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Capone With Director John Dahl About YOU KILL ME, PUNISHER 2 (Or Not PUNISHER 2), And More!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. There was a time just as the 1980s were wrapping up and the '90s were beginning that director John Dahl was something of a Second Coming to lovers of crime dramas. His holy triumvirate of KILL ME AGAIN, RED ROCK WEST, and THE LAST SEDUCTION brought on a micro-revival of film noir-like films where the villains were often far more interesting than the hapless heroes, and femme fatales again ruled the screen. Dahl has also made one of my favorite films about card players, ROUNDERS, and one of the great stalker-behind-the-wheel thrillers, JOY RIDE. His latest work is called YOU KILL ME, and it's one of the single darkest comedies I've seen in years. It's also a clear return to the type of film and form that made Dahl so exciting in the first place. This film makes a hero and love interest out of an alcoholic hitman (played impeccably by Ben Kingsley), and it even makes actors I've gotten tired of in recent years (Luke Wilson, Tea Leoni) seem fresh and exciting. Above all else, John Dahl is a student of cinema, and I think that comes through in our conversation. Oh, and mild SPOILER WARNINGS throughout, although I don't think John or I give away anything crucial. The first question and answer tell a little bit about the film's ending, but nothing to take away from your enjoyment of the film.

Capone: Even thought I saw the film two or three weeks ago, the lasting image I have from YOU KILL ME is Ben and Tea watching backwards down the hill in San Francisco [she tells him walking backwards down a steep hill is better for the calves or shins or some leg muscle]. They do it a couple of times in the film. I feel like that image is important to the character of Frank because the symbolism of taking smaller steps for the greater good is what Frank learns to do in this film. Or maybe I'm reading too much into those moments... John Dahl: No, absolutely not. That was not scripted. We had an ending with Frank just getting his chip [from Alcoholics Anonymous], and I didn't just want to cut to black from that. I thought it would be great as sort of a summation of the movie--actually I wanted to get the Golden Gate Bridge behind him, but the location where we were shooting, we couldn't get from one part of San Francisco to shoot one shot and then back to do the other one, so we settled for the Bay Bridge--I just thought I liked the idea of them walking together as a couple, just to show that they were in sync together now. Not on cue or anything rehearsed, but they just naturally turn around and start walking away backwards. That was a very deliberate choice.
C: You mentioned the Golden Gate Bridge, and there is a sequence set there where Frank contemplates suicide. And I couldn't help but think of that recent film THE BRIDGE about the unreal number of suicides that occur at that location. As soon as I saw that you were taking the plot from Buffalo to San Francisco, I wondered if there might be such a scene. JD: Because of that movie, the Golden Gate Bridge wanted to have absolutely nothing to do with us. So we built our San Francisco bridge on a soundstage in Winnipeg.
C: So when he's out on that bridge, he's not on the Golden Gate? JD: No. And the tollbooth scene. And we had to steal all the hi-def--we used a hi-def camera to get all those images. We found a strange loophole that because the bridge was built by the federal government, they can't copyright it. If it's built with California tax dollars, you can copyright it. I couldn't shoot city hall in Los Angeles and put a scene in there without their approval. But you can if it's a federal structure. That was our loophole.
C: I have very vivid memories of the Siskel and Ebert reviews of your first three films. I remember because the were at the beginning of this new indie movement, and they were really championing that wave of filmmaking. I think KILL ME AGAIN came out while I was still in college, because to make an effort to seek that film out. People like to put you in that "new noir" category because of those three films, but were you aware at the time that you were re-inventing a genre? JD: I certainly never saw it that way. I've always liked noir films, once I starting learning about them in film school. They're great because they have this graphic sense of lighting, composition, and the stories are more grown up. I like that they deal with things that are very different than where I was raised, really dark and sinister. An ordinary guy finds himself in a huge amount of trouble, and that was always interesting to me. I guess having an art background, I was a little more attracted to the Edward Hopper quality of a noir movie, a painterly quality, without being overwhelmed by it. You still have to tell a story, and those pieces happen to be a part of it. For example, MILDRED PIERCE is almost too good looking. There are some shots…it's a movie where you can get a lampshade on the ground and get the light coming up. It gives you so many more tools as a filmmaker, and I think that's why I was drawn to it. Also, I love the salacious titles. That's what got us involved in my first movie KILL ME AGAIN, the absurdity of being able to get the audience to a point where this woman can say, "Kill me again." And RED ROCK was pieces left over from the first one. I was location scouting in Nevada, and the idea of someone walking into a bar…some of these bars that I was going into and looking at were just so scary…so the scenario of someone walking in and being mistaken for a killer was the idea. LAST SEDUCTION, I always saw it as a low-budget black comedy. It never really occurred to be, the idea that she was a femme fatale as a noir component, I didn't really connect that, in a way. And of course, the two films came out almost together…they were just so ignored by everybody in Hollywood, it was critics and audiences that made those movies, not really anyone in Hollywood.
C: Are you a connoisseur of noir films? JD: Oh yeah. I lived in Santa Monica, and there were these two video stores near my house, and I loved to go and find that offbeat thing. The one I really loved was 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE [directed by Hal Ashby, from a screenplay by Oliver Stone]. Just finding those kind of movies that I missed the first time around. There were all of these detective movies and noir movies that I just started consuming, two or three movies a day after I got out of film school, and I just fell in love with that genre.
C: Do you acknowledge YOU KILL ME as something of a return to some of the same elements you used in those earlier works? JD: Yeah. I guess what I reacted to was I really liked the script. I got it with Ben Kingsley attached to it. And a lot of times when you get a movie with the actor attached to it, the script isn't any good. There's one great part for one person, but the plot's horrible. I've turned more of those down than movies I've actually made. The things that struck me about this was that I really liked the script. I could see Ben Kingsley as this stoic, simple tough guy in the middle of it. I found myself attracted to the hitman; I've always liked the sub-genre of hitmen. And I loved the guy from the small town going to the big city, and the kind of contrast between Buffalo, which is kind of tight, and San Francisco, which is so free and open. I guess I could kind of relate to that.
C: San Francisco does fell like the wrong place for Frank. He's a guy that doesn't mind walking in the snow and being isolated. JD: [quoting and imitating Frank] "I like the snow." [laughs] I found it all very appealing. The opportunity to do a black comedy…I've written some, tried to get them going…they're very hard. It's very hard for an investor to look at a black comedy and say, "Is this going to work?" because a lot of times they don't work, and it's usually because the ending is really depressing. To get to all that mayhem and get out of it, it's hard. I remember some of the first screenings we did of YOU KILL ME before we'd really figured out the tone, and one guy said, "You know I really did like Frank at first but as I'm watching the movie, I really started to like him. But then I thought, ah, you're going to kill him before the end of the movie." And that's when I thought, Okay, that's good, now we've got something.
C: I think by the time we find out whether Frank lives or dies, you've earned whatever ending you decide to put on it. Obviously, mixing humor and violence is something you've done before with great success. What is the key to striking that balance? You don't want to lose the seriousness of the violence, but you don't want people to think that they can't laugh. JD: I remember when I was a kid in high school in the town I grew up in, in Montana, there was an irrigation ditch that ran through town. And we'd always go swimming in it, and it was illegal to go swimming in it. So my friend and I were swimming in the ditch, and we see a bridge up ahead of us, and we see a black-and-white police car come over the bridge. And we could tell that he sees us because he slowed down. So we kind of got up to the side of the bank and tried to hide under some grass so we don't get a ticket or get arrested. And we hear the cop stop behind us, and start to walk around looking for us. And I don't know what ever possessed me to do this, but I started to [puts his finger under his nose like he's attempting to stop an enormous sneeze]…like I'm going to sneeze, and he started laughing. I think life is like that. Everybody experiences that every now and then, that absurd notion that something bad is going to happen and you laugh. Or, when do you laugh after something bad happens? We all have that natural release valve. At certain points during the day or week, we all experience something, and the absurdity of kind of registers to you, whether it's irony or sarcasm.
C: So did you get caught? JD: I did get caught. We crawled out of the ditch. I think they gave us a warning. I mean, it's Billings, Montana, so we were cuffed and dragged downtown [laughs].
C: Because Ben Kingsley was attached to this script, does that mean he'd already had it figured out in his head, or was there room for negotiation? JD: He had some definite ideas. But ultimately he's an actor, concerned with his thing, and he doesn't really want to worry about the whole thing. And he also wants feedback. When you're doing a film, actors want to know that the person who's behind the camera is in charge of everything and knows what they're doing and make sure they're not a complete idiot. It's kind of like…are you married?
C: Yes. JD: Do you remember your wedding?
C: Sure. JD: "Stand here! Do this! Talk to this guy!" It's this big thing, and you're in the middle of this tornado. And that's the only thing I could think of that's like being an actor, because you're like, "Oh, you're here!" There's people following you around. People with microphone saying, "He's just landed. He's going to makeup." It's a circus. So when they get to the set, having somebody bring them in and say, "How are we going to do this scene?" and giving feedback. But these are professional actors, so it's not going help me telling him how to act. I'll say, here's the room, here's the scene, come in through that door. I've already worked it out, so it's really about making them experience it.
C: There are so many great male actors in this film, but I have to admit Tea Leoni steals every scene she's in. And I'll admit, I have not always "gotten" her. I think she's at her best with darker material like FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, because that is clearly where her strength lies. And unless you've seen that film, she doesn't seem like the likely choice for the role of Laurel. JD: I saw FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, and I just said, I love this person, I love this woman. Her and Gina Gershon were women I'd always wanted to work with. They're tough and they're sexy, like Linda Fiorentino. Tea is just tough and sexy and smart, and I love the kind of edge she has to her. She's just out there. For Tea to do this character, I was thrilled.
C: You also have two of the greatest actors with built-in gravitas: Dennis Farina and Philip Baker Hall. And you need great "heavies" for the films you make. How do you identify the perfect villain?
JD: Once we had Ben and Tea and found someone to finance the movie, that started the process of casting. A lot of times there isn't the kind of money to hire someone like Dennis or Philip, but it's such a low-budget movie, and nobody making any money. I think for guys like Dennis and Philip, it's an opportunity to be in a movie with Ben Kingsley, and it's two weeks of their time. It's not a huge commitment, and they're kind of fun parts, so we were thrilled to get such big names. And because it's Dennis Farina, it kind of takes on a life of its own. The first scene we did with Dennis is the scene where he walks in and shoot Philip. "You should have plowed, Roman." And the next scene we did with him, and it wasn't scripted, was where he walks in, looks at Philip, picks up his cannoli and eats it. It's kind of huge in a way, but he can so get away with something like that.
C: The other person in the film who surprised me was Luke Wilson, again not the obvious choice for his particular part. It's not a laid-back kind of guy, and it's a great change of pace for him. JD: I love the choice that he made as this guy who's heard it all and nothing rattles him. And I love the choice that he made in the Golden Gate Bridge scene when this guy's telling him that he kills people, and he's like, "Hmm." He's so understanding, and he's just such as good choice. I loved it when he was doing it. And I think of him in these bigger, broad movies, but this is also the guy in BOTTLE ROCKET.
C: The idea of a hitman working in a mortuary and finding that he has a talent for makeup and facial reconstruction still cracks me up. JD: He's getting in touch with his feminine side.
C: At least his artistic side. I thought for sure they'd be a scene where a body would come in of someone who had been killed in a way similar to the way he used to kill people, some sort of execution. Maybe because I thought that would happen is a perfect reason such as scene shouldn't be in there. Why was his seeing death from both sides so important? JD: It's funny because there's that exchange between Frank and Bill Pullman where Pullman says, "I'll see you in the morning for work." "What do you mean 'work'?" Pullman walks up to the outside of the funeral home and says, "It's kind of along your line of work." "I'm not going to do it." "I don't give a fuck what you think." And the two of them played that so well with the woman who runs the funeral home. It's kind of funny, but after a while it's like, "Okay, he's working in a funeral home." So I love the fact that it just kind of sneaks in there without it being a "Oh, he's dealing death." Or what she says, "I'd drink too if I had to deal with dead bodies all day." "Oh, I don't care about the bodies." Just that sort of acknowledgment of squeezing it all together. And he's proud of his work.
C: Addictive personalities are so critical to YOU KILL ME. What is so fascinating about people like that? JD: In a way, it's that vulnerability and that weakness. I hadn't really seen it portrayed this way before. When the first woman stands up at the first AA meeting and says, "When I was 21, I got sober, and 10 years later I thought I could take a drink and be okay." It didn't come across to me as being funny in the script, and then we started auditioning people. And I saw this audition tape, and this actress was taking it so seriously and crying, and just started cracking up. And the more earnest and the more serious she is, the sicker it is to find it funny. I'd look around the set after each take, and I'd have tears in my eyes from laughing so much. I don't know why I thought it was so funny. Somebody's trying so earnestly to work that through, and this guy's sitting there smirking. I don't know why that's funny; I still can't figure it out.
C: In case we run out of time here, I want to make sure I ask this question. Your name has been mentioned in connection with PUNISHER 2. Is there any truth or reality to that? JD: You know, I met with them and talked to them about it. I kind of liked the idea of doing a vindictive, kick-ass guy that just shoots people and has no remorse. And the comics have a great sense of humor, but I guess ultimately at the last minute, I just thought it was too serious. If they could get the same kind of humor that's in HELLBOY, that sort of sardonic, throw three guys in a dumpster and set it on fire and walk away with them screaming and kicking. To me, it could have been hilarious, but I guess ultimately it was too much baggage.
C: When your name came up the reaction was pretty favorable. JD: But coming into it with PUNISHER 2, and I wasn't sure if Thomas Jane was or wasn't going to do it. And if not, who do you cast? And they don't want to spend too much money. I don't know, I just felt like I was digging myself in a hole. I'd love to take an action movie and put a really black sense of humor to it, but that's hard to do.
C: Yeah, but you should still try and do it. JD: It would really be fun if you could just literally waste people, like Bang Bang like you're killing flies.
C: Do you have anything else in the wings? JD: There are a bunch of independent things that I'm trying to put together, but it's always casting and finance and arranging those planets basically.

That's our conversation. I have a sneaking suspicion that YOU KILL ME is going to help Mr. Dahl get his planets to line up a little easier for a while. Let's hope so.


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