The Western might not be a dominant form of genre movie entertainment anymore, but that doesn’t mean that the genre is any less fruitful. In fact, while Western fans may find themselves starving for content in terms of quantity, the consistency of quality in the genre has rarely been higher. The only Westerns made these days are by passionate auteurs with some sort of offbeat take on the genre. In recent years we’ve been treated to a few fascinatingly oddball Westerns like The Coen Brothers’ True Grit or Quentin Tarantino’s Django: Unchained. Now we have John Maclean’s Slow West and if the director’s name sounds unfamiliar to you, that’s because it’s his first film, but that doesn’t mean the results are anything less than impressive.
A member of the cult Scottish rock group The Beta Band, Maclean cut his teeth directing music videos for the band and pulled together a few shorts in recent years starring none other than Michael Fassbender. When it came time to do a feature, Maclean decided to take a crack at a Western and developed the project around Fassbender. The result is a wonderfully strange and bleakly comedic take on the genre as an almost surreal dreamscape. Fassbender stars as an Irish rogue stuck in the West who helps a troubled Scottish boy/man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) struggle across the rugged landscape to find a lost love (Caren Pistorius). It all sounds a bit generic on paper, yet in practice feels anything but. An episodic structure pulls the duo from one eccentric character and desolate location to the next, fueled by a streak of surreal comedy and unpredictable plot beats. It’s a striking debut that got people talking in Sundance and should continue to pleasantly surprise viewers as the year stretches on.
Dork Shelf recently got a chance to chat with John Maclean gearing up for the film’s Canadian release and we picked his brain about the motivations behind his uniquely strange Western debut.
Dork Shelf: Had you even been interested in directing before you started doing music videos for The Beta Band or was that the first time that you’d even considered it?
John Maclean: Well, I’d certainly thought about it, but not much more than that. When I was a student, I worked at a cinema doing the late night double bills. So I was paying attention to film. But before the band videos I didn’t do much. It was tough because it was the days before editing software. I had a Super 8 camera, but most of my Super 8 films just turned out black. I’m not very tech savvy.
DS: I know this is likely the question you’ve heard the most and must be getting tired of by now, but what made you want to do a Western? Is it just a genre you always responded to or were you saddened by how few there are now?
JM: It was definitely an unusual choice for a first film, especially coming out of the UK. I always think it’s best to go against the grain or whatever is in fashion. And then also if all else failed and Michael couldn’t be involved, I wanted to make sure it was something that I could make with very little money. So I never thought of it as a Western with towns. It was something that could just be shot in a forest if I had to. Then obviously the script started to grow. Guns and horses and houses started to appear. But I definitely started from a practical perspective, as strange as that sounds.
DS: I love that the tone of the film kind of plays out in a woozy dream state that looks real in as far as we recognize the Western iconography and understand the characters motivations, but beyond that it comes across as very heightened. What was your thinking there?
JM: That’s just my cinema taste. Everything from Night Of The Hunter to Fargo has that kind of dreamlike quality. You know, we’re not talking David Lynch here. We’re talking about things that are quite grounded within that tone and trying to be truthful. So that was important to me from the beginning, to make something could be like a fairy tale. When you’re dealing with stories and you start with “Once Upton A Time,” you can suggest that this is someone’s memory or interpretation of the past. You can get away with being a little less obsessed with details like, “How did they find them?” or “Where is she?” I think getting bogged down in that minutia is missing the point.
DS: Did that factor into your research into the time period then? Not worrying too much about getting the details 100% accurate and focusing on making something that feels right instead?
JM: Absolutely. Someone asked me to compare the movie to Dead Man and I think that’s fair. If you’re going to make this type of movie, you don’t want to enter into clichés. There’s a ying-yang. You want to do your research to get the right feeling without getting lost in it.
DS: Were worried at all about not being an American playing in this genre or was that part of the idea?
JM: A sacred American genre that I then I took it to Sundance. Yeah, it worried me (Laughs) Of course, but I just thought if I was coming from a place of truthfulness and wasn’t trying to tackle it from a Native American perspective or even from the perspective of an American cowboy that I would be ok. I figured if as long as I was doing it from the perspective of a young Scottish boy that’s going to America with his romantic ideas and fantasies that I could get away with it.
DS: I enjoyed how all of your characters were displaced outsiders who’d stumbled into the Western landscape, because those are the people who would have made up most of the population at the time.
JM: Yeah, exactly. That was one of the seeds of the whole project. My Dad would tell me stories about Scottish people who ended up there or people who immigrated from Ireland to escape the famines, or Scandinavians. Then I did research and found out that a lot of cowboys were actually German because they were good at dealing with cattle and a lot of Scottish people were sheep farmers. You get a sense that this would have been a land filled with people from all over the world and not just Americans with American accents (Laughs).
DS: Was it difficult to find all of the locations that you were looking for in New Zealand?
JM: You know, it was probably easier than it would have been if we’d actually gone to Colorado. That’s the crazy thing about New Zealand, I could look in one direction and see mountains with plains in the distance that really reminded me of Colorado and then if I turned around moved the camera there would be lakes and rockies that looked exactly like Switzerland. It’s one of these landscapes and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s been used for Middle Earth and Japan. It’s such a strange and wonderful place. You can find almost any location you need there.
JM: I was a bit surprised with you being a Scot that you cast two non-Scottish people in the main Scottish roles because that’s such a tricky accent to get right and something that’s so often a pet peeve. Were you really hard on them?
JM: Oh yeah (Laughs). I think that was actually the main thing that I was obsessed about during shooting. I’ve heard some awful Scottish accents in cinema and I knew my family and friends would absolutely destroy me if I made something that ended up on that list. Fortunately Caren [Pistorius] was absolutely impeccable. She got regional. She got North West Scottish accent. I couldn’t believe it. When it was shown in Scotland, I don’t think anyone would have guessed she wasn’t Scottish. With Kodi [Smit-McPhee], he’s Australian, so it was a little tougher for him. It was a posh upper class Scottish accent, not a Glaswegian accent. So that was tricky. He had a voice coach and then even on set at the last minute we would re-take if there was a single word out. But he’s such a clever, resourceful guy that it wasn’t an issue.
JM: You’ve had a relationship with Michael Fassbender stretching back through a few short films now and I gather played a huge role in getting this movie made and you wrote it with him in mind. Since he can be such a chameleon, I was wondering what led you devising this particular character and story around him?
JM: He was on board from the beginning and I was writing for him. I knew I didn’t want to make him an obvious hero. Especially, in both gun battles I had him knocked out of commission (Laughs). I think his character arc was someone who had left that life behind and wanted to transform into something else. I just thought that was an interesting way to go. I’d seen from a previous short film that when he’s got less to do or you put him in the corner as an observer, he’s somehow even better. He’s so good that you can read things going on in his mind. I was confident that he could work with very little dialogue, so I wanted to work the character around that.
DS: I thought Rose was an interesting character because you seem to establish her as a traditional sort of damsel in distress or prize for Jodi’s character, but by the end she’s probably the most heroic person in the film in the film. What was your thinking there? Just interested in flipping expectations?
JM: Yeah, I’d gotten a bit irked by the fact that even in 2015 we’d still see damsel in distress films, so I did not want to play into that. I liked the idea that women might get dragged to Slow West by their boyfriends and then come out going, “I usually don’t like Westerns, but I loved that.” I liked the idea of having this kick ass female character at the center who the twatish males bring all the trouble to. That was an element that interested me, for sure.
DS: I really enjoyed that deadpan tone you brought to the film as well. Was that an important element for you or is it just difficult for you to write something without injecting a little humor?
JM: It’s something that I feel is important in all films. I never wanted to make anything that was serious and studious and wrought. When you’re dealing with an absurd situation, I think it helps to show the audience that you’re very aware of how absurd that situation is. It’s just something that I enjoy in cinema going back to something like Fargo even. So, I wanted to try my hand at that as well.
DS: What’s next? Do you want to continue playing with genre?
JM: Yeah, I’m a big fan of the heist genre, so I’m trying to come up with something there.
DS: In Britain?
JM: Possibly. London is a city that I know so well and I think large parts of it have been neglected in cinema. So maybe a London based heist film. Just starting out on that though, so there isn’t much to say.
DS: Finally, I just had to ask this since you’re a member of The Beta Band. Did you guys know how they were going to use your song in High Fidelity? Because that whole movie just stops to be about your band at one point.
JM: (Laughs) Well, they came to us and said they had a scene that they wanted to use our music for. We said, “sure do it” and then completely forgot about it because we were quite busy at the time. Then we were invited to the premiere in London and it was so weird when it happened because it’s pretty much an advert for The Beta Band. We were so excited and then I think we just left the theater after to go to a pub and celebrate. It was actually a few years before I even watched the rest of the film.
Read our review of Slow West here.