By Iain Blair
Over the course of nine films, acclaimed Scottish director David Mackenzie has managed to pull off quite a trick — appearing to embrace genre filmmaking while simultaneously subverting the whole concept. His last film, Starred Up, was both a brutal prison drama and a story about anger therapy. Young Adam was both an erotic thriller and a tragic love story. Perfect Sense was a sci-fi romance.
His latest genre mash-up, Hell or High Water, might look like a standard-issue, nail-biting bank-heist thriller, but it’s also a lyrical western, a road movie and a timely commentary on current political and economic issues in America. Written by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote Sicario), it stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner, two brothers who embark on a crime spree in order to save their family ranch from being foreclosed on by the local bank. Following their trail is a world-weary Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his put-upon partner (Gil Birmingham).
The behind-the-scenes team includes DP Giles Nuttgens and Mackenzie’s longtime editor Jake Roberts, and the film features an original score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Far From Men). The film, which is now rolling out in theaters nationwide, is already attracting Oscar talk.
I spoke with Mackenzie about making Hell or High Water and his unique editing process.
This is being hailed as one of the best and “most American” films of the year. How does a Scot from Glasgow end up making a Texas crime drama that’s definitely more than just a crime drama, that takes on a lot of current American issues, and feels so authentic?
I guess I got lucky. It was a great script, and I already had a connection with West Texas as I’d been there a few years ago to visit a Scottish friend who lives there — I loved the landscape — so I had a feeling for the place and the lifestyle there. When I read the script I thought, “This is a great opportunity,” so I just ran with it. I’m always drawn to stories that are not black and white in terms of their moral shades, and I was interested in the idea of “redemptive criminality” where good people do bad things for good reasons. That was a big part of the appeal for me in doing this.
What did each of the three leads bring to the table?
It’s so hard to put into words as it’s this intangible thing really. They all brought their skill, talent, hard work and experience to their characters, and it’s this alchemy that happens, this magic, when you get the right actors in the roles. I knew we were doing good work at the time; it felt great, and there was such a good rapport between everyone on set.
It has a very ‘70s western feel. Were directors like Peckinpah and Don Siegel an influence?
Definitely, along with people like Hal Ashby, and what I call ‘the humanistic cinema’ of the ‘70s. I think Don Siegel was a master of his craft and hugely underrated.
It plays like a laid-back thriller, but with a lot of other things going on.
Right. I never really thought of it as a thriller. For me it had to be a balance between the genre bank robbery elements and the deeper exploration of land and space and people lost in the erosion of change. They aren’t really verbal and articulate; they communicate as much in their silences as their sentences, and the “porch moments” feel to me absolutely essential to the film and we all felt instinctively drawn to them whenever the opportunity arrived. I love the contrast between the huge, empty horizons and the sanctuary of the porch.
What were the main challenges in pulling it all together?
We decided to use both digital (Arri Alexa XTs) and classic Cinemascope to create a look that’s very contemporary but also timeless. Finding all the right locations was key as well.
The film’s set in Archer City, where the classic The Last Picture Show was shot, one of Jeff Bridges’ early films, and interestingly my editor saw Peter Bogdanovich (see my postPerspective interview with him last year) in the audience at a recent screening of our film, and they had a nice chat. Archer City’s not changed at all since he shot there, but we ended up shooting in New Mexico, because of tax credits. Obviously, most banks didn’t want us shooting heist scenes, so we renovated various banks that had shut down, but we also got to shoot in a real, working bank; there’s nothing like using real locations.
Where did you do all the post?
It was a mixture of starting the edit in New Mexico, then Glasgow for three months, and then all the finishing in LA. We did some ADR at Margarita Mix, PostWorks and the final mix at Wildfire with Chris David.
Do you like the post process?
I love it. For me, the shoot’s the most exciting part, but post is where you actually make the film and shape all the material. We spent about six, eight months on it. The great thing about all the portable technology now is that you can just set up a post suite wherever you are, so in Glasgow we had a hotel room and did a lot of the editing there.
Talk about editing with editor Jake Roberts. Was he on the set?
He was either on the set or very close by, and the editing is very immediate. After six films together with Jake I developed a way of working that’s really fast and pared down. For me, filmmaking is about getting as close to the spirit of the material as possible and liberating myself from some of the less necessary conventions of the normal filmmaking process. So I don’t use clapper boards and I don’t have an on-set script supervisor.
I also cut as I shoot, so we keep the edit of the film totally up to speed with the shoot, except for the last scene of the day, and I’m able to see cut scenes the day they are shot — which in turn feeds back into what we are doing in a very positive and encouraging way. Every week we can see a cut of the film so far — and it’s not an assembly. I really love this method of working. Obviously, it continues after the shoot, but it allows you to be way ahead of the game in terms of the edit.
Is it true you did testing for the very first time?
Yes, and I thought it was very helpful, putting it out in front of an audience and seeing how they feel and react. We did three tests and that helped shape and finesse the material more each time. But I didn’t like the focus group stuff at all. It didn’t seem helpful to me.
I loved the different rhythms used for the brothers, and then the more relaxed scenes with the Rangers.
I’m glad you noticed. That was the idea, but it also partly came about because of the actors’ schedules. We shot Chris and Ben separately from Jeff and Gil, and very fast, with a rag-tag feeling. Jeff and Gil was slower and more leisurely, and we had more time, so it was two very different flavors.
I thought the fight scene was unusual — no fast cuts, just one long take.
We felt it was far more effective that way, not relying on cuts to do the work of the scene.
What about the VFX – what was involved?
The biggest was the brush fire. Vitality VFX did that and it took quite a long time to get right. I want to give a special shout-out to Jeremy Cox, who also did a lot of very subtle VFX work — condensing shots, adding signage and so on. It’s the first time I’ve had so many VFX like that, and it was a revelation to me.
Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did it at Light Iron with Corinne Bogdanowicz, and I’m always very involved with the DP in getting the look right. We went a little bit too far at one point in getting the right look and had to pull some color and contrast, but I’m very pleased with the final look.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did. The film came together very quickly, but the shaping took a long time in the end.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.