What better place to talk criminality and economic collapse than the Waldorf-Astoria towers? That’s where I meet Andrew Dominik, the forty-five-year-old, New Zealand-born director of the low-life tragicomedy Killing Them Softly. The film, which opens this Friday, features Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini as two hit-men summoned to “restore confidence in the local markets” after two amateur crooks (played by up-and-comers Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) raid an illegal gambling den. Set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, Killing Them Softly cuts between Bush and Obama spouting sanctimonious speeches and the film’s own thugs who beat each other to human pulp. At least you can’t accuse Dominik of being subtle about his Wall Street/Main Street message. As we talk, I realize that the filmmaker, who looks like a cross between David Bowie and Aphex Twin, and sounds like a foul-mouthed Crocodile Dundee, has the same strung-out agitation, the same distaste of sugary bullshit, and the same chain-smoking habit as his motley cast of characters.
What genre is Killing Them Softly?
It’s either a screwball comedy or a film noir. But both are related. In one you play up the laughs, in the other you play up the drama. I guess I was trying to have it both ways.
Both your last film (The Assassination of Jesse James) and now this film feature ensemble casts of criminals. What draws you to that kind of story?
I’m not really sure. Obviously, I like character-driven stuff. I’m really interested in people who are at the extreme end of things. But Jesse James was a much more emotional film. At its most basic level it deals with anxiety and depression. This new film is—
Maybe just anxiety.
Well, it’s using its head a lot more than its heart, if you like. It’s almost a political cartoon. But what really hooked to me were the characters. All except for Brad are dealing with deep confusion and with masculine insecurity. My favorite scenes were Gandolfini being so fucked up, drinking his head off and too scared to leave his hotel room. It’s not really what you’d expect in a killer! But of course when you think about it––that must be what the consequences of crime are like. They have a great unhappiness and don’t now why they feel that way. And yet, they were the kind of people I wanted to spend time with.
Yeah. In a strange way they’re likable. What about the 2008 economic collapse, which runs parallel to the film’s drama? Was that always in there from the beginning, or did it just occur to you one day?
It occurred to me around the time when I thought I was gonna make the film. I started off just thinking I wanted to make a Boston crime movie—it’s kind of a sub-genre.
Like The Departed?
Yeah, Ben Affleck movies, Mystic River, there’s a whole bunch of them. But I realized the story here had a lot of parallels with what was going on in the world at the time. And I’ve always felt that the appeal of crime films is that, at their most basic, they describe capitalism. It’s the genre where everyone’s chasing a buck. People always describe Tony Soprano as a sociopath; but to me he seems like everyone I know! He’s got all these responsibilities, he has to deal with difficult people, and he’s just trying to make a buck…
I know with Jesse James there was a lot of disagreement between you and the studio about how much actions vs. dialogue to have in the final cut. What do you make of the whole “less talk, more rock” idea in American film?
I don’t get this attitude everyone has like they want movies to be short. If you show a movie to a test audience, it doesn’t matter how long it is, they’ll always say it’s too long. It’s like they’ve got something better to do. I remember when I was a kid and you went to the movies, you started getting depressed when you felt like it was coming to an end.
Have you seen the new Brad Pitt Chanel ad?
Um, I have (laughs). You’re gonna try and get me in trouble here.
Well I walked out from your film and I walked right into a billboard of a Brad Pitt. It was kind of a mind-fuck. But anyway, you’ve worked with him twice now. What is it about Brad Pitt, other than his looks, that makes him Brad Pitt?
The thing about Brad is that nobody knows him. He’s a really, really, deeply private person. We’re friends, you know, but I can’t tell what’s going on with Brad a lot of the time, and that’s a quality that he brings to the screen. We’re only really seeing the tip of an iceberg. He retains some essential mystery. I guess he’s unattainable.
Is this a film about Hollywood?
It is, yes. But it’s also a film about any corporation or group of people and how they organize themselves. It could be about Hollywood or it could be about the government. It could be about the mob…
Well anyone who has to deal with higher ups who are fuckin’ hopeless, you know.
Are the producers in Hollywood more like the lawyer in the car (Richard Jenkins) or more like James Gandolfini?
I think of the lawyer in the car as an agent. He was always described as the agent character and some of the dialogue that he says comes directly from my agent (laughs). The producers I guess are like the guys above–
Yeah, like the studio bosses. We don’t even see them, especially when the shit hits the fan. But I’m lucky to have a very good relationship with my producers. DeDe Gardner, who’s Brad’s partner, is fantastic. So is Megan Ellison. I’ve had a lot of good luck with producers.
Scoot McNairy in this film reminded me of Casey Affleck in Jesse James. They’re both vulnerable, likeable and deeply confused characters. What brought Scoot to your attention…?
One day Francine Maisler sent me a tape of this guy called Scoot McNairy. By the end of the tape I was in love. He did a couple scenes from the script and he was so fucking good, he was just a complete person. I finally auditioned him in person and all he had to do was not fuck up. In the audition he had to tell this long story about finally getting his hand on a girl’s tit and coming in his pants. It was this really disgusting story, and he was in a room with six women. When he got halfway through the story, he suddenly realized he was in a room full of women and he completely choked. But he recovered fast and he did the rest of the scene well. It’s the fastest I’ve ever cast someone in a part.
Scoot’s in a bunch of films right now–
Yeah, he’s doing real good. He’s not here cause he’s working at the moment. So I think there’s gonna be a lot of Scoot.
I have to ask you about Obama. You quote him a lot in the film. As a foreigner, what do you make of the Obama phenomenon?
Obviously, Obama’s the best choice. But when they talk about freedom in America what they really mean is the freedom to compete. So when Obama’s saying, we’re one people, I think he’s full of shit. I don’t think even he believes it. America is a fucked up place where to get elected it costs so much money that you end up being beholden to the interests of insurance companies who certainly don’t have the best interest of their customers in mind. I come from a country where we have free universal health care. It’s insane to me that people have to pay for insurance and then you end up getting cancer and you lose your house, it’s just fuckin’ insane.
You’re the first filmmaker in a while to call the emperor out on being naked.
Well Jefferson in particular was completely full of shit. How do you say all men are created equal and then your children are slaves? This film is partly about the difference in the marketing of America and the reality of America.
You live in LA now. On a day-to-day level, is there anything you like about the States? There must be something here that keeps you here.
Look, America did everything. America invented the light bulb, the telephone, the car, the movies, the record. I mean everything great came out of this incredible melting pot. The movie’s not really attacking capitalism so much as cronyism. It seems like America’s becoming a nation of middlemen. But you know, I live here, and I don’t like going home. I prefer it here. So I don’t have a problem with what the place is, I guess it’s the marketing of it. The idea of Americans needing to believe they’re such a great people. Australians don’t have that problem, it’s not so important to be good or right. I don’t actually understand the need to be right, the need to be morally right.