"I assume that nobody knows who I am," says John Dahl.
Promoting his new movie You Kill Me, an alcoholic hitman comedy starring Ben Kingsley, Téa Leoni and Luke Wilson, it's a humble attitude for a man who has had a major influence on American independent filmmaking for almost two decades. "It's why I'm amazed whenever somebody says, "This wasn't like your last film.' My trick is to be invisible enough to think I can do anything."
This would sound like ego-boosting, but Dahl makes it clear he sees himself as a guy who's just happy to complete a movie he can stand behind. It helps that he speaks in such a soothing tone, I get the impression he spends most of his day drinking herbal tea.
"As much as I'd like to say I know exactly what I'm doing, the honest answer is that I don't," he says. "When you're on set making a film, it's such an exhausting, laborious, tedious process and there are so many variables constantly thrown at you. Ultimately, the only thing you can rely on is yourself and your instincts. Do the best you can."
The best Dahl has done brings up a long list for consideration. He debuted as a director with the Val Kilmer thriller Kill Me Again (1989). But it was in the indie boom of the early "90s where he got recognized. In the era that brought Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, Dahl made the double-whammy of Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, with Linda Fiorentino in her defining role. Dahl worked with higher budgets on the Matt Damon poker drama Rounders and the superb youth horror Joy Ride.
But he's always returned to smaller fare to keep the independence he depends on. That's where he is with You Kill Me, though it wasn't an easy film to get made.
"This was unusual. It was an AA mob movie," Dahl says of the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, which kicked around Hollywood for 10 years. "Even some of the crew was like, "I don't know if I get this.' In terms of a crime movie, one of the things I liked was giving it a gritty reality but allowing it to be a bit of a farce."
The difficulty in accepting the movie's terms comes from its central dilemma. Frank (Kingsley), a killer for the Polish mafia, realizes his drinking is interfering with his work ethic. He goes to San Francisco to clean up, in hope of being able to murder more efficiently.
"You have to accept the notion in this movie that the most important thing is to be sober. So what if you kill a few people," says Dahl. "Hopefully audiences understand the absurdity of it. But once he meets Téa Leoni and starts to date her, you realize there's an honesty to him."
Born in Montana, Dahl felt at home on the mostly Canadian shoot. Of You Kill Me's 26 production days, 25 were spent in Winnipeg. "Canadians like to work five days a week, not six," he says. "Which is fine with me." It was essential to keep the production small to maintain its defining quirky tone. "With more money comes more people, and it's more of a committee process. There are lots of cooks in the kitchen on any film set, but fewer on an independent film. Your cohorts often want the largest number of people to like a movie. What's fun about You Kill Me is it doesn't have to appeal to everybody."
It's a tough outlook in an industry that rewards imitation over innovation. "I often see young filmmakers aping or mocking other peoples' movies," Dahl says. "It was a little depressing one time when I was talking to a group of film students, and there was a guy that said that an audience could never look at a shot for more than three to six seconds. He said, "If you watch all the classics you'll figure that out. Like The Rock.' This kid was probably born in 1981. No offense to Michael Bay, but as good as The Rock is, it wouldn't be on my list of classics."
Having established a name for himself isn't something that gets to John Dahl's head. He doesn't let expectations affect the pressures of making a movie. "I don't think it ever gets easier. All I care about is making a good movie," he says. "That's the biggest pressure. I want to be invisible so the audience can enjoy the ride. If you're doing your job well, that's what you do. Hopefully, people don't think about me the filmmaker at all."
You Kill Me opens Friday, July 20.