“No wonder my kids don’t wanna do this shit for a living,” croaks a nameless cowboy to two Texas Rangers as he drives a herd of cattle away from a brush fire, as the sky over the rangeland turns black with acrid smoke. It’s one of many moments in Hell Or High Water that seem narratively extraneous on their own, but combined furnish a terrific neo-Western backdrop for the movie’s fascination with outlawry and the cyclical nature of the West: plots fought for in the wilderness only to be abandoned; lands stolen again and again; a rugged landscape inviting its own destruction with promises of oil.
Made with humor and plenty of style, this yarn about two bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) and the two lawmen (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) who pursue them marks the highest profile American release to date for Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Starred Up). With a colorful screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), the film shows the scope of Mackenzie’s talent for directing performances and staging unobtrusive long takes, while displaying a newfound knack for efficient, involving action. Simply put, it’s one of the best (and most) American films to hit theaters this year.
Mackenzie spoke to The A.V. Club over Skype a week before the film’s release.
The A.V. Club: Hell Or High Water is more of a straight genre film than anything you’ve done.
David Mackenzie: I don’t think it’s a genre film. I think there’s some genre elements to it. A lot of people seem to say that this film is a modern Western and yeah, of course, it’s got cowboys and it’s got the space of a Western and the standoffs of a Western. But to me it’s equally a road movie—a buddy bank-robbery movie. I always find it kind of hard when one has to categorize your own film in one particular thing. I hope there’s some kind of picture of contemporary rural American life in it.
AVC: Did you feel confident making a movie about West Texas?
DM: I was really excited about it. I spent a little bit of time in West Texas a few years back and was really impressed by it. I really liked the people there. They were really kind to me. Obviously, the landscape is a landscape of self-reliance. There’s a unique spirit that I thought was really strong and it left an impression. And weirdly, it slightly reminded of Scotland. Which doesn’t surprise me, because I think there are plenty of people of Scots origin in Texas. I was impressed by the place. And then this script came along and it was a real opportunity to tap into some of those things I had only gotten a glimpse of.
AVC: Earlier in your career, you wrote your own scripts.
DM: This script didn’t really go through a development process. The development process was Taylor [Sheridan] putting it out in the world. We didn’t touch it until we were doing in it. I’m writing at the moment, but when you get an opportunity to work with very rich voices who know a lot about their subject, it’s a good and great opportunity to take.
AVC: You like to use long takes. When it’s somebody else’s script, how do you decide what’s going to be one take?
DM: Well, you’re just trying to find how you can best represent the scene. Sometimes, you can get more tension by not cutting. You’re holding on to the audience. I mean, there’s a scene in the middle of the film where there’s a fairly vicious fight. And I thought of it as a kind of tableau, with this other stuff going on: It kicks off and it’s a surprise, arrivals and exits and that sort of thing. I just thought it would make really good, interesting cinema to do it in one shot.
Sometimes you need cutting rhythms, you need that energy. I mean, you can do that [Andrei] Tarkovsky filmmaking where you have 28 cuts in a film. You can even have zero cuts in a film; I’m impressed by that stuff when I see it. But it takes a certain amount of energy and distraction to make those things work.
You need to strike a balance with a film with as many rich themes as this. You need to have moment where you’re [filming in long take] for the advantage of the scene, and there are moments when you need to use other tools to your advantage. I think that’s my approach: If it feels right for a scene to be whole, to hold on without cutting for a long time, then that’s great. But other scenes, they don’t want it.
AVC: When do you make that decision?
DM: The way I generally work is that I do try to leave as many decisions as I possibly can to the day of, because it feels like that’s where you’re most in tune to what’s going on. I sort of feel like my job is to be a conduit to opportunities, to maximize the creativity of the day itself—because that’s when the cameras are running. That’s the important thing to me. Some of these shots you need to think about it advance; you need to have some ideas for them. And some of them are things where you just go, “Well, let’s try that.” As I get more confident as a filmmaker, I don’t need to prepare so much in advance. I can trust that I and my team can come up with a solution.
AVC: You did a movie a few years ago called Tonight You’re Mine, which you shot in just a few days.
DM: Shot in four and a half days. We shot a 90-plus minute romantic comedy in a live environment with 80,000 drunk Scotsmen, and it was fucking chaos. But it was a really good experience, to have to find your way through it and think on your feet and just do whatever you could do. It’s one of my favorite filmmaking experiences. The film didn’t do well; certainly in the U.K. it was not well reviewed at all. But I’m proud of all my films. I know I learned so many lessons from that, that I brought into Starred Up and I brought into this film.
AVC: I assume Tonight You’re Mine would have required striking a balance between rehearsing and improvising.
DM: Well, we would say, “Abandon script!” You had to let go of whatever you were doing. The actors were in character almost the entire time and didn’t know if the cameras were running or not, and we were in this totally uncontrollable environment.
AVC: Did you rehearse Hell Or High Water?
DM: Not desperately. I think I had about a day and half with each of the two teams. Some of it was just going through the script and trying things and feeling your way through a voice. Again, I learned over the years that the less you rehearse, often the better. We had a very short prep period.
AVC: Wait, “two teams”...
DM: I had two and half weeks to shoot with Chris Pine before he went off to another movie. And were able to shoot that almost entirely in sequence, so that the opening shot of the film was the first scene we shot. Which I also did with Starred Up. So for the first two and a half weeks on this, we were mostly in narrative order, which gives everyone a chance to get to understand [the characters]. But the intensity of having to shoot that fast with everything that was going on also added to some of the flavor. And Chris and Ben [Foster] are pals. We’re a tight family. We were sort of living it. It was a great, thrilling two and half weeks sighting with eyeballs.
AVC: Wait, wait. You’re saying everything with Chris Pine—which is the better part of the movie—you did in just two and a half weeks?
DM: I don’t think Chris had ever experienced anything like that. The way I work, I don’t have a script supervisor, I don’t have a clapperboard, I don’t have monitors on set. So it’s all quite free. I think Chris and Ben did really lovely performances and I feel like that freedom is part of what gives them an edge.
AVC: Monitors have become ubiquitous, but some directors have a thing against them.
DM: Yeah, I don’t really want a whole bunch of people sitting around a TV screen doing not much else. I think it’s a huge waste of time and resources.
AVC: So, help me imagine this environment. Were these standard shooting days?
DM: I don’t like to do more than 10 hours a day. And it was hot, and there were challenges with the cars—a lot of car stuff you can’t really control so well. We did six-day weeks because we had to squeeze in everything we could with Chris. And it eased off, because we had the lawmen and you can see it in the film—they’re a bit slower and they’ve got more time to talk. It’s less frenetic. It was very fortunate to divide the filming into those two sections: You had one frenetic half and one that’s more stately, more relaxed. We had four and a half weeks to shoot that stuff, which was a very reasonable time to do it.
AVC: It is a different pace with the Rangers. With the brothers, there’s so much action and movement—do you feel it was better to shoot that quickly?
DM: I didn’t have a choice, but I think it was for the better. I like the energy of doing things fast. We shot Starred Up in just four weeks and we edited it in four weeks. It was a product of that environment, and this is a product of this one.
AVC: Where did you film?
DM: In New Mexico. Obviously it’s set in Texas, but there are financial incentives to film in New Mexico and there aren’t in Texas at the moment, which is a shame. But we scouted a lot in Texas and tried to replicate that in New Mexico, mainly around a place called Clovis, which is just a few miles from the Texas border.
AVC: Were you mostly finding locations?
DM: There were no builds. The biggest thing we had to augment was the brothers’ ranch, because the building was an empty shell and a little small. The mother’s room was an extension that we built. But that was it; the rest was all locations. The whole point for me was to make something that had a ring of authenticity to it, so it felt right to have to find all these real locations—and there are so many. It was part of my joyous process in a way to try to get under the skin of this place by going and finding real locations that had the qualities we needed.
AVC: We’re talking real places, but did you have any films in mind?
DM: When I first read the script I thought of this great Don Siegel movie called Charley Varrick with [Walter] Matthau, and there’s something about that—the figure in the landscape and “the system.” I also tapped into the 1970s films that I really like. Obviously, there are some ’70s Westerns that are relevant, like the Peckinpah movies, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid in particular. McCabe And Mrs. Miller—those kinds of films. I’m a big fan of the movies of Hal Ashby. That slightly freewheeling, poetic realism of 1970s cinema.
And three films that the young Jeff Bridges was in, which were really part of the landscape for me: Thunderbolt And Lightfoot by Michael Cimino, who’s recently died, which has these two outlaw figures on the run; John Huston’s Fat City, which is one of my very favorite films, and has a real ache and a real soul and fantastic performances; and, of course, The Last Picture Show, which, by the way, is set in Archer City, Texas. Our first bank robbery [in Hell Or High Water] is set in Archer City, so we were kind of able to tap into Jeff’s own career and mythology.
But that’s by virtue of Taylor’s script. I’m not convinced that he was tapping into The Last Picture Show. I never asked him, I think [picking Archer City] was just supposed to be typical small town Texas. Though it was interesting to go to that place and see how little it’s changed in the 45 years since that film was made.
AVC: You’ve shot almost every film in ’scope, but you tend to focus on a very small set of characters.
DM: I just think it’s a nicer frame. When I started making films, all the theaters, the screen would slide open the widest possible point, and that would be widescreen. But now theaters are geared up for around 16:9, so ’scope is now “letterboxed.” In a way, if you want the big picture, you shoot 16:9. But I just think that frame is much nicer—the way you can be playful with the background. The [directors of photography] I’ve worked with feel the same way. And in the wider spaces of that Texas, New Mexico, Comancheria landscape, you’d be crazy not to shoot in widescreen. Though I have to say that, having seen Andrea Arnold’s film American Honey—she shot that in [Academy ratio] not far away from where we were shooting, and she got some amazing stuff out of that.
AVC: You mentioned Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid in passing, which I’m reminded of because of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ Hell Or High Water score.
DM: Part of the experience of getting into this film was about listening to a lot of country music and educating myself a little. I like it a lot, but some of the outlaw country I was less familiar with. And the boys would listen to it before they would go on. It was a really important part of making it, and then in the edit, we started putting these songs in the film. We had, quite early on, a very rich country soundtrack, and we needed to have something that would counter that. My editor and myself are fans of Nick and Warren, so we started putting some of their stuff in as temp score.
I left it open who we were going to use as a composer. There were a few ideas, but I didn’t want to decide until we knew what the film was. And it started really working, so we said, “Excuse me, we’d like to work with these guys.” We had to then show them the film with their own stuff already in there. They didn’t hate us for doing that, and they made the soundtrack. I really love the balance between the score elements and the sourced songs.
AVC: Let’s come back to something we were talking about at the start. Being a Scot, shooting this film about Texas and these characters, how do you do that? Because you’re the one who has to sustain the authenticity for all of these people.
DM: Sustaining authenticity is a very good description of my job. Well done. [Laughs.] That’s certainly how I see it, anyway. It’s about trying our hardest to get to that. But as the film points out, this is a country of comparatively recent immigrants, so I’m part of a line there and the old Americans were thrown off their land by the new Americans, and now the new Americans are being thrown off their land by the corporations. Being an incomer is not necessarily a bad thing. There were things that Giles [Nuttgens], my DP, and I were seeing in the landscape that people in America would feel was normal or unremarkable, but which to us feel special, because we’re not over-familiar with it.