The Modern Western: A Few Minutes with David Mackenzie; director of ‘Hell or High Water’

Posted in Blu-Ray/DVD, Interviews, Movies by - December 13, 2016

Now is that time of year when we all discover the movies that we’ve missed over the course of the year and need to catch up with as awards season kicks up into full gear.

Fresh off of three Golden Globe Nominations this week and now on DVD & Blu-Ray and On Demand, Hell or High Water takes us to the dustbowls of west Texas where people are struggling to survive and the idea of thriving seems like an afterthought with debts and predatory lenders all across the land looking to make a quick dollar.  Enter Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) two very different brothers united in the cause to save their family land from foreclosure by the bank…by robbing branch after branch of the same bank to pay them back with their own money.  Their plot is going well, until their escapades cross the desk of a relentlessly foul mouthed Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) looking for one last moment of glory before then send him out for retirement.

It’s truly a modern western set with a classic feel that hasn’t been seen in films for decades and it demands to be seen.  I got the unique pleasure to sit down with director David Mackenzie to talk about the making of the film and so much more on the storytelling landscape that he explored in this film.



Dave Voigt: Obviously, I love the film.  It is a piece of raw cinematic Americana and I’m wondering not only what drew you to the project because it is really a very small and personal story but told in this big sweeping way?

David Mackenzie: It’s really a hard question to answer because I was attracted to the opportunity and the environment of West Texas itself as I had spent a little time there but I really came to it because I felt this need to make a movie that truly did tap into modern America and explore then themes that really are running through the heartland of America as we speak.  Also to link it back to the DNA of some of the great films of the 1960’s and 70’s which are hands down my favorite American films plus at the same time I had been developing more of this loose directorial style which really does feel more that chimes in a very Altmanesque where we have these characters who truly have a deep love humanity and there they finding that through some realistic situations and to me that is really the joy of cinema and storytelling which is how we got to that point.  We wanted to feel our way through it in a very intuitive way and that’s kind of how I’ve learned the process and it all came out in a very beautiful way.

In many ways, this really feels like a testament to how much you can make something look good while shooting digitally, especially in the face of those who bemoan the death of cinema.

For me really I think that all comes down to location filmmaking.  It felt very much like what it was and it was trying very hard to illustrate and be true to this reality that we were trying to describe.  My head of production design, my cinematographer and myself essentially did a tour of New Mexico to get a sense of the space, of the light and getting all those flavors spot on to make sure it was all reflected in the way that we wanted it to be.

This film truly does channel the essence of some of those films of the 60’s and the 70’s and why do you think we have lost that kind of story telling essence and why do you think it works so damn well now?

I know why we’ve lost it because studios and financiers have decided that they are more invested in event cinema and those human stories that we used to get.  I do think that is changing because while we have these films that are enormously expensive and have to be enormously marketed in order to make their money back again there is a void for these human stories that back then really were the mainstay of the cinematic experience for people in 60’s and 70’s cinema.  So many people have spoken of their love for Hell or High Water by referencing back to those films and I have to believe that there is an audience for them who will find a movie like ours eventually.

Walk me through your casting process just a little bit, because for such an intimate film you did secure some pretty big stars.

To be honest, it was pretty straight forward! (Laughs) We asked them and they said yes.

Did you have any concerns since you were a UK guy sort of dipping your foot in this side of the pond for the very first time or does it really come down to letting the material speak for itself?

I ultimately think that I was pretty luck, because my previous film Starred Up is something that really speaks to a lot of actors and they love how it was handled so it made for a great calling card because people ended up being very excited to work with me which I just felt like was such a huge honor and really exciting to have such a lovely ensemble.

Was there a lot of rehearsal time, so much of this film felt incredibly organic.

No to be honest I really can’t stand doing rehearsals, I hate them.  I talk about the script with the actors a little bit and then we’ll run it a handful of times just to iron out the edges but we just let it play out like that.

I can imagine that plays out into the way you shoot as well…

Yeah when you shoot digitally you really get to focus on the material rather than getting taken out of the moment for any technical issues.  I was actually in a conversation with Quentin Tarantino about it and his love of film and I just had to admit that “Yeah I love it too, but I love the creative freedom a get from digital quite a bit more”,

Was this a big step up for you?  I love Starred Up and I see the thread between the two movies but it definitely feels bigger on a scale standpoint.

It was a little, but not necessarily as much as you’d think.  The way that budgets work between the UK and the US you really don’t get a lot more bang for your buck.  I mean at the end of the day I really don’t worry about that kind of things, I worry about the journey that I am taking audiences on and that’s what really matters to me.

Do you think if you were ever working with a bigger budget on something that it would restrict or do you ultimately prefer the freedom of working a little lighter provides you?

You know I’m not quite sure, I can imagine that I’d be a lot more cautious about having to deal with the pressures of people worried about getting their money back but really you’ve got to judge it on a case by case basis.

The human element in this story is so palpable and I love it, especially with Jeff Bridges character and the relationship between Chris and Ben’s characters and it never for one second feels forced in any kind of way.  Ultimately for you as a filmmaker, are these the kinds of stories that you want to tell or do you have a romantic comedy or science fiction thriller in you somewhere?

Well…I have done a romantic comedy which was one of my favorite experience and I do have a science fiction project in the works but I think that I really do consider myself to be something of a born again realist and I’m interested in realism and humanity but I’ve also been someone who has never wanted to make the same movie twice as well.

We get inundated with the ‘event’ movies these days, but this film has garnered so much positive response I was wondering if it was surprising for you or if you sort of knew early on that you were doing good work.

Yeah we knew from a very early stage that this going to be good.  It was obvious and we could feel it and we we’re all enjoying the process so something certainly was in the air but you never really know until it plays for an audience and it opens up those kinds of connections in an audience and when we could see that happening then we knew for sure and it was such a lovely and gratifying feeling to see how well this film has resonated with audiences.

The market is so saturated with movies and ways of which to watch them.  If you were confronted with someone who doesn’t go to the theatre and may not understand the historical significance of the kind of mood you are setting with Hell Or High Water how would you sell them?

(Long Pause) To be honest I really don’t know (laughs)

That’s a valid answer which I really kind of like to be honest…

I’ve just never been the best at pitching and I know through my career that has hurt me in some spots but I’ve done enough quality stuff over the years that I can sort of overcome that little disability that I have and let the work speak for itself.

And it’s like you said about knowing it was good while you were shooting and I really do feel like that does come across in the film.

Oh I certainly hope that it does because Jeff, Chris and Ben were just all engaging in the material so much that those magic moments were just really obvious and I’m glad that we got something cooking, it doesn’t always though.

Well congratulations on finding that right recipe and making a truly great piece of cinema.

Thank you for all the support I really do appreciate it.

Hell Or High Water is now available on all major formats at all major retailers and via most VOD Platforms.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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