'The Fault Lines of America': David Mackenzie Talks 'Hell or High Water'

Director David Mackenzie and actor Ben Foster on the shoot of Hell or High Water.
VVS Films.
The studios are bringing out the big guns this summer, but all their tent poles seem to be backfiring. Hell or High Water, however, hits theatres after premiering in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes earlier this year and offers a fresh alternative to summer fair with its rugged tale of outlaws and lawmen played by Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Gil Birmingham. This smart and exhilarating picture directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) ruminates on a contemporary USA in which the landscape looks much greyer than it did in the pioneering days. The film envisions a gritty, hardened America through resonant themes and authentic performances, which are note perfect from Bridges’ award-calibre turn as an aging sheriff to the smallest parts of the ensemble cast.

Cinemablographer recently joined Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie for an interview via Skype and chatted about genre, performances, classic movies, and the fault lines that run beneath America and, in turn, the film.
PM: Pat Mullen
DM: David Mackenzie

PM: Hell or High Water really revitalizes the western. What can fans of the genre expect?

DM: I think it’s a modern western in many ways. Most of the horses are replaced by cars and trucks, and it’s happening in a contemporary landscape, but the themes of the film of very much of prthe western genre. However, it’s not exclusively a western. I like to think of it as a road movie and a tale of brotherhood and family. I think in amongst all the genre workings, it’s a serious picture about contemporary America and the fault lines that are running through it, particularly the Midwest. There’s a quite a lot of humour in it as well.
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in Hell or High Water.
VVS Films
PM: Yes, I was really surprised by the humour! And since westerns are such a profoundly American genre with themes of expansion, and Hell or High Water looks at the nation in a time of crisis, what was it like approaching the genre and story from the perspective of someone from the UK?

DM: It was not really a problem. The theme of the film is that new Americans have been in this land for a hundred and fifty years and the Native Americans have had an enormous time in that area before them, particularly the Comanche. Being a very new American, it wasn’t really a problem for me. If anything, I could look at the locations with an unjaundiced eye and look at that material as openly and honestly as one could. I wasn’t trying to be an outsider, but more like an insider and becoming one in a very short space of time.

It’s interesting that you talk about most westerns being about expansion, but this film is really about recession. It’s about the opposite of that and it’s the reverse of the western. There’s not much pioneering going on in this film.

PM: Yes, I really like how it’s very much about the breakdown of the country. Now, you’ve said previously that you only imagined Jeff Bridges to play Marcus? Why is that?

DM: I think Jeff is just a great actor. I’ve admired so many of his films for a long period of time. It was great to have him. The way a cast just comes together like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s impossible to imagine anybody else from even one person who has just one line. Casting was very important for me because the film was going to live or die depending on whether the characters felt authentic, like they represented that world.

PM: I really like authenticity of the supporting cast, especially the woman in the steak house. She’s a highlight of the film.

DM: [Laughs] Yes.

PM: Where did you find the actors to play the townspeople? Are they all professional, or is there a mix? Because they all seem so ‘slice of life.’

DM: Yes. Margaret [Bowman], the woman in the steak house, is an old pro, and a lot are character actors and theatre actors from the area. Most of them have just one day’s work, so they have to join a world and create really strong characters, and do a major scene and then and go home again. That’s a real challenge for an actor—to stop in, do something quickly, and  have the confidence to do something amazing. It was great working with Margaret. All of them, really. They’re very authentic.

PM: I like the relationships in the film, like the way the pairing of Chris Pine and Ben Foster really complements Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as the police. How did you work with the actors to develop such natural relationships with the characters? Did you work with them in pairs, or…

DM: We almost shot completely one and then the other. We did the outlaws first. We had two and a half weeks to shoot Chris and Ben at the beginning since Chris was going off to do Star Trek. On the very last day of shooting with Chris, we shot the last scene of the film with Chris and Jeff, which was Jeff’s first scene of the film. Then we spent the rest of the time shooting the lawmen. I’m really glad it happened that way. It wasn’t by design because of Chris’s availability. If he had been available, we probably would have checkerboarded it with the same locations instead of having to go back twice. It was great to have a completely different atmosphere on set with the outlaws and change the atmosphere for the lawmen. It really helped the energy since we had to do it quickly.
David Mackenzie on location with Chris Pine.
VVS Films

PM: The use of long takes really emphasises the strength of the performances, and is very effective pensive theme. What inspired that?

DM: In general, I think if you can get through a scene engagingly without a cut, it’s interesting to try. Sometimes you need to dynamise a scene with energy and all that. For actors doing scenes in masters in which they know they’re engaged in, it brings a different body language and allows them to get into the scene more. It’s just part of the MO.

PM: What about the score? How did Nick Cave and Warren Ellis come on board?

DM: My editor, Jake Roberts, and myself have been fans for their work for quite a while. We started using their music as a temp score in the editing. I didn’t want a composer on board because I didn’t quite know what the film was then. It just became obvious that their sound was really working and we just asked them if they wanted to do it. I had a very positive experience to them.

PM: They really bring out something unique in the film, especially with the songs.

DM: Thanks.

PM: Hell or High Water almost feels like it continues a conversation that No Country for Old Men began right before the economic collapse. Was that film in your mind while shooting Hell or High Water?

DM: Not really, no. I’m an admirer of that film. The films that I had more in mind were the films of the 1970s, particularly films that Jeff Bridges was in in the 1970s—Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Fat City, LastPicture Show—those kind of films. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot especially as it’s set in the Midwest with people on the run. They have very human stories and I was trying to tap into that kind of 70s American cinema humanity that I love. The Ashbys, the Altmans, and, you know, Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel. Those are the sort of films that I was trying to channel in a way. I generally don’t watch films while I’m making one. I only film that I did watch was Hud because my production designer gave it to me and I hadn’t seen it.

PM: Oh, Hud? That’s a good one. Interesting.

DM: I guess some of that might have filtered in my kind of sense of it. But I do like No Country for Old Men.

PM: I like the point that you draw upon some of Jeff Bridges earlier films, too. It really plays well with Marcus’s age because he’s nearing retirement and he’s looking at an aging country that he doesn’t understand anymore. I think America’s at that redefinition point with the election coming up. How might audiences see Hell or High Water in the age of Donald Trump’s America?

DM: I think it’s a very political film, but I think it’s very consciously trying to avoid being ‘party political.’ I don’t want to alienate one side of the country in favour of the other. I think the film has universal resonances that will be worth something to both sides of the political spectrum. I really hope that the narrative conversation people will draw out how many themes of the film are the themes and fault lines running throughout contemporary America. There are elements of race, guns, the banks, family, land, oil, and that sense of dispossession that even the good guys have is something to which people can relate nowadays.
Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water.
VVS Films
PM: The idea of it being non-partisan works very well with the fact that there aren’t necessarily any clear bad guys. Everyone is very grey.

DM: As a filmmaker, I’m always interested in characters who are shaded. I think we somewhat simplified the version of what a hero is in some contemporary movies, but dealing with people who are more anti-heroic or mixed feels much more real to me and more honest.

PM: You also mentioned gun violence. The violence of the film is very visceral and powerful. Why is it important to make the film sting as much as it does when gun violence continues to be such a controversial topic in the USA?

DM: The important thing for me was that, since violence is one of the elements of the story, that I did it in that was as honest a way as possible and that we represented this brutal violence in a messy, non-glamorised, non-balletic way, but in a way that felt appropriate. I aimed for that target and I hope I got reasonably close to it.

PM: Yes, I think you did.
Chris Pine in Hell or High Water.
VVS Films.

DM: As a Brit, we don’t really have a gun culture. We’ve had one sort of Columbine-type event, but it’s mostly hangers on the street. It’s a totally different world to me. You’re a Canadian, right? So you don’t have the same kind of issues as America?

PM: Ya, it’s something here that we’re always noting. I don’t understand how you can drive a few hours, cross a border, and enter such a different, violent world. I think the film really speaks to that.

DM: I was very nervous about some of the bigger set pieces and we had to represent that in a way that doesn’t glamorise it. Gun violence isn’t a culture I’m familiar with and we treaded as carefully as possible.

My editor Jake Roberts did a great job and we’ve worked together on several films. We cut this together quite quickly for the wrap party and then spent more time honing it. Giles Nuttgens, my director of photography, was also something I was able to bring from the UK, so really, three Brits are at the centre of this very American film. Giles and I worked on five films and he really harnessed the light of that summer in the Midwest. That landscape is expressed in a really beautiful way.

PM: Was it something you had in mind going in, to make the land such a central character? It’s quite beautiful in the film.

DM: It’s kind of irresistible. [Laughs.] Tom Duffield, my production designer, only built one small thing—one room in the family ranch house because it was so small. The rest of it was all locations, so the choices of locations reflect that world too. The art department was a great asset to the film too.
When you’re not used to being there, it’s so vast and beautiful. You can feel the depression and the haunting character, but the space is really something you’re drawn to.

Hell or High Water opens in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver on  August 19 from VVS Films.
It expands across Canada August 26.