‘Dom Hemingway’ and the Art of Crafting a Likable Prick

By  · Published on April 6th, 2014

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director Richard Shepard makes tonally risky choices. The Matador and The Hunting Party are broad comedies, but they also focus on characters with serious problems. Shepard doesn’t play those personal conflicts as jokes, either. He takes their predicaments very seriously, no matter how goofy his characters may act. These three dramatic comedies, including his latest film, Dom Hemingway, are driven by the loss of a loved one.

In the case of Dom Hemingway, the narrative is also propelled by a potbellied, foul mouth, unhinged and egotistical safe-cracker named Dom Hemingway (Jude Law). This is a man who loves his name, himself, and, of course, his cock. You read that last part right. The film opens with Dom discussing what a wonderful piece of equipment he has. Needless to say, he’s a magnetic character who is, maybe not a good person, but someone you root for, if only because he knows how to talk about himself to exhaustive lengths.

We discussed with writer-director Shepard how he made this incredibly flawed protagonist so damn appealing:

I know you’ve probably been asked about this a lot today, but can we talk about the opening scene? Was that the first scene you wrote?

[Laughs] I knew I wanted to make a movie about a guy getting out of prison, and I knew I wanted to try to stay away from all the clichés of that world. But I still wanted to do it. I don’t outline, so I really had no idea what movie I wanted to write, so I was having a hard time figuring it out. One day I was like, “You know what? I’ll just write a scene of him in prison just as a way….maybe it will help me figure him out.” And I just started writing that first scene. For whatever reason, it just literally poured out of me. It was so easy to write. I was kind of cracking myself up trying to be as silly as I could and yet make this odd little scene where you realize that he’s getting a blow job.

So I was really kind of enjoying it. By the time I was done, I was like, “Holy shit. I totally know who this character is, and now I know the rest of the movie. I may not know what’s going to happen, but I know who this guy is and I want to just see this guy do anything at this point.” Literally, he could do no wrong for me because he was so entertaining in a way.

It is the first scene of the movie. It’s also the first scene that I wrote. And it is also the first scene that we shot of the movie, because Jude, very early on, said, “I want to shoot that scene first, because I think before I know the crew and before everything, I want everyone to know that this is going to be unlike anything they’ve ever seen me in. I want to walk on that set naked and I just want to do that monologue.” I’m like, “Let’s do it.” We shot it on a pre-production day on a camera test day, and literally Jude walked on the set, dropped his bathrobe and we did it in six takes and went to lunch.

[Laughs] Once you had that opening scene, Dom must’ve been a writer’s dream. He’s someone without a filter, so he and the story could go in so many directions.

In general, it’s almost like when he would talk, I would almost zone out. I wouldn’t even realize what I was writing. I would just let go of anything and then just sort of write. And then I’d look back on it and go, “Wow. What the hell was I writing? It’s kind of funny. It’s kind of weird.” He’s foul, and profane, and dangerous, and sort of so verbal, and sort of used his language in a fun way, and uses it almost as a weapon, as a shield, and all of these things.

Then, of course, when Jude came on and sort of made Dom his own, to see it then taken to another level in which somehow the lines were just funnier, and deeper, and more interesting, and more unique when Jude was saying it than it was on the page, even. So that was enormously enjoyable just from a directing standpoint. The writer in me felt really happy that this director had hired Jude Law to make his words sound better [Laughs].

[Laughs] It reminded me of The Matador in how you subverted the image these two actors are known for. Does that go into casting, picking an actor who you wouldn’t immediately expect in the role?

Totally. The movie would be so less interesting with an actor who you’ve seen play a similar role. I feel that, especially in independent film, surprising the audience is what you have in your pocket, because surprise is free. This is not a movie where there’s explosions or giant robots. It doesn’t have that expectation and it doesn’t have that budget. We have a freedom of less expectation and we also have a freedom of creativity to try and surprise people. I think Dom in general is a surprising character. You can’t believe at the end of the movie that you’re as emotionally invested in a guy who is, in the opening scene, getting a blow job.

You want him to win.

Exactly. I wanted an actor who was unexpected in that role. Honestly, the list wasn’t long of actors in England who hadn’t already played sort of like a lowlife thief. There’s so many of those Guy Ritchie movies, so the list was short. I also wanted an actor who had done Shakespeare, because there’s such a theatricality about Dom that I wanted someone who was comfortable with words in that way and comfortable with monologues in that way.

I just had always been a fan of Jude’s. I think there’s a big likability thing with Jude as an actor that was so helpful for Dom. It reminded me a lot of what Pierce [Brosnan] brought to The Matador because he’s also very likable. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you or I like them as actors or not like them. There’s just a likeability in the way they do stuff. For me, that was important for The Matador because if we like him, he can be really an asshole and we’ll still root for him.

Speaking of surprises, if you gave this setup to most writers, they would have made the movie about Dom chasing after his money the whole time. But instead, you followed him trying to connect with his daughter. Did you always see Dom Hemingway as that personal journey?

I’m glad you said that, Jack. Honestly, I didn’t want to write a crime movie. I didn’t want to have a one last heist movie or ending the movie on some big safe cracking scene. I wanted to make a character study of a deeply flawed guy who was trying to figure out how to make his life better. And everything he thinks is going to make his life better makes him worse. And, ultimately, maybe he sees clearly enough to realize the mistakes he’s made. I always went in believing that Dom was a real person with real pain. That, I think, was why Jude was like, “Listen, if you want to make a normal crime movie, I’m not interested. This movie that you’ve written is really intriguing to me.”

It was because it is unexpected and hopefully emotionally resonant. I’m okay with the idea that you can shift in a movie what movie you are seeing. Audiences are smart enough. And the ones who don’t get it, I don’t care about them, because I can’t care about everyone. I can only care about people who are along for the ride and hopefully getting what we are trying to do and hopefully enjoying themselves and being surprised.

That’s what I look for in a movie. I want to have fun. And, ultimately, I want to be surprised. I want to leave the theater kind of on a high. When a movie does work like that, it’s so awesome. Half the movies I love are movies that some people don’t love. Again, it’s not a $150 million robot movie, which does have to please everybody because it has to make a billion dollars. It’s a different story.

But that said, artistically, what you talk about, about how ultimately this is a father reconnecting with this daughter story, that is what attracted Jude to the movie and what we always kept in mind, even during the most outrageous scenes, was that there’s deep vulnerability in the guy, even when it’s not even apparent.

That tonal mix can even throw critics sometimes. Like, in the case of this and The Hunting Party, it’s either for you or it isn’t.

It is sort of what I do. It doesn’t work for everyone. Some people want the movie to be the movie they want it to be from beginning to end. And some people don’t want that. I’m making it for the people who don’t want that. I also think that, like, in The Hunting Party, a movie about journalists hunting a war criminal, which is a very serious subject, but you hang out with any journalist for five minutes who is covering war and they have the most sardonic sense of humor. They do sit in the bars at the end of the day making jokes. That is how they act.

To me, it’s more real-life that way. The fact of the matter is, if you really look at Dom, he is a petty criminal who thinks he’s owed this money. He sort of shoots himself in the foot and gets drunk and gets in a car accident, loses his money, and all of this. And all he’s left with is realization that what he really needs is a connection to his family.

That’s the same movie. It is the same movie. It is the same character. It makes sense. But it’s slightly deconstructing a genre, and not in a hugely experimental way, but just slightly. I think that that’s what we want; why a movie like Sexy Beast is one of my favorite movies. There’s a real beating heart at that movie. You really, really care about the relationship between the guy and his wife, and you are terrified that Ben Kingsley is going to kill Ray Winstone or ruin the relationship between Ray Winstone and his wife. That tension, that real tension, makes it a much deeper, much more emotionally movie, even with all the humor of Ben Kingsley and the great writing and directing. To me, that’s a perfect template of the type of movies that I aspire to, in a way.

To go back to the beginning, did you ever have a 10 minute version of Dom talking about his penis? No pun intended, but did you play around with the length of that scene?

[Laughs] It’s a good question because that monologue was originally three times longer. I kept going on and on and it could have been the whole movie. I cut it down to the length that it is now. When we were editing it we had coverage which we decided not to use. There was a moment we tried to use it, so we could cut it down. A part of me said, “Listen, the movie opens and it’s just Jude in a one-shot thing. There is no escaping him. Is it a beat too long? Maybe, but ultimately, the reveal and all those factors made it worth it for me.” So, there wasn’t a filmed version that was longer, but there were shorter versions in editing. We went with the version that said, “You are in for something. We’re not using any tricks. This is completely Jude Law, naked and…whatever.” [Laughs]

Dom Hemingway opened in limited theatrical release on April 4th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.