HELL OR HIGH WA­TER

Di­rec­tor David Macken­zie and writer Taylor Sheri­dan share seven se­crets be­hind Hell Or High Wa­ter’s suc­cess

Empire (Australasia) - - CONTENTS - WORDS PHIL DE SEMLYEN

The di­rec­tor and screen­writer of the neo-western on the seven se­crets of its suc­cess.

1 BUILD­ING CHEM­ISTRY

A four-han­der with Jeff Bridges and Gil Birm­ing­ham as la­conic cops on the trail of bank-rob­bing brothers Chris Pine and Ben Fos­ter, Hell Or High Wa­ter of­fered an im­me­di­ate kind of alchemy that made it stand out as one of the best films of last year. “Usu­ally there are big fights in cast­ing,” says screen­writer Taylor Sheri­dan, “but here it just seemed ob­vi­ous. The chem­istry worked so well, and you care about these char­ac­ters.” Hav­ing the pairs shoot their scenes in two sep­a­rate blocks in New Mex­ico added depth to their dy­nam­ics, ex­plains di­rec­tor David Macken­zie. “The first half was a real adren­a­line ride with the young ones, be­cause we shot so quickly, but we found lots of lovely plea­sures in that sec­ond odd cou­ple.” Bridges and Birm­ing­ham took their gui­tars along to screen­ings of the cut-in-progress and ser­e­naded the cast and crew. “There was a real sense of fam­ily,” re­mem­bers Macken­zie, “and I know that fed into the chem­istry on cam­era.”

2 DODG­ING CLICHÉS

A de­voted cineaste, Macken­zie took in­spi­ra­tion but not di­rect in­flu­ence from films like Charley Var­rick, Thun­der­bolt And Light­foot and Mccabe & Mrs. Miller. “I’m not a fan­boy di­rec­tor,” he stresses. “I’m highly at­tuned to clichés and was quite keen to avoid them.” Each of the film’s bank rob­beries plays out in un­ex­pected ways. Smaller char­ac­ters lend tex­ture in sur­pris­ing stand­out mo­ments, as when a rou­tine diner scene is stolen by Mar­garet Bow­man’s crotch­ety wait­ress. “In the script she’s just ‘Wait­ress’,” says Macken­zie, “but Mar­garet called her Maisie and gave her an enor­mously elab­o­rate back­story.” Sheri­dan lauds the di­rec­tor for not var­nish­ing the film with a Hol­ly­wood gloss. “There’s a lack of sen­ti­men­tal­ity to the way David di­rects,” he stresses, “and that was re­ally im­por­tant for this.”

3 CRANK­ING UP TEN­SION

The stakes are per­ilously high for Pine and Fos­ter’s Howard brothers. Jail, or worse, awaits them if their plan un­rav­els. “There’s a line where some­one says, ‘You don’t do these things and live to spend the money,’” re­calls Macken­zie. One rob­bery ends with the pair dis­cov­er­ing they’re far from the most heav­ily armed cus­tomers in the bank. “It’s an NRA ver­sion of a Western,” laughs the di­rec­tor. “I was wor­ried about sail­ing on the wrong side of poor taste with that one, but while there’s a lot of se­ri­ous things in the film, it was about mak­ing it ex­cit­ing [too].”

4 KEEP­ING IT REAL

De­spite riff­ing on Western tra­di­tions of bank rob­bers and law­men, the story is an­chored in re­lat­able, con­tem­po­rary con­cerns. Poverty and strug­gle are ubiq­ui­tous. “A film has to be about some­thing that mat­ters to me,” stresses Sheri­dan. “This is not a stylised ver­sion of ru­ral Amer­ica; the ex­o­dus [of peo­ple] is a con­stant wher­ever you go.” Sheri­dan’s own Texan up­bring­ing added au­then­tic­ity. “I know these towns so well you could draw a road map from the script.” He lent his lo­cal knowl­edge to a cameo as a cow­boy, too. “I think that clinched the deal,” he laughs.

5 FIND­ING THE FUNNY

Much faster to shoot the shit than their side arms, both rob­bers and cops have a lovely line in playful (and oc­ca­sion­ally not-so-playful) ban­ter. It pro­vides a handy ten­sion-breaker, even in Bridges’ racist slurs against his Mex­i­can part­ner. “It’s an in­ter­est­ing game, that,” ad­mits Macken­zie. “We were sen­si­tive and awk­ward about it when we were do­ing it, but we all agreed we should just con­front it. It felt like it’s part of the world. There’s a lot of hu­mour between Ben and Chris, too.”

6 MAK­ING IT COOK

Macken­zie re­united with his long-stand­ing cin­e­matog­ra­pher Giles Nuttgens to cap­ture the full heat haze of Amer­ica’s South­west. “Most [DPS] like to shoot in magic hour when the light is go­ing down,” says Macken­zie, “but I wanted to go for that ex­treme con­trast, mid­day-sun kind of feel­ing. It seemed like such an im­por­tant part of what this world is.”

7 NAIL­ING THE SCORE

Un­known to Nick Cave and War­ren El­lis — band­mates in the Bad Seeds and Grin­der­man, and fre­quent film com­posers — their scores for West­erns like The Propo­si­tion and Law­less were Macken­zie’s choice of temp mu­sic. Af­ter he’d toyed with us­ing female coun­try vo­cals or no score at all, the so­lu­tion be­came ob­vi­ous. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we ask them?’, re­calls the di­rec­tor. “We sent them a copy, apol­o­gis­ing for hav­ing ap­pro­pri­ated their mu­sic al­ready.” By turns mourn­ful and epic, Cave and El­lis’ “at­mo­spheric with­out be­ing twee” cues of­fer an el­egy to an Old West be­set by mod­ern woes.

HELL OR HIGH WA­TER IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWN­LOAD.

Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tan­ner (Ben Fos­ter).

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