From his 1988 feature debut Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead, via his breakout Australian western The Proposition to The Road, John Hillcoat’s films have offered a consistently bleak and tough worldview. The Proposition was a full-blooded and seethingly violent revenge tale. His adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s poetically downbeat The Road offered only occasional slivers of humanity among the post-apocalyptic despair. Lawless, while not without its moments of levity, was also a brutal period piece about Virginia moonshine runners.
Hillcoat’s latest movie, Triple 9, is a tough heist thriller set in modern Atlanta. It takes in Russian-Israeli gangsters (led by a particularly fearsome Kate Winslet), corrupt cops (among them Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr) who plan to kill a young rookie (Casey Affleck) in order to direct attention away from their latest robbery. Also starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Woody Harrelson, it’s another intense and stunning-looking movie from Hillcoat. It’s his most pure crime thriller yet, but still loaded with detail the director gleaned from months of research – something we hadn’t realised until we sat down with the director to chat about the film.
Relaxing in a comfy chair, Hillcoat’s the polar opposite of the characters that populate his movies. Affable, thoughtful and witty, he brims with enthusiasm for movies and the minutiae of his research. Triple 9 may be a big, starry thriller, but it also shines a light on a very real, escalating battle between criminals and law enforcers unfolding in American cities like Atlanta.
Oh, and be sure to stick around for the bit where Mr Hillcoat talks about his desire to make a sci-fi movie, or maybe a western – but a comedy? Probably not…
John Hillcoat: [pointing to my notepad of questions] Oh! There’s a lot of notes there!
Yeah. I’ve got a lot of questions. I probably won’t have time for half of them, but I thought I’d write them down anyway!
I’ve read about your love of gangster films and westerns – those genres. You clearly have a voluminious knowledge of those subjects. And this feels like another chance for you to fuse the two. Was that why you took it on?
Well, yeah. I’ve long, long been a big fan. I love these big genres that have been created, and the challenge is, how do you make them fresh? With crime movies, it goes back so far – to film noir, Jean-Pierre Melville, French Connection. I wanted to do something both contemporary and urban, and I was kind of missing, in recent years, that kind of urban experience – and the contemporary experience.
I’ve already forgotten what the first question was! Have I gone off topic?
No, no, no. That’s exactly it. I wondered whether you chose it because of its contemporary setting.
Ah, yes. And also, with crime, it’s a world where… I love that you have the existential criminal who’s gone down a path, and they can’t stop. There’s something great about those sort of characters. There’s also the moral dilemmas, the murkiness. You know, I love these shades of grey, where things aren’t what they appear to be. People aren’t who they appear to be. That is, again, something that’s great about crime films.
That’s the Michael Mann-type criminal, isn’t it?
Not just in Heat, but in Thief as well, where they’re self-made but locked into what they do.
Oh yes. And Jean-Pierre Melville’s characters are quintessentially that. And of course, it goes back to noir. It actually comes from Europe, where filmmakers were fleeing the Nazis and going to Hollywood. That invigorated the golden era of Hollywood.
Yeah, yeah. German Expressionism. Fritz Lang.
Exactly. I saw The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman again recently. I love the way that these genres can keep being reinvented. Like, that was a contemporary film at the time, but it’s so brilliant at capturing the 1970s and reinterpreting that genre. A Prophet, I thought was brilliant. That’s the thing about these genres – when you see them reinvented. But yeah… the pressure these characters are under makes them fascinating, I think.
So what does Triple 9 say about the modern, 2016 landscape of criminality and police?
The excessive force is a big part of it, and the militarisation of everything in terms of the way the police force has changed. It’s changed completely. There’s more in the way of ex-military that become police because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But also there’s the cross-pollination now where they have their own SWAT teams and tanks. Their tanks are enormous – the one in Triple 9 was meant to be three times the size, which is what the Atlanta SWAT team had. But we couldn’t access it, we couldn’t afford it!
So that was a tiny version, actually. But the same with the criminal world; the cartels running the streets, the Latino cartels, actually come from a paramilitary background. The Israeli-Russian mob is also ex-KGB and much more ruthless, much more sophisticated, much more intimidating. And likewise with the cartels, those are again in this underworld – it’s terrorism as well. I think, what the cartels do, is they’ve been using terror tactics for a long time, so you have a place like Atlanta where it’s predominantly African-American, and the gangs used to run the streets – and they still work the streets, actually. And this small Latino contingent of gangs have infiltrated, but behind that is something so fearful, and so massive, that the other gangs just say, “Well, okay!” [Throws up hands]
This is probably too much information. But we went into this neighbourhood, where it’s all the Bloods. And everywhere you looked the Bloods were on show. It was a housing project – really a tough neighbourhood. And this one Latino guy, he walked out of this house, like a gardener or something – he was middle-aged.
I thought, “Hmm, that’s a strange mix, what’s going on?” And they said, “Oh, that’s a cartel guy. He’s untouchable. No one goes near him.”
[Laughs] Yeah. So the whole criminal landscape’s changed. The police force has changed. But it’s also, as you know from Ferguson and all that, it’s also for those socio-economic neighbourhoods that are the warzones, it’s a tough reality to deal with.
Do you think it’s a reflection of a more harsh society as a whole?
Totally, yeah. I think what’s disheartening is that everyone has been throwing petrol on the flames instead of water. There has been this escalation, and that’s what’s kind of alarming. So it’s almost like you then look back at the days of the Italian Mafia as maybe not so bad after all. There were codes and there was more respect – they were kind of a great bunch compared to where things have headed.
The kind of corruption we have now… I was talking to the head of organised crime in Atlanta, the FBI, and he said, “The problem is that the stakes are so high. Federal Agents are easily corruptible now, because there’s too much money and too much fear.”
I remember what you said about The Road being about corporate cannibalism. There’s always something else going on in your films. Another layer.
[Chuckles] I do love those films where the world works on many levels – as the world does. But I also think the environment should be rich enough to serve as one of the main characters, not just a backdrop to something. So I mean, I can appreciate some movies where that’s the case, but I don’t get as immersed and transported. I think with genre, there’s room to elevate genre, to include all that stuff. At least I hope so. I hang on to that belief. Like, [mimics Wile E Coyote clinging to the side of a cliff] with my fingertips!
The sense of realism works both ways doesn’t it? It sells you the reality, so you believe the stakes, but it also tells you about the wider world we live in.
That’s what I love about research. And I find actors respond to that really well, as well. They really respond to that immersive experience. That elevates their performances. And crewmembers, it’s that collaborative experience. They can sink their teeth into that more.
With the thriller elements of the film – you have the great scene on the highway with the red smoke, which looks amazing…
That’s a dye bomb. You can see them on YouTube. They use them in bank robberies. They stick the dye bombs in the cash. That came through research. “What haven’t we seen?”
It looks great.
It’s that layer of chaos, too. No matter how much you plan something…
Something random can go wrong.
Yeah. So it was trying to make that big action more real and unpredictable. And that creates more suspense, actually, in traditional storytelling.
That was going to be one of my questions, actually. What’s your personal approach to generating suspense? What do you think the secret is?
The unexpected is a huge part. Because you shouldn’t always know what’s coming. But also mood – Hitchcock was a master of suspense. The master of masters! And he often flagged what was coming, so that can create suspense. It all depends on context. But that’s more about the anxiety of knowing what’s coming. But there’s also the anxiety of something random thrown in that takes you off guard. So I think it’s a couple of elements, really, that do that.
You have that great sequence where Casey Affleck’s character breaches the building in the projects, and the shield he carries creates this very limited, subjective point of view. Is that something else that came from your research?
Totally. Other than Anthony Mackie and Casey, all those other guys were real, working [police].
They were there to advise and tell us how it really is done. I was fascinated, because originally that was going to be one of those typical [mimics holding a gun in Hollywood thriller fashion] police kicking down doors scenes – you know, referencing other movies. And I had no idea. But again, that’s the military training, so it enriched the film greatly. We had ex-gang members as well, so all of that really helped.
I get the impression you choose your projects very carefully, because they all seem to be of a piece thematically, even though they’re very different. They form a coherent worldview.
Do you agree with that?
It’s kind of those movies that inspired me the most – movies that transported me into another world where every bit had something. I’m very sensitive to, like… I’ll just give you an example. The film Cold Mountain had a great set-piece and then Nicole Kidman smiled, and her clean white teeth took me out of the film!
I just suddenly [reels] “Oh, this is a movie. She’s a movie star.” It just threw me, right? So I love the detail of creating a world that is totally immersive in that way. And that does take time. But of course also there’s trying to find ways, too, where things aren’t predictable in established genres. That’s increasingly hard to do, because they’re so well explored.
But I also love music, and genres in music. Blues, rock, jazz, folk. Classical. So yeah…
Do you know what you want to do next?
There are some other genres I’d like to explore that I haven’t done yet. I’m keen to do a sci-fi.
That’s something I have written here, look. “Would you like to make a sci-fi film.” I’d love to see you do a sci-fi film.
I’ve been looking for a lo-o-ong time. Again, it’s a hard world to find something new, and yet play with the traditions of that genre.
Actually, an American western would be great – you know, a full-on, up-front western. I mean, many things.
Comedy, I’m still in awe of. I think you need a comic genius somewhere in the mix. It’s got to be the actor or someone. But the comic genius actors are the darkest people on the planet – and that kind of scares me! [Laughs]
I’m not afraid of the dark, as you know from my films. But I am afraid of comic geniuses. [Laughs]
Either the writer or the actor, or with something like Dr Strangelove – you have all three. Genius director, writer and actors.
And genius set designer.
Oh yes, absolutely. But you need someone. And that’s kind of intimidating for me. But one day! Never say never!
I think I’m being kicked out now. John Hillcoat, thank you very much!
Triple 9 is out in UK cinemas on the 19th February. It’s well worth seeing.