Sometimes it takes months and months for movies that play the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival to show up in general release in the Twin Cities. Even more often, films from the festival roster don’t show up again at all. And then every once in awhile an MSPIFF selection pops into theaters in a matter of days. Such is the case for Dom Hemingway, director Richard Shepard’s gleefully loquacious comedy starring a manic Jude Law as a foul-tempered, bulldog-humpy safe cracker.
Dom begins the film in prison, having taken the fall and buttoned his lips (which, as becomes swiftly apparent, is 100 percent against his motormouthed nature) to protect a far bigger and more menacing criminal, the suave Fontaine (Demian Bichir). His sentence is shortened for purportedly good behavior and he returns to civilization the same way the Tasmanian Devil returns to a diet. He saddles up alongside his former wingman Dickie (Richard E. Grant, spectacular as always) and embarks on a two-fold mission to get his life together, which involves not only getting restitution from Fontaine but also patching things up with his estranged daughter (Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke).
Shepard enjoys exploring the paradox of Dom getting dirty to clean up, and even more so enjoys giving his entire cast salty, declamatory epithets to spout at length. Unlike many other movies where dialogue is in the drivers’ seat (with All About Eve and Network probably being the gold standard), Dom Hemingway is also visually stylized to a fault.
I had the chance to speak with Shepard while he was in town last week, and discussed the nature of dialogue, why he cast someone as obviously pretty as Law to play the his grunty headliner, and what it was like working with Grant. Here are some excerpts from our conversation. (And I do mean excerpts. Much like Dom himself, Shepard can talk up a blue storm.)
Eric Henderson: OK, the dialogue. Is that your favorite filmmaking tool?
Richard Shepard: I definitely like good dialogue. I feel like my movies are character-driven, and not necessarily plot-driven. The dialogue does matter. I enjoy dialogue that has a back and forth and an energy level that can provide humor and give insight into the character. Dom is a movie where the lead character is onscreen 99.9 percent — there’s only about 8 shots in the whole movie where he’s not onscreen — so as a character study of a guy who is this profane poetic crazy man, the dialogue better work or there isn’t much of anything.
Henderson: There’s a cathartic quality. Obviously this was a fun movie to write, and a lot of what Dom says feels like what one wants to say but doesn’t.
Shepard: Dom is representative of that. I think one of the pleasures of the movie is that Dom is completely uncensored. We live in a world where decent society tends to hold back. I’m from New York, so we hold back a little less, but there is still this decorum. And Dom is completely unfiltered. And, of course, that gets him into a mess a lot of the time because he says the truth and then that gets him into trouble. At the same time, I think audiences appreciate someone who is living a rebellious life, because most people don’t. And if people want to live vicariously through Dom, even though he’s sort of a terrifying person to live through vicariously — dangerous, reckless, probably an alcoholic, and capable of extreme violence, verbally and physically — I kind of like that. There are plenty of movies that show life as we live it, and there are movies where you can travel with someone else. The way audiences react to Dom, he’s sort of an unruly house guest but they enjoy his company.
Henderson: Without saying he’s cast against type, there’s definitely some newness to Jude Law in this movie. If I was to just read the script, he would not be the first person that came to mind.
Shepard: That’s why I think independent film is cool. I don’t have to fill some quota. It’s not a $150 million film where you have to hire someone who absolutely guaranteed “works” or they’re not going to finance your movie. In this case, I was trying to pick someone surprising, so not only do you hopefully enjoy the movie, but there’s also a little bit of “Holy s***, Jude Law’s doing this?!” He’s barely recognizable in this movie, both physically and in terms of his character. If I had cast someone by type, half the movie I think would’ve disappeared. I also wanted someone who had a history of doing Shakespeare, which I know sounds a little pompous. I’m not suggesting that what I was writing was Shakespearian, but there are so many monologues and Dom is so verbose, I wanted someone who had training to be able to do monologues, literally down to where you breath, how you get all that out in a kind of poetic way. That’s who Dom is, ultimately. He thinks his c*** is his greatest asset, but it’s really his mouth.
Henderson: How many takes did it take to get that opening monologue in one shot?
Shepard: It’s interesting, it didn’t take that many. I think we used the second take, but I’m not really sure. I didn’t want the audience to notice anything other than just Dom. He’s basically looking into the camera and the camera’s moving in on him. Jude asked that that be the first thing we shoot, which is not normal. Normally you do not shoot the first scene of the movie first. Jude basically wanted to walk on the set without knowing the crew, sort of naked, and just do it and shock everyone into what sort of movie we were making and how out there his performance was going to be. It was pretty fun to see the crew.
Henderson: Jude Law may have been playing against type, but it had to have been a little bit of an insurance policy to cast Richard E. Grant in his role, right?
Shepard: He is one of my favorite actors, and I think Withnail and I is the quintessential British comedy. My favorite comedy. I hadn’t seen him in anything in a long time, he sort of disappeared from American screens. When I wrote this movie, I was writing it for him. And then when we got to casting, I suggested Richard to Jude and Jude loved the idea. But we both agreed that we didn’t want him to use an East London accent, but to use his real voice, which sounds more posh. We liked the idea that there’s a sort of strangeness about their friendship. Because it doesn’t on paper seem to make sense, that this guy who wears ascots and these glasses and is older than Dom would be friends with him. As a director, when you hire great actors in supporting roles, it just makes everyone better. Richard E. Grant isn’t going to let anyone steal a scene from him, and with that kind of attitude, that’s exactly what you want from your supporting cast. I would shoot him in close-ups just for reactions and would think: “I have to do this split-screen. He’s so f***ing funny!” In many ways, Richard is the audience because he’s so scared of what Dom is going to do.
Henderson: And I was, at first, expecting him to be the one to really be afraid of, so there turned out to be a little bit of off-brand casting there too.
Shepard: Surprising on any level is what we were trying to do. We’re going to the movies to have something new brought to us. If you want the same, you can see Transformers 4 this summer.
Dom Hemingway, which premiered in the Twin Cities at MSPIFF last week, is now playing at the Lagoon Theatre.
Other Highlights: Saturday, April 19
The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson; U.S.) The fest’s closing night film stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as fraternal twins who, in order to get their lives back on track, seek each other’s help after years of being estranged from one another. Darkly comedic with some real dramatic gravitas, it gives both SNL alums a chance to flex their dramatic chops a la Will Forte in last year’s Nebraska. Both screenings are sold out, but you can try the rush line. (7 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.)
Words and Pictures (Fred Schepisi; U.S.) Schepisi is one of the more underrated directors of primarily middlebrow filmmaking (not necessarily in the derogatory sense many —including myself — apply that term). This one stars Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen as rival teachers whose competitive spirit results in romantic sparks. Predictable? Maybe. But since it’s obvious Binoche can turn practically anything into essential viewing, don’t bother resisting. (6:45 p.m.)
Young & Beautiful (François Ozon; France) Variety called this depiction of a teen girl’s sexual coming-of-age a “baby Belle de jour.” I can’t top that. (9:30 p.m.)
Throughout the entirety of the 2014 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, we’ll be spotlighting one notable movie each day, along with other notable screenings. To see the WCCO Movie Blog’s complete coverage on the MSPIFF, click here.