Writer-director Richard Shepard hasn’t made a feature film since 2007, when he followed up 2005’s “The Matador” with “The Hunting Party,” a very dark comedy-drama set against the backdrop of the Balkan wars. After toiling in television over the intervening years, he returns with “Dom Hemingway,” in which Jude Law sheds his handsome leading-man image—as Pierce Brosnan did in “The Matador”—to play a middle-aged safecracker just out of prison and looking for his share of the loot that his partners—played by Richard E. Grant and Demian Bichir—have supposedly been keeping on ice for him.
During a recent interview in Dallas, Shepard explained, “I wanted to write a crime movie with no crime in it, to subvert to genre, to take the fourth character in another movie and make the movie about him. I wanted to show a guy who you sort of don’t like but can’t help but feel affection for. I started with the first scene in the movie, and it just sort of came out, and I thought I would follow this guy anywhere—I would follow him to the store to get bread. He gets into trouble constantly with his mouth, and that is fun to write. That’s why the movie is called ‘Dom Hemingway,’ and not ‘The Last Safecracking Job,’ because it’s not about that. It isn’t exactly what you expect. I’m so bored in movies in which I basically know what’s going to happen. And I think if you’re following a character…who’s possibly violent, possibly self-destructive, you’re nervous about what’s going to happen. Is he going to make the right decisions? Even at the very end of the movie, you’re saying…‘Don’t mess up.’ I think that’s a different way of doing tension, and for me that kept it fresh when I was writing it and fresh when we were making it, and why Jude said yes. I don’t think Jude wanted to do just a by-the-numbers movie—he wanted to create a character that seemed fresh.”
In fact, Shepard hadn’t been thinking of Law when writing the script. “I didn’t have someone else in mind, I just didn’t have an actor in mind,” he recalled. “I heard Dom’s voice in my head, but I didn’t put an actor to it. And then when I finished writing and we started casting, there was some discussion of who was going to play the part. And I wanted an actor, a British actor, who’d never done a crime movie—so that immediately cuts out like 80% of British actors—and I wanted someone who’d done Shakespeare, because while obviously Dom isn’t Shakespeare, he’s so verbal and verbose [that] I wanted someone who had an understanding of how to speak that much in a rhythmic way. And I wanted someone who would be surprising, whom you wouldn’t necessarily think of for this role.
“Jude’s name came up, and some people were nervous—would he be able to be violent enough, or be powerful enough?—and I just thought it was just a smart idea. Thankfully, he was the first person we offered the movie to, and he loved it and…understood it would be something different for him. He saw that as a positive—let audiences be surprised that I can do all this stuff. That’s a dream situation for a director, to have an actor who’s hungry to prove something. They’re not getting paid much for the movie, so what’s in it for them is a challenge. If you can get an actor at a certain point in their career who’s ready to take the next chapter—with Jude, he’s been playing Dr. Watson and doing very well and has a lovely house and lives a good life, but I think he wanted to play a lead and he wanted to do something that he hadn’t done before.
“What I had in my head when I was writing it sort of immediately went away as soon as we cast Jude. He became Dom, and I could change or shift a few things here and there to make it work. But I never looked back at the script—now it was the physicalization of the script, making it a movie. Whatever idea I had of Dom originally, he made it his own.”
Making the role his own did, however, bring some demands for Law. “I asked him to gain weight,” Shepard said. “I asked him to show his receding hairline, and we sort of broke his nose with the nipple of a baby bottle—we cut the plastic and made a little round plastic doughnut, and he shoved it in his nose. We had teeth made—yellow teeth—and long discussions about how yellow can these teeth be. And then we made the suits really tight, so that he was literally bulging out of them. It was physically tough on him—he was drinking like ten sodas a day to keep the bloat up, and then he was also smoking two or three packs a day and drinking the fake beer. And he was overweight. And it was a very physical performance. In addition to the enormous amount of talking, he falls down hills and runs after cars. I think when it was done, Jude was like, ‘I got that out of my system. ‘”
Nor did Law, or any of the other actors, change Shepard’s writing much. “The whole movie was very scripted—there was no improvisation in it at all,” he said. “So if it feels like improvisation, that’s a compliment to Jude’s acting, since he makes it feel like he’s just coming up with it. It’s street poetry, but it’s supposed to be that.”
Shepard spoke especially about the movie’s first scene, a long rant delivered by Hemingway while still in prison. “In that scene, I ended up shooting some coverage, but I felt that at the end of the day, it was more powerful just being a single shot—that ultimately Jude was so good that it didn’t need to have any cinematic manipulation,” he recalled. “We ended up doing the whole thing in, like, an hour and a half. We shot it on a prep day. We were actually doing camera tests…and that was the first thing we shot, and we were done very quickly, because Jude is an actor who gets it on take one, is brilliant on take two, is great on take three and you don’t need to do a take four. He’s amazing.”
Unlike Law, Shepard had Richard E. Grant in mind for Hemingway’s buddy Dickie from the very start of writing. “Richard was a perfect foil—a perfect reactor,” he said. “Richard Grant has been supporting in so many movies, and when you have an actor like that, you know that they know what to do to get the camera on them. And especially in the situation with Dom in what’s basically the Dom Hemingway show, you want an actor like Richard E. Grant, who, when we were filming his close-ups I literally would start laughing and ruining takes because his reactions to what Jude was doing were so freaking funny.”