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John Dahl’s Rough and Ready Films

by Susan Otto

Writer/director John Dahl grew up in the Wild West – Billings, Montana. Nestled in the desolate and harsh mountains and plains, Billings is surrounded by many small, desperate towns hard hit by the desertion of industry, towns in which the residents, despite the economic strife, still exude an old-fashioned sense of politeness. These are also the towns one finds in Dahl’s three features, towns with calm exteriors that bubble below with evil and greed. "Growing up where I grew up, I liked the small towns outside of Billings; they always had this creepy vibe to them. I would go to those towns and walk around, letting them soak into me, and I’d get scared. I think that’s why they resonate."

In high school, long before Dahl went to college or moved to L.A. to attend the American Film Institute as a Directing Fellow, he used to make films with his friends. While his interest, along with everyone else’s, was to be a cameraman, he realized "in college that the only way I was going to get to shoot a movie was if I wrote the script."

So he wrote a script. Working with long-time partner David Warfield, Dahl wrote Kill Me Again and pitched it to Propaganda. He admits, "I ended up being the director by default, but once I started doing it, I really enjoyed it." The final product, a dark, suspenseful neo-noir with quick dialogue, good performances (including a knife-wielding, explosive Michael Masden looking for the girlfriend who ran off with his money), and a dizzying number of totally unforeseen plot twists and turns, left the distributors unclear about what to do with it. Despite the film’s limited release, Dahl’s skillful handling of the noir elements gained him a cult following. It also served as a rough draft for his next two films.

His second feature, Red Rock West, had similar problems with its distribution. While it was not technically released on video before its theatrical run, that is, in effect, what happened. "In a nut shell, the film was finished and the producer showed it to Triumph, the film’s owner. They decided they did not like it and did not want to distribute it. I just couldn’t believe that they weren’t going to release the movie. I don’t think that Dennis Hopper and Nicholas Cage [who are both in the film] could believe it either. So the rights reverted to the people who owned the video rights, Columbia TriStar, who wanted to release the movie, but Columbia told them they couldn’t release it." Dahl contemplated festivals, but Columbia TriStar didn’t think it was a festival film. "They just sort of sat on it. A director can only say, ‘Hey, it’s a really good movie!’ so many times and then people stop listening."

While his films are genre pictures through and through, Dahl claims a certain ignorance about generic conventions. "It’s just when you watch certain movies, you feel like you fall into the world that those people live in." As far as film noir goes, Dahl confesses,"I didn’t even know who Jim Thompson was until the casting director gave me one of his books."

When Red Rock West started getting good European reviews, Astral Films, a Canadian distributor, saw it in Paris and entered it in the Toronto Film Festival where it was very well received. But there was no interest in America for the theatrical rights, so Columbia sold it to HBO. "HBO, fortunately for me, ran it late, at midnight – and they only gave it one prime-time screening. It was slated for video release on February 18 this year," says Dahl. At that point, Bill Banning from Roxie Releasing asked to screen the film in San Francisco. The subsequent reviews, which were very strong, inspired more confidence, and Columbia TriStar agreed to let Roxie be the U.S. distributor, although they refused to push back the video release date. "He started making $12,000 a week, which is peanuts to the guys at Columbia TriStar, but it kept his doors open," says Dahl. "And it just sort of mushroomed from there. It’s on ten screens right now, and it should be opening on a few more. I think to date it’s made $650,000 – again, peanuts to a big distributor."

Dahl’s latest picture, The Last Seduction, features Linda Fiorentino in the classic noir role of the heartless bitch who wants money (lots of money) and will do anything to get it. Indeed, the women in all of Dahl’s films have this nasty habit of sticking a knife in the back of some unsuspecting, love-sick man and running off with a lot of cash. On the one hand, they are strong characters who get what they want. On the other hand, they are evil and treacherous. Conflict intensified by betrayal – especially the betrayal of a heterosexual male hero by a lover – is what interests Dahl. His films are thus oddly moral: "The fact that there are moral people in there doing things that I feel good about – I like that about them."

Originally titled Buffalo Girls, The Last Seduction, Dahl’s first attempt at directing a feature written by someone else, proved to be an easier film to make. "You’re not constantly worried about the story with someone else’s script. If you write the story yourself, you realize that it’s always this pliable thing, this thing that you can keep rewriting all the time. When you’re directing somebody else’s script, however, it becomes this inflexible thing."

Dahl is currently working on Meltdown, an action picture starring Dolph Lundgren. "After I finished The Last Seduction, I was offered all of these horror films that were very bad. In the end, I decided to try Meltdown. It’s another form to play with, and I was able to completely rewrite the script," which, he adds, "will be very dark."

While all three of Dahl’s films are relatively low-budget independent productions, Dahl boasts no explicit allegiance to independent filmmaking. "I think there’s a difference between good movies and bad movies, so if I could be situated anywhere in Hollywood, I’d want to be someone who makes good movies – whether they’re independent or studio films." He continues, "To me it seems pretty black and white – if you make money, you have more freedom to make more movies. I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve made movies that haven’t made any money and I still get to make movies."


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