Dom Hemingway: A challenging guy, a challenging role
Jude Law is more than just a pretty boy. That’s something writer-director Richard Shepard capitalizes on with Dom Hemingway. The film centers on Dom (Law) and the aftermath of his release from prison after serving a 12-year sentence. Prone to violent outbursts, Dom and his sidekick (Richard E. Grant) quickly start to get into trouble as they try to retrieve the money that Dom feels is rightfully his for keeping his mouth shut in prison. A dark comedy that serves as a morbidly funny character study, the film really shows another side of Law. Shepard recently sat with us to talk about the film.
Talk about the original concept for the film.
I don’t write by outline. I just wanted to create an unusual character. I wanted to make a crime movie that didn’t involve a crime. The crime actually happens 12 years before the story starts. As I was writing Dom, I was enjoying his company. I kept putting him in these situations and watching him fuck things up. All of that was making me laugh. I loved this guy but he was a mess. He’s a good time. It got to the point where I could write Dom going to the supermarket and it would be entertaining to me because he would do something insane. I wanted to challenge an audience. From the beginning of the movie, the audience would have an expectation about what the movie was about and by the end, it would be something different. I hope they go, “I can’t believe I care for this guy and I’m rooting for him and I want him to win, even though everything logically I shouldn’t be rooting for him.”
Did you know that first scene was going to be the first scene from the start?
That was the first scene I wrote. Jude said, “If we do this movie, I want that to be the first scene we shoot.” It was the first scene we shot. It set a tone.
Did you know what Dom would look like?
I had a good idea. I wanted him to have mutton chops. Once Jude came on, it became this specific thing. Jude is known as this heart throb, good looking guy. But he’s on the other side of 40 and his hair is receding. Dom is a mess of a guy but we put a device in his nose to make it look broken and we put some fake teeth on to give him the smoker’s palate. That, along with the suit that was too tight for him, gave Jude a chance to lose himself in that character.
I read he gained some weight for the role too.
I asked him to gain weight. He’s a pretty skinny guy. I said I thought that Dom worked out in prison because he’s an egoist and wants to look good all the time. But he probably gained some weight and has a potbelly too. Jude is an all-in actor, so spending a summer eating fish and chips and drinking beer wasn’t that hard. It was probably enjoyable. But Jude felt that between smoking cigarettes and drinking ten sodas a day as well as the fake beer he drank when we were shooting, he got pretty unhealthy, which made sense for Dom.
How did you go about casting him?
I wanted him from the beginning. I’ve been a big fan. I sensed there’s more to him than he’s allowed to do. Since he’s no longer the 27-year-old lead actor, I think there’s some question about what to do with him. He’s been playing Dr. Watson rather than Holmes. I had a sense that he might be interested. I liked the idea that it would be a challenge for him and for the audience. If you give an audience what they want, that’s fine if it’s a certain type of movie, but if you’re making an independent movie that is quirky and original, the idea is to be surprising. We do that with the first scene. It’s not just what Dom is doing and saying but it’s also who is playing Dom. You don’t expect Jude Law to be doing this.
So he read the script and then when happened?
I got on a plane and literally went straight to a pub. I was in New York at the time. I flew out there for 24 hours and sat with him a pub for five hours. We talked about music and how I saw the movie. It’s a slow burn courtship in that way. You’re both assessing each other. For me, it’s “does he understand the movie I want to make or does he secretly want to make another movie?” For him, it’s “is this guy the guy who’s going to make the movie I want to make.” Once he said yes, he became a huge partner in crime for me. He was the person I turned to all the time. We were in it together to create Dom from the look of it to the editing. We both had a real affinity for Dom. I think it shows in the movie and you get the sense that we care for Dom, warts and all.
Talk about the guy who played his sidekick.
His name is Richard E. Grant. He was in Withnail and I. I wrote the movie with him in mind for that part even though I didn’t know him. I had always been a fan of his from afar. I hadn’t seen him in ten years. When we were casting it, I thought Richard E. Grant would be good to play his sidekick. He’s older than Dom and he’s posh in a way. He’s got retro glasses. He’s one of the keys to the film working. His reactions to Dom are where we are allowed to laugh. We’re with him when he’s thinking, “Please don’t fuck something up.” He had been working in London on stuff that we don’t see. He was really excited. It had been awhile since he had a challenging role. We had a fun time making the movie. He knew quickly that Jude was in it to win it. There’s a trickledown theory in filmmaking and in economics. When the top person is in there for the right reasons, everyone else comes along. And it’s not just a movie where they’re going to learn their lines. They’re not going to complain that their trailer isn’t big enough or that they’re not making enough money. You can’t lose because it’s not a paycheck job. Jude was doing something extraordinary in this movie every day both physically and emotionally. Verbally. He’s funny and scary and dark and light. All the other actors felt like they were getting a front row seat and seeing him work.
The film has an interesting plot structure in that it’s not a heist film. Talk about that decision.
I like a good heist movie as much as the next person. I’m not against them. I think they’ve been done a little too much. I don’t have an interest in that. I wanted to follow a character who might be the third supporting character in another movie but is the lead character in this movie. That is what was challenging to me. Hopefully, you’re getting the same entertainment you would from a heist movie. With not a lot of money comes more freedom. If this were a $50 million movie, we would have to have a big heist. Dom couldn’t be so rough around the edges because you have to make a certain amount of money back. When you get into smaller movies, audiences can seek this out as an alternative and enjoy it a little bit more. I hope it’s just enough off kilter.
It’s not even about him trying to get his money back.
For me, it’s about Dom taking one step forward in the right direction. He’s constantly messing up his life and hopefully by the end of the movie, you just want him to make it work his daughter. He has an opportunity to maybe get his life together. That’s an interesting tension to put in the movie because it’s ultimately so very small. Hopefully, it’s done well and you have the same emotional investment.
What do you anticipate in terms of audience response? It seems like a British movie, even though you’re not British.
Well, it is a British movie in that we made it in England with a British cast. We’ve had great reaction showing it in America, whether it’s been at the Toronto Festival or other festivals. Yes, it’s set in Britain and yes it’s about British characters but I think that makes it slightly exotic. There’s something slightly exotic about it. He’s a larger-than-life character but all too human. I think there’s relatability even if it is a little foreign. I like setting movies in other countries and it’s nice to travel vicariously. Part of the movie is shot in the south of France. You get that international movie feeling. The producer is a big believer in that where the cast eats dinner is as important as anything else. I have made a lot of movies, but this was on the level of fantasy. We rehearsed at the chateau and we had a time to work out all the kinks and experiment. We knew what we were doing and when you go in knowing what you’re doing, you can be in a place of fine tuning and really enjoying yourself. A lot of the tension as a director is trying to make it work in the time we have. If you already worked on the kinks, you have a less stressful day or days. That was an amazing three weeks. Everyone was away from their homes and setting a film on location has a lot of positives both for the audience and for the film crew. There’s nothing more bonding than being at the hotel bar after you’re done shooting. There’s a bonding experience.
Did you pick the songs?
We have a music supervisor to make the deals but I had written most of that music into the script. I knew I wanted the Alarm at the beginning and that I wanted The Waterboys’ song. Jude selected the Pixies for the end credits. This is the music of Dom. I can imagine him listening to the Alarm and being an angry young man and now he’s an angry middle-aged man. It’s the music of my youth too. When we were cutting the movie, we put the Alarm on and I was like, “This fucking works.” I was really into it. It felt great.