Editor’s Note: This story originally ran on Dec. 23. Hell or High Water currently counts four Oscar nominations including best picture and an original screenplay nod for Taylor Sheridan. After drug war noir Sicario made enormous waves at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival into last year’s awards season, you could feel that Taylor Sheridan, a Sons of Anarchy actor-turned-scribe, was bound to repeat his success all over again with this year’s CBS Films/Lionsgate movie Hell or High Water.
To date, Hell or High Water racked up three Golden Globe nominations for best drama, Sheridan’s screenplay and supporting actor Jeff Bridges who plays a crusty Texas Ranger in the twilight of his career. Bridges, who collected a best actor Oscar for the 2010 title Crazy Heart, also has a Screen Actors Guild supporting actor nomination under his belt for Hell or High Water.
On the Croisette, the revisionist western sparked laughs and hit a nerve in echoing the year’s political landscape stateside. Sheridan, a native of Waco, Texas, didn’t have his mind set to direct Hell or High Water—that role fell to Scottish helmer David Mackenzie. But the film is part of a “modern day American trilogy” including Sheridan’s Wind River, which he directed and is making its world premiere next month at the Sundance Film Festival. Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen and Jon Bernthal, Wind River follows a FBI agent who teams with a town’s game tracker to solve a murder that occurred on a Native American reservation.
Tell us about getting Hell or High Water mounted.
Taylor Sheridan: I wrote Sicario first. I sent Hell or High Water to Peter Berg, asking if he’d like to be involved. He did a phenomenal job with [West Texas fare] like Friday Night Lights, both the film and the TV series. He really responded and took to scouting locations. His schedule didn’t permit him to direct. We found ourselves in a competitive situation with a bunch of finance companies bidding for it. It was Sidney Kimmel who said he’d shoot my first draft. It was a decision that was made alarmingly fast.
What took a long time was finding the right director, and ultimately we found David. I’d seen his film Starred Up and he had an authenticity. That movie follows a father and son who wind up in the same prison together. He’s an unsentimental director, and he’s patient with the camera in a way that doesn’t feel slow. And I felt there were important moments in Hell or High Water that could be overly sentimental, such as between Marcus and Alberto’s friendship, and when Toby meets his ex-wife, or goes to sit with his son. There’s a lot of landmines, and David effortlessly stepped around them. David boarded and we cast the film quickly.
There’s something about European directors where they’re able to look at something American through unique eyes; they don’t have a dog in this fight. I didn’t want this movie to be political in any way; rather, social.
David Mackenzie: Taylor’s script was love at first sight. I loved 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 it also felt like it was a snapshot of contemporary America with resonance of the past, a slightly poetic song to the change of the Old West. I wasn’t trying to be an outsider, but an amateur American. I wanted to embrace and respect this world we were trying to represent.
Taylor, your uncle was a lawman like Jeff Bridges’ Marcus character.
Sheridan: He was a federal marshal. They have a mandatory retirement age. The day before his, he was kicking in the door and serving a warrant, then turning in his badge and gun. That was fascinating to me, that all of the sudden your life has no purpose.
The fact that Pine and Foster’s bank robbers steal from one chain in the movie— where did you draw inspiration for that?
Sheridan: I was driving through these small towns in Texas and every town had a bank and a café with nothing else to do. Everything else was closed. And I said to myself, “Why is there still a bank?” Well, obviously they needed to deposit oil royalties. I thought, someone can rob this place blind. There’s only two county sheriffs in an area that’s the size of greater Los Angeles. I then worked through in my mind the cycle of poverty, by robbing the people who legally robbed from you. I watched as the recession hit, and there was anger, and I allowed that to manifest.
The film’s opening tracking shot is pretty stunning. Where did the idea for that come from?
Mackenzie: On the very first day of shooting, it was the very first shot. I tried to shoot the outlaws sequentially. But the shot was trying to set up the scope of the world, and some kind of tension as you’re moving through this landscape. I tried to do a lot in fairly long takes. It’s important that the pace of the film be what it is.
As an outsider, to come into an uncluttered landscape [like West Texas], felt very beautiful to me and my DP, Giles Nuttgens. We’ve worked on five films that I’ve done. For us it’s a beautiful place, and for some people in America, they would think it’s normal and slightly depressing.
Sheridan: I don’t write tracking shots in my screenplays or any camera directions, but I do try to give a sense of how the action is moving. David came up with the method of weaving and he shot it on the back of a motorcycle.
Tell us about Wind River.
Sheridan: It’s a deeply personal story, but it’s not drawn from anything specific in my past. There’s a theme between all three of these movies—Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River—that’s about fatherhood at the end of the day; the sojourns of a father. When you become a new father, there are things that terrify you. I look at that more acutely in Wind River.