster Jerry Catena.”

In “The Outfit,” Rylance plays an English tailor named Leonard who operates out of Saville Row in Chicago and allows his place of business to be used for money drops for a particular mob crew. But when one of the mobsters (played by Dylan O’Brien) shows up with a bullet in his stomach and a recorded tape that could spell doom in the wrong hands, Leonard gets involved with potentially deadly consequences.

Graham Moore on the set of “The Outfit” (Focus Features)

The story was born out of Moore’s fascination with what went on between his grandfather and this notorious mobster. “I distinctly remember my grandmother would always go to him and say, ‘What are you doing? How can you treat this man? He’s a murderer,” Moore said. “Why are you letting him through your door?’ And I remember this so vividly, my grandfather would always say, ‘He’s never been anything but a gentleman to me.’ And that was his defense of it. So I was always, since I was a little kid, fascinated by imagining what the conversations between a man as gentle as my grandfather and a vicious killer must have been. What did they talk about when the doors were closed?”

The gentle nature of Moore’s grandfather carried over into the creation of Leonard once Moore and co-writer Johnathan McClain came up with the idea for the film. It was McClain who first asked why no one’s ever made a film about a Saville Row tailor before, and the character of Leonard was born. The story didn’t click entirely into place, however, until a few years later when the screenwriters were reading a book about 20th century clothing history and happened upon a piece of novel trivia: the first bug in FBI history was planted in Chicago in 1956 inside a tailor shop in an effort to get at the mob. “Once we read that we both just looked at each other and went, ‘That’s the movie.’”

But as for taking the leap into directing, Moore explained that the decision was made because of his preciousness about the material. “It was so dear to my heart and it felt so personal, and I learned so much about the filmmaking process from making ‘Imitation Game’ that it felt like it was more respectful to this material that we were generating to take the responsibility for making it myself rather than handing the script over to someone else and saying, ‘Could you please make the film for me because I don’t know how?’” To put it another way, Moore said: “If I believe that this script could be made into a film that is as beautiful as I think it could be, then shouldn’t I take the responsibility for learning how to make it myself?”

Even with an Oscar in tow, Moore said the process of getting the film set up with him as director was not easy. But he said it helped that the budget was small, the film was contained, and he was working with familiar faces at production company Film Nation who knew him from working on “The Imitation Game.” And yet, it still took a few years before they were rolling cameras. “Some of that was the pandemic,” Moore allowed. “But some of that was just begging and pleading for the resources we needed.”

When it came to casting, who better to play a mild-mannered tailor than Oscar-winning performer Mark Rylance, a legend in the theater before breaking out on the big screen in films like “Bridge of Spies” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7?” As it turns out, it didn’t take much convincing at all to get Rylance onboard. “When Johnathan and I were getting the script around the point that we felt like it was good enough to start showing to people, he was obviously someone kept talking about as being so wonderfully perfect for it,” Moore said. “We sent it to him, and he responded very quickly… I think Mark called and said, ‘Oh no, I’m obviously perfect for this. This obviously makes sense,’ and got what it was and why it was cool. And I think Mark loves those mid-century film noirs as much as I do.”

Dylan O’Brien and Zoey Deutch in “The Outfit” (Focus Features)

The ensemble filled out with other impressive faces like Dylan O’Brien, Zoey Deutch and Johnny Flynn, but Moore assembled a top-notch team behind the camera as well – including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope. Known for his work with Mike Leigh on films like “Mr. Turner” and “Topsy-Turvy,” Pope is someone Moore had long admired, and the filmmaker was shocked when Pope took a liking to the script and wanted to sign on.

“Dick reminded me so much of Leonard our protagonist,” Moore said. “There is no part of the frame that is escaping Dick’s attention.” And to that end, Moore and Pope settled on an approach that would mirror the protagonist’s aestheticism. “The film should look like one of Leonard’s suits, which meant that there’s a classicism about it, that it’s beautiful and it’s elegant and everything is precise, that it’s not static. We actually moved the camera constantly. It’s quite a moving camera, but never handheld. It’s always moving on wheels, and every motion of the camera is precisely coordinated with the motion of the actors. It moves with the actors’ bodies, just like a suit would.”

Part of the challenge of “The Outfit” was telling a story set entirely in one location that’s visually compelling, but Moore said Pope and production designer Gemma Jackson worked in concert to design a space in which nothing is ever symmetrical. That way the camera could constantly find new angles and perspectives, despite remaining in an enclosed space.

But the most compelling aspect of “The Outfit” has to do with its colorful cast of characters, as new revelations unfold to change the game and up the stakes. “Everyone looks a certain way when we are first presented with them,” Moore explained. “We think we know who they are. We think we have them pegged. And then as the film progresses, we find that no one in the film is exactly who we thought they were when we first saw them.”

As with any good film title, “The Outfit” has more than one meaning. “[The characters] want desperately to be other than who they are, and they’re putting on these suits of clothes to play the part to everyone else – and to themselves,” Moore said.

“The Outfit” is now playing exclusively in theaters.