It used to be that John Dahl's films premiered on cable, or went straight to video. His first three pictures – Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, The Last Seduction – were all low-budget, independently produced thrillers revolving around a femme fatale and a bag of money. These amoral, twisted pulp fictions, which unravel with laconic pacing against remote rural backdrops, were as much influenced by Sergio Leone's Westerns as by any film noir. They had a freshness that made them critical favorites and led to their salvage from the scrapheap of television. By the time indie films had become chic cinema though, Dahl had moved on to bigger but not necessarily better things: With a big-budget producer, Dino De Laurentiis, he made Unforgettable, which went straight to the big screen despite poor reviews.
Now Dahl appears to have found the middle way with his new film, Rounders, which he describes as “a character study with a classic sports-film structure.” The character is compulsive cardsharp Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), who hustles his way around the high-stakes poker games played in Manhattan's underground gambling clubs. A latecomer to Rounders after another project stalled over casting problems, Dahl says he was unconcerned with his negligible input in choosing the new film's lead. By the time Dahl had committed, a little-known actor named Matt Damon had already signed on.
“After searching for stars, I really liked the idea of being able to take a relatively unknown actor – at the time,” says Dahl. “It is a little purer, because it is just about the work and the movie. And it seemed like a small, unapologetic movie, a traditional coming-of-age story with a whole new spin on it. The gambling makes you question your morality – is it good to do, or bad to do?”
Produced by the ersatz art-house studio Miramax, Rounders has the best of all worlds – low-budget credibility, young name actors and a hyped-up mainstream release. Perhaps these shifts in tone provoked Dahl to shed some of his noir fixations. “There are certain filmmakers whose early work I love, and you hate it when they change their style,” says Dahl, whose own style on a boiling summer day is East Coast preppy, the button-down shirt, navy-blue blazer, round spectacles and polite, measured responses combining into benign, professorial image. “But by the same token,” he adds, “it is hard to do the same story over and over again.”
The 42-year-old Dahl spent his first 25 years in Montana, graduating with a B.S. in film production from Montana State University. In 1982, he moved to L.A. to become a directing fellow at the American Film Institute for a year. Working his way through the industry, mainly as a storyboard artist, Dahl was able to earn his directing spurs on the backs of screenplays he wrote (always with a partner). Unlike his previous films, Rounders doesn't have his fingerprints all over the shooting script. Not that he has a problem with that. Writing was only ever intended as a means to get directing work. “I never really wanted to be a writer,” Dahl says emphatically. “There is something very satisfying about taking someone else's material, and having that objectivity and impartiality. It is liberating. It allows you to be more of a director.”
Despite Dahl's late arrival and lack of hands-on involvement developing the story, there are still plenty of noir elements to be found in Rounders – capricious violence and treachery abound. There's also a voice-over that functions not only as a primer to the cards, but which Dahl thinks is necessary to open up Damon's character. “If I sat down and tried to explain to you the intricacies of a high-stakes game of poker, it would take 15 minutes,” he says about Damon's chatty narration. “The luxury of voice-over gave us the opportunity to explain the cards, and also for his character to express himself to the audience. As a card player, he can't release his emotions. He has to be a really good actor and not show or express what he is really thinking. He has to be stone-faced.”
With Damon, Dahl is fortunate to have an actor who is able to express a limited range of emotions with great boyish charm. Not so fortunate are the film's female characters. A trademark of Dahl's previous work were his strong women – if you can call vipers strong. In Rounders, Dahl does an about-face: The boys are so busy trying to out-deal each other, the love of a good woman is ignored. The presence of Gretchen Mol in the story might have gone unnoticed if not for her recent Vanity Fair cover.
“This guy has just been saved a whole world of hurt and pain” is Dahl's justification for his determined eschewal of romance despite his young pinups. Dahl's poker face creases with laughter when he realizes how hard-boiled he sounds. He can't stop himself from playing the tough guy, even if it is with a grin. “He doesn't have to go to Law School. Screw all that! He dumps it and gets into a cab [for Vegas]. To leave a bad relationship like that, one that wasn't going anywhere, it kind of worked for me. I felt he was lucky.”