David Mackenzie interview: Hell Or High Water, modern movies

Director David Mackenzie talks about making Hell Or High Water with Chris Pine, and the state of modern cinema...

A blend of western and heist thriller, Hell Or High Water has one foot in the present and one in the past. Its rugged atmosphere recalls classic thrillers and dramas of the 1970s, yet its setting – among shuttered towns of a post-recession east Texas – is unmistakably modern. Its big skies and Stetsons recall classic westerns, yet its story, brilliantly written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) feels like a eulogy for a vanishing way of life.

Even the casting feels like a nod to both 70s and contemporary cinema. There are plenty of parallels between Hell Or High Water and Michael Cimino’s 1974 thriller Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, not least the casting of Jeff Bridges. In Cimino’s film, Bridges stole just about every scene as a live-wire outlaw on the run with Clint Eastwood’s seasoned safe cracker. Had Hell Or High Water been made back then, Bridges might have played the role of Tanner Howard, a convicted, harebrained bank robber who teams up with his more stable brother (Chris Pine’s Toby) to steal the funds to save their family’s ranch from foreclosure.

Instead, Bridges plays a world-weary Texas Ranger on the hunt for the two robbers. It’s a magnificent performance in a film full of star turns; like Thunderbolt And Lightfoot or any number of classic dramas and thrillers, Hell Or High Water’s first and foremost a character piece, and it’s great to see a group of fine actors let loose on such a thought-provoking, intense and witty story.

Hell Or High Water marks another cracking film from director David Mackenzie, who’s quietly yet steadily built up a superb body of work over the past 15 years or so – if you haven’t caught up with them yet, Young Adam, Hallam Foe and Starred Up are all compulsive viewing. Hell Or High Water, meanwhile, is perhaps Mackenzie’s most high-profile movie yet, and will, we hope, lead to more, similarly exciting projects in the future.

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As his latest film opens in the UK, here’s our chat with Mackenzie, which takes in Hell Or High Water‘s brisk shoot, 70s thrillers, and his take on the state of modern filmmaking.

Congratulations on the film. I loved it. You must be delighted with the reception so far. 

It feels good, yeah. It’s a film that came together quite quickly, it’s a film that we finished and we had our premiere in Cannes within a month. And it’s been released a few months later. It’s been a quick and lively process, and I couldn’t be more happy with the response to it. It feels good. It was a really positive shoot, as well. We could tell we were doing good stuff when we were making it.

I understand you only had Chris Pine for a couple of weeks – two and a half weeks was it?

Two and a half weeks with Chris, yeah. So that was pretty tight. But I think, actually, it was a good thing, because it concentrated the feeling we had with Chris and Ben [Foster], and it meant we just had to be with them. We spent two and a half weeks living with and siding with the outlaws, kind of thing. And identify with them – even though they’re not necessarily doing good things all the time, but inhabiting their world. 

Then they left, and Jeff [Bridges] and Gil [Birmingham] came in and brought a different vibe. It was less of a panicked schedule, and that allowed them to be a bit more languid – so those two different flavours definitely helped. It wasn’t deliberate, but we made an advantage out of it. 

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That’s really interesting, how it lent itself to the tone of the performances.

Yeah. And the other great thing was, because I had that schedule, I was able to shoot all the Chris and Ben stuff almost entirely in sequence, which is what I did with Starred Up as well. When you can do that, the few times you’re allowed to – unless you’re Ken Loach, in which case you can do it all the time… it can be logistically quite hard, but in this case it wasn’t a problem. But it allows you to embrace the shape of their story in a clearer and intuitive way, which is really great.

Like Starred Up, there’s a sense of lived experience here. The language feels like it’s from someone who knows and understands that terrain. So what’s the key to that for you as a director, to get that lived experience out of the actors and in terms of cinematography?

The secret is to have some great, original material. And actually, both Taylor [Sheridan, screenwriter] and John [Asser, writer of Starred Up] are quite similar in a way, in that they came to writing late in life through other things, and write very intuitively. So I have that as my backbone, as it were, and then have a very free environment on the set, and explore stuff, play with the ingredients and keep things lively – not be too prepared. I don’t want to sound too wanky, but just be a bit jazz about it. 

If try to cook things in a really nice way, so people aren’t too caught up in the machinery of making films, which can often be a bit of a dirge process. I’m always trying to fight that and make it feel alive, and open to opportunity. 

What I like is that you can talk about the film in terms of genres – westerns, heist movies, road trip movies – but it’s also keyed into its time. It’s a political film in a way, isn’t it?

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It is political. It’s kind of weird as an outsider, because I don’t think I have the right to be judgemental. And talking to Taylor about it, we didn’t want to be judgemental, but it is swimming in the waters of American politics, and it explores a lot of the fault lines that exist in modern America. You know, guns, race, banks, oil, land – those are the kinds of things that are really alive and causing deep rifts and anxieties within America. So for us to be able to swim in those waters and to make, essentially, a genre film in that space, was a really interesting opportunity. It’s kind of crazy now that the film’s expanding in America, and it’s being seen in the heartlands of America on both sides of the political divide. I’m hoping people leave the cinema having had a great time, and also talking about it, you know what I mean? It feels like that it’s a fortuitous time for the film to be out in the marketplace.  

It’s a very funny film, but it also feels like the death of something. The death of a certain way of life or a class of people.

It’s very much a hymn to the passing of the Old West. But I’m really glad you said it’s funny, because there is a lot of humour in it. 

The scene that sticks in my head immediately is the one in the diner. “What ain’tcha gonna have?” That was amazing.

What’s amazing is, that scene is exactly as Taylor wrote it. I didn’t change a word of it. And on the page, because of the way the script’s written, it has a Cormac McCarthy-esque feel to it. You really feel the weight of the script. So when I read it, I wasn’t reading the comedy elements of it; it was only in the playing of it that I realised that it was as funny as it was. 

I’m not even sure whether Taylor was aware of how funny it is – not in terms of laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s kind of interesting. I’m really pleased with the way we can juggle those tones and have a very serious film, but with some proper moments of laughter in it. And for that not to unbalance things, I’m really proud of that. I have to nod to my great editor, Jake Roberts – we really worked together to create that shape and to get the fluidity of all the different tones. 

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There are moments where it’s quiet and contemplative, where there are gaps. But then there are moments where there’s breakneck action. To keep all those things in there and balance them up without turning the film, or making the audience disengage, is a juggling act. 

Jeff Bridges’ performance is terrific throughout, but in that scene… it’s so subtle the way he behaves there. It’s so subtle. Just a little open and close of the mouth as though he wants to say something to the waitress, but he’s just too shocked.

I couldn’t have imagined a better experience with an iconic movie star like him. I’ve admired him for a long time. He was incredibly creative. There was quite a lot of improvisation we were doing, and he was just interested in everything. He was really good fun to work with and hang around with afterwards. It was the perfect combo, really. I love all my cast, but Jeff is pretty special.

There’s a universal theme in this film, I think. Which is the observation that human beings need a sense of purpose and dignity. And that’s what Chris Pine’s character wants for his family. Is that something you wanted to bring out?

It is very much about that. But I’m hoping these characters aren’t in a dignified situation, but there is a bit of that Texas pride in there or whatever. I’m hoping part of that is the effort we all made to love the characters – even the ones that are doing bad things. That there’s a universal humanity throughout the film. I tried to do that with Starred Up as well; even though you’re talking about people who you wouldn’t necessarily want to feel [empathy] with. It feels right to me to do that, and it taps into the movies from the 70s that I really love, that have a humanistic quality to them. People like Hal Ashby, who in their own, rambling way, just love their characters. I aspire to that. 

Funny you should mention the 70s. I have a quote here from Brian De Palma, and I wanted to know what you thought of it. “We got into the studio system in order to make some pretty incredible movies before the businessmen took over again.” I wondered if you agreed with that, and what it says about filmmaking now.

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Well, I think it was a great period for American cinema that was unfortunately obliterated by event cinema. Event cinema is what it is, and I understand why it’s successful. It started with things like Jaws, which are extraordinary movies. But what we’ve lost are great character films which are beautifully directed and had great movie stars in them. Films that were about something rather than about spectacle. We have lost that. Obviously, there are occasional flowerings where you get an indie movie that’s successful or whatever, but the idea of the studios making those kinds of films – and for those to be viable at the box office – there was that flowering back then. I hope there’ll be more flowerings. I hope this film’s a box office success so that people can go, “Let’s make more of those kinds of things.” Because those are the kinds of films I like to watch.

I got the same feeling when I watched Margin Call a while ago. It’s amazing to see actors, like Chris Pine, given something more than a typical clean-cut, Hollywood leading role. 

Also, I think they like doing it as well! That’s the thing. Long more there be more opportunities like that, you know?

This film’s very much about the 99 percent. Do you think there’s a bit of a 99 percent and one percent thing going on in the film industry? As in, at one end you’ve got indie filmmakers struggling to scrape together $5m to make a movie, and at the other end you have filmmakers who have $150m.

I hadn’t thought of it like that. But I guess so. There’s certainly an unbalance there. 

Do you think there’s a way of creating more of a balance? 

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It is most likely to be about films of this type being able to generate revenue – or not! Or possibly not – maybe the films by numbers, or whatever, will start becoming a bit boring to people. That’s another way things could change. But at least the conversation is still ongoing!

With that, we’re sadly out of time. David Mackenzie, thank you very much.

Hell Or High Water is out in UK cinemas on the 9th September.