Opening April 2nd, “Dom Hemingway” is a dark, edgy, character-driven comedy that’s deftly directed by Richard Shepard. Jude Law plays the titular character, a larger-than-life safecracker with a loose fuse who is funny, profane, and dangerous. After twelve years in prison, he sets off with his partner in crime, Dickie (Richard E. Grant), looking to collect what he’s owed for keeping his mouth shut and protecting his boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir). After a near death experience, Dom tries to re-connect with his estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke), but is soon drawn back into the only world he knows, looking to settle the ultimate debt. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett also stars.
In an exclusive interview, Shepard talked about what inspired him to write and direct “Dom Hemingway,” how he developed the idea for such a surprising and memorable character, what Law brought to the role that made his outrageous character charismatic and likeable, how he fostered an atmosphere on set that allowed great actors to do their best work, what the creative team contributed to the look of the film, and why he believes the way you cast your crew is as important as the way you cast your movie. Shepard also discussed doing a fourth season of the HBO series “Girls” and writing the pilot for the new TV series “Salem” that premieres on WGN America on April 20th.
Here what Shepard had to tell me about his new movie:
QUESTION: I thought this was such a cool film. I loved it.
RICHARD SHEPARD: Thank you.
Q: I’m wondering if you can talk about how the project first came together?
SHEPARD: I’m a big fan of British crime movies and I wanted to make one, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I’d been thinking about a guy getting out of prison, and then, one day, the opening sequence in the movie, the opening monologue … I started writing it and it just made me laugh. When I was done with it, literally three pages in, I was like, “I don’t know what this movie is about, but I’m dying now to write it. I’ll write this in three weeks because I will follow Dom anywhere. Anything he does, I want to spend time with him doing. It was an enormous amount of fun writing the script and continued all the way through the process. You may not want to go to a pub with Dom because he’ll get into a fight, but when you’re in an imaginary world, you kind of want to go to a pub with him because he’s going to get into a fight.
Q: How did you develop the idea for such a singular character? What was your creative process like?
SHEPARD: Dom is larger than life, but he’s a deeply flawed human being. He shoots his mouth off, but he also shoots himself in the foot. I was interested in that. I was interested in a character that was going to be difficult for people to like, but also kind of impossible not to love. It was a challenge really. Can I get people to care about him, deeply hopefully, like deeply invested in a guy who at first you might be like, “I don’t know if I want to spend that much time with him. He’s violent, he’s profane, and all of these things.” So, that was a challenge, but also part of the reason I think Jude was so attracted to the part, and part of the reason that it was just so much fun, because you just don’t know what he’s going to do. As a writer, it’s fun to free yourself enough to tap into some darker elements of your personality that sometimes I don’t even know exist. It doesn’t feel like work.
Q: Can you talk about the opening sequence and how that sets Dom Hemingway up as a character for the audience?
SHEPARD: Well, the opening of the movie he’s naked. At first, you don’t even realize that he’s talking to someone else. Or is he talking to someone else? You don’t know what’s going on, and then you realize what’s going on. It’s not what you thought and you’re like, “Is that really happening?” You realize that Dom is a guy who speaks unlike most people, and it may be difficult to listen to what he is saying from the content, but how he’s saying it is weirdly enjoyable. If you think about Dom throughout the whole movie, there are times he’s saying stuff where you’re like, “Don’t say that!” but you’re enjoying the way he’s saying the things that you don’t want him to say. That was a fun thing to do, and ultimately the reason that Jude was attracted to the part, because if Dom wasn’t so interestingly poetically verbal and you take all of that away, then it’s just a story about a guy getting out of jail trying to get his money back and it’s nothing. It’s boring. It’s a cliché movie that you don’t want to see. But because Dom is so much fun, it’s suddenly… That’s why the movie is called “Dom Hemingway” and not called “The Revenge of…” or “The Money of…” It’s not about that. The plot is secondary to this guy.
Q: When you were writing this, did you have these actors in mind? How did they first become involved?
SHEPARD: I didn’t have Jude in mind at all, but I had been a huge Jude fan as an actor from the very beginning. I had seen him recently in this movie, “Contagion,” right before we started casting this movie, and I thought that he had showed a darkness that I hadn’t really seen before. I was like he might actually be ready to let himself really go. I wanted a British actor who had not played a criminal like this before, because I feel like we don’t want to repeat ourselves, and we don’t want to see something that someone’s already done before. That’s already cutting out 80 percent of the British actors so the list was not that long. Also, I needed someone who was inherently charismatic that you kind of love even when he does dastardly things, and Jude is definitely that. There was a lot on the table. If Jude had said no, the list was not that long after him. So, I really went after Jude aggressively to try and get him to do the movie. And then, once he did say yes, his commitment was [amazing]. Literally, I’ve never worked with an actor who’s so committed to every part of the filmmaking process – the rehearsal time we had, the discussion about wardrobe and looks, the discussion about other actors in the movie, the discussion about music, the discussions about everything – to the point where we both loved Dom so much as a character that we had both created that we sort of enjoyed his company endlessly.
Q: Was it hard to strike the right balance for a character like this so that your audience can still empathize with him and root for him despite his outrageous behavior?
SHEPARD: Yes, but that’s Jude. He’s a movie star. He really is. And as he gets older, he’s a movie star who’s a character actor. That is a huge gift for him. In a way, he had his pretty boy phase. Obviously, he’s still a very good-looking man. He’s very sexy in the movie, even if he looks like kind of a mess. There’s something very interesting there. He just has that. He is a movie star, but as he segues to being more of a character actor, that’s why Dom is sort of a combination of that. Dom thinks he’s the star of his own movie. Dom is in a $100 million blockbuster, not an $8 million dark comedy. Dom is a movie star, so he thinks he’s sexy, and he thinks he’s everything, and he thinks he looks great in his suit and all of this stuff. That makes an audience interested in this guy. Who is it? Jude got that and deeply got the character. It was a hard character to say goodbye to for all of us. I felt a sadness, like I had a breakup at the end of the movie.
Q: Can you talk about casting Richard E. Grant who does a terrific job playing this oddball sidekick and friend to Dom? The interaction between the two of them adds so much dimension to the story and makes an audience care about them.
SHEPARD: Well, Richard E. Grant had starred in a movie called “Withnail & I” which you should see on Netflix because it’s streaming and you’ll thank me. You’ll send me an email and thank me. I think it’s actually the best filmed comedy ever made, ever. Some would say, “You’re crazy. It’s got to be “The Apartment,” it’s got to be…” and I’m like, “Withnail & I.” When I was writing this part, I was like I want Richard E. Grant to play Dickie. I don’t know him, but I have always loved him, and he doesn’t work enough, and I need to write a part for him. And I did, and we somehow got him. Theirs is a very odd friendship. Richard E. Grant plays him sort of as a posh, not like he’s an East End guy. And you’re like why would they ever be friends? Yet you deeply believe that they’re friends. You deeply understand that. And that, to me, was like again, how many things can you subvert? Jude Law is not the person you’d expect to play Dom. That’s a subversion. The relationship between Dickie and Dom doesn’t seem like it would ever happen, yet you completely believe that. So that’s a subversion. The more you do that, suddenly and hopefully you have a movie full of surprises, and that, to me, is what makes interesting cinema. It’s to surprise an audience. We’re all so jaded. We’ve seen so many movies. We know what’s going to happen in every single movie. I mean, there are some movies where I’m like why do I even need to keep watching? And so, if you can make a movie in which you’re completely surprising the audience left and right, and left and right, then you’ve won. If a jaded film critic or reporter or an audience is like, “I didn’t see that one coming,” that to me is like a victory.
Q: I loved the scenes between Jude Law and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett towards the end of the film. There’s wonderful physical comedy as well as quirky humor that you combine so well. As a director, how do you know how far to push your cast?
SHEPARD: Nina Gold cast the movie and she introduced me to an enormous amount of really talented British actors. I mean, Richard E. Grant and Jude Law were people who we went after, and other than Demian Bichir, everyone else auditioned for it. I was meeting a lot of these British actors for the first time. Nina has just exquisite taste. And then, you assemble a group and you cast everyone. Jude auditioned with a lot of the actors. He auditioned with the guy who played Lestor, Jr. He auditioned with Emilia Clarke. So he auditioned with these actors, and a number of people auditioned, and we found the people we ended up with. Once you’ve assembled these groups of people, they either get this material or they don’t. It is an interesting thing. I find that in my scripts, you either get it or you don’t. I assume that if an actor gets it and is able to read the dialogue in a certain way that makes it sing, that they get the sense of humor about it. Once you realize they get it, then you can push them where you want to push them because you’re not trying to teach a dog new tricks. That may be the wrong metaphor, but you’re not trying to explain the world to them. They get the world. So now you’re pushing them and having fun, and it’s like, “What would happen if you did this?” or “Try and do this.” As a director, especially when you get a chance to rehearse like we did, I love to try things and fail. It’s like, “Why don’t you do it while you’re all sitting down?” or “Why don’t you do it while you’re standing up?” or “Why don’t you do this?” or “Why don’t you move there?” And then, they’ll come up with stuff and say, “I don’t want to do that. I would move over here.” If you’re in a creative environment, that’s a really nice place to be in, and then you can pick and choose what you want. By the time we got to shooting this movie, we had rehearsed almost every scene. So, we were able to shoot it in 30 days and just bang through it because we knew what we were doing. And then, it really was just about getting the camera on Jude and getting it on the other actors and letting them go and kind of staying out of their way.
Q: Is there anything you wish you’d known on day one? Were there any surprises?
SHEPARD: Every movie is a surprise. That’s what is so fun about it. You can be planning a movie for years, and then you’d better be surprised every day, or it’s going to be stale. One of my favorite parts about directing is the part where I’m not even really working, when I’m just watching between “action” and “cut,” because then you’re just seeing these actors doing it. And yes, I have to give direction, but when it’s really good, you’re just lost in it. Sometimes a take would be done with Jude and I would have no notes because I was just with him. I’m like, “Okay, let’s try it again, maybe that one line.” But really, you’re just in it and enjoying it. I think it’s because I come from independent film. I’ve always made independent film without a lot of money. To me, it’s not a lot about, “Oh I would redo this if I could go back to day one.” I’m like this is the movie I shot. This is the experience I shot. Yeah, maybe if we reshot the scene or redid the scene, it could be slightly better. It’s very rare that happens though. I just wanted deeply to create a character that was memorable and Jude was up for that. And so, we actually had just a really good time. Sometimes they say if you have a good time when you’re making a movie, the movie isn’t that good. This is definitely not that and this was a lot of fun to make, too.
Q: Can you talk about the contributions of your creative team?
SHEPARD: We had a great group of people. The producer of the movie, Jeremy Thomas, is one of these old school British producers who produced everything from “The Last Emperor” to “Sexy Beast” which is one of my favorite crime movies. Jeremy is one of those guys who has a loyal group of people who work with him, and he introduced me to a lot of the crew. We had a great D.P., Giles Nuttgens, and a great Production Designer, Laurence Dorman. Laurence is the guy who suggested these monkey portraits for that sequence and made that whole scene ten times better. I think the way you cast your crew is as important as the way your cast your movie. I interview a lot of people for every job, and then I want people who are willing to challenge me and to come up with ideas different than my own, and who understand what I want and want to please me, but at the same time have a strong opinion. If you have that group of people who are both nice and also creative, then you have surprises like a room with monkeys in them. That has taken a very good scene and just made it a great scene. I want my movies to be visually interesting and to have a lot of energy and be colorful and full of life, because as I said, Dom is colorful and full of life.
Julian Day did an incredible job on the Costume Design. We made those suits, and they were made slightly small so that Jude would bulge out of them, because we assumed he’d gained some weight in prison. We had fun. Julian found those boots for Jude, and as soon as he put them on, he was like, “These are Dom’s!” He was sold. It was perfect. An actor’s wardrobe has a hugely undervalued importance. When an actor feels uncomfortable in their wardrobe, they suddenly start to find the character. These meetings that happened early on in the process between the wardrobe people and the actors, those three are all so important and I’m involved in all of them and I’m ultra-specifically involved because I know that this sets the tone for the whole movie. If he doesn’t find that wardrobe right, he doesn’t find that character right. So, the process of finding the right wardrobe, the right makeup, the way his beard was, the way his hair was, these conversations led us down the road to the point where when the suit was finally made and we put Jude in it and then we cut his hair and shaved his beard and put his hair back, he was Dom. It was like we’d won the war before the first gunshot.
Q: What are you working on now? I know you were filming “Salem.” Can you talk a little bit about that? Also, do you have any other upcoming projects that you’re planning to write or direct?
SHEPARD: I’ve been lucky enough to direct “Girls” for the last three years. I’m going to do a fourth season. I do a few of those episodes of “Girls” each summer and it’s really the greatest job in the world. But I also direct a lot of TV pilots and “Salem” is a pilot, although it’s the first of thirteen episodes. It’s already been ordered. It’s going to be on in April. It’s a sexy horror world set during the Witch Trials and it is a huge production. It’s so unlike anything I’ve ever done and actually I’m really proud of it. To go from “Girls” to “Dom Hemingway” to “Salem” is like three completely different worlds, and it’s fun to wear those different sorts of hats. “Salem” is done and I’m writing a new script right now. I don’t like to talk about it because you never know, but I love making movies, so I hope to be able to continue.