A chat with John Dahl – An interview by Nate Hill

I’m incredibly excited to bring you my latest interview, with veteran director John Dahl. John has a staggering resume, having helmed episodes of television shows including Hannibal, Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, Justified, Kingdom, House Of Cards, Jessica Jones, The Affair, Californication, Outlander, The Bridge, The Strain, Dexter, Arrow, Homeland, Shameless, Caprica, True Blood, Battlestar Galactica and more. He has also directed some amazing films, including Joy Ride, Rounders, The Last Seduction, Kill Me Again and Red Rock West. It was an honour to speak with him and I hope you enjoy reading it!

Nate: Growing up, what was it about film that attracted you, and how did you discover that you wanted to pursue it? Were there any filmmakers you admired or have inspired your work?
John: I always love going to see movies but then I remember seeing a “behind the scenes” preview of Jeremiah Johnson. They were pushing the camera on dolly track, it was the first time I’d seen anything like that. It started me think about how films were made. Then there was A Clockwork Orange. I was an art student and I loved the production design of the film and the use of Beethoven. Again it occurred to the that someone had to make everything that was in front of the camera. This film has really stuck with me as one of my favorites. As for influences; Kubrick, Coppola, Hitchcock, Spielberg, David Lynch & the Coen Brothers.

Nate: You have spent one portion of you career making feature films, and a more recent section has been centered on episodic TV. How do you find that the two differ? In film school we were told that they get directors for shows who are kind of like ‘guns for hire’, who will be efficient and carry the overall tone of the show without changing it too much. Did you find with any of the shows that you worked on (Ray Donovan, Hannibal, Justified etc) that you were rigidly set within the parameters of the show, or were you able to give them your own style, even a little, at all?
John: In any endeavor I’ve know there was always a practical side to me. From playing in bands, making artwork and certainly in writing and directing. While studying cinema in college I was curious as to how directors got their starts. This is when I came upon Roger Corman and his low budget approach. I noticed that both Jonathon Demme and Martin Scorsese got started with him. At this writing Corman has 409 producing credits and 56 directing credits. Are they all great? No, however If every movie I watched was as good as The Godfather or Rocky I probably never would have left Montana. Corman was a window into how films could be made and how one could grow through time and experience. Supposedly he shot Little Shop Of Horrors in 48 hours. My first professional directing experiences were doing music videos in the 80’s. This was a great playground to learn about lens, lighting, editing and how to work with a budget and a professional crew. I directed about 30 music videos when I got the opportunity to direct my first film. I’ve never worked on a project where money and time were not a factor, in the 8 movies that I’ve done and almost 90 episodes of television. The process is pretty much the same as I can tell – yes when you direct a film you are more in control of the process until you show it to the studio and start testing it. Then you have to respond to the audiences, producers and studio desires to hopefully recoup their investment. When you make television the studio and producers are involved every step of the way. It’s a group effort rather than an individual one. I can’t help but bring my sensibilities to the work I do – so far it hasn’t been a problem because when I’m doing someones tv show I’m trying to figure out how I can make it as great as possible with the time, money and talent available. I see filmmaking as the art of what is possible.

Nate: Rounders: for some reason, feels like the most personal film of you career. Silly for me to say, I know, since I’ve never met you, but it’s such a focused, distilled style and seems like all efforts involved were purely concentrated upon making this something really cool. How was you experience on this film?
John: Rounders what a terrific experience for me. I never really saw myself as much of a writer. I wrote so that I could create opportunities to direct. After four movies I was finally handed a movie and it was Rounders – pretty much the way you see it on screen. I saw it as a sports movie, the sport was gambling, not baseball or golf but a game of chance in which if you study, work hard you would succeed. Miramax supported the project, they liked the script, the cast – everything went fairly smooth. Interesting that you would say it my most personal film. I would probably say Red Rock West would be my most personal film – but to each their own.

Nate: Joy Ride: a colossally fun film. How was your experience making this one? I’m very curious about Ted Levine. On the dvd there test clips for Rusty Nail auditions with both Levine, Eric Roberts and a guy called Stephen Shellan. Were you in control of who nailed the role? Did you get to work a lot with Ted in the recording process?
John: Ted did a great job on the film although he was not my first choice. I pitched the ending of the film to the studio, building on the idea that the movie had to have a suspenseful ending – not more surprise which JJ Abrams was big on. I set up the idea that if Rusty Nail had Venna and the cops were coming to the rescue, if Venna was in jeopardy by say a “shotgun to the head” it would be more exciting – kind of the way Silence Of The Lambs ended. That may have been the take away for JJ – Buffalo Bill thus Ted Levine.

Nate: Red Rock West: Classic desert noir. How was the experience? One thing with your films that always is consistent and incredibly memorable performances from your actors. Particularly Dennis Hopper (Lyle From Dallas haha) and JT Walsh, who was a family friend of my parents. What was it like working with them? This is a Segway into my next question:
John: They say 90% of directing is casting the right actor. I agree. I’ve been blessed to work with remarkable actors. My approach is simple, I try to get great actors, set up the scene and get out of their way.

Nate: Working with actors: how do you approach the working relationship between actor and director? How has that process evolved for you over time and what have you learned from it?
John: I try to say as little as possible. I trust that they’ve done their homework and want to be great in any role they play. I’m there to guide them. Help them do their best work. As long as they end up going where I’m trying to take them — I give them full license to find the role.

Nate: The Last Seduction: I’m very curious about what it was like working with Linda Fiorentino, who is a favorite of mine.
John: Linda was fantastic. It was clear from the moment she entered the room that she was perfect to play that part. She pretty much cast herself, all we had to do is get out of her way and let her be Bridget Gregory.

Nate: You have written both Red Rock West and Kill Me Again. How do you find working with a director with your own material as opposed to other projects where you are dealing with a script crafted by someone else?
John: I like working with a writer – gives me someone to bounce ideas off of – it allows you to challenge the material – make sure you have the best version possible when you start shooting and even while you are shooting. I’ve often thought that the people with the most skin in the game are the director, writer and actors – those 3 jobs live or die each time they make something.

Nate: Are you hooked on tv now, or will we see some more films from you at some point in the future?
John: I like television. I’ve been able to work on great shows with fantastic writing. I don’t see a big difference between the two – if the material is good, I’ll do it. Do I still want to do features? Yes, I just need a great script. 
Nate: Thank you so much for your time John, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and keep up the great work!

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