Interview: John Dahl on You Kill Me

Director John Dahl established his career with low-key but razor-sharp thrillers like Kill Me Again and Red Rock West. With The Last Seduction, about a femme fatale who pockets the proceeds of a drug deal, he fashioned one of the most precise and cunning film noirs in the modern era. After a series of studio films, You Kill Me marks Dahl’s return to his earlier style of low-budget, independent filmmaking. Starring Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic hit man going through rehab and Téa Leoni as the slightly neurotic businesswoman who falls for him, it meshes perfectly with Dahl’s strengths as a director.

The Oscar-winning Kingsley was attached to the project when Dahl signed on, and the director cites the actor as the crucial element in getting the film made. Speaking before a premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, Dahl still seems surprised by the depth of Kingsley’s commitment. “He must hear this constantly, but he was a complete gentleman, just great to work with. Most crews are used to the actor coming in, doing his scene, and then going back to his trailer or wherever while we light for a while. But Ben would show up and rehearse, and then he’d stay there on the set, sitting in his chair with us the entire day. When you’re lighting and Sir Ben Kingsley is sitting there watching you, people work quicker, harder. And the other actors tend to stick around. So all of a sudden there’s this new energy on the set, people actually working together to make a movie.”

The director was amused by some of Kingsley’s decisions, like choosing an all-black wardrobe for his character Frank Falenczyk, but says they came to a quick agreement to his approach to the role. “One of the things Ben said in the beginning was, ‘You know, I think this guy has to be completely, totally, deadly honest about who he is and what he says.’ I found that very appealing.” Dahl and the actor filled in the character’s background, deciding for example that Frank had suffered a lifetime of abuse from his family. But for both the goal was to find the honesty in each scene, no matter how absurd or deadly the situation.

Leoni, also an executive producer on the film, defines the cast’s approach to the humor in the script simply: “You can’t ever wink.” Dahl remembers a worried Nicolas Cage wondering about the combination of humor and violence in Red Rock West. “He asked, ‘Do you want to play it funny? Or do you want to play it straight?’ And I told him, no, you have to play it straight, it always has to be completely straight. I think the problem with many comedies is that the players get caught up in shtick, they start indicating, making these familiar gestures like you see on sitcoms. If it’s real to the actor, it will be real to the audience. In daily life, something funny comes out of real pain all the time. It’s what comedians say, comedy is tragedy plus time.”

Slender and soft-spoken, with a shaven head and frame-less spectacles, Dahl tends to deflect attention away from himself. He uses his upbringing in Billings, Montana, and his stint as a directing fellow at the American Film Institute as proof that he is just another “film school geek” delighted for the opportunity to work in the industry. Or he will credit actors for their decisions about their roles. How John Malkovich used a shirt from wardrobe to define his gambler in Rounders, for example, or how Marcus Thomas found the key to Stef, Frank’s nephew, in You Kill Me. “I love the fact that he found the pain in what was basically a comic character,” Dahl enthuses. “I think that’s what we respond to, when an actor brings some humanity to the part. That and the fact that we have an enormous capacity for wanting people to get better. You have to believe that salvation, or rehabilitation or redemption, however you refer to it, is available for everybody.”

Dahl’s best films are marked by his savvy, slightly mocking use of genre formulas, and by a grudging respect for the mistakes and bad choices his characters make. For You Kill Me, a film that relies on gags about murder and alcoholism, setting the right tone was essential. “In this story you have to get to moments of real darkness and then somehow sort of come back and balance them. As far as finding a tone, getting people on the same page, the same style–that’s part of what you do as a director. You try to be the one consistent thing in the movie.” About cinematographer Jeffrey Jur, a frequent collaborator, Dahl notes, “I’m very particular about which lens to use, where to put the camera, things like that. My set’s a dictatorship, but a benevolent one, because I want to be able to get what I want exactly, but I also want somebody there who will save me from doing something stupid. I trust Jeff to come up with something better than I can. I also depend on him, I can always look to him and ask, ‘Did we get that?'”

Dahl says his long-time editor Scott Chestnut was another crucial factor in establishing the right balance for the story. “Scott and I have a sort of love-hate thing going. We grew up together, went to film school together. I’m always telling him he’s the smartest man in show business, and he’s always telling me, ‘Just because you shot it doesn’t mean we have to put it in the movie.’ He knows that the scary thing for me is that one take can be funny and the next one not. And on the set it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the two. You really have to take the footage back to the editing room and then take it apart, dismantle it.”

Several elements changed in You Kill Me over the course of editing. Early on, Dahl had Chestnut insert title cards from the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps program to document Frank’s progress, a move the director thought helped fill in the subtext of what could be seen as an internalized story. The cards eventually came out, as did the overly dramatic music during a shoot-out, replaced instead by an accordion theme that lightened the mood.

What didn’t change was the filmmakers’ respect for the script. Dahl believes this is one of the earliest screenplays by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who have since written both episodes of The Chronicles of Narnia. “In the draft I read, Willy Brown was still the mayor of San Francisco, and you could still walk onto a plane without all the security stuff. So it had been a while since it was written. We did a production polish, but basically all we did to the script was make it more shootable. Things like taking out a scene of snow plowing at night because it was too expensive. We did ask the writers for a line or two to help with the relationship between Frank and Laurel, Téa’s character. I think they were shocked that the script was getting made after all this time.”

As Leoni points out, “Ben and I were both very strong and involved about not letting this film stray. There were times when there was a temptation to try to get more money to answer this problem or fill this hole. But it always came back to the integrity of the project.”

Dahl agrees. “One of the things that was appealing about making this for as little money as we did is that you’re not building up expectations. We could make it absurd, or dark, or even slow in places. With Joy Ride I think we spent almost a year in the editing room, and went through two or three sets of reshoots, and still couldn’t get a release print. With a studio movie, you have to achieve a consensus, it’s filmmaking by committee, so in a way having more money doesn’t necessarily yield a better movie.”

The director confesses to some regrets in his career, in particular his relatively small output. He names Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen as influences in part because they are so prolific. Dahl wrote his first two features himself, and has turned down projects to concentrate on his own scripts. He’s also reworked The Great Raid, a World War II adventure, supervising a director’s cut that’s actually shorter than the original release. But You Kill Me has reinvigorated his approach to filmmaking.

“I had twenty-six days to make this movie. I go out there and I sink or swim twelve hours every day. If I don’t get it, I don’t get it. You have to live by your wits. You only get one shot because there’s no such thing as reshoots in a situation like this. But at this point in my career I would rather do a four-million-dollar independent film than a forty-million-dollar studio film simply because there’s a lot fewer cooks in the kitchen. And it’s more fun.”

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