Five years after his epic western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford died at the box office — only to gain significant bodies of support between then and now — Andrew Dominik returned with his third feature, Killing Them Softly. It, unfortunately, didn’t make significant impact on box office charts, while the most notable response from audiences was none too kind.
Fortunately, today’s Blu-ray release offers his movie a second chance at exposure. To commemorate such an event, we were able to speak with the writer-director in a one-on-one conversation, using our time to discuss critical reaction, the evolving nature of his relationship with Brad Pitt, his experiences under the eye of Megan Ellison, and how you get tired of your own film.
You can read the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Now that we’re speaking about this after-the-fact, what were your thoughts on the critical reaction to Killing Them Softly?
Andrew Dominik: I don’t know, it was kind of all over the place. You know, depending on what country you were in… you know, that kind of thing. [Pause] I mean, it was okay.
I’m asking because, after the movie came out, there was a kerfuffle with CinemaScore, where audiences gave the film an “F,” which earned a lot of traction. I didn’t know if you had any specific reaction to that, or if it simply went over your head.
Oh, yeah. No, I was aware of it, and I didn’t like it — but there was a part of me that wasn’t surprised, based on the way the film was marketed. It was kind of sold as, like, an action-comedy type of thing, and I think there was an appetite for that kind of a movie. And then, you know, when it turned out to be the film that it was, people were disappointed. You can’t really get away with doing those kinds of things anymore.
Do you think, perhaps, now that it’s coming out on Blu-ray — i.e., more people have seen it, and even more people “know” about it — that reactions could change? Or is that not even a concern?
I would like for the movie to do better, but who knows? It doesn’t hurt one’s relationship with the film, you know what I mean? As far as it effects me. So… [Laughs] it’s just not a crowd-pleasing movie. I think the audience for it was something that we could have gone about in getting in a different way. Films always find their audience eventually.
I think it certainly happened with The Assassination of Jesse James: it was not a big financial hit in the United States, but has gone on to an almost cult-like status. A lot of people love that film, so it came to mind for this. Following that, it’s also your second collaboration with Brad Pitt. I had read a lot about your relationship with him there, but not much about how things went on Killing Them Softly. Could you talk about the way your process with him has changed and evolved?
Honestly, it’s easier now, because we trust each other. No, on the first film, I have to say we got along pretty well, too. I like working with Brad; I like the way he “works.” He’s very loosey-goosey, very free, and he’ll take a lot of risks; he’s not, like, a “tight” performer. And, you know, it’s got to be like playing Cowboys and Indians: you’re trying to engage the actor’s imagination. You’re trying ways of making the film live. That’s basically what he has to do.
I always have an idea of what a scene should be like and what the aspects should be like. The way we get there can always be different. You know, Brad is… I owe Brad a lot. He’s basically enabled me to make a couple of movies that I probably wouldn’t have been able to make — well, this last one I probably would have been able to make without him, but I prefer to make it with him.
In regards the rest of the cast, I found that everyone here seemed to work in harmony. What is the process of finding people that can meld together onscreen?
I don’t know if you sit down and think about it consciously. You just… I mean, some of it, you expect people to play a character. Basically, I offered the part to [James Gandolfini] — you know, that Jim plays — and I essentially wrote it for him. You know, James is a guy you’d just love to get, so you’re happy that he wanted to play that part. Ray [Liotta] wanted to play the part that he was asked to play — and the other people I had to go looking for. You know, it was just luck. You just watch the tapes until the guy comes in who’s “the guy.”
It’s sort of obvious when that person comes in. Sometimes, it’s inconvenient, because that person is, like, not bankable or whatever. But, you know, the great thing about having made a movie with Brad and Dede [Gardner] before is that, when Scoot [McNairy] walked in the door, we all felt very sure of each other and of him. We all tend to look at the situation the same way, so it’s a great relief to work with people that you trust and have much of the same motives that you do.
Speaking of that, you worked here with [Annapurna’s] Megan Ellison, who has become a big figure in Hollywood lately, thanks to work she’s done with filmmakers like yourself, or Paul Thomas Anderson, or Kathryn Bigelow. I’m always hearing different things about collaborating with the artistic voices, so I wanted to hear from your perspective. What was her level of input? Did she make suggestions or give you free reign?
Megan was great. You know, she has opinions about it, but Megan was just another person that was kind of making the same movie we were all making. Megan’s primary concern is with the quality of the film itself; I think she’s someone who got involved in movies because she wants to make movies that she wants to see. Her sensibilities are just good, so she’s very easy to work with.
The way you describe working with both the cast and Megan Ellison, then, it sounds as if things fell together pretty well. I wanted to know, however, if any particular surprises came in telling a different kind of story, in this different setting, and with these new people.
[Pause] I don’t know. There are lots of little surprises every day, you know? But I can’t think of anything in particular. There was a few actors’ surprises, like when I got Scoot’s audition tape — he was this person I didn’t know, and it was “Frankie.” I also remember being in New Orleans, and Ben [Mendelsohn] & Scoot had met and gone out, wandering in the street, and walking into a bar — seeing the two of them there, talking — was kind of like stepping into your own film. It was really kind of a beautiful moment, because they were both in character.
I know you sort of have a history with having to change movies in the editing room: such as with Jesse James, and you cut some footage from this film before it premiered at Cannes. You’ve gained perspective with the movie having come out: you’ve probably seen it many times, and you’ve certainly talked about it a lot, so is there anything about Killing Them Softly that you might alter with it in tow?
Well, to be honest with you, I haven’t seen the movie since Cannes. [Laughs] And I haven’t sort of gone back and looked at it. When you’re finishing a picture, you watch it so many times; once it’s done, you kind of forget about it. I mean, maybe in a couple of years I’ll watch it again and have some idea. But, you know… it’s funny, because I watched Jesse James about a year ago, which I hadn’t seen for a while. That was a great experience, to see the thing free of all the anxiety around it at the time, that eclipsed what an amazing film it was. So, I can’t answer your question yet.
No, no, that’s fine, and an interesting perspective. I guess I figured that you watch it something like six times between the festival premiere and its release for marketing or whatnot.
Well, you watch the movie so many times. I mean, six times? You watch it forty times. In the last few weeks of the cut, you’re watching it all the time, because you have to get a sense of how it’s moving and if it seems bland. At a certain point you get to be, you know… “I can’t watch that damn film again.” And it’s a relief when you stop.
Killing Them Softly hits Blu-ray/DVD today.