Director Andrew Dominik On Laughing at Our Fears

Weekly Lizard

Based on Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is more than just a crime caper. It’s an American story, a tale of the devastating fallout that occurs after a local economy crashes. Only in this case, it’s the criminal economy—and assistance comes in the form of bullets, not bailouts.

The film is written and directed by Andrew Dominik and stars Brad Pitt alongside Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta. In the following production notes, Dominik discusses what drew him towards Higgins’ book, and explains why he sees the movie as a comedy.

Richard Jenkins in Killing Them Softly
Richard Jenkins in Killing Them Softly
© 2012 – The Weinstein Company

I saw The Friends of Eddy Coyle on television and was immediately struck by the realism of the characters, situations and dialogue. I looked up George V. Higgins on the Internet and discovered that he had been a prosecuting attorney in Boston for 20 years, and at this point I got interested…here was a person who knew what he was writing about, had written another twenty novels, all of which, it seemed, were now out of print. Knowing Hollywood logic, the powers that be would have written Higgins off after The Friends of Eddy Coyle failed to make a splash at the box office, and here was a potentially untapped treasure trove of material. I ordered about ten of the books from secondhand booksellers and read them as they arrived in my mailbox. Cogan’s Trade was the third one in line, and it seemed immediately suitable for filmic treatment: great characters, great dialogue and very simple plot.

I originally imagined the film as a drama but as I got into it, it struck me that this was a story of an economic crisis; a crisis in a criminal economy supported by gambling, and the problem was caused by a failure to regulate. In other words: a microcosm of the larger story unfolding in America at the time.

James Gandolfini in Killing Them Softly
James Gandolfini in Killing Them Softly
© 2012 – The Weinstein Company

And then I started thinking about Red Alert, the book that was both the basis of Failsafe, a worthy but forgettable drama about a nuclear accident, and Dr. Strangelove, which was a comedic treatment of exactly the same plot. Kubrick gave us an opportunity to laugh at our fears, and I began to think that maybe I could provide a way for people to laugh at the economic crisis that brought the world to the brink of disaster.

I’ve always felt that crime dramas are essentially about capitalism, since they show the capitalist idea functioning in its most base form. It’s also the only genre where it’s completely acceptable that the characters are motivated only by a desire for money. None of this “family values,” “follow your dream,” moral compass bullshit.

Ray Liotta in Killing Them Softly
Ray Liotta in Killing Them Softly
© 2012 – The Weinstein Company

I saw a film populated by people in pursuit of a buck, who had absolutely no idea how unhappy they were, who found their jobs to be a total drag, who were victim to indecisive, incompetent bosses, anesthetizing themselves with drugs, sex, and alcohol, who never want to look their victims in the eye, and I thought: this has to be a comedy.

I contacted Brad and explained the basic idea by text; I was trying to gauge his interest before I moved on. I assumed at the time that he had bigger fish to fry and wouldn’t be interested in doing a modestly budgeted movie on such short notice, but he responded immediately and 45 minutes later he had not only agreed to do it, but we had a deal hammered out. All that was left to do was notify the agents, call Dede [Gardner], and choose a financier. I actually had one at the time, but this budget for a Brad Pitt movie seemed too good to be true, so he pulled out. Hollywood is a crazy town, and if you try and do someone a favor there, they are likely to run away screaming.

Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly
Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly
© 2012 – The Weinstein Company

The rest was pretty straightforward. We wanted to shoot a collapsed economy in a state that offered the best rebates. New Orleans seemed more practical than Detroit, so we hired as many of the key principals from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as we could, and the best actors who were available, and went there and made a movie. The result is Killing Them Softly.

Killing Them Softly opens wide in theaters November 30th. Click to watch the trailer.