Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie: ‘It speaks to the zeitgeist of modern America’
Director David Mackenzie had a joyous experience directing Hell or High Water, now 2016’s most successful indie film
David Mackenzie: “I used to regard genres as being embedded in clichés, and I always felt funny about the need we have to label things.” Photograph: HARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images
He may not have an American accent but, upon meeting David Mackenzie, you might hazard a guess that he directs movies for a living. Speaking in the same rat-a-tat rhythms we’ve come to know and love from Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, the Scottish filmmaker rattles through answers and ideas.
Perhaps that’s why he is such a hard man to pin down. Casting an eye across his screen credits – the post-Dogme horror-comedy-road-trip The Last Great Wilderness (2002), the surreal nihilistic murder-mystery Young Adam (2003), the heightened psychiatric melodrama Asylum (2005), the gigolo-comedy Spread (2009) – one would be hard pushed to pigeonhole Mackenzie’s output.
“I really don’t want to make the same film twice,” explains the Scottish filmmaker. “So I am conscious of going after material that is significantly different to anything I’ve done before. One of the things that’s great about being a filmmaker is that it does give you the opportunity to get to know worlds that are completely outside of what is familiar.”
In this spirit, it was love at first read when Mackenzie received the screenplay for Hell or High Water from Sicario scribe and erstwhile star of Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy, Taylor Sheridan.
“As I get older, I’m looking more and more for films that are actually about something rather than just narrative vehicles,” says Mackenzie. “When a script like that comes through your door, it’s a rare event. Here is something with all these flavours. It speaks to economic realities. It speaks to the zeitgeist of modern America. It has a really strong sense of place and characters.”
There’s been a great deal of industry chatter around Hell or High Water. The neo-western, which stands at 98 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and which has just overtaken Love & Friendship to become 2016’s most successful indie film, stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Texan brothers out to take back what the bank swindled from their late mother.
Their daring raids on sleepy small-town branches bring them to the attentions of Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement, and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
The director shot the outlaw scenes rapidly so that Chris Pine could join the production of Star Trek Beyond. The older stars, meanwhile, enjoyed a more leisurely production.
“I had two-and-a-half weeks with Chris so we shot fast and sequentially, which helps gives those scenes an energy,” says the director. “Then we had four weeks which suits the way Jeff works. He’s really creative. He likes to play around and improvise.”
Mackenzie admits he did, occasionally, have to pinch himself in the presence of The Dude. “He’s such a nice guy to work with, you almost forget who he is. I travel light as a director. I don’t have monitors on my set. So at the end of each week, I show the crew what we’ve done and we’ll have a few drinks. And Jeff and Gil would always be there. And the guitars would come out. It was a really joyous experience.”
Rave notices The film premiered to rave notices at the Cannes Film Festival last May. It was only Mackenzie’s second jaunt to the Croisette where Young Adam took its bow more than a decade ago.
Things have changed, he says. “It’s much more nerve-wracking now,” he says. “It was nice to be back but it’s terrifying now because of Twitter. Bad reactions from Cannes can finish a film. And now those bad reactions come through as soon as the press screening is over. When reactions were positive it was such a relief.”
Hell or High Water is dedicated to the filmmaker’s parents, both of whom have died in the past year. His late father, Rear-Admiral John Mackenzie, was, he admits, somewhat perplexed when David and his actor brother, Alistair Mackenzie (star of Monarch of the Glen), went into the arts.
“I did have a great aunt who was a sculptress in the 30s and 40s,” he explains. “But my father was very much a naval man and he was quite confused by our career choices.”
A keen photographer, Mackenzie trained at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, and took a job in a rep cinema, where he binged on canonical films.
“I had this revelation when I watched 2001, Alphaville, Stranger Than Paradise, Koyaanisqatsi, and Caravaggio all in the same week,” he recalls. “Each of them blew my mind.”
That sounds like an exhausting week.
“Yes. Especially when you consider I saw Stranger Than Paradise four times.”
Mackenzie remains suspicious of genre but he’s happy for Hell or High Water to be considered as “. . . a kind of western even if it isn’t historically so”. Looking at his most recent run of films – including Perfect Sense, which is almost science-fiction, and Starred Up, which looks awfully like a classic prison flick – has his position on genre softened?
“I used to regard genres as being embedded in clichés, and I always felt funny about the need we have to label things. But I’m happy to think of Starred Up as a prison drama, although we tried to smuggle in some elements of family drama in there.”
Mackenzie is developing James Ellroy’s Gemstone for TV alongside fellow Scot Richard Brown, executive producer of HBO’s True Detective. He’s also working on Damnation, an epic saga of Iowa farmers and 1930s strike-breakers, for the USA Network. Still, he won’t be quitting his day-job any time soon.
“I’m really excited about it, obviously,” he says. “And I know all about this idea of the golden age of television. I get it. But I don’t think great TV is a substitute for great cinema. There is no substitute.”