Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The (2007): Interview with Director Andrew Dominik (“Chopper”)

Andrew Dominik’s Western, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” was two years in the works, fraught with complications and conflicts, on and off the set.

But the New Zealander, who previously had directed only one feature, Chopper, stuck to his guns, and released an art film that’s close to 3 hours long.

Gap between First and Second Film

“Making movies is hard,” says Dominik in explaining the seven-year gap between his explosive debut Chopper and his masterful sophomore effort, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. “If you can avoid working you should do it. Ridley Scott can’t take more than two weeks between movies or he starts going bananas. I don’t understand those guys at all. You have to get up at five o’clock in the morning, it’s political, and you feel like you’re failing 90 percent of the time. It’s a tough job.’

“Jesse James” was finished last November, but it’s considered a “fall movie,” and if you miss one, says Dominik, you have wait till the next autumn. Even so, the extra delay (it was shot two years ago) only added to the perception that this was a movie in deep trouble, a view not helped by cuts of varying length being dispatched by Warner for different critics to offer their opinion on. Given such treatment, did Dominik detect a lack of faith in the film from the studio

Weird Movie: Baroque; Rococo

“I always thought the film was great,” says the New Zealand-born director. “But it’s a weird movie, a fruity movie about suffering, like “Barton Fink”. It’s baroque; it’s rococo. You’ve got to look at it from the studio’s point of view. They make movies that are real crowd-pleasers. Everybody is always trying to make the best movie they can. It’s a process.”

Based on the novel by Ron Hansen and starring Brad Pitt as the infamous outlaw and Casey Affleck as the former James Gang member who shot him in the back, ‘Jesse James’ is a cinematic kin to ‘Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid’, ‘McCabe & Mrs Miller’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’, a long, deliberate, elegiac 1970s western.

Like ‘Chopper’, it tells of a violent, real-life criminal all too aware of his own celebrity, although Dominik says it was the language of Hansen’s book that first hooked him. ‘I loved the way Jesse was written. He was a character with magical thought, he believed in omens, he speaks in riddles, he seems to have some consciousness of God, and Bob was just this idiot who, over the course of the story, seemed really brave to me.’

Dominik’s initial cut was over four hours long and wasn’t great. “It’s not an undiscovered masterpiece, put it that way. With Chopper, I threw away a ton of footage, but that was an easier film to cut because you’ve got one central character, and you threw out all the stuff that was bad and made a film out of all the good stuff left over.

With this film. I had to throw away stuff that was great and keep stuff I wasn’t as enamoured with and make it work harder. Periodically, during the lengthy editing, Dominik was removed from the process. “Various people came in and had a crack at it, but they never turned it into “Young Guns” or “Saving Private Ryan” on horses, so it always ended up back in my court.”

What was the shortest version they tried “Probably two hours. I had a version that was two hours and it’s not good.”

Too Much Voiceover

The finished film runs 160 minutes and, because of its lyrical narration and Roger Deakins’ sublime magic-hour cinematography, has drawn comparisons to Terrence Malick, whom Dominik counts as a friend. (He even shot a week of second unit on ‘The New World’ before being fired for not being in the Directors Guild.)

“I showed the movie to Terry and he was appalled. He was like: ‘It’s too long, there’s too much voiceover, you’ve got to cut that.'”

In Demand

After “Chopper,” Dominik’s stature was elevated: “Movie stars like “Chopper,” so my name is put on their list of ten people they’ll make a film with,” he explains. “And then the studio is interested in you because you can attract talent. Then, because I said no to every offer, I’m like the girl at the party that won’t have sex with anyone. They want me more and more and they buy their own hype.”

Need of Movie Stars

Dominik wrote five scripts to direct, including adaptations of Jim Thompson’s “Pop,” “1280” for Woody Harrelson and producer Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cormac McCarthy’s “Cities of the Plain,” none of which he could get off the ground.

“It was impossible to make a film without a movie star, but it’s very difficult to find a part you can cast one in that doesn’t seem like miscasting. You can have Brad Pitt play Jesse James and it doesn’t feel wrong.’

Brad Pitt: Star and Producer

Brad Pitt had Dominik’s name on his list. “We went back and forth on a number of things,” he notes, “but it was not until this film that it clicked.” Pitt signed on as both star and producer. “He’s powerful and he’s not afraid to use it. Brad had it put in his contract that they couldn’t change the title. He can be the best friend you have, but when we fought it was bloody.”

Future Plans

Dominik has no immediate plans. He may try to revitalize one of his earlier scripts. “I’m exhausted,” he says. “I’d like to make another movie, but I’m in no hurry to do so. It all depends on how this film goes over, because it’s not up to me, it’s up to some guy who’s got to pay for it. And from my point of view, they’re on to me. I can turn up with Leonardo DiCaprio or some other movie star and they’re going to think: ‘Jesus Christ, it’s going to be another fruity, three-hour movie. I’m not going to be involved in that.'”

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