John Dahl, You Kill Me
John Dahl has unquestionable cinematic flair and a genuine talent for telling unconventional stories, yet he never set out to be a film director. Growing up in Montana in the 60s and 70s, his great passions were art and music: he studied fine art in college, then dropped out to become a commercial artist and play in rock ‘n’ roll bands. Still uncertain of his place in the world, he ended up at film school where he focused on directing. After graduation, he worked as an assistant director and storyboard artist in Hollywood, then began directing music promos and wrote his first film, P.I. Private Investigations (1987). He co-wrote the first two features he directed, Kill Me Again (1989) and Red Rock West (1992), both stylish neo-noirs, and gained even greater acclaim for his next film, The Last Seduction (1994). His form dipped with Unforgettable (1996), but he bounced back with two very entertaining studio pictures, Rounders (1998) and Joy Ride (2001). Both Joy Ride and his most recent film, World War II epic The Great Raid (2005), were difficult, drawn-out productions which made him decide to return to the indie fold.
In the resulting film, You Kill Me, Dahl continues his love affair with the modern noir. Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley, playing delightfully against type) is an alcoholic hitman working for the Polish mafia in Buffalo; his drinking gets in the way of his work so much that his boss, mob don Roman (Philip Baker Hall), banishes him to San Francisco to dry out. Frank starts going to AA, and is given a job in a funeral home where he meets Laurel (Téa Leoni), a ballsy woman who seems to accept him despite his flaws. You Kill Me has great performances from its leads and boasts a fine supporting cast (which includes Luke Wilson, Bill Pullman and Denis Farina), but is most enjoyable because of its deliciously dark, dry sense of humor and the vigor with which Dahl brings to life Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s rich screenplay.
Filmmaker spoke to Dahl about making films when you can’t afford the lenses, why he won’t be making The Punisher 2, and his rock musical, Here Come the Pugs.
Filmmaker: You Kill Me seems to me an unlikely project for Ben Kingsley, but he’s superb in the film. It must have been a leap of faith to cast him in that role.
Dahl: I was sent the project by Carol Baum, one of the producers, after they had the script with Ben Kingsley attached, also as producer. A lot of times when an actor’s attached, it’s a great part but not necessarily a good movie. With this one, I really like the script, but I also thought it was a really interesting part for Ben Kingsley.
Filmmaker: It’s an incredibly enjoyable film to watch. Was that a translation of the fun you were having on set?
Dahl: Well, it was not an easy movie to make because there was really very little money. As a matter of fact, at one point I remember having a conversation with one of the producers, and I wanted to get a wide angle lens for a certain shot. That was an extra $150, and they were saying, “We just don’t have that.” I think Téa overheard the conversation, and said, “They’re not even going to give you a lens?!” “Well,” I said, “it’s a super-wide lens we need for just one shot.” She said, “You know what, I’ll get the lens, dammit!” So that part of it wasn’t fun, and I think we all knew going into it how brutally tight the money would be, but on the other hand, what that affords you is a lot more creative control. I don’t think I’ve had a film where I saw eye to eye with [the leads] so instantly. We all loved the script and just wanted to get the script onto film.
Filmmaker: Was this a conscious return to noir cinema for you?
Dahl: I’d like to think that you can make those big choices in life, but ultimately I’m sitting in my office one day and I get a script. I read it and I think, “I could make this. I know how to make this movie.” I think I knew that I wanted to do a smaller, independent film, so I was more inclined to roll up my sleeves. I’d just done two large studio films back-to-back, I’d had a lot of notes from people, so the idea of doing something independent and low-budget seemed very appealing.
Filmmaker: Was your decision to make an independent movie as a result of your experiences on The Great Raid?
Dahl: The Great Raid and Joy Ride were two big studio films: on Joy Ride we did reshoots, and on The Great Raid it just took us forever to get it edited, and between Miramax and Harvey and Bob [Weinstein] leaving them, and Disney, it just took a tremendous amount of time. I look at my career and I think, “Wow, I’ve only made eight movies – I’d like to make a lot more films.”
Filmmaker: Was the film originally called You Kill Me, because it sounds like a prequel to your first film, Kill Me Again?
Dahl: I know, it’s a little weird, isn’t it? In fact, Téa was saying to somebody today, “Yeah, I love this movie and I’d like to do another one. Maybe we could call it You Kill Me Again.” But Chris [Markus] and Steve [McFeely] wrote this script 10 years ago, and that was the original title.
Filmmaker: I was surprised to see that Markus and McFeely, who are best known for writing the Narnia films, had written a black comedy.
Dahl: Chris Markus is from Buffalo, and he’s Polish, and he had a family member who went to AA. To support that family member, he went to one of those meetings, and he came back and said to his writing partner, Steve, who’s from San Francisco, “I just went to this AA meeting, and you can say whatever you want at those meetings!” So, they basically came up with a scenario that would totally test that theory. People in Hollywood read the script and liked it and thought it was funny, but nobody was going to make it.
Filmmaker: So it was like their calling card.
Dahl: Yeah, it was their calling card. After my first meeting that I had with them, I remember they said, “Are you guys really gonna make this movie? Is this really going to happen?” I’ve had the good fortune of making three movies that were writers’ first-time scripts. The Last Seduction was Steve Barancik’s first script, Brian [Koppelman] and David [Levien] wrote Rounders as their first script, and these guys. There’s something fun about somebody’s first script, if it’s good, because they’re not so jaded. There’s that feeling of limitless possibilities, so they’re much more willing to try things, and there’s something fresh and exciting, because they haven’t learned all the tricks yet.
Filmmaker: You wrote as well as directed earlier in your career. Have you got any scripts of your own that you’re still hoping to get made?
Dahl: Yeah, I’ve done a fair amount of writing. I’ve probably got three scripts under the bed: one’s a black comedy about the entertainment business, which is very hard to get made; and another one is a crime drama which we had set up at Miramax for a while, and we were actually in the process of trying to cast that. It was about a guy who robbed a bank, and had amnesia and couldn’t remember where he left the money. We just could not convince anybody to act in it, so ultimately they offered me Rounders. I’m always writing something, and I used to turn down work because I was writing. But now I’m just wanting to focus on directing, I’d like to make a lot more movies.
Filmmaker: At this stage in your career, is it financial considerations that necessitate that focus on directing?
Dahl: For me, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about directing, so it’s not as mysterious as it used to be to me. I actually feel like I’m a better director, so I want to take all the things that I’ve learned and apply them more. Doing Joy Ride and doing Great Raid, I felt like I really got bogged down in studio politics – together, those two movies were like five years! The thing that I enjoy the most is hanging around with film people – its like the smell of the greasepaint! I love doing location scouts and talking to cameramen, and I’ve even directed a few episodes of television because it’s all the fun of directing but without all the bullshit, without all the studio politics.
Filmmaker: I read that you co-wrote a rock musical called Here Come the Pugs. Is that true?
Dahl: Yes, I did. That was our junior year film. It was a very ambitious musical where we had this punk rock band and there was a disco maniac who was trying to take over in this small town. The conflict was live music versus records. It was fun. Our senior film was an 87-minute black-and-white horror film spoof called The Death Mutants, where a college professor accidentally radiated himself and turned three students into the death mutants, who were helping him build “the laser.” It was totally silly.
Filmmaker: You’ve recently been linked to The Punisher 2.
Dahl: I was talking to New Line about that, but ultimately it just had too much baggage, too many things connected to it, and I didn’t think the script was quite right. The idea of doing a really nasty vigilante movie that had a sense of humor was appealing, but I guess I wasn’t convinced I could get it to that point. No matter what I would have done, it would have been Punisher 2. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to do [the original] Punisher, because politically incorrect as the idea is of a guy in a leather trench coat just wasting dozens of drug-dealing scum in an instant, like stamping out rats, I just think it could have been pretty funny. Funny and grim at the same time. You know, like you’re laughing because somebody just got shot in the face? That kind of funny.
Filmmaker: If the world ended tomorrow, what (if anything) you would be sad about that you hadn’t achieved?
Dahl: Huh, that’s a hard one. I’m always working on being a better father. Here’s the thing: I enjoy making films, they’re great, they’re the best, but I guess I don’t take it that seriously anymore.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Dahl: “Make a movie and get a paycheck,” I guess. In other words, recognize that this is a business, and there will always be a financial element. Yeah, it’s art, but it’s art business. Or maybe a better one is “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” That would be my best advice.