John Hillcoat was determined to inject realism into his star-studded crime thriller Triple 9, the Australian director tells Michael Bodey
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.”
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reviews Triple 9 — Page 15
MAINTAINING THE TENSION WAS AN EXACTING TASK
Terri Abney and Aaron Paul in Triple 9, left; John Hillcoat, above