Q&A with "Killing Them Softly" Director Andrew Dominik

Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik has only made three films in the past twelve years, but they've all been fairly unforgettable from his early crime film Chopper, (which introduced Eric Bana to the world), to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a Western starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. 

Now Dominik is back with The Weinstein Company's Killing Them Softly, based on George Higgins' 1974 novel Cogan's Trade, and he once again got Brad Pitt on board to play Jackie Cogan, a hitman called in by the mob to clean up loose ends after the robbery of a high stakes poker game by two junkie punks. It's a gritty, dialogue-driven crime film in the vein of films by Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino but set in rural America, specifically in 2008 in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Question: The novel Cogan's Trade was set in the '70s and Killing Them Softly is set in 2008. Was that one of your early ideas to move it closer to present day?
Andrew Dominik: Yes, it's the story of an economic crisis. I was reading it at the time, and it was fixed in the fallout from the global financial crisis. It had parallels. You had an economy that was supported by gambling. You had it collapsing because of inflated regulations, and you had people dealing with not only the problems themselves, but people's perception to the problem, so it's certainly a political story. Then it's the basic idea that the mob is just a government for criminals, and that crime itself is maybe just the most native form of capitalism. It's the most unvarnished form of it and it seemed like an opportunity to point out all those parallels, to make almost, if you like, a sub-conscious crime film or maybe a pretentious crime film, but all that stuff just seemed too good to ignore.

Q: Is it harder to get financing for a movie like that when you're dealing with subjects to the fore that affect people who finance movies?
Dominik: Look, I came up with the obvious, it's a $15 million Brad Pitt movie. I mean, people actually liked the story. When you told them, it was entertaining and kind of goofy and Brad made it easier.

Q: Were you able to find the right actors to play the colorful characters?
Dominik: Well, I wasn't sure whether the movie would reflect film noir or screwball and it doesn't really matter - both those genres are very similar. My idea was to cast it like an old '40s picture and to go with types, so they're cartoonish. You've got the fat guy, you've got the goofy-looking skinny guy, you've got the sweaty junky Australian guy. They're all instantly recognizable types as of course is James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta and also Richard Jenkins as a mob lawyer, whose got the most mob lawyer-ish face you've ever seen. Brad is the kind of fixer, it's all very typecast. We might use some of those audience perceptions against them, as the situations play out, but pretty much we're starting from, it's cast like an old studio picture, where Walter Brennan always plays the grizzled alcoholic or Burgess Meredith is the boxing coach, you know?

Q: James Gandolfini had already done "The Sopranos" – was he hesitant about playing another gangster? 
Dominik: Yes. I think Jim was, but from the sound of things, Jim is hesitant about any part he takes, but I don't know. I guess he kind of looked at his charactar here, Mickey, as almost an upside down version of Tony Soprano. I feel like Mickey's a different character, but that part's hard for Jim because it's only a two-scene part, but you really have to put an awful lot of work into creating that character for two scenes because they're such elaborate scenes. I mean, really what he's doing is he's playing a middle-aged guy who's heartbroken and confused, and I think that's probably the way he looked at the part rather than seeing him as a gangster.

Q: My favorite scenes are the ones where James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins interact with Brad which are very dialogue-driven and it's all about storytelling. Was a lot of that the tone taken from the book? 
Dominik: Yeah, that was the thing I was trying to preserve from the book. Alfred Hitchcock's famous quote is that he doesn't want to make movies that are photographs of people talking, but Higgins is just essentially creating these people that are singing these kind of arias about their lives and their attitudes. He's got little pieces of plot sort of cut intermittently away inside these monologues. But that was very much the thing that I was trying to preserve, was almost a little movie that was all completely through dialogue. A lot of the action, like it happens off-screen. What we're really doing is we're looking at these people. We're spending time with people, and we're seeing who they are, I guess.

Q: Has the movie changed a lot since Cannes or is it pretty much the same movie once you finished it and that was it?
Dominik: Well, it was difficult to sort of feel like it was balanced because you do have a lot of character stuff. A lot of the character stuff is about people we don't see. There's a lot of men talking about women, very confused or heartbroken or their masculinity is disturbed in some way. There's all that stuff going on and there's the plot. If you cut it down to what moves the plot forward, you end up with a very thin movie. If you allow too much of the talk about stuff that's not directly relevant to the plot to go on, it spins into a kind of soup so it was difficult to get all that stuff balanced. I mean, a script is always just like a prayer of the film that you want to make. You know that you're going to then deal with the reality of it all once you've shot, so a lot of stuff was cut out, but it was always known that a lot of stuff was going to be cut out.

(“Killing Them Softly” will be shown exclusively at Ayala Malls Cinemas – Glorietta 4, Greenbelt 3 and Trinoma -- starting Dec. 5.)
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