Dominik Starck might be a relative newcomer to the film industry, but with a lifelong passion for the art form, it seems as if he’s been at it all his life. Having written, produced and appeared in such films as 2013’s Iron Wolf and 2015’s Atomic Eden, Dominik recently made the inevitable jump to the director’s chair in 2017’s The Hitman Agency. We discuss his lifelong passion, his project and look to the future in this interview.
How did you decide upon the story and plot for The Hitman Agency? Was there any reason in particular an assassin story was something you wanted to create?
I always had a love for movies about hitmen but within that subgenre I tend more towards character driven thrillers than high profile action extravaganzas. Movies like Leon – The Professional by Luc Besson or even the fabulous John Cusack film Grosse Point Blank. The latter is more a romantic comedy about a school reunion and the protagonist just happens to be a hitman in his midlife crisis. Yet I didn’t start with creating a story about assassins. Basically, the story started with two men and a chair in a room. The most basic, simple setup. I was interested in character dynamics, suspense and tension aside from showing violent torture. That was the moment I started thinking about assassinations as the common field of experience for those mentally competing characters. Once that decision was made the whole hitman universe of The Hitman Agency started to take shape and I tried to explore a few questions within that profession that are not dealt with normally. All that said; a straight action thriller with hitmen like Richard Donner’s Assassins is obviously great too (and one of my other favorites).
Let’s talk a bit about your background. How did you get your start in filmmaking? What kinds of stories did you gravitate towards while growing up?
I fell in love with the movies -and television- at a very early age so I started acting in plays at school. Even there I realized that I’m even more drawn to not just telling but creating stories, so I wrote and directed my first play. But coming from a small town in the middle of Germany making movies wasn’t a career option so I got pushed into studying for a “real job“. Storytelling and the movies never let me go though. I started writing -about movies most of the time- and became a hobby film journalist. Years later I took my passion as a writer more as a profession, wrote for nonfiction books on films, DVD-booklets and my first screenplays. To make a long story short; I met a producer while being on set of a slasher called SIN REAPER with Lance Henriksen in it. We stayed in touch and within two years I worked on the first two movies.
Regarding stories I gravitate to those that are outside the box. I also love movies in a clear fictional world that tell something about the human condition or current society. That could be a sci fi movie, horror, genre mixtures… World building fascinates me. Obviously, I also like thrillers and more grounded stories- if they don’t go the obvious way all the time. I really don’t like movies that haven’t more to offer than retelling things I’ve seen a hundred times before or where I know beat for beat what will happen next only ten minutes in.
I like to use romantic comedies as an example. I’m not a fan of that particular genre but if you watch a movie like Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy that’s an emotional ride you can’t predict. It’s truly a unique movie that thinks outside the box even though it’s a rom–com.
Who were your biggest creative inspirations growing up? Who are your favorite directors or writers?
Growing up the early 90’s kings of independent cinema formed me for sure. Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith changed the game for independent films even before the digital revolution a decade later. And here Rodriguez was again one of the first filmmakers to embrace that new technology. When Smith started to get repetitive he made Red State, a movie nobody saw coming from him. And don’t get me started on Tarantino. Even though I collected way more inspiring filmmakers on my list over the years those guys stay relevant for the business and for me.
They got followed by Michael Mann who never fails me, the great Ridley Scott, John Frankenheimer, David Mamet and late legends like Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah. Recently I got a huge affection for the works of the duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless) and S. Craig Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99). Very unique, distinct voices. Looking for a red line here it might be that I love writer/directors.
How did it come about that Don “The Dragon” Wilson would make an appearance in your film? What was it like getting to direct an action icon from the previous generation?
Well, I started to get used to work with genre legends witnessing Lance Henriksen or working for weeks with Fred Williamson on Atomic Eden while I used every rare minute of free time to listen to Fred telling stories from the trenches. It was so bizarre to me but after a while you kind of get used to it. When the opportunity came to work with Don Wilson I was more stressed out by the circumstances, because that was a very challenging shoot, than by the presence of Don himself. I thought about having a known actor in the movie and when I heard The Dragon would be in Germany just at the right time I couldn’t miss that chance. I could tell you stories about that shoot alone for hours but the bottom-line is that Don is a very collaborative, cool and easy guy to work with and even when it looked like we couldn’t make our day (or night, to be precise) he was like “Don’t worry, we’ll get that.” He liked the project and the energy that we created on set and was game to put in an extra effort to finish the sequence.
The Hitman Agency takes a different approach from some young vs old gunfight showdown, instead being of a more cerebral nature. Was this a decision that you made well in advance, or just happened to fall into place while writing?
That was pretty much the first decision made even before I started to outline the story. I had no interest in violence and not even big action. Not because I don’t like it but I just came off a long action film shoot with practical effects, tons of stunt work etc. so I really wanted to go down a different road with my next project. There’re also budgetary concerns since this is a self-funded low budget movie and I didn’t want to do big action set pieces that look rubbish because I couldn’t effort them. That said; we had more action in the movie and took some out to keep the focus on the characters and the story.
When preparing for a project of this nature, were you worried you wouldn’t be able to do exactly what you wanted, or were you resolute at the outset that you would do it your way?
Oh, there were fears for sure. Not when I started the project though. You need a certain level of naivety to make your first feature film otherwise you probably wouldn’t even start. But at the end of the first day of principal photography I grabbed a drink and went “What the hell have I done? What was I thinking? I failed these people. This will never work.” Two things helped me go from that first day to the second: 1. I can’t give up. It’s not in my nature, for better or worse. And 2.: I had two people with me that re-assured me that we’re all here because we love the story and that we’ll make the best we can with what we got. That were my lead actor Everett Ray Aponte and my producing partner Jens Nier. So, day two became day one of “I do it my way.”
Where some movies have their directors make cameos somewhere onscreen, here you happen to be in front of the camera and carrying much of the story as a younger version of the protagonist, not unlike Robert De Niro in The Godfather, Part II. Did you think of using anyone else, or were you planning to step in as it happened?
I thought about casting someone else for sure. Even though I planned on making an appearance in the movie it was supposed to be a much smaller part. In the middle of pre-production a reality check kicked in; a part of the funding broke away, already cast actors couldn’t make it and at some point, I had to ask myself: “Who do I know that I could exploit with long hours and no payment at all? Who’s available at all times for me for reshoots or additional scenes?“ One look in the mirror and I knew I have the right guy to treat miserable. (laughs)
As I said before; I enjoy acting. But acting in a foreign language while dealing with producing and directing my first movie is something I wouldn’t advise. Guys like Eastwood and Stallone can do it or on an indie level Smith and Benson/Moorhead- but even they made a few movies before they acted in front of the camera in a bigger way.
Why, in your opinion, has the action genre seemingly been less and less prevalent in theaters? And why have you taken it upon yourself to put your heart and soul into your own entry into this underappreciated genre?
I wouldn’t say it’s representation in the theatres went further back than any other genre outside the big tent pole movies. Today it’s all about franchises and big CGI-worlds and yet you have franchises like Fast & Furious that costs and makes a ton of money. But I know what you’re aiming at. It changed for sure and the Die Hards have been gone or changed that much that we hardly recognize them anymore. Our heroes from the 80’s and 90’s can’t fill a theatre any longer. You need to bundle a dozen of them to make a decent cut like with The Expendables. That might have to do with the fact that everything comes in waves and it always did. The B-movies from the 80’s VHS era transformed into big budget B-movies that star a caliber name actor like Nicolas Cage in the 90’s, followed by Asian influences, the wire fight revolution in Western action cinema and now…? It’s hard to make 100 million dollars on a regular action movie. That wasn’t necessary in the Bruce Willis days but it is today due to the fact how much the theatre route costs. I’m positive that we’ll see a resurrection of grounded, honest movies in the theatres in a way but till then it’s digital all over the globe and action is doing pretty well there. It translates well, no matter where you’re coming from. That won’t go away.
As for me; I grew up on action, The A-Team was one of my first TV love affairs. First and foremost I consider The Hitman Agency a thriller but I enjoy action films that deliver on character and story, and when I was sure I had that set up the right way in my movie, the infusion with action beats was the icing on the cake, and I hope audience is open for that as an alternative flavor within their beloved genre. Also, as an audience member, even I don’t go to the movies as much anymore and so I never thought about releasing The Hitman Agency on a big screen. VOD and physical media will bring the story in the genre’s fans living rooms and I feel very good being their guest after dinner there.
What were the biggest challenges and obstacles to bringing your story to life and ultimately creating a feature length film?
Uh, that’s a tough one. There were many challenges every step of the way. I mean we’re talking about a low budget debut movie shot in English in Germany. So the lack of time and money appears in every story I could tell.
The boring answer would be getting the right length for the movie ’cause my original cut was almost 20 minutes longer and I had to kill a few darlings there. Aside from that I’d say casting was a big hurdle. There were many challenges along the way; some roles had to be cast while we were already shooting. I knew I had to get the casting of the two leading roles right, which would be key. Two weeks before principle photography started, I lost the original two leads within hours and for a five minute period I was ready to throw it all away. Then I cleared my head, asked my Atomic Eden co-star Everett Ray Aponte if he’d be available and he turned out to be invaluable in front of and behind the camera. And can I say enough good things about Erik Hansen? That man brings intensity and a look to the table that is insane. I can’t imagine writing a new script without a role for him in it. So it all turned out well but I sweated blood for a moment there.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I helped produce an upcoming new movie from German martial arts superstar Mike Möller. His fight choreographies are breathtaking and he brings that to the action comedy Jack Walker.
While I’m also working as a writer / producer on a unique horror project my second directorial feature starts to take shape. I was waiting for decisions beyond my control regarding my second feature but like I said; I’m not patient. (Laughs) So I stopped waiting and started working on a very exciting project that I‘m thinking about for a very long time now. Funny enough; that female driven, genre-bending and -mixing movie that won’t fit in the biggest box available seems to be more relevant now than ever. I’m actually very thrilled about this one and I’m sure it will blow the audience away, even if I have to shoot the story on my phone.
Thank you very much for your valuable time and we look forward to seeing more from you!
Thanks for having me, it was my pleasure. Hope to see you around.