True to his words

Special to The Times

Cupertino, Calif.

He's just off a plane from the New York premiere of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," adapted from his novel of the same name, and the reviews have been decidedly mixed, but Ron Hansen seems unperturbed.

With his shock of white hair, short-sleeved blue sports shirt and casual slacks, Hansen looks more like a mid-level Silicon Valley executive than a stereotypically macho literary poseur as he greets a visitor to the well-appointed but unassuming suburban two-story California ranch house he shares with his wife, writer Bo Caldwell, as their English Labrador, Maggie, moseys around the kitchen.

Although there was a protracted struggle between director Andrew Dominik and the studio over edits of the movie, which clocks in at a challenging 2 hours and 40 minutes, "I think he [Dominik] is pretty comfortable in his skin" about the ultimate product, Hansen said.

So is the author. "I like the movie a lot. He had such reverence -- or fidelity, at least -- to my words that I couldn't help but love it."

Almost all the film is taken verbatim from Hansen's treatment of the complex relationship between James, played by Brad Pitt, who also produced the film, and his assassin, portrayed by Casey Affleck.

"When Bob Ford first goes to see Frank James (Sam Shepard), they cut away to the other three outlaws doing an improv, but that's the only part not as it was written," said Hansen, who previously adapted one of his other novels, "Mariette in Ecstasy" for the screen (it was released only in DVD because of financial problems at the studio). "Even the action sequences were taken right out of the book."

A Nebraska native, Hansen wrote his first novel, "Desperadoes," about the Dalton Gang, who "set out to imitate everything the James-Younger gang had done, including getting wiped out trying to rob two banks at the same time," he said. "While researching that, I learned a lot about Jesse James and Robert Ford and realized that no one had really told their story. In almost every movie, Ford shows up, he's kind of a weasel and shoots Jesse for the reward money. But it wasn't just betrayal. Jesse really did force Ford's hand in some ways. Ford really admired Jesse James for a long time, and was an expert who'd read everything about him.

"About the time I was writing this, there were also a number of assassination attempts . . . Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley. Then John Lennon. I was thinking about the extent to which assassins really admire, even emulate, the people they shoot."

Was Hansen seduced by the Jesse James legend, even while painting a broader portrait?

"Inevitably, when you write about somebody, you grow somewhat sympathetic, at least you understand them as a physician might understand a disease," he said. "Jesse was probably as much beyond hope as Hitler, who I've also written about (in the novel, "Hitler's Niece"), although nowhere near as violent or monstrous. The formative experiences of his life were as a guerrilla in the Civil War. He was not a Confederate soldier, he was just a guy who raided and killed people in the Northern Confederacy. A lot of people are formed by war, but there's something about the discipline of being in a military uniform that makes it easier to return to civilian life later on. If you're always an outlaw, you still need that adrenaline rush."

One murky area is why James turned his back on Bob Ford, whom he suspected of being a traitor. Was James committing suicide?

"I thought it was more that he was a guy who liked to live on the edge," Hansen said. "He was taking off his guns but at the same time, it was like, 'OK, take me now, but if you don't, then I am perfectly free to kill you.' "

"Dialogue is what characters do to each other," Hansen said, addressing the almost Pinteresque level of violence and suspicions in the scenes between James and Ford leading up to the killing. "People are never really responding to what's just been said but the subtext. That was clearly true in Jesse's conversations. He acted like a hail fellow well met, but actually he was manipulating people."

Although commercial expectations for the film, which opened in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto on Friday and will eventually go into wider release, are modest, given its length and dark approach, Hansen is encouraged by the recent success of films like "3:10 to Yuma" and the attention to the new movie.

"When this book first came out, Jamie Foley and I went around to a lot of studios pitching it," he said. "One guy put it very clearly: 'We're not interested in horses and dust.' But the western is a very resilient form -- every time they try to kill it, something like 'Unforgiven' comes along."

Hansen, 59, has been the Gerard Manley Hopkins professor of arts and humanities at Santa Clara University since 1996 (his new novel, "Exiles," about Hopkins and the writing of "The Wreck of the Deutschland" will be published in May).

But the seemingly unlikely transition between the worlds of the glitterati and writing or teaching responsibilities is not as tough as it seems. "It's like changing channels on television," he said. "You're watching MTV one minute, the Golf Channel the next."

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