HELL OR HIGH WATER
Director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan share seven secrets behind Hell Or High Water’s success
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).