On Sept. 21, 2007, a Warner Bros. movie starring one of the most famous actors in the world — backed by a venerable rogue’s gallery of supporting actors, a revered cinematographer, and an up-and-coming Australian director — premiered on five screens.
The film opens with a dream-like montage of swiftly moving clouds, long stares, and a narration performed by a man with a voice of Midwestern grit and language blending historical frankness and poetry. “He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended,” the narration concludes, without ever speaking the subject’s name. “He regretted neither his robberies nor the 17 murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was 34 years old.”
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not a typical Western. Andrew Dominik’s direction has more in common with Terrence Malick than John Ford. (But even Malick told Dominik it was too slow.) There’s only one major set piece, a tense train robbery just 15 minutes into its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. The rest is a quiet, paranoid study of its two title characters, anchored by a pair of career performances. Pitt as James only occasionally employs the actor’s signature charm, and even then, it’s undercut by low-register sadness. Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford makes the Oscar nine years in his future feel like an inevitability.
Over the first month of its release, The Assassination of Jesse James would expand modestly, topping out at 301 screens and the number 21 spot at the box office. Domestic receipts totaled $3.9 million, a figure barely helped by $11.1 million earned in foreign markets. Industry reports at the time would consider a well-regarded misfire on the part of Warner Bros. The critical acclaim was enough to carry it to two Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actor for Affleck and Best Cinematography for Roger Deakins. It was one of Deakins’ two nominations that year, along with No Country for Old Men. He ultimately lost to Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood.
While the movie found fans even in its sparse theatrical and eventual video releases, the Oscar nominations were perhaps the best possible outcome for the troubled project. It was the end of what could be written off as a story fitting any of a number of familiar Hollywood patterns. The death of the Western. An art film director left unchecked. A star straining for importance. But those involved with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had a different perspective.
Hugh Ross, the man who read the words that open the move, was serving as the first assistant on Jesse James when editor Dylan Tichenor asked him to lay down a narration track. Tichenor was looking to cut together a couple scenes early in post-production and needed the voiceover to find the pacing. He knew that Ross had previously worked as an actor and set up on a crappy microphone on a coffee table for his assistant to speak into. Ross sat on the floor and read through the script. “I had a horrible headache,” Ross recalls. “I think that actually helped the performance. It was raining, as it rarely does in L.A., and it made things kind of gloomy.”
The temp narration was just the beginning of a post-production that would drag on for nearly two years — and include a move to offices above a dry cleaner when their time at producer Ridley Scott’s company, Scott Free, expired — most of it a struggle between Dominik and Warner Bros.
The early days of the edit, however, didn’t exactly bear signs of the trouble ahead. Ross recalled the first dailies rolling in. “I just remember thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s some of the most beautiful stuff I’ve ever seen,'” he says. “It was always the feeling of, ‘We really like this. I wonder if anyone else is going to?'”
Listening to Ross’ tales from the edit bay of Jesse James is eerily like hearing from the film itself. As the first assistant editor — which is primarily a technical role including exporting cuts, maintaining computers, and running screenings — Ross lived the slow march to the muted release for a year and seven months. Even as early cuts came together, threaded with Ross’ supposedly temporary narration track, the problem was the pacing. But more than that, according to Ross, it was a disconnect between the movie Warner Bros. thought it bought and the one Dominik was making. The studio executives imagined a shoot-’em-up Western led by an A-lister, whose new, white-hot romance with another star was making headlines. What Dominik shot was a slow-burning mood piece, in which tension was built on silences and the ever-present potential of violence.
“Warners just treated it so badly and never understood what they had,” Ross says. “It was always completely perplexed me because the screenplay is a real faith adaptation of [Ron Hansen’s] book, and the movie is exactly the screenplay. I don’t know what they were expecting.”
Ross recalls many examples of the disconnect, but none is more clearly remembered than a screening he ran for two executives. When the movie ended, he overheard them speaking outside the theater. “I specifically remember one of them saying, ‘What we really need is more shots of slow-moving clouds.’ And they both laughed,” he says. “They said that right in front of me. They don’t care who I was. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, nobody gets it.'”
The process went on for months with different cuts and myriad test screenings, none of which went particularly well. Dominik held onto one of the audience response cards, posting it in his office as an ironic memento and an emblem of his misunderstood work. In the comments section of the card, one test viewer wrote, “Richard Dreyfuss’ narration sucks.”
In an attempt to remedy the studio’s dissatisfaction with the film, Warner Bros. brought in Steven Spielberg’s go-to editor, three-time Oscar winner Michael Kahn, to get the runtime down to an hour and 50 minutes. “Honest to God, they paid him a ton of money, and I honestly don’t think anybody even looked at that cut,” says Ross, who was responsible for distributing work prints. “It wasn’t any good.”
Through all of this, Ross’ narration remained. The voice, so ingrained in Dominik’s head through constant rewatching, became the director’s personal choice. That coffee-table recording was so drastically preferred that when Ross re-recorded the voiceover on a soundstage, Dominik didn’t like it. “After two years of listening to my voice, it was like a deep, deep groove in a record,” Ross says. “Andrew just couldn’t hear anything else.” The plan from the beginning, however, had been to replace Ross’ voice with a better-known one. (Think Morgan Freeman or Martin Sheen.) A few alternate narrations were eventually recorded and rejected, including one by Zooey Deschanel, whose truncated third-act role remains the most obvious victim of Warner’s demand for cuts.
Though he believed that Dominik genuinely liked the narration, a part of Ross always wondered if the preference was fueled by something else. “The choice was also a final ‘f— you’ to Warner Bros., because they didn’t want me,” he says. “I always called it the ‘FUWB’ movie, and I was part of that. It was like, ‘F— you. I’m using this nobody.'”
Ultimately, Ross’ voice won out, but he didn’t know for sure until late in the process. He was forced to leave the production after 19 months when another job presented itself. “I got a phone call, and it was one of the assistants saying, ‘Hey, man. It looks like it’s going to be you,'” Ross says. “I remember I was in the parking lot, and I was just like, ‘Holy sh–. Really?'”
Because this occurred so close to the release of the film, there was nowhere else to allocate the Morgan Freeman-level narrator budget, so Ross’ first voiceover job paid well.
The role led to other work. An ad agency representing Buick called not long after Jesse James hit theaters, and Ross signed a four-year contract with the automaker. He also provided a Jesse James-ish narration for Lee Tolland Kreiger’s 2015 film, The Age of Adaline, starring Blake Lively and Harrison Ford. Today, Ross works primarily as a full-fledged editor for film and TV, including New Girl with Zooey Deschanel. “I worked with her for years, and she never made the connection that I was the narrator from Jesse James,” Ross says.
Ten years on, the fate of The Assassination Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is still something that bothers Ross, though he downplays his role in the final product, often telling people, “Andrew, Brad, Casey, and Roger Deakins are the voice of the movie. I’m just the narrator.” And yet still, the uniqueness of the movie and the injustice of its release sticks with him.
“I understand why it scared Warner Bros,” he says. “I just don’t understand the point of dumping it. Why not put it out there and see what happens? If you say this movie isn’t going to work and then release it in just a couple theaters, yeah, it’s not going to work. If you put it out there for a weekend and nobody sees it or hears about it or knows that it’s there, it’s not going to work. Then you can say to yourself, ‘See? I told you it wouldn’t work.'”