Neo-Noiriste: John Dahl

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By the time John Dahl had directed his third feature – 1994’s  The Last Seduction – critics had anointed him as a contemporary torch bearer – perhaps the lone, consistent one – of the film noir ethos.  Even today, with his filmography having grown to include the less noir-ish thrillers Unforgettable (1996) and Joy Ride (2001), a tale of card sharks prowling New York’s underground big-money poker circuit in Rounders (1998), and a true story of WW II adventure and valor in The Great Raid (2005), Dahl’s name is still most closely associated with modern day noir thanks to the three indelible thrillers which launched his career:  Kill Me Again (1989), which he co-wrote with David W. Warfield, Red Rock West (1992), on which he collaborated with his brother Rick Dahl, and The Last Seduction, written by Steve Barancik.

Dahl’s working in movies represents a formidable leap from a less than cosmopolitan upbringing in Billings, Montana.  Although he turned out some short films in high school, Dahl was not an avid young cinephile in the Scorsese/Spielberg/Coppola/Lucas mold.  His interests lay primarily in art and music.  Movies, he says on reflection, were something “…very, very far away” from Montana, never an option to consider for one’s future.

Music and art helped carry him through high school, after which he attended the University of Montana where he entertained notions of becoming a commercial artist while indulging his musical interests playing in bands.  By age 21, he sensed neither his penchants for art nor for music were going to put much food on the table, so his interest subsequently turned to film – which some might hardly consider a less quixotic pursuit.

But, again, Dahl was no aspiring cineaste.  His graphic arts sensibility was attracted to the visual qualities of animation, and it was only after he began attending film school at Montana State in Bozeman to study animation that he became interested in feature filmmaking.

Interest grew to passion, and when his class of nine graduated from Montana State, Dahl boldly announced to his professor that he “…was going to L.A. to make movies.”

His professor laughed.

It was no direct route to Los Angeles.  In fact, there was a moment when it was an open question as to whether or not Dahl would continue to pursue film at all.  A friend of his in Washington, D.C. helped him secure work as an assistant director, and “…after about a year of that I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do.” He spent time in an art department after that, then applied to both the American Film Institute and law school.  In Rounders fashion, Dahl’s future hung on the turn of a card (actually, his applications).  “If the AFI hadn’t taken me, and law school had accepted me, I’d probably be a lawyer somewhere in Montana today,” says Dahl.

Unlike the “film brats” who had come out of NYU and UCLA in the 1960s and 1970s, Dahl didn’t go into the AFI drawing on a long-held interest in and an encyclopedic knowledge of films.  Many of the classic titles the AFI screened hit him fresh.  On the occasion when director Billy Wilder’s malevolent classics Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) were screened back-to-back, something in the unique stylishness of film noir appealed to the visual artist in Dahl.  Living in the same neighborhood where many scenes from both movies had been shot — “I’d be walking and realize, ‘Hey, this is the street where Fred MacMurray was walking in Double Indemnity!’” – only made what he’d seen in the movies more vivid and concrete for him.  That in mind, when he began musing on what kind of movie he wanted to make, it’s no surprise his thinking drifted toward something noir-ish.

He remembered a bus trip he’d taken from Montana to San Francisco to visit a friend several years before.  The bus had stopped for a few hours in Reno.  Says Dahl:  “Reno struck me as the most decadent, weirdest place I’d ever seen in my life at the time — ” — he was 19 – “ — I couldn’t believe a place like that could really exist.  Years later, when I was heading to L.A. from Montana, I passed through Vegas and that stopover in Reno came back to me.  Remember, this was years ago when Vegas was Vegas.  Now, Vegas is a theme park.”

The refreshed memory of that stretch-your-legs-and-bathroom-break in Reno years before produced Kill Me Again, and then came Red Rock West which Dahl describes as “…kind of an extension of Kill Me Again. All the things I didn’t get to do in Kill Me I put into Red Rock West.”

Despite receiving critical acclaim on the film festival circuit, Red Rock West was years getting into theaters.  When Roger Ebert reviewed the movie after its 1994 theatrical release, he remembered being blown away by the movie years earlier at the Toronto Film Festival.  He speculated – correctly, according to Dahl – the hold-up was a product of the movie’s hard-to-categorize but quintessentially noir-ish story about a drifter (Nicholas Cage) mistaken for a hit man by a local sheriff who wants Cage to kill his wife.

Ten or fifteen years earlier, when the financially desperate studios were almost reckless in their creative daring, Dahl might’ve had an easier time carving out a commercial niche for himself.  By the 1990s, however, the industry had not only grown more creatively conservative, but much of the decision-making had come to be dominated by marketing departments.  “Marketing departments have a big voice,”  he says.

Dahl remembers the gent handling marketing for Red Rock West telling him, “Well, it’s kind of an action movie, Nicholas Cage has a little bit of a reputation for action stories.  You’ve got some action, but not enough.  You’ve got some comedy.  Hmm.  You need to make it more of an action story, or more of a comedy.” It never seemed to occur to them, says Dahl, “to sell it for what it was.  They didn’t know what to do with it, they couldn’t figure it out.”

Still, Red Rock West earned Dahl the widespread attention – and respect – of reviewers, and then The Last Seduction came along and cemented his reputation as a noiriste.

Part of the strength of Dahl’s work may have come from his not having been a lifelong film aficionado.  So many of the neo-noirs that have crossed movie screens over the last 25-30 years – even memorable entries like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) and Bob Rafelson’s remade The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) — play like, at best, artful pastiches of the noir classics of the 1940s and 1950s, echoing the oldies rather than establishing their own distinctive voices.  Dahl, on the other hand, was coming to the genre from another place, and didn’t so much feel a need to honor the old tropes as build on them, giving his noirs their own, completely contemporary feel.  In fact, Dahl didn’t even consider The Last Seduction — easily his most recognized work up to that time – a noir.

“When I read the script (for The Last Seduction), I thought it was a black comedy,” says Dahl.  “It didn’t even occur to me that Linda Fiorentino’s character was a femme fatale until after the movie was released and reviewers labeled her one.”

If Dahl had first been attracted to noirs by the visual stylishness of the vintage genre classics, what he later found so enticing as a storyteller was the form’s trademark moral ambiguity/ambivalence.  Right and wrong were rarely clear, even less rarely constant.  “We shouldn’t like (Fiorentino’s character),” Dahl says, speaking about The Last Seduction, “but once her husband slaps her, our sympathy tilts toward her.  We keep thinking after that she must redeem herself at some point, but, in the end, a good guy goes to jail and she gets away with (betrayal and murder).”

That kind of moral complexity, says Dahl, is hard to find today in a movie mainstream dominated by big budget action-driven movies targeting a young audience.  “Consumers of movies tend to be teenagers and young adults, and their tastes are driving the movies,” he says, and, as a consequence, “Movies have become more of a thrill ride and a spectacle.  It’s hard to imagine Snakes on a Plane (2006) being made in the 1960s as anything but a low-budget drive-in movie, but it’s the perfect example of what I’m talking about when I say movies today are more about marketing.”

Still, Dahl concedes the major movie companies are in a tough situation.  “There really isn’t a film company anymore,” he says, and points back to the 1960s and 1970s when the major studios began evolving into massive entertainment conglomerates.  “They own music companies, a film studio, theme parks, TV networks, some own magazines and newspapers.” This kind of growth and amalgamation was necessary, says Dahl, for the studios to survive and shield their risks.  These growing entertainment complexes became focused on teens and young adults – a relatively easy market to sell to, he posits — with a fair amount of expendable income.  “They can buy records and lunch boxes and movie tickets.”

Dahl sighs.  “Who was it?  William Goldman who said that in this business nobody knows anything?  Now they know nobody knows anything.  Today, people throw their hands in the air; ‘I don’t know what works!  I’m tired of having the marketing guy yell at me on Monday morning!  Let him run the studio!’”

The end result is a multi-billion dollar a year industry focused on entertainment, managed by a handful of “gatekeepers” – creative executives but particularly marketing chiefs – deciding what’s going to go out into the mass entertainment arena.  “There’s what, eleven major movie companies?” Dahl muses.  “That means eleven people decide what movies are going to get made, there are eleven ‘filters’ on what’s going to go out there.” And, because studio movies have become so costly to make, and because the various arms of these multi-faceted entertainment companies look to feed off a box office success, the risks to studios are greater than ever.  “The necessities of the business have made (movie companies) risk-averse,” judges Dahl.  “By their very nature, they are risk averse.”

It explains movie companies’ reliance – over-reliance, Dahl judges – on the test marketing process.  “Their investment is so great you can understand it,” he says, “but it means anything that remotely makes people uncomfortable is taken out.  You know, some things are supposed to make you uncomfortable.”

And, in today’s cluttered entertainment environment, studios need films with the kind of marketing hooks which can cut through the clutter.  “There’s a lot more demand for people’s attention,” says Dahl.  “There’s a couple of hundred channels of television you can watch, pay-per-view, you can buy a surround sound system for your house, DVDs are great little products with extra bonuses and you can watch DVD films in widescreen, people are plopping down $2-3000 for big screen TVs.”

The choices are endless, says Dahl, which pushes studios to gravitate toward movies whose chief quality is their ability to get attention, like big-budget special effects fests or movies with poke-in-the-eye hooks like Snakes on a Plane.

Dahl hopes the big studio strategy will actually cultivate fertile ground for an alternative:   “I think there’ll be a brand new explosion of independent films in the next few years.  People have been fed a diet of one, big, bloated film after another.  I don’t know that anyone feels any great joy when they leave these films.  When I saw Capote (2005), I thought that was as good a movie as I’d seen in a long time.  Well-written, well-shot, well-acted, well-directed, extremely well-edited, it was a brilliant little film.”

But this kind of filmmaking has to happen outside the major studios.  “The studios don’t know how to make (these kinds of movies),”  says Dahl.  “They couldn’t afford to make them if they wanted to.  Between the insurance, what the unions have done to them in terms of cost, they can’t do it.”

In one of the few instances Dahl’s usual Montana reserve falters, he issues a call-to-arms to filmmakers themselves.  “It’s up to filmmakers to take risks!” he charges, “Sell their stupid big-ass car and make their own movie!  Get your friends, get people you know!” He ponders a cinema counterpart to community theater, something outside the chokehold the major studios have on commercial filmmaking.  “It’s kind of a great time making your own movie like that.  It’s interesting for (filmmakers) to spend their own damn money, it’s a lot more liberating and creative.  There’s an incredible sense of liberation in not having to consider what a studio exec, what those eleven people sitting at the gateway want to see!”

New technologies and venues make it possible, says Dahl.  “You can edit a movie on a laptop and buy a high quality HD camera for $3000.  Somebody has to crack the distribution nut, though.  The studios have this huge distribution machine.  Think of what it takes to manufacture 3,000 prints of a movie, ship them out to thousands of theaters so they’re there when they’re supposed to be, all opening on the same day.  And this massive studio distribution machine is governed by a small number of filters, the people who decide what movies are going to be made.

“The Internet, on the other hand,” he proposes, “is very democratic.  You want something to bring joy to your heart?  MySpace is getting more hits than Google.”  On-line venues can provide an alternative to theatrical distribution, says Dahl.  “The public is going to find a way to find something interesting.”

The trick – and Dahl’s largest, nagging doubt about the future – is in the “something interesting” part.

Dahl frequently speaks to film students.  He’s impressed with their technical expertise – “Their movies look good, they look like movies” – but, in terms of content, he finds what he sees “a little depressing.  I see them imitating.”

He senses little of the artistic aspiration which seemed to mark earlier generations of aspiring filmmakers; the kind of creative ambition which produced a personal and/or personalized kind of commercial filmmaking evidenced among so many of the most memorable movies of the 1960s/1970s.  Rather, says Dahl, so many of the young filmmakers he meets seem to be striving “…to reach that point where somebody gives them $80 million to direct the next superhero epic.  That’s the goal it seems.”

And that lack of hunger to creatively say something distinctive is something he feels isn’t just confined to fledgling filmmakers.  He sees it throughout the commercial entertainment spectrum; a new across-the-board creative ethic.  “When I was growing up, playing music was an important thing, and there was an artistic thing people were striving for in the 1960s and 1970s.  Now, you have American Idol. In the 1960s, 1970s, the big thing was, ‘I won’t sell out!’ It’s hard to see any of these American Idol kids having that argument.  These young singers, young actors, musicians…it doesn’t feel like there’s an artistic integrity they’re striving for.  How else do you explain the phenomenon of Paris Hilton?”

He sees a similar trend in theater.  He remembers taking his son to a production of the Disney stage show, The Lion King. “It was fun, it was spectacular, but I kept thinking, ‘This is from a movie!’ and I thought that was a little sad.  It’s not exactly Ibsen, is it?  It’s a far cry from A Doll’s House or The Glass Menagerie. American theater history was pretty vibrant up to a certain point.  Theater in the 1940s and 1950s was an elegant art form.  Broadway today is recycling movies as plays.  Broadway today is a joke.”

Not only has the ambition among aspirants changed, but so, too, thinks Dahl, has the creative sensibility.   He remembers one young filmmaker who “…had decided the audience only had a long enough attention span to see an image for four seconds, then it had to change.  I asked him, ‘How’d you come up with that?’  He said, ‘Watch a classic movie like The Rock (1996). (Director) Michael Bay figured out you had to cut all the time.’ I asked him, ‘What year were you born?’ ‘Nineteen eighty-two’ – about when MTV was launched.” Dahl chuckles ruefully:  “A ‘classic’ movie like The Rock.”

Dahl remembers a four-hour compilation reel of movie car chases he put together as research for one of his projects.  When he screened the reel, “You’d be surprised how many people came by and wanted to see that.  I had to make copies for people!”  According to Dahl, by wide consensus the car chase people thought was the best was the one from the 1968 cop thriller Bullitt.  “Which is funny because, by today’s standards, it’s incredibly long, it doesn’t have a lot of cuts, there’s not a lot of damage.  The French Connection (1971) came in a close Number Two.  But the chase from that ‘classic’ The Rock? It made little or no impact.  It seemed forced.”

In Dahl’s opinion, what those chases from earlier movies have going for them is not just the skillful ways they are assembled, but their sense of possibility; that they could happen.  Whereas the chase from The Rock – as with many action sequences in today’s thrillers – is so over-the-top, that sense of impossibility actually undercuts its effectiveness.  “People didn’t care.”

He sighs.  “These young people have never seen Double Indemnity or Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). They probably think they’re just dusty old pictures.”

Asked what movies he remembers and treasures, he replies, “A Clockwork Orange (1971) was the first time I really watched a move and said, ‘Somebody had to make this thing!  It didn’t just show up in Billings, Montana.’ Billy Wilder’s films, Hitchcock…I thought they were great.  Still do.  In Cold Blood (1967) is a terrific film, The Godfather (1972) of course, The Conversation (1974)

“I don’t know that people are really interested in taking up the big issues of today.”  But, Dahl says, that’s not something he particularly yearns for.  While that’s all well and good, he looks for the artistic drive to create something still more substantive than topical relevance.  “It’s pretty easy to beat up on George Bush.  Do something different.

“I want a movie to be a timeless piece of material that can be watched now, ten years from now, and still have some resonance; to be lost in time.  I never tried to make a movie that was hip and of the moment.”

Asked to ruminate on the changes in audience tastes and the derivative tendencies of young filmmakers, Dahl is asked if he ever considers the possibility he might be making movies for an audience that no longer exists.

“I’m amazed anybody’s ever seen the movies I’ve made!” he says, sounding earnestly surprised.  “My world revolves around trying to find a movie, make a movie, then go on to the next one.”

– Bill Mesce

1 Comment
  1. Sound On Sight-Ricky

    Great article on the director of Rounders and Last Seduction
    #JohnDahl
    http://bit.ly/dtO0cM

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