By Sven Mikulec
When The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford came out in 2007, a lot of people believed a new golden age of the Western genre began, with both financially and critically successful movies such as James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition or the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. There were some who dismissed Andrew Dominik’s sophomore filmmaking effort, calling it an exercise in style and self-indulgency, but a lot of film lovers immediately realized they had watched something special: a visually stunning period piece exhibiting probably the best acting performances from each and every member of the ensemble cast, especially Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt, a story that relied far more heavily on atmosphere, the power of images, the magic of subtlety and restraint, than on things we usually associate with the genre, abundance of gunslinging action and the act of idolizing morally superior antiheroes to whom we’re always ready to forgive because, after all, they were simply a product of a ruthless, chaotic world of the old West.
Ever since the invention of cinema, and even before, in literature, there has always been something very special about the American West, some mysteriously captivating power found in the vision of immortalized lone titans of human beings battling with evil, all the time set against the backdrop of menacing mountains or desolate fields of dust, a harsh landscape that demanded certain toughness and resilience from those keen on surviving. And yet, what Andrew Dominik offers us in this modern masterpiece shies from the usual practices. The New Zealand-born filmmaker gives us a stylish vision of the death of the old ways, of the inescapable impact of the passage of time and the modernization it brings, to some degree in the vein of John Ford’s unforgettable The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. It’s enough to look at the deaths caused by casual, brutal violence sporadically appearing in the film. There’s no honor here, no grandiose dueling in the town square, no damsels in distress needing to be saved: just a number of people having the back of their heads blown to pieces. Dominik poetically paints his image, taking his time, exploring the psychological depths of his characters, choosing complexity over cheap thrills, humanizing and therefore shattering the myth of a world that has been worshipped and lied about throughout the history of cinema.
Dominik himself wrote the screenplay, choosing for his second project after the acclaimed debut Chopper to adapt Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name. Shot mainly in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg and lasting demanding 160 minutes, this “Victorian Western,” as Dominik called it, was shot by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, nominated for the Academy Award no less than thirteen times. Shot in Super 35mm, the film pays special attention to its visuality and contains some of the most beautiful shots ever seen on the silver screen. It’s interesting to note that during filming Deakins invented a new type of a combination of lenses, appropriately dubbed “Deakinizers,” which he used to produce the effect of old camera footages in several transitional shots throughout the film. There are, of course, the wonderful time-lapse shots of the sky and clouds, shot by the crew’s Steadicam operator Damon Moreau. The overall impression that the visual side of the film leaves is something like a series of incredible paintings transferred to film by masterful artists. The images are accompanied by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ sentimental, touching musical tones, furthering adding to the disarming atmosphere Dominik orchestrated. Besides Pitt and Affleck, the cast is comprised of such talent as Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel, each of whom delivers what was needed and more.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a contemplative, slow-paced, superbly acted piece of contemporary filmmaking which has to be considered an important player in the 21st century revival of the Western genre, an artistically accomplished, technically brilliant exploration of one of the founding myths of American identity, and a movie whose stature is bound to rise in the decades to come.
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Andrew Dominik’s screenplay for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
When Dominik showed Terrence Malick a cut of Jesse James, his reaction was “it’s too slow.” This got some laughs, but Dominik (rightly) pointed out that people who think Malick’s films are slow are dead wrong—they zoom. He also said those who compare Jesse James to Malick don’t know what they’re talking about (again, true) and they are just getting hung up on shots of nature. “I see the film as far more similar to Barry Lyndon than anything else.” —10 Things Learned From the Revival Screening of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
ROGER DEAKINS, ASC, BSC
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC explores the existential perils of the American West in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men. Interview by Stephen Pizzello and Jean Oppenheimer. The interview was originally published in the October 2007 issue of American Cinematographer © American Society of Cinematographers.
Are you a fan of Westerns?
Oh, yeah. I felt No Country was the nearest a contemporary film might come to a Peckinpah Western. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is one of my favorite films, along with The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Those movies are much more than the sum of their stories. They address many different themes, and I feel Jesse James and No Country are in that same vein.
There are also a few shots in Jesse James that call to mind the films of John Ford—frames within the widescreen frame that highlight specific visual elements.
Andrew Dominik and I talked about that a lot, so I was always looking for those opportunities—tracking through doorways and using windows and other scenic elements to break up the wide frame. There are also a number of shots where we dolly past a character. I always used a dolly for those shots, because in general I don’t like to use zoom lenses unless there’s a very specific reason for it.
You shot both pictures in Super 35mm. Why did you choose that over anamorphic?
I prefer Super 35 because it allows you to use short focal-length lenses. I also like the scale of that format—the intimacy—and the texture of the film grain. In some cases I find anamorphic to be almost too clean, too grain-free and pristine.
Jesse James is a traditional period Western and No Country is set in the contemporary West, but the films seem to address similar themes.
That’s interesting, actually. Andrew Dominik is a really meticulous guy, and he did a lot of research for Jesse James, which is based on a fantastic novel by Ron Hansen that’s full of detail and really sets you in that world. Andrew was always saying, ‘We’re basically making a Victorian Western.’ The West of Jesse James was not like most movies you see about that era. Times were changing, and things were becoming much more modern. No Country is thematically similar in some ways because it’s also about the changing of the West. Sheriff Bell [played by Tommy Lee Jones] is kind of lost because the criminal world has changed so much beyond his imagination—he can’t understand it anymore. I think there’s a really good parallel between James and Bell, because neither can really function in the modern world. They’re aging, they’re thinking about death, and they’re struggling to understand what’s going on around them.
Jesse James was your first project with Dominik, whereas you’ve worked with the Coens many times. How different were your working relationships with the directors?
Very different. I’ve had a very long relationship with the Coens, so after prep we don’t really have to talk that much about day-to-day stuff. If we discuss anything, it’s the order of the shots rather than the shots themselves. Once we set the camera up, either Joel or Ethan will offer his suggestions, but we basically already know how we’re going to cover the scene. They storyboard everything, and they’re very precise. As a result, I feel their films have a sort of picture-book style of presentation. Andrew, on the other hand, spends a lot of time considering things before, during and after we shoot them. He really ponders and agonizes. [Laughs.] It was a much more intense way of getting to the point you want, and it was more about being instinctual on the day. That said, we did do a lot of planning for certain key shots.
What were your main locations?
On Jesse James we shot mainly in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. The scouting was pretty intensive because the movie had a lot of variety in terms of locations. We also needed snow for certain scenes, and during the shoot we were always adjusting our schedule to accommodate that. We were after a very particular look, and some of these locations were miles and miles apart. For some of our city streets, the only places that really worked in Calgary and Edmonton were these historic towns that looked a bit like Disneyland pavilions. Those suited our purpose for certain interiors and small exteriors, but Andrew really wanted to create a sense of modern Victorian streets, and we had to go to Winnipeg for that. We also built a town up in the Rockies that stood in for Creede, Colorado, at the end of the film. It was tricky trying to find all of these locations in places that weren’t necessarily ideal. No Country was difficult in another way. We shot mostly around Santa Fe, New Mexico, not because the story was set there but because of the tax breaks. We used the little town of Las Vegas, which is east of Santa Fe, for most of the night scenes in town, but it was a struggle to find locations that would match places like Eagle Pass, Texas. We shot in Marfa, Texas, for a week just to establish a sense of the landscape. We really had to scratch around to find the right locations, because Santa Fe does not look like Texas.
Jesse James opens with a train robbery that takes place in a wooded area that seems to be lit almost entirely by a light on the front of the train and lanterns held by the characters. How did you approach that sequence?
We shot that in Edmonton in this preserved town where they had a little loop railway and a small train. Andrew actually wanted to ship in a much bigger train, but the cost was prohibitive. We kept trying to reassure him that we could do things photographically that would give the train more of a presence. Andrew kept calling it ‘Thomas the Tank Engine,’ and when you saw it in broad daylight, it did look pretty puny! Now, though, he thinks it looks great.
When you’re dealing with that kind of period situation, the first thing you think of is the technical challenge of lighting everything. The train robbery had to look as if it were really lit just with lanterns. Of course, if you look closely at the shots, they’re totally unrealistic because there’s much too much light! Nevertheless, our approach worked pretty well. Andrew kept pushing for darkness, and, of course, if you haven’t worked with a director before, you wonder what he means by ‘dark.’ In this wooded area where the James gang was waiting to ambush the train, I’d positioned some lights on Condors to rake through the trees so you’d get some sense of the trees before the train came. But about an hour before we started shooting, I decided to turn them off, and instead we just pumped some atmosphere into the area. Luckily there wasn’t much of a wind, so we could maintain a low level of smoke hanging in the air and just let the light on the front of the train provide the general ambience. We shot the arrival of the train without any rehearsal, but it worked out just great. The only light in the whole scene is coming from either the train or the lanterns the outlaws are holding. The lanterns were dummied with 300- or 500-watt bulbs. Sometimes I’d keep the flame and put the bulbs behind the flame, dimmed way down. We positioned little pieces of foil between the bulb and the flame so all the camera would see was the little flame. At other times during the robbery, we just had bulbs in the lanterns—two bulbs side by side, dimmed down and sometimes flickering very gently. To augment the lanterns for close-up shots, I occasionally used a warmed-up Tweenie bounced off a gold stippled reflector.
The light on the front of the train stretched credibility, really. They did have lights on the front of trains back then, but they wouldn’t have been as strong as the 5K Par we used! We also had some gag lights underneath the train—little bare bulbs dimmed down—to light the steam and create the effect of this fiery red glow beneath the train. We had a special-effects rig on the train that would create sparks as it started braking. There’s one shot where the train is coming toward you and seems to hit the camera and carry it down the tracks; on the tracks, we set up a camera-platform rig with a big, soft buffer, and the train actually hit the platform and started pushing it along. In that particular shot, you can really see the warm glow of the bulbs underneath the engine. We also positioned a little silver reflector that caught some of the bounce from the 5K on the train, just to create some reflected light that would reveal the front of the train—otherwise, there was nothing else to illuminate it. We had a steam generator on the train so that when it stopped, we got this big cloud of steam that Jesse disappears into.
The rest of the sequence, including the interior scenes, was basically lit with dummied lanterns with bare bulbs inside. Inside the train, all the oil lamps had little tin hats on top of them; inside those were pieces of silver foil and a ring of five 300-watt bulbs dimmed down with flicker generators. Those read really well onscreen, but if you looked closely at the actual lamp it wouldn’t make sense, because the light was coming from the tin hat and not from the lamp itself. I chose those in collaboration with the art department because I knew Andrew wanted to do a constant move through the train with Frank James [played by Sam Shepard].
The only time we used conventional film lights in that sequence was when we were running with the outlaws down the hill toward the train. The robbers are supposed to look as if they’re being lit by the light at the front of the train, and I think we used a 10K bounced off a white card to create that sort of effect amid the steam. When we finally show the train carriage, you can see the passengers amid this golden light coming through the windows. That light was provided by 175-watt mushroom bulbs mounted on 10-foot strips positioned all the way down the interior ceiling of the train carriage. We could rely on our dummy lanterns when we were inside the train, but when we shot that exterior we had to really project the light out into the atmosphere.
That shot of the passengers was inspired by one of Andrew’s photographic references, and I think it’s one of the most successful shots in the film. When we were doing it, though, it filled me with dread, because I was concerned that the light would just burn out the passengers and it would end up looking silly.
A number of shots in Jesse James have a sort of dreamlike vignetting at the edges of the frame. How did you achieve that effect?
That was done entirely in camera with lenses that are now called ‘Deakinizers.’ I used to use this gag where I put a small lens element in front of a 50mm to get a similar effect. I went to Otto Nemenz and asked how we could create that effect in a better way, with more flexibility and lens length. The lens technician suggested taking the front element off a 9.8 Kinoptic, and also mounting the glass from old wide-angle lenses to the front of a couple of Arri Macros. Otto now rents out three Deakinizers. Removing the front element makes the lens faster, and it also gives you this wonderful vignetting and slight color diffraction around the edges. We used different lenses, so some were more extreme or slightly longer than others. Sometimes we used [Kardan] Shift & Tilt lenses to get a similar effect.
Most of those shots were used for transitional moments, and the idea was to create the feeling of an old-time camera. We weren’t trying to be nostalgic, but we wanted those shots to be evocative. The idea sprang from an old photograph Andrew liked, and we did a lot of tests to mimic the look of the photo. Andrew had a whole lot of photographic references for the look of the movie, mainly the work of still photographers, but also images clipped from magazines, stills from Days of Heaven, and even Polaroids taken on location that looked interesting or unusual. He hung all of them up in the long corridor of the production office. That was a wonderful idea, because every day we’d all pass by [images] that immediately conveyed the tone of the movie he wanted to make.
Did you contribute some specific ideas about the palette of the movie’s sets or costumes in your discussions with those departments?
I thought quite a lot about Jesse’s costumes and certain settings in terms of how everything was going to read onscreen. I did a slight bleach bypass on the negative to enhance the blacks, so those considerations were important in terms of rendering detail. Andrew had very specific ideas about the blackness of the costumes against the snow.
In the night scene where Jesse shoots Ed Miller [Garret Dillahunt], Andrew wanted them to be riding black horses, but I told him that was going to be really tough at night. In that type of situation, you don’t want to see too much of the landscape, so I basically lit up these little white trees to provide some sense of the background. Andrew really just wanted to show the characters as disembodied heads floating in blackness, but I knew it would be really hard to hold those details with the characters moving over a long distance. I lit that scene with a line of 10Ks positioned about 400 feet away from where we were shooting, with a bottom cut to keep the spill off the ground. I suppose moonlight would be the justification for that source. Andrew wanted a very particular, silvery look for night scenes, so it wasn’t realistic in that sense. That was one scene where the digital intermediate [DI] really came in handy, because I could use Power Windows on the horses to bring them up a bit, and on the actors’ faces to take them down some. If you’re trying to track a man on a horse for 200 feet, he’ll get brighter and brighter as he approaches the light unless the source is a mile away, and that just wasn’t feasible. But in the DI, I could compensate.
Throughout Jesse James, the camera is moving in interesting ways. What kinds of camera-motion systems did you use on the show?
The preamble to the train-robbery sequence, when Robert Ford first meets Jesse and his gang at a campsite in the woods, begins with a long Steadicam move that starts on Ford’s feet. He sits down to introduce himself, but they all get up and leave him sitting there. The camera then tracks around Ford to show the gang behind him, and that move was done with a little Aerocrane with a remote head. I’ve been using the Aerocrane a hell of a lot for 10 years or so, because I find it to be an incredibly versatile way to move the camera; it’s like a 14-foot sectional jib arm with a PowerPod remote head. Another part of that whole scene is a dialogue in the woods between Charley Ford [Sam Rockwell] and other members of the gang. That was mostly improvised as a way to introduce some of the characters. We had to get all of the shots pretty quickly before the sun went down, so I just did it all handheld.
There are some really nice time-lapse shots of the sky and clouds throughout Jesse James. Who shot that footage?
Our Steadicam operator, a Canadian named Damon Moreau. When we didn’t have any Steadicam stuff for him to do, or if we were waiting for Andrew to get the actors ready, we would send him off to shoot some time-lapse footage. It was looking really great, so we had him do more and more of it. He got some wonderful stuff, including these patterns of light on the floor of the James house after Jesse and his family move out; the flickering effect was created by the time-lapse of the sun going through trees or behind clouds.
In some of the interior scenes in Jesse James, you let the windows blow out and go white. Was that a stylistic decision or a more practical choice?
That was both a practical problem and a creative choice. We built the houses on location so we could shoot everything on location, but that proved to be impractical in some cases, because the restricted daylight in Canada during the winter was just too ridiculous. Scenes in the house where Wood Hite [Jeremy Renner] is killed ultimately had to be done in a studio. We had big circular panels of diffusion outside every window and aimed a group of 2K Blondes at each window from about 20 feet away.
When we were downstairs in our studio house, I tried to create a feeling of the landscape and the snow outside the windows by positioning black flags slightly beyond the windows and keeping them out of focus to create the line of a hill. There’s not a lot you can do in those kinds of situations. The blown-out windows ended up being part of the look of the film, because I did that even on some of our location sets. At the house in St. Joseph where Jesse is killed, you do see a bit of the landscape outside the windows, but they’re mostly blown out. It’s a good thing we’d been doing that, because one day there was 2 feet of snow outside the windows that didn’t really match the rest of the scene!
In other scenes, we made use of the old-fashioned glass in various windows to create distorted views. Old glass has a kind of wavy texture, and it just seemed very evocative in some way. [Laughs.] There’s one nice shot where we’re craning up outside a window and the glass is kind of wobbling in front of Jesse’s face. We also used the glass to create patterns on the walls for a scene in which Jesse wakes Charley to have a nighttime chat with him. I lit that scene with 1Ks, and I removed the lenses from the lamps to create a really sharp, pinpoint source. When you put that kind of source through a window, you’ll get the pattern of the glass on the background.
Was it tricky balancing the film’s interiors and exteriors? There are a number of shots where you can see the exteriors through the doorways of relatively low-key dwellings.
The hardest shot was when Jesse arrives on horseback at Ed Miller’s cabin, where they have this really eerie conversation. The cabin was built on location, and it was supposed to be an exterior scene, but the day we turned up there was 2 feet of snow outside. We discussed whether we could clear enough snow up to the horizon so we could shoot Jesse’s arrival through the door. Well, the horizon was about a quarter-mile away, so that would have taken a week! It was absolutely freezing, -20 degrees, and we ended up shooting only part of their conversation before packing it in. Weeks later we put the cabin inside a warehouse, and I had the set painter create a 20-by canvas with a little bit of a horizon line so we could shoot the rest of the dialogue onstage, trying to match what we’d done on location. We left the door of the stage open to keep the set cold, because we had to be able to see their breath! I’m amazed that scene works so well, because it was cobbled together over two different days of location shooting and an additional day onstage in the warehouse.
There’s a major interior scene late in Jesse James when Ford attends an event hosted by the governor. How did you light the ballroom where that scene takes place?
The ballroom was actually a restaurant in a hotel, and it was a very big space. I couldn’t really rig much there, but they did let me put up a couple of lightweight ring-light rigs that I could hang from the ceiling. Those are basically concentric rings of household bulbs controlled by a dimmer. I hung the larger one over the governor’s table; that rig had a 10-foot ring of about 20 40-watt bulbs; an 8-foot ring with 60-watt bulbs; a 6-foot ring of 75-watt bulbs; and an inner ring with 100-watt bulbs. I also hung a smaller version of that rig off toward where the band was playing. It’s a quick, simple technique I use to create a big soft light when I don’t have any ceiling height. The rest of the lighting for that scene was provided by the little globe lights you see above the tables. For close-ups, I might’ve bounced a light off a piece of card.
Two scenes late in the film involve dramatic reflections. Just before Ford shoots James, the outlaw notices Ford’s reflection in the painting he’s dusting; in a subsequent scene where James’ corpse is on public display, the body is reflected in a photographer’s lens. What did you do to make those shots so sharp?
Both of those were just opportunities we noticed on the day. The shot of the corpse was storyboarded as a wide shot followed by a close-up of Jesse’s body being lifted into the frame. But when I noticed the reflection in the lens, I realized we could just track into it. People might think that shot is a CG effect, but it isn’t. We just built up the light level in the room to get the reflection. It was the same for the scene where Jesse is killed. The clear implication is that Jesse knows what’s coming, which makes his death a form of suicide.
After Ford kills Jesse, he and his brother go on tour with a theatrical show where they re-create the assassination again and again. How did you approach the lighting for those stage scenes?
That was done in a real theater in Winnipeg. The set was built with the light fixtures included, but I never got a chance to see the set before we got there to shoot. We were in the middle of the schedule, and we flew there on a Sunday and started shooting on Monday. I basically had one evening to take a look at it and have a talk with the designer. To me, the most important aspect of that scene was the footlights. Andrew had a very specific scene in mind where we would start on stage looking right at the footlights, which are so bright you don’t see the audience at first. The footlights were probably just 150-watt bare bulbs. I must mention that our Canadian gaffer, Martin Keough, was a real help in those situations. He seemed quite young, but when I interviewed him, I liked him, and I just hired him on a hunch. He was as good a gaffer as I’ve ever worked with, and the key grip, Rick Schmidt, was equally so. They were just brilliant. Lighting Jesse James was quite tricky because of all the practical work and the need to create that firelit feel without it looking fake.
You finished both of these pictures with DIs at EFilm. What kinds of enhancements did you make in post?
We did a bleach bypass on the negative for Jesse James, so part of the DI work on that film, which was done at 4K, was to counteract the harshness of that process in some scenes. But mostly I was using the process to balance things out, change the contrast a bit, and help things match for day exteriors. For instance, the campsite you see just before the train robbery in Jesse James was shot in one location with low sunlight, but the scene between Bob Ford and Frank James by the train tracks was done somewhere else at a completely different time. It was a really gray day, and although Andrew liked the fact that it looked a bit different, we couldn’t keep the two looks that far apart. Also, one scene was shot earlier in the schedule, so the leaves were much greener.
The most involved scene in No Country was the whole night-into-dawn exterior we discussed earlier. The DI was invaluable for that, especially for a bit involving a dog paddling down the river after Moss. One shot would be cloudy and the next would be in clean morning light, with reflections on the water. In the DI, I could use a Power Window to add a little highlight in the sky to create the impression that the sky was brighter and was reflecting in the water.
Before we started shooting Jesse James, I knew I probably wouldn’t be available to do the DI, so I shot a lot of test references that my timer, Mike Hatzer, could use to balance the film before I got to do it. I have to say, EFilm was fantastic. I was shooting [Revolutionary Road] in Connecticut, and they actually set up a whole system there so I could do the DI on evenings and weekends. At the same time, I was also timing In the Valley of Elah the same way, and last weekend I came back to L.A. to do the final grading of both films at EFilm with the directors. The downside of the DI is that you really need to be present when the work is being done. There are so many variables you can’t just leave it to others.
Did you screen dailies on both pictures?
I didn’t really get to see much in the way of dailies on either film, just the odd shot. I got three or four shots printed every day, one take, and I’d watch them on an Arri LocPro. On No Country, I set up the LocPro in the boardroom of our hotel, and when I got back in the evening I’d just spin through those few shots from the day before. For the first time, the Coens didn’t watch [film] dailies at all; they watched the scenes in HD. I just couldn’t do that; HD dailies put me off because they look so flat. It was the same with Jesse James. Andrew would sometimes catch up on a few scenes with me, but he mainly watched footage on HD tape. —Q&A with Deakins, American Cinematographer
The Team Deakins podcast is an ongoing conversation between acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins and James Deakins, his collaborator, about cinematography, the film business and whatever other questions are submitted.
The tables get turned on Team Deakins in this episode with Greig Frazer asking us the questions, focusing on the film ‘The Assassination of Jesse James.’ Greig asks questions on 7 clips of the film. There is a companion pdf with this episode (see the link below) that lists the approximate time these clips appear in the movie with images of the first and last frames. We get into specific breakdowns of these shots as well as talking about the experience of working with the director, the lyric nature of the book and how that influenced the film as well as the incredible music track from composer Nick Cave. Greig had done his homework and had plenty of questions for us! He led us through a great discussion of this film. Click here to download the companion pdf.
“If there is any movie that makes literal the killing of your former self and the acceptance of your permanent self, it’s this,” says Scout Tafoya in reference to Andrew Dominik’s acclaimed yet sorely under-loved 2007 masterwork, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is the focus of this nineteenth installment in the Unloved series for RogerEbert.com. Declaring it as the “most visually beautiful film of the last 30 years” (kudos to twelve-time Oscar-nominee Roger Deakins), Tafoya discusses the profound impact the film has had on his own life, upon turning 26. He also explores the film’s complex character dynamics, rich performances and haunting dialogue, while building a convincing case for the picture’s emerging status as a great American classic.
Nick Dawson interviewed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director Andrew Dominik for Filmmaker Magazine.
Did you write scripts for actors in collaboration with them?
No, not at all. I adapted a Jim Thompson novel called ‘Pop. 1280,’ and I always knew I wanted Woody Harrelson to play the part. And then the one that I came closest on was a Cormac McCarthy book called ‘Cities of the Plain,’ which is the third part of the Border Trilogy, which had strikes against it for that reason. All the Pretty Horses was not a beloved movie [laughs], and making a sequel to a film that had flopped was not one that was hugely appealing. And then the fact that I did not want to cast any movie stars in the film just made it all fall apart.
How did you first discover Ron Hansen’s novel of Jesse James?
I was in a second-hand bookstore with a friend of mine, a guy called Roland Howard; we would periodically go to the bookstore and look around for books. He pulled it off the shelf and started reading it. When ‘Cities of the Plain’ fell apart, he said, “You know, this thing would be good.” I read it and it seemed really strange and interesting.
What were the challenges in adapting the novel?
I dunno, it’s hard to say. You just go through it instinctively and try to work out the things that are important and the things that are going to create feelings, and then stitch those bits and pieces together. The book seemed to deal with one guy, Jesse James, who was really aware of his own mortality and suffering under the weight of his myth, and Robert Ford, who didn’t own the spot that he stood on and felt that if he were like Jesse he would be protected from his bad feelings about himself. So I guess I homed in on aspects of the book that really dealt with that. At the same time, it’s a really rambling, freewheeling messy story, and the other thing the book had was this sheer density of detail, which was something I found very appealing. It had this weird detached tone where you didn’t feel like you were inside the people, this feeling of remove which was also appealing. It seemed like a fully-formed, hermetically-sealed world, and the more I thought about it, the more interested I got in it.
You assembled a really great cast, with great underused actors like Casey Affleck, Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner in principal roles.
You see everyone you can, basically, and you wait for the [right] person to walk in the door. For me, I always enjoy a film more if I don’t know who the actors are because then I just accept them as their characters. I was aware of Jeremy because I’d seen him in Dahmer, but I hadn’t seen much of guys like Paul, Garret [Dillahunt] and Casey. Obviously with Robert Ford, it’s a huge advantage to cast an unknown, because of how Bob feels about himself. Not that Casey’s unknown, but he’s not really known.
How did Casey feel about taking on a role like this, and opposite someone like Brad Pitt? Did he feel pressure going into that situation?
I’m sure he did, mate, they all do. I think Brad felt pressured. They all really believed in the material and they really wanted it to be good, and it’s natural for actors to feel some anxiety, at least for the first week or so. After that, it becomes a grind, and you’re just kinda doing it. [laughs] But it’s always that three weeks leading up to shooting that’s a difficult time for actors.
What was your shoot like? The scope and length of the movie must have made it very arduous.
It was, and it was very much laying the tracks of the train while the train was running, and it was certainly daunting to think about when you thought about it as a whole thing. People were building houses and towns and shit like that. It was a very different situation from Chopper, where it was not as big. [laughs] But at a certain point, you just surrender to the process. The thing is, you start shooting, you start seeing dailies, it’s looking good, you start to feel reassured. And you just don’t think about it, and you’re so exhausted at a certain point you can’t really be anxious about it anymore, you just try and make it work each day.
Did your shoot overrun, as happens so often on movies like this?
Did we go over? Never. We came in under. You have to do that. You’ve got to be practical, and we didn’t even shoot a pick-up for the movie.
Does that mean that you lost certain scenes?
There’s some stuff we didn’t shoot, but there’s an awful lot more that we shot that isn’t in the movie. The movie was a lot longer at a certain point. I kind of feel like it’s part of the job to make the schedule. It’s not a huge budget movie, it’s not like your making a sequel for The Matrix or anything like that. Put it this way, it wouldn’t have been allowed—so you’ve gotta deal with it.
Terrence Malick seems an obvious reference point for the film, particularly his Days of Heaven.
Visually, certainly, because it’s just one of the most beautiful movies that’s set at the turn of the century, and it was shot in the same area [as Jesse James]. I guess the film that we thought about in our heads a little more thematically was Barry Lyndon. Those were the two movies. I’m a huge fan of Terry Malick, and the writing of the book seemed to suggest that kind of treatment.
Do you view this film as a western within the genre’s canon, or is it just its own thing?
I dunno, there’s all kinds of westerns. There’s revisionist westerns, and acid westerns, and those Nicholas Ray-type neurotic westerns. And then there’s John Ford westerns, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I think we thought of it more like that kind of a movie, like Pat Garrett. When you think of the western, usually you think of more of a simple morality tale; this is more the western as a Greek curse.
From what I’ve read, the film had a pretty troubled history since wrapping, and spent a year being test screened and recut.
The version that I liked was created before we started doing test screenings, and the final version bears considerable resemblance to that… I think previewing is a really good thing to go through, but the way that the data is analyzed is not necessarily helpful. It’s a strange film, not a very well-behaved movie, and it prompts a real extremity of reactions. People that fucking hate it, and people that love it. To me, that’s the sign that you’re doing something right, but to a corporation whose agenda is to appeal to everyone, films like this are tricky for them to accept.
How tough was it for you to go through that process?
It was hard, it was really hard. There was a variety of people who came in and had a crack at cutting the movie, but nobody could do any better.
What was the film that you made you fall in love with cinema?
The first movie I remember seeing is The Wizard of Oz, which had a big impact on me. It’s a funny one, because The Wizard of Oz is like an authorless text, because there were four directors that worked on the picture, but it’s a really amazing film, even to this day. I’ve been affected by many films: I think I liked Planet of the Apes movies when I was a kid, and then when I was around 14 I discovered art movies like Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman and 8 ½ and I thought that was all pretty cool, and then I got into Roman Polanski, and then it was Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, and then Terry Malick and—there’s just so many of them, so many good movies. It wasn’t like I saw 2001 and thought, “I have to be a filmmaker,” or anything like that. It took me six gos at 2002 until I suddenly realized it was a masterpiece—I always thought it was dull—and then I saw a 70mm print of it, and it was the most extraordinary experience.
What’s your tip for a movie masterpiece that the world has failed to recognize?
Most movies that are really good find an audience, but the one that I really like is that Jane Campion movie, Portrait of a Lady, which I think is just a fantastic movie and has never really [got the credit it deserves]. I don’t know what the perception of that film is now, but it was a big disappointment [to people when it was released]. But I love the film. I think it’s her best movie, hands down, and it was one that didn’t really go over and seems to have affected her confidence in some way. But I thought it was really good. Most of the movies I like are pretty uncontroversial. They might have been controversial when they came out, but they’re not now. Most movies that are great have become sacred cows pretty quickly.
In the case of Jesse James, are you managing to see that the initial critical reaction is not the final say on the movie?
It’s been a weird rollercoaster ride because last week we got a batch of reviews that came in: one was Andrew Sarris, and he was saying it was a masterpiece, and then we had People magazine saying the same thing. We thought, “Fuck, this is going to be great! We’ve got highbrow and lowbrow!” and it really looked good. And then the New York Times and L.A. Times came out and just slated it. So it’s been really interesting, because I think the critical response to the movie has been really polarized. It’s not universally liked, not by any stretch of the imagination, and those that dislike it really don’t like it! [laughs] So I don’t know if that’s a good sign or a bad sign. I remember when Raging Bull came out, the Variety review was warning exhibitors not to book the picture, so when the Variety review for us came out and it was really good, part of me was like, “Fuck, maybe I’ve done something wrong…” But when do films really shake out, when do we really know if they’re important or not? It’s probably not in their initial release. But by the same token, the first time I saw Raging Bull, I knew it was one of the great, great films and I felt the same way about Barry Lyndon, which I saw when I was 12. I thought it was really strange and slow and so unusual, but it affected me hugely. But I think the critical weighing in on it has only come together very recently. I even went and saw a screening of it at the end of last year at the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences] here [in L.A.], and my feeling sitting there in the theater was that most people were sitting there feeling like it was good for them to be there.
What’s your dream project? Is there something in the wings that you’re particularly looking forward to doing?
Well, Jesse James was a big one. At the moment, I’m kind of just exhausted. It would be great to do something like [Cormac McCarthy’s novel] ‘Blood Meridian,’ something like that. It’s a weird thing, in a way films choose you as much as you choose them. There’s been films that I desperately wanted to do that just haven’t come together, but I’m not really in a pick-and-choose type of situation. I guess what I need to do is work in a smaller price range.
What was the budget of Jesse James?
It was low thirties, something like that. I’m not sure what the final figure was, but we certainly drove our dollar.
Today $30 million is not exactly a huge budget.
It’s not much, but it’s in that weird spot: movies are generally over $70m or under $20m, and when you do something that’s in this price range it’s a hard one for the studio because they’re not sure if it’s an art film or… Well, I guess it’s an art film because it’s not a real commercial picture, it’s not trying to deliver the things that those movies generally deliver.
Finally, what’s the strangest experience you’ve had as a director?
I dunno, that’s a hard one to answer. It’s always kind of weird, you know? There’s a lot of stuff that goes on, a lot of fair weather behavior that happens where the world is your oyster, and then it’s kind of your ashtray. And I’ve been through that [laughs], but I’m not sure if that’s very weird. It’s pretty normal. It’s a fear trigger industry: there’s a lot of money at stake and there’s a lot at stake for a lot of people in the making of a movie. America’s a country where it’s very important to be successful. People treat failure like it’s some disease that they might catch, but you always have to risk failure to be really successful, at least artistically. You’ve got to be prepared to fall flat on your face, and that’s kind of a scary place to be. —Andrew Dominik, Last Man Standing
The original score of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, composed by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis. One of the best film soundtracks ever.
Dylan Tichenor, ACE, began working on films as an assistant to Geraldine Peroni (an American film editor) in the 1990’s. When Peroni passed away in 2004, Tichenor stepped to finish her work on Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Tichenor was first credited with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, for which he was nominated for a Satellite Award. Tichenor was nominated for two Oscars; one for his work on Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood and one for co-editing Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty with William Goldenberg, ACE. Some of Dylan’s other work includes Magnolia, The Royal Tenenbaums, Unbreakable, The Town, Doubt, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Whip It and American Made.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Photographed by Kimberly French © Warner Bros., Jesse Films Inc., Scott Free Productions, Plan B Entertainment. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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