Interview: Dom Hemingway Director Richard Shepard on Manly Men and ‘Girls’

It’s an odd name for a movie, let alone a movie character, but it’s the latest film from Richard Shepard, whose equally as oddly-titled earlier film The Matador got a lot of attention (and a Golden Globe nomination) for its performance by Pierce Brosnan. Dom Hemingway is a similarly performance-driven movie, but this time it’s Jude Law playing that title character, a brash and outspoken British safecracker who has just been released from prison after 12 years. With the help of his good friend Dickie (played by the indelible Richard E. Grant), he decides to collect the money from the job that got him pinched from one Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), but Dom just can’t keep his big mouth shut and he keeps making big mistakes (mostly involving women) that get him into more trouble.

The funny thing is that Fox Searchlight could easily sell this movie based on Jude Law or even on the basis that it’s from the “director of HBO’s ‘Girls'” except that Richard Shepard has had a career both on television and making movies for many years before Lena Dunham even conceived her film Tiny Furniture and Dom Hemingway is a welcome return to the screen for the underrated filmmaker.

Other than Shepard (and Grant), Dom Hemingway has almost nothing in common with “Girls” and it’s hard to conceive that the audience for that show would have any interest in a loud-mouthed womanizing criminal like Law’s character, but his performance and his delivery of Shepard’s dialogue is so hilarious, it’s hard not to fall in love with the character as the movie goes along. got on the phone with Shepard a few weeks back, our third interview with the filmmaker for his third movie in a row, and yeah, we talked a little about “Girls” but we mostly talked about his return to feature films with the incredibly British Dom Hemingway. It’s been a while since we talked for “The Hunting Party.” You’ve been pretty busy on television. I think you actually had just directed the “Ugly Betty” pilot.

Richard Shepard:
That was right around that time, yeah. After I did “Matador” then I did “The Hunting Party,” and I ended up being offered a chance to direct a television pilot, which the first one I did was “Criminal Minds” then I did “Ugly Betty.” Suddenly, so many different opportunities opened for me in terms of I really love doing TV pilots, because they’re a little bit like doing a mini movie. You get to really set the tone and the look and get the cast in a different way than normal television directing sometimes can be. I definitely sort of went down that road. I don’t know if you knew I made this documentary about John Cazale called “I Knew It Was You” for HBO, which was a real fun thing to do because I’m a giant John Cazale fan, and then I was always writing and sort of figuring out other things to do. Then I wrote “Dom” and the opportunity just happened in a way that movies sometimes magically happen. It’s nice to be able to toggle between the movie world and the television world, especially as they start getting much closer to each other.

CS: The first time I saw your name after an episode of “Girls,” I was thrilled to see your name on there and I’m not kissing your ass, but I generally feel the best episodes are the ones I’ve seen your name on.

Oh, thank you so much. That’s a TV show that every week, they’re attempting to do a little movie. I very much appreciate any compliments I get for that show, although honestly, it’s just really the writing. I mean, as a TV director, in a pilot situation you have a different sort of animal – you can really work with the writer and really change things about it. In normal television, you are a little bit in the mercy of the scripts you’ve been given, but the writers on “Girls” are just great, and I’ve been lucky to get such good episodes. In fact, when I went to make “Dom Hemingway,” I had just come off of shooting the Patrick Wilson episode of “Girls.” I literally went from that to London to start prepping, and I kept saying to everyone that I’m in total fighting shape here, because I felt in a real rhythm creatively, so it’s nice how sometimes that works.

CS: Let’s talk about “Dom Hemingway,” because I think in general, your movies don’t automatically convey that they were directed by an American or a New Yorker, but this one is so British that some might be surprised it’s from an American filmmaker. Why do something so British?

I guess I wanted to make a movie set in London because I had only visited London briefly on a press junket, but I had never actually spent any legitimate time there. I just sort of loved it. I was like, “You know, if I write a movie set in London, there’s a very good chance that if the movie gets made, I’ll be able to go.” I wanted to learn about it. Also, that character to me just never could be an American. When we were thinking about casting it, we were making list of actors, and I remember sort of pitching American actors, but there was just something about a British sort of low-level guy that was engrained in my movie DNA. There’s really almost no way to do it as an American. Not only did I want to make the movie in London, but I wrote a movie that ultimately just needed to be with a British actor and be set there, so it sort of all became what it was. People have asked me about the language and trying to get the rhythms of British people and London talk and people were asking how I’ve been able to do it. I say, “Well, I think one of the reasons that I think it works is that what I specifically did not do was sort of do an East London rhyming British sort of slang.” I gave Dom his own way of speaking that is very, very particularly his, so it sounds like I’ve sort of captured a specific sort of voice, but really, I just created a unique voice that Jude was able to completely inhabit.

CS: It’s such a character-driven piece. I feel like “Dom” is up there with Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast” or Tom Hardy as Bronson – the movie kind of lives and breathes by that character. Was the character the first thing that came to your mind, someone who is just so outspoken and brash that he has no filter?

The idea has been, “How do you make a character who is larger than life but still grounded?” Also, I was interested in the idea of someone who is going to be very difficult to like, but hopefully, you love him at the end. I felt like that was just sort of an interesting challenge to myself. I really enjoyed writing Dom – I mean, the whole movie is him and it’s an explosion. This guy is a man who shoots off his mouth and then shoots himself in the foot at the same time. He was a great time. I mean, I just enjoyed his company. I ended up writing almost another movie as I was writing this movie, like a separate story involving Dom that was just as enjoyable. He’s a character I could just keep writing in some way because he doesn’t censor himself and has a poeticism about him in his sort of way of speaking that that’s sort of writer porn. I mean, it was just sort of totally fun. Then of course, ultimately, because as you said, the movie is so about him, it’s if the wrong actor played him then it’d be a total disaster, so I was incredibly lucky that I had an actor who sort of was ready to jump into something like that.

CS: Obviously, writing his dialogue must be very cathartic. I don’t know how you went about writing his opening monologue, but once you started going on it, I have to imagine it was probably hard to stop.

Well, I wrote that whole opening sequence in one shot, like just in an afternoon. My girlfriend’s a writer, and I just joined her at a hotel lobby where she was writing. I just took out the computer. I’d been having a little trouble getting going on the movie. I wasn’t quite sure what I was trying to say. I just sort of started writing that scene. By the time I was done, I was like, “Oh, I’ve got the whole movie now.” It solved the entire movie by writing that opening sequence, and I totally know who this guy is.

CS: You mentioned that you could have written another movie with Dom, because he really seems like a character that could be in a half-hour HBO show, quite easily.

Totally. It was the first time I’ve written a character where I felt like I could continue to write this character. There was just something about him. At the same time, I think that’s one of the appealing things about television: when television really works and why, in a way, the two mediums are getting closer together and certain things are far more interesting on television now than in movies, because the idea of being able to create a character and flesh him out and actually spend more time with him is very appealing. The greatest movies ever all are character-driven movies. Even if you look at the ’70s movies that everyone loves, it’s these characters that are just indelible. The idea that we think about that era of cinema as being the greatest era, and I think it’s one of the reasons TV now is in just such a nice golden age is that character is king, you know? The idea that you can spread it out. “True Detective” for me really is the best movie of the year; it just happens to be on television.

CS: Not to go too far on a tangent, but one thing that’s nice about “True Detective” is that they have one director doing all eight episodes which is not something you see often on television.

I think it’s great, and I think you’re going to start seeing that more and more often.

CS: In some ways, Dom’s almost a logical extension of Pierce Brosnan’s character Julian Noble from “The Matador” in a way, taken to the extreme. Did you see parallels between them?

A little bit. I mean, both guys aren’t afraid to say inappropriate things and both of them are sort of deeply flawed and trying to hide their pain through their verbal dexterity. I feel like in a way “Dom” is the most grounded movie I’ve made. Even though there’s larger than life things happening and some of them are hard to believe and it’s such a good movie you just sort of go with it. But Dom to me is the most human person that I’ve written. I mean, I truly believe he could exist, and I care about him deeply. I mean, one of the things Jude and I talked about all the time was that we just loved “Dom.” It was a difficult character to shake when we were done shooting, because we just sort of enjoyed his company. You never know the trouble you’re going to get into with him. Hopefully, audiences will respond in that way, because they’ll end up caring about this guy and realizing maybe he’s just deeply flawed as we all are.

CS: Has the movie actually played in London yet? I was curious how it played for British audiences.

The answer to that is that it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, so the very first audiences that got to see it were North American audiences. It’s about to open in America now. It did open in London in a sort of small way and got very sort of interesting—interesting is the politically-correct term—response. It got very nice reviews some places, then some people just completely hated it in a way that seemed to be more about the idea of Jude playing someone from a lower class person than the actual movie itself. It’s interesting, because while the movie’s been getting very nice press so far in America, no one’s hitting on that. No one seems to have that problem, if they have a problem with the movie. Ultimately, people will say, “Well, this is a British film and it’s a British producer and it was financed by the BBC.” I’m like, “Yeah, but I’m an American filmmaker, and ultimately, I’m making movies for a core group of about seven of my friends.” If anyone else loves it after that, I feel like it’s gravy. You know, to me, I’ll be very interested to see how the movie does in America and how people respond to it. I’m hopeful that so far when I’ve seen the movie with audiences, they seem to really love it, so I’m interested to see how that goes.

CS: I’m a pretty big fan of Jude Law, and I like when he does something different, especially his rare comedies. He has a lot of charm and we don’t see him do very many, but I did like him in Kenneth Branagh’s “Sleuth” when he did that scene as a completely different character and it worked.

He’s just an extraordinary actor. It’s interesting, as he sort of gets older, he’s clearly no longer the 25-year-old gorgeous matinee idol that he was, and he’s just going to start getting more and more and more interesting roles. He’s already shown that in the last few years. He was brilliant in “Anna Karenina” and he was really good in “Side Effect” and “Contagion.” In fact, “Contagion” was the movie I saw that made me think about Jude for this, “Wow, he’s just playing a dark kind of unlikeable character and I’m completely compelled by him.” Jude really was the first actor we went to, and people were like, “Are you sure you want to do that, because he’s never played anything like this? Is he going to be tough enough?” I’m like, “Trust me. The guy’s got it in him.” I’m thankful that he proved me correct (laughs) or I would not be on the phone with you right now.

CS: I had a soft spot for his character in “Contagion,” because he played an online journalist trying to get the latest dirt in whatever way possible.

Exactly. I’m sure there was a community of online people like, “That’s me!” I just think that he’s fearless because he’s not afraid to make himself unlikeable, but there is just something about him that you end up liking anyway. Strangely, when you talk about Pierce in “The Matador,” I think one of the correlations between them is not only the character that’s written, but also the two actors that play those parts. Pierce is incredibly likeable as an actor, even if you’re not a humongous fan of his, there’s just something likeable about him. When he played Julian, even when he was at his most despicable, you kind of enjoyed him and kind of liked him anyway. Jude is similar. He has a lot of baggage also, but there is just something about him that ultimately, because he finds the humanity in his characters, you end up liking him. I knew that was the type of acting that you needed for Dom, because if it was someone who was inherently cold as an actor, I don’t believe that you could watch a 90-minute movie about a character like Dom and care about him. I think that’s sort of what I look for when I’m casting these sort of difficult to pin down guys, is try to find someone who inherently, the audience is rooting for whether they know it or not.

CS: Speaking of this being a British movie, you don’t get more British than Richard E. Grant. I feel like Richard E. Grant is one of the defining British actors out there, so when people see him in something, it just makes it that much more British.

Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I wrote the movie with him in mind. I never had met him, but I was just a giant fan of his and I just always wondered what the hell happened to him. I just felt like he never sort of had the career. I just stopped seeing him in movies and stuff, and I was sort of frustrated by that, so I ended up writing this part and very specifically… I mean, the character’s name is Dickie, so clearly, I was writing for Richard. I wrote it and when I said to the producers that I wanted him, they were all like, “Are you sure that’s the guy you want?” I’m like, “You don’t understand. First of all, he’s in the greatest film comedy ever made in ‘Withnail and I.’ Also, he’s brilliant and this part is perfect for him.” I feel really lucky that I got to work with him, then I got to work with him on “Girls,” and I know that Lena had seen a rough cut of “Dom Hemingway,” and gave me notes on it, and then immediately cast Richard in “Girls.” So, I felt really happy for him and he’s sort of having a moment over there in the UK between “Dom Hemingway,” where he was getting great reviews and on the cover of all these newspapers, and then on “Girls” and all of this stuff. It’s been a fun ride for him. Obviously, he’s just one of these actors who is a scene-stealer in so many ways. Some of the biggest laughs in the movie come from his just looking nervous as Dom is basically about to shoot himself in the foot. You know, Richard E. Grant has sort of got that sort of acting down cold. He’s also just a lovely guy, which helps.

CS: I was having lunch with another writer after seeing your movie and we were talking about the Richard E. Curtis connection with “Girls” and we wondered if you had a role in getting him on the show, because he’s so good in that as well.

Honestly, I didn’t have any say in getting him the role other than Lena saw an early cut of the movie and was like, “We have to get Richard E. Grant in this show.” I was involved, but only as a third party conduit.

CS: One thing I noticed about your work is that your last three movies have been very male-driven, but your television work—”Ugly Betty” and “Girls” in particular—seems to be very female-driven, so was this a conscious way you’ve been able to separate your film and TV work?

That’s interesting. I mean, I am so lucky that I’m able to do such varied work, and that I’m able to go from something like “Girls” to “Dom Hemingway.” I just did this show “Salem” that’s about to come out that’s a huge gigantic harsh horror romance. To be able to go through these different genres is amazing. I feel like “Girls” is a gift because first of all, I get to work with Lena, who’s unbelievably talented on such a huge level. Then also to be around these people of a different generation and to be around sort of a 27-year-old female energy is fantastic, and to try and capture that and keep a truth to it is really a challenge. As a filmmaker, it keeps you incredibly fresh. To be able to go from sort of this gigantic male macho energy of “Dom” to a completely different energy of “Girls,” basically within a month or two of each other, you are definitely using different parts of your brain. I think in the movies that I write, “The Matador” and “The Hunting Party” and “Dom,” I mean, I enjoy writing men and their troubles in a way it just comes out of me in an easier way and maybe in a more authentic way. As a writer first, it just seems to be what comes out of me creatively, then as a director, though, you put on different hats. I want to only direct the movies that I write, so my writer, Richard Shepard, is writing these male-driven movies, but as a director for television, I direct what other people writer, so I’m lucky enough to work with some really good writers, who were creating female characters.

CS: Working with Lena, who is also a writer/director/producer herself and she’s pretty much in most of the scenes, how is that as a director, working with someone who is in so much control? Is it a little more difficult?

I mean, that’s sort of what happens on television. I work at the behalf of the showrunners and they are the ones who control the creative process. Lena is a filmmaker first and a fan of filmmakers. She wants directors of her show to feel empowered to do what they want, and you know, she’s one of the great collaborators in the world. Once a week, she’ll question a shot or she’ll say, “Why don’t you try it this way also?” just to have a choice, but she’s not someone who sits over your shoulder and really questions a lot of what you’re doing. She’s watching everything, but she’s not someone who interferes an enormous amount, and I think she has a lot of respect for the people she works with. There’s nothing better than to be working with someone like Lena, because you know you’ve basically got another director watching your work and making sure you’re not f**king up, which to me, is great. I think it would be bad if they were a horrible human being, but Lena is definitely not. Certainly like in the case of the Patrick Wilson episode, “One Man’s Trash,” I mean, that was a true collaboration between me and her on every level. There was a script for that episode that did not have Patrick Wilson’s character in it – it was just a completely different story. I read that script about two weeks before we were to shoot, and I said, “Lena, I will direct the sh*t out of this, but I don’t know what this episode’s about. It doesn’t feel like it’s about anything going on.” She said, “You know, Richard, I think you’re right. I’ve got another story.” She went home and wrote the Patrick Wilson episode in one night, and that’s a true story. She came in the next day with 35 pages and she gave it to me. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. First of all, I can’t believe you wrote this in one night, and second of all, it’s brilliant.” Then I said to her, “I want to get rid of the crew of the show for a week. I want to just be with six people in that house with just you and Patrick, the camera operator, the boom operator, and the first AD and me and that will be it.” She was like, “I love it.” So we rehearsed for two days, and then we basically shot the show in five days. 80 people sat outside in New York in the summer in Brooklyn and smoked cigarettes and ate ice cream. Six of us made that episode. It was as creative an experience as you possibly can imagine. Certainly, the feeling was that we were making it together, if that makes any sense, even though she wasn’t asking what shots I was doing and she wasn’t really commenting on that, there was just a very creative, almost film school feeling while making the movie. In a way, it sort of trickled down to “Dom.” I mean, there’s certain sequences in “Dom,” like the big scene at the house where he sort of confronts Demian Bichir in The Monkey Room. That was a scene in which everyone was out of the room and it was basically six people in the room – three actors, the camera operator, a boom operator and me and that same idea. We shot that eight-minute scene in one day, and it was one of those days where you feel like, “This is as fun as movie making can be because it’s handheld.” You’re just in it to win it, you know? It’s not about anything else. This isn’t to put down the other 80 people who are working on your movie, because you couldn’t be in a situation to be able to do that if you didn’t have those people bringing the camera, bringing the lenses and getting the lights outside and all the other stuff. But just as a piece of filmmaking from just going from that Patrick Wilson episode to “Dom,” you can definitely see a lot of correlation. Plus, there’s naked ping-pong in both of them. (laughs)

CS: Before we go, I want to ask about the show “Salem,” so was that something you directed the pilot for? On “Ugly Betty,” it was very clear that you directed it and created the look for the show. Is that similar to “Salem” or was that just a single episode thing?

Well, I did the pilot, and it is an extremely specific look, which you will see when WGN starts showing it. It’s set in the witch trials and a lot of the show is lit only by fire, for real. Other than one shot, there’s very little CGI. We did a lot of the visual effects live, and it was really fun and we used a lot of old school camera tricks. I think it’s really a very cool, sexy horror show. I’m not quite sure what the genre is, and also, it’s on a network that I can’t even find on my cable box, so I’m hopeful that people will be able to see it. It’s funny. The first AD of “Girls,” I asked to do be the first AD of the “Salem” pilot. On “Salem” when we had 150 extras and 30 horses and fires and smoke machines and all of this stuff, I would joke, “Should we do Allison Williams’ close-up next or Lena’s close-up next?” Like, literally, the difference between “Girls” and 130 extras and horses and fire.

Dom Hemingway opens in select cities on Wednesday, April 2, and then expands throughout the month of April.

(Photo Credit: Anthony Stanley /