Andrew Dominik was more than vaguely interested in the movie that the research audience recruiter was hawking. "Do you want to see a western with Brad Pitt and Sam Shepard?" the recruiter asked the Australian filmmaker, not knowing who he was. Dominik asked for more information, but he didn't really need to know -- after all, he wrote and directed the movie.
Although Dominik can laugh about that encounter now, test screenings were very much a part of his making "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Filmed two years ago and originally scheduled to reach theaters last fall, "Jesse James" went through countless revisions -- "I've seen this movie more times than any movie I've ever seen in my life," says Pitt, who plays James and also produced the film -- and is now set to arrive in theaters on Sept. 21. It must then compete against not only another western -- Christian Bale and Russell Crowe's "3:10 to Yuma," which opened Friday -- but also moviegoers' expectations of what a western should and shouldn't be.
Adapted from Ron Hansen's elegant and meticulous historical novel, "Jesse James" is not interested in the clichés of the genre: circling wagons, lassos and yells of "Giddyap!" Instead, Hansen and Dominik both focus on the complex bond -- part love story, part disciple-and-Jesus betrayal -- between the wannabe gunslinger Ford and James, among history's most celebrated outlaws.
"I don't call it a western," Pitt says. "I call it something worse: a psychological drama. And that's why it's going to be a hard thing to sell this film."
Although Hansen's novel is not lengthy (it's a tad more than 300 pages) and has little traditional narrative action, the book and Dominik's screenplay are dense in character and atmosphere. The organizing principle is Ford's (Casey Affleck) dimly homoerotic obsession with, and ultimate killing of, James, with whom Ford briefly rode and robbed. At one point in both the novel and the film, James asks Ford, "I can't figure it out: Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"
After Ford assassinated his onetime idol, he was at first lionized by the country, then seen as a gutless legend killer.
"I have zero interest in Jesse James as an American phenomenon," says the 39-year-old Dominik, whose debut feature was 2000's critically lauded Australian film "Chopper," which established actor Eric Bana. "And I don't like westerns -- they are kind of dull, actually.
"It's more about the characters' relationships to their own selves rather than it is about their relationships to each other. Because their relationship with each other is superficial."
The movie is anything but: Made in the spirit of Robert Altman's 1971 classic, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Jesse James" is an elegiac inquiry into fate. Its unhurried pacing also recalls the films of Terrence Malick; Dominik was, in fact, a second-unit director on Malick's "The New World."
"Jesse is a dying man, so he's very interested in things of an otherworldly nature," says the wiry Dominik, alternating between cigarettes, a Coca-Cola and a cheeseburger a day before he finally completes the movie for good. "He knows he's not going to come to a good end. The question is, 'How does a person deal with that?' And that was the essential thing about his character that I was interested in."
Sorting out Ford's state of mind was equally tricky. "Bob's just a really hurt person that imagines that if he were Jesse James, it would be like armor that would protect him," Dominik says. "What Robert Ford went through is about as bad as you can imagine -- where you are in a situation where essentially you have to kill another person about whom you have conflicted feelings, feelings of love and feelings of hate."
Dominik's challenge in assembling "Jesse James" was balancing those Freudian conflicts with several different plots -- not just the killing and its aftermath, but also James' earlier mounting paranoia and his hunting down of his own gang.
The initial "Jesse James" cut was more than four hours long, and it took two full months to trim it from three hours to its current running time of 2 hours, 40 minutes.
"It took a lot of cracks at this thing trying to get it into the right place," Pitt says. "It's an extremely delicate film, and if you remove one little scene, the whole house of cards can fall down."
But to trim the film from its once-epic running time, Dominik had to lose some sequences he treasured -- particularly Ford and James chatting the night before James' murder, and Ford and Nellie Russell the night before Ford's murder -- that nevertheless didn't advance the film's story or actually undercut it.
"I had to throw out things that I loved and keep things in that I didn't like," the director says. "For a while, it was viewed as a movie in trouble. And it was in trouble. It hasn't been any easy process for anyone."