Ron Hansen’s Masterful Outlaw Blues Novel About Jesse James and Robert Ford Faithfully Interpreted On Screen
One of my favorite films of the last decade is long and slow, inexorable and unrelenting, poetic and profound. It is equally expressive in its visuals and sounds as it is in its verbal narrative storytelling and dramatized actions. The film is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is about as literal a screen adaptation as you can find of a great novel, in this case the same titled book by Ron Hansen. The following story for The Reader is based on interviews I did with Hansen, who worked closely with the film’s writer-director Andrew Dominik.
Ron Hansen’s Masterful Outlaw Blues Novel About Jesse James and Robert Ford Faithfully Interpreted On Screen
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader
Consider complete the much ballyhooed return of the Western with the new Warner Brothers film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and a deep supporting cast. Opening everywhere October 5, it comes fast on the heels of 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot ‘Em Up and the multi-Emmy Award-winning TNT mini-series Broken Trail.
Like these other oaters, Assassination is a big-budget, star-laden picture. Unlike them, which slavishly conform to or outlandishly bend genre conventions with action-packed fictional stories that pose as fact, Assassination is a subdued, ruminative tone poem anchored in history. It owes much of its restrained authenticity and power to native Omahan Ron Hansen, the acclaimed author, whose much-admired 1983 novel of the same name the film closely adheres to.
Assassination is more a Western by proxy, its psychologically complex characters and events drawn from thoroughly researched figures and incidents that just happen to be of the Old West. Hansen, a Creighton Prep-Creighton University grad, steeped himself in the history, just as the film’s director, Andrew Dominik, studied Hansen’s book and did his own digging into the Jesse James-Bob Ford canon.
Prior to this project, Hansen, the Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, had less than satisfactory experiences with adaptations of his work. Atticus was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Missing Pieces, that he thought missed the point of his novel. He adapted Mariette In Ecstacy for a feature film that ended up re-edited against his and the director’s wishes. It’s never been released. A writer’s adaptation of Isn’t It Romantic? so displeased Hansen he did everything in his power to stop the film being made. He succeeded. Assassination proved a pleasant change.
“Andrew Dominik has made a very faithful adaptation,” Hansen said simply. “Virtually every word in the script is mine.”
Unusual for Hollywood, Dominik (Chopper), whom Hansen described as “fairly reclusive,” consulted with the author from the completion of the first draft of his screenplay all the way through a second draft, the actual shoot and the final edit. Not only Dominik, but actors sounded out Hansen for advice. The author twice visited the set, was made an associate producer and even has a walk-on bit — as a reporter remarking to a photographer making a wet plate image of Jesse’s corpse.
“About 60 reporters hover around watching the process, and I’m in the shot at the extreme left, midway up the screen, wearing a fake mustache and a bowler hat, just watching. You only see it for a few seconds, but I nailed the part. Andrew gave me one line, ‘You’re going to make a lot of money from this, Alex,’ but the line didn’t make it into the final cut.”
He’s pleased with how rigorously accurate the film is.
From wooden knobs for hanging clothes to vintage children’s toys, he said, “the attention to detail is very impressive. The sets and the costumes are just tremendous. It’s not going to look like a typical Western because,” contrary to popular depictions of those times the film shows, “people didn’t wear cowboy clothes back then. Jesse James wore kind of a bowler hat, a businessman’s suit, a watch and a fob and all that. They wore boots and they rode horses and they packed guns, but they didn’t look like a lot of the portrayals of Jesse James.”
Hansen and Dominik take a dim view of previous screen renderings of James, feeling the gritty complexity and downright danger of the man and the times was ignored.
“The film’s costume-production designer, Patricia Norris, really knows her stuff, so she didn’t have to consult with me…In fact, she ended up teaching me,” Hansen said. “The last robbery of the James gang was the Blue Cut (Mo.) train robbery and she has this train interior unlike any you’ve seen before. It looks so totally different but obviously based on her own research. It’s just jam-packed with people and in the place where you would normally put luggage people are lying as if on palettes.”
It’s rare a writer gets carte blanche access to the making of a film based on his work, especially when the adaptation’s by someone else, in this case Dominik, a New Zealand-born Aussie.
Hansen’s involvement began with a phone call in early 2004. It wasn’t the first time someone showed interest in his James novel. But this time was different.
“I got word from my agent somebody was interested in doing this. It turned out to be Warner Brothers. And from the very first Andrew Dominik was going to write the screenplay. Maybe around June my agent said Andrew wanted to see some of my screenplays and earlier books, so I sent those on to him,” he said. “Then around September Andrew showed me his first draft of the screenplay, which I really liked.
“Every once in a while I’d have a quarrel with a word and then realize he’d taken it right out of the book. I talked to Andrew a good bit about that (first draft) and then he did another draft and sent that to me, and we talked about it, too. Then I met him in December at the Ritz Carleton Hotel in Pasadena.
“We had conversations frequently after that and then the next thing I knew it was greenlighted and he was just about to head up to Canada.”
Dominik spent the first half of 2005 scouting locations in Edmonton and Calgary. Before cameras started rolling in late summer, the filmmaker wanted Hansen’s input on some casting decisions.
“He would consult with me about various actors…especially as they were interviewing people for the role of Robert Ford. ‘What do you think of this guy?’ ‘Have you seen anybody you like?’ And I would mention people I’d seen who looked like him. Andrew had two scenes for the auditions for Bob Ford. One was early on, when Bob first contacts Frank James about being his sidekick on this train robbery.
The other’s 10 years later, when Bob Ford’s alone in Creed, Colo. and has his own saloon and is about to hire a dance hall girl and she asks him what Jesse James is like. Some people could do the first, but not the second scene. Some could do the second, but not the first. Finally, Casey Affleck seemed to be the best choice.”
On his visits to the closed set Hansen was given free reign to “wander around” and to “watch scenes” unfold. “I visited the set in Edmonton September 12-15, when they were shooting scenes in Heritage Park of Jesse and the gang at his Kansas City (Mo.) home and of the aftermath of his killing in St. Joseph (Mo.). Then I went up to Calgary October 3-6 for scenes with Jesse and the Ford brothers in the house on ‘Confusion Hill’ in St. Joseph.”
He spoke to many of the principals, including Pitt and Affleck. More than making small talk, these exchanges allowed Hansen to “give them my ideas and maybe change some wording that was difficult for them.” This interaction actually began months earlier, before filming commenced.
Said Hansen, “An actor would call me up and want to know more about his character. Or about why a particular word was used. What did it mean. Would it be OK if they said this and not this. That kind of continued when I was on the set. The actors really liked having me around because they could come ask, ‘Is there something else I can say in this scene?’ Then I could just throw out a line and a minute later I’d be hearing the line said.
“Actors ad-libbed on occasion, otherwise the dialogue and voice over are straight from the book,” he said.
He’s impressed with the work of the two leads. He particularly feels Pitt’s malleable performance captures Jesse’s instability, which gave Dominik many options.
“You would see maybe seven takes of one speech he gives and he would do it in subtly different ways each time,” Hansen said. “He was really prepared for the various shadings of Jesse James’s character and to explore this guy who was really a psychopath, but a charming one who could be scary and funny and admirable within moments. And that’s true of several scenes Brad Pitt plays with Casey Affleck. He (Pitt) gets all the nuances and all the expressions. James kept people off-balance by constantly shifting his mood and Pitt does a great job of presenting that. James was a vital presence and that’s what Pitt brings. He’s constantly surprising you. You can’t anticipate what he’s going to do next.”
As in Hansen’s book, the film considers James in counterpoint to Ford, his antithetical alter ego and killer. Much has been written about each man and their relationship and motivations. Hansen finds both to be fascinating enigmas.
“Ford kind of hitched up along with the James gang because they were famous and because it seemed like easy money. He ingratiated himself with Jesse James,” Hansen said. The legend that grew in the aftermath of the two men’s fatal last meeting branded Ford a coward, but the book and the film “show that Robert Ford really wasn’t a coward, he was an opportunist,” Hansen said. “When he was threatened and felt like he was going to be killed himself, he turned on James, but it wasn’t as though James wasn’t going to turn on him either.”
“A lot of people still admire Jesse James,” the author noted, “and I wanted to impress on them he really was a psychopath. I wanted to do a kind of character-in-the-round the way Shakespeare does, where you see both his good and bad sides and get to appreciate what draws people to him. He was a star in a lot of ways, and he used it. If he entered a room all eyes would be on him.”
As for the James-Ford dynamic, Hansen said, “I think they were oil and vinegar in some ways, but at the same time they were feeding off each other. Ford was really intrinsic to the last days of Jesse James. It was almost as if James knew death was necessary and he was looking for the person to kill him, and he decided on Ford.”
Expectations will be challenged by the moody film, he said, which eschews “bullets flying around” and “blood” for “a character study of this dance with death between Jesse James and Bob Ford.”
Hansen, his wife, writer Bo Caldwell (The Distant Land of My Father), and his step-children attended the film’s New York City premiere on September 18 at the Zeigfeld Theater.
“I thought the movie was superb,” Hansen said.
Reviews have been wildly enthusiastic.
All this means new life for Hansen’s 24-year-old novel. Harper Perennial has reissued a mass market paperback edition and a trade paperback version with an added postscript on the writing of the book and the making of the movie.
Meanwhile, Hansen’s other Western novel, Desperados, is under option with filmmakers. His new novel, Exiles, is slated for a May release by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It tells the story of a 19th century shipwreck, the English poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’ obsession with it and the famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, he wrote about it.
- FILM POETRY – The Cinematography & Music of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (westernsreboot.com)
- My five (thehindu.com)
- Jesse James Jr. – a Family Drama on Film (westernsreboot.com)
- Video: Ron Hansen Reads “My Kids’ Dog” (peaceloveandpsych.wordpress.com)
- Exiles, by Ron Hansen (author2be.wordpress.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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