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Q&A: Andrew Dominik

This literary bent is at the very foundation of Jesse James, which is based on Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name and features extended voice-overs from the book that give the film a strange, storytelling dimension: “There’s was a wandering existence. Men who choose to be outlaws cannot stay in one place for too long. … Insomnia stained his eye sockets like soot. … Bob was certain the man had unriddled him. … It was as if he were preparing a biography of the outlaw, or as if he were preparing an impersonation.”

The tone of these voice-overs is recitative and solemn, like something lifted from the parables of the Bible. Dominik admits that “one of the big attractions for me was to recreate this hermetically sealed foreign world with an incredibly rich language” and surprises me by comparing Jesse James to Jesus. This spiritual dimension to the film clearly impassions Dominik and he launches into a discussion of how “Jesse is aware of his own mortality. I always imagine him like a dying person who is trying to protect himself, and yet also considering what’s beyond this life. If you’ve ever known someone who is dying, I think it’s a little like that.”

From the book and film’s giveaway title to this fatal spiritual flow within it, there’s little in the way of standard narrative surprises to Jesse James. For an American audience, it could be no other way when the story of Jesse James’ killing is so mythically familiar to them. “Tragedy in the classical Greek sense is based on the idea that we know what is going to happen anyway,” says Dominik.

As a result, atmosphere becomes as important as the story itself: There are numerous shots through rippled window glass, as if we are looking on another world; blurry auras around the edges of certain scenes like something from a rotogravure pictorial that seems to announce a new chapter in the film; stop-motion photography of clouds and windblown prairie grass; and a wintry soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It’s the predominance of this atmosphere that many find insufferably abstract, though Dominik has sown a line of counter-argument into the script itself when he has a gang character say “poetry don’t work on whores.”

The coldness of the film’s look certainly adds to the death-charge Dominik was looking for, as well as a pronounced contrast to the classic John Ford desert images of Monument Valley that we associate with most Westerns. This is a world of wooded forests and chilly winds and snow and ice and rain as well as encroaching town life.

Dominik is “not sure” how to explain his imagistic obsessions. “A film is an animal all by itself. The tone to the book gives you a feeling and you try to translate that into sounds and images,” he says. “The thing that surprised me when I last watched it was how much it’s a very relaxing sounding film. We were actually trying to create an aural atmosphere that was real and dreamy at the same time. We certainly spent a lot of time researching and thinking about what a soundtrack of the 19th century would sound like.”

“I also wanted a musicality to the film — to think of shots like notes on a score — so the pace is designed to lull you and relax you, and yet there’s this weird tension building,” he adds. To accentuate this ominous musicality, Dominik says “chunks of the film were cut to music, rather than music to film, so the music will play the film, it will play the weather and sound cold.”

Toward the end of the film, Nick Cave even makes an appearance as a barroom singer hammering out a version of “The Ballad of Jesse James” while an increasingly drunk and enraged Robert Ford looks on. Dominik says, “I’ve been a fan of Nick’s forever, since the first time I saw the Birthday Party. In the circles I grew up in in Melbourne, what they were doing, the Southern Gothic influence of writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, it was very influential, and added to an idea of the West as a Biblical place.”

When it comes to living there, however, Dominik feels that “Americans have a gap between how they see themselves and how they actually are. American entertainment is really concerned with questions of morality, but America as a country is really just a business,” he laughs sardonically. The idea that films like Jesse James and other New Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and the HBO television series Deadwood might be seen as an artistic reaction to the violence in Iraq is nonetheless dismissed out of hand. “Filmmakers just like making Westerns,” he says irritably.

It’s possible to argue that Chopper was, in an odd way, a contemporary Australian Western. But whatever genre you try and push Dominik’s obsessions into, one thing is clear: He likes outlaws, and he likes violence. Had he ever experienced much violence himself?

The question seems to throw him. “Only as a kid, but nothing special or unusual. I had a fairly safe, normal upbringing,” he says. “I’ve known violent criminals and spent time observing their behavior. … So, yes, once, with one of those people there was an incident.” Dominik pauses, changes gear, half excited, half annoyed. “It’s about drama. It’s storytelling! Someone needs to behave violently. And I think people like that are fascinating. They do extraordinary things that we don’t experience in a day-to-day way. That’s why we like to read about them and see them in films.” Then Dominik laughs again and gives me a final message: “Everybody needs a little violence in their lives sometimes — you know what I’m saying?”

Mark Mordue is the author of Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip (Hawthorne Books)



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