EXCLUSIVE: There was a time close to 30 years ago when one could pick up a screenwriting tutorial that explicitly advised the reader to stay away from penning Westerns.
The genre was mired in box office mediocrity during the 1980s with such also-rans as Silverado and Young Guns. In recent years, arguably, the Coen brothers changed that with the awards-appealing success of 2007’s No Country For Old Men ($74.3 million in domestic box office) and their 2010 remake of True Grit which at the time took the oater to a whole different B.O. echelon with $171.2M stateside. At the time, that was the second-highest-grossing Western in 20 years since Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves ($184.2M), before The Revenant ($183.6M) took over that spot.
Amid the wonderful noise here at the Cannes Film Festival about Kristen Stewart’s gripping turn as a medium in Personal Shopper, to Adam Driver’s nuanced performance as a New Jersey bus driver/poet in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, one of the titles that has percolated great buzz in recent days has been the Un Certain Regard movie Hell Or High Water from director David Mackenzie, a bank-heist thriller that again marks another breakthrough for Westerns. CBS Films opens the movie August 12, a month that’s been a prime launch pad for early, edgy awards-season contenders.
More than just a guns a-blazing pic, Hell Or High Water paints a portrait of west Texas and how the terrain and its people have been casualties of the 2008 recession and mortgage collapse. No more is this emphasized than in Toby, Chris Pine’s good guy-turned-bank robbing mastermind, a guy who comes from generations of poverty. “It’s like a disease,” Toby tells Jeff Bridges’ dogged Texas Ranger Marcus. And in Hell Or High Water, Toby is determined to change his fate.
Pine’s brother is Tanner (Ben Foster), a crazed ex-con who is all too good at his game. The two couldn’t be more different, yet the two couldn’t be more affectionate. They rob banks, particularly one specific chain – Texas Midlands — and collect small untraceable bills by the thousands. Why rob? Turns out Tanner is set to inherit his mother’s land, which is sitting on a pile of oil, but the property is in desperate arrears to the Texas Midlands bank. Tanner’s plan is to turn the property over to his kids, who reside with his divorced wife. Meanwhile, Marcus begins to see a pattern with the robberies and looks at the hunt as his swan song before retiring, hitting the road with his half Comanche partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) to find Tanner and Toby.
Hell Or High Water marks Mackenzie’s second time at the Cannes Film Festival after 2003’s Young Adam. Although Mackenzie is Scottish, Texas should just make him an honorary citizen after Hell Or High Water, which is thick with detailed, sincere Americana. The film’s heist aside, if you listen closely to the minor, supporting characters in the movie, they recount the film’s bigger tale of rural Texans’ middle-class woes; quite reminiscent of how David Milch illustrated various levels of an anarchistic frontier Dakota society that was yearning to get its act together in HBO’s Deadwood.
It’s obvious that the folks in Hell Or High Water are red-state denizens who after suffering through the G.W. Bush and Obama eras are likely backing Donald Trump in their desperation for change. In Taylor Sheridan’s (Sicario) script there’s a cattle rancher who, in herding his cows across the road against a raging wildfire, complains how his job is so archaic in the 21st century. No wonder why his son doesn’t want to follow in his footsteps. Katy Mixon plays a waitress who after flirting with Toby receives a $200 tip. She’s all too stubborn to cooperate with Marcus, who wants the bills as evidence: That money goes a long way toward her mortgage. In addition, there are various arguments both by Alberto and a bully gambler in the film about the Comanches being among the disenfranchised.
“I was very well aware that these minor characters were really the world of the film, and it would live or die by these minor characters and because it’s picturesque, you meet them once and move on,” Mackenzie explains. “Each had to be strong,”
In getting the character details down to the curmudgeon waitress who serves Marcus and Alberto at a dive café that specializes in T-bone steaks (she’s still burned by some out-of-towner in 1987 who tried to order “trout”), Mackenzie cites a trip he took to Alpine, Texas many years ago as having “a formative experience” on him in making Hell Or High Water. When he was sent Sheridan’s script, which was being shepherded by Sidney Kimmel and Odd Lot Entertainment, “It was love at first sight. I love the way it moved, the sense of place and people and its connection to the great movies of the 1970s that I really loved. But also felt like it was snapshot of contemporary America with resonance of the past, a slightly poetic song to the change of the Old West.”
Sheridan’s uncle was a lawman, “and these types of characters are part of his DNA. The sense of the damage of the financial crisis in the Texas landscape was very clear to him,” says Mackenzie, who hardly had to develop the script with Sheridan since it was that perfect.
The film marks Mackenzie’s second stateside film since the Ashton Kutcher lothario comedy Spread in a canon of predominantly British dramas.
“I wasn’t trying to be an outsider,” said Mackenzie of Hell Or High Water, “I wanted to embrace and respect the world we were trying to represent.” The pic marked the sixth time the director worked with European cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. “I think some people in America, think of it as normal, or slightly depressing,” says Mackenzie about Nuttgens’ visualization of Texas’ wide-open plains and warts-and-all towns, “But I don’t see it as that — I see it as beautiful.”
From the onset, the audience knows it’s in store for a wild ride with Hell Or High Water from the D.P.’s opening zig-zagging tracking shot which covers the parking lot of the Texas Midlands bank, and follows a fiftysomething haggard woman, who we learn is a bank employee. She smokes, puts out her cigarette, walks into the bank, and then, gun-to-the-head, Tanner and Toby are right behind her. “The idea was to set up the space of this world, some kind of tension, and you’re moving through this landscape, then – boom – at the end of it,” explains Mackenzie, who was inspired by the Don Siegel 1973 movie Charley Varrick about a husband and wife and their friend who take part in a bloody bank robbery, unaware that they’re really stealing from the mob. Mackenzie only storyboarded one sequence in Hell Or High Water – the climax – as it entailed an explosion. But largely, he avoids shooting off illustrated shots so that he has creativity to explore and find fresh angles during the shoot.
Mackenzie feasibly casted Pine, Foster and Bridges, the latter whose image loomed large on the set given his canon of Westerns and character-driven pieces, i.e., The Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot and Fat City.
Speaking about those inspirations, Mackenzie says, “Thunderbolt And Lightfoot because it’s about baddies on the run, Fat City because of how the character utilizes desperation, and The Last Picture Show because it’s sort of the loss of the Old West.” The Hell Or High Water script called for the first bank heist to take place in Archer City, where Last Picture Show is set; a nice homage. During his location scout of Texas (even though Hell Or High Water takes place three miles across the border in New Mexico for tax incentive reasons), Mackenzie says, “Archer City hasn’t changed since Last Picture Show was shot there (in 1970).”
How Bridges arrived at his tobacco-chewing-sounding Ranger, MacKenzie says that “There’s a lot of magic there, the moments where he does stuff that’s so surprising and interesting. We did a lot of improvisation as well.” The two met in Bridges’ Santa Barbara stomping ground before the shoot, jotting down ideas on a napkin which would lay the groundwork for what was yet to come. “He spoke about method, the type of director that I am, what I’m wanting, the freedom I was going to give everyone. He was making it clear that there’s permission to go as far as necessary to go, that this journey will be one that we could look each other in the eye and a feel a connection,” Mackenzie says.
Given the auterish feel and indie assembly, Mackenzie said the film was definitely tested a few times before a final cut was made. “It would be crazy for me as a non-American to not test to an American audience,” says the director. It was the first time the filmmaker ever endured the Hollywood analytical process. While audiences were polled about the characters, Mackenzie’s takeaway wasn’t so much their answer cards but “feeling the room to see where everyone was engaged. I can’t say that I enjoyed the testing process, but I was informed by it.” Even though Mackenzie and his longtime editor Jake Roberts felt they had a good cut prior to testing, “each time we tested we cut down. There’s a nice rhythm in there. I’m always scared of over-cutting, but there’s a music to the editing and the comedy elements,” says Mackenzie.
After it was controversially reported this week that Olivier Assayas in-competition horror drama Personal Shopper received boos at a press screening (before earning a grand standing ovation in its official screening), Mackenzie is relieved that Hell Or High Water, which has wowed critics, is in Un Certain Regard. “A film can be more of a surprise, and there’s less pressure to rush to judgment,” he says about the slot where his Young Adam played back in 2003. “Coming away from that, we had very good reviews. (The producer) Jeremy Thomas said, ‘It doesn’t get much better than this.’ ”
In regards to the risk of launching a film at Cannes, Mackenzie explains, “It’s a very exposed place and if it doesn’t go well for you, it’s a scary one. But what I love about Cannes is at the center of this craziness, showy-off stuff and glamour, at the heart of it there’s a cathedral to cinema which is about really important global films. That’s the essence of the festival.”
As we wind up our conversation at the Carlton Hotel prior to his flight home, Mackenzie says, “I feel a lot less anxiety than I did two days ago.”