The pessimism that pervades Andrew Dominik’s third feature doesn’t wear off so easily. It spills out into the cinema almost as soon as the movie begins and has lodged itself into your pores long after the picture is over. It’s a pessimism that many of us have learned to live with, however inelegantly, in the years since the economy collapsed, and one in which even amidst a so-called “jobless” recovery hangs heavy in the air.
Killing Them Softly, which makes many auditory references to Johnny Cash but surprisingly few to Roberta Flack (or The Fugees), has a sorrowful, darkly humorous and altogether authentic quality that so much contemporary crime cinema, or cinema about working men in America in any context, simply lacks. In his adaptation of The Friends of Eddie Coyle scribe George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, Andrew Dominik — who brought a similar authenticity to his stunning, deeply underrated and famously troubled 2007 feature The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – switches the action from Boston to an unnamed U.S. city (the film was shot in New Orleans) and boldly inserts the national political drama surrounding the economic crisis of 2008 as a metaphor for the grim, man-made financial meltdown and cold-blooded scapegoating of the weak that dominates our national psyche to this day.
Starting with 2000’s Chopper, Dominik has marked himself as a wild man stylist, a bold cinematic dreamer. Yet he embraces a mode of storytelling — one that is often simultaneously sanguine and languid, with long, meandering conversations that reveal the broken core at the heart of modern masculinity — seemingly at odds with his often kinetic, bombast-filled visual style and snake-bitten stories of crime and betrayal. The 45-year-old Australian takes big aesthetic risks, ones a director working primarily at the studio level probably wouldn’t get away with unless they had a long track record of hits or, as in Dominik’s case, a big movie star in tow.
Marking his second collaboration with Brad Pitt, Killing Them Softly features a gallery of immersive, totally irresistible supporting turns from a host of tough guy specialists, including Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Ben Mendelsohn and the inimitable Sam Shepard, but Pitt’s role, as a fixer/hitman seeking the small-time hoods who ripped off an underground card game, is one of his finest star turns, Moneyball be damned. “This isn’t a country, this is America. And America is a business,” says Pitt’s Jackie Cogan in the final scene. On the nose, perhaps? Not in this picture. For unlike the politicians jabbering at us from airport lounges and AM radios, the filmmakers here aren’t just conning you. They mean it.
Killing Them Softly opens in wide release through The Weinstein Company on November 30.
FILMMAKER: I’m in New York right now. It’s ironic that we’re talking about this movie today because there’s a whole other round of Occupy Wall Street protests going on downtown. Being an Australian, what drew you to material that seems very much about this particular American moment? Despite the fact that Killing Them Softly is a crime story and an action movie in many ways, it’s also a film about perilous economic times and the sense that perhaps the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism is one that none of us can really escape.
DOMINIK: Yeah, it just seems to me that crime films are about the capitalist ideal because crime is just capitalism at its basest level. The dollar is all in a crime movie. And it was a chance to make a satirical film.
FILMMAKER: How do you see it as satirical?
DOMINIK: Well, it’s not serious, you know what I mean? Like, the movie’s kind of funny.
FILMMAKER: Higgins’ work in general is very funny, I find.
DOMINIK: Yeah, I mean, it’s a movie about an economic crisis. And criminal economies, it’s like a larger economy at bay. I’m not sure that the movie’s anti-capitalism so much as it’s anti-cronyism, you know? I mean, the thing that happened with the bailout was they didn’t let the system run itself… Basically, the government came in and bailed out the culprits.
FILMMAKER: I have not read Cogan’s Trade, but it was written long before any of the financial machinations that led to the Great Recession took place. When you read it, did that metaphor immediately occur to you? How did you begin to pull some of these themes out from the book?
DOMINIK: I found the book, I read it, and I just appreciated it on the basic level of a simple plot. [It had] a satiric kind of authentic feeling to it. But everything was happening at once. The economy was collapsing, or felt like it was collapsing. I personally was in fairly bad shape financially. And then I realized what this [story] was about. It was about an economic crisis and there being a failure to regulate the causes of the crisis previously to make things more secure. It just seemed to be a situation that was political and economic.
FILMMAKER: Was there a difficulty in pitching this movie as not just a crime story, but about much larger things, given the studios’ aversion to that sort of stuff?
DOMINIK: Well, it’s not really a Hollywood film. It’s an independently financed film. From an economic point of view, it seems like a fairly responsible idea, a Brad Pitt movie, and it cost very little. So it wasn’t that hard to find the cash for it. And it’s also kind of a heist movie.
FILMMAKER: The issues you had in terms of finishing Jesse James — the battles that were fought over your cut — were well publicized. How was this process different? Was it smoother given that the budget was lower?
DOMINIK: Yeah, well, the main thing was the money was coming from independent sources, so there was no centralized kind of head. It’s different than dealing with a studio. And also because the budget was so low, I was able to maintain creative control. But half the problem is coming up with the movie that works for you, and the other half of the problem is people’s reactions to the film. It took a long time to cut Jesse James. I think it took me nine months before I got a cut that I thought worked. And then, I had to deal with the studio’s reaction to it, which was, “What the fuck is this movie? [Laughs] How are we going to sell this fucking thing?” And on this one, I didn’t really have that, thankfully.
FILMMAKER: What was the process like of imagining Higgins’ book for the screen, and setting it outside of its traditional setting, Boston, where most of his books take place?
DOMINIK: It could take place in Anytown, U.S.A., or any town that’s not New York or L.A. And then, once you’ve driven through America, you just have to know how much decay there is. I think that you don’t really see that in movies that much, but that’s what we wanted to show. It worked out well, filmmaker-wise, because the states with the generous tax rebates tend to be off the beaten path, so you go and shoot these dying places and the state will offer you the best rebates. It’s kind of a perfect situation. And it just seems like, with everything that we wanted to explore, everything that the film was doing, we would find ourselves in places that were struggling.
FILMMAKER: I know that Brad Pitt is very invested in New Orleans. What led to you wanting to shoot there, and what about that area enticed you from a visual standpoint?
DOMINIK: Well, we were looking for devastated America — sort of America’s Chernobyl. And actually, I went to New Orleans back in the day — I think it would’ve been around 2006 or 2007, just after Katrina. And back then, it was pretty extraordinary. You had debris and the detritus of people’s whole lives washed up in the streets, and stuff like that. They cleaned it up a lot since then by the time we’d got there. But still, you really do see the gap between the rich and the poor down there.
FILMMAKER: I feel like each of your movies has an incredible, distinct visual style that at times has a lyricism about it that’s very vertical. It’s reminiscent for me of the New American Cinema. You have moments in films that may take all of 15 seconds, but you spend two minutes on them. Specifically, I’m thinking of Ray Liotta’s death in the film. I just find that incredibly unusual in the type of genre films you’re making.
DOMINIK: I don’t know where it comes from. You just kind of imagine it, you know? The reason for making Ray’s death the way it was, was I just wanted to not go for violent. If I had made it harsh, that would have undercut the violence that was to come. And although it was the killing that Brad’s character [Jackie Cogan] really wanted to do, it suggested Jackie is a person who’s kind of in control of himself. There’s a part of him that enjoys being in control, deciding people’s fates. I wanted all that to be present somehow. So that killing was kind of imagined as a lullaby. As far as designing it, you sit down with a pencil and a piece of paper and kind of draw it out, and then there’s various tools. We shot it with a camera called The Phantom, which I think can shoot up to 10,000 frames a second or something, but the resolution gets very low. I think we shot that sequence at 1,000 or 2,000 frames. And then there was a camera that I’ve always wanted to use. It’s a sort of drum camera, which is like a ballistics camera that shoots about 10,000 frames a second. And, you know, we shot that for the guns. Shooting accurate, it can capture a bullet in flight.
FILMMAKER: So those bullets are actual bullets in flight? That’s not CGI?
DOMINIK: When you see the bullets, there’s a couple of shots of bullets or bullets coming out of guns and those are actual bullets, yeah.
FILMMAKER: Another element that I think really stands out in the picture is the sound design, which is very, very meticulous. The visceral nature of that first beating that the Liotta character, Markie, takes is only heightened by the fact that we seem to hear every piece of cartilage or bone in his body creaking or breaking under the strain of those blows. What did you want the visceral effect on the audience to be with that sound work? And does it lessen the glorification of the violence in a way?
DOMINIK: Well, the sound design on the picture is pretty intricate. A general approach that I like to take is to use sound as an underscore. You can create moods and feelings with sounds that have a visual effect on you without it being like the laugh track that music can be. I always feel sort of inherently manipulated by music that behaves that way. I prefer to use sound, I guess, to conjure up feelings and to then have music create the sense of distance in a movie rather than a sense of involvement. The sound is all designed from that point of view. Some of my favorite moments are because of the sound design. I love the long scene between Brad and James Gandolfini.
FILMMAKER: I was just about to mention that scene.
DOMINIK: The sound in that scene is just fantastic. It’s just this weird sort of piano that floats around and creates this perspective and it’s really very subtle. Because of my hearing, I can’t do music that goes to a really low bass or really high treble sounds. So we would go through [the scenes], add in all the sounds we could think, and then constantly stroke them back. I like to cut the picture so that there’s a certain ambiguity to a scene. Often, sound or music can really fuck that up. So you have to be very, very careful.
FILMMAKER: Another scene between Gandolfini and Brad Pitt that I found really interesting was the scene in the hotel, in part because it’s so lugubrious and has seemingly so little to do with the forward movement of the plot. And yet, you learn so much about those two men in that scene.
DOMINIK: Well, you know, there’s another thing going on in the story that is also going on in the movie: it’s a little bit of a treatise on masculinity. All the male characters in the story, even Brad, seem to have some woman that they’re fucked up about. Or that they’re destroyed over. The movie is basically about people doing stuff for money. It’s about grim men at work. We don’t really see anyone in their private space. They’re always in their spaces where they talk or conduct business. And all of them seem to be, to some extent, having to repress how they feel in order to make a buck. They don’t seem to be aware of how unhappy they are. That’s something else that’s going on in the picture. I’m not a big one for plot. It’s great when you can find the plot that demonstrates the theme that you like, but what makes movies memorable for me is the people — the characters and the picture of [human] nature. Rather than the plot, it’s often very often small things or small insights that make a movie linger with me. Plots are [frequently] like a joke, all about getting to a punch line and then it’s all neatly wrapped up and you’re left with nothing to take away.
FILMMAKER: The movie ends on a very ambiguous note, in the middle of a conversation, seemingly. Was that originally how you planned to do it, or was that something you found in the editing process?
DOMINIK: No, that was always the end of the picture.
FILMMAKER: Does the novel end in a similar way?
DOMINIK: Well, the novel doesn’t wear its agenda on its sleeve so much. I mean, the film’s not exactly subtle with what it’s trying to say. Whereas the novel’s not really concerned about larger—
FILMMAKER: Forces at work in the country?
DOMINIK: Yeah. And you know, that’s something that the film’s being criticized for, that it is kind of obvious, which I sort of feel like it needs to be, you know? Basically, crimes have been committed and nobody gives a shit.
FILMMAKER: In a way, that’s what’s so fascinating about the fact that people are on the streets today. One year after the Occupy movement began, still no one has gone to jail for crimes that have cost people their livelihoods and savings because of the crimes of a small coterie of financial manipulators. It seems like no one does care anymore. In fact, if you raise this stuff, it makes people very uncomfortable.
DOMINIK: And that seems to be what’s happened with some of the critical response to the film, with people who’ve said, “It’s fucking obvious.” But I feel like you do need to take the gloves off to make people hear anything anymore. Is America a political idea or is it just an economic idea?
FILMMAKER: Well, at one point, you have Brad Pitt say that the country is simply a business.
DOMINIK: I mean, isn’t that the American idea? I feel that capitalism’s the American idea. Certainly the way it’s focused in this country is the reason why perhaps America has the edge, or it used to have the edge, anyway; everything was invented in this country. But I think what’s happened over a period of time is that everything’s been moved offshore. Americans used to manufacture everything. Maybe that’s when they had their economic strength because, basically, at the end of the wars, all the competition was just bombed flat. So America was the country that was producing. But what’s happening now is they don’t produce anything here anymore. They just move it all offshore. Everybody else makes the stuff and the country’s almost like middle management.
FILMMAKER: What were some of the more difficult things to make work in terms of the editing and postproduction? It feels very brisk at 95 minutes, certainly.
DOMINIK: It’s very hard to just make scenes of that length play. That’s the hardest thing, to balance it all correctly. Editing is just such a mysterious process. It’s like acupuncture — the problem might be in the liver, but you put the pin in the foot. The main thing was just selecting all the facts, getting all the right facts, and less about going away from some things that had fireworks in them. Also on a movie when you have bad dailies, the scene is really easy to cut because only six percent of what you’ve shot is good. So you immediately throw away 94 percent and deal with what’s left. This film was hard because a lot of stuff was just so fucking good. It was a really laborious, time-consuming process to go through and select each moment. It was exhausting in its way. It was just difficult to cut from that point of view.
FILMMAKER: Do you still feel like you’re learning as a filmmaker? Are there aspects of this movie that taught you things?
DOMINIK: There’s nothing that you do in the previous film that necessarily helps you for the next film. Each film has its own specific set of problems and the solution that worked for you the last time doesn’t necessarily work for you this time. Chopper was the movie where I was able to throw out everything that I didn’t think was good and I made the film out of what was left over, and I certainly couldn’t do that with Jesse James. Jesse James I had to throw away stuff that was fantastic and I had to keep stuff that I thought was less than perfect and then find ways of making it better. That was really hard to cut. And then, this movie was just kind of grueling to cut because you just had these sort of amazing dialogue things. I almost saw the movie as being like a play, and it was also hard because it doesn’t have a huge emotional center.
The other films swim in much more emotional water than this one does. The principal character of this film in some ways is really struggling to let his feelings get anywhere near him. He’s always trying to make life easy on himself. Nobody actually enjoys doing any of this stuff that they have to do. [Crime] is a job and it’s a job that’s just preceded by problems, and the problems are just dull problems. They’re political problems. One of the films I’ve watched a lot in relation to this picture was the Maysles brothers’ documentary Salesman. Do you know of that?
FILMMAKER: I know it very well, yeah. I’m a big fan of their films.
DOMINIK: I just wanted it to feel like that, where everything’s just a fucking grind. With the heist, it’s not like they approach it like a Swiss watch, trying to work out some super heist where they’re deeply involved in every detail of it. They treat it like a job, and consequently, they’re more interested in the girl they’re going to fuck or what they’re going to spend their money on or what happens to be going on in their personal lives at the time. And the actual crime is something they’re not thinking about because it’s boring. I wanted it to have that kind of feel where the plot is something that’s sort of tucked away in the corner, and really what you’re doing is, you’re dealing with stuff a movie like this normally wouldn’t — what their attitudes are and what they’re concerned about, which is all stuff that’s outside the plot. So it’s a strange kind of film.