Everything we know about Andrew Dominik’s longer cut of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Since its release in 2007 much has been written about alternate versions of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Financial backers Warner Brothers were so unhappy with Andrew Dominik’s version they brought in several different editors, and even Ridley Scott, to try and whittle down the run-time and inject some pace into the elegiac and existential Western.
Dominik himself did not have ‘final cut’ but fought tooth-and-nail (threatening the professional embarrassment of taking his name off the film) to deliver a film he was happy with.
He won out and the current edition sits at a cool 160 minutes (it was a box office flop).
An early assembly cut was reportedly four hours and cinematographer Roger Deakins says it was shown at the Venice Film Festival. He wants it released on Criterion (thus far the boutique label has expressed no interest).
“I would really like to see the long version, the first cut that I saw, released on Criterion. That’s what I’d hope for. It was over three hours. I don’t think it ever will, because last time I talked to Andrew about it he was quite happy with the version that got released. But I still remember that first early cut that I saw and it was pretty stunning.”
However Dominik believes Deakins is wrong or, at least, misremembering as the version he prefers is just 15 minutes longer than the theatrical edition.
“There was a three-hour version, right? 15 minutes longer than what it is, three hours. There was never a four-hour version that was any good, believe me,” Dominik said — adding there’s a version just five minutes longer than the theatrical he thinks is better too.
“The problem with it was — the really good scene in the film, it sat in the version that was 15 minutes longer,” he said.
“It didn’t sit in the version that was only five minutes longer. Although, I think in that version, we used a truncated version of the scene, but there’s the moment where the film was done, in my opinion. That was the one that was 15 minutes longer. But there’s another year of warfare that happened from that moment on.”
So, what was left on the cutting room floor that would have improved what is now considered one of the masterpieces of the 00s?
Those inclined can read a 132-page draft by Dominik here dated December 2004 (filming began on August 29, 2005). Super fans may even seek out the original novel by Ron Hansen.
One trailer still on YouTube offers the best glimpses of three scenes left on the cutting room floor, perhaps at the last minute.
One brief clip used in the trailer shows a policeman wrestling with an onrushing crowd of people.
Due to the lack of dialogue it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where this scene would have fit in the final film.
Another scene has Zee James, played by Mary-Louise Parker, speaking to Bob warning him: “It’s gruesome being hunted Bob.”
You can see this scene in the original script:
And in the third scene we see a glimpse of is Jesse and Bob sat outside together, possibly in a scene shortly before Jesse’s death.
“You know what it is you’re most afraid of?” Jesse asks.
“I’m afraid of being forgotten.” Bob replies.
Here’s that scene in the script:
There’s another trailer with a voice over from Bob cut from one scene close to the end of the film.
It’s the opening night for one his saloons and he’s speaking to a prospective employee Nellie Russell.
Here’s that scene in Dominik’s script:
Nellie Russell goes on to kill herself:
Now, outside of those four scenes and some obvious cuts (likely for length reasons) what else does the script have?
Let’s look at the more substantive cuts.
- An early scene between Bob and Jesse, not long after meeting, has them both fishing and swapping stories. Bob tries to tell a jovial but obscene joke about Jesse that goes down like a lead balloon before Jesse tells his own story and is angry that Bob doesn’t believe it. Bob then catches a hideous-looking fish and kills it by stabbing it over and over with a burning stick.
- Wood and Dick’s first ‘shooting scrape’ is in the script after Dick seduces Wood’s dad’s wife.
- Jesse’s murder of Ed Miller is straight after their tense talk in Miller’s decrepit home and not shown as flashback during Jesse’s confession to Charley Ford.
- Bob’s first scene where he says he’ll work with the authorities (Henry Craig) is in the script including the tell-tale line ‘Pretty soon all of America will know who Bob Ford is’.
- Jesse, after inviting Bob to join Charley and he, consults the Bible at night ‘like a monk’ and tells Bob he’s been forgiven for his murders.
- Bob creeping up on Jesse in the bathtub is much later in the script that in the theatrical cut, after Bob has become more agitated toward his one-time idol. “Do you wanna be like me? Or do you wanna be me?” Jesse asks.
- Zee has more of a role before Jesse’s death, speaking to Bob about just being grateful her husband is around.
- The authorities visit Jesse’s house and speak with a distraught Zee after the assassination. People can scarcely believe the dead man is Jesse James.
- There is more about the public reaction to Jesse’s death including a man who breaks into the home to steal swatches of the bloodstained carpet that he goes on to sell.
- Jesse’s funeral procession and remarks by Reverend Martin (who is cut entirely from the theatrical edition). A ‘crackpot’ fires a fun at Jesse’s mother.
- Bob sits for a studio portrait and holds his gun in his left hand, despite being right handed, as ‘Jesse was left handed’.
- Bob visits Jesse’s grave on which is written: “Murdered by a traitor whose name is not worthy to appear here”.
- Zee James’s later life is covered, albeit briefly, by the narrator. As is the life of Jesse’s two children (Jesse’s son writes a book about his childhood as the son of Jesse despite an earlier scene establishing he had no idea who his dad was when he was assassinated).
- Frank James’ surrender to Governor Crittenden and then the narrator covers his trial where Frank shakes hands with the jurors and ‘never serves a day in the penitentiary’.
- Bob meets Dorothy Evans who introduces herself as ‘courtesan’. She queries if he’s Robert Ford when first meeting him but later Bob realises she was feigning ignorance and knew him from his picture: “You said you were expecting someone old and ugly, when you knew just what I looked like.”
- Edward O’Kelly’s first assassination attempt where Bob tricks him with joviality before slapping him and grabbing the pistol.
- Soapy Smith, cut from the theatrical edition, is in the script. He’s a friend of O’Kelly’s and tries to befriend Bob and tells him what he should have done about Jesse: “You coulda said you two had an argument and shot it out and you were the victor”.
- The narrator mentions Dorothy Evans’ life and her eventual death (also from suicide, like Nellie Russell).
- The end of the film is exactly as written.
For posterity’s sake here are some longer remarks from Dominik on a potential longer cut, courtesy of The Film Stage:
“I really hope, at some point, I’ll be able to do, at some point, if it’d be possible to release a different cut — a longer cut of the picture. I’d love that. So, not at all, but, you know, nobody wants to do that yet, so there’s something to be done. I mean, the movie’s done. I finished the movie. At the point where the movie comes out into the public consciousness — or wherever it is — the movie’s released; it’s over, for me. Although it’s nice to see it occasionally, it’s… the movie is like the ashes of the experience of making it.”
“You know, I should clarify: there is a longer version of Jesse James that’s about 20 minutes longer, and I think it’s a really good version. And, then, there’s another version that I like a lot, that I think is better than the “big” version. It’s maybe about 4% different, you know what I mean? It’s very, very minor. I like the version of the picture that’s been released; I think it’s great. There’s just a couple of things I’d change, maybe.”
UPDATE: Roger Deakins, speaking to GQ, has had more to say on the longer release of The Assassination of Jesse James, which he is still keen for. Here are his full remarks:
“I did see the longer cut because I saw an edit. We shot a lot of what happened after the film ends, we shot what happens to Frank James, which is really interesting ’cause he had a farm up in Maine or somewhere up there. He used to take tourists around his farm and charge them for looking at his farmhouse and stuff. It’s like gangster tourism or whatever… I thought that was really interesting and just in the film there was more things with Ford before he’s shot, his relationship with this woman in this town of Creede up in the Rockies and this woman commits suicide, jumps off a bridge. I mean it’s all true, it’s all what actually happened and I’m a sucker for true stories that are so strange and tell you so much about that period and those characters and that life. I think it’s so good I could have done with the other hour and it wouldn’t have made any more money or lost any more money so what the hell, you know.”