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.”
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.