- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

"The noir movies were my first love," reflects John Dahl, whose directing career began in 1989 with the erotic murder thriller "Kill Me Again" and resumes this season with the chase thriller "Joy Ride."
"Joy Ride" opens today and endeavors to orchestrate fear around the specter of an unseen demon trucker. Sometimes present as a disembodied voice over a citizens band radio, this menace favors the handle "Rusty Nail." He stalks brothers played by Paul Walker and Steve Zahn and a coed played by Leelee Sobieski along interstates and back roads extending from Wyoming to Nebraska.
Born and raised in Billings, Mont., Mr. Dahl was introduced to the so-called film noir tradition a French critical term for the American movie thrillers of the late 1940s that accentuated sinister motives and shadowy lighting schemes while attending Montana State University at Bozeman. He characterizes his first feature as "absolutely a noir rip-off." The self-evident prototype was the 1947 classic "Out of the Past," which insinuated Jane Greer as a heartless femme fatale intent on playing both Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas for suckers. Joanne Whalley-Kilmer embodied the comparable predator in "Kill Me Again" while cast opposite her then-spouse, Val Kilmer.
During a phone conversation, the director recalls that his favorite noirs tended to be less respectable than "Out of the Past." For example, he regards "I Wake Up Screaming" and "D.O.A." as ideal titles because they indicate "an instant B-movie hook." Though he admires Billy Wilder's movie version of "Double Indemnity," he fears that its title may be too subtle and indirect for genre apotheosis.
In fact, "Kill Me Again," written in collaboration with a college friend, began with an exploitation title. "The whole goal," Mr. Dahl recalls, "was to get to a point where one of the characters could say, 'Kill me again.'"
Mr. Dahl's aptitude for suspense with droll undercurrents became hard to ignore in 1993, when his second and third features, "Red Rock West" and "The Last Seduction," had curiously back-to-back experiences as sleepers. Each caught on belatedly as a succes d'estime in specialty bookings after initial, inadequate exposure as cable television "exclusives."
An ambitious 1996 thriller titled "Unforgettable" proved quite the opposite. Mr. Dahl rebounded three years ago with the gambling melodrama "Rounders," which diverged from conventional suspense motifs by immersing itself in a subculture of cutthroat poker players.
Mr. Dahl, who is 45 and resides with his wife and their four children in Los Angeles, says he "kind of stumbled" into directing "Joy Ride," which originated with J.J. Abrams, still credited as a co-writer and co-producer. "It's possible that Steven Spielberg's TV movie 'Duel' was the germ of the idea for J.J.," Mr. Dahl surmises. The resemblance between the pretexts will seem inescapable to people who recall the Spielberg thriller, a 1971 ABC "Movie of the Week" in which motorist Dennis Weaver was terrorized by a tailgating truck whose malign driver never revealed himself or itself.
"J.J. had written this and originally intended to direct it," Mr. Dahl explains. "He's so busy with his television shows, 'Felicity' and, I think, 'Alias,' that he didn't have the time. I was sent the material. I've always loved these road movies, going back at least as far as 'The Hitcher.' That was so cool. The best recent example was 'Breakdown.' One of the neat things is being able to isolate characters in these big wide-open landscapes. Being a former Montanan, I suppose I can relate to being terrified in the middle of nowhere. We mined that situation for all we could."
Ostensibly, college freshman Walker drives from Berkeley, Calif., to Boulder, Colo., to pick up erstwhile sweetheart Sobieski on the way back to their hometown in New Jersey for summer vacation. He stops in Green River, Wyo., to spring an irresponsible older brother, Mr. Zahn, from jail. This fraternal generosity proves ill-advised because Mr. Zahn's incorrigible prankishness leads to a sequence of events that provokes gruesomely vindictive and homicidal tendencies in Rusty Nail.
Although Mr. Dahl likes to visit his parents annually in Billings, the movie didn't get him as far as the plot suggests.
"Originally, the studio wanted to shoot the whole movie in Los Angeles," he says. "It's hard to fake the middle of nowhere in a major metropolitan area. We kind of convinced them to venture into Nevada. We shot along I-80, first in Fernley, then Winnemucca, then Wells. We got as far as Salt Lake City for one sequence. All that was about five weeks. Back in L.A., we shot a lot of nighttime stuff in the San Fernando Valley. We had done a chase sequence in a wheat field in Bakersfield that was meant to be the finale. We kept toying with the plot to such an extent that the same episode had to be re-shot, since it came quite a bit earlier in the continuity. So we found a cornfield in El Centro in May and did it there."

The second of four children, Mr. Dahl began cultivating a talent for drawing that he dates to the fifth grade, when "three months in the wrong reading group the slow group" led him to fill "notebooks and notebooks" with sketches to combat tedium. He entered the University of Missouri as a fine-arts student and aspiring painter but left two years later to pursue an abbreviated career as a commercial artist.
After graduating from Montana State, he was accepted at the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies in Los Angeles. He worked as a storyboard artist on three prominent features "RoboCop," "Something Wild" and "Married to the Mob" and directed numerous music videos before securing the money for a first feature. He confesses to feeling a bit torn at the time, because preparing "Kill Me Again" prevented him from accepting Jonathan Demme's offer to storyboard sequences for the Oscar-winning "The Silence of the Lambs."
There are heavy hints that "Joy Ride" might be intended as the prototype for a sustained horror series. Mr. Dahl insists that impression is more inadvertent than deliberate.
"The studio always maintained it wasn't interested in a sequel," he says. "Artistically, it always seemed more logical to finish off the bad guy. Ultimately, as we started to test the movie, it seemed a little more chilling to disengage at the end and make people feel that he's still out there somewhere. I think it's more weirdly satisfying that way, but I guess it also leaves the door open for a sequel. I'm not sure how you'd manage it. I think I've had a long enough joy ride."

There also is the question of how much menace and sadism film audiences will find appealing in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"It's absolutely a problem," Mr. Dahl says. "Hollywood isn't necessarily the most socially responsible bunch of people, and it does operate within a market-driven system, but from the meetings I've had in the last couple of weeks, I can testify that people feel devastated. They're kind of reeling. No one really knows what to do. They'll be watching what people go to see for the next several months. Certainly it'll be nine months to a year before anything reflects these events directly."
Trying to put the change in perspective, Mr. Dahl speculates, "We've gone through an almost 20-year period of really incredible prosperity. In the last election, we had the luxury of debating such things as the level of subsidies for pharmaceutical drugs intended for senior citizens. Now the climate has changed radically. Terror has come to America. We've been attacked.
"Before, our sense of immunity was reflected in an almost cynical and cavalier attitude toward danger and violence. You know, 'Die Hard' was a wonderful movie, but it's hard to imagine it being made nowadays. We can't be as flippant as we have been. Defense of our own way of life has become critical."
Mr. Dahl and his younger brother, Rick, who collaborated on "Red Rock West," have been actively pitching a screenplay titled "Worst Case Scenario," a "black comedy about entertainment lawyers, with a lot of twists and turns."
The director reflects: "We think it's still relevant, but only the marketplace can tell for sure. Everybody here is still a little numb. The creative community will always have its favorite projects. The uncertainty is with the financial community. Which one of these horses will they want to bet on?"

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