Dom Hemingway was the funniest movie I saw at TIFF last year, and now that it’s being released domestically, it will be one of the funniest movies of this year. The film stars Jude Law as the eponymous criminal, who goes to collect his hush money after being in prison for over a decade. The dialogue is brilliant, it’s one of Law’s best performances, and even though the comedy can be acerbic, there’s still a heart beating beneath the braggadocio.
With the movie set to open this week, I got the chance to talk with writer-director Richard Shepard. During our conversation, we talked about the dialogue, trying to make the character sympathetic, trying to sell the movie without giving away too many of the jokes, working with Richard E. Grand (who plays Dom’s old friend, Dickie), and more. Hit the jump for our Richard Shepard interview. Dom Hemingway opens April 2nd.
RICHARD SHEPARD: It’s interesting because at first I was like, “Do I have to write this guy as a South London, do I need to write him as a Brit, do I need to have some rhyming scenes in it?” I was just like, “You know, I’m never gonna pull that off.” I’m just not from London and as soon as I try to be something else, I’m just gonna fail. It was actually very liberating because I just was like, “I’m gonna make Dom have his own rhythm, his own way of talking.” And I heard it in a British accent as I was writing it and it seemed to make sense. I enjoyed sort of the freedom of being able to create this guy the way he talks.
He’s a guy who shoots his mouth off, he shoots himself in the foot almost at the same time, and he’s sort of an enjoyable scoundrel. So, writing it was enormously fun but quite frankly, when Jude started reading it, it seemed almost better than I wrote it. I was like, “Oh my God, this really sounds weirdly original, authentically original.” Because Jude understood the rhythm that I had put into the dialogue and was very obsessive about sticking directly and only to the script to the point where the amount of “fucks” were very, very, very specific. There was no improvisation in terms of that stuff. There were occasionally little tweaks to make it easier to say, an idea that Jude would have in general, he just sort of took it and ran with it.
The Matador also has its fair share of delightful vulgarity and I was wondering if there was a conscious attempt to try to outdo that film.
SHEPARD: That’s funny. The answer to that is no. They are definitely cousins to each other in some capacity in that a heartthrob-y actor is sort of getting dirty in both of them. But in terms of my writing, I wasn’t planning to outdo anything. Really what I was trying to do was create a character that was despicable and a mess, profane and yet somehow deeply wounded and human. That was a challenge to myself. He made me laugh, I would write it and I would enjoy spending time with Dom. I wrote scenes I knew would never be in the movie just to see what Dom would do, just as an exercise. Honestly, I would follow Dom to the grocery store to pick up a pack of cigarettes because I’m sure he’d get into some sort of trouble. That was very fun and freeing as a writer. One of the reasons I love to direct the stuff that I’ve written is, you hand off this material to a good actor and then they just make you seem much more talented than you actually are because they just somehow make it all seem connected and real. They find humor even in places where there wasn’t supposed to be.
There’s a scene where he talks about all the ways he uses a gun but he doesn’t mention killing someone. Were there lines you didn’t want this character to cross for fear of making him completely unsympathetic?
SHEPARD: I was not afraid of that. I think that’s a very good question and a deserving question. I was not afraid to push things. I did purposely kept from killing because I felt like I didn’t even buy it, especially in London, most people don’t use a gun for many things. I didn’t need that for him but I wanted to push things. When he reached the guy up at the factory, he literally beats him up and bites his ear and destroys this guy who all he did was care for his divorced wife when she was sick. He should’ve thanked him for being a step father and being a good man and instead he beats the crap out of him. I talked to Jude that and I was like, “I think we should just go as far as we can. We have the luxury that Dom is enjoyable company and we will win back any audience that we lose by this violence.”
Ultimately, the more unhinged and dangerous Dom is, the funnier the stuff is. And I think the more people are nervous because they see him beat the shit out of someone, what’s he going to do is this situation? It’s sort of all part of that thing. There wasn’t a line I was afraid to cross but at the same time, Jude and I care deeply about Dom. As violent and profane as he is, we deeply cared about him so we didn’t want to make him a joke and we wanted to keep him grounded. I know that sounds sort of strange but we really liked him and liked his company and his energy. While I wasn’t afraid to write things that were outrageous, we still needed to make sure he was legitimate and real.
When you talk sort of the joke side Dom and trying to keep him grounded, almost like the two halves of the film, where you’re sort of building up and up and the second half is sort of this reckoning of him at his lowest. The turning point is really that car crash. Were you a bit disappointed when that was revealed in the trailer?
SHEPARD: When I made The Matador, The Weinstein Company cut a trailer for the movie that had Pierce walking through the lobby in his underwear, which to me was the biggest laugh of the movie. They just showed it in the trailer and I’m like, “Guys, you’re fucking showing it in the trailer and you’re ruining it. That moment is forever ruined because you showed it in the trailer.” And they were like, “If people don’t come to the movie then your moment will have to be seen by no one and we gotta do what we did to sell the movie.” I’ve kind of had it always stood in my brain, so I actually think the Fox Searchlight people did a great job in cutting the trailer. I really feel like they captured the energy of the movie and they believed in using that.
We just screened it last night, or two nights ago, in Los Angeles, Elvis Mitchell hosted the LACMA screening and the audience completely reacted as if they never seen it. They all were in shock at that and there was an audible gasp when he splattered into the camera. I feel like at a certain point yes, it’s ruined for some people but at the same time, it is what it is. I can’t control every inch of the marketing. Weirdly, I’ve been very in tune with the way Searchlight’s been presenting this movie. They seem to really get it and that’s great because I’m lucky I have someone who actually cares deeply what the poster of my movie is—because I love movie posters, love what trailers are, I love movie trailers. I feel pretty good with it.
You’re right in that telling a comedy there’s always a risk of how many jokes you show and the difficulty of what you show them. I think back to when I saw it and I think that’s just a benefit of festivals and the festival circuit.
SHEPARD: I couldn’t agree more but that’s why I love to see movies that are at film festivals, especially one that you don’t know much about. You really do get that first exposure in a way where you’re not jaded and haven’t read anything, and haven’t read good reviews or bad reviews, you’re just sitting there going, “What is this movie?” If it works there’s sort of like a weird elation in discovery. Many of my most favorite movie-going experiences has been catching a movie at a film festival and knowing nothing about it ahead of time. Especially in the world we live in now where there’s clips and so many online representations of your movie in an attempt to catch the attention of the fickle public, that in a way lots of movies I feel like I’ve already seen.
I don’t have to see Captain Phillips because I’ve seen 7,000 commercials for it. That kind of over processing can be detrimental to a movie. But if you do see a movie in a festival and especially a movie like mine where I hope part of the charm is how ultimately surprising it is and how you can’t really believe that the movie that begins with him getting a blow job in prison, ends with him on the grave of his dead wife and that it’s same character and you care for him. That surprisingness I think is one of the charms of the movie and certainly is most surprising when you kind of go in knowing very little.
SHEPARD: You mentioned Mona Lisa which is a really favorite of mine and I love Sexy Beast and the movie The Hit—Tim Roth—and the producer of the movie, Jeremy, produced both The Hit and Sexy Beast. Those movies were definitely in my DNA when I started writing it but I was also trying to write an anti-gangster movie in a way. I wanted to use sort of the things we expect to know from those movies but sort of go down its own path. I purposely didn’t want a heist in the second half of the movie, I purposely didn’t want a one last job. I wanted Dom to be really about this guy and what he goes through as opposed to more sort of conventional genre plotting. So, that was a conscious decision but there’s no doubt that those movies I grew up loving, those British gangster movies, even those some have been in L.A. but is sort of a British gangster movie made by an American. These are movies that—I own the DVD’s to all the movies I just talked about and watch them on a somewhat regular basis.
The hunting party ends with a note about how we haven’t found Osama bin Laden and I was curious to what your reaction was when you found out he had been killed.
SHEPARD: Well, it also is a movie about the hunt for Radovan Karadzic, who was captured within a year and a half within the movie coming out, after not being caught for ten years. Part of me was like, the fact that that is the most illegally bootlegged DVD in the last ten years maybe had something to do with it. But you know, I was extremely happy, I was in New York when it happened. I was extremely happy when they got that asshole.
Going back to Dom Hemingway, Jude Law is absolutely amazing in this but I also love Richard E. Grant. When I tell people about this movie they go, “Richard E. Grant is in this?” They get so excited. What was the process of getting him on board for this movie?
SHEPARD: I’m glad that people are saying that to you because I, as a film fan, have just been an enormous Richard E. Grant fan and Withnail and I to me, is arguably the best film comedy ever. I always loved him but in the last ten years or so, I have stopped seeing him in any movies. I know that he was working in England but I just hadn’t seen anything and I was like, “Man, this guy, he is due some sort of revival because he’s just a genius.”
When I was writing the script, I thought of Richard for the part I wrote. The part’s called Dickie because of Richard and in my mind I saw him saying all these lines and everything but I didn’t know him. It was just sort of one of those dreams that I had and when I was speaking to Jude about doing the movie I was like, “What do you think about Richard E. Grant in the part of Dickie?” And he’s like, “That is the last person I would’ve thought for that part and what a brilliant idea. Let’s try and get him.” We were very lucky and of course, his comic timing is as beautiful as ever. It’s one of those very rare things where you get to work with someone who you kind of were cinematically, madly in love with and they turn out to be such a nice person too which makes it even better.