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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."
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