A safe bet

You Kill Me director John Dahl on the writers' strike, poker and Sir Ben.

by Ben Sillis

John Dahl on the set of You Kill Me

John Dahl on the set of You Kill Me

For a town supposedly built on the back of dreams, Hollywood has taken its time in paying proper tribute to the people responsible for creating them. Only relatively recently have directors begun to earn fame and riches on a parallel with the stars on screen (Perhaps we have to thank the French for auteur theory?). But even in the doldrums, Tinseltown churns out 400 features a year. Not all of their directors can be superstars - who is behind all those films you see, half falling asleep on the settee, every night?

Chances are, you won't have heard of John Dahl, but you will have seen his films. His neo-noir trio, Kill Me Again, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction established him as a solid feature director in the mid-Nineties, while Rounders, starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, has become possibly the slowest-burning sleeper hit of all time, thanks to the internet poker boom.

Dahl is set to become more of a household name, with his biggest release yet, black comedy You Kill Me, starring Ben Kingsley and Téa Leoni, out this week. Kingsley plays a mob assassin who has hit the rocks, while Leoni is the vitriol-tongued woman who befriends him, before he has to make a final stand. That might sound like Leon for the SAGA generation - but it's shot through with humour, dark as night.

John answers the phone on Friday night, a world away from rain-drenched London. He is in an editing suite in sunny Santa Monica, California, in the studio once owned by Francis Ford Coppola, when he was a young Turk. It seems fitting that Dahl, 51, is in the building that once housed American Zoetrope, and Coppola's many struggles, when he talks about the difficulties of making the film. "It's about an alcoholic hitman, so it's not the kind of film that usually gets made, and it sat on the shelf for a few years." Introduced to the project by Leoni, he showed the script to Kingsley, who he thought would be ideal, and together the three "went out and found some money for the film".

Ah, Sir Ben. It's too tempting not to ask: what did John make of Britain's notorious knight? Is he the Prima Donna the press make him out to be? No, says Dahl: "I found him to be quite charming, very gracious." Really? "I think it's just a fluffy story you hear. He's very professional and takes his acting very seriously."

you kill me
Sir Ben is "charming and gracious" on set, says Dahl
"He would come to the set, he'd sit there in his chair and he'd never leave. He wasn't racing to the trailer. It makes people work faster - he would hang out on the set and talk to extras. I've heard these stories, but it's not what I experienced."

Perhaps Ben has been treated badly by the media, though Dahl's friendly style of directing may have had something to do with it. "I don't think I've ever bossed an actor around. It's more about getting someone to trust you enough; is that person willing enough to lend themselves to you?" Clearly they were: the leads are backed up by a stellar cast, including Bill Pullman, Philip Baker Hall and Luke Wilson. Dahl and Pullman actually go way back - Pullman was his drama professor at Montana State University, and appeared in his early features.

Dahl is a Montana man through and through: he was born there, and spent the first two decades of his life in the state. After graduating, he enrolled at the American Film Institute before becoming a storyboard artist and music video director in the 1980s (He wouldn't mind making videos today for Australian group Jet, he says, admitting he used to play in a punk rock band called the Pugs). In 1989, he made his feature debut with Kill Me Again about a young PI and a -beautiful woman on the run from the mafia - starring Michael Madsen and Val Kilmer. It's a sturdy thriller, and one that must have had a strong influence on Quentin Tarantino: Madsen cuts a throat with same relish he would soon use to sever a man's ear in Reservoir Dogs.

We turn to Dahl's biggest hit, Rounders, about two hustlers, Damon and Norton, and the backroom games they trawl. Dahl didn't know about poker before taking the helm - he bluffed his way through it, you could say - but the challenges of bringing the game to life on screen were not what attracted him to it.

you kill me
Ben Kingsley with Bill Pullman
"When the movie first came out, I didn't know anything about poker. For me, it was about the drama, the tension. It was more about these characters...It's basically a sports movie with an unconventional sport."

He did pick up one thing about the game on set though: "never play poker." Damon and close friend Ben Affleck are world-class players, and Dahl quickly learned not to take them on. "Some people are so into it there's no way I'd ever get that good...I'd rather spend more on beer and pizza," he says.

Rounders was one of two films John made at Miramax. He seems to have grudging respect for the Weinstein brothers, but you can tell from his pauses and slow delivery that he's thinking very carefully about what he's saying - not wanting to bite the hand that feeds, it would seem.

"With Miramax, You're only dealing with Harvey [Weinstein], and that's rare in the movie business. They really care what they do." Dahl skirts the question a little when asked if Weinstein insisted on cuts: "He's good at what he does, it's hard to argue with his success... You fight for the things you like." Still, in the long run, he's happy with the recognition it now gets: "It did OK [at first], but it's had such a great life afterwards."

you kill me
Tom (Luke Wilson), Laurel (Tea Leoni) and Frank (Ben Kingsley) in You Kill Me
As we speak, Dahl is putting the finishing touches to an episode of True Blood, a new TV series produced by Alan Ball, of American Beauty and Six Feet Under fame. For once, it seems, the characters are not violently dysfunctional so much as just violent: about modern day vampires, it gives a fresh twist to the bloodsucker theme, and Dahl seems rather excited. "It's about vampires coming out of the casket. But because of synthetic blood, they can enter mainstream society."

In many respects, John doesn't seem a world away from Matt Damon's character in Rounders. Granted, he isn't dragged down by friends and family (Both his wife Beth and brother Rick are successful filmmakers), but there's the same sense of tenacity and honest grind - play for hours, keep directing TV shows (He's lined up to do an episode of David Duchovny sex comedy Californication) and you'll win big time in the end.

Luck's the great equaliser in poker though, and at the moment, everyone is losing in Hollywood, due to the crippling writers' strike. Dahl is a member of the Writers' Guild of America (WGA), and is due to go out on the picket line next week, but he's very critical of the decision to take action. "My brother and I had a project, but basically the whole thing's screwed... They [The WGA] don't think things through. I'm hoping it can be resolved quickly."

Here's hoping the next hand he's dealt puts him back as chipleader.

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