"Rounder" John Dahl -- From Music Videos to Miramax
by Anthony Kaufman
It is August 21st, exactly three weeks away from the release of John
Dahl’s latest feature “Rounders” and Dahl is still mixing the movie.
With little time before Miramax unleashes the gambling drama starring
Matt Damon and Edward Norton on a number of screens across the country,
Dahl is down to the wire. After showing the director’s cut to Miramax
in June and testing it shortly thereafter, Miramax decided to release
the film on September 11 and Dahl has “been working around the clock to
finish it.” Said Dahl from his mixing suite in Los Angeles, “I haven’t
had a weekend off since June.”
Starting his career off with edgy indies like “Kill Me Again” and “Red
Rock West,” the Montana native hit big, critically and commercially,
with his third film “The Last Seduction,” which launched Linda
Fiorentino’s success as a vamp and his career as a director of gritty
genre pictures. After the forgettable science thriller “Unforgettable,”
Dahl is now back with the much hyped “Rounders,” produced by Ted Demme
and starring along with Damon and Norton, his dream cast of John
Turturro, John Malkovich, and Martin Landau.
Dahl’s next project, “if I can ever cast it,” he says, returns him to
the edgy world he is known for. Co-scripted with his brother, and with
Miramax attached to distribute, it is about a cold-blooded criminal who
gets amnesia when he breaks out of a Nevada jail. But for now, Dahl is
busy doing press for and finishing up “Rounders.” Dahl discusses with
indieWIRE the new film, his career beginnings, and his easy-going
indieWIRE: What kind of evolution was there from test screenings to what
you’re trying to put together for the release.
John Dahl: Ultimately, not really. I think we’ve taken about 4 scenes
out of the movie. We’ve basically tried to just tighten it. My
original director’s cut was 2 hours and 8 minutes and then we got it
down to 2 hours and 4 minutes and now it’s just under 2 hours. So, it’s
just tightening it.
iW: I see director Ted Demme produced it. Was their some comfort in
having a filmmaker, also as your producer?
Dahl: I’m not sure exactly how Ted got the script, but Ted Demme and Joe
Stillerman, the producers, got the script and gave it to Harvey
[Weinstein]. And Harvey liked it. And they tried to make it. So Ted’s
been involved from the get go. He’s been busy doing his own movie. We
haven’t seen a whole lot of Ted, but it’s great having Ted on the
iW: I noticed a lot of the crew, including you, have come from doing
commercials and music videos. Can you talk about that experience?
Dahl: I moved to Los Angeles and attended the American Film Institute
[AFI]. When I first got out of the AFI, it was getting harder and
harder to do low-budget movies. But it was relatively easy to get
somebody to give you money to make a music video. Because they were just
starting to happen. It was the easiest job. People were willing to
take a chance on a young director. That was ‘83, I think, and it was
hard to put low-budget movies together. The whole phenomenon of film
festivals and all of that, really hadn’t taken place. I remember coming
to town, thinking that maybe I could direct a movie, if I could convince
Roger Corman to give me a shot. That was in the late 60’s and 70’s.
When you were in film school, you read stories about Francis Ford
Coppola’s first movie that he directed was for Corman. So that seemed
like the way to get in, but that had really tightened up by the time I
got out of film school, and MTV had opened up. So it was a way that you
could build a reel and work as a director. So began working as a music
video director and writing screenplays. And then, ultimately, when I
got the opportunity to direct my first feature film, several music video
directors had already come and gone as the flavor of the moment and
just directing music videos and having that springboard you into
features had become a downside, because people had felt the music video
directors had made an interesting and stylish-looking movie. It lacked
substance and there was really no narrative ability. So by the time I
got to direct a movie, I refused to show anybody my music videos. I
said I was a screenwriter who directed a movie.
It was really useful because by the time I got to make my first movie, I
had already been on a set many times as a music video director and as a
commercial director. The runnings of the film set and what you can do
with a camera and art direction and lighting — I was fairly comfortable
with. On my feature, I had gotten most of that out of my system. I was
able to concentrate on telling a narrative story.
iW: Can you be a little more specific on what things you let go of when
moving from music videos to features?
Dahl: If you watch this movie, “Rounders,” I’ve really tried to take a
traditional narrative approach to this story. And there really isn’t
any tricky camera work. The big concern, here, for me was that I felt
like, in order to make this story interesting about guys playing cards,
you had to basically totally sympathize with Matt Damon’s character —
you had to become engaged and interested in him and want to become
involved in his story and therefore, if you liked him and wanted to see
him succeed by the end of the movie, you could sit through 2 hours of
playing cards. Which isn’t exactly the most cinematic thing in the
world. So it’s a very internal story. So the big challenge to me, on
this movie, I needed to create a world in which these people live in,
what does it look like, and not let the audience think about the
surroundings and the art direction. That’s mainly what I learned from
doing music videos, in doing music videos and commercials, there’s a
tremendous weight put on style — a style and a look, and you’ve got a
very short amount of time to get the audience’s attention. Whereas with
a feature film, people walk away, being excited about the story and
appreciating the actors. Rarely have I read the review or talked to
somebody where they said, ‘I loved the wardrobe. The set direction is
outstanding. The music is enthralling.’ It just doesn’t happen.
People like movies because they like the actor and they fall in love
with the story or are seduced by it.
iW: Of course, characters are a priority, but your cinematographer shot
these absolutely amazing films by French director Leos Carax. So I
think, even though characters are number one, your cinematography is
very much about capturing this world you’ve set up.
Dahl: It’s not to emphasize those, those [visual elements] are
incredibly important, but for the average audience, I want them to go to
the theater and they don’t have to think about those things. If they
feel they are in good hands, they can sit back and enjoy the story.
Yeah, if it’s pretty and it sounds good, that’s sort of a bonus.
iW: I’ve read that your directing style is “easy-going.” How do you
feel about that?
Dahl: Yeah, basically my approach is the most important decision I make
is who I hire. I feel I’m much better served by hiring really talented
people and letting them do their job. I’ve really been sort of a coach,
in a way. Of course, I try to provide guidance and direction, but
ultimately I feel you get your best work out of people by — before I
hire anybody, actors included, I generally research their work, so I’m
very familiar with it. In other words, I’m not going to hire somebody
that’s just done comedies, cinematography-wise, that’s just lit flat,
over-head lighting and then ask them to do something dark. It just
doesn’t work that way. You try to find something that you want and then
get that person. Then half the work is done simply by hiring them.
I guess the other thing is that I have to say about all these people is
that from everybody right down the line is that I try to hire
filmmakers. People that are actually trying to tell a story with
everything that they do.