John Hill­coat was de­ter­mined to in­ject re­al­ism into his star-stud­ded crime thriller Triple 9, the Aus­tralian di­rec­tor tells Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Triple 9 David Strat­ton

Aus­tralian di­rec­tor John Hill­coat has made a num­ber of ag­gres­sive, mas­cu­line films since emerg­ing from the mu­sic video boom of the 1990s. His first fea­ture, Ghosts … of the Civil Dead, co-writ­ten with Nick Cave and a Bad Seed, Hugo Race, in 1988, es­tab­lished his style. It was based on a true story of the hard men in a vi­o­lent max­i­mum se­cu­rity prison.

Hill­coat’s lat­est film, Triple 9, is far more slick but no less bru­tal. “Well, I wanted to make some­thing that had a bit of adrenalin to it,” he says, with a hint of un­der­state­ment.

Triple 9 is a mod­ern heist film fea­tur­ing an ap­peal­ing en­sem­ble in­clud­ing Kate Winslet, Chi­we­tel Ejio­for, Casey Af­fleck, An­thony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Nor­man Ree­dus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Wil­liams, Gal Gadot and Woody Har­rel­son.

It re­vis­its some of Hill­coat’s the­matic touch points from his pre­vi­ous fea­tures The Road, The Propo­si­tion and Lawless — the ni­hilism of greed and vi­o­lence among men — while also adding some ten­sion and verve to the crime film genre.

Yet Triple 9 also hits the marks of the heist film in fol­low­ing a gang of crooked cops (led by Ejio­for’s Michael) that is forced into the stereo­typ­i­cal “one last job” af­ter be­ing black­mailed by Rus­sian mob­sters.

The film be­gins with a sear­ing ac­tion scene and barely lets up. Even the di­rec­tor — who made his name in the 90s di­rect­ing mu­sic videos for Crowded House, Elvis Costello and Depeche Mode — agrees the film is tough and tense. “Re­ally that’s just to re­flect that world with the ten­sion and adrenalin [re­quired] if you’re mak­ing a con­tem­po­rary crime film,” he says. “I think for crim­i­nals th­ese days, the stakes are so much higher.”

The film, writ­ten by first-time screen­writer Matt Cook, is set in At­lanta, a city where the Rus­sian crime syn­di­cate stands over a num­ber of crime sub­sets. Hill­coat wanted to “make a con­tem­po­rary crime thriller that re­flected the new ter­rain out there” and Cook’s screen­play was it. The ex­pat notes a num­ber of fac­tors have com­bined to “raise the stakes” in that new ter­rain of glob­alised crime.

In the US, many for­mer mil­i­tary per­son­nel move to the po­lice force and the two or­gan­i­sa­tions have ef­fec­tively joined forces any­way, with po­lice lift­ing their ca­pac­ity with their own tanks, stronger weapons and SWAT teams to quell lo­cal dis­tur­bances.

“They’ve all cranked the knob right up,” Hill­coat notes. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Rus­sians have be­gun to dom­i­nate crime in var­i­ous parts of the world.

“No one can com­pete with the Rus­sian Jewish mafia, they’re the new un­touch­ables,” Hill­coat says. “The last group that got the high­est up the chain was the Ital­ian Mafia in Amer­ica.”

The wealth Rus­sian gangs ac­cu­mu­lated through cor­rup­tion co­in­cided with political in­sta­bil­ity in parts of Europe, the Middle East, Latin Amer­ica and Africa, where sol­diers, paramil­i­taries, KGB, se­cret ser­vice and those kinds of “cops” have sud­denly been un­em­ployed or had their roles change.

Drug car­tels in Latin Amer­ica, for in­stance, have caught for­mer para­mil­i­tary troops in their web, which has af­fected the streets of Amer­ica where African Amer­i­can gangs have backed off. They don’t mess with the Latino car­tels that use fright­en­ing ter­ror tac­tics to pro­tect their drug net­works.

“This is all go­ing on, with the Rus­sians on the high end, in Amer­ica,” Hill­coat says.

“Even though this is very much a genre film and a height­ened drama, it’s all based on what’s re­ally go­ing on out there. We wanted to add re­al­ism to a genre that I feel has lost a lot of its re­al­ism. When it comes to ac­tion and cop films, I still hark back to the en­ergy of The French Con­nec­tion and those kind of films that had a re­al­ism to it.”

He adds he had been “try­ing to find a con­tem­po­rary crime thriller that had sur­prises in it” due to the paint-by-num­bers ap­proach to mod­ern crime films. Hill­coat ob­serves screen­plays with “adrenalin and sus­pense and ten­sion and un­ex­pected twists and turns are hard to come across”.

That hints, per­haps, at why his two most re­cent crime films, The Propo­si­tion and Lawless, were pe­riod pieces.

The twist in Triple 9 comes from its ti­tle. Cook, a for­mer mil­i­tary man, heard from mates about the po­lice force’s so-called triple 9 code. The code dic­tates all po­lice must drop what they’re do­ing and re­spond to the call, no ques­tions asked, be­cause an of­fi­cer is down. Cook be­gan writ­ing his screen­play about it while serv­ing in Iraq.

Hill­coat was in­trigued by the moral dilemma in Cook’s screen­play: a bunch of cor­rupt cops plot­ting to kill one of their own as a dis­trac­tion for their own heist. Apart from be­ing plain wrong, he says, “it goes against all their train­ing, their whole be­ing as cops”.

Triple 9 also goes against type in cast­ing stars such as Winslet and Af­fleck. Winslet is a par­tic­u­lar sur­prise (in a film that def­i­nitely fails the Bechdel test) as Irina Vlaslov, who is dressed to the nines — and tens — as a gauche and cal­cu­lat­ing Rus­sian-Is­raeli mob wife.

Hill­coat notes of his broad cast: “A lot of them hadn’t done this sort of thing be­fore.

“Kate has never played a vil­lain be­fore and Casey Af­fleck hasn’t played that driven, man of ac­tion thing, and also Chi­we­tel Ejio­for as the cor­rupt leader is not his type, so all of them were very ex­cited about stretch­ing their tal­ents.”

Main­tain­ing the film’s ten­sion dur­ing the shoot was an ex­act­ing task, the di­rec­tor adds. “With eight main char­ac­ters, it’s very chal­leng­ing to get the right bal­ance and main­tain the shoot. I had very ded­i­cated ac­tors that put a lot of re­search in and I love re­search my­self, so it’s some­thing I share with ac­tors. Which is why I per­haps can get on so well with so many.”

His lead­ing cast mem­bers threw them­selves into the re­search. Ejio­for, who re­cently starred in The Mar­tian af­ter earn­ing an Academy Award nom­i­na­tion for 12 Years a Slave, spent months train­ing as a US Navy SEAL to learn the body lan­guage and at­ti­tude of a trained killer, while Af­fleck was as­signed a po­lice­man to fol­low and did “ride-alongs” with the At­lanta force’s gang units.

That re­search pleased a di­rec­tor who had faced a hard enough time as­sem­bling his en­sem­ble in “an in­cred­i­ble jug­gling act”.

A num­ber of stars in­clud­ing Shia LaBeouf, Char­lie Hun­nam, Christoph Waltz and Cate Blanchett, as well as Hill­coat’s friend Cave, were at­tached to the pro­ject at var­i­ous times. Hill­coat had been work­ing on the pro­ject since be­fore his 2012 film, Lawless.

“They’re just re­ally qual­ity, ded­i­cated ac­tors that work all the time so just find­ing the win­dow in the sched­ule was hard,” he says. “It nearly came to­gether be­fore Lawless and again with the jug­gling didn’t quite work out, and it took a cou­ple of years to fi­nally get all those pieces aligned. So yes, it was quite ex­haust­ing but ex­cit­ing that they all wanted to work with each other. It was bril­liant to be work­ing with them all,” he adds.

As for Hill­coat’s fu­ture work, he’s look­ing to­wards home. Ar­guably his pe­riod western set in the Aus­tralian out­back, The Propo­si­tion, is his most ac­com­plished film. He re­veals he is work­ing on an­other Aus­tralian pro­ject.

“That is some­thing I do want to do and get out to the land­scape of Aus­tralia,” he says.

“I still feel very strongly about it; it’s such a pow­er­ful force.”

is open na­tion­ally.

re­views Triple 9 — Page 15


Terri Ab­ney and Aaron Paul in Triple 9, left; John Hill­coat, above

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