When writer-director Andrew Dominik first told his agent he wanted to adapt Ron Hansen's novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for the screen, the rep responded, ''Jesse James I can sell that. He's like Batman.''
Flash forward three years, 34 different cuts, and five test screenings, and Jesse James feels as close to Batman as Brad Pitt feels to Jennifer Aniston. Starring Pitt as Jesse James, the result is a contemplative art film about a rival outlaw (Casey Affleck) and his deadly fixation on one of America's most notorious bad guys. Set in the 19th-century Old West, the reported $30 million film centers on James' loose brotherhood of thieves, and Ford's obsession with entering the legendary train robber's inner circle. Sam Rockwell portrays Ford's older brother, who introduces him to James an act that will have historic consequences.
The cast and crew, including oft-Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo), shot the film during the winter in Calgary and Winnipeg, where on some days the temperature plunged to -13. ''That's like throw-a-cup-of-hot-coffee-in-the-air-and-it-freezes-before-it-hits-the-ground cold,'' says Dominik, a New Zealand native who'd never before seen a frozen lake. But it was during the postproduction process that he really started to feel the chill. Warner Bros. was hoping for a good ol' gunslinger flick, and Dominik was pursuing an epic character study. Less than a month before Jesse James is set to debut at the Venice film festival (Aug. 29 to Sept. 8), the film is still not locked. ''The picture was supposed to be ready last fall and we weren't ready,'' says the director. ''So then basically you're waiting until the next fall. It's been arduous.''
But not without its good times. ''It was fun to be on a horse,'' says Affleck. ''It was great to learn how to ride better.'' Now they've just got to get this pony over the finish line.