Interview: Hell or High Water Director David Mackenzie

How a Scottish director turned a modern Western into one of the best American films of the year.

Hell or High Water is one of the very best movies of 2016. It may sound like a cliche, but the film is both a nod to the mythology of the Western, only in contemporary clothing, as well as a cousin to the great American dramas and thrillers of the 1970s — except that this story of two bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) and the Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) who doggedly pursues them also feels very much of America right now, after a decade of economic uncertainty and the dangerous, dark populism that has resulted in the recent presidential election.

With the film out today on Blu-ray and DVD, Den of Geek got on the phone with director David Mackenzie to discuss why the story spoke to him, how a Scotsman ended up directing a movie set in the American West, and how Hell or High Water has become one of those “must-see” movies that everyone loves and tells their friends about.

Den of Geek: How did this script come to you and what was it about it that initially spoke out to you?

David Mackenzie: The script was given to me by my agent. A, I loved it and B, I felt I could do something with it. The script had a great sense of place, of character, of the world it belonged to. I loved the way the story unfolded and I just thought this was exactly the type of American film I want to make, it seemed to tap into the DNA of a lot of great 70’s American movies. It had my name on it, put it that way. I felt very connected to it and very happy that I was able to do it.

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You’re nothing if not diverse in your choices. Whether it’s a science fiction film, or a comedy, or a crime drama like this, do you always get a similar feeling when you’re reading the material?

In a way it is. I’m always looking for something that surprises me in some way and hopefully something that isn’t the same film that you thought it was when you started reading it, so that your expectations are being confounded and this is one of those. I have to say, I read it and I didn’t think we needed to change a word, I thought it was beautifully formed and the thing about it as a spec script, it didn’t ever go to a development process. We didn’t take it through a development process, which is great. We just took the material and ran with it, and that was great.

It’s a very American tale as you said. Did you feel that you could bring a different viewpoint towards it as a Scottish filmmaker?

I didn’t want to make an outsider film, I generally think film culture is international. I felt as connected to that American story as anyone, in a way. It does feel universal. I spent a little bit of time in West Texas a few years earlier and thought, “God, I’d really love to make a film in this place.” When the script came along that was something that I tuned into. The fact that I’m British is pretty irrelevant in a way. I’m very glad that we’ve been able to make a film about West Texas that people from West Texas seem to be able to see it represents them well, which is an honor. I’m happy about that.

I know that you ended up filming in New Mexico, but you did go back to West Texas to scout it out.

That’s absolutely correct, yes. I was really hoping that we would be able to do it there but the economics of it didn’t work out. As we scouted, I did an amazing road trip with my cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens, and production designer, Tom Duffield, and we tried in a very short time span to absorb as much of the places described in the world as possible, including Archer City, which is where The Last Picture Show is set and which is the setting of our first bank robbery. It was amazing going there and the town has not really changed since The Last Picture Show, which is 50 years ago, and it’s pretty amazing. We tried to get as much of a feel for that place as possible and then we shot three miles from the Texan border in Clovis, New Mexico. We were trying to get as close as we could, in that way.

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One of the things about the film that’s so palpable is the sense of desperation. In light of recent events here in the U.S., namely the presidential election, do you think working on this story in those places gave you have an understanding of what some people are calling the anger and despair that fueled these election results?

I definitely think the experience of being in that world, you could understand the sense of desperation, understand the sense of dispossession and I think that’s actually what the film is about. It was supposed to be a political film but by the time we made it, the Trump phenomenon wasn’t even there, you know what I mean? We accidentally found ourselves tapping into something which has now become what it has become which is sort of weird, and sort of fascinating in a way that we were accidentally in touch with this pulse that obviously is what it is. There was a sense of that definitely there when we were filming it. We had no idea what was going to happen next.

There’s also the sense in the film that these institutions that people might have trusted 50, 60 years ago, like the banks, are now the enemy.

They’re faceless as well. It’s not just an American theme but it’s a very universal theme nowadays with globalization. Everyone’s feeling that institutions that were once there to serve, support, protect, whatever, they’re no longer to be trusted. That’s the state of our world and it’s not necessarily a very comfortable place.

When it came to casting, did you have any of the three leads in mind from the get-go?

I can’t imagine anyone else playing these roles. They’re totally embedded into the fabric of the film. They are those characters and always will be.

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We see a much darker side to Chris Pine in this movie and a much more internalized performance from him. Talk about nurturing that in him and helping to develop that.

That was what the character demanded and Chris very boldly wanted to go there. It was a strong choice for an actor who’s well-known for being more swashbuckling trying to play a very buttoned-down, anxious, internalized character. We worked very well together to bring all that out and I think it’s great that Chris is getting a lot of recognition for the great actor that he is. People lost him in franchises, do you know what I mean? I think he’s a really talented actor and I’m very happy and keen to work with him again.

Do you get specific with actors in terms of what you want to see or do you like to give them as much room as possible to try a lot of different things?

I do both. It’s all down to intuition. I film the material in whatever way it feels like it’s appropriate to do at the time. Sometimes loads of direction, sometimes no direction, sometimes exploring many different ways, sometimes trying to do the same thing again and again and again. It just depends on what the needs of the moment are and that’s what the excitement of directing is.

You’re in the whirlpool of that moment day by day, in the shoot, trying to maximize and squeeze the juice out of a moment. That’s what I find exciting and I have a very creative set. I don’t have continuity people, I don’t have clapper boards, I don’t have monitors. I shoot very fast, I shoot a lot and we just keep on going. We keep on like a machine, trying to extract the good stuff out of what’s there. It’s quite difficult to describe beyond that but it’s very intuitive and very energized.

Do you find that that creates an energy on set? Especially since you’re right there with the actors and not 40 feet away in a video village?

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Yeah. It’s all about the energy, it’s all about that connection. I know that the actors on the film really loved that process and for some of them it was new, they weren’t used to it, but they were very excited when they got in there.

The relationship between Marcus (Bridges) and Alberto (a fellow Ranger and Native American played by Gil Birmingham) is interesting because Marcus is not the most politically correct guy in the way he speaks, and from the outside people might view this as a very different type of relationship and not a healthy or very affectionate one. Was is challenging for you and Jeff and Gil Birmingham to find the right tone and make it work?

We were worried about it. Gil was worried about misrepresenting Native Americans. It was anxiety but it was very important for me that we looked at the problem in the eye and dealt with it honestly and open-heartedly and so we didn’t shy away from it. We went there with it. I think what’s really interesting about it is that on the surface of it, it feels very un-politically correct as you said, and then you start to see that it’s a two-way relationship and there’s an element of humor there and an awful lot of affection. Both sets of partners or brothers in the film have this strange way of expressing affection which is very male, they do it in teasing, they do it in antagonism but underneath it all, it’s a kind of love. That’s one of the things I think is really interesting about all of those relationships.

This has become “the little movie that could” this year. It’s a film that got out there, it got great word of mouth and buzz, people seeing it and and loving it and telling their friends to go see it. Do you find it encouraging that a film like this can elbow its way into the public consciousness among all the franchises and tentpoles?

I was delighted by the fact that it has touched people and yeah, it’s very encouraging. I’m a huge fan of the American films from the 1970s, before the event movie came along and obliterated the soulful, character-based, realist, interesting movies, and this is tapping into that source, in a way. I’m delighted at the possibility to make these kinds of movies and for them to find an audience.

Hell or High Water is out on Blu-ray and DVD today (November 22).

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