When writer/director Andrew Dominik read Ron Hansen's novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he was intrigued by some of the same questions that had fueled Hansen's years of research into previously unexplored corners of Jesse James' life and the insights it offered into the private man behind the public image.
"I didn't know any more about Jesse James or Robert Ford than the average person, but I was drawn into it as a story of people and emotions that were vivid and realistic," he says. "Who are they? How do they feel? How do they interact with each other? The fact that they happened to be two legendary figures of American history added a level of drama but was really a secondary issue.
"This was a portrait of Robert Ford I had never seen before," the director reveals. "It gives you get a sense of what that event might actually have been like for him--to shoot a man in his own house with Jesse's wife and children nearby and then to wait around for days with a brother who's completely unnerved, and try and deal with the enormity of public reaction. You see his anxiety, his neediness and his ambition and you think, 'That's probably what it was like.' That's what moved me about the book and what I wanted to capture on screen."
Brad Pitt, who, in addition to taking on the leading role, is a producer on the film, found it equally compelling to address, "The dissection of these myths, of Jesse James as a hero and Robert Ford as a coward."
"The film offers an intimate portrait of these two men and the world around them that humanizes the legendary outlaw and exposes his vulnerability" says producer Jules Daly. "Few people even know Robert Ford's real story. For him, it was about a young man's desperation to become everything he wasn't and everything he worshipped."
Though based upon comprehensive research into the principals, their history and the times in which they lived, the relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford in the film is speculative and meant more to stir the imagination than impose a point of view.
Says producer Ridley Scott, "The universe of Robert Ford can only be imagined, as can Jesse James' dilemma towards the end of his life, his private thoughts and possible regrets. The film raises questions best answered by each individual in the audience. Andrew poses the possibilities."
Producer Dede Gardner adds, "The story is authentic in its examination of human behavior, adoration, ego and resentment. What happened between these two men could be applied to countless stories throughout time. The relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford is about consequences and wishes fulfilled. It's about how someone's adoration for another has to be examined within the context of both their lives and individual needs. Hero worship cannot exist in purity. There are outside influences at work long before the two people in question even meet."
"It's more a psychological drama than a Western," says Pitt. "It deals with the anatomy of an assassination and its consequences." It's this character-driven perspective that makes "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" unlike many dramatizations about the notorious outlaw and his little-known killer. Although the action opens with a nighttime ambush and train robbery typical of the James Gang in their heyday, the real drama unfolds in the robbery's aftermath--in Jesse's personal demons, his intense dedication to covering his tracks and his increasingly cryptic interactions with the restless members of his gang who must sit idly by until he gives them word of their next job.
] Although the action opens with a nighttime ambush and train robbery typical of the James Gang in their heyday, the real drama unfolds in the robbery's aftermath--in Jesse's personal demons, his intense dedication to covering his tracks and his increasingly cryptic interactions with the restless members of his gang who must sit idly by until he gives them word of their next job.
Following the robbery, Jesse breaks with his brother Frank, who feels the time has come to abandon the outlaw life for a safer existence elsewhere. Meanwhile, the price on Jesse's head has grown to more than any of his gang could hope to make in multiple heists. What would prevent them from turning him in or putting a bullet into his head in exchange for their own safety and a hefty reward? Loyalty? Or maybe fear. More likely a little of both.
"One of the things I particularly like is how these characters struggle more with themselves than with each other," Dominik observes. "Each is shaping reality to suit his desires and anxieties and they really do not connect with one another."
Jesse James came to prominence at a time when the concept of media image was just developing. Publishers of newspapers and dime novels were catering to a public hungry for thrilling entertainment and Jesse James was made to order. Tales of his crimes were often enhanced and, when that wasn't enough, fabricated from whole cloth with an emphasis on his daring and charisma. Such was the reading material Robert Ford grew up on, and that inspired his own grandiose dreams.
"It was fame and celebrity in the true sense of the word," offers Scott. "But at that time there was a degree of simplicity attached to that kind of attention, even when applied to Jesse James and his notorious robberies. It became a romanticized vision, more hero and rebel than killer and criminal."
Says author Ron Hansen, "In some ways he encapsulated American individualism, doing things that other people thought about but were too conventional to do. They wanted to wag a disapproving finger at him but at the same time were glad he was around to represent them. His image was partly due to the publicist he had in John Newman Edwards, a Kansas City newspaper editor. Whenever Jesse committed a crime, Edwards would tailor it to make him appear like a dashing rogue or some kind of avenger striking a blow against all those interests that were supposedly impoverishing people in Missouri, when, in fact, it was Jesse James doing most of the impoverishing. Consequently, a real-life criminal became an action hero and, from that, the adulation followed."
In contrast, Ford was diminished by history and the media--his existence reduced to a single purpose, as if echoing the sentiment on Jesse's tombstone, "In loving memory of my beloved son, murdered by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here."
The irony is that Jesse James' real personality needed no embellishment to fascinate: his unpredictable moods, his motives, his complex interactions with the few people he considered confidants. Likewise, Robert Ford was a rich study, as was the relationship that developed, then deteriorated, between the two men.
"As I delved into it, I realized that no one had ever told the story of how Ford killed Jesse James in all its authentic detail, and it's such an intricate drama," says Hansen.
Following their introduction via Charley Ford and Robert's successful debut as a member of the James Gang in the Blue Cut railroad job, Jesse enlisted Robert to help move his household to a new location, which was common practice for him after a high-profile robbery. Afterwards, his duty discharged, Ford stayed on as a houseguest, no doubt basking in the presence of his idol--and likely also beginning to see what he was really like.
Clearly, Jesse also saw something in his young admirer that made Ford worth having around. "Ford may have stirred the thought processes already turning around in his mind," Scott suggests. "At the same time, Jesse must have recognized the hero worship aspect of Ford's devotion as well as the inaccuracies and ironies that go hand in hand with that idea."
"Perhaps Ford reminded Jesse of better times, or even of the ambition that he once had himself at that age," adds Gardner.
Regarding the potential danger of inviting Ford into his home, Hansen believes the answer to that can be found in Jesse's nature. "This was a man who robbed banks and trains; he liked being in situations where death was a possibility. He needed that rush. What he was doing with Robert Ford was like walking to the edge of a cliff and looking down."
"It's also possible," posits Pitt, "that he was taunting Ford. "It certainly is curious that he would remove his gun belt and turn his back. That action has led to much historical debate and speculation but remains ambiguous. With all his research, even Ron Hansen would say that there are questions that remain unanswered."
As for what Ford was seeking from this man he'd spent his adolescent years admiring, the director says, "Robert is a person who seems easily hurt. He might have imagined that if he was with Jesse James--more to the point, if he was Jesse James--it would be a kind of armor that would protect him. We've all read about these cases. A person imagines himself having a special connection to someone, then discovers it's not true, or it's not enough. Adoration turns to anger. I think Ford's feelings are always running side by side between the two emotions."
"Ford's transition from hero worshipper to assassin isn't as drastic as the words may suggest, and this is one of the points of the film," states Gardner. "Bob never contemplates the role his ego has in pursuing a friendship with Jesse. What he comes to realize is that with Jesse in his life, there is too much Jesse and not enough Bob. In a petulant moment, he soars with the idea of being the man who will bring down this famous outlaw. Once he puts it into motion, it's all he can do to keep up; it's eternally more than he bargained for or could ever fathom."
In the final analysis, there were myriad factors contributing to Robert Ford's decision to kill Jesse James, not the least of which were the very practical considerations of self-defense and the reward money. Added to the mix, Daly counts, could have been "fear, fate, envy, disappointment and the irresistible opportunity to be 'great' and to matter. In some ways, their bond was like destiny. It was as if Jesse chose Robert Ford as much as Ford chose him."
But even as he delivers the fatal shot, and long afterwards, Daly says, "Ford's position never shifts from hero worship. He never stops admiring Jesse."
"In the end, I believe it's a case of more tears being shed for answered prayers," offers Dominik. "Robert Ford gets what he wants and achieves a certain amount of fame and notoriety but finds it's not as he imagined…much like Jesse James and the life he led might not have been quite as Jesse imagined either."
Recruiting the James Gang
Seeing Brad Pitt in character for the first time, author Ron Hansen recalls it was like having the subject of his years-long research come powerfully to life. "When I saw him on the set I didn't think 'There's Brad Pitt'; I automatically thought, 'There's Jesse James.'
Dominik agrees. "I believe audiences will forget pretty quickly that he's Brad Pitt, which is a real testament to his performance. Brad couldn't have been more passionate about this movie and this role; he's not afraid to crack some eggs to make an omelet. He captures all the nuances and brings such authority to the part that you understand why people claimed Jesse James' mere presence could fill a room with warmth or tension.
"By all accounts, Jesse was a very isolated person," the director notes. "I'm not sure how much he really noticed the people around him. He's been called a sociopath, but that, by definition, is a person who lacks conscience and isn't very emotional, and I don't think that's entirely the case with Jesse, who ran the gamut from violent outbursts to stretches of pensive meditation. In any case, he was certainly damaged."
Pitt, who, coincidentally, grew up in Springfield, Missouri, less than 200 miles from Jesse James' birthplace and childhood home in Kearney, Missouri, based his characterization on a blend of instinct and Hansen's research. "He was unsettled," Pitt says, considering some of the issues that were driving Jesse at the time. "He felt cornered, weary of the chase and of having to live his life under an alias. Mostly, I think he was unable to deal with his own legend."
Says Ridley Scott, who directed Pitt's 1991 breakthrough performance in "Thelma & Louise," says of the role, "It's a true character study that, on the surface, carries none of the usual trappings of a leading man 'hero' role. It really demonstrates Brad's maturity and depth as an actor."
Casey Affleck, who teamed with Pitt on all three "Oceans" films, took on the complexities of Robert Ford with similar passion. "I have a lot of affection for Robert Ford. I don't think he was a coward at all," he says.
"I can't remember seeing a better arc or a character that approaches the kind of messy complications of human life more than Robert Ford," the actor continues. "He goes from being a star-struck kid who idolizes the Jesse James from dime novels to actually meeting him, robbing a train with him and forming a friendship with him. Then that relationship becomes convoluted and, ultimately, he has to kill him. It's a rich role and I was both thrilled and intimidated by the prospect of playing it. I had seen Andrew's film, "Chopper," ten times and was a big fan. I would have played any part he offered, but luckily he asked me to play the part I wanted most."
"Ford is the person with whom we identify," says Dominik, who shares Affleck's affection for the character. "But identifying with him is uncomfortable for all his insecurity and his inability to sense boundaries. He's like the part of yourself that you wish you weren't."
Dede Gardner recounts the impression Affleck made on Dominik during his initial reading. "Andrew really responded to him, in particular the way Casey conveyed the depth of Ford's defeat and sadness. But there's a smart-aleck quality to Ford in the beginning that Casey also hits. The character is a blend of confidence and bravado with insecurity and innocence. It's not an easy balance and not an easy part to cast."
At the core of Affleck's interpretation was his effort "to think like Robert Ford. Even though there isn't a lot written about him, there is a lot written about Jesse James and what was most important to Robert Ford was Jesse James," he explains. "To get into his head, I had to learn everything I could about Jesse, all the accounts and the novels Ford grew up on that fueled his fantasy life. Once I was mindful of that level of devotion, it influenced everything Ford said and did on screen."
Additionally, Affleck relied upon a photo of Ford to "fill in some of the blanks," and says "There's a lot you can tell from a photo. There's something in his posture and the way he holds his gaze that conveys a certain attitude. I went to that photo quite often for inspiration."
Says Jules Daly, "Casey seemed to find Robert Ford somewhere in his soul and I believe it shows in his immaculate performance."
Robert's brother, Charley Ford, played by Sam Rockwell, starts out as a traditional older brother, by turns teasing and protecting, but, as Robert grows closer to Jesse and more confident in his own abilities, their roles begin to reverse. Before long, it's Robert calling the shots and an increasingly passive and conflicted Charley struggling to keep up.
"Charley's not a tough guy," says Rockwell. "There's the alpha male and the beta, and Charley will always be the beta. He had a club foot, a disability that he always took great care to camouflage, and he was always a little hungry and vulnerable and just grateful, really, to be in the gang and to be a friend of Jesse's. He loved Jesse and, according to everything I've read, Jesse loved him too and trusted him. They met at a poker game and just hit it off."
Rockwell continues, "As he and Bob spend time in the James house they both become disenchanted with Jesse and fearful, but even so, Charley's not eager to help Bob betray or kill his friend. He becomes seriously conflicted between loyalty to Jesse and loyalty to his brother. He wants to do the right thing toward both of them and it can't be done. There's a line from Ron Hansen's book that really helped put me in the right frame of mind: 'Guilt was pumping like poisoned blood through the chambers of Charley's heart.' It really haunted him."
Still, as Dominik points out, "For all his simplicity and apparent lack of shrewdness, Charley wasn't stupid and Sam brings that out. The fascinating thing about all these characters, and what I so enjoyed about Ron's book, is that what they present at first glance is different from what they're actually made of when you see how they negotiate their problems."
Other members of the James Gang in Jesse's final year were his cousin Wood Hite, played by Jeremy Renner, and Dick Liddil, played by Paul Schneider. Their uneasy relationship, marked by romantic rivalry and years of simmering resentment, just added to the general tension among the group as they idled, awaiting word from Jesse about their next job.
Hite had the least to fear from Jesse's increasingly erratic behavior, and that security allowed him a certain arrogance. Says Renner, "Wood was a blood relative and Jesse's only surviving link to his father, and he made the most of the fact that he was family to the famous Jesse James. It gave him an sense of entitlement. Jesse was becoming more and more of a loose cannon worrying about his own gang members betraying him, so they all got to sleeping with one eye open but I don't think he ever expected Wood to betray him. Consequently, Wood never had to worry about Jesse coming after him. That one thing separated Wood from the others."
Dick Liddil's association with the James brothers began when he rode alongside them during the Civil War with Quantrill's Raiders, a Confederate guerilla fighting unit. Based on the limited material available on Liddil, including the confession he wrote for the sheriff, Schneider believes Liddil "probably wasn't all that dedicated to robbing trains and banks and killing people. Like a lot of poor, restless young men at the time, the war gave them something to do and believe in. Afterwards they discovered that shooting and stealing horses was something they were good at and sort of fell into these outlaw gangs. Along the way, the meaning behind what they were doing slowly diminished. Maybe they started off as soldiers for a cause, but eventually it became evident that they were just criminals."
Unlike Frank James' confession, which Schneider found "deeply revealing and almost poetic in its struggle to answer for his crimes," he notes that Dick Liddil's confession was more along the lines of, "'We robbed the train at 3:40 AM and I was wearing a brown jacket.' This was a man who didn't seem to give much deep thought to anything he ever did. I don't know if that was his façade or who he really was."
Oscar nominee and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard takes on the powerful but understated role of Jesse's elder brother, Frank James. Early in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and mere months prior to Jesse's death, Frank gives up the outlaw life for a respectable and safer existence as a landowner and advises Jesse to do the same.
Says Affleck, "Robert approaches Frank first and tries to charm him, tries to pass himself off as someone completely guileless and yet worthy of riding with the James Gang, and Frank just dismisses him. Unlike his brother, Frank is not susceptible to flattery and has no use for Robert Ford. That look Sam gives me, as Frank, that mixture of boredom and contempt and just plain weariness, would be enough to discourage anyone, but not Ford."
Jesse's wife, Zee, played by Mary-Louise Parker, likewise has no use for Ford but tolerates him for Jesse's sake. Aside from the fact that Zee James was a cousin of Jesse's who nursed him back to health following his Civil War injuries and that theirs was a lengthy courtship, not much is known about Zee, so Parker based her portrayal on what she imagined would be the kind of woman willing and able to live such a difficult life. "I don't believe she was entirely subservient," Parker says. "Considering how she helped him regain his strength after the war, she must have had some power in the relationship. Plus, she was entrusted with keeping his secrets."
Addressing speculation about whether or not Zee was fully aware of her husband's occupation, as he was known to pass himself off locally under various false identities, Parker believes there is no doubt. "There is absolutely no way she couldn't have known. They assumed different names, they moved constantly. Of course she knew, and I believe she must have loved him to have remained with him through all of that. As for how a woman could be so devoted to someone we would consider morally reprehensible, that's something we will never know. I believe there are levels of denial, and perhaps she was simply able to maintain a kind of insouciance: compartmentalize that part of his life as apart from their family life and therefore having nothing to do with her."
Rounding out the main cast, Zooey Deschanel stars as Dorothy, a rootless saloon singer who encounters an older and perhaps wiser Robert Ford years after his big moment in the public spotlight, still coping with his polarizing notoriety as the man who killed Jesse James. Dorothy, who likely has a number of regrets about her own past, is able to offer a non-judgmental ear, at long last, for Ford's candid recollection of the event that would forever define his life.
Garret Dillahunt ("Deadwood") also stars as Ed Miller, once a trusted comrade and James Gang regular who fears becoming a target of Jesse's mounting paranoia.
NEXT PAGE: SHOOTING, STUNTS, ETC
THE ART OF ADAPTATION