Andrew Dominik: interview
Two years in the making, Andrew Dominik's latest production, 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford', was fraught with complications and conflicts. The New Zealander who directed 'Chopper' tells Time Out why he stuck to his guns throughout
'Making movies is hard,' insists Andrew Dominik in partial explanation for the seven-year gap between his explosive debut 'Chopper' and his masterful sophomore effort, 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'. 'If you can avoid working you should do it. Ridley [Scott] can't take more than two weeks between movies or he starts going bananas. I don't understand those guys at all. You have to get up at five o'clock in the morning, it's political, and you feel like you're failing 90 per cent of the time. It's a tough job.'
In fact, 'Jesse James' was finished last November, but it's considered a 'fall movie', and if you miss one, says Dominik, you have wait till the next autumn. Even so, the extra delay (it was shot two years ago) only added to the perception that this was a movie in deep trouble, a view not helped by cuts of varying length being dispatched around the globe by Warner Bros for different critics to offer their opinion on. Given such treatment, did Dominik detect a lack of faith in the film from the studio?
'I always thought the film was great,' says the New Zealand-born director diplomatically when Time Out meets him at the Venice Film Festival in September. 'But it's a weird movie – it's fruity.' Fruity? 'It's a fruity movie about suffering, like "Barton Fink". It's baroque; it's rococo. You've got to look at it from the studio's point of view. They make movies that are real crowd-pleasing films. They look at a film like this and think: Jesus Christ, what is this? Everybody is always trying to make the best movie they can. It's a process.'
Based on the novel by Ron Hansen and starring Brad Pitt as the infamous outlaw and Casey Affleck as the former James Gang member who shot him in the back, 'Jesse James' is a cinematic cousin to 'Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid', 'McCabe & Mrs Miller' and 'Heaven's Gate', a long, deliberate, elegiac, '70s western. Like 'Chopper', it tells of a violent, real-life criminal all too aware of his own celebrity, although Dominik says it was the language of Hansen's book that first hooked him. 'I loved the way Jesse was written. He was a character with magical thought, he believed in omens, he speaks in riddles, he seems to have some consciousness of God, and Bob was just this idiot who, over the course of the story, seemed really brave to me.'
Dominik's initial cut was four-and-a-half-hours long and wasn't great. 'It's not an undiscovered masterpiece, put it that way. With "Chopper", I threw away a ton of shit too, but that was an easier film to cut because you've got one central character, and you threw out all the stuff that was bad and made a film out of all the good stuff left over. With this film I had to throw away stuff that was great and keep stuff I wasn't as enamoured with and make it work harder.' Periodically, during the lengthy editing, Dominik was removed from the process. 'Various different people came in and had a crack at it, but they never turned it into "Young Guns" or "Saving Private Ryan" on horses, so it always ended up back in my court.' What was the shortest version they tried? 'Probably two hours. I had a version that was two hours and it's not good.'
The finished film runs 160 minutes and, because of its lyrical narration and Roger Deakins' sublime magic-hour cinematography, has drawn comparisons to Terrence Malick, whom Dominik counts as a friend. (He even shot a week of second unit on 'The New World' before being fired for not being in the Directors Guild.) 'I showed the movie to Terry and he was appalled. He was like: "It's too long, there's too much voiceover, you've got to cut that." '
Post-'Chopper', Dominik found himself in demand. 'Actors – movie stars – like "Chopper", so my name is put on their list of ten people they'll make a film with,' he explains. 'And then the studio is interested in you because you can attract talent. Then, because I said no to every offer, I'm like the girl at the party that won't have sex with anyone. They want me more and more and they buy their own hype.' He wrote five scripts to direct, including adaptations of Jim Thompson's 'Pop', '1280' for Woody Harrelson and producer Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cormac McCarthy's 'Cities of the Plain', none of which he could get off the ground. 'It was impossible to make a film without a movie star, but it's very difficult to find a part you can cast one in that doesn't seem like miscasting. You can have Brad Pitt play Jesse James and it doesn't feel wrong.'
Pitt was one of those who had Dominik's name on his list. 'We went back and forth on a number of things,' he notes, 'but it was not until this film that it clicked.' Pitt signed on as both star and producer. 'He's powerful and he's not afraid to use it. Brad had it put in his contract that they couldn't change the title. He can be the best friend you have, but when we fought it was bloody.'
Dominik has no immediate plans beyond maybe trying to resurrect one of his earlier scripts. 'I'm exhausted,' he says. 'I'd like to make another movie but I'm in no hurry to do so. It all depends on how this film goes over, because it's not up to me, it's up to some guy who's got to pay for it. And from my point of view, they're on to me. I can turn up with Leonardo DiCaprio or some other movie star and they're going to think: "Jesus Christ, it's going to be another fruity, three-hour movie. I'm not going to be involved in that shit." '
'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' opens on Nov 30.
Author: Mark Salisbury
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