Killing Them Softly: An Interview with Andrew Dominik

Andrew Dominik shows a penchant for depicting the lives of criminals whose fame was essential to who they were as human beings.

Killing Them Softly

Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy
Rated: R
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-11-30 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-09-21 (General release)

With a mere three movies to his name, New Zealand born director Andrew Dominik has become one of the most interesting creative voices in cinema. After making a stunning debut with Chopper in the year 2000, he showed a fascination with the world of notorious criminals by exploring the life and death of the notorious Jesse James in 2007’s masterful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. With these movies Dominik showed a penchant for depicting the lives of criminals whose fame was essential to who they were as human beings. Both the real life killer from Chopper and James seem obsessed with their own notoriety, so much that we can’t help but see our society of reality shows and easy fame reflected in them.

For Killing Them Softly (in theaters November 30), Dominik once again teamed up with Brad Pitt (who gave his greatest screen performance as Jesse James) to bring to life George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade about the messy bureaucracy of crime. The film is gritty, tough to watch and quite violent, but it is also rather funny (think Burn After Reading with more uncomfortable giggles).

Earlier this week PopMatters sat down with director Andrew Dominik for an exclusive interview where he discussed the effect of Obama in his most recent movie, the Oscars and why his penis might be the greatest obstacle in making his next project.

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The book Cogan’s Trade takes place in Boston during the 1970s. Killing Them Softly however is set in New Orleans sometime around election day 2008. Why did you change the time and the setting when you were adapting the book?

I guess it was just a personal thing that was going on, at the time I was really financially insecure when I read the book and it was the time of the financial meltdown. I read the book and I realized it was the story of an economic crisis and Brad’s character was also missing a little area -- everyone had a speech in the movie -- but his character did not and it just seemed like everything was reflecting everything else. I realized if I updated the story to 2008, when a global financial crisis was going on, it would give us an opportunity to draw a few parallels about America.

Did you personally choose all the McCain/Obama clips in the movie? How hard was it to find exactly what you wanted?

Yeah. It wasn’t hard. The movie’s basically saying society is rotten all the way through, from top to bottom. That’s not hard to find because it is. What was difficult was how much detail to go into, because when they were trying to pass that bill, there were a lot of people in Congress saying “hey, a crime’s being committed here” and you had Obama initially questioning it and then it fails, it doesn’t go through and then everybody redoubles to make sure the bill passes. The background of the picture told more of that story originally but it just became too much to take in, so we ended up just streamlining it back to the marketing of the bill.

Did the election have anything to do with the release date change?

No, basically it was the shooting in Colorado, no theater owner wanted to run the ads after the guy went bananas with the gun, which is the American way of dealing with things, they have a go at violent movies but they don’t change their gun control laws.

In most movies rain is used as a symbol of cleansing, yet your movie has some its most brutal scenes set during torrential weather. How did this came to be?

Rain is really unpleasant to be in but it looks good in slow motion. We just wanted it to look like a mess.

A lot of the movie takes place in cars. I understand this came from the book but why do you think cars as symbols were so meaningful in the book and now in your movie?

The one thing I’m really proud of about the movie is that it shows men at work, well maybe not in New York (chuckles) but certainly in LA you feel like you spend most of your life in a car. So I don’t know, in the book this is where the action is set, this is where they meet, in parked cars, so yeah this is just where it’s set in cars.

The Assassination of Jesse James was well known for its amazing cinematography and in Killing Them Softly the camera work by Greg Fraser is just as stunning. Do you go into your movies having planned every single shot with the cinematographer?

Not every shot. You define a theme and get your references -- how you want the movie to feel and all that stuff -- there’s always a philosophy behind the cinematography but at the same time you want the film to be an organic process where you’re discovering as you go, so we had basic ideas that we followed, I guess with this one it was more about trying to work around the light that was there. Greg comes from a stills background so he won’t set up the lights before a shot, he’s more about how the light works around the room and then we work around the light, rather than the light working around us.

Speaking of cinematography, your last movie was a hit at awards shows because of Roger Deakins’ work among other elements. I read an interview you made around that time where you spoke of how you were trying to understand the concepts of “fall movies” and awards. How do you think awards actually impact your movies in the end?

I don’t know. Obviously the reason behind award shows is that they’re a way of selling movies. Awards are about selling movies that are not immediately popular. They can be important as a tool to sell a film.

Up until now you’ve made three movies and they’ve all been very male-centric. Yet your next project is an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde which deals with the inner life of Marilyn Monroe. Will you approach the writing/directing in the same way you’ve worked in your previous movies or does the female point of view make it necessary to change your process?

No, it’s the same... I guess you have to think about what it’s like to have a woman’s body. Also Blonde is really concerned with pregnancy and being violated, so I guess I have to imagine those things because I don’t have a vagina. But other than that as far as how she might feel or whatever, I feel like people have the same feelings whether they’re male or female.

Speaking of adaptations, all of your movies are based on books. Are you interested in writing original screenplays or working with material that’s never been produced before?

I have done it but at this stage no. Certain things just capture you and I like making movies about things that happened, really happened because then you feel like it’s real. This movie’s a little different because it’s fictional but when I read the book it felt very real. But also this film’s more cartoonish, it’s like a political cartoon or something like that. The advantage of making a story that’s, in lack of a better word, a true story is just the feeling that you’re not bullshittng when you do it and you have to try and understand why things happened, because they did. You can’t just make things happen at your convenience and it becomes more of an exploration I guess.

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Killing Them Softly is now playing in theaters.

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