Last Man Standing
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director Andrew Dominik for our Web Exclusives section of the Website. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Casey Affleck) and Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins).
After making only two features, Andrew Dominik deserves to be recognized as one of the most exciting and talented writer-directors working today. Born in New Zealand, 39-year-old Dominik moved to Australia when he was two and studied at the respected Swinburne Film School in Melbourne, graduating in 1988. Rather than immediately pursuing a career in film, Dominik instead chose to ready himself by working in pop promos and commercials, fields in which he distinguished himself. In 2000, he made his feature debut, Chopper, a film about the famous Australian criminal, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, which featured Eric Bana (then a stand-up comedian) in an incendiary debut performance. Compelling, darkly funny and eminently stylish, Chopper amply demonstrated Dominik’s strong storytelling talent and visual flair and elevated him to international prominence. However, though there was talk of him adapting Alfred Bester’s 1950s sci-fi novel The Demolished Man, seven years have passed without Dominik releasing a new movie.
The wait makes The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford all the more rewarding: it is the most beautiful film of 2007, with an inherent poetry both in the sumptuousness of its images and the lyricism of its language. It is not a western in the traditional sense, but instead examines the legend of the West by putting the story of one of its iconic figures, Jesse James (Brad Pitt), and his friend and nemesis, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), under the microscope. Epic both in look and length, The Assassination of Jesse James… recalls Terrence Malick’s two masterpieces from the 70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, and has at its core a good performance from Pitt and truly great, potentially career-defining one from Casey Affleck. Despite having had a troubled history — the film wrapped back in 2005, after which Warner Bros. had Dominik repeatedly test screen and recut the film — Jesse James deserves to be a major contender when the Academy Award nominations are announced this winter.
Due to Dominik’s schedule, I was not able to interview him until after the film’s opening weekend, during which it earned a highly respectable $150,000 across five screens. The jury still seems to be out on Jesse James, though: for every rapturous rave there has been a critic who has scornfully dismissed the film. When I spoke to Dominik on the phone in Los Angeles, there was a great awareness that the ultimate fate of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — whether it end up a seminal film, or simply a footnote in history — was still very much in the balance.
Filmmaker: Chopper was a cult hit and a big success for you considering it was essentially a small Australian film. Why was there such a long gap between that and this movie?
Dominik: I wrote a number of screenplays after Chopper, and it was just difficult to finance them for one reason or another. I would work on one and write it for certain actors, but then people would not want to finance it with those actors and I wouldn’t want to change the cast, so I would just move on to another thing. It’s hard to get a movie financed unless you have a movie star, and it’s hard to find parts that you can cast movie stars in, where their celebrity’s not distracting. So Jesse James was the first one where you can put Brad Pitt in the part and the fact that he’s really famous works for you.
Filmmaker: Did you write scripts for actors in collaboration with them?
Dominik: No, not at all. I adapted a Jim Thompson novel called Pop. 1280, and I always knew I wanted Woody Harrelson to play the part. And then the one that I came closest on was a Cormac McCarthy book called Cities of the Plain, which is the third part of the Border Trilogy, which had strikes against it for that reason. All the Pretty Horses was not a beloved movie [laughs], and making a sequel to a film that had flopped was not one that was hugely appealing. And then the fact that I did not want to cast any movie stars in the film just made it all fall apart.
Filmmaker: If the new Coen brothers movie, No Country for Old Men, which is also based on a McCarthy novel, does well, do you think that Cities of the Plain might be revived?
Dominik: I don’t know. I’m curious to see where Jesse James is a month from now. I think that’ll have a bearing on what I’m able to do.
Filmmaker: What happened with The Demolished Man?
Dominik: The Demolished Man was always a development situation. I never wrote a screenplay for that one, I supervised another writer to write the script. It didn’t really come together the way I hoped it would, and Jesse James started happening so it went on the backburner.
Filmmaker: How did you first discover Ron Hansen’s novel of Jesse James?
Dominik: I was in a second-hand bookstore with a friend of mine, a guy called Roland Howard; we would periodically go to the bookstore and look around for books. He pulled it off the shelf and started reading it. When Cities of the Plain fell apart, he said, “You know, this thing would be good.” I read it and it seemed really strange and interesting.
Filmmaker: What were the challenges in adapting the novel?
Dominik: I dunno, it’s hard to say. You just go through it instinctively and try to work out the things that are important and the things that are going to create feelings, and then stitch those bits and pieces together. The book seemed to deal with one guy, Jesse James, who was really aware of his own mortality and suffering under the weight of his myth, and Robert Ford, who didn’t own the spot that he stood on and felt that if he were like Jesse he would be protected from his bad feelings about himself. So I guess I homed in on aspects of the book that really dealt with that. At the same time, it’s a really rambling, freewheeling messy story, and the other thing the book had was this sheer density of detail, which was something I found very appealing. It had this weird detached tone where you didn’t feel like you were inside the people, this feeling of remove which was also appealing. It seemed like a fully-formed, hermetically-sealed world, and the more I thought about it, the more interested I got in it.
Filmmaker: At what stage did Brad Pitt come on board? Was this partly due to Eric Bana having co-starred with him in Troy?
Dominik: Brad was a fan of Chopper and I met him just after Chopper was released, one time when I came to L.A. We went back and forth on a number of things, and I think Brad pushed for Eric to be in Troy. [Jesse James] was a project I initially took to [producers] Jules Daly and Ridley Scott and we had no success getting it set up, so I said, “Oh, fuck, I better take it to Brad.” He read the novel, and was in within 48 hours, and then it became a lot easier from that point on. He went and negotiated with Warner Brothers, and away we went.
Filmmaker: When someone like him comes on board, things quickly change.
Dominik: At a certain price range, it’s just a really good corporate decision. And when you’re making a film, you essentially have to provide people with a bargain — or they’re not going to do it! [laughs]
Filmmaker: You assembled a really great cast, with great underused actors like Casey Affleck, Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner in principal roles.
Dominik: You see everyone you can, basically, and you wait for the [right] person to walk in the door. For me, I always enjoy a film more if I don’t know who the actors are because then I just accept them as their characters. I was aware of Jeremy because I’d seen him in Dahmer, but I hadn’t seen much of guys like Paul, Garret [Dillahunt] and Casey. Obviously with Robert Ford, it’s a huge advantage to cast an unknown, because of how Bob feels about himself. Not that Casey’s unknown, but he’s not really known.
Filmmaker: How did Casey feel about taking on a role like this, and opposite someone like Brad Pitt? Did he feel pressure going into that situation?
Dominik: I’m sure he did, mate, they all do. I think Brad felt pressured. They all really believed in the material and they really wanted it to be good, and it’s natural for actors to feel some anxiety, at least for the first week or so. After that, it becomes a grind, and you’re just kinda doing it. [laughs] But it’s always that three weeks leading up to shooting that’s a difficult time for actors.
Filmmaker: What was your shoot like? The scope and length of the movie must have made it very arduous.
Dominik: It was, and it was very much laying the tracks of the train while the train was running, and it was certainly daunting to think about when you thought about it as a whole thing. People were building houses and towns and shit like that. It was a very different situation from Chopper, where it was not as big. [laughs] But at a certain point, you just surrender to the process. The thing is, you start shooting, you start seeing dailies, it’s looking good, you start to feel reassured. And you just don’t think about it, and you’re so exhausted at a certain point you can’t really be anxious about it anymore, you just try and make it work each day.
Filmmaker: Did your shoot overrun, as happens so often on movies like this?
Dominik: Did we go over? Never. We came in under. You have to do that. You’ve got to be practical, and we didn’t even shoot a pick-up for the movie.
Filmmaker: Does that mean that you lost certain scenes?
Dominik: There’s some stuff we didn’t shoot, but there’s an awful lot more that we shot that isn’t in the movie. The movie was a lot longer at a certain point. I kind of feel like it’s part of the job to make the schedule. It’s not a huge budget movie, it’s not like your making a sequel for The Matrix or anything like that. Put it this way, it wouldn’t have been allowed — so you’ve gotta deal with it.
Filmmaker: Terrence Malick seems an obvious reference point for the film, particularly his Days of Heaven.
Dominik: Visually, certainly, because it’s just one of the most beautiful movies that’s set at the turn of the century, and it was shot in the same area [as Jesse James]. I guess the film that we thought about in our heads a little more thematically was Barry Lyndon. Those were the two movies. I’m a huge fan of Terry Malick, and the writing of the book seemed to suggest that kind of treatment.
Filmmaker: Do you view this film as a western within the genre’s canon, or is it just its own thing?
Dominik: I dunno, there’s all kinds of westerns. There’s revisionist westerns, and acid westerns, and those Nicholas Ray-type neurotic westerns. And then there’s John Ford westerns, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I think we thought of it more like that kind of a movie, like Pat Garrett. When you think of the western, usually you think of more of a simple morality tale; this is more the western as a Greek curse.
Filmmaker: How much of an attempt was made to make the movie relevant to today, like in its commentary on the burden of power and people’s obsession with celebrity?
Dominik: Well, I think humans have always been the same, and people haven’t changed much since the beginning of recorded history. I guess the difference now is that everything’s much more instantaneous. Primarily, the hook into this film is the way the characters feel about themselves, and if you’re treating them as real people rather than as someone who lived in “ye olde times,” then they’re going to be relevant, because they’re just human beings. But the story also takes place at the beginning of the mass media and industrialized America, so it’s got parallels. There are people who say that movies are always about the times that they were made in, but it wasn’t a conscious “Oh, we’ve got to try and make this relevant,” it just was.
Filmmaker: From what I’ve read, the film had a pretty troubled history since wrapping, and spent a year being test screened and recut.
Dominik: The version that I liked was created before we started doing test screenings, and the final version bears considerable resemblance to that… I think previewing is a really good thing to go through, but the way that the data is analyzed is not necessarily helpful. It’s a strange film, not a very well-behaved movie, and it prompts a real extremity of reactions. People that fucking hate it, and people that love it. To me, that’s the sign that you’re doing something right, but to a corporation whose agenda is to appeal to everyone, films like this are tricky for them to accept.
Filmmaker: How tough was it for you to go through that process?
Dominik: It was hard, it was really hard. There was a variety of people who came in and had a crack at cutting the movie, but nobody could do any better.
Filmmaker: How different was it to the version on release now?
Dominik: It’s very similar. It was a battle getting round, and there’s a few differences but nothing that would… Honestly, [it's] not that different, I think I’ve done pretty well getting through that process with the movie sort of intact.
Filmmaker: And will all the footage that didn’t make it into the final film be on the DVD?
Dominik: Not the first one, but I think they are going to let me do a cut of the picture which will be about five minutes longer, and there’ll be a wealth of other stuff that will come out alongside that. Basically, there was a version of the picture that worked really well at three hours, and then we hacked at that and we got a two-and-a-half hour version that works really well. I’m not sure that the three hour version works any better, probably not, but it’s a big beast of a film and if they allow me to do a cut I’ll do something a little bit different. But not that much, and only to appease myself. Certainly those who hate the movie aren’t going to see a cut that I would do and go, “Oh, wow, we get it now!”
Filmmaker: Although in the case of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, apparently the four hour director’s cut on DVD works a lot better than the theater version.
Dominik: The problem with director’s cuts is that no one really sees them. I’m not even sure if I believe in them per se, because you can’t really give somebody back the first experience of seeing a movie. I don’t know how I feel about them, really. I guess there’s no doubt that the director’s cut of Blade Runner is better than the version that was released in the theater, but I saw that version when it came out and it still had a big impact on me.
Filmmaker: So how do you feel about Ridley Scott putting out Blade Runner: The Final Cut?
Dominik: Well, I think that “final cut” is essentially Ridley’s first cut, just the cut that he always thought was better. I think Ridley feels good about it. [laughs]
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you’ve made two movies that are strikingly different, yet they are both about folklore outlaws and killers who have missing bodyparts (Chopper an ear, and James a finger).
Dominik: I guess I actually never thought of that. With Chopper, that was one of the really appealing things for me, that for half the picture the guy’s gonna have ears — and then he’s gonna cut ‘em off, and you have to live with him without ears. I think it’s great for the main character to be deformed in some way halfway through the story, but with both characters it just happened to them [in real life]: Mark cut his own ears off, and Jesse was missing a finger. You’re just bound by the historical events, but maybe it does appeal to me, the idea of somebody becoming deformed in some way.
Filmmaker: What was the film that you made you fall in love with cinema?
Dominik: The first movie I remember seeing is The Wizard of Oz, which had a big impact on me. It’s a funny one, because The Wizard of Oz is like an authorless text, because there were four directors that worked on the picture, but it’s a really amazing film, even to this day. I’ve been affected by many films: I think I liked Planet of the Apes movies when I was a kid, and then when I was around 14 I discovered art movies like Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman and 8 ½ and I thought that was all pretty cool, and then I got into Roman Polanski, and then it was Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, and then Terry Malick and — there’s just so many of them, so many good movies. It wasn’t like I saw 2001 and thought, “I have to be a filmmaker,” or anything like that. It took me six gos at 2002 until I suddenly realized it was a masterpiece — I always thought it was dull — and then I saw a 70mm print of it, and it was the most extraordinary experience.
Filmmaker: What’s your tip for a movie masterpiece that the world has failed to recognize?
Dominik: Most movies that are really good find an audience, but the one that I really like is that Jane Campion movie, Portrait of a Lady, which I think is just a fantastic movie and has never really [got the credit it deserves]. I don’t know what the perception of that film is now, but it was a big disappointment [to people when it was released]. But I love the film. I think it’s her best movie, hands down, and it was one that didn’t really go over and seems to have affected her confidence in some way. But I thought it was really good. Most of the movies I like are pretty uncontroversial. They might have been controversial when they came out, but they’re not now. Most movies that are great have become sacred cows pretty quickly.
Filmmaker: In the case of Jesse James, are you managing to see that the initial critical reaction is not the final say on the movie?
Dominik: It’s been a weird rollercoaster ride because last week we got a batch of reviews that came in: one was Andrew Sarris, and he was saying it was a masterpiece, and then we had People magazine saying the same thing. We thought, “Fuck, this is going to be great! We’ve got highbrow and lowbrow!” and it really looked good. And then the New York Times and L.A. Times came out and just slated it. So it’s been really interesting, because I think the critical response to the movie has been really polarized. It’s not universally liked, not by any stretch of the imagination, and those that dislike it really don’t like it! [laughs] So I don’t know if that’s a good sign or a bad sign. I remember when Raging Bull came out, the Variety review was warning exhibitors not to book the picture, so when the Variety review for us came out and it was really good, part of me was like, “Fuck, maybe I’ve done something wrong…” But when do films really shake out, when do we really know if they’re important or not? It’s probably not in their initial release. But by the same token, the first time I saw Raging Bull, I knew it was one of the great, great films and I felt the same way about Barry Lyndon, which I saw when I was 12. I thought it was really strange and slow and so unusual, but it affected me hugely. But I think the critical weighing in on it has only come together very recently. I even went and saw a screening of it at the end of last year at the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences] here [in L.A.], and my feeling sitting there in the theater was that most people were sitting there feeling like it was good for them to be there.
Filmmaker: What’s your dream project? Is there something in the wings that you’re particularly looking forward to doing?
Dominik: Well, Jesse James was a big one. At the moment, I’m kind of just exhausted. It would be great to do something like [Cormac McCarthy's novel] Blood Meridian, something like that. It’s a weird thing, in a way films choose you as much as you choose them. There’s been films that I desperately wanted to do that just haven’t come together, but I’m not really in a pick-and-choose type of situation. I guess what I need to do is work in a smaller price range.
Filmmaker: What was the budget of Jesse James?
Dominik: It was low thirties, something like that. I’m not sure what the final figure was, but we certainly drove our dollar.
Filmmaker: Today $30 million is not exactly a huge budget.
Dominik: It’s not much, but it’s in that weird spot: movies are generally over $70m or under $20m, and when you do something that’s in this price range it’s a hard one for the studio because they’re not sure if it’s an art film or… Well, I guess it’s an art film because it’s not a real commercial picture, it’s not trying to deliver the things that those movies generally deliver.
Filmmaker: What are your hopes for the movie come Oscar nomination time?
Dominik: Of course I would hope that we would get all that stuff because it’s good for the picture. I think the movie’s maybe a little unusual… I don’t know how it’s going to go over with that stuff.
Filmmaker: I think Casey Affleck really merits a nomination, because he’s incredible in the movie.
Dominik: Yeah, me too and that’s a definite possibility, that one. And Roger [Deakins, the cinematographer], obviously.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the strangest experience you’ve had as a director?
Dominik: I dunno, that’s a hard one to answer. It’s always kind of weird, you know? There’s a lot of stuff that goes on, a lot of fair weather behavior that happens where the world is your oyster, and then it’s kind of your ashtray. And I’ve been through that [laughs], but I’m not sure if that’s very weird. It’s pretty normal. It’s a fear trigger industry: there’s a lot of money at stake and there’s a lot at stake for a lot of people in the making of a movie. America’s a country where it’s very important to be successful. People treat failure like it’s some disease that they might catch, but you always have to risk failure to be really successful, at least artistically. You’ve got to be prepared to fall flat on your face, and that’s kind of a scary place to be.