Director Andrew Dominik’s film title may be a mouthful, but anyone who reads it will certainly sit up and take notice. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has already earned accolades from critics world over. Chosen as an official entry at the recently concluded Dubai International Film Festival, the movie has been short-listed as a hot favourite for next year’s Academy Awards. But not all the critics are being quite so generous.
Dominik (pictured above) tells Emirates Business why a slow-paced film like Jesse James is still pulling in the crowds, and the money.
Why do you think Jesse James still interests us?
Jesse James was the most famous man in America and nobody knew what he looked like and they couldn’t catch him. So, I’m not surprised his story has endured.
In one of the first films made about him, he was played by his own son, Jesse James Jr.
Your version of the story seems contemporary: the story of a star-struck fan and the hero who disappoints him. It’s almost torn from the tabloids.
Exactly [laughs]. You think of Jesse James and you think of the old West, but that era also marked the beginning of the mass media and news photography. Jesse sold newspapers in his time. So, in terms of human behaviour you realise that we have not changed over the years.
How would you explain the intense relationship between James and Ford?
I didn’t think of it as a love story, but it has parallels in the way that people project their idealised image onto someone else and fall in love with that. Bob’s very enamoured with Jesse; it’s an infatuation almost, and he ends up being very disappointed by him. Jesse doesn’t match his fantasy.
And Jesse is a person who is susceptible to flattery. He wants to feel better about himself, but I think he gradually comes to understand that he’s being adored for an image that has absolutely nothing to do with who he really is.
Did you end up feeling any affection for either of the characters yourself?
For Bob and Jesse? Yes, I love them both! I feel really strongly about Bob. I think he’s brave and he’s the innocent here who doesn’t know what he’s getting into.
Contrary to the image of him after the assassination, he’s also reluctant to do what he does.
Brad seems perfect as James.
It’s Casey who looks an awful lot like Bob Ford. There’s a famous photograph taken of him just three days after the assassination and he’s just a kid. As for Jesse, he looks different in every photograph. Brad’s definitely better looking than Jesse.
Does Brad’s connection with the character have anything to do with the fact that he’s as famous in our day as James was in his?
Brad’s real famous and understands what it’s like to be hunted. It’s also true that if you are making a film in Hollywood or even independently, you also have to come up with a story where the character is big enough for a movie star to play him. Brad as Jesse just worked.
Casey Affleck makes a real impression as Ford. What made you think of him for the role?
We auditioned a lot of people and Casey came in and he was amazing the first time he tested. He’s just got this aura of defeat that Ford had about him, the sadness and insecurity, and also this weird flipside of bravado.
The interesting thing is that I’ll always bring people back because some people are good auditioners. Casey is best when he thinks he’s losing, and he came in and it was as if he sang an aria, and it was his part. But I got him back, so now he knew he had a chance and he was choking. We just kept bringing him back.
Did you look at Western films as a point of reference while making this film?
I looked at films like McCabe & Mrs Miller and Heaven’s Gate but I didn’t really think of this film as a Western. I mean, they ride horses, but that’s about it. This film is like a gangster drama. Brad calls it psychological.
People might expect a shoot ‘em up, but this isn’t that kind of film, is it?
Personally, I don’t like movies that curry favour with the audience. All the movies I like are ones that don’t come to the audience but expect the audience to meet them halfway. As a director, you should make a movie that you want to see yourself. I think a movie should hit you in the pit of your stomach.