Brad Pitt In "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford"

Helen Barlow

For a long time Brad Pitt was not a film-festival kind of guy, but this year he has gone into overdrive. Whether he was skylarking with his good friend George Clooney and his Ocean's 13 buddies in Cannes, supporting his beloved Angelina Jolie as the producer of A Mighty Heart or presenting his own serious turn in Venice as the infamous outlaw in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he was grinning from ear-to-ear, perhaps pleased that after years of making films he is finally being taken more seriously.

And, yes, at 43 he looks good, too - positively dapper in his vintage-style cream linen suit. Maybe that growing brood of kids has given him direction.

"It's the most fun I've ever had; it's also the biggest pain in the ass I've ever experienced," he says of being the father of the adopted Maddox, six, Pax, three, and Zahara, two, as well as his birth child, Shiloh, one, who is a stunning mix of himself and Jolie.

"I love it and can't recommend it any more highly but when I do have time to work then I really have to focus, because I know there's a short window to get something done. Actually, I've become much more efficient; I'm quite pleased by it all."

If Ben Affleck complains that "Bennifer", his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, was the cause of his career undoing, Pitt has thrived in the so-called "Brangelina", the term given to his relationship with Jolie,?whom he met on Mr & Mrs Smith.

He has become surprisingly more articulate when dealing with the press, has taken on greater challenges behind and in front of the camera and shares Jolie's passion for humanitarian causes.

Professionally, Pitt has found inspiration in his friendship with Clooney, who has long had his own production outfit to make adventurous movies. Pitt originally formed Plan B with his former wife Jennifer Aniston and Brad Grey. Plan B has produced big-budget films such as Troy, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and the Oscar-winning The Departed, as well as the adventurous flop Running with Scissors, starring Pitt's former fiancee, Gwyneth Paltrow.

With Aniston long out of the company and Jolie constantly by his side, Pitt has developed a more hands-on approach with A Mighty Heart, based on Mariane Pearl's book, and Jesse James, by New Zealand-born Australian director Andrew Dominik (Chopper). Interestingly, there are also Australian links to his recent Plan B productions: Shantaram, which stars Johnny Depp, is about the astounding life of former Australian heroin addict and underworld figure Gregory David Roberts, who sets up free clinics in India, while The Time Traveler's Wife stars Eric Bana.

"I got into it [producing movies] to be a part of stories that I wouldn't normally be right for as an actor," Pitt says.

"I got into it after seeing how films can go off the rails and thinking I have something to offer there, to help support directors I want to work with. Our simple edict has been just great storytellers and great stories and it's proven to be rewarding for us."

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford represents Pitt's greatest achievement. He nurtured the well-received film, which is based on Ron Hansen's novel, from its inception. When he took out the Venice acting prize for his brooding portrayal of Jesse James, that was the icing on the cake.

(Interestingly, both Pitt and James spent their formative years in Missouri.)

"This is a very complex, slow-burning style of film that is not part of the current zeitgeist of filmmaking - it's more a throwback to some of the great films of the '70s," Pitt says of the project, which went through about 40?edits before arriving at its current 150-minute incarnation.

"I actually liked the first cut, which was four-and-a-half hours long, but we didn't think people would have a lot of tolerance for it. I think it's a delicious film that sits and breathes like good wine. It's my favourite kind of storytelling."

The story follows the doomed outlaw in the final year of his life just after the American Civil War has ended. Paranoid that someone is going to kill him, he lashes out and shoots men who were once his friends. Eventually he becomes resigned to his fate, meted out by Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, who is the younger brother of Ben and a favourite for the Venice acting award). Not only was Ford after the huge reward but he also yearned for the fame it would bring. Much has been made of this theme in terms of Pitt's?own?celebrity.

"I don't think it's the main point of the story, but I can certainly understand his feelings of having a bounty on his head to some degree. Fortunately, nobody's pointing guns at me," he?laughs.

"In the movie, Jesse James was certainly caught up in his own celebrity - he was weary of living an alias and had really lost himself in this perpetuation of his outlaw life. Robert Ford represents another aspect of celebrity here with his blind want for fame without really understanding the consequences."

Pitt, who considers the film more a gangster tale than a Western, hand-picked Dominik, who had made another?movie about a wanted man, Chopper Read.

"When I saw Chopper I was really blown away by it. I thought it was a very important film, and very authentic, original storytelling. Andrew understands the undercurrents that propel people to behave the way they do and in ways that don't always make sense. Through the whole lengthy process of making our film, he stayed true to his vision."

Now it seems that the 39-year-old director is a new member of Pitt's extended cinematic family. So, too, is Affleck, a close friend of Matt Damon, who appeared in Ocean's 13.

Sam Rockwell, who plays Ford's older brother, Charley, has long been championed by Clooney since he was the star of Clooney's directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which Pitt and Damon had cameo roles.

As Pitt's clout is increasing, it doesn't hurt having friends such as Clooney. A frequent visitor to Clooney's plush pad in Lake Como, Italy, Pitt is often the brunt of Clooney's humour.

After Clooney won People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive for the second time in 2006, he famously quipped, "Brad's going to be upset." Pitt was the first to win the award twice. Currently they are appearing together in the Coen Brothers' comedy Burn After Reading.

Pitt has joined his Fight Club director David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in a tale about a man who ages in reverse, where he joins his Babel co-star Cate Blanchett. He rejoins Ed Norton for State of Play, in which he will play the former campaign manager of Norton's congressman. And it has just been announced that he will replace Damon in The Fighter, which stars Mark Wahlberg as one-time world champion boxer "Irish" Mickey Ward.

There's no doubting that Pitt, who first made his mark seducing Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise and later delivered gnarly performances in Twelve Monkeys, Snatch and Fight Club, remains eclectic in his choices.

"My decision to take on a film is not calculated in terms of its potential success," he says.

"I just go with the story that speaks to me, that I feel strongly about, and more importantly with the people I'm surrounded by. I don't even think about aiming for a bigger audience. My main concern is quality and I think there's quality in all categories of filmmaking."

Director Andrew Dominik
Stars Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell
Rated MA15+.
Opens November 1.

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