With a domestic box office gross of just under $4 million and a theatrical roll-out of around 300 theaters, chances are strong only a small portion of those reading this article got to experience Andrew Dominik‘s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford on the big screen. In the six years since its release, the 2007 western is considered a masterpiece by many — including yours truly — but it was one individual that had bigger plans than simply letting its cult status slowly build in the years to come.
The creator of the Jesse James Revival, Jamieson McGonigle, finally got to see the beginning of his dream come true, when Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image held the movement’s inaugural screening this past weekend. Attended by the director, what followed the screening was a candid, fascinating 40-minute Q&A. While most filmmakers are conditioned to speak about their recent projects in a positive light due to the press events being tied to a release, it was a no-holds-barred talk for Dominik.
Walking us through the process of development, shooting, and the extensive, troubled post-production / release, Dominik goes in-depth on the joys and heartbreak related to the film. As announced ahead of the screening, there will also be one more chance to hear Dominik talk openly about the film: another Jesse James Revival showing is set for February 15th at Los Angeles’ Egyptian theater, but today we also have an extensive recap of his Q&A. Detailing 20 notable revelations, proceed with reading below, and check back for more Jesse James Revival updates as they arrive.
1. Warner Bros. were sold on the pairing of Brad Pitt and Jesse James, not the script.
“I was just in a second-hand book store in Melbourne and I was with a friend of mine and we were looking for books to read,” Dominik said, recounting his first encounter with Ron Hansen‘s novel of the same name. He went on to say, “I read the first page and some of it was the narration in the movie and I was hooked on it. I was trying to make another movie in Hollywood at the time and I just couldn’t get it going. It sort of fell apart and I was sort of in a state of desperation and I just had read that book and said, ‘well, I just read this book about Jesse James.’ And my agent heard Jesse James like Batman — ‘I’m sure I can sell that to somebody — and you understand why Warner Bros. were excited about it. They heard Jesse James and Brad Pitt and the last thing they were expecting was that film. That’s where all the trouble began.”
Talking more about why exactly Warner Bros went for it, he went on to say, “Back then I was this guy who made Chopper, which was this cool indie movie and [now] I’m making Brad Pitt/Jesse James. Now they read the script, they don’t like it. They think, ‘oh, it’s a bit fruity.’ But Brad wants to do it and it’s going to cost less than $40 million and if we let it go and Paramount do it and they make an Oscar-winning movie, then we’ll look fucking stupid. We need Brad, really, to do the next two Ocean’s movies so fuck it, we’ll do it. Then they don’t think about it again until they see it. Then they think, ‘what the fuck did we do?'”
2. A sad Brad Pitt took a leap with Jesse James.
With Pitt jumping aboard the film not only as a producer, but as an actor, Dominik revealed what made the A-lister a perfect fit for the material. He said, “If you sit with Brad he’s got this real congenital sadness about him. I don’t know where it comes from, but that’s something that he has and that’s the quality I thought Jesse should have.” When it came to Pitt’s character he said, “He’s obviously a really depressed guy who’s just wandering around in the ashes. He’s a hunted outlaw. He seems to feel trapped and half the time he’s trying to protect himself and the other half the time, going, “what’s the use?” I see him as a guy who’s deeply depressed. His behavior all seems like that and they are surrounded by all these freaks, real bottom of the barrel wannabe dudes. And his own children did not know their father was Jesse James. They thought their father’s name was Tom Howard.”
Opening up more about Pitt’s producing path he said, “Brad wants to be in good movies. I think he has very mixed feelings about the films that made him famous. He’s a person who has impeccable taste, loves good stuff. He’s interested in cinema, so he watches all the movies that are made all around the world.” Dominik went on to say he was one of the people he reached out to, presumably after seeing his Australian break-out hit Chopper. He also talked about the formation of Pitt’s production company called Plan B and added, “what’s that about is being able to make movies that he gives a shit about. And they’ve done really well, making films with Steve McQueen and Terrence Malick. They are fantastic films. But I was kind of the first pancake in the batch. Plan B might have made other movies before, but it was the first one that Brad Pitt did as an actor. At the time, maybe it was a vanity company — that’s the way it could be viewed, but it wasn’t. It’s become a great company.”
3. Terrence Malick called Jesse James slow, but Dominik doesn’t believe that’s an adjective that can be used for Malick’s films.
Once again bringing up The Tree of Life director, he said, “Terrence’s movies aren’t slow. I think it’s a mistake. People think of Terry Malick movies as slow, but they’re not. They are cut really fast. They don’t have a lot of dialogue. People say it’s like a Terry Malick movie, but I don’t really think like it is.” Dominik went on to say, “The film I always think of it is Barry Lyndon, which is the idea of fate and everything’s inexorable and you can’t really get away from it.” Jumping back to Malick’s view, he said, “But, he did think it was slow. It’s like alcoholics — do I say, don’t do as I do. Directors are almost like the children of abusive parents that want to grow and abuse their own children. They say that directors make the worst producers.”
4. Most actors that auditioned for Robert Ford played the part like Travis Bickle, but not Casey Affleck.
Moving from Pitt to Casey Affleck, Dominik said the actor, “was certainly the only [one] hat came in and did it. All these young actors were coming in and were basically doing Travis Bickle kind of things and it was clearly not that. If you see a photo of him, Bob looks like a 14-year-old boy. It was that scared kid who lived in a fantasy land and wanted to own the spot that he stands on and that’s what I was looking for. Plus his voice is just so fantastic. In a way I was watching it and I was thinking it was sort of a coming-of-age drama. He sort of comes into his own. He’s got these fantasies about what it would be like to be famous. He discovers what it’s actually like through the course of the movie. It’s sort of horrible and humiliating. It makes a better person of him, I think. It’s the feeling I get about Bob.”
The queue shortly before Jesse James Revival kicks off at the Museum of Moving Image.
5. The cast and crew is not there to help the director make the film, according to Dominik.
When asked about his process in working with the cast and crew, Dominik said, “You have to talk to every actor differently. One of the things I learned on Chopper was that the crew and the actors, everybody is not there to help the director make the film. The director is there to help everybody else make the film. You have to be whatever each actor requires. It’s not like you can have some theory of what directing is. You can have it for some people, but some people don’t respond to that shit. You have to work out what each person needs. But as a director, first of all, what I try to do is see what’s going on for all the people. Then I try to get the actors to feel that, by whatever way we can get there.”
6. As evidenced in his trio of films, Dominik’s main attraction is extreme people in extreme situations.
One of the elements involving acting that most attracted him to this specific project was people’s behavior. Dominik says, “People who do extreme things are interesting people. Everything about them is exaggerated. You watch Bob and his feeling are just all over the places, so is Jesse. You can see how depressed Jesse is. It was those kind of feelings that were interesting. Criminals have big feelings, because they are in extreme situations. That’s my attraction.”
7. Dominik says he was initially naive, but Jesse James is “so fruity and weird” that it was “doomed from the start.”
While I consider the dialogue in Jesse James to be fittingly gorgeous, Dominik had a few other adjectives. He told the crowd, “The dialogue is so fruity, it’s really stylized. Watching the movie from an investor’s point of view and I just think, ‘fucking hell, it’s so fruity and weird.’ He went on to say, “This movie was doomed, from a financial point of view. I get it. I really do. When you look at the movies people like and go and see, I think it’s pretty far from those kinds of films.”
Dominik talked more about the strangeness of the film and how naive he was coming to America after Chopper was a “blockbuster” hit in Australia. He said, “If you’re going to make strange films, films that are not likely to connect with people outside of New York or Los Angeles and if you’re making a studio picture, you know the drill. If you want to make stuff that requires more of an audience, then you’ve got to make them cheaper. I was very naive. I love movies, I love strange films. I love the movie Night of the Hunter and that movie was a disaster when it came out. I think it’s one of the great American movies, but you don’t think about that. I mean, David Lynch movies don’t make money, but I come from Australia where Blue Velvet was on next to Hoosiers in the multiplex so you have this distorted view of what America’s like. Then you come here and I was pretty naive, thinking that would go through the studio system very easily. That’s what I thought, that it would be fine.”
8. Warner Bros. fired Dominik multiple times, but in the end, the director is happy at the outcome.
“It gets very ugly towards the end. I fought very, very hard. I was threatened with lawsuits. They fired me, I can’t remember how many times they fired me. But I always managed to get back in there,” Dominik said when it came to the post-production of the film. He went on, “The thing about people in Hollywood is that they are very, very scared. If you don’t blink, they will. For me, it means everything. It’s my film and I put everything into it. For a studio, financial disasters happen every weekend. Movies tank all the time. Everybody knew this movie was going to tank as soon as they saw it. There’s nothing you could fucking do about it. They are angry about that. They feel like they’ve been misled.”
However, in the end, he was happy. “At the time, I was so relieved that they hadn’t just butchered my film out of all recognition,” Dominik recalled, “I knew they were going to dump it but at least it was the film. It was going to be the film. I would rather have my film released in one theater than what they were threatening to do, which was release some dogshit cut in 3,000 screens. So it was a good result. The good result is to release the movie that you made. The best result would be to release the movie that you make and everybody stands up and applauds. But the worst result is that they release the movie that has nothing to do with the film that you made and that never works. It never works.”
9. Although Jesse James was a box office dud, Dominik believes the film is becoming profitable.
During the early stage of Jesse James, Dominik said, “I didn’t know if it was going to be hit, but I didn’t expect it to be a loss.” Although it didn’t cross the $4 million domestic box office mark, Dominik isn’t “necessarily convinced” that the film isn’t becoming profitable. He adds, “I know it’s a box office loss, but I still get royalty checks for this movie to this day and if I’m getting this much money, how much are Warner Bros. getting? They say that all movies make money over time, eventually. It’s not about theatrical release, it’s about ancillary TV sales. They just keep on giving.”
10. Dominik predicts the film industry will go up in flames, eventually.
But that won’t always be the case, Dominik goes on to say. “I think it’s probably going to fall apart. The film industry is going to go the way of the recording, music industry. It’s going to fall apart. There’s going to be blood on the streets, in Hollywood. But who knows how long that’s going to take?”
11. Dominik says Jesse James is “plotless,” defying most studio films.
“This movie is plotless, sort of. It’s dependent on other things than narrative,” Dominik said, in regards to why its structure went against normal studio offerings. He added, “From a studio point of view, a high-concept movie point of view, generally in a movie they set up the problem in the first 5 to 10 minutes and the movie is about resolving that. We don’t really get to what’s going on until about halfway through. It’s pretty complicated. Bob Ford shot Jesse James because Dick Liddil fucked Wood Hite’s step-mother and they had an argument, then Dick came to Bob’s house and then Wood followed and they got into a gunfight…it’s a really long, shaggy dog story. At the same time there’s a paranoid dude wandering around and threatening people. It’s not a very good plot.”
12. The “horrible” editing process extended vastly beyond the 10-week Hollywood norm.
Although shooting concluded in December 2005, it wasn’t until nearly two years later that the film received a theatrical release. When it comes to the editing he said,”It was horrible. It took nine months that made a cut of the picture that worked and that cut was three hours, about 20 minutes longer than the one that you just saw. It was this awful process of trying to defend that cut. The studio kind of had a point, because a director is supposed to deliver a cut after 10 weeks.”
13. The film’s unique narration came from an unexpected member of the crew.
Speaking about the narration that guides the film, Dominik originally had different intentions. “I originally thought it should be a girl narrating it and that guy is the assistant editor on the movie,” he said. “The reason he got the gig was as the assistant editor, the editor, Dylan [Tichenor], liked the sound of his voice. He thought, ‘Fuck, we can use him for the temp narration.’ So, Hugh [Ross] just started doing the narration and he did it better. I started getting actors in because I wanted a “real actor” to do it and no one was as good as Hugh. But even Hugh was not as good as Hugh, when we tried to re-record the voice-over again. Some of it’s incredibly badly recorded, because it’s a scratch track, basically. But when he went in and tried to record it well, he became all kind of self-conscious and couldn’t do it. Dominik adds a funny quip, saying, “I’ve got to tell you, it’s really fucking weird. We cut this movie for 2 years and I remember going to preview screenings with Hugh in the back of the car and when he talked it sort of felt like he was describing our lives. That’s how that happened. I think Hugh does Buick commercials and stuff like that now, in addition to editing as well.”
14. Roger Deakins cares more about the film than the photography, and Dominik’s DVD collection is full of great-looking terrible films.
It’s impossible to leave Jesse James without having its stunning images burned in your mind, as evidenced in this recent revival screening. Dominik talked candidly about working with one the man that gave us the distinct look, one of Hollywood’s finest cinematographers, Roger Deakins. “Roger’s very grumpy. He’s very, very talented. He likes to take risks. He likes to do weird stuff and he’s really good at it. So he’s pretty good to work with, from that point of view,” Dominik said. “He’s also not slow. I heard that Roger Deakins was slow, but I didn’t find him slow. He’s also not as obsessed with lighting as you might imagine. The other thing that’s very interesting about Roger is that if you actually look at the frames, I don’t think it’s a movie where you can just take any shot of the movie out and just frame it. But somehow it does look really good. I think he does view cinematography as a collection of images, not individual images. He’s also a person who puts the needs of the film before the photography. He cares about the film and he knows that photography is not the most important aspect of the movie. He’s a filmmaker.”
Making some broader comments on cinematography as a whole, Dominik said, “You can have a movie that looks like shit and if the people are great, who cares how it looks? You can have a movie that looks amazing and if you don’t care about the people in the film, who gives a shit how it looks? My DVD collection is full of terrible films that look good because they are the movies that I buy for reference, because of how they look. There are also great-looking movies that are great and there are great movies that don’t look good. How movies look is not that important, though I like movies that look really good.”
15. Jesse James is a historically accurate Victorian western.
Dominik told the audience, “It’s actually really historically accurate. Obviously the relationships are invented and the dialogue is invented to some extent, but everything that happens in the film, happened. Jesse gave Bob the gun that Bob shot him with two days before he shot. Ron, who wrote the book, actually tried to imagine what happened. It’s so fascinating.” He added, “It’s the late 19th century. It’s after the Civil War. It’s during reconstruction. It’s in Kansas City, which was an urban center. Jesse James did not live on the frontier. America looked liked Victorian England, that’s what they were trying to look like. I just wanted to make a film that was a Victorian western. It’s how people were actually dressed at the time. So that’s where it came from. Also, it’s the beginning of photography. It’s the beginning of mass media. It’s the beginning of printing press, all that stuff. You want the feeling that events are written and certain things must be — the idea of fate. There’s little pieces of the film that are encased in amber, kind of like museum dioramas. That’s where the whole look of the film came from and it depends on what the requirements of the scenes are, as to how that comes about. You’re working with Roger and he’s great.”
16. Nick Cave originally wasn’t going to do the music, but Andrew Dominik couldn’t refuse his offer.
During the last moments of the film, we find Affleck’s Robert Ford drunk, one of many inconspicuous men standing at a bar. Before he’s revealed, however, composer Nick Cave struts back and forth singing a song dedicated to Ford’s story, and that was originally his only planned involvement in the film. Dominik said, I actually rang Nick to see if he would just play the singer, because I needed someone to sing the song and he sort of asked me, ‘can I do the music?'” Dominik went on to say, “I felt kind of embarrassed to say no, so I said, ‘sure.’ He did that and it’s really good. Him and Warren [Ellis].'”
17. Dominik is happy with the theatrical cut, but there’s two “perfect” cuts that he prefers. He also won’t reveal his favorite deleted scene, but did talk about one in the theatrical cut he admires.
It’s not new information that a longer cut of Jesse James exists — Dominik even discussed this with us last week — but he did reveal what pained him most watching it on the big screen. He said, “This cut is not perfect, for my money. There’s two other cuts that I prefer. But it’s pretty good. If you think there is a perfect cut — which I believe there are two — but in the perfect cut, there’s one scene in there that’s missing and it really bothered me today, watching it. It’s not up to me. If it was up to me, that would be the cut.” If you’re wondering what exactly the scene is, you’re out of luck. When asked about it he questioned why he’d answer, saying, “It’s just like talking about your dead children. They were great and they’re gone now.”
The director also reflected on one of his favorite sequences of the film, saying, “I was watching the assassination and there’s so much going in that scene. Like emotional transference all over the place. Then when you see it replayed, when they’re making a mockery of it on stage and it seems like a thin recreation of the event and then it becomes this nightmare that you’re trapped in. I thought it was really good.”
18. Dominik feels embarrassed about the stylization in Killing Them Softly, but believes it works for his 2007 western.
With of each of his three features providing very different tones, Dominik opened up how he settles on a certain style. He told the audience, ” You have to approach each movie differently. My idea behind Killing Them Softly is to make a $15 million zippy crime movie and it turned into another fruity [movie, kind of].” He added, “It’s just what the film seems to see. I don’t like the stylization in the last picture. I feel embarrassed when those moments come up. I think it works in this film and I think that every film is different.”
For Jesse James, he goes right to the title to indicate its style. He said, “It’s supposed to be The Assassination of Jesse James. That’s how I imagined people would describe the film, but it’s got a 19th century title, which is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. And I knew when I gave it that title there was going to be a lot of jokes, like, “If he couldn’t even cut the title then how do you expect him to cut the movie?” But it’s a 19th century convention. The dialogue is 19th century dime novel dialogue and the look of it — it needed to look, somehow, for me, like it was from the period. There’s ways of setting a movie in the past and they do it a lot with production design, but you can also do it photographically.”
19. His next film, Blonde, will feature very little dialogue.
When speaking with the director last week, he finally confirmed plans to shoot his Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde next August and he opened up a bit about the film, based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel, during the Q&A. He said production plans are underway, but “it’s just a question of how much money I can get to make the film. And I really want to make that movie. I’ve been working on it for years. Blonde‘s interesting because it has very little dialogue in it. My previous three movies have relied on a lot of talking and I don’t think there’s a scene in Blonde that’s longer than two pages. I’m really excited about doing a movie that’s an avalanche of images and events. It’s just a different way. It’s a different thing for me to do. And the main character is female. My films are fairly bereft of woman and now I’m imagining what it’s like to be one.”
20. Dominik is happily embarrassed about the Jesse James Revival.
Although he opened the Q&A by saying, “I have very mixed feelings watching the film,” he ended on a strong one. Closing out Q&A on positive note, Dominik said, “I feel embarrassed in a good way — in a happy way. Look, I’m glad people like the film. I love the film. I was prepared to die for the fucking movie. It was so exhausting, the whole thing of doing it. I really would love it if people love the movie, if it just keeps on living and people think well of the film. It would make me really happy and proud.”
The next Jesse James Revival screening is on December 17th in Tucson, Arizona, and another has been announced for Los Angeles’ The Egyptian Theater in February. If you want to see the film come to your town, have your local repertory theaters get in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter and / or e-mail.