Andrew Dominik - Contrary cowboy
Miles Fielder meets Andrew Dominik, the filmmaker behind The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, which stars Brad Pitt
It’s taken New Zealand-born, Australia-bred filmmaker Andrew Dominik (pictured) seven years to make the follow-up to his much-praised debut, Chopper. Like that film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a wildly unconventional portrait of an outlaw, and, like Chopper, it’s been well received on the festival circuit. So, why has it taken this long for Dominik to get his act together?
‘I wrote a bunch of things after Chopper,’ Dominik says with typical Antipodean forthrightness, ‘but this was the only one I could get made. Basically, the reason this film happened is because Brad wanted to do it. Brad saw Chopper when it came out and we went back and forth on a few things before making this film.’
As its Guinness Book of Records-competing title suggests, TAOJJBTCRF is neither conventional film nor traditional western. It’s a beguiling, delirious, iconoclastic portrait of the famous outlaw and his friend and killer. It’s long, slow moving, alternately realistic and dream-like, and it doesn’t boast many shootouts and robberies.
‘I actually don’t like westerns much,’ says Dominik. ‘I like good westerns, but it isn’t my preferred genre. There are all kinds of westerns: acid westerns, 70s westerns, Nicholas Ray’s neurotic westerns. The ones I tend to like are nutso westerns. But I love a lot of western literature [TAOJJBTCRF is based on Ron Hansen’s 1983 non-fiction book] about that rich period of American history, towards the end of the westward expansion.’
He adds, ‘There’s been about 75 movies about Jesse James, and I’ve seen about four of them. He’s usually portrayed as this plucky rebel who’s got no choice but to turn to crime, because the railway’s hassling his mother. But he wasn’t like that. He was just a bad guy with a really good press agent, and that’s the way we’ve portrayed him in the film. He’s very human, but at the same time mythological.’
Unsurprisingly, TAOJJBTCRF didn’t go down well with the studio. ‘It’s a weird film,’ Dominik admits. ‘By Hollywood standard’s it’s not a well-behaved movie. And anything that deviates from a formulaic structure is perceived to be a mistake. It’s not a film that tested well. People were culled from malls and told they were going to see a western with Brad Pitt in it. They weren’t expecting this fruity long movie, so it didn’t score well. But it was protected by Brad. It probably would have gone through the meat grinder without him.’
Dominik is a sucker for punishment. His next project is another unconventional western, Cities of the Plain, the third part of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which takes place on the US/Mexican frontier in 1952. ‘It’s got a lot of strikes against it,’ Dominik laughs, ‘the least being it’s a sequel to All the Pretty Horses [McCarthy adaptation directed by Billy Bob Thornton in 2000 and notoriously savaged by the now defunct studio Miramax]. But I’ve got a big thing for McCarthy, and it’s a beautiful story.’
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is on general release from Fri 30 Nov.