When Australian director Andrew Dominik and ultra-handsome super-star Brad Pitt last teamed up, it was for “The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford,” a brilliant, elliptical ode to the old west and one of the very best movies of the past decade. Five very long years later, the pair have reteamed for “Killing Them Softly,” which opens this weekend and, as it turns out, is just as brilliant as their previous collaboration. A scabrous, pitch-black crime saga about a gangland robbery gone very, very wrong (here’s our original review from Cannes), aside from Pitt, the picture features an all-star cast which includes Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn (“The Dark Knight Rises“), Scoot McNairy (“Argo“) and Sam Shepard.
We recently talked to the filmmaker about the movie’s anger, the legendary “director’s cut” of ‘Jesse James,’ working with Ridley and the late Tony Scott, hiring Brad Pitt via text, how the Maysles Brothers influenced ‘Softly,’ and why his latest film is slightly more “bubblegum” than the picture’s he’s made previously.
And thankfully, we hopefully won’t have to wait five more years for his next film, the Marilyn Monroe picture, “Blonde” starring Naomi Watts. Dominik tells us he aims to shoot it next year, it’s going to be Polanski-esque, and describes it as a “emotional, nightmare fairy tale.” We can’t wait. For more Dominik, check out our earlier, in-depth interview with the director from Cannes in May.
People describe this as an “angry” movie. Is that how you see it?
Yeah. I felt angry at the time of conceiving it.
What were you angry about?
About how the whole world revolves around the dollar. It’s easy to feel when you’re in Hollywood. Especially when your last movie didn’t make a nickel.
We’ll get to that. There was talk that you had cut a fairly significant portion of “Killing Me Softly” right before it premiered at Cannes…
I cut about seven minutes out of it, based on a test screening. I think most of those seven minutes were good cuts. There was one that I think, ‘Well maybe I shouldn’t have cut that.’ But you get to the point where it all gets a bit murky. Nothing that I regret, really.
Do you plan on reinstating that stuff?
No. It’s gone forever. It’ll appear on the DVD maybe.
You’ve worked with Pitt twice now. How did he come to this one and were you at all surprised given the long, arduous process of getting ‘Jesse James’ to the screen?
Look, our relationship was intense, but everyone’s intentions were fantastic with ‘Jesse James.’ It could get testy between us all but we all really liked each other. And we always had to deal with Warner Bros.’ disappointment with the film, which tended to bond us. We kind of came out of it as friends with a great respect for each other. That didn’t necessarily mean that Brad wanted to get involved in anything that I was doing. But this one resonated with him, for some reason. How he got involved was I had pitched this story to some financiers and they really liked it and I realized I could actually make this thing happen. And I sent Brad the book and I hadn’t heard anything from him because he was knee-deep in ‘Moneyball.’ I was trying to get myself an actor attached over the weekend so I sent him a text to make sure he wasn’t interested and it turned out he was. So we exchanged a series of texts about what the deal would be, how many weeks he’d be needed, and from that point forward he was on. This was before there was even a screenplay. That’s how it happened.
Did it surprise you at all that a movie star of his wattage was willing to sign on to a project this cutting?
Yeah, I was surprised at the time because I just thought,’He doesn’t have the head space for this.’ And I didn’t know if it was the kind of thing he wanted to do. I remember at the time he was talking about the kind of characters he was looking to play and Jackie was kind of the complete opposite, since Jackie is just a prick, really. But that was the attraction for Brad.
How did you get Sam Shepherd to come in and do that one scene?
Well we got along really well on ‘Jesse James’ and we keep in touch. About once a year I’ll get a phone call from Sam or I give him a call and I needed somebody because [his character] Dylan is someone who is talked about all through the picture and you’re going to see him this one time. So I wanted to get somebody recognizable to do a cameo. And that’s how I presented it to Sam. I think he was in New Orleans at the time so he just drove over and did a day’s work as a favor, basically.
Did you shoot “Killing Them Softly” digitally or on film?
And where do you come down on this digital/film divide?
You know, I don’t know if I want to be able to see the movie instantly. There’s something about having to shoot the thing and then look at dailies the next day that is appealing to me. I don’t know where I stand, to be in honest. Is Kodak still making film? I don’t think Fuji is making film anymore. We would go into the lab at the end of the day with this movie and they were all looking pretty grim. They were wondering what they’re going to do for a living when this thing goes out.
I thought that maybe you would have used the Phantom [a digital camera that shoots 1,000 frames per second and was used famously for the prologue to “Antichrist”].
Yes, you’re right, we did use the Phantom for the car crash stuff. But we also used a camera that’s a film camera that shoots 10,000 frames per second to shoot bullets and guns going off. So some of it was very old school.
What were your main influences when making “Killing Them Softly?”
There was a couple of things. I was looking at a lot of studio screwball comedies from the forties. Because I decided I liked the coverage to be very simple, with each person just having their shot in the scene. The movie is just wall-to-wall dialogue and I thought, ‘The only thing that’s going to make this work are the performances so I might as well not even try to dress it up. Just have the shot and let the actor do all the work.’ Which is what I did. And the other thing was the Maysles documentary “Salesman.” You know that one?
Of course. What did you take from that?
The whole tone of it, really, it’s so grim and it’s the Midwest and it’s winter and they’re trying to sell bibles but no one’s buying. It’s that life of quiet desperation. That feel to it.
Did you feel any of that desperation coming off of ‘Jesse James’ because it flopped?
Yes, sure. I was worried about money at the time. At that time, everyone was. It was like I’ve gotten a lot of shit for all the political stuff in the background of this film, but as I remember that time you couldn’t turn on the TV or turn on the radio and not hear about the bailout.
Speaking of your last movie — are there any plans to put out the longer cut of “Jesse James?”
Well, this mythological four-hour cut was just an assembly and it was never a good film. It was kind of like torture to sift through. But there are two other cuts. One was just a little bit longer, which I really like, and another one that’s about a half hour longer, which is really good too. Are there any plans to put it out? No.
Has Criterion ever approached you? There’s practically been a campaign online to get them to do a new ‘Jesse James’ disc, people talk about it so much.
How many signatures have they got? Like 23?
C’mon, people adore that film.
Listen, I think it’s a great film and I’d love to see other versions come to life. But no, I’ve gotten no love from Criterion.
Tony and Ridley Scott produced ‘Jesse James’ and there was talk at one point that they had helped out in a cut. What was it like working with them?
Well those guys were really just cheerleaders. Ridley really liked the picture. He was a big supporter of it early on. When the studio was having reservations, Ridley didn’t really tell us what we needed to cut, even. He didn’t have his heart in playing that role. Whenever I would say, ‘Well maybe it should be like this,’ he would just say, ‘Yeah I agree with you.’ It’s like fucking ten years ago. It was great more from an emotional point of view than a practical point of view. Those guys have seen it all and they really understand what directors go through as directors. They say directors make the worst producers because they’re like children of abusive parents. But Ridley and Tony were never like that.
Were you worried about the political stuff in this movie alienating people?
Not really. It’s kind of the idea of the movie.
Was there any kind of burden personally or professionally to make a more commercially minded movie after ‘Jesse James?’
Well, I was trying to. I don’t know if that succeeded at all. That was kind of the idea. It’s a little bit more bubblegum.
“Killing Them Softly” opens in wide release this Friday, November 30th.