Pitt grad helps piece together 'Killing Them Softly'

| Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, 8:59 p.m.

You don't have to look too closely at the movie “Killing Them Softly” to notice that there's something different going on here than your average slam-bang Hollywood shoot-'em-up.

Although it's not especially long, at 97 minutes, it has a measured, methodical rhythm, establishing its panoply of hoodlums through extended conversations rather than explosive action sequences.

The profane, hard-boiled, frequently hilarious dialogue among Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and others is the heart of the film, with sudden bursts of shocking violence used more as punctuation than major plot developments.

Pitt grad John Paul Horstmann, the film's co-editor, played a major part in determining the peculiar, intriguing structure and timing of “Killing Me Softly.”

“An editor takes the performances that were shot on set, and helps construct the story,” Horstmann says. “Ordering the shots to tell the story, anything that needed to be assembled. In layman's terms, it's like putting together a giant puzzle for a year.”

“Killing Them Softly” is a bleak exploration of the greed and desperation among small-time criminals in an unnamed American city, mirroring the collapsing economy during the presidential race of 2008.

Two not-so-smart crooks (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) rob a secret gambling den, which threatens to undermine the entire underground economy of the city. A crooked politician (Jenkins) hires a contract killer (Pitt) to sort things out.

“I really liked the robbery (scene),” Horstmann says. “I had a lot of fun. As an editor, you can play with the expectations of people. In the movie, they rob a card game. At any moment, somebody might fire a gun or run out of the room. It was great to build tension, seeing people slowly reach hands in their pockets. You don't know if they're going for a gun, or what.”

Horstmann, originally from the Philadelphia area, studied history and English at the University of Pittsburgh. It was his extracurricular activities, though, that ultimately put him on the road to Hollywood.

“Pitt was really a great training ground for that. I got some funds to put together a student-run TV station,” he says. “We had our own film school – we made our own shows, shot our own movies, and put them on the cable channel there.

“My brother had a cooking show on UPTV. That was kind of fun. We had a soap opera about student housing accidentally pairing two guys and two girls in the same room, and they had to share a bathroom.”

With that experience under his belt, Horstmann met with writer/filmmaker/producer Carl Kurlander who taught at Pitt. He told Horstmann about the American Cinema Editors internship program in Los Angeles.

Horstmann applied, against fairly long odds.

“I got it, and packed all my stuff within a week. I worked for free for like a year, and then, got into the union.”

Horstmann says that almost everyone he worked with at the campus TV station who stayed ended up doing something with what they learned.

“It wasn't just a hobby,” he says. “One guy went into reporting. Another guy is a big reality-TV producer in New York. Another went into independent filmmaking. One of the guys on our sports show just won an Emmy. He does all the Washington Wizards promos.”

“Killing Them Softly” was written and directed by Andrew Dominik, and adapted from a novel by George V. Higgins.

Horstmann also worked as an editor on Dominik's previous film, the atmospheric, melancholy Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007).

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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