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Interview: John Dahl

You Kill Me, now out in a limited release from IFC films, is a welcome return to independent filmmaking for director John Dahl, who made a name for himself with films like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, but has recently focused his talents on direction major studio releases like Joy Ride and The Great Raid.

You Kill Me, now out in a limited release from IFC films, is a welcome return to independent filmmaking for director John Dahl, who made a name for himself with films like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, but has recently focused his talents on direction major studio releases like Joy Ride and The Great Raid.

Ben Kingsley (Sexy Beast, The House of Sand and Fog) stars as Frank Falenczyk, a hitman for the Polish mob operating out of Buffalo, NY, fighting a losing battle with alcoholism (ironic for those who remember Kingsley guest-starred as himself on an episode of The Sopranos opposite their resident 12-stepper, Christopher, who was pitching Kingsley a script for an indie crime/horror film). When Frank botches a hit on the rival Irish crime boss (Denis Farnia — no stranger to organized crime himself, having played in Get Shorty and Snatch), his uncle Roman (Philip Baker Hall) sends him to San Francisco to get sober. He attends AA, works part time in a funeral home, and begins a relationship with Laurel (Tea Leoni), a career woman whom he meets are her step-father’s funeral.

Part black comedy, part romantic comedy, and part thriller, Dahl is effortlessly in control of the film, striking a perfect balance between the multiple tones of the plot and avoiding the pitfall of the film becoming a second generation Analyze This, and creating something more subtle, serious, and much more interesting to watch.

I had the chance to speak with Dahl while he was visiting New York promoting the release of You Kill Me.

John Dahl

Q: One of the points Ben Kingsley made about this film was having the other characters give him something to work off of, which seems to be something you do frequently in your films – set up the characters to work off each other. Is that something you look for?
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, 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 Tea, 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, ‘Awwww, the just killed Dennis Farina.’

Q: How did Steve Buscemi end up in a cameo in 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.

Q: That’s one thing that, you are known as an actor’s director – actors like to work with you because you give them a good form. Look at the range of actors you’ve worked with, like when we mentioned Rounders before – Matt Damon and Ed Norton. But you give people a chance to play around with quirky roles, with interesting roles, and you also like to discover people with new scripts, too, and combining the two.
JD: Yeah, I’ve been real fortunate to do three films with people’s first time scripts. And what’s great about that is they’re so fresh and they’re not sort of programmed yet.

Q: But then you get seasoned actors who get a change to play around with that.
JD: I think there’s something fresh that people… again, I think that sort of once… it’s interesting, because had I gotten that script myself and liked it, and then gone out and tried to cast it, it would have been interesting. But I think having Ben Kingsley, especially for quirky material, it 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.

Q: Do you think they’re finally accepting you as this quirky and interesting director who can bring together this ensemble of actors who can make something out of it that people wouldn’t expect, or do you find you keep having to tread the same ground to get them to understand what you are doing.
JD: You know, I don’t know how people perceive me. But it’s like my little world is so small between work, and I’ve got four kids, and I’m busy doing that. And it’s like I only kind of crawl out of my hole now and again to release a movie, and then I go back in. But I’m not sure what people think. I’ve done different things.

Q: But obviously as a director you’ve gotten the process down more. Does that make it move more smoothly for you?
JD: Yeah. Well, the last tow films I did were studio films and they were so slow and they took so long. And it’s just like, I look at the films that I’ve done and I just feel that I’d like to make more films. It’s a process that I understand so much better now, having had the actual experience of making films for the past 20 years. I’d really just like to make a lot more films.

Q: I’m curious about your choice of lighting, for example the scene where Ben and Tea go on a date you use a lot of red, and then the scene with Bill Pulman in the apartment, you use a lot of yellow. What influenced those choices?
JD: Well I’ve been fortunate to have worked with Jeff Jour for four films now, he’s the cinematographer. 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… 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. That to me, I love that, 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’s 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.

Q: Did you shoot in different grains? Some scenes appeared grainer than others.
JD: Probably. 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.

Q: Your films tend to have a gritty, rooted-in-reality quality to them. Do you ever want to go somewhere other than that. Musical, for example, or science fiction? You’re work tends to have a noir-ish quality to it.
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.

Q: But this film is rooted in a subculture. You seem to like subcultures too, even the military film, there’s a subculture there, there’s this whole self-contained community. Do you think that’s something that attracts you? I’d say in a lot of your films that seems to be the case. Rounders had that too, the gambling culture.
JD: I guess it’s like… I remember one of my favorite books as a kid was the S.E. Hinton books, The Outsiders. And I remember I read that book as a kid, and actually I was a little disappointed with the movie, because it was too slick for me. Remember the Coppala movie? But then there was… what was the other one that he did, the… Stuart Copeland did the soundtrack for it, it was in black and white… which was much more the way… what was that?

Q: Was it Rumble Fish?
JD: Rumble Fish, that’s it. Thank you. Which I thought had a much better look to it, and which I thought was a better movie. Then there was that other movie… it was like a gang in New York, it’s like 20 years old now…

Q: The Warriors?
JD: Yes. And also probably my favorite movie of all time was A Clockwork Orange. So like this tight knit gang of… I don’t know why I like that.

Q: 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, it’s one of my favorites. And then Woody Allen, 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. Have you seen that one, where it’s a newspaper reported in Albuquerque, New Mexico? 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.

Q: Where did you go to film school?
JD: I went to Montana State, and then I went to school at the AFI.

Q:  And how did film school prepare you for the real world?
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.

Q: Or the real world of filmmaking?
JD: Yeah, because 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. And you might have a couple of shots designed.

Q: So do you storyboard, do you make a shot list…
JD: I don’t anymore. I remember talking to Jeff Goldblum, and he had just done one of those big Spielberg dinosaur 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 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 what makes a scene real… 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.

Q: 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, ‘Are we done yet?’

Q: Do they ever 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, Tea 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, he needed to be… and that’s one of the things that surprised me about the movie, was that you actually cared about this guy by the time he gets shot.

Q: How did you shoot that scene? Because that was a crazy couple seconds of gunfire.
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.

Q: How many digital shots are in the film?
JD: I think it was like 240 shots.

Q: Was any of the weather done digitally?
JD: On a low budget film you don’t get any second chances. So that scene when he’s drunk inside the car and it crashes into the dumpster. And for a low budget movie, it’s a stunt and takes at least four hours to do that. And we have a scene where he wakes up that morning, which would have been kind of fun – maybe we would have cut it out anyway – but basically he crashes into the dumpster and it cuts and now you see that parking lot and it’s the morning. And the parking lot is filled with BMWs and Volvos, except for one spot. And this woman pulls in and she stops. And she starts laying on her horn because it’s an arrogant full-of-shit San Francisco person honking her horn because there’s a homeless guy sleeping in the parking space, and anyway he stands up and it’s Ben Kingsley, and he stands up and moves and she parks. And that was a pretty funny scene, but we’re standing there filming that scene at night, and we’d finally got the van smashed into the dumpster and we get over and we’re doing the shot of Ben and Jane in the car, and we finally get the shot of her husband in the doorway, and it’s the plains of Northern Canada and you can see this thunderstorm coming for about twenty minutes. And all the locals say, ‘We’re gonna get drenched.’ And you can just hear it rumbling off in the background, this huge thunderstorm coming toward us. And sure enough we get those two shots and it’s a downpour. And we’re just standing there thinking we’re not going to get anything else shot tonight. And we thought, ‘Maybe we can just get Ben Kingsley to lay on the pavement, and we can get a shot of the truck driving away and leaving him in the rain.’ And so we set up the shot, and the assistant director is laying in the rain getting drenched, and we brought Ben Kingsley out and said, ‘We can get out of here if you lay in the rain.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ [laughs] It kind of reminded me of the movie Ed Wood – not that Ben Kingsley is like Bella Lugosi at all – but there’s that scene where Bella Lugosi had to wrestle the octopus in the pit. But he was very gracious about getting soaked in the rain. And that ended up being that scene and we got out of there. All the snow is digital, the only real snow in the movies is when he’s shoveling out the walkway. The rest is snow blankets. You set those up and you can paint in the snow digitally.

Q: What kind of research did you do in regards to the AA meetings? Ben Kingsley said he was impressed with the level of detail…
JD: The writer, Chris Markus, one of his family members 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 casted 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.

Q: There are a lot of films about addiction, but this one shows it in a somewhat different context, with a killer trying to beat addiction, and also juxtaposing it with humor.
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.

Q: Over the years, do you find studio execs continue to be risk-averse, or…
JD: Risk-averse. It’s very clear. It’s like, if you go into a corporate culture, which is what a studio is, they’re these big hug organizations. They have… I mean, I really don’t have a boss, I’m like a freelance drywaller, or an independent contractor. I have to deal with them for nine months to a year, or a year and a half, and then I’m gone. That whole sort of corporate culture… and they have to interface with artists, and at first when I used to do music videos, I was stunned at, the contempt in a way, that labels had for their artists. And I don’t think that’s news to anybody…

Q: It’s true though…
JD: It is true, isn’t it? It’s like, ‘We want to sell stuff, and why can’t you make us a hit movie, damnit?’ So there’s this tendency to… pick any one of these guys and they’ve got this lot and this huge overhead and they’ve got to keep feeding it with material, and the problems coming up with material. And the artists and the process, that just sort of gets in the way. And that’s why independent films are so much more interesting. They really are people that are willing to take a chance.

Q: Once you’ve made a film, and you’ve had the experience, where do you go with it? Do you want to make another film right away?
JD: Well, I have this script now which I’m trying to cast. And it’s a murder mystery, but it’s a thriller and it deals with alcoholism and a 12-step program. And it’s not funny at all. But part of me is thinking… it’s a pretty good script and part of me is thinking, ‘How do I follow up a funny movie about AA with a really creepy, scary movie about AA?’ But now fortunately I can think about things like that, how it will be perceived, and I know I’ll have to sit in a room like this. But really it’s just trying to find something that is a good story that I feel I can lend something to it.

IFC Films releases You Kill Me in theatres on friday June 22nd. 

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