Director Andrew Dominik talks about his new dramatic comedy Killing Them Softly, arriving in theaters nationwide November 30
Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik first made his mark with the 2000 drama Chopper, a film that introduced the world to Eric Bana, who was primarily known as an Australian comedian. He returned seven years later with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. This weekend, the director is back with his third feature, the fascinating Killing Them Softly, and since there is only a five-year gap between projects this time, I can only hope this means we only have to wait three years until his next picture. Brad Pitt stars in this adaptation of George V. Higgins' novel Cogan's Trade as a mob enforcer who tries to unravel the bizarre robbery of a high-stakes poker game, brilliantly set in New Orleans 2008, against the backdrop of political elections and economic strife. I recently had the chance to speak with Andrew Dominik over the phone about his new drame, which debuts in theaters nationwide November 30. Here's what he had to say.
I really loved this film. It's easily in my top 10 or top 5 of the year.
Andrew Dominik: Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate it.
I was reading about how you started to discover more of George V. Higgins' work after watching The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Can you talk about what lead you to dig deeper into his catalog?
Andrew Dominik: It just had such a feeling of authenticity to it. That's why I went for it, and started reading it. I happened to catch the movie on TV, or maybe it was on Criterion or something. It was about six months before we started, when I first saw it, and that's when I started ordering the books. This was the third one that arrived.
You must have gotten the script together very quickly then. Can you talk a bit about your writing process, and what you felt really needed to be included from the book, and what you wanted to make your own?
Andrew Dominik: Right. I tend to choose things that are well-written, and then basically get them in a form which would be more suitable for a film. I guess there was some stuff added to this one, to draw the parallel from the financial crisis in the book, and the financial crisis in this world. Other than that, I was just trying to adapt Higgins, if you like. I find his stuff very entertaining.
I was excited for this practically right away, but this was actually a lot funnier than I imagined it would be. It was great to see that balance between these really dramatic elements and these really hilarious moments. Can you talk about striking that balance between the drama and comedy?
Andrew Dominik: I couldn't really work out whether it was a screwball comedy or a film noir, you know. Those two genres are so close together anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter whether you blur the lines a little bit. The idea was to make an entertaining movie.
I was at a Q&A for another film last year and the director was talking about how most studios still want movies to be either a straight-up comedy or a drama. It's great to see something like this that has both of these great elements.
Andrew Dominik: Yeah, well there wasn't really a studio. It was independently financed. It's a low-budget movie, with Brad Pitt in it. When you start pitching the story, and the people you're telling it to start laughing, they get the idea of the tone.
I read in the production notes there was actually a financier who pulled out because they thought the budget was 'too good to be true' for a Brad Pitt movie. I imagine that would be a problem that many studios would love to have. I can't imagine you had many difficulties finding financing after that, though.
Andrew Dominik: Oh no, it was pretty straight-forward. It was more a question of which financier to go with. We were bringing them, as they say, an offer you can't refuse.
Can you talk a bit about the title change from Cogan's Trade to Killing Them Softly? I honestly think both titles work in their own ways. I was curious why that decision was made to change it.
Andrew Dominik: Well, I didn't really like the title Cogan's Trade. I thought it sounded like a Clint Eastwood movie from the 70s, not that that's a bad thing. The other thing is, we never mention his name, so it seemed kind of weird to name the movie after a character and you never hear his name. Killing Them Softly was something mentioned in the dialogue a few times, and it seemed like a better title. It's nothing more complex than that. I mean, I've gotten a lot of shit because it sounds like a Roberta Flack song, but it seemed like an apt description for what he was trying to do.
Absolutely. Can you talk about setting this both in New Orleans and in 2008? There is such a wonderful look to the film that matches the economic climate.
Andrew Dominik: Well, obviously there was no way to draw a parallel between the current economic state at the 1970s (when the original novel was published), so I had to update it. I felt the movie should be set in Anytown U.S.A. in the middle of the country, not New York or L.A. We were also looking for economic collapse, the plight of America that you don't always see, the part of it that looks like a third world country, and there's plenty of it out there. It's also the best place that gives you the best rebate, so it was either Detroit or New Orleans. New Orleans was warmer, so we went there, but we tried to make it anywhere, really.
Can you talk about your work with Brad (Pitt) and the relationship that has formed there? It seemed he signed on very quickly after hearing your take on this.
Andrew Dominik: We get along. Brad is very relaxed as an actor. He's one of those guys who's looking for momentary truths. He's very loose when he works. It's kind of a great thing, because it allows for certain collisions to happen in scenes. He's discovering it as he's doing it, so it always seems more visceral. I love working with him, because he's not afraid to try things from X amount of different directions, and use his imagination. It feels real, it feels like it's happening, when you work that way. I guess from his point of view, he probably just trusts that I'm not going to use any bad takes. He trusts my sense of taste. We went through the whole getting-to-know-you type thing on Jesse James, and when you work with somebody, you really get a sense of their mettle. Brad is someone I really respect and really trust. Working together is kind of a no-brainer. We really enjoy it.
It really shows in the film too, I think. It's a character that he doesn't normally get the chance to portray. It was really fun to see him sink his teeth into that.
Andrew Dominik: I think for him, it's a way to take a holiday from himself. Actors have either got to play something that's close to them, or something that's the complete opposite. Brad is a generous, well-raised Missouri boy, and in this he gets to play a selfish prick. It's kind of like a holiday.
Is there anything you're working on now that you can talk about?
Andrew Dominik: There's a movie called Blonde that I'm working on, which is based on a book by Joyce Carol Oates, and it's about the life of Marilyn Monroe. It's kind of a Grimm's fairy tale about a person who is kind of losing their way. The script has been written for awhile, but I'm sort of reworking it at the moment. I really want to do it. It's kind of like my dream project.
What would you like to say to anyone who might be curious about Killing Them Softly, about why they should check it out in theaters this Friday?
Andrew Dominik: I think the movie is entertaining. It's funny, right?
Yes, it definitely is. That's all I have. Thanks so much, Andrew. I hope this does really well.
Andrew Dominik: OK. Thank you very much.