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 hes a straight man, in a way, a very honest, almost child-like guy whos 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 hes this bizarrely damaged buy. I love that theres serious subject matter thats dealt with in a fun way, with a sense of humor.
MERIN: How would you characterize that sense of humor?
DAHL: Well, you know, its a kind of unusual black comedy– the kind of humor thats hard to sell to backers, because they dont quite see what the movies 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 wasnt 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 killers 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: Im 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, theyd written a middle-of-the-night snow scene with a snow plow in it, and we said we cant do that because its 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. Shes very smart, very funny.
MERIN: How does You Kill Me fit into your career arc?
DAHL: Well, thats an interesting question– I guess I love doing black comedies, but theyre so hard to get made. Years ago my agent told me everyone thinks about overall career, but thats 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: Dont get me wrong, I love big mainstream comedies, too. But I just think its that kind of– I mean, to me, Blood Simples a black comedy and when the guy tries to wipe blood from the floor with a nylon jacket, its just– that always cracks me up. I love what that does to me, because Im thinking, thats not gonna work, thats not gonna wipe the blood, and Im invested in it. And that absurdity, the things that are sort of off– Ive 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. Therere a lot of people whore 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: Im always writing or putting something together, so Ive got various things waiting for casts and all that, but nothing thats at the green light stage.
Feature films are hard to get made because therere so many elements involved– its almost like getting the planets to align. I mean you can have the actors, but you dont have the money, then you get the money, but youve lost your actors to other projects. The thing about feature films is that there really doesnt 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. Its a rough business.
MERIN: What do you like about it?
DAHL: I love the process. Its like a gigantic art project. You sit in a room with a script, taking an idea and visualizing it, cast actors, then theres the chaos of shooting, then taking footage to the editing room and putting it together, watching it take shape– I guess thats 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, Im confident Ill cover the scene. I still visualize lighting, putting layers of light through a set to give it depth on screen.
Its 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