Interview: Killing Them Softly Director Andrew Dominik


Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik has only made three films in the past twelve years, but they’ve all been fairly unforgettable from his early crime film Chopper, which introduced the world to Eric Bana, to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a Western starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and others that recreated a very specific story from the Old West.

Now Dominik is back with Killing Them Softly, based on George Higgins’ 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade,” and he once again got Brad Pitt on board to play Jackie Cogan, a hitman called in by the mob to clean up loose ends after the robbery of a high stakes poker game by two junkie punks, played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn. It’s a gritty, dialogue-driven crime film in the vein of films by Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino but set in rural America, specifically in 2008 in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It also stars a who’s who of who you might want in your gangster film including James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola and even Sam Shepard. got on the phone with Dominik earlier this week to talk about the movie and when we might expect another film from him. Let’s start at the beginning. At what point did you find “Cogan’s Trade” and present it to Brad as the next project to do together?
Andrew Dominik:
It all happened pretty quick. I guess it would’ve been about August, the year before we shot it, which was two years ago, or something? But how I came to it was via “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” I saw it on TV and it had a real sense of authenticity to it, so I looked it up online and I found that it had been written by this guy called George Higgins, who was a public prosecutor in Boston for 20 years. So I figured, “Okay, this guy knows what he’s writing about. He probably knows the people that he’s writing about.” He’d written 20 books that were out of print. So I started ordering them from secondhand bookstores. “Cogan’s Trade” was the third one that arrived in the mailbox. I guess I read it and I thought, “That’s pretty good, like this could be a movie.” I actually sent it to Brad, and then I went and pitched it at a few places, and they were trying to work out how to make the movie in the room, which is just unusual for me. Usually it’s like, “Come back with an idea that makes sense financially.” But people were actually trying to do it. I tried to get an actor attached over the weekend and I called Brad because I sent him the book, but he was knee-deep in “Moneyball” at the time, and I didn’t actually think he’d be able to take it seriously or even have the time to consider it, but he did. His response to it was kind of immediate. I basically just sort of roughed out what the story was and what I wanted to do with it and he kind of signed on then.

CS: When was the “Eddie Coyle” movie made? When was that movie made? I’m curious.
I think it’s gotta be the ’70s at some point.

CS: Around the same time as the book. I was curious about that because obviously the story must have been set in the ’70s and you moved it to 2008. Was that one of your early ideas to move it closer to present day?
Yeah, I mean, look, it’s the story of an economic crisis. I was reading it at the time, and it was fixed in the fallout from the global financial crisis. It had parallels. You had an economy that was supported by gambling. You had it collapsing because of inflated regulations, and you had people dealing with not only the problems themselves, but people’s perception to the problem, so it’s certainly a political story. Then it’s the basic idea that the mob is just a government for criminals, and that crime itself is maybe just the most native form of capitalism. It’s the most unvarnished form of it and it seemed like an opportunity to point out all those parallels, to make almost, if you like, a sub-conscious crime film or maybe a pretentious crime film, but all that stuff just seemed too good to ignore.

CS: Is it harder to get financing for a movie like that when you’re dealing with subjects to the fore that affect people who finance movies?
Look, I mean, I came up with an obvious… it’s a $15 million Brad Pitt movie. I mean, people actually liked the story. When you told them, it was entertaining and kind of goofy and Brad made it easier.

CS: I love Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as Frank and Russell who were very funny. Were you able to find the right actors to play those two fairly easily?
Well, I wasn’t sure whether the movie would reflect film noir or screwball and it doesn’t really matter – both those genres are very similar. My idea was to cast it like an old ’40s picture and to go with types, so they’re cartoonish. You’ve got the fat guy, you’ve got the goofy-looking skinny guy, you’ve got the sweaty junky Australian guy. They’re all instantly recognizable types as of course is Jim Gandolfini and Ray Liotta and also Richard Jenkins as a mob lawyer, whose got the most mob lawyer-ish face you’ve ever seen. Brad is the kind of fixer, it’s all very typecast. We might use some of those audience perceptions against them, as the situations play out, but pretty much we’re starting from… it’s cast like an old studio picture, where Walter Brennan always plays the grizzled alcoholic or Burgess Meredith is the boxing coach, you know?

CS: I liked the mix of having no-brainers like Gandolfini or Ray Liotta, who have done their share of gangster movies, but then you have Ben Mendelsohn who’s just a different type of character actor.
Well, Ben, he’s like my oldest friend and he’s a movie star in Australia, so for Australians it’s very obvious casting. (chuckles) For Americans, it’s not so much. But you get to see him in his full glory, what he can do, which is good because he’s great.

b>CS: I’m a big fan of his and I’m always glad to see him do more stuff. How faithful did you want to remain to the book in terms of the character while moving it to 2008?
Dominik: I seem to remember something about cell phones might have posed a problem but not really. I didn’t think so. I mean, people are the same like if you read (couldn’t understand who he said, but it sounded like a Greek writer), that was the same 2,000 years ago as they are now. Their human nature doesn’t change at all.

CS: What about getting Jim Gandolfini? He had done “The Sopranos” so I was curious whether he was hesitant about playing another gangster? It’s a very different type of character than Tony Soprano.
Dominik: Yes. I think Jim was, but from the sound of things, Jim is hesitant about any part he takes, but I dunno. I guess he kind of looked at Mickey as almost an upside down version of Tony. I feel like Mickey’s a different character, but that part’s hard for Jim because it’s only a two-scene part, but you really have to put an awful lot of work into creating that character for two scenes because they’re such elaborate scenes. I mean, really what he’s doing is he’s playing a middle-aged guy who’s heartbroken and confused, and I think that’s probably the way he looked at the part rather than seeing him as a gangster. You know what I mean?

CS: Absolutely, yeah. It’s funny, my favorite scenes are the ones where he and Richard Jenkins interact with Brad which are very dialogue-driven and it’s all about storytelling. Was a lot of that the tone taken from the book?
Yeah, I mean, that was the thing I was trying to preserve from the book. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous quote is that he doesn’t want to make movies that are photographs of people talking, but Higgins is just essentially creating these people that are singing these kind of arias about their lives and their attitudes. He’s got little pieces of plot sort of cut intermittently away inside these monologues. But that was very much the thing that I was trying to preserve, was almost a little movie that was all completely through dialogue. A lot of the action, like it happens off-screen. What we’re really doing is we’re looking at these people. We’re spending time with people, and we’re seeing who they are, I guess.

CS: I don’t think you say in the movie that the story is based in Boston, but I assumed that was the case since that’s where the book was based, even though you shot in New Orleans.
Well, I sort of felt it should be any town in USA or just anywhere where the economy’s kind of collapsed. I guess it’s just basically sort of like any town except New York or Los Angeles.

CS: I was watching the movie and trying to figure it out from the accents, but it wasn’t that obvious.
Well, it was kind of a mix. I mean, I guess Scoot’s going a bit Boston, Ben is Australian, Vin is New Jersey, Jim and Ray are probably New Yorkers, Brad sounds a little Chicago. It’s just America. It’s not supposed to be Boston, though. I’m sure there were some Boston reviews that were offended by that, but the Boston crime movie is kind of a subgenre all of its own thanks to Ben Affleck. (Laughs) So I thought, “Ah well, I can’t compete with the hometown boy. I better do America.”

CS: Right, be more vague about it. I also loved the fact that you have Greig Fraser shooting this because I think he has a lot of these big lush films in Australia. It’s weird and so different. Why did you think of him to shoot it?
Well, Greig was somebody someone told me about, and I met him and he comes from a stills background, which is very interesting because he likes to basically work around what’s there. I mean, a lot of DPs will sort of tent the whole world and then start relighting it, but Greig’s attitude is more like, “Well, how’s the light working in this room, and let’s work around it.” I found that attitude to be really refreshing. I’m shooting basically a low budget movie over a pretty short schedule and I wanted somebody who was prepared to come at it from I guess a more “let’s find it and make it work” type angle, and that was Greig. He had the idea to basically shoot a film with very minimal lighting, but shoot it on anamorphic, so we used more of the negative, so we get more of an image to deal with. Then, he got very into the style of ’70s type pictures. We got a bunch of old ’70s lenses, which are kind of never really focused properly, and it all sort of built from there. But we just basically started talking and we just kept talking.

CS: Without spoiling it, one of the deaths in the movie takes place in super slow motion and it’s really quite stunning, so was that something that came out of discussions with Greig? Was that something shot regular speed or did you construct it from different elements?
Well, that sequence, we’ve got every trick in the book in that. I mean, we got movie cameras running, we’ve got the phantom camera, which can run 2,000 frames a second, and we’ve got these drum cameras, military ballistics cameras, which can shoot 12,000 frames a second. The whole idea of the sequence is the movie’s “Killing Them Softly,” and we wanted to create a murder that was like a lullaby that sort of sits at the center of the movie, something that defies your expectations. There’s a lot of very brutal moments in the movie, and we wanted to create one sequence that was beautiful. But it uses pretty much every trick in the book, and I think a lot of time and thought went into creating that scene.

CS: I thought that was brilliant and it’s surprising how well it fits into such a dialogue driven film. Has the movie changed a lot since Cannes or is it pretty much the same movie once you finished it and that was it?
Well, it was difficult to sort of feel like it was balanced because you do have a lot of character stuff. A lot of the character stuff is about people we don’t see. There’s a lot of men talking about women, very confused or heartbroken or their masculinity is disturbed in some way. There’s all that stuff going on and there’s the plot. If you cut it down to what moves the plot forward, you end up with a very thin movie. If you allow too much of the talk about stuff that’s not directly relevant to the plot to go on, it spins into a kind of soup so it was difficult to get all that stuff balanced. I mean, a script is always just like a prayer of the film that you want to make. You know that you’re going to then deal with the reality of it all once you’ve shot, so a lot of stuff was cut out, but it was always known that a lot of stuff was going to be cut out.

CS: I’ve read that your next movie is going to be a Marilyn Monroe movie called “Blonde.” Is that kind of an answer to doing these gritty and manly crime and Western movies? Are you trying to change gears a bit?
Well, look, I mean, I’ve been trying to make “Blonde” for a long time. I have other interests besides gangsters. (laughs) I guess the first movie I made was a crime film and I guess the second movie I made was a crime film. So it’s sort of easy to see me as being good with that stuff, but I’m sort of anxious to do a movie now that’s about a woman and has no beatings–well, actually, it has a beating in it–but has no stabbings or shootings or things like that.

CS: At one point, your movie “Blonde” and “My Week with Marilyn” were kind of competing to get done first?
Yeah, that’s a very different movie to the one I’m doing. I mean, I guess the film we’re making is kind of like a horror film almost or like a Grimms’ fairytale about an orphan who goes and gets lost in the woods. The movie I think is going to be very harrowing and quite extreme, whereas “My Week with Marilyn” was more of a coming-of-age story, I guess, you know?

CS: Did having that movie help get “Blonde” made? How does it work with having that other Marilyn movie out there? Do you feel that they’re competing at any point?
Well, it doesn’t seem to have affected it because I’ve got someone to play it, so I don’t know. I think there’s room for more than one. I mean, I don’t think that the two movies are comparable, really.

CS: Definitely Naomi as Marilyn would be very different than Michelle as Marilyn, I’m sure.
Oh yeah, I mean, they’re completely different stories. I mean, it’s almost like, I don’t know. If you mention a movie that’s like a cross between “A Star is Born” and “The Tenant” or “Repulsion,” you’ve sort of got the idea of what I’m going for.

CS: That sounds very cool. Do you have other things you’ve been developing since “The Assassination?”
Oh look, I’ve had a crack at many things. I was working on a version of “Cities of the Plain,” based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, which predates “Jesse James.” He wrote a version of “Blood Meridian,” which is another Cormac McCarthy Western story, and “Blonde.” You know, I’ve been working on “Blonde” for a long time.

CS: Do you happen to know John Hillcoat? He’s another Australian filmmaker who seems to have similar tastes, having made Westerns and crime movies as well as his own Cormac McCarthy adaptation.
Oh yeah, I’ve known John for twenty years, yeah, I’ve known him for a very long time. John is kind of the generation before me, I guess, but we’re from Melbourne, it was kind of a cultural explosion in Melbourne at the end of the ’80s which all centered around this band called The Birthday Party. I think that a whole group of us were really into kind of the same stuff, that kind of southern gothic kinda stuff. So, yeah, we kind of come from the same place, if you like.

Killing Them Softly opens across the nation on Friday, November 30.