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“It’s Quite a Scary Responsibility, Making a Film”: David Mackenzie on Hell or High Water

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is a no-nonsense, confidently executed thriller, operating in the same tone and terrain as Rolling Thunder and No Country for Old Men. Two brothers — Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) — pull off a series of bank robberies across Texas, raising money for a purpose revealed halfway through the film. Even before that disclosure, the subtext is firmly on economic dispossession and the role financial institutions play in suckering the small customers they ostensibly service (this may well be the first film in which a reverse mortgage — pace the late Fred Thompson — serves as a major plot point). Stopping for a casino detour that hammers the point home a different way (the film sometimes veers on the overstatement of Killing Them Softly before settling down and getting to full-on thriller business), the sibling duo are being hunted down by a sheriff weeks away from retirement, Marcus (Jeff Bridges, not phoning it in for the first time in years), and his long-suffering partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

Shot in New Mexico, mostly three miles away from the border with Texas for production rebate purposes, Hell or High Water is confidently embedded and convincing in its depiction of a very particular milieu, fleshing out a fine script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). During my conversation with Scottish director David Mackenzie, I ask about two performers I assume had to be found locals who turned out to be trained professionals, a mistake that speaks to how convincing the film is.

Filmmaker: This isn’t your first film shot in America, but it’s your first shooting in the south. I’d imagine the levels of heat were new for you to adjust to. How did you get comfortable with the location?

Mackenzie: It all came together very quickly. There was a very short prep period, because the window of working with Chris Pine was very limited. When I took on the job, I arrived in Dallas and did a tour of all the places that were mentioned in the script. The first place I went was Archer City, where they shot The Last Picture Show, which obviously Jeff was in, and that’s where the opening scene of our film is. That was an amazing thrill, because it’s not really changed very much since that film was made 46 years ago. Anyway, the idea was to get a real sense of the flavor of the place with my key creative team, including the designer and director of photography. It was very hot — I come from Scotland, where it never gets hot, and it was quite nice to experience that heat. Giles [Nuttgens], my DP — who is also British — and I wanted to embrace the midday sun with the very, very harsh light and express the heat in that. I think a lot of DPs normally try to shoot either end —the midday period is the least likable light to a lot of people — but that was a light that we wanted to try and take advantage of.

Filmmaker: How long was the shoot? The film covers a lot of ground geographically plot-wise, but I assume you tried not to travel that much for real.

Mackenzie: We shot three six-week-days, then four five-week-days. We did quite a lot of traveling. The places that I wanted to go to were quite far away from our main base. The road movie element I was pretty keen to make as real as possible, so there was quite a lot of that. It gets very frustrating when you’re driving between places and not shooting, so I tried to shoot as much as I could while I was driving. Particularly with Jeff and Gil, there’s a lot of improv stuff that we did while driving to places that made it into the film. Sometimes you’re inside the car, sometimes you’ve got the rig on the outside, sometimes you’re in a traveling car, sometimes it’s a motorbike. It’s about making the varieties of driving be there in the film, but also trying not to be stuck in that very traditional frame of two people in front of a car. Actually, you end up with some of it, and some of that is where the improvisation happened, because you can let the camera run and don’t have to have thousands of cops controlling of the environment. Ben, Chris and Jeff are really, really good drivers. When they’re driving fast and acting at the same time, they’re always a fear of whether they’ll be comfortable with that.

Filmmaker: How was the casino set? Was it difficult to control or did you shoot at night when there were less people around?

Mackenzie: We had the casino for four days and shot normal hours. We just controlled little bits of it. One of the hardest things to control is the sound, becauase they tend to pipe music in madly. It wasn’t the busiest time, but it would definitely come in waves and get busier. We had a little bit of control, we could put some of our extras in places. It was actually quite a nice set — there’s a lot of nice light and lot of depth, which we wanted to take advantage of.

Filmmaker: There’s a lot of billboards and graffiti relating to bankruptcy and the fiscal crisis in the background of the scenes. Were those found or built?

Mackenzie: I think almost all of it was made for the film, but all of it was based on stuff that someone actually saw. It’s something that we added to add a little bit of reinforcement to the world.

Filmmaker: Is this your biggest production yet? What was that adjustment like?

Mackenzie: It’s on par with Asylum, which had a similar budget, but maybe a bit more building. I think when I did my last American movie, I got used to the numbers of people. I was very, very keen to keep those numbers as limited as possible, and shooting on location we didn’t need to do that much with the light a lot of the time. The nature of the beast is that the team gets big in American cinema, certainly on that project level. The great thing about having a big team is that it allows one the right to change one’s mind, because everything’s being carried, so you change your mind and you can be catered for. Normally, you’re not allowed to change your mind in other kinds of cinema. Learning this is part of the opportunity is quite interesting. And the freedom of having to choose your mind is always great.

These have all been quite formal questions so far. Do you want to have more of a bit of a conversation?

Filmmaker: Sure. One thing you’ve spoken about in interviews for this film is saying that you find the harsh terrain of that area beautiful, in a way that many people don’t. There’s a whole tradition of films made in America by foreign directors who are supposed to bring a fresh eye and perspective to terrain that we as Americans take for granted. Do you feel like this is the kind of perspective you brought to this film?

Mackenzie: I find the landscape very beautiful. Being a lover and student of American cinema for a long time — everybody has a relationship with American cinema. I’m only a part foreigner, as it were. I’m quite familiar with that world and the cinematic language of it. I have a head start.

Filmmaker: But there’s also an argument heard commonly, that the hegemony of American cinema worldwide will erode all distinctive local voices and leave us with nothing but Americanized images and movies.

Mackenzie: Is that the kind of cinema that we were making? Is it that dominant form or is it the grand fantasy that’s the tentpole movie that’s more likely to do that? I love American cinema from the ’70s — pre-event cinema, that has real characters and situations and humanity and a free-wheeling style. All of the pain of the American dream. I don’t think world cinema is being destroyed by that in any way or being eaten by that. I think things post-that, perhaps yes. But in a way, this is a way to throw back — not in a nostalgic way, but the original material felt like one could make a contemporary film with the spirit of the good ’70s cinema.

Filmmaker: You’ve filmed in quite a number of different locations. Do you like the idea of making movies as a way to travel?

Mackenzie: I like the idea of making a film as a way to get to understand below the surface of the subject you’re dealing with. Each film is about things that I didn’t know nearly as much about as when I ended it, and I think that’s an interesting thing. Actors like to be able to embrace characters that are far away from them, and there’s an element of psychogeography in every project.

Filmmaker: I’m pretty sure you’re the first person to casually say “psychogeography” during an interview I’ve done. Earlier in your career, you were often written about in terms of someone who couldn’t be pegged down to a style or particular cluster of subject matter, except maybe for a small run of films about various forms of sexual aberration. Is there a throughline that you discern throughout your work?

Mackenzie: I think it is project by project. It’s about looking for projects that have some kind of integrity, that seem to be about something — that are either avoiding, or being smart with, the language of cliches that they operate in. There’s an instinctive response to the material that drives me. I’ve talked recently about these last two films, that they’ve been closer to genre films than I’ve ever done before, and how liberating that was. I felt that genre films were unoriginal and not worth doing in my past, and now I’m comfortable with embracing that. This starts as a prison movie and is a multi-genre, road/robbery/western/buddy thing, but it belongs to a sort of genre. The choices are really about something that allows you to deal with something tangible — to me anyway.

Filmmaker: Whenever there’s a new filmmaker emerging from the UK, the British film press seems obligated to tout them as the next big thing, in the same way NME used to hype a new would-be next big band every month. Did you ever feel any kind of pressure from that kind of coverage?

Mackenzie: I remember when Young Adam came out, there was a lot of writing about that sort of thing, but since then I’m not the next big thing in any way, and can just keep chugging on making my movies. There’s no novelty in my act at the moment, and probably not a lot of press attraction. If you’re a director trying your hardest to make your voice not entirely an obvious signature — I don’t want to make the same film again and again, or the same vibe of film. I’m very keen to keep exploring. It’s hard to get a grasp of who you are and what you’re doing. Ultimately, there is a consistency to what I’m doing, but I don’t want to wear it on my sleeve all the time.

Filmmaker: What is that consistency?

Mackenzie: I would hope it’s looking at something with an open heart, eyes and mind. I would hope it’s about being comfortable with slippery morality. It’s the hardest question you’ve asked me, and one I’m very nervous to answer. As a filmmaker, the more I do it the more abstract the methods and results are. It’s hard to pin down. I regularly use this phrase, a “dance of intuition.” That’s what filmmaking has become to me, and as you become more experienced, your tastes develop and your methods evolve. Hopefully you can apply more skill to that dance of intuition and relax into it more. It’s quite a scary responsibility, making a film, and getting comfortable in that process is a journey that I’m enjoying going on.

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