John Dahl chats “You Kill Me” with Jennifer Merin

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“You Kill Me” is a funny, quirky, endearing send up of mobsters, 12-steppers and other characters oft stereotyped in Hollywood films. Ben Kingsley plays a Buffalo-based alcoholic hitman who bungles a whack and is exiled to San Francisco where, while coming clean in AA, he falls for and bonds with tough cookie Tea Leoni, until their relationship is tested by his recall to Buffalo to deal with family matters. Director John Dahl signed on to the project some ten years into its development.

“The producer sent me the script with Ben Kingsley attached. It was a pretty easy decision for me to take the job– not only was Ben attached, but it was a really funny script,” says Dahl. “I met with Ben. We had the same take on his character– that he’s a straight man, in a way, a very honest, almost child-like guy who’s been put in a box by his family and anesthetized with alcohol, and his family only pulls him out of the drawer when they need him. So he’s this bizarrely damaged buy. I love that there’s serious subject matter that’s dealt with in a fun way, with a sense of humor.”

MERIN: How would you characterize that sense of humor?

DAHL: Well, you know, it’s a kind of unusual black comedy– the kind of humor that’s hard to sell to backers, because they don’t quite see what the movie’s going to be. The guys (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) wrote the script ten years ago– it took that long for it to find its way to the screen.

But the script has this freshness about it– it was the guys’ first script together and it has this fresh, spontaneous, brand new, kind of discovering it all kind of feel. Although it wasn’t made immediately, it got them other work. They went on to write the “Narnia” films.

But I like that this story puts this alcoholic killer into a self-help movie, then has fun with the whole notion of self-help and self examination, and explaining yourself to people. And, that the killer’s a gruff man from Buffalo sent to San Francisco, which is sort of touchy-feely, and has to express his emotions. I thought that was kind of fresh, and being a Montanan, I can sort of relate to that clash of cultures.

MERIN: Like being a fish out of water? Have you been that?

DAHL: Oh yeah. I mean I grew up in a small community in Montana, and now live in Los Angeles, and have for 20 years and still feel like….

MERIN: Like what the hell am I doing here?

DAHL: Yeah, exactly (he laughs).

MERIN: Well, what are you doing there?

DAHL: I’m makin’ movies, I guess.

MERIN: Did you change this script much?

DAHL: Not really. Ben, Tea Leoni and I all had a similar vision of the movie. We embraced what the script was– the kind of quirky nature of it. The only thing with did was go through the script with the writers and say what we needed to do to make the film affordable– for example, they’d written a middle-of-the-night snow scene with a snow plow in it, and we said we can’t do that because it’s too expensive. So it was a production rewrite. And, we expanded the scene where Ben and Tea first meet. Tea came up with some lines she wanted in– like about the eggroll. She’s very smart, very funny.

MERIN: How does “You Kill Me” fit into your career arc?

DAHL: Well, that’s an interesting question– I guess I love doing black comedies, but they’re so hard to get made. Years ago my agent told me everyone thinks about overall career, but that’s just a series of choices, and every now and again you get to make a big choice, and should ask yourself if this is a movie you want to do now.

MERIN: What about black comedy most appeals to you?

DAHL: Don’t get me wrong, I love big mainstream comedies, too. But I just think it’s that kind of– I mean, to me, “Blood Simple’s” a black comedy and when the guy tries to wipe blood from the floor with a nylon jacket, it’s just– that always cracks me up. I love what that does to me, because I’m thinking, that’s not gonna work, that’s not gonna wipe the blood, and I’m invested in it. And that absurdity, the things that are sort of off– I’ve always been a fan of that slightly off-centered approach. Like, the first movie I made, I set in Reno– not Las Vegas– just slightly off the beaten path.

MERIN: Do you feel safer there?

DAHL: Yeah, I do. There’re a lot of people who’re really good at the mainstream stuff, but I guess I go for subtle obscurity. (he laughs).

MERIN: Are you currently inventing any obscurity of your own?

DAHL: I’m always writing or putting something together, so I’ve got various things waiting for casts and all that, but nothing that’s at the green light stage.

Feature films are hard to get made because there’re so many elements involved– it’s almost like getting the planets to align. I mean you can have the actors, but you don‘t have the money, then you get the money, but you‘ve lost your actors to other projects. The thing about feature films is that there really doesn’t ever need to be another one made. What makes a feature film ignite, if you will, is that it feels like a great opportunity in a moment. It’s a rough business.

MERIN: What do you like about it?

DAHL: I love the process. It‘s like a gigantic art project. You sit in a room with a script, taking an idea and visualizing it, cast actors, then there’s the chaos of shooting, then taking footage to the editing room and putting it together, watching it take shape– I guess that’s the part I like the most.

MERIN: Do you visualize everything before hand?

DAHL: I used to– because I was a storyboard artist. As a young director, I worried about shooting enough to cover a scene. Over time, I learned to take advantage of talented people around me. Now, I’m confident I’ll cover the scene. I still visualize lighting, putting layers of light through a set to give it depth on screen.

It’s most important to create an environment where actors can believe where they are and can invent the scene for themselves on that day– then, my job is to photograph that.

This interview appeared in New York Press

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).