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The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford - Andrew Dominik interview

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ANDREW Dominik talks about making The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, working with Brad Pitt both as star and producer and why director of photography Roger Deakins played such a key part in securing the distinct look of the movie.

He also talks about striving for authenticity, making the leap from Australia to Hollywood and casting Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell in equally significant roles…

How did you first get involved with the movie?
Andrew Dominik: I read the book [of the same name by Ron Hansen]. A friend of mine found it in a second-hand bookstore, he read it and said: “This would make a good movie.” So, I read it and agreed.

Did you know much about Jesse James or Robert Ford before that?
Andrew Dominik: Not really. I knew the Bob Dylan song, Outlaw Blues, and I’d probably seen a couple of Jesse James movies but I couldn’t remember any of them. But I loved the book – I loved the language and the characters, the thematic material and it seemed like it had really good scenes.

The film looks beautiful and operates on a very surreal, almost spellbinding scale. How much of that is down to the director of photography, Roger Deakins? And how did you enjoy working with him?
Andrew Dominik: Roger’s really curmudgeonly. He’s fantastic. He’s completely fearless and he’s not actually satisfied unless he’s doing something that scares him. That’s something I really admire. The other thing about Roger is that he takes a really holistic attitude towards his job. Roger saw really quickly that it was going to take a lot of takes to get the performances that I wanted and I wanted to do a lot of set-ups, which means that he had to light faster. He would always do what was best for the film and was never scared of anything.

When I told Roger that I wanted the edges of the picture to be distorted he would never think twice or wonder whether it was going to be weird or not – he’d go out and rip lenses apart and just do it. He’s super-talented and really fast – but he doesn’t suffer fools. He’s kind of grumpy – but in a good way, but the guy’s really one of the best in the world. The other thing I really admire about Roger is that he’s not selling a look. When you look at the movies that he’s shot [The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, The Siege, Jarhead, etc], they’re incredibly versatile. He’ll change his style for every film and he’s always seeking to reinvent himself. I think he’s pretty extraordinary for that and he loves to work. The guy never stops working. So it was very special to have him for Jesse James.

How easy was it to maintain such a distinct vision for the film?
Andrew Dominik: Well, a film is kind of like its own animal if you know what I mean. You don’t want to know everything about it before you go into making it, otherwise it’s just dull. So, you always get to a certain point where the film’s just telling you what it wants to be. In a strange way I don’t feel that I have… it’s like a dialogue with the movie. It falls together the way it wants to and there’s really not much you can do about it. Other people might look at it and think they could make it better or different – but you can’t really.

I read that you were keen on embracing the Terrence Malick style of approach – to lend it a more surreal element at times. And that met with some resistance from the studio?
Andrew Dominik: Yeah, but it’s not the studio’s idea of how a movie should behave. But they read the script and it’s the movie it was always going to be. There were various attempts to juice it up – but you couldn’t. It wouldn’t behave.

Did having Brad Pitt and Ridley Scott as producers help with that?
Andrew Dominik: Brad helped an awful lot because he’s just a real power in Hollywood. He was definitely the most powerful person involved with the movie. He’s not afraid to wield it. He’s the only reason the movie happened and he’s the person that stands in the way if anyone wanted to f**k it up.

Were you surprised by his devotion to the project because he really became Jesse James?
Andrew Dominik: I was actually because I’d heard that Brad was really fickle. He’s a person that sort of flits in and out of things and takes forever to make up his mind. I’d heard that he was also really inconsistent. But that was certainly not my experience of him. I gave him the book and he called me 48 hours later and said “come over”. So, I went over to his house and he said: “I’m in!” I took that with a grain of salt. But he was the most committed person to this. His ideas about the way the film should be didn’t change at all. He was really consistent.

How involved were you personally with making the film look authentic?
Andrew Dominik: Well, when you look at photographs from the period it doesn’t look like the Wild West; it looks like Dickens. America looked really Victorian. So, we wanted to make it look like that. There were no barrels either, and they always have barrels in Westerns. In fact, you go to Canada and the props department and there’s a whole warehouse of barrels and basically they just want to put barrels everywhere – so you have to talk them out of it. Then there’s the clothes, the architecture and stuff like that. There were a lot of references that we had that we were trying to replicate. It’s very much a pragmatic business. This movie is a low budget movie for what it is and you kind of have to work with what’s available.

Did you speak to any of Jesse’s descendents because they’ve since been very vocal in giving their support to the film…
Andrew Dominik: No, I didn’t. Have they supported it?

Well, they have an article posted on their website raving about the film. In fact, there’s a whole subtext about the four-hour and wishing that version was released… I guess that’s a vindication of sorts that your vision was correct?
Andrew Dominik: Really? Well, good for them [laughs]. Fantastic! Good on them. I’m not sure if the box office figures in America would agree with you. But it’s a hard situation for the studio. It’s almost like they are the bad guys – but they’re not really. They just want to make the best movie they can. They make movies that are really good films that perform on a much more basic “let’s satisfy the audience” approach to filmmaking that are still good films – but even some of them don’t work in the marketplace. So, when they see a film like this one, which is weird for a studio film, it’s only natural that they would feel some sort of anxiety about it.

How did you arrive at Casey Affleck for Robert Ford?
Andrew Dominik: I saw him in Gerry and I thought he was really good – and he looked like Bob [Ford]. There was a photograph of Robert Ford taken about three days after the assassination and you look at him and realise that he’s just a kid. Casey had that kind of quality about him visually and then I got him to come in and read for the part and he was fantastic. I think Casey’s got that emotional make-up anyway, he just understood Bob like Brad understood Jesse.

The chemistry between them is very authentic. Do you think it helped that they already knew each other from having worked on the Ocean’s films together?
Andrew Dominik: Not really. I don’t know if they interact a lot in the Ocean films. I think Casey’s just in the background somewhere [laughs]. But Brad certainly has a real soft spot for Casey because Casey’s just a really, really charming guy – really quick witted, really funny and intelligent. He’s totally irreverent and a joy to have around. So I think Brad always liked him. But I don’t know if there was anything particular about their past roles together. I know that Brad certainly liked the idea of casting him.

In a film of great performances one that could get overlooked is Sam Rockwell’s [as Charley Ford]…
Andrew Dominik: Sam’s f*****g fantastic, mate. That guy can do anything. I think it’s a really unusual part for Sammy. He doesn’t usually play nice characters – and Charley’s really sweet. It’s great to have a character caught up in an assassination that has absolutely no agenda – and likes both parties. He’s like the normal person in the movie. I think Sam’s just wonderful.

You’re a New Zealand born director who grew up in Australia. Did you feel any kind of pressure coming in to direct a Western, which is such a strong American genre?
Andrew Dominik: Not really. Aside from the obvious pressure of it being a big budget movie… It’s obviously daunting because this was going to be a lot bigger than anything I’d handled before and there was going to be horses and period stuff and train robberies and shit. It was also daunting to think about it in the abstract. But the film was like a road movie. We’d move every couple of days and when it happens in bite-size chunks like that you just have to deal with each problem as it comes. But it’s not like their making millions of Westerns now anyway – well, this year they are [laughs].

I actually found that making this film wasn’t much different to making Chopper. It’s the same problems on a slightly bigger scale. But you get the same personality types in each job. I hadn’t worked with anyone on this movie before but they all have very similar personalities to people I have worked with in the past. That said, it’s obviously a lot more of a political undertaking making a movie in Hollywood and it’s a business there. In Australia, they don’t expect films to make money; whereas in America they’re counting on it. So, it’s a whole different deal.

Has the critical success of Jesse James helped to open doors for you in Hollywood?
Andrew Dominik: No, not really, it’s not like they’re offering me Harry Potter movies or anything [looks to Warner Bros PA and smiles].

b>Read our review of The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

b>Read our interview with Brad Pitt