On the huge 30’x70’Cine Capri screen at the Phoenix Film Festival, Jude Law is larger than life. Since DOM HEMINGWAY is already an over-the-top character, this experience is near mesmerizing, with an actor at the top of craft bringing life to expertly crafted words from a writer/director always known for getting the best out his leads. Like Pierce Brosnan in THE MATADOR and Richard Gere in THE HUNTING PARTY before him, Jude Law fills Richard Shepard’s film with his presence, and delivers one of the more memorable characters to inhabit a British gangster film, a sub-genre known for great characters.
“It was fun to write because he said everything that we always wished we could say,” writer/director Shepard admits during the Q & A afterwards. He is a character defined by his ability to use language. “I’m a fan of theatricality in movies and I’m a fan of characters who are verbose – they entertain me,” he says. Often times when you see a trailer, you think, oh what if those are the best lines in the film, but with Dom Hemingway, it’s all like that. Scene after shining scene is filled with Jude Law barfing up brilliance as he tries to talk his way out of trouble or, actually more often, engaging in verbal sparring matches with anyone who will stand up to him.
This, of course, made finding the right actor the most important decision of the production process. “I was trying to find a British actor of a certain age, who had never been in a gangster movie – which in England means you lose 90% of the actors” explains Shepard, “and then I wanted someone who had done Shakespeare because – certainly this is not Shakespeare – but there are so many monologues and verbiage that I wanted someone who could do that.” In fact, the film opens with Dom delivering a practically five minute ode to the size of his male member as another resident of his prison accommodations performs his own form of glorification. It is about as shocking and hilarious a scene as I’ve seen in a long time. According to Shepard, Law told him “if I’m going to do your movie… I have to shoot that first scene first.” They did it two days before the rest of the film, on a camera prep day: “Jude walked onto the set naked … and we did six takes, I think that’s take five, and we were done in like an hour.”
Law disappears into Dom Hemmingway, and was with Shepard in every decision. He didn’t balk at gaining 20 pounds or showing off a receding hairline or yellowing teeth. The Lemmy chops he dons on his face were discussed at length because Law wanted to make sure Dom was sexy. Not for Law, says Shepard, but that “Dom Hemingway would think Dom Hemmingway was sexy.” “And then we made this suit that was so tight, the tailor almost had a heart attack,” Shepard almost brags, “the tailor was like ‘I can’t do this, its against every tailoring law in Britain, I’m going to go to tailor jail.’” But it isn’t just the physicality of Law that makes the character so unforgettable, it’s that Shepard has given the actor a chance to really be his best. Part of this is letting him chew a ridiculous amount of scenery in a completely believable way. “I make independent films that are not trying to appeal to every human being in the world, they don’t have to,” says Shepard, “and it gives the actors license to be more daring than they normally would.”
The film delivers a great trip to its audience, both funny and poignant, and I can’t remember a single minute that Dom is not on screen. “I have this DNA of British gangster movies in my head and the ones that I love are the ones that tend to be more character driven,” explains Shepard. The idea behind this script was “what if we just took one guy and saw him flaws and all through the length of the movie.”
Even with all the safe-cracking and boozing and fist-fighting, it is the quiet moments of the film that really resonate. Here is a man, locked away for twelve years, who refused to rat out his boss. While behind the bars, his wife divorces him, remarries and dies of cancer, and his daughter grows up, marries and has a child. Dom is a dinosaur and enters an unfamiliar world that has left him behind. He desperately wants to make up for lost time, both with his family and his appetite for drugs, whores and trouble. He had a plan, but he pretty much serves as his own worst enemy every step of the way. At the end of the film, he has been taken on as much of a ride as the audience. Richard Shepard summarizes the film best: “it’s a movie about a guy taking one tiny step toward grace… very tiny… like half a step.”
Dom Hemingway is rolling out to theatres across the US right now, opening in Austin on April 18th.