Despite hit movie, there's no rest for the weary John Dahl

January 20, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

You're a big-time movie director. You were a fellow in directing at the American Film Institute, and directed 36 music videos, the cult film "Kill Me Again" and the brilliantly received "Red Rock West." Now you've got one of the most ecstatically reviewed movies of the decade in "The Last Seduction." Life should be great, no? What's to worry about? Everything is easy!

Well, no.

"Basically, it's a fistfight from Day One," says John Dahl wearily. "You just fight and manipulate and . . . sometimes you win a little and sometimes you lose a little."

Dahl sounds like a man who's just played linebacker in the longest NFL game on record. He's now done three films, and each one was a monster to get done and released. And each one proved nothing and made the one that followed not one bit easier to get made.

Take that first movie, "Kill Me Again." A tough private-eye tale, it featured a role for a been-there-done-that kind of guy as the shamus. Think of the great P.I.s in movie history: Bogart, Garner, Gould -- men with road maps for faces and eyes that have seen the world through the glass of too many whiskey-bottle bottoms. Who does Dahl get? Val Kilmer, who looks as if he were born that very morning.

"Ach!" he says in disgust. "I got stuck with Val Kilmer as a 44-year-old man!"

Then there was the near- tragic tale of "Red Rock West," Dahl's second picture -- but the first one, he says, where he "got it." "I learned so much making 'Kill Me Again' that when I was done, I wished I could just throw it out and make it over. But it doesn't work that way."

He made "Red Rock West" for $7.5 million from Columbia-TriStar. Working from a script co-written with his brother, he turned out a wickedly funny, completely entertaining story of deceit and murder in a bleak western city. Naturally, Columbia-TriStar dumped it.

"It was going to go straight to video!" Dahl shrieks over the telephone. It was even shown on HBO. It looked cooked. "It's so aggravating because it's all corporate politics."

Then a theater owner and minor distributor asked Columbia TriStar to release it through his company, Roxy Releasing. And it began to grow, following the independent route, moving from region to region, acquiring a reputation at film festivals. Eventually, with foreign sales and other ancillary sales ("going around the block" in the argot of the trade), it turned a modest profit.

"Every now and then," he says, "I get a little check, which means it's still showing in Milwaukee or somewhere."

He thought things would be different when he was approached to do "Last Seduction," the first movie he would make that wasn't based on one of his own scripts.

"At last I got to make the movie I wanted with the cast I wanted," says Dahl of "The Last Seduction." "What I'm hoping is that if the movies find an audience, they [the studios and the producers] will leave me alone."

But still he had problems -- arguments with the distributor and investors as to what kind of movie it would be.

"Another fistfight," he says. "You get really good at arguing. The fight broke down into whether it would be a sexy thriller or a black comedy. I saw it as a black comedy, but that's one genre that can't be sold. So they're selling it as a sexy thriller. To me, it's just a funny movie."

Dahl denies he's chosen to specialize in film noir, though each of his films is of an identifiable film noir category.

"I really like those [old] films," he says, "but I'm still not sure. When I started making 'Last Seduction' I thought, 'Here I am vTC making another movie with a bag of money in it. Now I'm a genre guy.' But it's really important to me to make a movie where the script is good."

He's aware that he's reinvigorating an old sexist film noir tradition -- the femme fatale, a deadly, beautiful woman who manipulates and then disposes of the men on her way to her goal. He says that he and Linda Fiorentino, who plays the man-munching Bridget Gregory in the film, used to joke about setting feminism back 20 years.

"If you isolate it and dissect it, I can understand the charge," he says. "It's there! I have no argument against it!

"On the other hand, when you have lots of bad men, as most movies do, no one notices. They only notice when the bad person is a her. I guess I don't have a problem making these movies and don't feel I'm a sexist because of it. Why can't a woman be just as rotten as a man?"

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