Interview: Director John Maclean Talks SLOW WEST, Spielberg And More
If you're going to make a splash with your first feature, then John Maclean seems to have found the right way to do it. The former pop musician began by making videos of his band, and soon found himself directing the likes of Michael Fassbender in the short film Pitch Black Heist that would go on to win a BAFTA award.
Fassbender returns to Maclean's debut feature as the charismatic lead in Slow West, a gorgeously rendered Western that won a major jury prize at Sundance. Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, and a number of fine performers make up the ensemble, with a taut and engaging story penned by Maclean himself.
As the film finds its way to theatres, we got a chance to speak with the director about his work, his charming lead, and some of the influences that shaped the film.
What was your own relation to Westerns on the big screen?
I probably started with my dad taking me to some dodgy Westerns in the late 70s - comedy Westerns or Texas Lone Ranger. I'm not remembering the films, but remembering the experience of going to the cinema, really romanticizing it.
I worked in a cinema when I was at Edinburgh Art School, they did late night double bills. One of the films was Once Upon a Time in the West. I knew nothing about it or Westerns, really, and that kind of blew my socks off. Then it was just kind of a voyage of discovery in reverse, going back to the 70s 60s, 50s, 40s, 30s...
When it came to Slow West, I was very conscious of not just making a film influenced by just Westerns, so I was watching everything from Japanese cinema to Bresson.
Kurosawa was obviously influenced heavily by Westerns, but were you watching the likes of Ozu?
There's a lot of static camera [shots in my film]. Woman of the Sands [by Teshigahara Hiroshi ] or Onibaba [by Shindô Kaneto], films like that I watched for economy, for shooting in forests, for silence.
And you mentioned Bresson? Are you watching Pickpocket for montage ideas?
Yeah, Pickpocket and A Man Escaped. I'm a big fan of constructing in camera editing. There's a lot of shots of just hands, trying to construct with static camera shots a jigsaw puzzle.
The film has such a unique look for a Western.
When we started writing the script, I was thinking a lot about these early Japanese films. I was thinking a lot about forests, that if I didn't get Fassbender I could make a cheap film in a forest with people dressed as cowboys and still make it kind of look good. I never wanted Western towns with swing doors.
Where did you shoot?
When I finished the script I said I want to shoot in Colorado. The reality and the practicalities started to come into play and suddenly Michael's schedule became available November/December. Winter in Colorado and summer in New Zealand and so that forced me out there.
As I was looking at locations, if there was anything that didn't remind me of Colorado, I didn't go there. It turned out that there was a lot of places that really I thought I could get away with so I thought that would work and then I went out and just tried to convince myself it was Colorado all the time.
When the film was nearly finished editing and people started watching cuts, people said, 'Oh, I really liked the fact that I didn't know where it was or I didn't recognize the American location.'
[It] kind of played into its favour, played into the fairy tale, dreamlike storytelling aspect that I didn't realize.
Let's not brush over the fact that you did get Fassbender.
He didn't have to work with me. Off the bat he was very generous. He's been offered top directors and top dollar, and big films that he turned down to do this.
And Ben Mendelsohn?
He was such a pleasure to work with. The unfortunate thing was that I only had three days with him. It was a case of, well, you can use Ben, but you can only have him for three days or we can choose someone else. I can get more out of him in three days than another actor in two weeks, so I went for it.
And that jacket!
The coat was in the script. There's quite a lot of costume references in the script - I think the coat was McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Iron Horse and a few others.
That's the only filmic reference I gave any of the actors. I just loved the baddie in McCabe for being so menacing, just by being polite and nice. There's no scene where he eats a kid or anything.
Are you somebody that reads reviews of his own films?
It's interesting reading Twitter because it's equal time. You're getting not just the critics' view but you're getting the audience's view. It can be vicious, and I think in this new age of everyone being a critic, it seems that it's biased towards the negative.
It's the people that sort of hate it that want to shout the loudest.
Is there anybody who said something in terms of somebody who hated it that you actually went, oh yeah, they have a point there?
No, I disagree with all of them. [Laughs.]
I've never made a film before, so I didn't really think about too much how it would be judged or how obsessive people would be at poring over it. At the same time, I think there was a moment after Sundance when I was in this bar / after party thing and this 65 year old Midwest cowboy-looking dude came up and [said] "I'm a fan of Westerns. Shane is my favourite film and let me just shake your hand and say you've done the genre proud."
There's been a few moments like that where that's more important to me than . . .
Than some long haired Jew film critic from Toronto saying he really likes your movie?
Well, yeah [laughs]. I always, I'm kind of, maybe it's an egotistical thing to say, but if people don't like it, I think they don't get it.
I think some audiences will dismiss this as being simpler than it really is. Was there a time during the shoot or cutting when you felt a need to be a little bit more overt?
That started to happen mainly in the edit, and that's I think that happens with every film. I wanted to be so sparse with the script and never ever wanting to patronize.
Suddenly you're teetering on the edge of leaving people questioning stuff and you think, "Oh god, I've forgotten to say that we're even in Colorado or it's 1870".
I think it's good to always go for the cleanest option and the quickest option, so title cards and flashbacks are not as elegant as Michael going, "Once upon a time, I came across from Scotland to America."
Now, you've done it in two seconds.
What was the first film that you saw that made you think, this is what I want to do?
Well, the first huge one was Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back had just come out but they were showing it again. I bought the figures, I actually got Darth Vader's autograph!
I became a bit obsessed and then got really into Robocop, Die Hard, Predator, real mainstream stuff.
It wasn't until much later that I went backwards into more art house stuff but I still hold these films in the highest regard. I see them as underrated in a way. The first Indiana Jones and Jaws, I mean people are starting to kind of dissect them now, but for a while they were seen as just blockbusters. But the camera work and the economy in the storytelling, they should be on these lists higher up in the best films ever.
And so your film is this same collision, between the arthouse and the blockbuster.
That was the idea, yeah. I told the producers that I'm not wanting to make full art house, but I'm not wanting to make full action, but that will somehow be some sort of attempt to pull both genres that I love together.
The film opens today in Toronto.