David Mackenzie has been making films since 1994. He directed a string of lauded shorts which lead to his debut feature film, The Last Great Wilderness, bowing at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival. The Scottish native has since delivered nine feature films, bucking expectations at every turn. With a vast and varied range of influences and styles, Mackenzie hasn’t always enjoyed the critical success afforded him from his early work. But a recent string of successes – 2014’s universally celebrated Starred Up (which still claims at whopping 99% on Rotten Tomatoes) and Un Certain Regard nominee Hell or High Water (currently standing with an unfettered 100%) – has David Mackenzie back on top.
I spoke with David about bringing Taylor Sheridan’s Black List script to life, having pride in a finished product, new films as a reaction to prior films, the overwhelming positive response to Starred Up and Hell or High Water, letting tape run on Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, his weird director’s cuts and that crusty T-Bone diner waitress who totally steals the scene.
The script from Taylor Sheridan, who also did Sicario last year, was on the Black List in 2012.
David Mackenzie: I read the script as a script. And I didn’t know anything about the history of the film or the script at all, and I just immediately fell in love with it. We were making it a few months later. So, I have no real knowledge of the prehistory of the script, although interestingly the other day, I met a guy who was the very first person to read it. Taylor’s wife – or at that time, girlfriend – was at the gym with this guy, who was a Director of Photography, and said, “Will you please take a read of my boyfriend’s script?” And it was this. To the best of my knowledge, we hardly developed it. I adjusted with Taylor a few things with place and for logic and all of those kinds of things, but we didn’t go through any development process. We just went out and shot it, which was great. It was a very strong script with great material for me to get my teeth into. As a foreigner, there’s a very strong sense of place. There’s some very good characters. Yeah, lots of resonances and DNA, which I could really get very excited by, so I was very happy to have this material.
I’m glad you brought that up, because one of the questions I wanted to ask was with you as a Scottish native, you’re taking on this very distinctly American story. In some regards, it seems as if when we look at new classic American dramas, they’re often told most effectively by outside parties. Take for instance Steve McQueen with 12 Years a Slave. It took a Brit to cut to the heart of the story of American slavery. So, what do you bring as a Scottish native to this distinctly American story?
DM: To be honest, I think with filmmaking you go into the subjects you go into with an open mind and an open heart and you explore them to the best of your ability, whatever nationality you are or whatever your experience is. So, I think it’s not incompatible being a foreigner to make a film of another country. I do think there is a sort of venereal tradition, you know, Europeans in Hollywood in the early days. I look at Roman Polanski’s films that he made in England, and they’re very interesting. He made some films here that were interesting. I think that un-jaundiced fresh eyes are always an interesting thing. I certainly found the area we were filming very beautiful and very evocative. Everything felt very intense to me, so I guess the fact that you’re not taking anything for granted is what gives it an outsider a slight edge over someone who is familiar with things.
My job I suppose was to try to rapidly assimilate or at least absorb the culture we were trying to represent and put it out again, but I’m super pleased that it seems we have achieved that. People say that the film feels like it has a real sense of Americana and obviously the themes that are running thick in American culture right now.
One of those American slice scenes that sticks out most distinctly to me is when Jeff Bridges and his partner Gil Birmingham are at the T-Bone diner and there’s just the saltiest and crustiest waitress of all time. How did you find this lady for this role? Because she’s just perfect.
DM: She’s actually an actress that’s been doing it for a long time. We did an audition and she did a brilliant job. It was pretty straight forward. She lives in Houston and she came out to the set. We have a great location. We shot the scene and it was very straight forward. She did it very well. The test was wonderful. I particularly love the way that Jeff and Gil react to her in the scene with sort of nonplussed looks on their faces when there’s this tough old lady and they just kind of get beaten down by her. It was obvious when we were making it that it was a really sweet and strong scene. Some people say, “Gosh, how could she be an actress?” But she is an actress. A very good one.
Initially, the film was titled Comancheria, which refers to the regions of the Midwest, West Texas, etc. where the Comanches occupied. This title ties in really nicely with that speech Foster gives at the casino, that wonderful diatribe, which is one of the most revealing parts of the film. Can you talk about where that shift came renaming it ‘Hell or High Water’ and what was its importance?
DM: The French title still is Comancheria. It was a decision made by the distributors in the US films about how to play it. I think people were concerned that Comancheria might sound like a Spanish language movie. Those decisions are made outside of my kind of command as it were, so they did what they had to do.
Business is business, eh? So, I’m sure you don’t want to talk too much more about that then. With the actors that you’re working with here, I don’t think it’s quite hyperbole to say that some of them are giving the best performances of their careers– just phenomenal across the board. As someone who has been working for years and years with actors of all different types and calibers, what is your approach when you are working with such a high caliber cast?
DM: It’s the same approach as I’d do with any actor to be honest. Every relationship with every actor, even the same actor in a different role, is always slightly different. I always call it the dance of intuition. It’s about finding out what the needs of the character and the situation and everything are and being very sensitive and in-tune about those things. Allowing a trusting, creative environment to exist, which I’m very keen on doing, but also allowing the brilliance of the team to come together. I had one actor giving wonderful performances and I’m so happy with that, but it was a very creative set. We were trying to keep as much of the extraneous stuff away. I try to keep the center of the creative hub as alive as possible, and that’s kind of what I’ve learned to do over the years and I’m getting better at it.
When you’re working with someone like Jeff Bridges, who truly is superb in this role – and I’ll admit that his performance caught me off guard because this is what we’ve seen him do before in some regards– doing the down home country, Southern drawl– and yet, his performance is just so rich and so nuanced and so unique. Can you talk about some of the conversations you had with him about this character is particular?
DM: It’s a hard thing to talk about, those conversations, because they’re very personal and they’re about discussing and going backwards and forwards and exploring the material. Excuse me if I sound reluctant to go into the details of those, but it’s sort of an organic process. It’s one that’s kind of personal, but I think Jeff does an amazing job. It was lovely to watch him flourish as an actor in the situation. He had to shoot some of his stuff is sort of in the reverse order. The final scene, which is quite a big standoff, is one of his very, very first scenes. He’s an incredible actor and very creative. There’s a lot of nuance and detail and stuff that just comes out of him that’s magic. For me as the director, seeing some of that magic is extraordinary. His performance is one thing, but everyone else has a really strong performance, too.
DM: I’m very happy to single out Jeff, because he’s really incredible. But it’s really important that everyone– the four leads and all the other characters– gets a hats off to them, too.
What did you find the most challenging to shoot? Either from an emotional perspective or just logistically? I assume the heat must have been somewhat of a factor.
DM: The heat was definitely a factor. Weirdly enough, there were quite a lot of storms and rain in New Mexico when we were shooting. There were just everyday challenges. A lot of the driving was a challenge. We had to make that interesting. It’s quite kind of complicate maneuver. Obviously, the more emotional things– sometimes there’s scenes where not much is going on the surface and you’re looking for things to go underneath it. A challenge is… it’s a good question, but it’s a question that’s really impossible to dispute. Very regularly, you have curve balls sent to you, but we didn’t have that many curveballs thrown at us. We just go on with it and did our best and had a great team. That last scene, which is I think Jeff’s first scene, we had eight pages of dialogue that we had to shoot in a day. That was a definite challenge. Some of the elements of the gunfire and elements of the race issues, you have to be very, very sensitive. The film is trying to sail the line to show these things in an unflinching way, but not in a way that’s glorifying or justifying or whatever. Just those delicacies were a real challenge.
Speaking about the end of the film, and I’m not interested in spoiling what happens, but there’s a lot of nuance and open-endedness in how the film sails off. We ought to credit you for trusting your audience and not spoonfeeding them there. Can you talk about that relationship? Having trust in the intelligence of your audience?
DM: Well, I think it’s really important. Someone described the end as this kind of badass draw, but it’s really important that you don’t have full closure for that film. That’s why with the shot that’s going into the grass, you just kind of let the grass do what it does. It just feels like all those themes are open questions and if the film tried to tie it up into some moral tight bow, it would just undermine the game of the film in a way. It’s very important that we keep it open ended to some extent, so we know that that is not the last encounter they will have. We just have to let it play out. Talking about trusting the audience, one of the things that was very interesting was challenging about the film actually was it doesn’t give you a lot of information in sort of a spoon fed way of the early points, so you’re kind of having to readjust your perspective on the characters as you’re going through the narrative. As things unfold, that is about trusting the audience. It’s a difficult one to know whether the audience is going to go with it or not. That was a real challenge to give away little and change your perspective, so you’re not allowed to make too many rapid judgments on the characters, which I hope we’ve achieved. And then, as you get to know them, you understand their motivation more and you understand the things beneath the surface that are things you’ve thought were someone else. That feels really exciting in filmmaking. I don’t think there’s enough of that kind of filmmaking around.
No, there’s really not.
DM: You have to make Person A and Person B, and clarify things. It’s fun not to do that. Not fun, but very important not to do that.
Absolutely. I think it’s pretty obvious that this is a film where the curtains draw and you’re not just walking out of the theater going, “Oh. So that’s that.” Rather, this really provokes conversation and a lot of different kinds of conversation? What kinds of conversations are you hoping people have on the drive home or a day or two later?
DM: I don’t want to deflect that question, but I sort of don’t really want to tell the audience what to think. I want the film to do that work for them. I do think the film is trying it’s hardest to be a little snapshot of contemporary America. I’m not an American as much as I love being here, so with a lot of help from Taylor’s great script, we’re trying to go, “Here we are. Have a look at that. Is that where we want to be?” Hopefully to provoke some thought. It’s not for me to guide what that thought is. Hopefully, the film is that conversation or the start of that conversation. What the audience does after that is in the hands of the audience.
Why do you think it’s important to make a film that provokes conversation?
DM: I think it’s a political time at the moment. I think the film is political, but it’s not party political. I think sometimes a film needs to be more than just entertainment. This film is entertaining, that’s what I love about it. It’s got some of the usual things you might expect in the genre, but it also has a lot of space, a lot of science, and also a lot of humor. Hopefully, it is entertaining, but also it’s more than that. That’s the best I could hope for.
Unfortunately it seems like something of a rarity that we see that in the theaters– anything that provokes any kind of dense thought, so it’s great to see that. It must be exciting to see the film has received near universal acclaim since it’s debut at TIFF. Just a few years ago, Starred Up was also very highly acclaimed. As someone who has been doing this for years and years, is that something you try not to let that go to your head or do you feel that that overwhelming positive response is a reflection of your maturation as an artist and something that has come with the work you’ve put in?
DM: I certainly try not to let it go to my head. Obviously, it’s nice to see things being well received and that means I guess that the thing’s working. I mean I tend to look at all of the films I’ve done, no matter how well they’ve been received, as my projects. I’m sort of loyal to all of them if you know what I mean. Making Starred Up and being in the process of Starred Up was great and I did feel like we did a really, really good job there. I do feel the same about this. Yeah, I’d like to hope it’s not going to my head. I mean I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do next. How to keep entering into these projects with a pure a heart as possible and then trying to do the best job as possible with the material. To keep on doing that is my ambition I guess.
When you are hunting for new projects, what is the main thing you’re looking for? At this point, are you just reading through a bunch of scripts or is it more you’re looking for a specific story?
DM: I do a bit of writing. It’s looking for something that’s about something– something you can get your teeth into. That depends on where you are. I’ve had a lot of conversations and the next film you do is a reaction to the last film you’ve done. Starred Up was set in a very extreme prison environment. We only went outside three times in the film if you know what I mean. Hell or High Water is set in this vast, empty desert with all this empty landscape. So, the desire to spread out like that, it’s definitely connected to what’s happening in the previous film. I haven’t quite worked out what I want to react to in this film.
DM: Yeah, I kind of call myself out. I didn’t think that was what I did, but then I went through the history of what I’d done and I realized almost all of them have been reactions to the previous film. I guess it makes sense. I don’t like the idea of making the same film twice. Thematically, I want to move to a different place and learn about that and burrow down into whatever new world that it is. That feels like an exciting thing for a director to do.
With that acclaim also comes a little more options. For instance, in your last film you worked with Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend, and all of them are absolutely phenomenal in Starred Up. Now, we have this. Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges are all phenomenal. Do you now have more “famous” actors coming up to you and saying they want to work with you and trying to collaborate with you on a project?
DM: I feel like there may be more options. I haven’t really fully felt that yet. I mean the film is still sort of early days in terms of coming out, but if more options come along, that’s a great thing as long as it doesn’t get too confusing about which option to take. In terms of the idea of maturation as an artist or a filmmaker, it’s great to be able to move forward knowing that you can build on what you’ve done before and that body of work, whatever it is, is helping other people understand who you are and the way to engage with you.
If you were to single out one component of the film that you think is just your greatest accomplishment, what would that be?
DM: Well, it is to be able to create the whole out of the many themes and tones and characters and shapes that there are in this movie. To harness them all together and keep them juggled and keep them fluid and hitting in the right way is I think one of the greatest achievements. I do have to shout out to two of my longterm collaborators, Jake Roberts, who is my editor with me on five films, and Giles Nuttgens, my D.P. on five films. Different films. In their own way, they both very much helped me on that process. Jake and I had a long edit, and I mean we had great material, but it was all about just getting that shape right, so I guess it’s the whole film.
When working with your editor, is there much that was left on the cutting room floor with this?
DM: Oh, there’s tons on the cutting room floor. One of the things is… we had to drive from one place to another, it was a three hour drive, and Jeff and Gil were firing so well together, so we did little pickup scenes for narrative purposes that weren’t scripted. So, we gave them a few ideas with that and then I just let them run. We shot about an hour of improvised dialogue. It was very informative and really beautiful. I almost feel like we should do a little featurette of their stuff. Some of the stuff I didn’t use was very slow and probably only has limited appeal to some people.
Good stuff for the Blu-Ray.
DM: There’s lot of extra bits and pieces. We got to where we got to, and I think where we got to was very much the right place in terms of keeping all the paces going. We’ve got moments where it slows down a lot and you don’t want to slow down so much that you end up going in another direction, so just getting all those things right. So, yeah, I haven’t worked out what’s going to be on the DVD extras yet, I’m sure there will be scenes.
Was there anything that you were fighting for to remain in the movie that did not or did you guys come to a pretty clear consensus on what needed to be ousted throughout?
DM: I’m more of the one trying to get rid of stuff.
That’s unusual for a director.
DM: As a director, usually my director’s cuts are shorter than the other cuts. Because I’m really keen on page. There wasn’t a time where a conclusion wasn’t reached together, so yeah, no. With Jake and I, it’s not really a fighting thing, it’s kind of an intuitive thing.
When you have long standing collaborations like that, there’s obviously some kind of shorthand developed. Do you feel that that ever inhibits the range of what you’re doing? Do you feel the need to switch D.P.s to get a different look or do those gears just shift very naturally?
DM: My last film was shot by Michael McDonough and this was shot by Giles Nuttgens, and they are different beasts as a result of the people you collaborate with. But having shorthand is great. And working with collaborators the second, third, fourth time, etc. is a really good thing. Jake’s very successful and I probably won’t get a chance to work with him next time, because he’ll be busy on something else. You know what I mean? Of course you end up with a different set of collaborators, but particularly in those two roles, I’m keen on working with people I’ve worked with before, just because you do get the shorthand. You do get a sort of easiness of communication. To some extent, there’s the element of having to train the people you’re with to do it your way. If that’s already kind of happened and you’ve already learned each other’s ways, you can shortcut that.
I assume that’s especially beneficial on an independent movie such as this where you’re working with a constricted budget, you only had so many days to shoot things, etc., etc.
DM: Absolutely, yes. In our particular case, because of Chris Pine’s schedule, we had a very short prep period and a short shoot period, so we had to come together as a team very quickly.
How long did you shoot the film in?
DM: It was a seven week shoot.
That’s still somewhat substantial for a film of this nature.
DM: Yeah, I mean sometimes it’s four weeks for a film like this. I mean we got it done and it was fine. The challenging part was that we had two and a half weeks with Chris and that was work. We had a different energy shooting that. Which I think actually helped. When we focused on the two adult brothers very intensely to begin with and then we were able to get a bit more time with the lawmen and the other side. I think the second shoot felt almost luxurious with time. The first half of the shoot definitely didn’t.