In what turned out to be a banner year for the movies in 2007, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” ended up somewhat overshadowed. As fellow neo-Westerns “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country For Old Men” swept up plaudits and Oscars, the picture, the second by Australian director Andrew Dominik, was plagued by post-production battles and an indifferent release by Warner Bros., which saw it come and go to in theaters fairly quickly in limited release. But by decade’s end, many had since rediscovered the picture as one of the finest of the ’00s, and as such, Dominik’s first film since, crime tale “Killing Them Softly,” was one of the most eagerly anticipated pictures of the Cannes Film Festival this year.
Based on the novel “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, the film is a politically charged thriller about the fall-out when two junkies rob a protected, mob-run poker game, with a top-notch cast including ‘Jesse James’ star Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn (read our review here). While in Cannes, we caught up with the director to find out about the violence, politics and look of the film.
When you’re making a film that wears its political intent right on its sleeve, does that concern you ever as far as getting the film to reach the masses, especially in the States?
Well that’s kind of the idea. I wanted to make a cartoon, you know? I’m serious, it’s a cartoony kind of movie. And I don’t know how that happened. You know, in the movie [the characters are] going through an economic crisis, and the real world was going through an economic crisis, and everything just started reflecting on everything else like a hall of mirrors. It’s kind of a cynical take on things, a sort of godless, faithless universe, and that’s not the universe I live in all of the time, but it’s a place I visit. That’s how it happened. In a cynical world, everything becomes reflects everything else, do you know what I mean? There’s a little bit of preaching to the choir going on.
I heard that the film had a much longer cut at some point?
All films have a longer cut at some point. Assembly’s always long.
But in this one you had to kill your babies with some of the cast who didn’t end up making it.
I’m not a very efficient filmmaker. There’s a lot of guys, filmmakers like the Coen Brothers who shoot a whole movie and maybe don’t use 12 setups. I’m in awe of people like that, I’m just not that guy. For me, the movie’s always evolving as I’m doing it. I throw things in as we shoot, and I take things out as we go. I want to create a whole life and then select the pieces that best sort of describe it later, you know? So there’s a lot of wastage when I make a film. This one less then most, but you know.
It feels like some of the actors have had some scenes cut. Sam Shepard’s appearance is brief, Garret Dillahunt’s not there at all.
Garrett was a subplot. He worked for a night, he worked for five hours. Everything that Sam shot is in the picture. I had final cut in the picture, it’s not like I had to take anything out that I thought should be there. Like I say I’m just not real efficient.
This is violent, and there’s so much style as to how the violence is presented. How do you want audiences to react to it?
Well, there’s a different approach to violence in this movie, because of the characters’ attitudes towards it. You know in other movies, it’s always a really emotional situation and it’s ugly in some way. But I just wanted [character name redacted]’s death to be like a lullaby. And I’m not really sure why. I think it has something to do with the impact that the other murders have later, if you play that one softly. Once you do something violent in a film, you don’t have to do too much. You do it once and the feeling of violence just stays there, do you know what I’m saying? The idea behind the slow motion death is to remove that ugly feeling from it, so I can put it back in later.
I got in a debate with a female critic who thought it was such a boys’ story. Was that intentional to not have any women? I think there’s just the one prostitute character.
Yeah, and I was trying to figure out how to cut her out too, because I didn’t want to have any woman in the picture, but I wanted them to be talking about women constantly, and women were always a source of mystery, frustration or heartbreak.
This would have been a period piece if you were adapting it straight, but I like the fact that there’s this anachronistic thing of the characters having a ’70s look, but it’s clearly set in 2008. How did you negotiate that tone?
All I really thought was that Jackie should be in black, and I think Brad came up with the sunnies and [costume designer] Patty [Norris] came up with the clothes. Brad came up with the hair which I think was basically my hair.
You do have similar hair.
I don’t know if that’s where it came from or not, but I always used to say, imagine that you’re me.
Do you feel as cynical as this film was in general?
No. I think it’s a really complicated system because money, I’ve become really interested in it because it’s my paint, if you like, and I think that if you want to understand what’s going on in any situation, you have to follow the money. It seems like it’s really fucking out of control you know? The difficulty is that in a democracy, you have to persuade people and it costs a lot of money. You have to get it from somewhere and the people that have money have their own interests, and how does all of that get balanced out? But that’s the price you pay for democracy. In the movie they can just shoot the problem, we can’t do that under rule of law. It’s just one way of looking at things, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. It seemed for a minute there like there was going to be a conflagration, and maybe it’s still coming, you know? At the time, the whole bailout thing was sold as a way of avoiding catastrophe, like it was going to be ATMs were not going to be spitting money out unless the government took all of this money from the taxpayer and gave it to all of these people who had essentially robbed. I don’t really understand it all. I don’t know what would have happened if they had just let it fail, it would have been really interesting.
Are you optimistic that something could actually happen or do you think we’re too stuck in policy?
I don’t know. They had a depression and everything rebuilt itself after that.
“Killing Them Softly” opens on September 21st.