David Mackenzie's follow-up to his gut-punch prison drama Starred Up has gathered more buzz than a casting call for a Swarm reboot. Pin-sharp screenwriting by Sicario's Taylor Sheridan, an age-old yarn of robbers (Ben Foster, Chris Pine) and cops (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) set against a dusty, decaying Texan backdrop and the Scotsman's own keen eye for character have gelled into one of the undisputed films of the year. Empire sat down with the director to get the lowdown on his crackerjack heist drama.
Hell Or High Water feels political straight off the bat. The opening shot features graffiti about the banks refusing to bail out the poor. Is that how you saw it?
Yes, it was always about people trying to survive and get back what was taken from them: that sense of dispossession and mistrust of institutions. Part of the idea is that you’re identifying with bad guys, who do pretty bad things, as well as the lawmen. In a way, the real bad guys are the institutional bad guys, as opposed to the characters of the film. Ultimately, there's no good in what they do, but I hope you’re feeling something for them while you're on the journey.
It's nice not to have to force enthusiasm for a script. This one was a really lovely thing to carry into battle.
Did you talk to Ben about those moments that really stretch the audience's sympathies for his character?
Yes, Ben and I had an extremely strong relationship and there were all sorts of discussions about everything. He's an extraordinary intelligent and dedicated actor. He goes really deep.
He's got a reputation for going deeper than most other actors. Stephen Frears revealed that he tried EPO for The Program. Was there a point where you had to rein him in? You weren't worried he was going to have a crack at robbing a bank?
No, I wasn't. My first conversation with him was, “I don’t mind how much of a cunt you are, I don’t mind how deep you get. I welcome it, I encourage it and I'm here to support it”. Ben was a real life-force on the film. He’s a lovely guy as well.
The dudes abiding: Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham's Texas Rangers get on the case.
Let's talk about the "hot and not in a good way" scene in the diner. That got a huge laugh in the screening I was in.
(Laughs) I was blessed with a beautiful script from Taylor (Sheridan) which has scenes like that in it, and Margaret Bowman, who plays that waitress, totally deadpanned it. I didn't see the script as having that much comedy [when I initially read it], but that scene definitely did.
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are both pretty deadpan in the movie and then along she comes and totally out-deadpans them both. Did they struggle to keep a straight face?
No, that was a great day. Margaret was so sweet and it was a very pleasant experience. She's 84 and a really trooper. I love that scene because it really plays off the bewildered looks of the boys and a lot of the comedy is off their reactions.
Hell Or High Water is backdropped by rural poverty in the Comancheria region of Texas and New Mexico.
I'd love to know what happened to the guy who came in and tried to order trout.
Hell Or High Water was originally called Comancheria...
Still is in France.
Right, and it probably links the film more to old Westerns. Were you happy to change titles?
I mean, it's the title we've got so I just have to accept that. I was fond of Comancheria because I felt it was a theme of the film, but I think the US distributors felt that it was a title that wasn’t going invite audiences in as much as the one they chose.
How does it work: do you just get an email telling you the title's been changed?
These things tend to be quite scientific. They'd tested a few things and right from the beginning they were worried Comancheria was going to sound like a Spanish-language film and put off an audience. But I'm pleased that there are some territories where it remains Comancheria.
Chris Pine has surprised a few people with this movie. He's fantastic.
He's great. He's playing a locked-down character who's driven by guilt and a sense of his own failure, he’s got a plan and he’s trying to stick to it. He’s the straight guy to Ben’s wild guy. It’s really nice to see this guy who's been a good-looking leading man going from playing a swashbuckling character to someone who's more internalised and more anxious.
Partners in crime: David Mackenzie and Chris Pine on set.
I'd love to see him play Captain Kirk with that moustache.
With the facial scrob, yeah. It's always really weird whenever I see Chris now because he's always so clean cut. We were really keen on him being dirtied up, and I really love that look. He should do it more often. Most times you see him he's got a military haircut. He really liked the idea of letting it all get earthy. He's quite an earthy guy.
It was nice to see Chris Pine go from playing swashbuckling characters to someone who's more anxious.
You hail from pretty far from this part of the world. Is there one particular way in which that helps?
I tried very hard not to be [from another place]. It was very important to me to not make an outsider version of Americana if I could; I wanted to make it feel as American as possible. I obviously am an outsider – my DP’s an outsider, my editor's an outsider – but we tried to assimilate as much as possible and not take that outsider perspective. I’m sure that some our choices were made because I was comparatively fresh to those themes and that landscape. I think we probably found more beauty in that landscape than people who were more familiar with it. But I really hope it’s trying to be as American as possible and that it’s not really noticeable that it’s made by an outsider. Nobody seems to commenting on that, which is good.
Was it a surprise to be offered the project? You hadn't made a film in the US before this one.
I don't know about surprise, but it was very pleasant to read it. It’s very rare that I like a script as much as I liked that one when I first read it. It’s nice not have to have to force enthusiasm, because my enthusiasm for it was complete and genuine.
Presumably Sicario, Taylor Sheridan's preceding script, hadn't come out when you started on this?
I wasn’t even really aware of Sicario. I just really loved [the script] for what it was, and the great thing about it was that it didn’t really go through any development process, Taylor just... (mimes explosion). I evolved it a little bit in situ and we improvised some of our own stuff, and I generally tend to be a bit loose with scripts, but the source material was great. It was a really lovely thing to carry into battle.
We were having dinner somewhere and someone said: 'Hey! Are you The Dude?' and Jeff just said, 'I am!'
You made a film with Jeff Bridges. Is it possible not to talk to him about The Dude?
We didn’t really talk about The Big Lebowski. The only reference was when we were having dinner somewhere and we stepped out and someone said: “Hey! Are you The Dude?” and he just said, “I am!” (laughs). I loved the fact Jeff was completely happy to be recognised for that film. Jeff’s a great guy and we clicked and had a very strong time together, but it was about this project and not other projects.
There’s still a lot of affection for Starred Up. Is it a film that people still want to talk to you about?
Yeah, I think it resonated in some way. In the UK it came out with a relative bang, whereas in America, because of the language, people have been discovering it more slowly, so I’m still having it come back to me quite a lot. A lot of actors are impressed by it. It's been nice to get comments from people I respect about it.
Doing time: Mackenzie on the set of Starred Up.
What was it like shooting in the Maze prison?
We only shot one day in the Maze, which was the last day. The first day I went to the Maze I was close to tears the whole day; it was a really strong atmosphere there. It was fucking freaky. At subsequent times you get used to it but, my god, what a place! It’s a very powerful presence there.
You've been writing and directing for 20 years now. Do you have an itch to make big American movies? That route from British indie films to blockbusters seems more open than ever.
I’m really glad Westerns have had a revival. Hopefully our little resurgence will last a while.
Potentially, if the project's right. I don’t have any interest in doing superhero franchise movies. I don’t connect to the fantastic and I'm not a comic person, it's just not my thing, so I'm not looking in that direction – but ambitious films on a big scale I’m very interested in looking at. I’m interested in reality, I’m interested in people, so it’s just about finding a project I’m interested in.
The Western seems to be having a mini-revival. The Revenant, Slow West, The Hateful Eight, Bone Tomahawk, The Magnificent Seven. People thought it was dead...
I had a script for a Western ten years ago and couldn’t get it made. It was like: “No-one wants to see a Western!" I’m really glad, because I love Westerns and I think every generation gets a new one. Hopefully our little resurgence will last a while. We talked about the '70s Westerns earlier, but I’m also a big fan of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and his sort of slightly hipster interpretation of the late '90’s Western. I’m delighted people are going back there. It’s obvious that there are some great American themes in there. The more the merrier.
Hell Or High Water is out now. Read Empire's review.