Terrence Malick Thought It Was Too Slow: 10 Things Learned From The Revival Screening Of ‘The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford’

Terrence Malick Thought It Was Too Slow: 10 Things Learned From The Revival Screening Of 'The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford'

This weekend either witnessed the harbinger of specialty exhibition for cinephiles or was just a nice night out for New Yorkers. It was the “revival” of Andrew Dominik‘s “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” a movie not quite old or obscure enough to merit the Lazarus treatment—but, then again, what self-respecting movie snob doesn’t want to see Roger Deakins‘ cinematography or hear Nick Cave and Warren Ellis‘ original score at a state of the art facility like the Museum of the Moving Image?

Of further interest is just how this revival got started—on a lark from citizen-programmer Jamieson McGonigle, a good-natured, young film fanatic ambitious enough to think just anyone could get a major cultural institution, a film director and a Hollywood studio to show a financial dud easily found on Blu-ray just by asking. Well, it came together—and the revival is moving on to Tucson later in the month and the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles early next year. Mr. Dominik (who could win first prize in a Leszek Mozdzer lookalike contest, by the way) was also on hand and joined MoMi’s David Schwartz for a post-screening Q & A.

If anyone thought the director, whose other work includes “Chopper” and “Killing Them Softly,” was mild mannered or soft spoken, they were quickly disavailed of that opinion. Dominik hurled F-bombs, repeatedly used the term “fruity” to describe the artier nature of the film and curtly dismissed audience questions he thought were silly. When someone asked him if he thought the box office success of “3:10 To Yuma” was to blame for the box office failings of this plot-light, heady and unorthodox film, Dominik’s eyes rolled like moss-resistant stones. Pointing back at the screen he said “we knew this thing was gonna’ fuckin’ tank.”

Here then are ten (paraphrased) moments from Dominik’s Q & A that we found interesting.

1. On Selling Warner Bros.
Dominik knew he was putting a fast one over on the studio. After “Chopper,” which was a huge hit in his native Australia and got a lot of critical attention, he had a lot of actors hoping to work with him—including Brad Pitt. He was trying to get another project going and it was having trouble. He had just read the book ‘Jesse James’ is based on, having found it in a used bookshop in Melbourne. He saw the title ‘Jesse James,’ thought of the name recognition and flashed “bam! Jesse James—Batman. It’s right there.”

Warner Bros. looked at the script and they thought “well, this is a bit fruity.” But Dominik was the guy who made this cool film “Chopper,” he’s got Brad Pitt, it’s under $40 million and we need Brad to do the next two ‘Oceans’ films. “Plus, if we pass and Paramount takes it and they have an Oscar winner we’ll look fucking stupid.”

So they say yes, and then forget about the movie and didn’t look at it until it was shot and thought “what the fuck did we just do?” At this point it was basically too late to cut it into a “normal” movie.

2. Brad is Sad
‘Jesse James’ was the first film out of Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B that Brad Pitt starred in. “We were the first pancake,” Dominik recalled.

Dominik said that Pitt created Plan B (which has since produced “The Tree of Life” and “12 Years A Slave” as well as hits like “World War Z”) because he “wants to be in good movies” and “has mixed feelings about the films that made him famous.” Plan B is for “the movies he’ll give a shit about.” He also referred to Pitt, who starred and produced Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly,” as someone with “congenital sadness,” and that if you were to use him to paint a picture you’d be “using the blue brush.”

3. Afflec-tation
It was Casey Affleck‘s thin, high voice—that really got him the part. “Everyone else that auditioned tried for Travis Bickle,” but Affleck got that Bob Ford was a scared kid in a fantasy land.

4. Cuts The Hardest
There was a great deal of discussion about the tortuous nine month process of cutting the film. Dominik was fired and re-hired by Warner Bros. a number of times, and he understood the studio’s concern. “It’s plotless, really. And Ford shoots Jesse James because Dick Liddil fucks Wood Hite’s stepmother? Huh?”

Watching this cut of the film is hard for him. Dominik assured the audience over and over again that he likes the film, but admitted that there are two other versions longer in length that he prefers. He has no power to ever release them – they are owned by Warner Bros. (The subtext being that if this “revival” goes well, maybe the ideal version will see the light of day.) When asked if he would describe those scenes, Dominik refused. “That would be like talking about dead kids. ‘They were great. Now they’re gone!’”

5. Everyone’s a Critic
As moderator David Schwartz tried to dangle hope about Warner Bros. eventually releasing the “ideal” cut, Schwartz mentioned “hey, at first they wanted to dump ‘Bonnie & Clyde.’”

“Have you seen ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ lately?” Dominik interrupted, scrunching his face in disapproval. “Has some good editing in the end, I suppose…“

6 . No, really, EVERYONE’S a Critic
When Dominik showed Terrence Malick a cut of “Jesse James,” his reaction was “it’s too slow.”

This got some laughs, but Dominik (rightly) pointed out that people who think Malick’s films are slow are dead wrong—they zoom. He also said those who compare ‘Jesse James’ to Malick don’t know what they’re talking about (again, true) and they are just getting hung up on shots of nature. “I see the film as far more similar to ‘Barry Lyndon‘ than anything else.”

7. Your Humble Narrator
Watching the film again (it had been a while), I was trying to recall out who the narrator was. For a minute I thought it was Ricky Jay. Turns out the narrator was the assistant editor, a fella named Hugh Ross.

Originally, Dominik wanted a woman to do the narration. Ross was in there just as a temp track. And, as so often happens, they fell in love with the temp track. No one could do it as good as Hugh. Oddly, even Hugh couldn’t do it as good as Hugh. When it was time to re-record, he got nervous, or something, and it lacked the essence they loved from the first read. So some of what you hear (much of it poorly recorded, according to Dominik) is that initial voice over.

Dominik said that when the movie played festivals, Hugh Ross was part of the gang that travelled with it, and it always freaked people out to hear him talk from the back of a car after watching the movie.

8. Nick Cave’s Lookin’ Out For Nick Cave
Dominik first approached Nick Cave to play the barroom singer in the one scene toward the end. Cave quickly agreed, but also said “I want to do the music.” Dominik says he was embarrassed that he didn’t ask him originally and said “sure” because he didn’t know what else to say. Of course, now he’s happy with the result that he and Warren Ellis came up with, and remarked that it sounds much bigger than what is really just violin and piano.

9. Not Soft Enough
There was no shortage of movie journos in the house, and my colleague Matt Patches asked a question that touched upon “Killing Them Softly.” (I’m not going to repeat the full question – what am I, working for Patches now?) Anyway, Dominik took the opportunity to say, bluntly, that he is “embarrassed by the stylization in ‘Killing Them Softly.’”

Later in the evening, Patches and I schmoozed with Dominik as he smoked outside (we were on our way to get milkshakes) and he confessed that “maybe in a year I’ll be able to watch ‘Killing Them Softly’ with a clear head and like it.” He said it took quite some time to get to a place where he could watch and like “Jesse James.”

10. What’s Next
Dominik said that he’s “good to go” to shoot “Blonde,” based on Joyce Carol Oates‘ book about Marilyn Monroe, next August. He said that the film has very little dialogue, which is odd considering how all his other films “rely so heavily on talking.” He said there is no scene in the script longer than two pages. Also, it will be his first film with a major female character. “My films have always been bereft of women,” he confessed.

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Comments

yes

I would love to see Andrew Dominik’s cut of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I loved every image and every line out of this film. It reminds me of laying in my bed and getting a story read to me by my mother.

guest

So much death in this movie it's horrific. Jesse's always looking for it because he's been resolved to die for some time.

Then it passes to Charlie Ford like some disease.

Then that crazy bastard loads up a double barrel with steel shavings and corks it and just walks in and blows off Robert Ford's head.

They should do a sequel. Start it off with Robert's head blowing up, and then go back to bloody Kansas and Quantril. They could do Archie Clement, and end with Northfield. That would sell a lot of tickets.

Maybe not. It's unhealthy to have many people dwell on this.

Harold

you sound like a really unbright person Jordan

Xian

Sometimes a movie comes out that defies the expectations of the studio, the marketing dept., the creative group behind it… even the director. Both of Dominik's recent films seem to have gotten out to the public this way, and yet both are excellent (TAOJJBTCRF's look at extreme American celebrity fixations and KMS's skewed look at America as a land of capitalism and opportunity). It happens… masterpieces are discovered by audiences over time, not necessarily because they were meant to be so by the financiers or the filmmakers, but sometimes despite that.

Stephanie

"Assassination" was my favorite movie of the year it came out, and I still adore it. I didn't find it to be slow at all. I was very involved with all of the characters the whole time, loved the ensemble, and thought it was incredibly moving.

Anthony

I'll preface by saying that I absolute love TAOJJBTCRF, and i was at the screening Saturday. My wife( seeing it for the first time) was also in awe of the film, but the director came off really out of touch. Which is fine, I'm sure both he and I don't need any more friends. I'll still watch his movies, but he's definitively in the douche category in my mind.

CharlieT

Just because a filmmaker makes a slow burning, dreary and predictable film doesn't make it a masterpiece.

Lets just say, he's had his shot and ever since Chopper, it's been a downward slide.

Its time to move over and expose the new up and coming directors from the land downunder. In Australia, there are more fresh, raw, edgy and inventive filmmakers that should be popping soon.

Gordon

I think Killing Them Softly is every bit the masterpiece that Robert Ford is. I may be the only person in the world who thinks that, but… Whatever.

Adam Scott Thompson

Wow… the candor. lol

JJBuffalo

For anyone living in the Buffalo, NY area, there is going to be a screening on January 9th. Details and tickets can be found at Tugg (dot) com.

Michael Dunbridge

Whatever Dominik or anyone else says about it, this is one helluva film, based upon a fine novel about Jesse James (written by Ron Hansen). All the studio machinations, the struggles, the rifts and bs aside (which, by the way, are depressing and would discourage anyone from trying to make a film in Hollywood), I'd go see this movie on the big screen anytime it comes back around. Flawed, yes; a bit long, yes; but the cinematography, the acting, the music, is some of the best to have come out of that particular year. As for Dominik's demeanor, who really cares, unless you're working with/for him. If you haven't seen this film nor viewed it in a theater, it's definitely worth your time.

KT

So, in short – the studio edited the shit out of his films and he hates them.

Okay, then.

Jack

Isn't there supposed to be a much longer version of Killing Them Softly? Was/is Dominik approving of the cut that was released in theaters?

spassky

Sounds like a pompous, chauvinistic bro who has zero respect for his audience.

'Assassination…" is merely his attempt at subtlety, which is so unsubtly subtle it boggles the feaux-cineaste fanboys into deference. Whenever you talk to people who want to defend this film it's all "elegiac" this and "aesthetic precision" that blablabla. Don't get me wrong, the movie has some of the best performances of the past decade, and some beautiful photography but Dominik doesn't seem to have any clue what it's about. He makes movies for himself, and he seems like an awful egotistical bore.

Besides chopper, his films are turds outside of the performances and cinematography. Guy sounds merely like a psychopath-with-a-decent-eye for hire.

3423

That Malick thought it was too slow came out years ago in a Dominik interview. That bit of info probably dates back to when the movie initially came out in 2007

CB

Andrew Dominik is one of my heroes. A pure filmmaker. Wish more directors had Dominik's sensibilities.

bohmer

I will always take time to write how much of a masterpiece this film is (even tough its not the director's vision). I would pay big dollars to see one of those cuts!

lookfar

He really is a great director.

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