The Popcorn Reel Presents

you kill me

A CONVERSATION STARRING TEA LEONI AND DIRECTOR JOHN DAHL

By Omar P.L. Moore  |  The Popcorn Reel

June 15, 2007


Tea Leoni (pronounced "Tay-a") on the set of "You Kill Me", directed by John Dahl (right).  The film also stars Ben Kingsley, with an ensemble cast that includes Luke Wilson, Bill Pullman, Philip Baker Hall and Dennis Farina, and opens in the U.S. and Canada on Friday, June 22.  (Photos: IFC Films; James Vespa/WireImage)

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F
or a few minutes on a hot sunny morning in San Francisco, two online journalists fired away with questions for Tea Leoni (pronounced "Tay-a") and John Dahl at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.  Before a publicist would pre-empt proceedings, Leoni and Dahl warmly received them.  The actor, in films like "Flirting With Disaster", "Bad Boys", "Deep Impact" and "Spanglish", and the director, of such films as "Red Rock West", "Rounders" and "The Last Seduction" -- the last of those titles being something of a cult favorite in numerous parts of the world -- talked about their experiences on Dahl's "You Kill Me", which opens in the U.S. and Canada on Friday June 22.

Leoni wears blue jeans and an olive tan colored blouse.  Trim and in perfect shape, she is impeccably assembled and as she speaks each movement she makes is fluid, relaxed and unscripted.  Tea's sense of humor enlivens the exchange between the two journalists and herself, while Dahl, sporting a tall, athletic, muscular build and wearing a black sweater and black jacket with blue jeans, is ever so delicately restrained but equally as enervating and engaging. 

"You Kill Me" is a romantic comedy about a hit man Frank Falencyk (Ben Kingsley) whose alcoholism has outlasted his thirst for killing.  Frank is 180 degrees to the south of another famous Kingsley incarnation, Don Logan in "Sexy Beast".  Inhibited, irritated and uncomfortable, Frank has been sent packing from the cold confines of Buffalo, New York to the more temperate (and tolerant) climes of San Francisco, California after botching a job for his boss.  He meets Laurel (Tea Leoni) in the most awkward of circumstances: a morgue. 

From there, life, love, confessions and comedy abound.

Mr. Kingsley and producer Carol Baum sent Dahl the screenplay.  "My first reaction when I read it was, 'wow, this is a great script.  Nobody's ever going to make it -- it'll cost too much."  The film, was initially expected to cost about $11 million, but the director said that it ended up being a $3.5 million budget.  "There was no safety net, " Dahl said.  "Ben, Tea and I sort of signed on to -- we have no idea what we're getting ourselves into but let's see what can happen."  During this interview Tea and John work together in concert.  The director answers, then the actor answers.  It is all natural.  The rhythm of their answers and exchanges throughout the interview reveal the ease and comfort of what their onscreen rapport must have been for "You Kill Me".  Leoni plays Laurel Pearson, a lonely, emotionally closed-off woman who becomes even more so after losing her father.  Tea strips her character down to a virtually inanimate being, a vast departure from a number of her prior films, where she was a more urgent and lively presence. 

For Tea there was never a doubt about the mission and journey of the film and where its story was taking the cast and crew.  "It was exciting -- we never experienced -- to be fair and myopic, in my opinion -- we never had those scenes that went 'kerplunk', where we wished we could have gone back and re-shot.  I think you come into it with such a readiness that you have to make it work.  You have to find it, or it's gonna get out of the film.  Every scene was really important in the film.  We dropped very little in the end," said Leoni.  John Dahl talks about a scene in the film involving Mr. Kingsley's character in a parking lot.  He explained how he went to the highly-esteemed actor and asked him about the scene.  "'Ben, how do you feel laying in the parking lot and getting rained on?'"  The film's assistant director demonstrated by lying in the rain in the parking lot.  Kingsley then assented to doing the same.

"You Kill Me" was shot primarily in Winnepeg, Canada, with only one day of actual shooting in San Francisco, with the remaining scenes in the Northern California city shot as digital opticals and in green screen.  Says Ms. Leoni: "The artistic integrity of this film, I would say, for me it's probably -- they're very few other films that I've worked on where it's been so pristine.  And yet what we came away with -- after you've flown under the radar and made it and closed it, locked it -- then you get to present what's actually a very relatable, adorable, very funny romantic comedy.  Which we would never have breathed a word of that when we set out to make this film."


A killer romance: Ben Kingsley as Frank and Tea Leoni as Laurel, in John Dahl's "You Kill Me" which opens on Friday (June 22).  (Photo: IFC Films)

John Dahl's film features a cast of ensemble characters played by actors who by themselves are more than capable of holding down the fort.  Bill Pullman is Dave, Frank's minder in San Francisco.  Philip Baker Hall is Frank's crime boss Roman Krzeminski , while Dennis Farina plays Edward O'Leary, a rival crime boss.  Luke Wilson also stars as Tom, a gay alcoholic who is battling his addiction to the bottle.   Together these actors orchestrate a crime caper and comedy of errors while the unlikely romance between Frank and Laurel begins.  At this point John is asked whether much directing is needed when veteran actors like Hall and Farina are on the scene.  "A lot of it is letting them be who they are -- what everybody likes about them.  One of the first scenes we'd shot with Dennis, he walks in and he's got to intimidate Roman at the Polish Deli, and he sees [Roman] and he walks in -- and it wasn't scripted that he's gonna bite the cannoli . . . and he walks over and . . . on rehearsal and he just picks up [Roman's] cannoli and eats it.  I think it's hilarious.  'Is that too much?,' I'm thinking.  And then I'm thinking, 'well no, we've gotta hate this guy by the end of the movie and it's Dennis Farina -- he's pretty hard to hate.'  So yeah, that's kind of the tone of the movie.  I had that experience with almost every actor -- the first scene they did, they were so kind of dead on in terms of the tone that it sort of made itself."

John expands upon this, citing an example with Tea's character Laurel in the first scene that the director shot of her character when she arrives in Buffalo.  "Just the delivery and the timing and sitting there with freezing feet.  It was just sort of so right."  After mentioning a scene involving Philip Baker Hall (in which the director thought that the shoot would get closed down due to the loud noise necessary for the scene) and citing the veteran actor as being "so game", the director has an anecdote about his "Last Seduction" star, Mr. Pullman.  "Bill Pullman . . . shows up in Winnipeg with this weird haircut [for his character Dave] and these glasses, going, 'what do you think??'"  The room erupts with laughter at this point.  "I mean when he walked on to the set, the A.D. [assistant director Ronaldo Nacionales] was like the whole time -- was like, 'I know we got a great cast, but the guy I really want to meet is Bill Pullman.  I just think he's terrific.'  And Bill comes walking into the room and he's standing next to Ronaldo.  And I don't think he even recognized him."

"Bill looked like a crazy man," adds Tea.  "It was almost like -- 'security?!'  And he had that mouth -- gave you that -- weird mouth." 

The director doesn't see Ben's character Frank as a continuum of Kingsley's Don Logan (from "Sexy Beast") or at least doesn't get seduced by an actor's prior film character that may have earmarks of the one being directed in a new and different film.  For John the stories and characters are separate and the actor, in this case Ben Kingsley, is inhabiting a new character in a new dimension in "You Kill Me", even though Ben has played criminal types in the past.  John Dahl will admit one thing, however: "But I did have my copy of 'House Of Sand And Fog' and 'Sexy Beast' which I was always tempted to bring to the set and get him to autograph because I love those films!"

John added, "but no, I think he just -- by the time he got to the set -- like one of the first things we did is film his house in Buffalo and shoveling the snow -- I had no idea how he was going to do it -- but once he put on that coat and that hat and stood there with a snow shovel and had a bottle in his hand -- I mean it was, he just, he just sort of became -- for me anyway, he became that character.  Like that."  The director has always viewed the hit man as an interesting character and genre in movies.  "I just think it's interesting to me -- like people -- that shoot people for money -- "

"-- John is sort of sick," Tea hastily declares.  "It's a very good match to bring in Polish alcoholic hit men from Buffalo.  I mean, that's right up John's alley.  I mean, you know where he's going with it."


It's snow joke: Ben Kingsley as Frank Falencyk in John Dahl's "You Kill Me".  (Photo: IFC Films)

Prior to seeing "You Kill Me" it may be difficult to discern where the director is going with the two lead characters.  After all, when one gets wind that Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni are paired as a romantic couple in a film it may seem like an unlikely twosome.  Unlikely because Mr. Kingsley (whom Leoni insisted on calling "Sir Ben" through the entire shoot of the film) and Ms. Leoni may not be what some movie audiences typically envision as an everyday romantic tandem on the silver screen.  Still, many may assert, love is often at its apex and its most powerful when people from completely dissimilar walks of life and backgrounds unite and have a relationship.  To that end, the characters of Frank and Laurel represent something very different than what is normally seen on the big screen in some films in the U.S. at least.  The warm, tender and deep affection between these two characters are shown in ways that are more often demonstrated in actions and unspoken language and in the eyes, not in dialogue.  And in "You Kill Me", the relationship between Frank and Laurel is very real, very believable and absolutely sincere.

Tea Leoni describes the collaboration with Ben Kingsley and the approach that they took to cultivate these two lonely souls looking to belong.  "One thing that was sort of different in my approach, and I think actually Ben and I did talk about this -- that we had designed, or begun to seal up our characters on our own.  But we left a big space -- for each other -- that once we would get on set and have Frank and Laurel meet, we would answer that last piece of these characters.  We'd sort of put that last piece in place.  And in fact, Ben had very astutely brought it up in terms of 'what does Laurel need from Frank?  I want to make sure she gets it.  What do you think she needs?'  And that was the last piece of the puzzle." 

Tea went on to speak more about John Dahl's assistance in this process as well as her own journey with Laurel.  "You know I think sometimes you can come up with a character and it can be very isolated.  And then you lean so heavily on your director it's almost like it's 'well here I am -- it's your job and your problem to make me fit.'  And I think we approached this quite differently.  This was really -- we recognized that once these characters we sort of saw them in the room together, screen testing stuff .  I just remember even on that day Ben and I were in our costumes walking past one another and chatting.  I thought, 'I think this is gonna be just perfect.'  I mean, really there was something -- I never will say 'oh, they had great chemistry.'  Chemistry is the biggest crock of shit -- I'm sorry."

Tea Leoni now has everyone in the room laughing as she continues talking about acting with fellow peers.

"Either you're an actor and you do your job, or you didn't do your job well.  That's just all it is." 

Ben and Tea were co-executive producers on "You Kill Me".  Continues Tea, "[b]ut again using this approach [described in the prior two paragraphs] we really were considering each others characters, maybe more intimately than I've experienced in the past in other films."

Tea Leoni has been married to David Duchovny for ten years now and is the mother of their two children.  She talks about this when referring to Laurel in "You Kill Me", citing Laurel as a similar character to the one (Tina Kalb) she played in the 1996 film "Flirting With Disaster."  Says Tea, "this was also a very lonely person, and I didn't mind doing that because I was actually single at the time, and that was a very fun movie to make -- a great director and an incredible cast as well.  But now [with Laurel] I was heading back into it with kids.  So to tell you the truth, I think the hardest thing about it for me was that I would be with my kids in Winnepeg and sort of waking up and going off to be somebody who was so lonely.  And it sort of crept -- sometimes -- honestly, sort of breaks my heart a little bit.  I have a -- I can't shoot that for very long."


"You Kill Me" was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and it opens across the U.S. and Canada in numerous theaters this Friday (June 22).
 

Photo of  Ben Kingsley, Téa Leoni
Partners in crime on screen, relaxing in a pose off screen: actors Tea Leoni and Ben Kingsley in a photo taken on June 19, 2007.  (Courtesy WireImage)
 

[Automatic Dialogue Replacement: Tea Leoni excerpt MP3 wav file  (2:09)]
 

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