Andrew Dominik has made three films in the last 12 years, but those three films were Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly. Chopper was the movie we all watched when we wanted to find out who was playing The Hulk. Jesse James was an epic western that divided audiences but wound up on many “Best of the Decade” lists. Killing Them Softly made a splash at Cannes and is now open in U.S. theaters. Based on a book by George V. Higgins, Brad Pitt stars as a hit man hired to clean up a mess made by other hit men who couldn’t kill the petty thieves who messed up the mob’s gambling racket. Set during the 2008 election, clips of Obama and McCain speeches appear in the background of many scenes. We got to speak with Dominik by phone about his experiences in the filmmaking craft and industry.
CraveOnline: This might be an obvious question for a writer/director, but why has it been so long between your movies? What does it take for you to find a subject you’re interested in, develop it and write and direct it?
Andrew Dominik: Well, I seem to come up with subjects fairly regularly and even write screenplays and stuff. The difficult part is getting people to finance them. That’s probably the reason for the long stretches in between projects. I’d work every day if I could but it takes a lot of money to do my job, somebody else’s money.
So you could be more prolific if there were money?
Why then was Killing Them Softly something that could get made?
It’s a $10 million Brad Pitt movie. It’s kind of like a no-brainer, which is something that I had to come up with after Jesse James.
What do you mean “had to?”
Well, Jesse James didn’t set the world on fire financially. It’s what they call a bomb.
Was it not a critically acclaimed prestige movie? Studios sometimes like to have those, even if they’re not huge box office.
Less and less these days.
So The Weinstein Company wasn’t looking for the next epic prestige movie, they wanted the inexpensive star powered movie?
Well, no, Harvey didn’t finance the film. He’s just releasing it. The money was raised by a company called Inferno and they were happy to have the $10 million Brad Pitt film.
I want to congratulate you for making Ben Mendelsohn look like the dirtiest person I’ve ever seen on film.
Oh good, I’m glad. I’m glad he seemed that way.
How did you make him look that greasy?
You know what, I’m not sure. I did tell makeup department that he should be sweaty at all times, but how they actually did it I’m not sure. It was some kind of oil.
I was worried it was some kind of method, like he spent three or five days not showering to get that look.
I’m sure there was a lot of not showering going on.
Why was it important for you to set the film during the 2008 election?
Because I thought, “How am I going to make a crime film that’s different?” I thought that maybe I could make a kind of self-conscious crime film. It seems to me all crime movies to some extent are about capitalism because they’re dealing with characters just care about money. Crime films are usually like the dark side of the American dream or the American dream at its most base kind of form. Here I had a story about an economic crisis in the criminal economy, but what was going around in the world around me was an economic crisis in the world economy. There were certain similarities between the two crises. They were both caused by failures of regulation. They were both caused in economies that were supported by gambling and in dealing with the problem, they not only had to deal with the cause of the problem but people’s perception of the problem. It kind of just seemed like a no brainer. It was sort of a way I guess of saying something about the way America is organized in terms of its economics, but to do it in a fun way.
This ends with the inauguration, so if it continued a little further, would the crime world get a bailout like the banks did under Obama?
No, no. I think what you see going on in the movie is there is no bailout in the criminal world. The criminal world is really a world that allows the market to correct itself. It’s strictly Darwinian. It’s really the survival of the fittest, but I’m not sure that the film is really that critical of capitalism per se. It’s sort of more critical of cronyism, which is what Brad’s character is objecting to. He just thinks that the guy that caused the problem should’ve just been whacked in the first place instead of people liking him.
We don’t see in many movies that beating a guy up makes them throw up.
Yeah, well, that does happen apparently.
Was that from the book or something you came up with?
That is from the book. That is from the book. That can happen when you beat a guy up.
I would imagine it does, but we don’t see that a lot in movies.
You don’t see a lot of beatings in movies either. You see a lot of fights in movies but it’s not often that you see a lot of beatings. There’s very few memorable ones. There’s that great one in Goodfellas where Ray [Liotta] was on the giving end.
One of the filmmaking touches that was interesting to me were the sound cuts in the opening. What were your ideas behind that?
Well, the opening is Obama and noise and I guess you can draw your own conclusions from that. Sound in general, I’m really into sound in movies. I like to use the sound to do the job that music usually does, which is to provide underscore, because it’s a way of doing it where I feel like it’s less obviously manipulative than having music telling you to be happy, sad, scared or whatever. So I always pay a great deal of attention to sound. There’s something magical about sound and images together. For a filmmaker it’s like playing with your train set or something.
Then later, the camera shakes when Brad Pitt slams the car door. Did you have a camera attached to the car?
Yeah. The camera’s just mounted on the car door.
The film has generated some buzz since Cannes, but are people picking up on the political undertones or is that slipping through?
Most of the reviews I’ve read have all talked about it. Most of them are critical of it actually, saying that they felt it was heavy handed. But I remember those times and it seemed to me like every time you turned on the TV or got in the car, someone was talking about how the world was one inch away from going under.
How was your experience at Cannes?
It went over pretty good. From a personal point of view, it’s absolutely terrifying because tomorrow you’re going to show your film at the really prestigious festival and all the other filmmakers there are really great filmmakers. It’s terrifying but by about mid-morning, all the reviews started coming in and we had gone over really well, you start to relax and then you get drunk and you go do red carpet and sit through the movie. It’s kind of a blur and then go party and thank God it’s all over.
Is having buzz come out that early somewhat stressful, when you have at least six months to go before the rest of the world sees the movie?
Well, it is. If the movie comes out and advanced word on it is bad, then you’ve got six months of stink which would be awful, but we didn’t have that. People liked it. It’s actually a happy six months because you can claim that your film is really good and no one has seen it, so they don’t know if you’re right or wrong.
When you approached Brad Pitt, was he game to do something smaller?
He was. I think Brad in general is just really interested in making good movies and he’s formed a production company for that very reason. He and Dede [Gardner] are making movies with Steve McQueen, Terry Malick and they’re just making movies that might not otherwise get made. I think at this point, Brad’s said many times, he just wants to make some movies that his children can be proud of. Necessarily most of those films are going to be lower budget, but we had a very intense experience over Jesse James which is a beloved film of both of ours and an experience I’m not sure if we exactly would want to go through it again but it was certainly very important to both of us. That makes it easier for me because he and I are friends, but I guess there was something about this project that appealed to him which is why he got involved in it.
I’d heard about Jesse James long before it came out because it kept getting moved. What were you guys going through during those times?
Oh, it was just a basic feeling on the part of the studio about the movie. I think [WB President] Jeff Robinov described the film as 2 ½ hours of haiku which I actually thought was not a bad description, but he meant it in a bad way. It was just that. The studio were hoping, Jesse James/Brad Pitt sounds more like Batman than the movie we made.
Chopper being your first film, what was your experience making that?
For me it was just terrifying, you know what I mean? I’d never made a full-length movie before and I had grand ambitions and felt like I was failing 90% of the time. So it was kind of terrifying, and then it all cut together pretty well and I realized you only need to succeed about 10% of the time. I like the movie so that part was really good.
Do you think you’ve succeeded more than 10% on your subsequent films?
What I mean is you only have to get 10% of your rushes good, not 100%. I like all the movies for different reasons. Jesse James is probably the one that’s closest to my heart.
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel