Crime films often thrive on their suspense and anticipation of whether or not the criminals are going to successfully pull off an intriguing heist and ultimately get what they truly want. But writer-director Richard Shepard’s new independent crime comedy-drama, ‘Dom Hemingway,’ instead thrives on its captivating contradictions, from beginning with the criminal finishing his prison sentence, and then unsuccessfully reintegrating back into the subculture he prospered in before he was arrested. The title character, played by an enthralling Jude Law, creatively brought the filmmaker’s character and story to life. He showed that even though Dom initially strived to prove he hadn’t changed while in jail, he soon subtly and unwittingly changed as he tried to reconect with his estranged daughter and start living an honorable life.
‘Dom Hemingway’ follows the title character, a larger-than-life recently paroled ex-con who spent the past 12 years in prison for not revealing his partners in his last safe heist. Upon his release, he reunites with his partner-in-crime, Dickie (Richard E. Grant), as he looks to collect what he’s owed for keeping quiet and protecting his boss. Dom and Rickie travel to the crime boss’ French estate to collect the struggling anti-hero’s money.
After the two survive an enlightening near-death experience and return to London, Dom declares he’s going to positively change his life. He sets out to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke), a musician who’s hesitant to bring her father back into her life and endanger her young son. Without any plausible prospects, Dom is soon reluctantly drawn back into his old life of crime, as he looks for a way to settle the ultimate debt.
Shepard generously took the time recently to sit down to talk about shooting ‘Dom Hemingway’ during an exclusive interview at New York City’s Crosby Hotel. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how he wrote the script for the crime comedy drama, as he wanted to chronicle a ex-convict who’s both outrageous and pathetic, who will become beloved by viewers as he’s struggling to readjust to life in society; how he didn’t have Law in mind as the title character as he was writing the script, but knew the actor would be perfect for the role, because he’s naturally charming, which helped create an authenticity in his portrayal; and how it helped that he was able to have a lot of rehearsal time with the cast before they began filming, since they only had 30 days to shoot the movie, or no time to prepare on the set.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote the script for the new crime comedy drama, ‘Dom Hemingway.’ How did you come up with the idea for the story? What was the overall writing experience like for you-what kind of research did you do before you began penning the script?
Richard Shepard (RS): I wanted to tell a story about a criminal who was coming out of jail. But I wanted to do one that was totally different than what you would normally expect from a genre piece like that. I’m not interested in crime in general, so I didn’t want a big crime in the movie.
I just wanted to follow a guy who’s outrageous, crazy and violent, but also loveable and pathetic at the same time. (laughs) I wanted to have a very difficult character to like, but one that viewers will hopefully love by the end of the movie.
As soon as I found the voice of Dom, it was really easy to write. I really enjoyed spending time with him as a writer. I also certainly enjoyed spending time with him as a director. Dom is this larger-than-life character who is fully entertaining, especially since he’s fictional. He won’t smash me in the face, but he may smash someone else in the face!
SY: Besides penning the screenplay, you also directed the film. Was it always your intention to helm the movie as you were writing the script? Did scribing the film help you in your directorial duties on the set?
RS: Yes, I always planned on directing the film. It’s always helpful if you’re the writer and director, because you know the material so deeply. The actors have faith in you that’s different than when you’re just the director. They know you created the material, and therefore know the answers to their questions, since you created it from scratch.
I also directed a lot of television, and on that I don’t the script. But on my movies, I like to write and direct. I try to create unique characters who feel really fresh. So it’s part of a process.
One of the reasons why I love directing is that you get to work with the actors to try to create something I wrote on the page into something three-dimensional. So working with Jude on the look of Dom, the clothes he wears, the make-up he puts on, the weight he gained, the way he walks and talks and the way he would enter a room, and all of that creativity was part of the job.
SY: Speaking of Jude, who plays Dom in the movie, what was the casting process like for the role? Was Jude the model for the character as you were writing the script?
RS: He wasn’t; I didn’t write the script with anyone really in mind. But when I finished the script, I was thinking about which actor could play this role.
I wanted someone who hadn’t played a role like this before. I also wanted someone who had done theater before, because there’s a theatricality about Dom. I wanted someone who was very charming, because he’s not very charming sometimes. If you have a charming actor, you can get away with more than if you have a cold actor. Jude is very warm as an actor.
I’m a big fan of Jude’s, and I thought casting him would be interesting. I also thought that if he liked the script, he could really do it. It would be completely different than what you would normally expect.
One of the reasons why independent films are interesting is that they surprise you. When you’re going to see ‘Transformers 4,’ there’s no real surprise there; you know what you’re going to get. That’s one type of entertainment.
But if you’re doing something a little smaller, you should try to be surprising. We should be as fresh as we can, or what’s the point at all? But Dom as a character is a mess of a guy, who you can’t help but like. So I wanted an actor who could find all of that.
I think once Jude saw this and signed onto the movie, not only was it an opportunity for him to show a different side of himself. I also think he understood that since the movie is called ‘Dom Hemingway,’ and since he’s on screen in almost every frame, he needed to fully inhabit this guy. He also needed to find the three-dimensionality to him. Together, we created this guy who we really quite loved. As much of a mess Dom his, Jude and I really love him.
SY: How closely did you work with Jude to develop the character of Dom? Did you work on a backstory for Dom before you began shooting?
RS: We did. I ended up writing a 10-page backstory for Jude and a number of the actors in the movie. The story explained how Dom became Dom. Jude then did his own backstory, too, and used some of my ideas. So we came to a place where we understood Dom’s background, so that we could understand where he was.
The movie captures just a small slice of Dom’s life; it only takes place over seven days. It really is a story about a guy who’s only taking one small step into riding the boat that’s the disaster of his life. He’s a mess, but you have hope at the end that you’ll stop making stupid decisions, and actually do something decent for once.
SY: What was the casting process like for the supporting characters? Did you hire them after casting Jude?
RS: Well, I wrote the part of Dickie for Richard E. Grant. I didn’t know Richard, but I was a big fan of his. So we were very lucky to get him in it. Demian Bichir got the role of Mr. Fontaine, even though the role was originally written for a Brit. But Jude said, “I think he should be from somewhere other than England; he should be more international.” Once we decided to do that, it opened up a world of possibilities for actors. Demian’s name came up, and we liked him right away.
Emilia Clarke, who’s on ‘Game of Thrones’ and played Dom’s daughter, Evelyn, in the film, actually auditioned for the movie. Jude read with her, as well as the other actresses who auditioned for the role. So we were able to see their chemistry and how she would do, playing opposite Jude. That was another way in which Jude was so involved in the movie. He would read with the other actors, and help decide who was right for the roles.
SY: Speaking of England, ‘Dom Hemingway’ was shot on location in London, as well as at Pinewood Studios. Wat was your experience of shooting in England?
RS: I had never shot anything there before. But I ended up loving it there. The crews are great, and I loved being in England; I loved their lifestyle.
But the one problem of shooting in England is that it gets dark at 3:30 in the afternoon, and doesn’t become light again until 8:30 in the morning. So instead of shooting 7am to 6pm, you’re really shooting 9am to 3pm, and have a lot less time. So there were many times where we didn’t take lunch, and would literally eat on the set. We kept shooting because we were going to lose the light. We shot the movie in 30, eight-hour days. So it was really more like a 20-day shoot.
We had rehearsed the movie in such detail before we started shooting that it allowed us to be able to shoot that quickly. It helps when you have an actor like Jude, who was willing to eat lunch on the street in between set-ups, and not demand to go back to his trailer and take a nap. We would never have finished that way.
I think he realized what kind of movie this is. We were shooting it fast, both practically and to get that energy of Dom. There’s no waiting around with Dom.
I really liked shooting in London. We also shot in the South of France, which was glorious and beyond idealistic. We also shot some interiors for seven days on the Isle of Man, because they gave us some of the money for the film. We finished shooting the movie there, and ran the entire island out of alcohol during our wrap party. (laughs)
SY: Speaking of the rehearsal period, what was that process like before you began shooting?
RS: I was lucky to have that much rehearsal, and Jude was willing to do all this rehearsal, and even wanted it. We would take the actors from certain scenes and go tot he actual locations. We would go to the canals of London, for example, and rehearse there. It would just be me, Jude, the other actors and (Giles Nuttgens) the DP (Director of Photography), so we would have that freedom of rehearsing, without the clock ticketing, or the light going away.
We would have an afternoon just to try the scenes. We had a week of rehearsals in France at the house, and we rehearsed all the scenes. So we were able to do a lot of the harder work of making a movie before we started shooting. I’ve never had the pleasure of having that much time before as a professional director. I’ve never had an actor be so able to do that much work, and really love doing it. It really was a great situation.
We were able to look at a day and think, “We only have seven days to shoot this scene. But we know what we’re doing, so we don’t have to waste any time. Ten minutes after the sun came up, we were shooting, because we didn’t have to waste an hour rehearsing.” It allowed us to spend time to make things better.
It was a really collaborative, interesting and fun set. I hope the movie is equally fun to watch. Some movies were supposedly horrible experiences to make, but I love the process of making movies. If you can have fun, it adds to the creative side.
Written by: Karen Benardello