Interview: Assassination of Jesse James's Director Andrew Dominik
by Alex Billington
September 29, 2007
By now I hope you've heard of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the western starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. It was one of my favorite films of this year and it's definitely a visually gorgeous feast for your eyes. Up in Toronto I had the chance to sit down with writer and director Andrew Dominik and talk about some of what went on behind the camera. Andrew is a very talented filmmaker and it's obvious with The Assassination of Jesse James that he's able to achieve a fantastic sense of storytelling overlaid with some incredible cinematography. If you're curious to hear more from the mind that created this wonderful film, then you won't want to miss this interview. Read on!
If you haven't already seen it, watch the trailer for The Assassination of Jesse James as well.
Alex (FS.net): How did you get involved in this project and why?
Andrew Dominik: I just found the book in a bookstore and read it--actually a friend of mind found it. And I read the first page and I liked it.
Alex: And from there just…
Andrew: Well, after the first film I made, [Chopper]… I write a number of screenplays and I've never really come up with a part for a movie star. So part of the attraction with Jesse James was to cast a movie star and it wouldn't be miscasting, and the celebrity would work for the part rather than against it. And the book is just beautiful. I took to it to Brad [Pitt] and he said he wanted to do it and that was it, done deal.
Alex: Down the realm of the cast, how did you come across Casey Affleck and why did you choose him for Robert Ford?
Andrew: I saw Casey in Gerry and I thought he was really good; I didn't know anything about Casey. Obviously I'd seen To Die For and stuff, but I'd never noticed him until that. And he looked a bit like Bob and then he came in and read. A whole variety of people came in and read, but Casey was just fantastic.
Alex: You mentioned Brad Pitt earlier, was it tough to get big actors like that for the roles? Was it showing him the script and he was just in?
Andrew: Well there wasn't a script a that point, it was only a book. And Brad had been a fan of Chopper so we had been communicating back and forth for a couple of years about various things, none of which ever came to fruition. Brad actually had a reputation for being fickle, flipping in and out of stuff, but once he decided to do it I never saw any kind of fickleness on his part. Just basically I sent him the book… I went and tried to pitch it at a studio and it was like watching people's eyes glaze over and I realized there was no way anyone was going to pay me to write a screenplay unless I had a movie star. And Brad was actually the person I had in my head, so I gave it to him through Dede Gardner, the producer, and he got back within 48 hours and said "I'm in." It was very uncomplicated.
Alex: This was an incredibly long film, why were you compelled to go for that length? Were you trying to tell the full story or include certain looks or certain scenes?
Andrew: Well many people think it is too long, but I think it works better that way. It's just um, I don't know… It was longer! I think the pace of the film was one of the things that's really good about it, it's very unusual. It's also really unusual--I mean people make long films but they usually make long, slow films. It just works better that way. It puts you in this weird kind of alpha state. Everything about the movie's saying, "go to sleep, go to sleep." The music lulls you and co-existing along with that is this kind of building anxiety. Which is… in a musical sense that's how it works best.
Alex: On the other end of that, was there anything that you cut that could be added later on the DVD?
Andrew: Well yea, I'm sure. I'm not sure that it would be a better movie, but I'd do it. If Warner Brothers wants to do it, I'll do it.
Alex: How many pages in the book are there versus pages in the script? Were there a couple of revisions in the script?
Andrew: Well, you know you never stop writing the script. And there was a lot of stuff we shot that didn't end up in the film. The screenplay we went into production with was a 148 pages and we didn't even shoot about 20 of those pages. [In comparison the original book has 320 pages.]
The film, you want it to live, do you know what I mean? You don't ever want it to be this thing that's like – at least I don't want it to be this thing that's like set in stone and the shooting of the film is actually dull because it's like building a pre-fab house or something. So you want to evolve and you want certain things to feel unanswered when you're going through it so you can learn something when you're doing it.
Alex: That's a very interesting take. I've just heard from a lot of people who didn't like how long it was and they called it boring but you're right about how the story just builds.
Alex: I actually really wanted to get into the subject with you about westerns, because especially with 3:10 to Yuma coming out, do you see the revival of the western genre coming back around?
Andrew: Well I hadn't until it had been pointed it out to me, but it seems like there is one.
Alex: Is this something that you support? Are you a big fan of westerns?
Andrew: Well, I don't have anything against them. It's not like I'm just waiting for the western to come back or anything like that. But having said that, I've written a few. Whether the western gets revived or not depends on if any of these movies make any money.
Alex: What are the other scripts you've written?
Andrew: I adapted a Jim Thompson novel called "POP. 1280" which is like a turn of the century western sort of set in West Texas. Not really a western but there's hats and horses and stuff. And then the other thing I did was I adapted a Cormac McCarthy book called "Cities of the Plain" which is the third part of the Border Trilogy which is like cowboys in the 50's, so the main character's a 19-year-old cowboy. So, kind of westerns.
Alex: Since The Assassination of Jesse James has been "in the works" for a longtime (it filmed in 2005) and is just coming out now, has there been any other project that you've been working on and getting into production?
Alex: Is there anything else in the future that you can see coming up?
Andrew: It just depends on how the movie goes. If the movie goes over, then… that will determine what I'm able to do.
But you know, pretty much most things by David Lynch or Terrence Malick or Scorsese or… There's so many good movies. Barry Lyndon is a favorite, too.
Thanks especially to Andrew Dominik and everyone at Warner Brothers for the opportunity to interview the filmmaker behind one of my favorite films of the year. I strongly suggest you go out to see The Assassination of Jesse James as soon as you can, it'll be worth it if you're looking for an incredible film.
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