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Atypical British Crime Movie

Director Richard Shepard aims for anti-Guy Ritchie movie with Dom Hemingway

Richard Shepard and Jude Law on the set of Dom Hemingway
Richard Shepard and Jude Law on the set of Dom Hemingway. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Some movies cause viewers to either love it or hate it, and writer/director Richard Shepard is proud to have made such a film with Dom Hemingway. The movie, which opens in Austin on April 18, stars Jude Law as the titular character, an ex-con safe cracker who's out to get revenge, make amends and get paid for his jail stint — and not necessarily in that order.

It's an unapologetically profane story, as Dom — brilliantly portrayed by Law — is an in-your-face personality who rarely stops to consider the consequences of his actions, even when he probably should. Shepard recently sat down for a roundtable interview to talk about Law, the character and what his inspirations for the film were.

CultureMap Dallas: A British crime film wouldn’t seem to be the first choice for an American writer/director. What was your inspiration for the story?

Richard Shepard: I love British crime movies — they’re in my DNA, whether it’s Sexy Beast or Mona Lisa. I wanted to write a crime movie in which there was no crime. I thought that would be an interesting way to do a British crime movie, and I wanted to create a character that hadn’t been done before.

 “We shot the whole movie in 30 days,” Shepard says.

I made Dom Hemingway in a way of taking a character who might have been the fourth or fifth person in another movie and following him and finding out who this guy is.

Media Roundtable: I understand Jude Law did a lot of preparation for this role and really got into character before you shot anything. Is that right?

RS: Yeah, I had asked him to gain some weight, so he gained 20 pounds or something like that, mostly drinking beer and eating ice cream. I wanted to see his receding hairline, I wanted his nose to be broken, I wanted his teeth to be yellow, and we made these suits that were extra tight. 

We rehearsed the whole movie on locations with the other actors before we started shooting the film. We shot the whole movie in 30 days, and the only way we were able to do that was this enormous amount of rehearsal. It really made a difference — by the time we got to shoot, Jude and I knew Dom completely.

CM: I think the biggest reason the movie works is because of Law’s performance and because it seems so out of character for him. Was he your first choice or did you consider anybody else?

RS: I think one of the charms of the movie, if you like the movie, is you’re seeing Jude do a part he’s never done before. I wanted an actor who you wouldn’t necessarily immediately think of to play an ex-con who’s violent and dangerous and profane.

I didn’t write it with any actor in mind, but when I started thinking of who could be in it, Jude's name was the first one on the list. And once he said yes, there was not even a question of who else could play it. He just understood Dom on every level.

 “You come off really well as a writer and director having Jude Law say your lines.”

If the movie works, it’s because Jude is fully invested. He so goes for it in the movie, and that’s what’s fun about it. 

MR: Did you ever have to rein him in? I heard him say that he had so much fun going all in.

RS: Jude firmly grounded Dom as a human being, even as larger-than-life as he plays him in the movie. So it wasn’t really a question of having to take him down. But it was a question of just making sure that he was in the right frame of mind for the scene so that when he would walk onto the set he could just be in the moment.

There were times I was watching the monitor and I would forget that I was supposed to be directing the movie. I remember looking at the monitor and watching his performance and being so taken by it, and then suddenly he’d stop talking.

And I’d be like, “Why did he stop talking? Oh! Cut, cut!” You come off really well as a writer and director having Jude Law say your lines.

CM: The opening scene sets the tone for the entire movie — it’s a real show-stopper. Did you ever worry that you were going too far with the character, or did you just trust that Jude would be able to make the material work?

RS: Dom Hemingway pushes a lot of buttons, and he’s not a character for everybody. But I’m not making a movie for everyone. If you’re making a $150 million movie like Transformers 4, you better appeal to every single human being on the planet. If you’re making a movie for $7 million, you have to appeal to a lot less people.

Not that I don’t want to appeal to people, but I’m ultimately trying to just create an interesting movie, and it’s not going to be for everybody. Dom is a tough character to like, but hopefully you care about him and love him, and hopefully the movie is funny and surprising.

 “Dom Hemingway pushes a lot of buttons, and he’s not a character for everybody. But I’m not making a movie for everyone.”

I believe that people are going to love Dom because I love Dom. Jude and I would talk about Dom as if he was in the room with us. We cared about him deeply as a human being because he’s so flawed.

MR: Well, he’s not someone you totally hate because you begin to learn that he’s honest. Whether you like it or not, he’s honest. Can you talk a little bit about that?

RS: Yeah, that’s exactly right. He’s unfiltered, he’s uncensored. But every bad thing that happens to him is because of him. He shoots himself in the foot at every possible turn, so he’s deeply honest, but also deeply human. He’s a mess, and I think we ultimately sympathize for him.

And I think part of what works in the movie is that you’re rooting for a guy normally on paper you would never want to root for.

He’s a violent guy, just out of prison, wants his money — everything about that, you’re like, “Oh, I don’t need to spend any time with this guy.” But you end up wanting to be with him and wanting him to succeed against your better judgment.

MR: But you learn that he has a heart as well.

RS: He does — he’s a deeply wounded human being. I connected to him. I had no interest in writing a character that was just profane and violent and funny without any heart. I think this movie surprises you that Dom is more than what he seems in the beginning.

I think that’s what I got from making a character that might have been the fifth character in another movie and spending a whole movie with him. I get to explore things you would never get to explore in other films.

CM: I compared the film to both Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. What were your inspirations style-wise?

RS: Well, we were trying to make the anti-Guy Ritchie movie. I like those movies and they’re funny, but we were trying to go for a character that hopefully is so three-dimensional that the humanity and the core humanness of this bull in a china shop would win out.

And if someone mentions Quentin Tarantino, I appreciate that because he’s a genius. I think that it’s ultimately because the film is verbose, it’s about dialogue that’s really funny and it’s about a different way of looking at criminals than maybe we’ve seen before.

I’m okay with being compared to that; I’m okay being compared to Guy Ritchie. To me, I wanted the movie to be bold-looking because it’s the Dom Hemingway show. Everything needed to be bold and big and brassy and loud.

When we were editing the movie and screening it, I would ask people if they would go get a beer with Dom. And every single person said they would go get a beer, but they also wrote things like “Yes, but I need a chaperone” or “Yes, but only two beers or we’ll get in a bar fight” or “Yes, but I have to leave early.”

He’s someone you want to go out for a beer with, but he’s a lot to take.

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