Hell or High Water might seem at first glance like a familiar cops-and-robbers tale, the likes of which we’ve seen many times before, but a genre film doesn’t have to be generic, and this is a thriller that has been brought to the screen with rare skill. In fact, the virtues evident in the film are rare enough in contemporary American filmmaking to feel like very something special. Hell or High Water boasts an intelligent, witty screenplay by Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, an excellent quartet of performances that bring nuance and emotional weigh to the central relationships, and direction by David Mackenzie that ensures the film feels simultaneously loose enough to allow the characters to breathe and taut enough to be the year’s most gripping thriller. It’s a reminder of how good American genre filmmaking can be, and I met David Mackenzie recently to discuss it.
Looking back at your career before this interview, I was struck by how different each film has been to the one that preceded it. Has that been a conscious decision when choosing projects or is that just how things have turned out?
I've always been trying to avoid making the same film twice, so it is definitely a plan, although I just tend to find the projects that appeal to me at the time, so there is that as well. I find with some elements of filmmaking you can get caught up in the process of it, and so if you can find something different each time it helps it stay alive, fresh and interesting, and hopefully that's reflected in the work.
I always wonder how much a director can control that because you're also at the mercy of the market, what's offered to you, the need to work, etc.
There's an element of taking the opportunities that come your way, but in terms of the things that appeal, that's what I'm looking for, something that's sufficiently different or surprising, or something that feels like it's got an opportunity to explore a world that I don't know. It's one of the great things on both sides of the camera, actors and directors. you get to learn about things that you don't know and spend a bit of time under the skin of an area or subculture or whatever it is, and begin to understand it. That's a real privilege.
So when you received the script for Hell or High Water, what was it that you connected with?
I really loved the script. The script was a kind of revelation for me because it starts off like you think it's a straight genre thing and then you start seeing resonance, poetry and humour and all those things, and then it becomes something else. You realise it's about dispossession and these antagonistic characters who are feeling their way through their relationships and unpeeling the layers of that antagonism to reveal affection, and a lot of it is about the land and themes of contemporary America. As I read it I'm going, "Wow, it's a genre movie but it's all this too" and then just as I'm getting bored of one flavour another flavour comes in, so as a narrative journey for me it's exactly the kind of thing I'm interested in.
I think when looking back at cinema history, it's often the genre films that feel like the best reflection of a particular time or place. I'm thinking of the noir films of the '50s or westerns of the '70s, in which the thematic concerns and anxieties of that era come through, either consciously or subconsciously.
I've been talking a lot about the '70s, and if you look at Robert Altman in terms of what you just said, Altman doing McCabe & Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye. His '70s interpretation of a western and a noir are totally of the time they were made and reflect the concerns of the time that they were made, and another western I like is Dead Man, Jarmusch's film from the '90s, which seemed to reflect some of the themes of then. I guess that's the advantage of visiting particularly those two genres, both kind of tough guy genres and about American history, gangsterism and the west, looking at those things through each generation or each decade and through the different concerns of those times, that feels like an interesting thing to do.
When you're working in a genre tradition...
I've always hated genre. I mean, I spent the first six or seven films of my career trying to avoid genre, and I really got angry when people try to put films into a genre box. I had to get over it with Starred Up because I couldn't escape it. It was always going to be a prison drama, you know what I mean?
But does it give you a certain freedom to be following this kind of narrative and be working with characters that are archetypes of the genre? I mean, the audience meets you halfway because we connect with certain tropes and have certain expectations, and then you can do something different with them.
Yeah, and also because you've got those archetypes you can be free to completely humanise them, and there's still something that you can hang on to. That's what seems interesting to me. You've got those genre kicks and you've got the genre threats, but that gives you a real opportunity to go where the heck you like within that, and that's what seems so nice about this film. There are things that can connect with an audience in a very obvious way, and then there are things that can be brought in. I talked on Starred Up about smuggling in stuff. You're making something that has a built-in connection so then you can mess with it.
The thing that really struck me after watching this film is how this is a very tight and lean movie, but there is so much downtime in it. There are so many scenes that consist of the the characters just sitting and talking, but it never feels static.
It's a real juggle to try and do that. Some of those scenes are people not even talking, they're just breathing in the atmosphere. They're really important to the flavour of the film but you don't want the thing to lag. I've worked with my editor Jake [Roberts], who's a very talented man, on five films, and a lot of what we're trying to do is keep the flow and feel the different flavours of the film. The two brothers have a different energy to the two rangers, and you're trying to keep a flow that allows you to move forward, giving these things the space to do what they need to do.
You're essentially telling two different, parallel stories that you have to weave between.
And they are very different in flavour, even though they're part of the same thing. In a way one of the things I'm most proud of with the film is the way we managed to keep all those things in there and make sure the film is tight enough to be a genre movie.
Did you do any test screenings with this film to help find that balance?
I did testing for the first time ever. Jake had done testing on a couple of pictures. I was a little bit disturbed by it, but I got into it. We tested it three times and each time you feel the audience, you know, the audiences write down these score sheets but that wasn't relevant to me and I didn't really read them, to be honest. Just watching the film with an audience and feeling that's where it's lagging or that's where they're disengaged was very informative, and after each test we shaped the film a bit more. Showing the film for the first time in Cannes is a terrifying thing to do, because if they hate a film it's very public and they're very vociferous about it, so knowing you've put it before a test audience before its world premiere is quite a good thing.
I think it was two and a half weeks.
How does a tight schedule like that affect your process?
In this case it was a distinct advantage, because if we hadn't had that pressure we would have probably shot whatever bank Chris and Ben [Foster] were robbing and then we would shoot Jeff [Bridges] and Gil [Birmingham] following them, but instead we had to shoot Chris in his entirety first. I spent two and a half weeks living with the outlaws and we were able to shoot that sequentially because the schedule didn't have to bother about anything else. The opening shot of the film was the first thing we shot, and progressing through a film like that, as I did on Starred Up too, is great for a director because the last thing you did informs the next thing you do, and you don't have to think about it in some weird logical way. It becomes very intuitive. Actors absolutely love it because they can do the same thing.
It's a rare opportunity for them.
It's pretty rare, yeah. I know Chris just loved the freedom that we had, the 'jazz filmmaking' as he called it, and so the lack of time was actually a great benefit. It gave them an energy and we were a great team - Just bang bang bang, we went through it. The biggest challenge was the final scene, Chris's last scene and Jeff's first scene, and I had quite a lot to do in one day. It worked out alright and I was happy with the scene, but it was a pressurised moment. And then after that it was a different pace, we didn't have so much schedule pressure so it was like a normal film, and we slowed down and enjoyed it. As a result those guys have a different energy, more laid-back, and it really works in terms of those different flavours.
But in that Chris Pine half of the movie you have some very complicated bank robberies and shootouts to choreograph. How do you approach that? Did you do a lot of pre-planning and rehearsal?
Not really, As a director I've developed a sense that the less I pre-plan the better. Obviously if you're doing a stunt thing then you do have to work through it, but the more that you're open to the opportunities of what's really cooking on the day, and the less you lock that down in your head with preconcenption, then for me the better results you get. There's more freewheeling joy in that, and it gives you a better connection to the material than anything you can pre-plan. It's going to be interesting to see what happens if I do a bigger movie or something where there has to be some logistical pre-planning, but my attitude is to do as little of that stuff as possible. The important thing is what happens when the cameras are turning and everything before then is just the run-up, it's all pre-race stuff.
Did you shoot in real banks?
Half of them were real banks and the other half of them were ex-banks, because obviously quite a lot of banks have closed down, so they were all built for the purpose of being banks anyway. There was a real struggle to begin with to get some banks to let us in, because they didn't quite get it at first, but the big shootout scene was a real bank and the bank tellers are the real tellers. The weird thing was, a week after we finished shooting one of the banks we filmed in was robbed for real, so they sort of knew what to do!
That must have a great impact on the actors, to be doing it in the real location.
I think it does. I really can't imagine going into a set-based environment again, where you can lean on the walls and they wobble. With Starred Up half the job was done when we turned up to work in the morning, because that location really spoke to you, it was a very powerful atmosphere, so you switched into gear. I guess it's not dissimilar to method acting because you can tap into that reality. Obviously if you're doing a sci-fi set it has to be a set, but if it's a realist thing then you'd be crazy not to try and use the real locations. As I've evolved as a filmmaker I've become a realist, but trying to do that as cinematically as possible. The tradition of British realism is often about making things feel real and not do it in a very widescreen way, as it were, but I'm trying to find a balance of a kind of widescreen realism.
The film is very classically composed with great use of the wide frame. Did you think about the visual style beforehand or does that suggest itself on the day too?
The way you're going to shoot it suggests itself (a) by the environment you're shooting in and (b) by how the actors feel, and obviously some of that is me saying "It's best to do it that way" but some of it is just letting things cook and seeing what happens. The DP I've worked with Giles [Nuttgens], who shot this, we're trying to be in tune with what needs to be done and that has to do with light, weather, the way the frame looks and what the guys are doing.
One of the things I loved about the bank robberies was the notion that it's particularly hazardous to try and rob a bank in Texas where every single customer is carrying a gun.
That's the truth of Texas. I tried very hard not to be an outsider, I tried to be an honorary American while making this, I didn't want to make a film from the outside looking in, but the British don't have the same relationship with guns as Americans, and the gun culture in America is a big part of it. I feel the film is political but not judgementally political, I think it's swimming in those waters and I don't really have the right to do more than that as a Brit there. I was quite conscious of not wanting to glorify or pass judgement on the gun culture, but it is pretty freaky, and the concept of gun ownership is that the good guys can fight the bad guys and it's not just the bad guys that are armed. That's how the mentality of the gun lobby presents its argument.
There is also this sense of frontier justice, with that character who tells Jeff Bridges that he'll find the guys and "string 'em up." They're still holding onto the code of the Old West.
But it's obvious that they're disappearing and I know that Taylor thought of it as the passing of the Old West, and that's nice territory to swim in. There is a little bit of an ache in the overall feel of that, and it obviously ties into the Comanche thing, that 150 years ago that whole area was run by the Comanches. 150 years doesn't seem that long ago when you think about it.
I want to ask you about the casting of the smaller characters, the people we meet in the diners or the banks. They bring so much to the film.
Because much of it is a road movie, it's a kind of picaresque, you're going to bump into characters and never see them again, and that's one of the things I really liked about it. They're very well-drawn characters and I was very conscious of the fact that the film was going to live or die by how well we cast these characters. It is a real challenge to make sure that all the smaller cast, who are in it for one day, are as looked after and respected and made to feel as safe as the people who are in it for longer, and it's much harder because you turns up to a well-oiled machine, and how do you fit in? So I made a real effort to make sure they were feeling good about everything, We tried to make sure we cast as authentically as possible, we cast great faces, great looks, great acting, and it's one of the things I'm most proud of is that these characters all came together in a really nice way and they represent the world we are trying to describe. They give the film a real sense of place.
They don't feel like actors. They just seem like part of the landscape.
That's always an honour. People came up to me after Starred Up and thought some of the people in that were non actors, and they all were. That makes me feel like I'm doing my job, and obviously they're doing their job.
You've spoken about wanting to leave behind the British tradition of realism. Do you think you'll move away from British cinema and do more work in the US?
I have the attitude that it's all about the project and I don't really have a strong sense of where that's going to take place. I'm developing projects in Britain, the United States and Europe so I'm not sure what's going to materialise first, but I don't necessarily feel any antipathy towards British cinema and I'd like to carry on doing it.
This is your second film in America. How is the experience different to working in the UK?
It's exactly the same, but slightly more unionised, slightly bigger crews, a little bit more unwieldy. I guess they make more films so there is that kind of process where you feel like the sort of sausage factory of making films is more embedded in that culture, which I always have to fight, because I hate the idea that the tail wags the dog. I was successful on this film in fighting that and pulling in some of the methods that I use to make films come more alive, and there was a bit of a culture shift for those guys but the battles were won. Essentially, it is the same deal.
Is it hard to make a film like this? People often talk of American cinema now being divided starkly between the huge blockbusters on one side and the microbudget indies on the other side, with less room for anything in the middle.
I think it's creeping back. This is exactly what this film was, to some extent, and I think people have realised that the hole in the market of quality material that's resourced enough to make properly, and to possibly work with big-name actors and that sort of thing, is something that's worth revitalising. So I have a feeling that's a kind of mood swing in Hollywood to move back towards that, which I think is great because that's where most of the good films come from. Fingers crossed.
You said you are developing a few projects. What are you working on next?
I know what I'm doing from next week because I'm working on a TV pilot in Canada called Damnation, written by a guy called Tony Tost, and it's about strikers and strike breakers in Great Depression Iowa. I think it could be a really strong piece so I'm excited about that. I've never done a pilot before, and as a director a lot of the decisions I would normally be making our being made by other people so it will be an interesting experience, but it's short and luckily I will have Giles the DP and some of the team with me.
There are a lot of filmmakers making that switch to the small screen now.
There are, but no matter what anybody says about the Golden Age of TV, I still think cinema is much better.
Hell or High Water is released in UK cinemas on September 9th