Were you deliberately trying to mix film noir with a modern day western in The Way of the Gun?
"I wasn't intending to, but it sort of evolved into that. We started to realise as we were making the film that it had familiar western elements and was starting to lean more in that direction. But we never really set out to make a noir or a western, it was just as the film was going on that it started to become a bit of both."
And yet your two main characters are called Parker and Longbaugh - the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - so that reference was no accident, was it?
"It was a reference to something we were reacting against. The real impetus of the film was the frustration that here I was trying to direct my first film, and getting a lot of encouragement to make another crime thriller. I had no interest in doing that, but nobody would let me make anything else without an enormous amount of interference. I knew that if I made it a crime movie no-one would interfere with what I was writing, and I was very frustrated because people say 'please make a crime film' but they don't really want to make a film about criminals. They want to make a film about nice, likeable people who just happen to commit crime. Typically you have to go to these extremes to create reasons for why it's okay to kill people and steal and break the law."
You obviously have a keen ear for dialogue - is that an easy part of the writing process for you?
"I don't know where the dialogue comes from, to be honest. I just pick things up as I go along, little things that people say in conversations that I find interesting. My belief is that if you can't find an interesting way to say it, don't say it. Allude to it, beat around it. "
"That seems to be where a lot of my dialogue comes from, the indirect answer. The real answer to your question would have been yes or no, but answering questions with questions and with evasive answers always seems to be a lot more interesting. I'm a big fan of John Boorman's, Deliverance. I think that's a great film, a masterpiece in terms of sparse dialogue. But at the same time every line of dialogue means so many different things, every time you watch it you can extrapolate new meanings."
So much of The Way of the Gun, perhaps because it is so very unlike typical Hollywood product - carries a feeling of authenticity. Is that something you researched before writing it?
"Actually before becoming a screenwriter I had worked for a detective agency for a number of years, and part of my work there - a very small part of my work - was as a bodyguard. My boss at the detective agency was named Joe Sarno, he was very much reminiscent of the character with that name in the movie. He was certainly not as dark and foreboding as James Caan portrays the character in the film, but Joe was the guy you would call in the middle of the night if you were ever in a jam."
How about the very realistic looking gunfights?
"My brother Doug is a Navy SEAL, and I had him come out a few weeks before we shot the last gunfight, and he sat down with a storyboard artist and a map of the location, and a box of plastic cowboys and Indians. We put them out on the map, and basically played cowboys and Indians on this map. I'd say, 'I'm going from here to here, how are you going to stop me?', and I would switch roles on him and make him be the other guy, to figure out how to counter the move. Tactically we worked everything out and then it became very easy to shoot, because while we were doing that I had a storyboard artist drawing everything we were doing. We would determine the various camera angles from that."
The actions of the characters are dictated less by anger or emotion, but by a sense of professional logic, aren't they?
"I find this very popular cinematic device of revenge so tiresome, these guys with a score to settle. That's boring. I'm much more interested in somebody who's not at all emotionally invested in doing what he does. I think those characters are a lot more fun to watch. One of the big things throughout the movie is that you would run into these moments where one characters would insult another character. In any other movie the Taye Diggs character would be so angry and so bent on killing Sarno for all the things that he says to him, or desperate for revenge on Parker and Longbaugh for what they do. But that makes him a stupid character. If you lead with your emotions in those situations you're going to get killed. What I'm interested in is characters who know how to master or control their emotions, because frankly that's common sense."
Was the casting of Benicio Del Toro, after your success together with The Usual Suspects, a straightforward decision?
"Benicio was the one who talked me into making a crime film. I basically got together with him one afternoon, after yet another dismal meeting with a studio executive about a film I wanted to make, and Benicio kept saying 'I just don't understand, why don't you make another crime film?'. I always knew from The Usual Suspects on that whatever I did as my first film as director that I would want Benicio there. He's just one of those actors that makes you look like a better filmmaker."
"I was very resistant to Ryan at first. He worked completely against what I imagined Parker to be, I had a different picture of the character in my mind. I wanted someone with more miles on the clock, someone who was more of a brawler and more on the same plane as Benicio. You can see a lifetime of experience in Benicio, and I didn't imagine I'd see that with Ryan. But when I said no Ryan's response was that he wouldn't take a no without a meeting. So I met with him, and asked why he wanted to do this movie. He said because he's an actor, and yet people were trying to make him into a movie star. My producer Ken Kokin pointed out that the one actor I didn't want in The Usual Suspects was Benicio Del Toro. So I met with Ryan, and he met the challenges of the role head on so I cast him. Six weeks later he showed up at rehearsal, he'd grown a beard, put on 25 pounds of muscle and looked how I imagined he should."
Was it easy to make the plunge from screenwriting to directing?
"It was easy taking the plunge, just as it's easy to fall from any height in the dark. It was the landing that was hard. But I would imagine the next time I take the plunge will be tougher."
© Momentum Pictures