The last reduction
Digital trickery isn’t restricted to Beowulf and 300. John Dahl used CGI to knock millions off the budget for this new thriller, You Kill Me. It’s just another way to tell a story, he tells Barry Roche
JJohn Dahl, maker of the 1990s thrillers Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, knows how to surprise an audience. And he didn’t disappoint those who attended his public interview at this year’s Cork Film Festival, where he revealed some of the secrets behind the filming of his latest movie, You Kill Me.
Describing the background to the blackly comic thriller starring Ben Kingsley, Dahl disclosed that it had cost all of $4 million to make. The audience seemed momentarily stunned, as You Kill Me has the look and feel of a movie that cost 20 times that amount.
Later Dahl, a rangy 51-year-old from Montana, explains that he was able to make the film so cheaply thanks to a tight 25-day shooting schedule, use of local crews on location in Winnipeg, and, most surprisingly for a director who places such emphasis on narrative, clever use of the latest technology. You Kill Me doesn’t trumpet its use of CGI, but digital effects enabled him to realise the wickedly funny screenplay so convincingly within budget.
Much of the film is set in Buffalo, New York amid snow-covered streets. Dahl details which scenes were shot with real snow in Winnipeg and which were shot using CGI. He allows himself a modest smile when I comment that it doesn’t look like a film that uses digital effects.
“I think CGI has just become another tool that people use, and it’s almost weirdly a return to the old film-making of the 1930s, where they would set up a wide shot, say in Monument Valley, and the painter would paint clouds on a piece of glass which they would set up in front of the camera.”
The technology is continuing to improve and the savings are increasing exponentially, he adds. For example, some 250 digital effects on Dahl’s underrated war movie The Great Raid cost $1 million, while the 230 shots in You Kill Me totalled just $100,000.
“The technology is getting better and cheaper,” Dahl says. “We edited The Great Raid on an Avid, a very common editing system in Hollywood. To buy one new costs over $200,000, so two of them costs you $500,000. We edited You Kill Me on a Macintosh laptop with Final Cut Pro for about $10,000.”
Not that everyone was always convinced about using CGI. Kingsley, who carries the film with his engaging portrayal of an emotionally awkward alcoholic hitman who is sent to San Francisco to dry out, was initially less than enthusiastic about performing before a green screen. “I remember saying to Ben that we weren’t actually going to shoot the bridge scene on the Golden Gate Bridge and it’s going to be green screen. He said, ‘Oh, I hate green screen’. And I said, ‘Well, they’re not going to allow us use the bridge, so get used to it’.
“Ten years ago,” Dahl says, “the special effects were pretty hokey but the ability to do them has improved. That said, it’s still all about storytelling. Movies for me are still about somebody telling a story that engages and excites me. Using CGI is just another way to tell the story.”
money: director John Dahl (left) and
Ben Kingsley and Tea Leonie in You Kill Me