Making a Killing

Director Andrew Dominik and actor Ben Mendelsohn on Killing Them Softly

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The haunting setting for the Andrew Dominik and Ben Mendelsohn post interviews on Killing Them Softly at the Waldorf Towers hotel room, with saucers and used sugar packets.
The haunting setting for the Andrew Dominik and Ben Mendelsohn post interviews on Killing Them Softly at the Waldorf Towers hotel room, with saucers and used sugar packets. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Killing Them Softly, based on the novel Cogan's Trade by George V Higgins opens with what looks like a post-apocalyptic dream, were it not for the election billboards of Obama and McCain, side by side, overlooking a deserted New Orleans neighbourhood with garbage blowing in the wind like tumbleweeds, that locates what we are about to witness in the autumn of 2008. Brad Pitt's enigmatic Jackie Cogan sums it up as: "In America, you're on your own." The community of gangsters, with their opaque but firm hierarchy and unwritten rules mirrors many an other structure that flourishes according to the dictates of capitalism. Director Andrew Dominik makes bold choices with the soundtrack. Election speeches and George W Bush's musings on the economy, alternate in Brechtian manner with cheerfully powerful songs that span the 20th century, from life being just a bowl of cherries or a paper moon, to Legrand's Windmills of Your Mind and Lou Reed's Heroin.

We caught up with Dominik and actor Ben Mendelsohn at the Waldorf Towers in New York City.

Andrew Dominik on the set of the film
Andrew Dominik on the set of the film

Anne-Katrin Titze: I would like to know more about your choice of songs, your very interesting juxtapositions of where you place them. The most cruel, violent scenes are combined with the most soothing songs.

Andrew Dominik: I think you're referring to the scene where Ray (Liotta, who plays Markie Trattman) is killed. I mean, the idea behind it is killing them softly, which is about Brad's idea that there's a right way to kill somebody. To do it in the most painless way possible. And the idea behind that sequence was to dramatise a soft killing, or a killing that was like a lullaby. There's two, no, I guess, there's three approaches to violence. One is not to show it, the other is to make it ugly, and the third is to make it beautiful. And I guess, that's an example of making it beautiful. It's not what you're expecting, therefore maybe it's delightful, in some way.

Brad Pitt's character is fantastic, in more than one sense, larger than life and remote from reality. Dominik, who made The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford with him in 2007, explained the Pitt allure:

AD: I know Brad because we worked together before. Brad is not a person you can cast as an everyman. I wouldn't believe Brad at a supermarket in a movie but I do believe him as a mythological figure and I kind of buy him as the cool fixer guy in the movie. Brad has a certain mystery about him. You feel, no matter what he shows you, there's the rest of the iceberg that's below the surface of the water. And Jackie, he is a good character, but something of a cypher. He's not really letting you know who he is or what he thinks. He gives you a certain perspective on him at the end of the picture. Having somebody like Brad, who retains a certain sense of mystery.

AKT: You call upon "the guy on the street" in your movie. The all powerful 'Other' in your film that they are talking about.

AD: Yes. There is the concept of the audience. Most often when people say the audience they mean "me". But the audience does have a mind. There is a kind of collective mind, that occurs when you put a movie in front of people. That's the reason for test screenings, to see what the collective mind thinks. And it's amazing how similar that mind is.

Ben Mendelsohn in Killing Them Softly
Ben Mendelsohn in Killing Them Softly

AKT: The public opinion that has to be satisfied sounds almost similar to what you just said about the audience. The idea of a general public plays a very important role. The collective mind as factor for decision making, no matter what the truth is. Almost god-like.

AD: I don't know if they make decisions, but they certainly decide whether they like it, or not. I guess, it is god-like, because they can not go.

With the exception of a prostitute hired by James Gandolfini's character Mickey, there are no women in the film. They are talked about and not seen, and one wonders, judging by the men's behavior, if they existed in the first place. Gandolfini's performance of a deeply misogynistic and racist man, trapped by his alcoholic demons, is at the other end of the spectrum from Denzel Washington's portrayal of a troubled pilot in Robert Zemeckis's Flight. Gandolfini's Mickey is fascinating because he shows a complete lack of charm in all its subtleties, which is not often done:

AD: The thing about Jim (Gandolfini) is he's really hard to direct. Because he spent so much time beating himself up for him to get where he… (coffee cups and saucers with packets of sugar are being brought into the room). He really is one of the great actors. There's very little that he does that is not usable. He's a really sensitive guy and I think that his approach to Mickey is to find where is that person emotionally, you know, what is his emotional landscape. Jim sort of instinctively comes at it from there. I know he was frustrated by the amount of dialogue that he had to get through in his scenes.

Dominik goes to explain the art of casting: The other thing with actors is you either need to cast them to play somebody who is close to who they are, or the exact opposite. You know, people play their fathers really well. Or if you need someone to play a prison guard, you cast a prisoner, they're really good at it, because they retain that voice. Brad is a generous guy, he's always been that way. He has a generous spirit. So having him play someone who's completely selfish, kind of a prick, is fun for him. It allows him to take a holiday from himself.

Some of the dialogue is chilling because it sounds absurd and terribly real simultaneously. Ben Mendelsohn's character Russell tells his pal about a woman, who said she was going to kill herself right after having sex with him. The friend responds: "A lot of them say that."

Brad Pitt as hitman Jackie Cogan
Brad Pitt as hitman Jackie Cogan

AD: In this movie, it was the least amount of directing I've ever done of actors. It was sort of more me trying to get out of their way and make them feel as though they were safe. If they make mistakes, I wasn't going to use them. Make them feel as though someone's paying attention, you know. That's it, right? The director is paying attention, that he is not going to use bad shit, and that he really wants you to be good. And if you feel those three things, you can kind of muddle through and do anything, right? (turning to Ben)

Ben Mendelsohn: Pretty much, yeah. You do want that. Paying attention is the most important thing and "less of this, a bit more of this," you know. That's pretty much it.

AD: You have to have ideas for actors, too. It's no good to go up to an actor and say "let's just do it different" and not give him an idea of what you can do. I always feel it's so much like playing cowboys and indians, encouraging the actor to use their imagination. When you're a kid you play like cops and robbers and invent a story for yourself. And actors, I think, do the same thing. They try and do something and maybe there's a problem with the other person or a problem that the character has. And you have ideas what those things could be. And that allows the actors to make all the choices on how to handle something. With an actor like Ben, who is impatient, the first time he understands that thing he is going to do it the best then. And if you want to keep going you got to come up with another idea, because he gets bored playing the same idea again and again, right?

BM: Yeah, that's pretty accurate.

Killing Them Softly poster
Killing Them Softly poster

AD: You always have an idea of how you want the scenes to be. But how you get there and how the characters might negotiate that is something that you want to happen spontaneously as you go. You are trying to make the film live not dead like a thing cased in amber… With Ben, I just egg him along, he'll say as much of the script as he can remember and then he'll just fill in the rest. And it's generally the rest that he fills it in with that's really entertaining. With Brad, I was surprised by how he approached the scene with Scoot (McNairy, who plays Frankie) in the bar, by how soft it is. Which is the right way to do it. People get heavy when they feel a loss of power. If somebody gets loud or intimidating it's because they feel that they're not in control. And we see him almost horse whisper the guy through that scene. It's very effective and not necessarily what I was expecting him to do.

AKT: "America isn't a country, it's a business," Pitt's Cogan summarises.

AD: America is an economic idea as much as it's an ideological or philosophical idea. It's this idea that everybody is free to get rich. And, I guess, what you see in certain circumstances is people are basically able to get away with things because they pay for them… Capitalism is almost like the economic idea of Darwinism, the survival of the fittest, but that's what it's supposed to be. People vote for what products they like or what things they want. But there are certain things you don't have a choice in.

When we first encounter Russell, played by Ben Mendelsohn, he is walking 10 dogs (who all look better groomed than he does) on a deserted New Orleans street. Dogs travel with him throughout the movie, under the most outrageous circumstances. Despite all the violence against humans, Mendelsohn's performance manages to cloak these scenes with a miraculous sense of protectiveness, giving the audience a feeling that nothing really bad can happen to the animals. As Andrew and Ben were getting up to leave, I asked Ben:

AKT: Do you have a dog?

BM: Oh, I don't. I don't! But I am a great dog lover. That's probably why he offered me the job.

Killing Them Softly opens nationwide in the US today, November 30. Read what Ray Liotta had to say about the film here.

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