Simon Columb chats with Richard Shepard, writer-director of Dom Hemingway…
Richard Shepard is an actor’s director. He has worked with Richard Gere, Pierce Brosnan and, now, Jude Law. He directed the pilot episode of Ugly Betty, episodes of 30 Rock and multiple episodes of Lena Dunham’s Girls. Dom Hemingway, is Shepard’s glorious, character-driven London gangster film featuring Jude Law as the Dom himself with Richard E. Grant playing his right-hand man. When I sat with Shepard, considering how unique Jude Law’s character is, I asked him where the titular Dom Hemingway came from:
Richard Shepard: What part of my dark brain did he come from? I wanted to make a movie in London and I wanted to make a movie about someone getting out of jail. I had to find the character. Who is this person? I was struggling with it. I wrote the first scene of the movie where he is just talking about his cock. It really came out easily and I wanted to spend time with him. Organically it just came. Here is this character and let’s see what happens with him…
Simon Columb: London sounds like a key part of your thought process. Did you desperately want to film in London?
RS: Actually, I hadn’t spent much time in London, but I wanted to make a movie here. I’m from New York and it’s got a similar vibe to the city. [London] is an older city obviously but there is a street energy and a visual look and … the way people walk. I immediately just felt comfortable in London because it feels like New York to me. I wanted to spend more time here.
SC: What films inspired you in the writing and production of Dom Hemingway?
RS: Sexy Beast, The Hit and The Limey are character driven, genre movies – though The Limey is set in LA, it has a British lead-character. I love a good genre movie, but sometimes it can just fall into a shoot ‘em up or a heist movie, becoming less about character. I didn’t want to do that. With Sexy Beast, the crime at the end is secondary to all the tension before it. Primarily, it is just characters in a house because they are so rich. It gives you a genre satisfaction without giving it in a way you expect. It is less a “Guy Ritchie film” and far more of something that could attract a really great actor; a seminal character. I really wanted to create an indelible character and Dom is larger than life. As I was writing, I found this could be something really interesting. It’s totally enjoyable but there is much more to it.
SC: What about Dom himself – any specific characters that influenced him?
RS: I don’t want to sound pretentious at all but I hoped Dom is Shakespearian. He is larger than life – Falstaff-ian even. He is something big and you can’t take your eyes off of him. I could use Sexy Beast or Withnail and I – and movies which are important to me as a film goer. But while this character is larger than life, he is also as small as we are. I didn’t give him a rhyming cockney tone – it would be too obvious and would reveal, as a writer, that I’m not from London. I created a specific way of speaking for Dom and Jude [Law] was able to add his own South London thing.
SC: It is great to hear you talk so much about character. Your documentary on John Cazale (I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale), a fascinating 1970’s actor, is fascinating – and Richard E. Grant in Dom Hemingway does look a little like John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon …
RS: I love the 70’s era and John Cazale was my acting hero. His characters were much quieter than Dom would be – he would eat John Cazale up, but Cazale would hold his own. John could easily have played Richard E. Grants part – possibly even Dom’s part because he was such a versatile actor. With Richard E. Grant, I was a big fan of Withnail & I and I was missing him in movies, I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I watched Withnail & I four years ago again and it holds up and it is so fu**in’ funny – why isn’t he in more movies? When I was writing this movie and Dom needed a friend, I thought he doesn’t need a cockney buddy, a Ray Winstone friend – he needs something completely different. It’d be interesting if it was a Richard E Grant type-role so I wrote it with him in mind. When casting, they asked who I’d want for this part and they said they’d get it to Richard E. Grant – Richard appreciated this. Part of his look, like Dom, shows how they are trapped in their glory days. Richard E. Grant is trapped 25 years in the past when he may have been at his best, while Dom is trapped a because he was in jail for 12 years – so they are both a little out of step. It gives them a cool look as it is retro but it makes sense for their characters.
SC: Starting a film with a brash, bold monologue about Dom Hemingway’s cock immediately focuses your attention on masculinity and what it is to be man in the modern world. Was this intentional?
RS: I’m very interested in male friendship and the walls we put up. Dom is definitely a person who shoots himself in the foot all the time, ruining his own life. The movie is about taking one small step towards grace – one small step to see what’s important. The masculinity “thing” is like a wall of defence. The posturing of violence – all of that stuff – is a way to not have to deal with real emotions. But [Dom Hemingway] does need to deal with real emotions. All that stuff is really interesting. It gives him another layer – indeed, Dom and Dickie (Richard E. Grant] have a way with each other. You don’t have to explain it. Dom is a guy who is angry at everyone – but crucially himself.
SC: How was it working with Jude Law and Richard E. Grant?
RS: I had an amazing time with them. Jude is at a point in his career where he was ready to be given a role like this. He saw this as an opportunity for him – but it was scary. This is a character unlike anything he has ever played. He bares himself emotionally and physically – so we had a trust between us. His commitment was extraordinary too. He likes to rehearse and we rehearsed a lot making it much easier to shoot. We shot in France and London and every single day was a joy. Jude is such a professional and Richard too. As a filmmaker, the actors are going in with something to prove – this wasn’t a pay-check movie or something they have done before. That energy is very creative. We didn’t have a ‘heist’ plot to fall back on – the tension and drama is on the characters only. We knew we had to get it right. When the lead actor is unbelievably, fully committed, all the other actors were like “Fu**! I’d better work here!”.
Lots of it was handheld so the shots weren’t specifically planned. There is a scene with monkey portraits in the background and the actors didn’t know if the camera was on them. The camera could suddenly whip to them – and that’s great because when actors know a camera isn’t on them they can be almost phoning it in.
John Cazale upped the game in the same way – Al Pacino interviewed for two hours about how John made him better. I found that really interesting with John – and Jude Law brought the same thing to the party.
Many thanks to Richard Shephard for taking the time for this interview.