Why Vincent D’Onofrio Wanted to Direct a Western

Vincent D’Onofrio on directing his first Western, The Kid, plus whether he’d like to play Kingpin again if Daredevil ever returns.

Vincent D'Onofrio Directs Chris Pratt and Jake Schur in The Kid
Lionsgate

Vincent D’Onofrio has been turning out superb acting work ever since the world saw him in his breakout role as Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence in Stanley Kubrick’s acidic 1987 Vietnam War classic, Full Metal Jacket. Since then, the Brooklyn-born, 59-year-old actor has made his mark in movies, TV and on the stage, including films like Mystic Pizza, The Break-Up, Ed Wood, Men in Black, The Magnificent Seven, Jurassic World and many more. But he may be best known to many for two career TV roles: as Detective Robert Goren on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and more recent as Marvel Comics arch-villain Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin on Netflix and Marvel TV’s Daredevil.

Now D’Onofrio is taking on a new role: as director. Although his first effort was technically the 2012 super-indie comedy-horror pastiche Don’t Go in the Woods, D’Onofrio has now directed his first proper feature, The Kid, a Western set in the Southwestern United States in 1881. The film revolves around a young boy named Rio (Jake Schur) and his sister Sara (Leila George, D’Onofrio’s daughter), who must escape their sadistic uncle (Chris Pratt) after Rio kills the siblings’ own murderous father. Along the way they stumble into one of the West’s most enduring real-life legends, the conflict between lawman Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke) and outlaw William “Billy the Kid” Bonney (Dane DeHaan), with Rio forced to decide which path he would like his own life to take as he struggles to protect himself and his sister.

D’Onofrio (who has a small role in the film as a sheriff also eager to see the Kid hang) directs the film with a sure and confident hand. The story cleverly mixes some historical aspects of the longstanding dynamic between Garrett and Bonney (who were once friends) with the coming-of-age narrative that drives Rio and Sara’s journey, creating a Western that feels both grounded and mythic.

Den of Geek spoke with D’Onofrio by phone about making The Kid, researching the real Garrett and Bonney and casting his Marvel Universe colleague Pratt in a role that will surprise fans of the usually amiable and comedic actor. And with Netflix canceling Daredevil (and the rest of its Marvel shows), while speculation swirls over whether Disney will revive them for its own upcoming Disney+ streaming service, we asked D’Onofrio if he could envision crossing paths with Kingpin again in the future.

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Den of Geek: This is your second time directing a feature, but what made this piece of material the one that made you kind of want to get back behind the camera?

Vincent D’Onofrio: Well the other films that I’ve made, I made a short and then I shot a kind of horror musical in my backyard upstate once and those are just kind of things I did on my own without involving any other entities. Any money that was spent and anything that was done was just out of my pocket and it was just to keep my friends and I busy doing stuff that was fun.

This was different, this is a story that I had come up with and had to find a writer for, had to get someone to finance the writer, get someone to finance the film when the writing was done. So this is like really the first feature that I’ve done in the normal way of doing things, and I wanted it to be a Western. I wanted it to tell a Western story.

I thought of telling a coming of age story and using two iconic characters going through factual events and put a fictional character between them, a young boy. It seemed to have worked out. So that’s how the whole thing started.

What’s interesting is how Rio and his sister sort of walk accidentally into history. Was it always Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett that you wanted to set the siblings’s story with?

I started to research the bad guys of those days and realized fairly quickly that the most factual information pertains to those two guys. Those two guys’ stories are the most tracked and well written about in a factual way, rather than a mythological way or kind of a silly way. I think it’s because Garrett was a cop, he was a law enforcer and I think that his movements throughout New Mexico and Utah were easily tracked because they were all recorded. His relationship with William Bonney was all recorded.

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The other thing is that Bonney was the only bandit back then that would revisit his home even though he was a wanted man in it. The most factual information you could find was about those two, so that was a perfect opportunity to put a fictional character into that because we could track their movements through New Mexico.

Read More: How Modern Westerns Survive and Adapt

Ethan and Dane have a fascinating dynamic in the film, almost a camaraderie. Do you have any sense that the real life Garrett and Bonney actually had that sort of relationship?

I’m sure they had some kind of chemistry with each other. They kept in touch with each other. They disliked each other at times and liked each other times. They put up with each other at other times. So it’s like, they must have had some kind of chemistry. Exactly what it was, I don’t know.

The thing about the idea of making a Western is that, especially from the point of view of a young man, you can romanticize it a little bit so you can get away with some stuff that’s not totally realistic. Whether in the way that they speak and scenarios that happen with the young boy, in the end it’s a movie and you can get away with a lot in a movie.

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How do you think Westerns today can be relevant to audiences? Especially millennial audiences, who maybe don’t necessarily know the history of the genre.

It’s a good question. The thing about Westerns is that people that love Westerns think everybody loves Westerns. And it’s not true. Not everybody loves Westerns. And the more technology-based our world becomes, the less the sort of old timey things are interesting to the younger generations. But in the end, if you’re talking about social commentary, that still holds up.

As I got older in life I started to pay a lot of attention to my past and the kind of people in my life that have affected me in bad ways and in good ways. Especially as a young man. Some of the people that I thought were the coolest people I’d ever meet were in fact the wrong people to be learning anything from. And then of course there were people in my life that were amazing, amazingly good and kept me from ending up in trouble on the streets.

So the idea of that, that idea of a rock star being free and easy and doing whatever he wants to do, but yet still leaving a path of destruction behind him…that kind of comment on who we become and how we become who we are is, I think, still relevant to this day. Especially in this day where lying is so prevalent and people can hide behind Twitter tags. Who we really are and who we really learn from is important and I think that I tried anyway to make the story have that kind of reflection in it.

How did the film challenge you as a director?

The cool thing about making a Western these days is that it’s not as difficult as it used to be. You’re out in the outdoors and the cameras these days are smaller and equipment is lighter. It’s easier to make a Western than ever before, just because of practical reasons and the technology changing so much, it’s so much easier to get things done in big ways but with small equipment. So that was something I realized while we were shooting. I realized that stuff that we were doing would’ve taken weeks and we were getting it in half a day. That’s quite a realization.

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But I’ll tell you, when you’re in a town and you’ve got 300 extras and a stagecoach with four horses and four leading actors on set and you have one day to shoot this exterior town shot, it takes a lot of choreography and you’ve got to be at the top of your game. You’ve got to be really tight. There’s no messing up. You got to hold tight onto the wheel of the ship and guide it through. So that’s challenging. The clock is ticking and you’ve got to get what you get because on a 20-day shoot you’re not going to get another day.

Everybody does such good work in this, but I really wanted to discuss Chris Pratt because I think this is a very different performance and type of character from him.

Yeah, he really wanted to play a bad guy. And I told him that I was going to make a bad guy part for him. When I showed it to him, he loved it. He was actually doing another film at the time and we got them to release him for five days. He flew back to America and to New Mexico to shoot with us for five days. He was really raring to go, he came in full on, ready to go and it was really nice how well prepared he was and it went really well.

He’s almost unrecognizable.

Yeah it’s pretty cool right?

Now please take this in the spirit it’s intended. Did you ever talk on set about who wins in a fight, Star-Lord or Kingpin?

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(Laughs) I mean if you knew the way we were together in real life you would know that if you’re asking me it would be Kingpin. If you were asking Chris it would be Star-Lord.

Read More: What Daredevil Season 4 Would Have Been About

I think we all understand now that Netflix let the Marvel shows go because of Disney starting its own streaming service soon, but do you feel there is more story that can be told with Wilson Fisk and with those characters, and if the chance comes up would you want to get back to it?

Oh yeah, I definitely would. It’s one of the most fun, intense and well written characters I’ve ever played. It’s right up there at the top of the list of characters I’ve played. So yeah, there’s tons of more stories. Whether we’ll ever get the chance to do that again I have no idea. I’m going to be the last to find out, I have a feeling. So we’ll wait and see what happens. It’s too good a character to leave alone as far as I’m concerned but you know, Marvel’s a huge company and they’ll do what they need to do.

So you haven’t heard any indication of whether Daredevil could re-emerge on the Disney streaming service.

No. Once I found out that Punisher and Jessica Jones were out too, I was like “Oh so this is like a real thing. It’s like really something is definitely going on.” And I can only imagine what it is like for everybody else but nobody is going to give us any information.

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Do you want to get back behind the camera again? I know you’ve also got a couple TV shows that you’ve been appearing in…

Yeah I’m doing those now. I’m involved in three different shows. I’m here in LA doing Ryan Murphy’s Ratched right now and that will continue for the rest of that season. I’m doing a supporting part in that. I’m doing a supporting part in The Godfather of Harlem in New York with Forest Whitaker. And then Ernest Dickerson is doing this new show that shoots in Albuquerque called Interrogation and I’ll be starting that in a few days. So I’m busy acting right now, but we’re going to start looking at writers for the next one I want to direct. I’m going to start meeting writers in a week or so. We just put it into development the other day.

So just like on The Kid, you have a story you want to tell and you want to get it out to a writer and go from there?

Same thing. I have the story all mapped out and now I just need to find, hopefully, a Mexican woman writer. And it’s a different genre.

The Kid is out in theaters now.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye