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John Dahl

Articles - Directing

In the 60’s, French film critics

began seeing patterns in some of the (mostly low-budget) American

dramas made post WWII. Seen as a symptom of post-war trauma and as

a reaction against the burgeoning suburban "Happy Days"

denial, they noted that films (many made by expatriate Europeans)

like The Big Heat, Out cf The Past, Kiss of Death and Double

Indemnity, besides greatly relying on nighttime exteriors, all

shared a cynical and dark view of humankind, hence their new term,

"film noir," literally, "black film."

Writer/director John

Dahl’s three films, Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, and the

upcoming The Last Seduction, work extensively with the

themes of film noir—­moneylust, entrapment, deceptive women, societal

corruption, the double, triple and even quadruple cross, innocents

caught up in rapidly snowballing criminal circumstances, and the

inability to escape our troubled pasts.

Unlike the "Naked

City" settings of the past, Dahl’s films inhabit the world

he knows best-that of stifling, small town white America. A world

of beat-up 70s­era white Cadillacs ("a great symbol of decaying

America"), nameless gas stations on the edge of town, no-tell

motels ("the kind with rubber sheets that haven’t been rented

in a month but still smell like smoke" laughs Dahl), truck

stops, and ugly small town bars ("those are special places,"

he says, without a hint of sarcasm).

Not surprisingly, Montana-born

Dahl started filmmaking at a decidedly backwoods locale, Montana

State University Film School.

"I had a great time there," he says of his days

at MSU. "In those days they sorta just gave you the equipment,

and as long as you could afford to put film in the camera you

could do what you wanted. There was not a lot of film theory offered,

but what I did was take a lot of drama courses and English courses,

because I realized early on I needed to be able to write and work

with actors if I was gonna make movies. For such a small school,

there are a lot of MSU grads working in the film business in LA."

Lara Flynn Boyle and Nicolas Cage in Red

Rock West.

The Death Mutants, Dahl’s first feature, "a totally irreverent send-up of

a horror film" was made in his senior year at MSU ("and

not seen since") with the help of David Warfield, who would

go on to co-write Kill Me Again.

Moving to Los Angeles,

Dahl found work in music video production and used those connections

(and experience as storyboard artist for Robocop, Something

Wild, and Married To The Mob) to shop around spec scripts,

the seventh of which became his first official feature release.

Produced for $4.5 million

by Propaganda Films (Kalifornia, Wild At Heart), primarily

a music video company, Kill Me Again marks the initial

exploration of themes that would come to full fruit in his later

films. Like all of Dahl’s films to date, Kill Me Again was

met with strong critical and industry acclaim, and studio indifference.

Red Rock West, made

in 1992 and currently in theatrical (and video) release, shows

Dahl moving up from the more derivative (if enjoyable) detective

fiction stylings of Kill Me Again to fully forge his own

style – a giddy, thrill-ride mix of film-noir conventions transposed

to recession-hit small town U.S.A., watchspring-tight plotting,

but with enough looseness to let the humor of absurd natural situations

come to life.

With a $7.5 million budget

again put up by Propaganda Films, the script was strong enough

to gain the services of three top stars: Nicolas Cage, Dennis

Hopper and Laura Flynn Boyle. Dalil feels the casting was paramount

to the film’s success.

"With Red Rock," he remembers, "we thought

we were walking the edge between where it’s gonna be pretty good

or just terrible, where people would be watching it and saying,

‘Oh, yeah – this is ridiculous. I can’t believe he would do that.’

We were very fortunate to be able to get Nicolas Cage for the

lead role because he really can walk that line between dramatic

reality and comedic absurdity better than almost anybody.

"Hopper, too, is amazing in his ability to be totally

menacing and yet bring out this complete nervous laughter. Near

the end of the movie there’s a real dopey line where he’s impaled

on this statue, dyin,’ and he says to Nicolas Cage­’Hey,come back

here! I’m not done with you!’ and Nick says, ‘You know what? I

am better than you.’ At one point we took those lines out

because we thought it was too on the nose, bad, just overkill.

But Nick and Dennis could get away with lines like that, and every

time I’ve seen it, people just go bananas at that scene."

Hopper, whose former

reputation as a drugged hell-raiser (including stabbing people,

performing stunts with explosives at rodeos and appearing in a Hustler magazine photo spread!) is legendary, is quite

a different man since his post – Blue Velvet sobriety.

"He’s one of the

nicest guys I met in Hollywood," Dahl says, "really

easy to work with, a complete gentleman. I think he feels he missed

out on those years he was intoxicated, and so he works harder

than anyone around. But I must admit, it was a little intimidating

working with him because at this point he’s directed seven movies,

and this is only my second movie. He coulda’ chewed me up and

spit me out!"

The story of a down-and-out

vet (Cage) who gets confused with a hired killer (Hopper), Red

Rock West, like classic film noir and the best drama, concentrates

not on the act of murder or robbery but on the human dramas and

moral dilemmas surrounding it.

Country singer Dwight Yoakam, who makes a strong debut as

a truck driver who almost shoots Cage, had contacted Dahl after

seeing Kill Me Again to work on a long-form music video.

When Dahl was impressed enough to offer him his first dramatic

role, Yoakam jumped at the chance.

"We had Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, J.T. Walsh and Laura

Flynn Boyle all staying at this tiny hotel in Wilcox, Arizona,"

Dahl remembers. "The town was like, ‘Yeah, this is exciting,’

but when Dwight showed up, everyone in that town just freaked


Yoakam’s closing theme, 1000 Miles From Nowhere, which

was later a Top 10 country hit, was written in 1992 when the film

was being made.

"I told him I wanted a Roy Orbison­ sounding song to

end the movie with, and he saw the final cut and really wanted

to have it be one of his songs over the end credits. So I said

‘great.’ That was in the morning. In the afternoon he called me

up and sang me this song over the phone."

Despite glowing reviews and strong business in its recent

limited city-by-city theatrical release, Red Rock West was

originally dumped straight to cable TV and videocassette almost

a year ago.

"Red Rock was

financed with a negative pick-up deal," he explains, "selling

off the cable TV, video and overseas rights. It costs so much

to release a film in the U.S. – a minimum of $3 million for prints

and advertising with a major distributor- they have to feel like

there is a guarantee of recouping that, which is sad for moviegoers,

because a lot of interesting small films are having a harder and

harder time reaching the theater.

"Studios have this blockbuster mentality. They have this

desire to make $200 million dollars, even if they have to spend

$100 million to do it. If it costs them $10 million and it makes

$30 million, they’re somehow disappointed, even though most businesses

would be thrilled with a $10 million dollar profit."

"That’s the beauty of a company like Roxie Releasing,"

he says of the distributor who later bought the film’s theatrical

rights. "It’s one guy, Bill Banning, who owns an art house

theater in San Francisco, and every now and then he obtains the

rights to a small movie. He’s kinda like David fighting Goliath.

They have a vested interest in pushing it, gathering word

of mouth, good reviews, going from city to city to city, but to

him it’s worth it, but unless you’re talking about a hundred million,

to Columbia Tri-Star it’s not worth bothering with."

"Finishing Red Rock was a really grueling process,

and I really wasn’t in the mood to work on starting another screenplay,

and out of the blue this quirky, very original script was sent

to me."

Unlike the past, the desire that drove so many of the classic

film noir’s characters is not merely implied. Originally called Buffalo Gals, The Last Seduction is one of the more sexually

explicit films in recent memory, as Bridget Gregory fucks her

suitors in every sense of the word, playing with their minds,

plotting against them and sexing them in an emotionless, animal

like fashion.

"They (ITC) were kinda worried it would get an NC-17,

but it got an R (rating). I think it’s because she’s in the driver’s

seat, sexually, the whole time. And that changes the whole dynamic.

She’s using him. She’s raping him from the first time she sees

him to the end of the movie.

When we were shooting that scene where they’re goin’ at it

against the chain link fence behind the bar, and there are people

walking out the back door, Peter thought it was gonna be pornographic.

I said, ‘Peter, this isn’t a Zalman King movie-you’re doin’ it

next to the trash cans! This is gonna be funny!"’

While already having played Europe and Australia, at this

writing the only place Yanks can definitely catch The Last

Seduction is on cable.

"With a small independent film, when distributors in

Hollywood look at it they get nervous, but if it starts getting

a reaction from critics or festival audiences, they get a little

more faith. But the makers of the film jumped the gun, haven’t

screened it much and were content just to sell it to HBO.

There is a distributor interested in it because of Red

Rock, they feel there’s a different audience there that would

see it in the theater as opposed to watching it on cable. I think

the success of Red Rock has broken conventional ideas,

and proven that lotsa people: a) don’t have cable, or B) still

like to see things on the big screen."

With only three films,

Dahl is amused to find himself being stereotyped by critics and

industry people.

"I never set out

to be a `film noir director,"’ he says. "Only after

being given the opportunity to make a few movies have I begun

seeing themes and patterns, but I have to say that what is there

is totally subconscious, not deliberately thought out at all.

I do like the moral dilemma, which is a big theme in film noir.

I think that’s something everyone sorta wrestles with.

"When you make a

movie, I feel you should try to make it as timeless as possible.

When dealing with situations, and making choices in writing or

directing, I kinda think, `well, how’s this gonna look in 15 years?

Or 20 years? What can we do to make it call the least attention

to itself as far as the time in which it was made’?

"I’ve always liked

classic themes, the Greek tragedy kind of dramatic structures.

To me, film noir is dealing with those timeless themes of drama,

not just having people sit around and smoke, drink and talk like

they’re in a Micky Spillane book in rooms with Venetian blinds

on the windows."

Excited to be making

a sharp change of style, Dahl is currently in Austria shooting Meltdown, a John (Halloween) Carpenter nuclear power

suspense story which will star Dolph Lundgren.

"My goal is just

to try to make films that are entertaining," Dahl says. "People

look down on ‘entertainment’ – but I think it requires a great

deal of artistic ability to involve and amuse an intelligent audience.

That in itself, I feel is a major accomplishment."

Author Keith Bearden

has written for Fangoria, Psychotronic, The Nose, and other publications. He is a high school dropout, laughs really

loud, and loves peanut butter.

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