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Interview: Filmmaker Richard Shepard talks ‘Dom Hemingway’

Richard Shepard
Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Filmmaker Richard Shepard recently spoke to the Chico Movie Examiner about his new film, “Dom Hemingway,” which released to Blu-ray for the first time on July 22. Shepard is best known for directing “The Matador”; “The Hunting Party”; and various episodes of HBO’s hit series, “Girls.”

Dom Hemingway” tells the story of a brash and vulgar safe-cracker (Jude Law), who was just released from prison after a 12-year stint. Now that he’s free, he teams up with Dickie (Richard E. Grant) to collect what he’s owed for keeping his mouth shut in order to protect his boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir). A near-death experience leads Dom to wanting to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke), but he soon returns to the world he knows best, as he looks to obtain what is rightfully his.

Shepard talks about how he is able to get an actor like Law to take on a role he’s never done; how someone like Dom Hemingway can be crude and likable at the same time; and how each film he’s directed is like a new chapter in his life. Check out the full interview below.

David Wangberg: I really enjoyed your film, by the way. I thought it was a really fun time and really, really entertaining.

Richard Shepard: Oh, thank you!

DW: What I like about the film was – like another film you did, “The Matador” – you take actors no one could imagine would do these roles, and they do incredible work with them. At what point do you convince yourself that someone like Jude Law or someone like Pierce Brosnan can do the roles that you write?

RS: Wow, that’s a good question! I mean, I really enjoy picking actors who people have a preconception of and sort of mixing it up. I think it becomes something very fresh. When I was doing this movie, I certainly was like, “I want an actor who had never been in a British gangster movie before.” And, so, when we were dealing with British actors, that immediately cuts out, like, two-thirds of them; there are just so many of those movies. [laughs]

And then I wanted someone who had done Shakespeare, because I knew that for the enormous amount of monologue, I wanted someone who was used to talking so much and knew how to do it and knew how to breathe and all of that other stuff. And I like the idea when I had seen Jude in “Contagion,” and he had been really edgy in “Contagion.” I remember seeing it and thinking, “Gosh, there’s more to him than I imagine.”

But I thought he might be an interesting choice for it and ultimately, he’s a great actor, and I guess he saw this as an opportunity to show a different side of him. And I think he makes the viewing of the movie more pleasurable. It’s something you haven’t seen before, and we’re all looking for something we haven’t seen before. It was sort of like a nice look at the marriage between an actor ready to show a different side of himself and a filmmaker wanting an actor to show a different side of himself. [laughs]

It worked, and like Pierce, I think both of those guys had a lot of fun playing those roles. It’s liberating, I think, when you’re expected to look good all the time to suddenly play a character who is so exposed and sort of a mess. There’s something liberating in that to them.

DW: And what was great about when you had cast Pierce in “The Matador,” he had just done all of the James Bond films and some other films where he’s a suave, smooth kind of character. And then he was in “The Matador” and he’s kind of quirky, and he’s not what you would expect, and that was what was great about that movie.

RS: Yeah, without a doubt. I mean, that was certainly another situation where the timing was really, really… part of doing independent film is to try and figure out – because you don’t have the money to pay these actors their normal price, and they’re looking for an opportunity or they’re in a phase where they may want to do something different. I think Jude in “Dom Hemingway” was definitely a place where he wanted to do something different, and that’s why he was attached to the material.

I’m sure if someone sent him a part that was a British gangster now, he’d probably go, “Well, I just did it.” [laughs] Part of it is being smart enough to figure out who’s waiting for the opportunity and then hopefully guiding them in a way that they can give the type of performance that I’ve been lucky enough to get from him in this movie.

DW: When you were writing the script for “Dom Hemingway,” did you draw some of the same things from “The Matador” in terms of making the character unapologetic and offbeat?

RS: I wasn’t consciously doing that. I was just trying to create a guy who was… in a way, I was like, “I want to write a movie about the fifth guy in a scene.” In most other movies, Dom Hemingway would be in a scene and the movie would be about the other four guys, and he would be the fifth guy with four lines. I kind of wanted to create a character to find out who is that guy; who is this character who you usually don’t see as the lead of a movie.

And I wanted to create someone who was completely verbal and an egotist who ended up basically shooting himself in the foot at every turn – based on his own anger and his inability to get his s*** together. And that was a fun character to write. It was an enormous amount of fun spending time with him when I was writing the movie, and I think we had a really good time making the movie.

There was an extension of that in a way [where] it was just a good time; he’s just a character that I loved writing. And then when Jude started playing him, Jude loved playing him, because he’s just such an original and he’s completely uncensored. And the world that we live in, where everyone is so politically correct, he’s definitely not. And that was sort of fun, too.

DW: A lot of times, we’ll see a character in a film who’s extremely crude, and it’s hard for audience members to find something likable in that character. But, with Dom, he has that kind of charm.

RS: It helps when you cast a movie star in a role in which the person is unlikable. It’s just like Pierce in “The Matador” and Jude in this. If the audience brings some good will to the party because they like them, and, weirdly, when a movie star smiles, you realize why they’re a movie star. There’s just something instantly likeable about them. So, you can get away with murder when you cast the right person.

And in the case of Jude, I knew as soon as he smiled, we could almost do anything with Dom, and it was easy as pie.

DW: Is that how you were able to find the balance between making the character crude and likable at the same time? Was it because of Jude?

RS: I mean, I said to Jude, “I didn’t feel the need to have to go out all the way to make him likable.” I said, “He’s going to do some unlikable things.” And I said, “It’ll be difficult for certain people in the audience to connect with him.” And I said, “But, eventually, they will connect with him. And we’ll take our time and we’ll go from there.”

To me, his humility is what makes him likable, as well as his vulnerability. And I knew that as the movie went on, people would see that. So, I didn’t feel the need to immediately have to do that. In fact, we sort of push the audience away a little bit between the opening monologue and beating the s*** out of the guy in the garage. The audience is sort of pushed away; I actually did that on purpose. I thought it would be interesting to see how far we could push them and then bring them back.

DW: Who’s another actor or actress you would like to take and give a role in which no one would expect to see him or her play?

RS: [Laughs] I’m not 100 percent [sure]. I mean, there are so many actors who I’m dying to work with. I would love to work with Matt Damon; I would love to… you know, there are so many really great actors who are so versatile.

Whenever I’m writing, I’m thinking, “Who’s the actor who this would be a surprise to see in this part?” Again, it goes all the way back to the idea of going in a different direction than you might imagine. And if you can pull that off, then you’ve got something. The audience has this sort of double whammy; they have a character they’re enjoying, and they’re also enjoying seeing an actor do it that they haven’t seen do it before, if that makes any sense.

DW: Yeah, it does. Now, when Dom gets out of jail, there’s a lot that has changed in the last 12 years. His friend lost his hand; he can’t smoke in the pub; and that sort of thing. In real life, there have been a lot of changes in the film industry. For you, as a director, what have been some of the biggest changes for you in the last 12 years?

RS: Things are totally different. The movie-going addicts of America, if you think about it in the last 12 years, have almost completely changed between the fact that television has been producing such quality stuff, and people now have many choices for their time of viewing cycles. Films have changed because of that; they’ve also changed because of the way that we see films. More people will see my movie on iTunes and on Blu-ray and on demand than they will in the theater.

All of these are interesting changes, but the one thing that ultimately hasn’t changed is, I think, people always want a good story; they want to be surprised and entertained. That hasn’t changed, but the business element of the film industry has extremely changed.

I always consider it a miracle when any movie can get made and it seems, to me, that the key is continue to just try to do original material and get actors who want to do that. If I can continue to do that, I can continue to work no matter what the environment is. But you never know, you know. I think if you went back in time 12 years and said, “You’re going to live in a world in which more people are going to watch a movie on a phone than they are in a cinema,” you’d say, “Oh, that’s ridiculous.”

DW: I’m not one of those people that will watch a movie on a phone. I can’t really stand the small screen; I have to have something big in order to get the full experience.

RS: I agree with you on one level. I love the experience of sitting in a theater and feeling the movie around me. But I’ll be perfectly honest; I don’t mind watching a movie on demand – a certain type of movie. I like, sometimes, I want to see this movie this minute, and I can in a different way than having to go to a theater for whatever reason. I go back and forth on certain movies.

I just saw “Boyhood” in a theater, and I can’t imagine seeing that on a small screen, even though it’s not a movie you would immediately say it’s a big epic visually, but it’s an epic emotionally, so it’s great to be able to watch a movie like that on a big screen.

But then, there are other movies that just work on a small screen; it’s not the end of the world.

DW: That’s true. With me, holding a cell phone is a little bit weird for me. I can watch it on TV or maybe even on a computer; that’s fine. Cell phone’s different.

RS: It sure is. [laughs]

DW: I like how you divide the film into separate chapters of Dom’s life post-prison. We see him get out; we see him try to reconnect with his daughter; and we see him try to get back into the thieving business again. For you, if I looked at your filmography and looked at “The Matador”; “The Hunting Party”; “Dom Hemingway”; and all of the other stuff you’ve directed, could you say those are different chapters of your life in terms of directing?

RS: Without a doubt. I think that, ultimately, every movie is a huge part of your life; a huge, life-changing experience; and you are a different person when the movie is over than when it started. And I’ve been lucky in the things that I’ve done with having all of these experiences, whether it’s making a movie in Mexico like “The Matador,” then going to Bosnia and shooting “The Hunting Party,” and then going to England and France to shoot “Dom Hemingway.”

There’s no way after a year in each of those places that you’re not completely different. You do have to look at your life. I’m able to – because I make movies – see different chapters in my life and different experiences, and I feel like that’s OK; it’s part of the processes and the fun of making movies and part of the melancholy of when it’s over.

There’s this huge sadness whenever a movie is done, because your elation and the adrenaline of a leader making a movie is over. And you have to deal with that as a human being. You have to come down to planet Earth again.

It’s hard, you know. It’s hard being away from your family; it’s hard on many levels. But at the same time, the gist of the job is something I can’t complain about. And, certainly, in the case of Dom, I wanted to have these chapter headings, because I felt like it was a way to piece the whole movie together in a way that these were little chapters in the days after his release from prison that would hopefully give you a bigger sense of who he is when you put all of the chapters together.