Ray Liotta and director Andrew Dominik discuss Killing Them Softly
Learning How to Take a Punch
Nov 30, 2012
For his third feature film, writer/director Andrew Dominik has adapted George V. Higgin’s classic crime novel, Cogan’s Trade. Transposed from 1970s Boston to New Orleans during the 2008 election season, Killing Them Softly takes Higgins’ crime story and places it in a new, very modern context. It’s a film as much about the financial crisis and its effect on even the seediest underworld characters as it is about a robbery gone wrong.
To fill the role of the film’s jaded hitman, Jackie Cogan, the director went immediately to actor Brad Pitt. The leading man is probably one of the few actors able to pull off the role’s equal mixture of menace and charm.
“Brad is not a person you could cast as an everyman,” says Dominik. “I wouldn’t believe Brad in a supermarket in a movie. But I would believe him as a mythological figure. I kind of buy him as the cool fixer guy in the movie. Brad has a certain mystery about him. No matter what he shows you, you always feel there’s the rest of the iceberg just below the surface of the water.”
Pitt, who had worked with Dominik previously in 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was the first actor to sign on for the film. The director was then able to surround the star with an impressive supporting cast that includes Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Shepard, and Richard Jenkins.
“This movie had the least amount of directing I’ve ever done,” says Dominik of his strong cast. “It was more just me trying to get out of their way. Making them feel as though they were safe, that if they made mistakes I wouldn’t use them. Make them feel there’s someone who’s paying attention, who gives a shit.”
Actor Ray Liotta gives the director a lot more credit.
“With all of his movies, he just has this commitment,” the actor says. “He really likes the whole idea of making movies. It suits him and his personality. He just wants to make a good movie. It seems like such an obvious thing, but not all directors want to make great films. For some, it’s just a job.”
In the film, Liotta plays Markie Trattman, a low-ranking underworld figure who runs poker games amongst his criminal peers. Pitt’s character pins Liotta as the fall guy for a robbery, despite being sure of his innocence. In a movie chock full of scumbags, Liotta plays one of the only sympathetic ones.
“He’s probably the nicest bad guy,” says Liotta of his character. “Most of my other parts, I was usually pursuing somebody, or beating somebody, or shooting somebody, but in this one it was all happening to my character. Basically, he just ran a card game for his bosses. He did steal once, years ago, but he learned his lesson from that. He’s one of the nicest bad guys. I don’t even consider him a bad guy.”
Liotta’s character is far from being the film’s only victim; the director does not skimp on violence in Killing Them Softly. The violence ranges from shocking and gory to almost poetic in its portrayal from scene to scene.
“There are three approaches to violence,” says Dominik. “One is not to show it, another is to make it ugly. The third is to make it beautiful.”
Liotta is central to two of Killing Them Softly’s most violent scenes; one falls into the “beautiful” category. The other can certainly be described as ugly. In that scene, Liotta’s character takes an incredibly savage beating from two of his underlings; the extended brutality makes for one of the more visceral and violent film sequences to appear in recent years.
“You don’t see it a lot in movies, or hear it, the fact that it hurts,” Liotta said of the scene. “Usually guys take punches, and they’re just taking the punches. There’s no ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and ‘ouch’ and ‘stops.’ That’s why I didn’t want to use a stunt person. It was much harder than I thought it would be. I’ve taken hits in movies, but nothing as brutal as that.”
Liotta says the biggest thing he learned from his role in Killing Them Softly was how to take a punch. Despite growing up in New Jersey, he didn’t have any real-life experience he could draw from for the scene.
“I’ve never been in a fight,” he says. “But I assume it’s not fun.”
Killing Them Softly opens November 30th.