Updating a realistic economic story from a little-known 1974 novel, and infusing the plot with dialogue-driven scenes, impressive stunts and diverse characters, can be challenging for many screenwriters and directors. But crime filmmaker Andrew Dominik effortlessly did just that with his new crime drama thriller ‘Killing Them Softly,’ which is based on author George V. Higgins’ book ‘Cogan’s Trade.’ While the characters in the film all have differing motives that drive their actions, they’re all similar in the fact that they’re affected by the 2008 economic crisis, and they’re driven to take extreme measures to get what they want.
‘Killing Them Softly’ follows Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola), a longtime hanger-on in the criminal world, as he comes up with a seemingly fool-proof plan to rob a mob-protected card game. To complete the theft, he hires Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a young crook who was just released from jail and is broke. Frankie persuades Johnny to also bring on Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), an Australian junkie whose latest criminal enterprise involves dog theft. Their plan to make fast money in the broken-down city of New Orleans is unfolded against the presidential politics and America’s financial crisis of 2008.
The tree feel certain that their plan will go on without any problems, as they think the mob will assume the game’s regular dealer, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), devised the plan, as he robbed it once before. Frankie and Russell do indeed manage to pull off the heist without being recognized. But the mob immediately begins investigating the robbery by bringing in experienced enforcer, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt). He aims to restore the status quo and prove that no one can capsize the local criminal economy.
While bringing his customary professionalism to the job, Jackie finds himself navigating complications, including a client who communicates through a middle-manager and driver (Richard Jenkins). Jackie also hires the trusted hitman Mickey (James Gandolfini) to kill one of the robbers, but he turns unpredictable. In the end, it’s up to the efficient Jackie to get the job done right.
Mendelsohn generously took the time recently to sit down at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria hotel to discuss filming the crime drama thriller. Among other things, the actor discussed what drew him to the role of Russell, what it was like working with McNairy and Dominik and what the transition from shooting movies in his native Australia to appearing in America films was like.
ShockYa (SY): In ‘Killing Them Softly,’ you portray the dog-kidnapping Russell, who is persuaded by Frankie in the beginning of the film to rob Markie Trattman’s Mob-protected card game. What was it about the character and the script that convinced you to take on the role?
Ben Mendelsohn (BM): The way Andrew had written it, there were these beautiful speeches. The two guys that Scoot and I play are beautiful low-lives that have very base-level concerns, like how to get the money to get the next load of drugs, or hopefully a woman. They have very base-level concerns. Russell takes the role of a wise superior, and it was so vivid. Andrew writes very strong characters, and they’re a pleasure. There were also big dialogues.
SY: Speaking of Scoot, the main character Russell interacts with in the film is his character, Frankie. What was your working relationship with Scoot like while you were filming?
BM: Scoot plays the same kind of flawed character. It was very good, Scoot and I turned up about first, out of anyone, in terms of when we actually went to New Orleans to shoot. We were there really early, on the ground. We just sort of buddied up from the beginning. We ended up shifting into a place together.
We just sort of jumped in. Scoot was great, and a really great guy to work with. He was an easy guy to be around. He’s here in New York, working on something else at the moment. I just got into town, and walked over to where he’s staying. We developed a friendship. Sometimes you get that, but not always. But I really liked Scoot. We had a good relationship.
Scoot’s visibility prior to this, his last bunch of work, much like my own visibility, wasn’t high, certainly in terms of mass audience in America. So we were pretty keen to make our mark.
SY: Russell is mainly driven to obtain fast money so that he can buy drugs, even if it puts the heist in jeopardy. How did you prepare to play a character who was only concerned about getting drugs?
BM: We just kind of hung out in New Orleans, which is a very storied city, much like the biggest, best city in the world. In terms of prep, the script gave you a lot of stuff. It gave a bit of make-up and context, but we just hung out. Basically, as far as my stuff is concerned, the more this person enjoyed what he was doing, the better. That’s pretty easy.
SY: Andrew Dominik, with whom you’ve had a long-term friendship, both adapted the screenplay from the novel and directed the film. How did having a personal relationship with Andrew affect or influence your working relationship with him on the set?
BM: Andrew and I have known each other for nearly a quarter of a century. We come from the same place, in Melbourne, Australia. Looking back on it, it turned out to be one of those times and places that a lot of different and good people came out of it.
Like the musician Nick Cave came out of that area. Kylie MInogue, on the other end of the spectrum, came out of that same place and time. There were also some pretty interesting filmmakers, like John Hillcoat. Coming from Melbourne, at that time, isn’t a bad class to be a part of.
But Andrew and I have known each other for a long time. We talked about working together for a long time. This one just came about, late in the day, too. I was about to take another job, and I got a call about this one. This was a much more preferable character; it was a lot more vivid and fun. We finally got to do something together, because we’ve been talking about it. I knew Andrew before Andrew was Andrew.
SY: Besides writing the script, Andrew also directed the film. Do you prefer working with directors who also write the script?
BM: Yeah. One of the good things about having someone write the script, as well as direct it, is that you can work with them at depth about what it is they want, and what it is they’re hoping to get. One of the practices I try to do, as best I can, is to get an idea of what the director’s hoping for. So I usually check in with whoever’s directing how they want it.
Andrew and I have a lot of shorthand and shared experiences. But I think Scoot was much better at following the script, and executing things than I was. I think Andrew had to remind me what certain lines were. But Scoot didn’t have any of those problems, he was more right on. I was more erratic.
SY: Was there any improv on the set?
BM: A little bit, yeah. You can see some of it, it’s still sort of there. This is sort of what I’m talking about. Scoot had all these lines down every day, he knew every word. Me, not as good as Scoot. Sometimes, Andrew would say, okay, just talk about this and that. So there was some riffing.
SY: George V. Higgins’ novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ served as the inspiration for the screenplay for ‘Killing Them Softly.’ How much knowledge did you have of the book and the story before you accepted the role of Russell? Did you read the book before you began shooting?
BM: None at all. I haven’t read the book.
SY: Some of the other actors in the film include Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta, with whom you had a scene with. Did you get to watch the other actors work during shooting?
BM: I had a scene with Ray, because we do over his card game. But the other guys, no. You don’t want to, genuinely speaking, go and hang out there when you’re not filming. You don’t really want to go to the office just to hang out, in any job, and acting’s no different.
But it’s a fantastic bunch of people. I’ve met a few of them, but I haven’t met all of them. There are some people who have done some mighty, mighty work. So it’s good to be in good company.
SY: While you first gained fame in your native Australia, you have garnered attention in the U.S. recently, with your AFI-winning turn as Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody in last year’s thriller ‘Animal Kingdom.’ Since then, you’ve appeared in such American films as ‘Killer Elite,’ ‘Trespass’ and ‘The Dark Knight Rises.’ What was the transition from the Australian films to the American movies?
BM: The actual heart of the set, where the lights and cameras are pointing, and the other actors are, that space always remains the same, to a degree. But the stuff around it changes. You think about that stuff a lot before hand, and you feel nervous in your first time, because you don’t know if it’s going to be different. But they pretty much run very similarly, like most of the filmmaking work, in the way that these things happen. But you have to do accent stuff more, but other than that, same old, same old.
SY: ‘Killing Them Softly’ reflects the problems plaguing modern society, including the 2008 economic crisis. Andrew has said that he felt the movie had to be a comedy, however, as the characters hate their jobs and lives, and numb their pain with drugs. Do you think it was important for the film to have that comedy?
BM: Well, you could have made the movie straight down the line. But I think when Andrew was developing it, it was in the midst of the crisis. At that time, there was certainly this feeling that the sky was falling, and this was it. There was the thought that had happened was going to be it. I think there are still people who still feel that way, that we’re on shaky ground before it all goes bad again.
I really like that, I think that it elevates it to another level. I get a kick out of that part of it, the political speeches going on in the background. As Andrew quite elegantly says, this is a film about an economic crisis. Something happens, and these guys go mess with the normal running of things, and do something that causes a real upset in the balances. Along comes Jackie, and has to make it right. Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins discuss the best way for things to go forward.
SY: Killing Them Softly has been receiving positive reviews from critics. What was your reaction when you heard critics were embracing the film?
BM: It’s always good to get those reviews. You work hard on these things, and cross your fingers that people dig it. People have been digging it.
SY: Do you have any upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?
BM: Yeah, I’ve got ‘The Place Beyond the Pines,’ which was directed by Derek Cianfrance, the guy who did ‘Blue Valentine.’ That’s with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes.
Then there’s a film called ‘Two Mothers,’ which we shot in Australia with Naomi Watts and James Frencheville, the boy in ‘Animal Kingdom.’ That’s also coming out.
Then there’s also stuff that will be going into shooting. There’s a couple things, but it’s best if one not say anything, in case they fall over, or if someone else ends up getting cast in the role, or some unforeseen thing like that happens. But it’s looking okay, it’s not looking bad.
Written by: Karen Benardello