The NZ-born, Melbourne-trained director of Chopper reteams with Brad Pitt for another gritty crime comedy
Andrew, Killing Them Softly is set in the US but it’s similar to Chopper, being about small-time crooks who are both funny and scary...
Maybe I just like funny and scary!
How did you get the idea of adapting the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade?
I saw [1973 crime movie] The Friends of Eddie Coyle on TV and that movie has got a grim mood, which seems really authentic. So I looked it up online and discovered that the guy who wrote the novel, George V Higgins, had been a public prosecutor in Boston for 20 years and he’d written 20 novels. So I started ordering the books online because most of them were out of print. Cogan’s Trade was the third one that came in and it seemed like a good idea for a movie. It was a really simple plot with really good characters.
The film’s about an assassin [Brad Pitt] called in to deal with some small-timers who have robbed a mob poker game. You’ve set it to the background of the 2008 credit crunch – why?
I realised the novel was the story of an economic crisis and it seemed like a chance to have fun with what was going on in the world at the time. Also, when I finished [The Assassination of] Jesse James [by the Coward Robert Ford] I felt a certain amount of bitterness about the country that I was living in. I felt that all they gave a shit about was money.
Were you bitter about the way Jesse James was received?
Yeah! I mean, even critics here would attack that movie on an economic basis. Like: “Why would anyone spend $40 million bucks making a movie like this?” – they were kind of like offended by it.
But when you have Brad as producer you have a degree of creative freedom.
It’s really great because he’s essentially the power and he knows it. In this case, I had final cut and we weren’t dealing with a studio, we were dealing with a financing entity. In his producer function Brad just gets you the money and then protects you, and in his acting function he’s just like another actor.
So he doesn’t throw his weight around on the set?
No, he’s not controlling. Brad wants to use his power for good. I mean, he’s set up a production company and he just wants to make a bunch of movies that can be his legacy.
Ben Mendelsohn plays Russell, an Australian junkie. Did you have him in mind when you wrote the script?
He was always in the back of my mind. Because I’ve known Ben for a long, long time. Ben is slightly less sweaty in real life! Russell is always covered in a layer of slime in the movie, like his body is trying to lose those toxins. [laughs]
The supporting cast has a lot of big names – how did you get so many biggies?
Actors look for characters. If they read a well-written character, and if they think the director’s not an idiot, they’re going to sign up and do some acting.
James Gandolfini plays a drunken hitman losing his edge. What is he like to direct?
Jim is truly a great actor. He almost never does anything that’s unusable. You don’t need to direct him too much, you just sort of stay out of his way.
Richard Jenkins is great as the mob lawyer.
There’s something really special about Richard. The first two takes that he does are always going to be the best. He’s better if you don’t direct him! He can do anything you ask him to but there’s something that he does in those first two takes that is always so mysterious. He’s kind of gone beyond the point of acting. Fascinating guy.
What’s next for you?
I want to make a movie called Blonde, which is about Marilyn Monroe.
How do you feel about the recent Marilyn Monroe film?
You know, it’s a different movie to the one I’m going to do. Mine is kind of like a horror film, told from within her. And her grip on reality is tenuous. It’s going to be great, I reckon.
Killing Them Softly screens from Thu Oct 11.