John Dahl directs You Kill Me, about Frank (Ben Kingsley), an alcoholic hitman who struggles to be sober and stay out of violence while dating his new girlfriend, Laurel (Téa Leoni). John Dahl has previously directed The Great Raid, Joy Ride, Rounders and The Last Seduction. I had the privilege to interview him.
IFC Films will release You Kill Me on June 22nd, 2007.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you assemble such a fine cast in You Kill Me?
JD: Making a film is all about opportunity. I guess the idea people have is that the director has some kind of ironclad vision, and they stand there at the stormy seas, at the helm and make decisions. And I mean, that's just so far from reality, at least from my reality. I mean there's a handful of directors that can do that, but also be careful what you wish for. The reality is – or my reality is – there are a lot of incredibly talented people, everybody wants to make a film, and if you create an environment where everybody feels like they can participate, and they can contribute, it's much better than dictating what you want to people, because then all of a sudden the attitudes drop way off. So part of it, one of the best things actually, for me, the best practice for being a director was when I was in high school I used to play in bands. You'd have four guys, you'd have to pick the songs, you'd have to practice, you'd have to pick a date, and then show up, play and get paid. It's a lot like making a movie. And with this film for example, we had Ben [Kingsley], and I thought I was a great part for Ben. I could totally see him as this sort of straight man in the middle of this movie. And that's why Tea was so essential, because if you remember Flirting with Disaster. I think she's so great at being this sort of damaged woman, just sexy and smart and has a razor sharp tongue. And the dialogue in the script for her I thought was great. And to be able to pull that off and still be able to – if you think about that scene where Ben Kingsley gets up and tells everyone he kills people for a living at the AA meeting – her reaction is just priceless. Hers, and also Luke Wilson's because he knows the secret ahead of time. And that's what makes the scene fun. I also had a really good editor that put the scene together and understands that yes it's the text, but the subtext of that scenes is really them reacting to it. So getting him as that straight person and then getting Téa [Leoni], that was essential. But then I think the next person we got was Philip Baker Hall, and I really don't know if I was expecting to get that well-known an actor to play a relatively small part. But then you could kind of start to see what happens again with I was saying about opportunity. All of the sudden when you have a date and you say, 'Okay in eight weeks we're going to be shooting this movie,' you find that a guy like Philip Baker Hall, to work with Ben Kingsley and Tea, it makes sense for him to do a small part in a film. And then we got Dennis Farina, and then you kind of start to see… Well, they're both funny. I think one of the first scenes we shot with Dennis, it wasn't scripted, but Dennis walks into the Polish bakery and sees Philip sitting there eating the cannoli, and he just picked it up and stuffed it in his mouth. And that was great, but 'Dennis you sure you want to do that 12 times,' and 'Sure, why not?' It added an intimidation, and it upped the stakes immediately. It was a little over the top, but I thought he could kind of pull it off. And it gave me that sort of feeling that you want to have to… Dennis Farina is so likeable, that we had to make him unlikeable, so that Frank could shoot him at the end of the movie, and not have everybody go,"Wow, they just killed Dennis Farina.”
NYC MOVIE GURU: Was that Steve Buscemi in a cameo inside the morgue?
JD: You know, it's so bizarre, because I never saw that. That's just an extra from Winnipeg, and when we started screening the movie for people, they started asking, “Is that Steve Buscemi?” I still don't get it, but it's not Steve Buscemi.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Was it helpful that Ben Kingsley is a seasoned actor?
JD: I think having Ben Kingsley, especially for quirky material, grounds people when you start to tell them the story. If you pitch a story in Hollywood, one of the things to do is say, 'Well, it's a story about a young guy – let's say, Matt Damon.' If you use an actor it's easier for people to kind of visualize it, because sadly, it's a visual medium but so few people are actually visual. And it's amazing to me, when I screen a movie for people for the first time that have just read the script, and they go, “I never…” Because yeah people have faces and they're going to be reacting, so there's this need to put in dialogue to explain everything. But a script for a lot of executives really doesn't compensate for the fact that, '”Wow, their faces are doing things too.'” It's like a revelation.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What influenced your choices for the stylish lighting and color used in You Kill Me ?
JD: Well I've been fortunate to have worked with [cinematographer] Jeff Jour for four films now. And one of my first loves of filmmaking was cinematography. And I probably would have been a DP, but everyone in my film school wanted to be a cinematographer, nobody wanted to direct, so I started doing that. I mean I really love photography, I really love the way movies look, but I want to give the movie a stylish look, but I don't want it to interrupt the movie. Which is kind of why if Steve Buscemi had said, “Hey, I'll play a corpse in your movie,” I probably wouldn't have cast him, because I wouldn't want that to be a distraction. So I kind of want to create a world that kind of allows the audience to enter this world. But, we play a lot with color in this. I like the kind of extremeness of the Chinese restaurant. And I don't think we necessarily planned that, but Jeff lit it that way, and I thought, “It looks great.” We did that in Joy Ride. We did a couple of scenes where we just have people bathed in red. I love when you have the excuse to bathe the room in one color just because I think it makes it more operatic. But if you can remember, there's a scene in Rounders where there [are] two guys in a gym talking and I think we just lit it with all yellow light. It just sort of breaks things up for me a little bit. And I also like that parts of the film are sort of garish and colorful, like some of the gangster parts. In all the scenes with the gangsters there is a sort of garish orange or sort of yellow.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you shoot in different grains?
JD: The thing was we had to steal all the shots of the San Francisco Bridge. Those are all green screen scenes, and the background plates were shot on HD, and picked up grain. So they're not film plates, and even some of the plates in the car are HD. So that's where you might have noticed some of the grain. NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you make alcoholism so funny in You Kill Me? JD: Laughing at alcohol, people just don't do it anymore. The only movie I can think of is Arthur. And I don't think we're really laughing at alcoholism, it's a component of the movie, but if you watch an old clip of like Dean Martin, these guys played drunk. Frank Sinatra would come out with a drink and a cigarette. That was the culture.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why do you direct mostly noir-ish films?
JD: I guess that's the stuff I'm more attracted to. I guess I like guy movies. This is about as romantic a movie as I'll ever probably make. And I like noir movies because they have stylish elements to them. I like that sort of world. If you think about movies that really work for you, the filmmaker creates a world where the characters can inhabit it, and nothing really pulls you out of that world, and I think that's a big part of directing. But, I like science fiction movies. I don't think that I would be that good at making them. I remember reading this script once and it was set in outer space and I thought, “Where d you start?” It ends up being junk running around in your head from other movies. And I find that reality sort of informs the creative process. It's like, in other words, the reality informs… I'm comfortable enough with the process that I don't feel like I have to dictate everything. So I'm much more comfortable now with what is the reality, what would that place really be, what would it really look like? I can take different characters and different people and sort of mix them up in a stew and still make it work, I guess. And so I'd much rather take reality than fabricate fantasy I guess.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you storyboard or make a shot list?
JD: I don't anymore. I remember talking to Jeff Goldblum, and he had just done one of those Jurassic Park movies, and I had to talk to him about a more “actorly” part, and so I think his agent had sent me to a screening and I thought, “Well, what do I talk to him about in this meeting?” And it was the one where he does a scene with Richard Attenborough, and I asked him, “What's it like to do a scene with Richard Attenborough?” And he said, “Well, it was kind of weird. We didn't rehearse. I just showed up on that day, and I think I shot half the scene, because Steven would say, 'Stand here.' And I would walk in and say the line. And then I'd stop. And then I'd come over here.” That's what we call triple-take technique, where you shoot a shot, then stop, then shoot a shot, then stop. And maybe Steven Spielberg can do that, but most people can't, because you'll never get the day finished. Me, if I had Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum, the last thing I'm going to tell them to do is tell them to stay by the window and say his line. I'd want to go in there with those guys and rehearse the scene and get their ideas. Because the only people on a set that care about the move are the actors and the director. Everybody else is just thinking about lunch, or when do we get out of here, or “that was great”, or they're going to do another take. It's a very workmanlike place. So the actor has to believe what they are doing. They have to believe that they are not just standing there wasting their time.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you like having the screenwriters involved?
JD: Yeah, because they care. The writers want the movie to be good. Most people are just like, '”re we done yet?'”
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do the screenwriters rewrite for you there?
JD: These guys were really busy, so we met with them ahead of time and we had a list of notes to go over. And they did some of the changes to accommodate the schedule. And I felt like we needed a little bit more in these two scenes, and basically Ben, Téa and I all loved the script, so we really didn't want to change it that much. We flew them in to do the big table reading, so everyone could hear the movie once, and read the script and that was it. Nobody really wanted to change anything. In fact there was one point where we were going to cast an actor, I think it was to play the part of Roman, and a very big actor wanted to play this part, but they wanted to rewrite part of the script. And we brought it to the guys and said, “We have a change to get that actor, but we have to change this.” And they said they really didn't get it that way. And I thought, “Why did they write it this way?” Because this is what happens in movies. Everybody just changes everything. In fact I learned that from Bill Pulman, one of my old drama teachers. And one of the great things about taking this script and seeing if you can make what's on paper actually work, instead of completely discounting it and rewriting it anyhow. Basically that's what happens all the time, people read a script and they say, “Okay, let's rewrite this.” There's absolutely no credit given to the writer or the writer's vision at all. And with this movie I thought, “I'm going to look like an ass going back to this guy and telling him that we like the script the way it is and we can't change it. Sorry to waste your time,” knowing he would go away. And ultimately we cast Philip Baker Hall in that part, which was a much better choice because the part of Roman needed to be beaten down, he needed to be a little older. One of the things that surprised me about the movie was that you actually cared about this guy by the time he gets shot.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like to shoot that intense gunfire scene?
JD: That was insane because in the original script, the guys just ended that scene with him setting the chair down and then cut. And there was no gunfight at all. And I thought you have to see Dennis Farina shoot and kill this guy, because you need to hate this guy by the end of the movie in order for Frank to kill him. And I thought the audience is going to kill me if I lead up to the gunfight and don't fire a shot. It just seemed to me like it was written that way. So I insisted that we have to have that, if it doesn't work we can always cut it out, but we have to have that fight. And the only way I could really think to do it was – because they weren't going to give me any more time – we basically shot everything in the house – because it's all about directions, because of the lighting, especially with night lights, so you back light it and shoot it this way, then turn around and shoot everything this way. And so we filmed everything going towards the door, and we basically just did two shots, did a couple takes of two shots, and then added all digital effects. So basically the actors stood in the doorway, which was great, because I could just have a gun right in their face without goggles and face protection and squibs and all that stuff, so I think we shot that whole gun battle in two hours.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How many digital shots are in the film?
JD: I think it was like 240 shots.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What kind of research was done to make the AA meetings feel authentic?
JD: One of the family members of Chris Markus, the writer, was in AA. And as a show of support, he went to an AA meeting with her. And when he came back he told his writing partner Steve,”You know, you can say whatever you want in one of these meetings, and you wouldn't believe what some people say. And supposedly it's all anonymous.” And so that was sort of the start of the AA scenes. And so that was Chris and Steve. When we started working on the film, I would have gone to an AA meeting to research it, but I felt that would be kind of sleazy, because I would be a filmmaker there kind of imposing on all those people. So we had some of our crew members who had been to AA. What was interesting was when we cast those scenes, we cast extras who were in AA, and they were excited that we were making a movie about something that had had such an impact on their lives.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What noir films are you a fan of?
JD: Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity I thought were great. I really like A Place in the Sun. [When] i'm watching Match Point, and I'm thinking, “God, he ripped off that movie.” But he got away with it, and it was just great. I loved it. The other one is Mildred Pearce. Really stylish, but it works. There's another Billy Wilder one, but it's hard to get. It's called The Big Circus. I don't know if you can consider that a noir movie, but it's a pretty damn good movie. And another film, not really a noir film, but I was shocked I hadn't seen it in film school, A Face in the Crowd, which I just recently watched.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Where did you go to film school?
JD: I went to Montana State, and then I went to school at the AFI.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Did film school prepare you for the real world of filmmaking?
JD: Not at all. I think I was more prepared for the real world by playing in a rock and roll band than I was going to film school. [In film school], they don't teach you how to deal with people. It's all pretend, and “Directors do this for this reason.'” And I remember there was this class at the AFI where they had this guy come in, he was a film historian, and he spent an hour and a half diagramming a scene from The Birds. And I just thought it was insane. Because I know Hitchcock would set up certain shots, and he would put his hand in front of the camera when he wanted to cut, and I heard all that stuff. But there's just a reality that's like, he probably put the camera here because the grip truck was in the way. I mean maybe it's just me, but I'm just a bit more cynical about it. But people make films, and they make choices, and being on a set is just chaos.