John Maclean interview: Slow West, the dentist

With the release of Slow West, writer John Maclean chats to us about the premiere, and celebrating by getting a dental check up...

One of the finest films of the year thus far is the western Slow West. It’s in cinemas now, and we had the chance to chat with its writer and director, John Maclean, about the movie…

Can we talk about what release day is like? That we’re talking on the day your movie is finally getting a UK release. What feelings are going through you?

For a start, it feels like a bigger release than I expected. Thanks to Lionsgate, it’s really gone out there. You’re never really sure. But the posters on the tube, and the Q&As, it felt like it was really building up nicely. It feels great today. Then I’ve invited a lot of friends to a screening tonight, it feels like an unofficial premiere!

Well today is actually a mixture of going to the dentist in the morning.

Ad – content continues below

So you celebrated the release of your film by going to the dentist?

Yeah, just for a check up! When I booked it in, I didn’t really put two and two together!

If I’ve got the chronology of this right, you finished shooting at the end of 2013. So we sit at the culmination of a six or seven month release, going back to January’s Sundance Film Festival. So at the point when you have the film locked, can you talk about the process of letting it into the open for the first time?

Basically hardly anyone had seen the film before Sundance, apart from the production team and the distributor. I think A24, the American distributors, were the first people to see it fresh and completed. They sent an incredible email that made me feel much more relaxed. Then a week or two later I had a screening. I think the production company panicked because I was about to go to Sundance with a film that I’d never shown to an audience, and then would have been the first time. So we scrambled together a screening in London, and it made me feel that I was onto something.

But I still didn’t know how people I didn’t know would react to it, or an American audience. It was still absolutely nerve-wracking, showing it at Sundance.

As we sit here on release day, then, how closely are you monitoring the response today? I see you’ve been active on your Twitter account, for instance. Are you absorbing the critical reaction?

Ad – content continues below

Yeah, I am. Different directors have different ideas about reading reviews. For me, it’s just nice to gauge a general overview. Twitter seems to be a much fairer, even place, that it doesn’t just give you the full blast of negative criticism, that I think some websites lean towards. I think it’s nice to get that general feeling of what people think of the film. But it’s because I feel strong enough about it that I can take everything and understand why people are saying it, and then disagree or agree. I made the film I wanted to make, so it’s water off a duck’s back.

Usually everyone lies and says they don’t read reviews! Are you that bulletproof on this one?

I am, I am. I go easy on myself because it’s my first film, and I’m very proud of it. I wouldn’t go back and change anything. When you feel like that, it’s hard to take criticism, because what can you do? That’s my taste and that’s my view on it. I feel a bit like that.

It may sound like a delightfully dim question, but at what point in the process did your head work out what your film was? You storyboard quite heavily, don’t you?

Yeah, I think it was just before storyboarding. Between script and storyboard. It was probably that process, because at that point, you’re really watching the film in your head. Well, I am! At that point, I’d watched enough films to know the look of it, and the style I was going to choose. From then on, I was constantly impressed by things being slightly better – the costumes, the camera… It’s nice to go in that direction than have something in your head and not quite achieving it for some reason. I always felt like it was improving.

Pitch Black Heist, your previous film, was closer to 13 minutes. Presumably you can pretty much control all of that, he says naively. But at the point you move up to feature length, what are the particular challenges there? How much do you delegate out, and how do you manage a narrative that has to sustain a feature running time?

Ad – content continues below

I think the script was the big challenge. Working with a script editor – Kate Leys – in London. That relationship really helped me go from being able to write, to being able to write structurally. To carry things through. That seemed the biggest challenge. Once the structure of the script felt right, it was carrying that through to the end of the edit.

I remember an interview with Robert Zemeckis once, where he described moving from Back To The Future Part II to Back To The Future Part III. He described moving from two to three as joyful, to move out in the open, the restrictions of the studio walls were gone. He was freezing cold by many accounts, but didn’t care. Was filming outdoors pivotal to you, even before you came to Slow West? Were you wanting your first feature to be an outdoors film?

Absolutely. Not outdoors in the street either. I was very conscious of being in control. Like on Pitch Black Heist [Maclean’s previous short], there are no extras. There’s not a guy behind the bar, there’s nobody walking in the streets. Even the outdoor street shots, there are no people. I think it’s just a way of me being able to take a step up. A scary step up would be having to control loads of traffic and extras. Just to keep it kind of contained. The other thing about being outdoors is I thought a lot of the scenes would be set in forests, and any indoors stuff would be a wooden hut in the middle of nowhere.

Once you’ve made a successful first film, such as Slow West, the temptation is open. Hollywood is now plucking directors who have done one brilliant film, and throwing $200m at them to make a huge blockbuster. Has there been any interest there? Is that a temptation?

There hasn’t, and I think possibly because I think that especially happens to directors who show a flare for special effects. Like Monsters. This film is so tied into its script. Hopefully people see the end shoot out and see I can direct action, but at the same time I’ve taken one step back from that route anyway. Thinking that I would enjoy to write the next film myself. I do look at people like the Coen Brothers and Tarantino, and those are the careers I aspire to. I’m not sure how confident I’d be about being a director for hire.

How important then is writing and controlling your own material? Writing, particularly? Is that the highest priority?

Ad – content continues below

Not the highest priority. The priority is to be on set and shoot. But having said that, that’s the selfish fun bit! The writing is so crucial for me. I don’t write literally. I think of the film in my head and write it down in the end. You already know where the camera’s going to go before putting pen to paper. It’s easy then to go from script to storyboard to the set. Whereas if it was someone else’s script, it’d be a bit more working out.

Finally then, how many films are currently in your head now?

I’m really bad at multitasking, so it’s just one at a time! I’m going through the next one in my head!

John Maclean, thank you very much.

Slow West is now in cinemas.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Ad – content continues below