Exclusive: ‘Jesse James’ director remembers embattled production as revival screening looms

The production of the Warner Bros. western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a unique entry in the annals of cinema history. The studio had been courting Andrew Dominik for some time, eager to work with the director of 2000’s “Chopper,” and he had a gem of a project for them to consider: a film about the outlaw Jesse James, based on a dense novel he found at a second-hand bookstore in Melbourne, Australia, with Brad Pitt in the iconic role.

Surely the studio saw dollar signs. Brad Pitt as Jesse James? It must have felt a few steps removed from a Batman movie. Batman in the wild west. But what Dominik had in mind wasn’t a Batman movie. It was a deeply ponderous, Malickian thing that would speak to themes of celebrity and a dying age. This would not be Jesse James in his prime. This would be, as the title lays bare, the end of a legend, and all the artistry such an unconventional take on that legend would suggest.

Once the film made its way to the editing room, what would have been a nine-week process stretched to nine months. The studio wanted something palatable to the broadest audience. Dominik wanted something much more enduring than that. So the film’s post-production life became a nightmare. Dueling versions of the movie stretching from 100 to 180 minutes were tested for audiences who themselves were split on the various arrangements, but the film was very specifically shot and just wouldn’t behave under a certain length. Dominik was finally able to achieve something close to his ultimate vision of the project at 160 minutes. That version went to the Venice Film Festival where Pitt won a Best Actor award and soon it hit the marketplace, becoming an instant masterpiece for some, a dead-on-arrival misfire for others.

But the passion of its supporters has won a small victory as the film, seemingly in need of a revival just six years after its initial release, will be resurrected on the big screen for a Museum of the Moving Image event in New York on Dec. 7, programmed by museum member Jamieson McGonigle. From there, the hope is that it will take off on the repertory circuit and finally experience the big screen life so many feel it deserved the first time around.

However, while the 2007 theatrical release of “Jesse James” was halfhearted, with very little spent in the way of marketing a picture Warner Bros. saw as more of a headache than anything by that time, Dominik holds no ill will toward the studio and in fact understands the perspective. He feels fortunate that he was able to make more or less the film he wanted to make; he just had to learn a number of hard lessons along the way.

“Back then I think I was naïve,” Dominik says now. “I thought that if you just make a really good movie, people would go see it. There were those who loved the film and really championed it. Then there are other people who, you know – someone said it was the first book on tape as a movie or something. But ‘Jesse James’ is the thing that I”ve done in my life that I”m most proud of. I think the movie”s really good, and it made me feel like you”ve got to put everything into a movie. I don”t want to do any more movies unless I”m just terrified to do them like I was when I did that film.”

A way with words

Dominik, who will be in attendance at the New York event for a post-screening Q&A, was instantly mesmerized by Ron Hansen’s 1980 novel. The language in particular was something that drew him in. It was a book rich with detail and that was the hook for the director, who also penned the screenplay adaptation. The goal was to tackle the western genre from a unique angle, to tell a Victorian story more elegiac than adventurous.

“The thing about Ron”s book was that it was incredibly dense,” he says. “And it was written in that 19th Century style; I mean, he kind of wrote in that strange sort of King James-type language. I always think that people reveal a lot by how they organize language. It was something that was very important, that the movie captured that, that feeling of destiny and density and predestination.”

That sort of aural signature extended to the decision to use a narrator on the film, reading through passages of Hansen’s novel as if it were a lullaby. But the voice present in the film wasn’t the first choice for that element. In fact, Dominik originally intended the narrator to be a female. He tried a litany of voices, looking for the right touch, including a fair share of famous ones. But he never could settle on what he was after.

During the post-production process, Hugh Ross, an assistant editor on the film, recorded the narration as a scratch track (a rough placeholder to be supplanted later). In fact, part of the reason editor Dylan Tichenor hired Ross as an assistant was because of his voice, knowing that it would be good for the scratch track. In the end, after trying a number of different female versions, nothing was as haunting and perfect for the film as what Ross delivered.

“He just owned that,” Dominik says. “Somehow when he said those words, they really worked. The other thing, too, was that when Nick [Cave] recorded the music, the voice that he kind of set the music to was Hugh’s voice. So it sort of really worked with the score…Warner Bros., of course, were horrified that we were going use an editor as the narrator. They wanted, like, I don”t know, the guy – ‘in a world,’ ‘in a time.’ For the trailer they got somebody like that to re-record Hugh”s voice-over because they hated it so fucking much! But anyway, Hugh eventually got the job and when we took him into a proper recording studio to record the voice-over, he was terrible! We ended up just using the scratch tracks that were recorded on the Avid.”

This love affair with voice was also partly what landed Casey Affleck the role of Robert Ford. “He’s got such a beautiful-sounding voice,” Dominik says, noting that he actually casts actors more for how they sound than how they look. “The voice is the thing that really gets you,” he says. “It”s really important how a movie sounds, I think – almost more important than how a movie looks – if you want it to work on you emotionally. All of those actors sound really good. And Brad [Pitt], obviously, he’s from Missouri, so he can do it.”

Creative sparring

Speaking of Pitt, in the movie star, Dominik not only had an actor but a producer, a creative partner to spar with. “Jesse James” was Pitt’s baby early in the life of his “garage band of a production company,” as he calls his Plan B Entertainment shingle. And as a producer, the star has made it a habit to work with unique talent, from Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”) to Rebecca Miller (“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”) to Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”).

“Those are the kind of movies Brad always wanted to do,” Dominik says. “He loved the movie as much as I did and he was as passionate about it as I was. And that production company has certainly become one to envy in terms of the movies that they”re making and have made.”

Pitt saw in the project an opportunity to explore a mythology close to his Missouri roots. He was sold on the collaboration with Dominik over two bottles of wine and was eager to work on a project such as this following a string of commercial Hollywood plays like “Troy,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and the “Ocean’s” franchise. He even stipulated in his contract that the studio could not change the lengthy title of the film.

Nevertheless, during post-production, the two certainly butted heads over the direction of the film. They fought quite a bit and “it got very volatile,” Dominik says, “because we both believed in it. It was all kinds of fighting. We’d get shitty and send each other nasty texts and we”d argue. We had our ups and downs.”

By the end of the process, “I think we were all kind of beaten up by the film,” he continues. “We finished that movie like three days or four days before we went to the Venice Film Festival with it and I think by then we were just all so sick of it.”

Indeed, Dominik confides that he was so disgusted by the end of the process that he never bothered to head down to the lab and pick up his answer print of the film.

“But ultimately, you know, I”ve got nothing but respect for Brad,” Dominik says. “Brad and I are friends. He”s a very talented man and he”s an extraordinary person. And I don’t think he’s unhappy with the movie at all. I think he’s got a movie that he”s proud of.”

A resurrection

It’s clear that “Jesse James” is a film that has lingered heavy in Dominik’s portfolio. He has taken a lot from the experience – plenty of memories, good and bad – and certainly been considerably shaped by it. But when a 28-year-old television editor in Queens started the ball rolling on a big revival screening of the film with Dominik in attendance for, of all things, the young man’s bachelor party, Dominik was a bit taken aback.

“It was really strange,” Dominik recalls. “I felt like maybe he should just get some strippers and an eight ball instead of ‘Jesse James,’ you know? And then it turned into something else.”

That “something else” was McGonigle’s desire to see the New York event kick-start a big screen revival of the film on the repertory circuit. And already requests are flying in left and right for him to take the program to Grand Rapids, Tuscon, you name it. A second screening (without Dominik) has already been added in New York for Dec. 8 and a Los Angeles date with Dominik in attendance will be announced in the near future.

“I think ‘Jesse James’ is a movie that really benefits from being on the big screen,” Dominik says. “And I love the idea of it having some sort of a life on the big screen, like it would become the sort of movie that people would program or something like that. It would be fucking great!”

The screenings, however, will be of the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) rather than the actual 35mm print the diligent McGonigle tracked down and purchased through a Chicago seller before getting in touch with Dominik. According to the director, the DCP is much closer to what he and cinematographer Roger Deakins intended.

“What most people see are release prints, which are a generation down from the answer print,” Dominik explains. “They just don”t look nearly as good as the answer print, which doesn’t look as good as the DI [digital intermediate]. I”m assuming they made the DCP from the DI, and if they did, it will be an absolute perfect 100 percent representation. It’ll look stunning.”

And that matters, of course. For all of Dominik’s inclination toward sound, “Jesse James” is a visual marvel. Deakins was Oscar-nominated for his work on the film, having turned out iconic frame after iconic frame throughout its 160-minute running time. One can only imagine the place those images will have once the film stands the test of time, the hazy back-lit image of an outlaw at home alongside Bogart and Bergman on a Moroccan tarmac, Gene Kelly clutching a rain-soaked lamppost or a crop duster giving Cary Grant chase through a desolate cornfield.

No hard feelings

As the New York revival looms, Dominik remains an intensely pragmatic man regarding the fallout of the film’s initial release, and he suffers no exaggeration of the situation. Indeed, he consistently makes it clear that, while he’s thankful for the fan support of his embattled movie, the idea of Warner Bros. as an evil entity trying to suppress the vision of an artist is at best a facile interpretation of things.

“It’s much more complex than that,” he says. “The thing that nobody realizes, really, is the jobs that those guys have. My experience with Warner Bros. was not great, but my experience with Jeff Robinov, who was the boss at the time, was a good one. I found Jeff to be completely straight in all of his dealings with me. His point of view did not seem to me to be an unreasonable one. It was just a bad marriage of material and studio.”

But bad marriage or not, there’s no way “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” would have been what it is without the resources the studio brought to the table, he clarifies. The problems that arose had, in Dominik’s opinion, as much to do with his own naiveté as anything on the Warner Bros. side. And he can’t really fault anyone on that level for the decisions they made along the way.

“I think that when things came to the crunch, they behaved well,” he says. “I got to make my movie. And I got to basically release my movie. Now there was a lot of fighting that went on to get to that place, but in the end, you know, they let me have the movie that I wanted and they took a $30 million dollar hit on it, you know? Movie studios aren”t going to stay in business doing things like that. So I have to say I sympathize with their point of view. I really do.”

The Jesse James Revival is set for Dec. 7 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.