The tables turned on Roger and James Deakins on this week’s episode of the “Team Deakins” podcast as the two collaborators got interviewed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Lion,” Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Dune” and “The Batman”) about the making of Andrew Dominik’s 2007 revisionist Western drama “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” The original four-hour cut of “Jesse James” got trimmed down to a 160-minute theatrical cut because of studio notes. For Deakins, the 240-minute “Jesse James” was far superior but less commercial for Warner Bros.
“There was a four-hour cut that I actually loved,” Deakins said. “I read somewhere that it was shown at the Venice Film Festival in its four-hour version, but it doesn’t exist now, and that’s a shame. The studio’s problem was they thought there’d be more train robberies, and Brad Pitt would be more of a traditional Western outlaw. And when Brad was killed and the film progressed in this way that followed Robert Ford…and the way he wasn’t celebrated like he expected to be later in life… of course nobody wanted that.”
Warner Bros. released “Jesse James” to only $3 million at the U.S. box office. The Western drama fared better overseas with $11 million, but the movie’s total $15 million global gross was still just half of its $30 million production budget. No matter which way you slice it, “Jesse James” was a big box office disaster for Warner Bros.
“We shot all these scenes,” Deakins said. “I thought it was a wonderful tapestry of all these things that happen to these characters that we set up in the first half of the movie.”
In a September 2019 interview, Deakins urged The Criterion Collection to jump on board and release the extended “Jesse James” cut. The cinematographer added, “I would really like to see the long version, the first cut that I saw, released on Criterion. That’s what I’d hope for. It was over three hours. I don’t think it ever will, because last time I talked to Andrew about it he was quite happy with the version that got released. But I still remember that first early cut that I saw and it was pretty stunning.”
Dominik said in a 2016 interview that Criterion wasn’t interested at the time in releasing the original “Jesse James” cut, but the movie’s cult following has only grown bigger and more passionate over the last four years. IndieWire recently named “Jesse James” the most beautiful film of the 21st century thanks to Deakins’ cinematography.