Montana State University

Spring 2011

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Mountains and Minds

John Dahl draws on his Montana roots during his successful Hollywood directing career

Calling the shots April 25, 2011 by Carol Schmidt • Published 04/25/11

John Dahl draws on his Montana roots during his successful Hollywood directing career
Nearly an hour after class is over on the first really cold day of fall, a clutch of film students hovers in a basement classroom that smells of stale food and wet wool, waiting to meet a real Hollywood director.

Not that John Dahl looks or even acts much like what the students may have imagined a Hollywood director might look like.

The writer and director of Red Rock West, You Kill Me, and the director of The Last Seduction and other film noir dramas that have been praised for their intelligence, fresh viewpoint and twists of plot, is dressed in jeans and practical brown boots, like someone you might run into at Ace Hardware rather than in Malibu.

He leans against the classroom's V-8-colored wall focused on the student before him, as if he were listening to one of his son's friends who is back home for Christmas. There's no overwrought Blackberry. No oversized ego. Not even a small sign of Los Angeles frenzy from the man regarded as one of the Montana State University film school's top graduates.

"I want to write a real good zombie film," a student confesses to Dahl when he moves up to the front of the line. "I love zombie movies."

"Oh yeah? I love zombie movies, too," said Dahl, who has worked with some greats in the movie business, including Matt Damon, Nicholas Cage, Edward Norton, Téa Leoni, Sir Ben Kingsley and Julia Stiles, among others. "Tell me about your idea."

The student, who now looks as if he has just won the lottery, tells Dahl in a passionate gush of words that his idea is a lot like Dawn of the Dead, except different. Maybe a bit more like Zombie Hunter, but with a twist.

After a discussion about horror movies and their mutual Billings roots (the student went to West, Dahl to Senior) Dahl gives the student his personal e-mail address.

"Why don't you send me your script when you're ready?" Dahl said.

The student doesn't even make it to the door before he's on his cell phone telling someone that JOHN DAHL wants to see HIS zombie screenplay.

"I like students," Dahl said later, explaining why he accepted the invitation of his friend and long-time film editor Scott Chestnut, to speak at their mutual alma mater.

Chestnut, who lives part-time in Bozeman, taught upper-level film classes during fall semester and asked his old friend if he would come to MSU to speak to his students. Dahl found a couple of open days during a busy fall shooting schedule and spent them talking nearly non-stop to classes.

"When I was in school here, I never met anyone in the movie business," he said, speaking of those clearly recalled days three decades before. "In hindsight, it's hard to know if you want to be in the film business if you never met anyone in it."

Dahl had not known anyone in the film industry, nor did he have any idea he wanted to be in the film business, when he grew up in Billings. He is the grandson of a Norwegian immigrant (also named John Dahl) as well as Montana homesteaders--(his maternal grandfather homesteaded near Great Falls). The son of a Billings insurance agent, he said he had a great upbringing.

"My dad was my Boy Scout leader. I did a lot of camping growing up. And, driving across the state, like most Montanans, I learned that you need to be prepared for the elements. I still think like that," Dahl said. "Even though I've lived in L.A. since 1982, Montana ends up being part of who I am."

He first studied art at the University of Montana for two years.

"But, being practical, I wondered how I was going to make that into a living."

Then Dahl took a year's hiatus from school, working for a Billings billboard advertising business and played in a rock 'n' roll band. He came across a brochure for MSU's film department. Excited that one could earn a degree in film and television, Dahl enrolled at MSU in 1977.

"I came during a resurgence of film and television here. There were nine people in my film class--five of those worked together on our senior project. And four of us eventually moved to L.A."

One of those fellow film students was his wife, Beth Friedberg, who is a cinematographer.

Dahl said when he first went to school at MSU, graduating from what is now the School of Film and Photography, everyone was making documentaries.

"But I wanted to make feature films," he said. "One of the things that I got out of going to school (at MSU) is I figured out how to learn to do things."

He rounded out his education by taking literature and acting classes (actor Bill Pullman was his professor at MSU). He finished his degree in three years and said it was "an exciting, creative time in my life... I have the same friends now as I had (at MSU)."

After he graduated from MSU, he was working as an assistant manager at a local movie theater when Chestnut got him a job on the Raquel Welch film, Walks Far Woman, which was being shot in Montana. Dave Warfield, Dahl's MSU writing partner, linked him to a job in Washington, D.C., leading to a couple of gigs as an assistant director. Unhappy, he returned to Montana and applied to both law school and to the American
Film Institute, vowing that he would pursue a career linked to the school that admitted him. He was admitted to the master's program at the AFI in Los Angeles in 1982.

"I learned what critically makes a good movie at AFI," he said.

After AFI, he networked with his fellow grads, made music videos for Kool and the Gang and other bands, and worked on video storyboards, which led him to writing scripts.

"I had written a horror film, but I knew that I liked noir movies," he recalled.

He found inspiration in his roots and one of his favorite pastimes--driving in the American West. A road trip with a friend from Bozeman to San Francisco, and an off-hand comment from a friend that "you're killing me again," led to the setting and plot hook for his first feature, Kill Me Again, which came out in 1989. The film was co-written and produced by Warfield.

That first film won him an important fan, director Francis Ford Coppola, who encouraged his nephew, Nicolas Cage, to star in the second Dahl feature, Red Rock West. That film, cowritten with his brother, Rick Dahl, was inspired by a road trip from Billings to Laramie, Wyo., that landed Dahl in Medicine Bow, Wyo.

"I started thinking about the people who live in a little, isolated town like that," Dahl recalled. The film also starred Lara Flynn Boyle, which some critics have said was Dahl's nod to fellow Montanan David Lynch, for Boyle starred in several Lynch films. Dahl said that Lynch remains one of his favorite directors.

MSU film professor Paul Monaco, who has literally written the book on Dahl (John Dahl and Neo-Noir: Examining Auteurism and Genre), said those two films, and Dahl's third, The Last Seduction, were seen as breakthrough films that "drew a tremendous amount of attention to him. Roger Ebert, for example, was a huge fan of Red Rock West." Another critic called Dahl "the thinking man's Quentin Tarantino."

In all, Dahl has directed eight feature films for theatrical release.

"Directing a film for theatrical release is like playing basketball in the NBA," Monaco said. "There are lots of basketball players at all levels, but few are in the NBA. Directing films for theatrical release means you are in the cream of the crop."

An image flickers on the screen in the theater in Linfield Hall. The audience immediately recognizes a young, thin Matt Damon, a young Edward Norton and Gretchen Mol around a poker table. It is a clip from Rounders, one of Dahl's most commercially successful features.

"I've been really fortunate. Because of my work, I am around fascinating, smart people. You walk onto a film set, and you meet so many amazing, talented people."

During his career, Dahl also has worked with some of Hollywood's biggest studios and producers, while earning a reputation as an actor's director.

Chestnut said that actors love Dahl because he has a gift for knowing how to work with people of all types, in addition to possessing amazing endurance and tenacity.

"Actors love him. I don't know how he does it, but when he has an idea he somehow makes you think it was yours," Chestnut said. "He's salt of the earth. You'd have a tough time finding a more straight-forward, honest person."

This, and an ability to really hear others, are apparent as Dahl listens to questions from MSU students, who are every bit as curious about Dahl's work directing cable dramas, including Dexter, Breaking Bad, Californication and True Blood, as his feature work.

Monaco said that Dahl is part of a trend of feature directors, especially those "whose work has been toward the independent side of the business," moving toward directing episodic cable television. Monaco said the shows seem to be "culturally relevant" and resonate with youth. For instance, scenes and episodes from shows such as Dexter are what are found now on students' laptops.

Dahl said that he continues to work on developing feature films, but in the meantime directing cable dramas is "great work."

"The movies Hollywood is making now are films that have connections that they can build upon. Like video games, or old movie and television show remakes. It's built-in marketing. "Right now, the most interesting things are on cable."


It's now three hours past lunch as Dahl finishes with the students and walks out into the Montana fall sunlight.

"I like coming back here," he said, his clear, even blue
eyes squinting into the sun. "I love the way people dress,
the way things look. I love how low the sun is in the sky
at this time of day."

Dahl said he doesn't get back to Montana near enough these days. But he recognizes there are qualities inherent to his native state that contribute to his success.

"One thing, I never believed I had much talent, but I believed that I could work harder than anyone," he said.

Monaco said Dahl remains open and loyal to students from his home state. Monaco has taken a van of seniors in the MSU film school to Hollywood each spring for 10 years. The highlight of the trip is a personal visit with Dahl.

Monaco said that for students who may soon embark on a career in the business, yet were trained 1,000 miles from the epicenter of their chosen profession, "the experience is indispensable to their education.

"He's a great guy. A very unpretentious guy," Monaco said. "I think he is the very same person he would have been if he had stayed in Billings, Montana."