An interview with Andrew Dominik, the director of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Maybe it’s the chronic deafness he suffers from, as if the world is arriving intermittently or smudged at his ears. Maybe he’s just more like his subjects than he’d care to admit. Whatever it is, communicating with the Australian film director Andrew Dominik is about as sudden and temporary as a cat’s passing presence.
Dominik first made an impact back in late 2000 with his debut film Chopper, a criminal biopic that jumped with bogan black comedy and neon aggression. Apart from launching the comedian Eric Bana’s career as a dramatic actor, the movie was a tour de force for the director’s own edgy talents. Dominik’s suitors in Hollywood must have hoped for more of its amphetamine-like charge in whatever he did next, a Downunder Tarantino.
Instead the 40 year old director has returned with an epic cowboy movie of almost three hours length entitled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It was with-held from release by Warner Brothers for nearly two years since completion, meeting with highly mixed audience responses at test screenings which led to re-editing, more test screenings and a behind-the-scenes power struggle to bring the work to heel.
And yet the film itself seems to have resisted any capitulation to the Dream Factory’s demands – essentially a desire for more narrative shape like a Clint Eastwood movie, and less poetic dreaminess a la Terrence Malick – to stay within its own floating and eerie orbit no matter what was done.
Inevitably The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has polarized critical opinion across the world: many regard it as a moody Western masterpiece that echoes the mystical intensities of a cinema master like the aforementioned Malick; others describe the film as a plodding and overlong chore filled with unpleasant men scrabbling their way through the last gasps of maverick American life in the late nineteenth century.
Box office has been middling and the film already appears to be fading from cinemas. It may yet gain a second life through the next Academy Awards because two unquestionably great performances lay at its centre: as Jesse James, Brad Pitt revives his career as an actor in a single stroke, marrying the almost narcissistic grace of his body movements to a psychopathic chill and sadder intuitions that his way of life is coming to an end; as Robert Ford, Casey Affleck is his milk-faced admirer and eventual killer, a glassy eyed and thin-voiced Judas geared for betrayal from the very first slight he receives.
Trying to engage Dominik on why he has returned to a seemingly exhausted and unpopular genre like the Western produces a mix of irritation and boredom from the director. He couldn’t care less about industry antipathies to the genre – “I know film students don’t like to do them” - found no opposition to the project in its initial stages – “If you’re doing a Western with Brad Pitt involved everyone is interested” – and doesn’t really want to discuss ‘the history of the Western’ as film subject at all.
“I’ve been attracted not so much to Western movies as Western literature,” he emphasizes, a fact born out by scripts he is currently trying to develop for Cormac McCarthy’s hallucinogenic Western novel Cities of the Plain and Jim Thompson’s malevolently comic sheriff’s tale, Pop.1280.
This literary bent is at the very foundation of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Ford, which is based on Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name and features extended voice-overs from the book that give the film a strange, story-telling dimension: “There’s was a wandering existence. Men who choose to be outlaws cannot stay in one place for too long… Insomnia stained his eye sockets like soot… Bob was certain the man had unriddled him… It was as if he were preparing a biography of the outlaw, or as if he were preparing an impersonation.”
The tone of these voice-overs is recitative and solemn, like something lifted from the Parables of the Bible. Dominik admits “one of the big attractions for me was to recreate this hermetically sealed foreign world with an incredibly rich language” and surprises me by comparing Jesse James to Jesus. This spiritual dimension to the film clearly impassions Dominik and he launches into a discussion of how “Jesse is aware of his own mortality. I always imagine him like a dying person who is trying to protect himself and yet also considering what’s beyond this life. If you’ve ever known someone who is dying, I think it’s a little like that.”
From the book and film’s giveaway title to this fatal spiritual flow within it, there’s little in the way of standard narrative surprises to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. For an American audience it could be no other way when the story of Jesse James’ killing is so mythically familiar to them. “Tragedy in the classical Greek sense if based on the idea that we know what is going to happen anyway,” argues Dominik.
As a result, atmosphere becomes as important as the story itself: there are numerous shots through rippled window glass as if we are looking on another world; blurry auras around the edges of certain scenes like something from a rotogravure pictorial that seems to announce a new chapter in the film; stop motion photography of clouds and windblown prairie grass, not to mention a wintry soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It’s the predominance of this atmosphere that many find insufferably abstract, though Dominik has sown a line of counter-argument into the script itself when he has a gang character say “poetry don’t work on whores”.
The coldness of the film’s look certainly adds to the death-charge Dominik was looking for, as well as a pronounced contrast to the classic John Ford desert images of Monument Valley that we associate with most Westerns. This is a world of wooded forests and chill winds and snow and ice and rain as well as encroaching town life.
Dominik is “not sure” how to explain his imagistic obsessions. “A film is an animal all by itself. The tone to the book gives you a feeling and you try to translate that into sounds and images,” he says. “The thing that surprised me when I last watched it was how much it’s a very relaxing sounding film. We were actually trying to create an aural atmosphere that was real and dreamy at the same time. We certainly spent a lot of time researching and thinking about what a soundtrack of the nineteenth century would sound like.”
“I also wanted a musicality to the film, to think of shots like notes on a score. So the pace is designed to lull you and relax you, and yet there’s this weird tension building,” he adds. To accentuate this ominous musicality, Dominik says “chunks of the film were cut to music, rather than music to film, so the music will play the film, it will play the weather and sound cold.”
Towards the end of the film Nick Cave even makes an appearance as a bar-room singer hammering out a version of ‘The Ballad of Jesse James’ while an increasingly drunk and enraged Robert Ford looks on. Dominik says, “I’ve a fan of Nick’s forever, since the first time I saw The Birthday Party. In the circles I grew up in Melbourne what they were doing, the Southern Gothic influence of writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, it was very influential, and added to an idea of the West as a Biblical place.”
When it comes to living there, however, Dominik observes that “Americans have a gap between how they see themselves and how they actually are. American entertainment is really concerned with questions of morality, but America as a country is really just a business,” he laughs sardonically. The idea that films like Jesse James and other New Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and the HBO television series Deadwood might be seen as an artistic reaction to the violence in Iraq is nonetheless dismissed out of hand. “Filmmakers just like making Westerns,” he says irritably.
It’s possible to argue that Chopper was, in an odd way, a contemporary Australian Western. But whatever genre you try and push Dominik’s obsessions into, one thing is clear: he likes outlaws and he likes violence. Had he ever experienced much violence himself?
The question seems to throw him. “Only as a kid, but nothing special or unusual, I had a fairly safe, normal upbringing,” he says. “I’ve known violent criminals and spent time observing their behaviour… So, yes, once, with one of those people there was an incident.” Dominik pauses, changes gear, half excited, half annoyed. “It’s about drama. It’s storytelling! Someone needs to behave violently. And I think people like that are fascinating, they do extraordinary things that we don’t experience in a day-to-day way. That’s why we like to read about them and see them in films.” Then Dominik laughs again and gives me a final message: “Everybody needs a little violence in their lives sometimes - you know what I’m saying?”
- Mark Mordue
* An edited version of this story was published in the South China Morning Post, January 11th 2008.