A version of this column appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. To read my review of “Dom Hemingway,” click here.
Filmmaker Richard Shepard goes for the unexpected with “Dom Hemingway”
It may be a crime movie without a central heist, but the latest project from the writer/director of “The Matador” does have Jude Law with a beer gut and mutton chops and some of the most outrageous dialogue to come off the big screen in recent memory.
For his latest project, filmmaker Richard Shepard not only made a crime movie without a central heist or one last big score, he also gave a one-time Sexiest Man Alive a beer gut and mutton chops to carry off the caper — or lack thereof.
As surprising as those creative choices may be, neither is as outrageous as dialogue the writer/director concocted for his new film, “Dom Hemingway.”
“People want to discover a movie that’s sort of different than ‘Transformers 4.’ I mean, there, to be surprising is a good thing, I think. And from the very beginning, even of the casting of Jude Law in a part that you wouldn’t immediately think he’d be good in, we were trying to sort of keep it as fresh as possible,” Shepard said in a phone interview from Dallas, where he was on a publicity tour for the movie, opening Friday in Oklahoma City.
“Hopefully, the movie is full of surprises, but that’s because Dom is dangerous and profane and poetic and self-destructive — and you have no idea whether he’s gonna punch someone or shoot himself in the foot. I think if you enjoyed the movie, it’s because it’s sort of unexpected. You know, the goal wasn’t necessarily to just be unexpected, but it was to create a character who was an original in a way — and to do a crime movie in which crime is the least important part of the film.”
Law, whom People dubbed the world’s most desirable man in 2004, is nearly unrecognizable as Dom Hemingway, a reckless and cocky safecracker serving 12 years in prison after a job gone wrong. Suddenly back on the streets of London, the uninhibited ex-con immediately seeks out his stalwart pal Dickie (Richard E. Grant) and sets out to confront their mysterious boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir). Estranged from his daughter (Emilia Clarke) and widowed during his long confinement, Dom expects to be well paid for never ratting out Mr. Fontaine, but the loud-mouthed criminal’s quest to get what’s coming to him goes nothing like what he – or the audience – could ever anticipate.
“I’m sick of movies in which I know what’s gonna happen. And I wanted to create a movie in which you think you kind of know what it is, but it doesn’t turn out that way. But hopefully it’s fun and interesting and funny … it’s just sort of done slightly differently,” Shepard said.
“The crime movies that I tend to like — movies like’ Sexy Beast’ or ‘Mona Lisa’ — are far more character driven than they are crime driven. And there’s plenty of sort of crime movies that you can go and see, and they are sort of, to me, a dime a dozen and I’m not that interested in them. I wanted to do a character study. I mean, the movie is called ‘Dom Hemingway’ and not ‘One Last Heist.’ And I think the reason Jude responded to the script was ultimately he thought that this was an interesting character.”
Shepard knew he had a memorable character on his hands when he wrote his first scene with Dom, which turned out to be the eyebrow-raising first scene of the film, in which the unhinged con delivers a brash and blue soliloquy about his manhood during an encounter with a fellow inmate.
“I didn’t really know quite what the movie was gonna be, but I started writing that scene and by the time I was done with it I was like, ‘Oh man, I know this character and I could follow him almost anywhere he wanted to go. I could follow him to the pharmacy buying some toothpaste.’ The guy just gets into trouble all the time, and as I was writing it I just started caring more and more about him. And I think feeling a connection to him made it OK for me to put him in as much trouble as he got into because, ultimately, everything bad that happens to Dom is his own, he causes it himself,” Shepard said. “He became are really interesting character that way because he was self-destructive as well as being a gigantic egotist. So he would make me laugh and then I would also feel sorry for him and I thought that was challenging but also fun. And I like the way that he spoke. I liked the sort of poetic profanity that he lets out and so it was weirdly easy to write him.”
Making it work
With his acclaimed 2005 comic thriller “The Matador,” the New York native learned that casting a likeable actor like Pierce Brosnan could give him a big advantage in persuading filmgoers to root for a character even when he does dastardly deeds. Shepard, whose credits also include the Emmy-nominated documentary “I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale” and the Emmy-winning HBO series “Girls,” applied the same logic to casting Law in “Dom Hemingway.”
“Jude clearly fully went for it in this movie. You know, he gained weight, he showed his receding hairline, he yellowed his teeth and put on mutton chops and wore suits that were too tight for him and he just loved it. Handing Dom over to him and seeing him make Dom into the three-dimensional person that he is in the film, that was great. The writer in me was very happy with the director’s choice of Jude Law,” Shepard said with a laugh.
Plus, the writer got the thrill of having Law bring a South London authenticity to colorful threats to, among other things, “gut you with a dull cheese knife and sing Gilbert and Sullivan while I do it.”
“I like the idea that he is barely reined in at all. I mean, we live in such a world where we have to be very careful, rightly so, about what we say. We really don’t want to rock the boat … and Dom’s character, as he says in the movie is a dinosaur,” Shepard said. “It was fun to sort of let the inner part of my brain go crazy and have him say things and do things that got him into tons of trouble because it turned out to be really fun. But I wasn’t so worried about how far to push him or what he was to do in the movie, because ultimately I knew that If the movie worked, people would end up caring about Dom and that would surprise them and that would be good.
“You know, I think that the movie works, if it works for you that you find yourself rooting for a guy who normally you wouldn’t even root for.”