In the years since the 2007 release of Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” an even longer, deeper-realized cut of the 160-minute western has been a sort of holy grail for the film’s acolytes. Mostly that’s because of how within reach the possibility seems. This isn’t a six-hour “Thin Red Line” that can’t see the light of day by both reason and practicality. It’s something that already has the willingness of the director going for it and could just use a little support from the studio to be realized.
When he was making the press rounds for “Killing Them Softly” last year, Dominik was asked a handful of times about the possibility of seeing a longer cut, and particularly about a “mythical” four-hour version, which was revealed to have never been more than an early internal assembly. He admitted at the time that there were two other versions of the film that he could see distributed commercially. He also indicated that he’d be interested in going back to the film to produce those more complete visions.
That last bit is interesting. Here was a post-production experience with which Dominik was so disgusted once the film had been released that he never bothered to go down to the lab and pick up his personal answer print, the tangible proof of the hard work he had put into an unconventional but masterful piece of art. But Dominik holds no ill will toward Warner Bros. about how “Jesse James” came to be. He understands that when a studio hears “Brad Pitt/Jesse James,” that likely conjures very different images than what he ultimately produced.
Other filmmakers and editors, like Oscar-winner Michael Kahn, supervised alternative versions of the film for the studio that brought the opus down to as short as 100 minutes. But the movie wouldn’t behave at that length. “The studio wanted a version that would appeal to the widest possible audience,” Dominik told me in a recent interview. “They see that as the best movie, and there’s an argument for that.”
The two alternate versions Dominik had in mind are quite different, really. One is five minutes longer than the current cut with edits and slight changes throughout. The other stretches the running time to over 180 minutes. He prefers them “because they”re paced better,” he said, “and they include a couple of scenes that should have been kept, I think…
“[Like] this one scene between Bob and Jesse the night before the assassination. We call it ‘The Garden.’ They sit on the porch and talk and it was Brad”s best moment in the picture. I reckon he would have been nominated for an Oscar if we had that scene in the movie…It doesn’t work in a shorter version of the film, but in the three-hour version, it works great.”
Yet in keeping with the split reaction to the film overall, the first time “Jesse James” was test screened, half of the audience thought the “garden” scene was the best scene of the film, Dominik said, while the other half thought it was the worst. “So you end up in this situation where you’re taking the Pepsi challenge,” he said. “There really was so much material. And then, you know, sculpting it into a shape that really works was difficult. Cutting a film is hard to anyone but cutting that film was very difficult.”
Nevertheless, hope springs eternal that an expanded version of “Jesse James” could see the light of day. “It’s up to Warner Bros.,” Dominik said. “So I think it’s unlikely. But I’d certainly be up for making it. I”ve got all the drives and everything still. I could make those cuts in half a day.”
The 160-minute theatrical cut of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” will be revived at a special screening on Dec. 7 at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image.
(Check back Thursday for an extensive interview with Dominik on the experience of making the film.)