Killing Them Softly is both a surprising and unexpected return for director Andrew Dominik, whose name has been missing from the big screen for five long years. What’s most surprising about the film is that it’s not much more commercial than his previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a movie which didn’t nearly get its due back in 2007. His latest film is, however, unsurprising in terms of theme: the power of the dollar.
After Jesse James didn’t light the world on fire financially, Dominik found it difficult to get other projects off the ground, so money must have been on his mind. And, according to Dominik, it was, and that’s a part of how we got his new political crime picture, Killing Them Softly. Here is what writer and director Andrew Dominik had to say about the film’s slightly cartoonish approach, why the crime genre is so appealing, and the trials and tribulations caused by Jesse James:
Are you resentful towards film school graduates?
[Laughs] No, we talk to a lot of people who love it.
Right. Yeah, I went to film school. I went to the second best one, because the first best one rejected one…
Second best is still pretty good.
Second best in Australia out of two.
[Laughs] Did you enjoy your time there?
Oh, man, I loved film school. It was fucking great. You had a structure and there was no real stress involved. It was really just three years of fucking around. Anyway, sorry, I don’t want to sidetrack you since I know we don’t have much time.
It’s no problem. I find it interesting you mentioned structure and how stress free it was, since filmmaking is usually the opposite of that.
The thing about film school in Australia is – they’re very hands on. Basically, they give you a camera, a roll of a film, and a light meter. You’d go away for a weekend and, if you came back with the film correctly exposed, you felt like you knew what you were doing. It was very practical. There was one class, like, “The History of Cinema,” where you theoretically discussed things. The rest of it was all filmmaking.
Jumping into this film, I read when you conceived the project you felt very angry. Are you still angry?
Now that I’ve been reading bad reviews, yeah, maybe I’m angry [Laughs].
[Laughs] It seems like a lot of those reviews come down on the political element.
Yeah, that’s what they’re getting upset about. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s hamfisted or they don’t like what it’s saying. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a little hamfisted.
Did that just feel right for the film’s “in-your-face” approach?
That’s kind of the movie. Everything I’ve done with the book has been to remove it away from specific and authentic towards generic in general, which is a conscious decision, to make it a little more cartoonish. Also, to use all the elements to comment on each other, which necessarily takes away the subtlety, you know? That was the conception behind it. That’s not what I do for every movie, but it seemed appropriate for this one.
You mentioned the conventional genre elements, was that something you wanted to embrace?
Well, I think it’s almost to be self-conscious of the purpose of the genre. Some fiction is how we explain reality to ourselves, and perhaps the appeal of the crime story is about living in a capitalistic society. It’s the genre where all the characters are chasing a buck and the concern of money is primary. In most movies, it’s usually always a clash between integrity, larger forces, and family values. I think people are usually looking out for themselves in crime stories, and I think that’s why we watch them. They’re all about getting rich quick. The story itself specifically deals with the problem of the economy collapsing, and using that as a metaphor. There’s so many parallels that just seem too good to ignore.
Are the crime story conventions also appealing as a visual storyteller? Like, when we see Jackie Cogan kill a certain character, it’s very stylized.
Yeah. The movie has got a lot of dialogue, so you have to give people a treat every now and then. As the editor describes that sequence, it’s all candy; it has no nutritional value whatsoever. However, it does have…I kind of justify it to myself, saying, “It’s killing them softly.” The scene is a happily executed, soft killing, so let’s portray it as a lullaby. Also, I feel like the movie has been really brutal up until that point, so we needed to go sideways. We need to hit people with the violence coming. If it was all ugly, ugly, ugly [violence], it would be too much.
After the Jesse James experience, were you more audience conscious?
Jesse James…I love that movie. I think it’s a great film. It made my life very difficult afterwards, because it was very difficult to get another project started. You know, I had all these other projects I wanted to do, but everyone told me I had to make this little heist movie, and that’s what I did. If I was going to make it, I was going to do it my way, which was my feeling behind it. I was going to make a shorter film and one with a little more plot – that kind of stuff, you know? At the same time, despite all my best efforts to make a commercial picture, I’m not really sure I’ve succeeded. We’ll find out.
You mentioned how the movie is about the power of the buck. Was that something you were thinking about after Jesse James? Some people tended to focus more on box-office result rather than the film’s actual merit.
Yeah, I was kind of offended by that. It was just, like, having a go at a movie on economic grounds. Like, “This was a bad financial idea.” You can see where I get this feeling of where the whole world revolves around money, because a lot of that feeling came from the aftermath of Jesse James.
Do your films usually come from how you’re feeling at the moment?
They all do, in their way. Chopper, I suppose, I could relate to. Chopper was just a very immature person, stuck at an almost infantile level of emotional growth. I could relate to that, because I also had a two year old son at the time, and a lot of his behavior ended up in the film, but in the body of a man. For Jesse James, it was very much about anxiety and depression, which are two things I’m no stranger to.
All three of your films take place in very unpleasant worlds. What appeals to you about focusing on more hard-edged, violent characters?
I do like extreme people. I’m not interested in ordinary people, really. I mean, I’m not even sure what an ordinary person is. I’m not one of those people who’s interested in heroes. I prefer people who are damaged and struggling, particularly characters in fiction. To me, it seems everybody who does something significant – good or bad – has some kind of wound at the center of them. I don’t know, maybe I lean too much in one direction.
Do you ever see yourself making an “ordinary people” movie?
No. I mean, I’m going to make a movie next about Marilyn Monroe, so there’s not going to be any knifings, shootings, or stabbings in it. Still, it’s not about an ordinary person.
Jesse James sidetracked the usual bio film problem of reducing someone’s life down to their greatest hits. For Marilyn Monroe, how are you approaching that narrative?
Well, the Marilyn Monroe story is a little different, because it does replay the greatest hits, but it does it from a very different perspective. Essentially, that movie is going to start when she’s seven and end when she dies. We set up a childhood drama, and then we see how the rest of that plays out in the rest of her adulthood life. As she becomes more untethered from reality, it’s, like, a pathology that gets progressively worse. It does grab from everything, but it tells it from a very visceral perspective. You’re inside the person. It certainly won’t bare much resemblance to the other pictures which have been made. It’s certainly an ode to Joyce Carol Oates‘ vision – who wrote the novel – and I’m just trying to put it into something that works in a movie.
One thing I want to touch before wrapping up is the politics of making a movie. You’ve discussed how the difficult the fighting can be, so when you are in those vicious moments, how do you usually handle them?
I’m not sure. You just try everything you can think of. Each person has to be dealt with differently. Really, there wasn’t so much on this movie, since we negotiated everything upfront. It’s a low-budget film, so there’s not as much at stake. I managed to get myself final cut, as long as I brought in a picture at a certain length and budget. I had more control on this over, say, Jesse James. Jesse James was like a game of chicken; it was whoever blinked first. Eventually, people got sick of fighting over it.
That must have been a big learning curve, in terms of how to work with the political side of filmmaking.
I did [learn a lot]. I actually had a lot of sympathy for those who didn’t see the movie the same way I did. I mean, I certainly had sympathy for Warner Bros., because they gave me 36 million dollars, and I delivered them a film they didn’t want or like. You know, you never want to run around and lose people’s money in this business, because you won’t go very far. At the same time, I really believed in what the film was. I thought it was something really special, so I wanted to protect it. It’s not like the changes which could have been made to it what have eliminated the financial trouble. It just would have been a bad film that didn’t workout, as opposed to a good film that didn’t work out.
Killing Them Softly is now in theaters.