Twelve years ago, New Zealand-born music-video director Andrew Dominik exploded onto the international scene with his feature debut “Chopper,” a stylish, bloody portrait of a brutish outlaw. The movie played at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals and launched the writer-director’s career, along with that of the film’s star, Eric Bana, whose fierce performance as the cackling mad antihero earned rave reviews.
Seven years later, Dominik’s second film, the 160-minute neo-Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was called both a visionary masterpiece and a peculiar bore. After public battles with Warner Bros., which produced and released the film, the experience left Dominik feeling bruised.
But now Dominik is back on an even bigger stage, with his new Cannes-competition entry “Killing Them Softly.” Based on the 1974 bestseller “Cogan’s Trade,” the darkly comic story follows a mob enforcer (played by “Jesse James” star Brad Pitt) on a mission to set things right after a high-stakes poker game goes wrong. In the days before heading to Cannes, Dominik spoke with Indiewire about how directing is like playing Mr. Potato Head, why “Softly” speaks to the 2008 economic collapse and how, despite the violence, his movies are actually comedies.
You and Australian director John Hillcoat, in Cannes with “Lawless,” both have made Western genre films with a lot of violence. Is there something coming from Australia that makes you inclined to deal with violence?
Cinema is drama, you know, and the dramatic expression of drama is violence. It seems violence and drama go together, right? I like movies where the stakes are life and death. Do I have some moral opinion on violence? Not really. I think it’s bad if it happens to me.
But in your first film, “Chopper,” it’s particularly brutal. Not all movies about violence need to convey it so brutally.
This movie has violence in it, too, but it’s not emotional violence. In the other two films I’ve made, the characters are very torn about it, in one way or another. In this one, the focus is more on trying to kill people from a distance, so they don’t have to deal with their feelings. It’s kind of a running gag through the movie. It’s a comedy, if you didn’t know. So there’s a kind of understanding in the picture that violence is a job, and it’s an embarrassing situation, and you want to maintain as much as distance from it as possible.
Is it really a comedy or are you being facetious?
I hope so. People laugh when they see it. But I think “Chopper” is a comedy. In Australia, it’s a literal laugh riot, people rolling in the aisles, and in France, too. But Americans take things a little more seriously than other people do.
Was the source material important to you? Were you interested in this as an adaptation?
The idea originally was to make a drama. But what the story is about is an economic crisis in a criminal economy — an economy supported by gambling. And the crisis occurred because of a failure of regulation, so it seemed to be an opportunity to make a film about what was happening in 2008, to make a story about the economic crisis. And laughs seemed better than to play it seriously.
In “The Assassination of Jesse James,” you used a moody soundtrack by Australian Nick Cave, who also wrote “Lawless.” Can you talk about the use of music in “Killing Them Softly?”
There is no music. I’m not a big fan of music as an underscore; I don’t like music that tells me what to feel. In “Jesse James,” the music is used to create distance. I like to use sound as underscore, and for this picture that’s what I wanted to do.
“Jesse James” had a troubled production history, and you had a tough time with the studio. How was it working on this film, particularly in the post-production process, since the first cut was quite long?
This film was very easy, because I had final cut. Other than struggling with the movie itself, there were no outside difficulties. It was really weird, because everyone liked the film. And that’s never happened to me before.
What were the struggles?
It’s a lot of dialogue. It’s basically 20 dialogue scenes and occasionally they all rob and kill each other. But other than that, it’s trying to tell a story through dialogue. And a lot of the dialogue is digressive, so it’s not really dealing with the plot. In the movie, the crime is a drag. It’s not like they’re super criminals, working against the clock to achieve some extraordinary plan. It’s about a bunch of guys who do crime for a job, and like all of us, they don’t like being at work and they’re talking about other things. Making all that work and move along, and be entertaining — it’s just not easy.
So how did you overcome that challenge?
You just cut stuff out. You just play Mr. Potato Head with the film until you get the right balance. In a way, it was almost like making a documentary. You’re recording the events of people’s lives, and then you’re choosing which ones best describe the whole thing. I don’t think I’ve ever made a picture where there’s a script and you shoot it. The movie is always alive; it’s developing as you shoot it, you add stuff as you go, and you throw away other things. It’s got to have a life to it. It’s telling you what it wants it to be, and you just have to listen.
Having Brad Pitt helps give a movie some life…
He’s excellent, on both sides. On the producer’s side, he and Dede [Gardner] are becoming a force, trying to develop a cinema of quality, choosing good directors and protecting the material. As an actor, we’ve got a good kinship, we trust each other, and he’ll try things that he wouldn’t normally try, because he knows that I’m not going to leave any stupid stuff in.