David Mackenzie is hardly new to the film industry, releasing his debut feature, The Last Great Wilderness, back in 2002. But many will have discovered him only a few years ago with the explosive prison drama Starred Up, which starred Jack O’Connell as a young offender graduated to the same adult prison as his father.
Now Mackenzie is back with Hell or High Water. He’s left the UK behind for the plains of Texas for a film that follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) orchestrated a string of small bank robberies to stop the bank foreclosing on their family ranch. After them are two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), but as it becomes clearer just why the Howard brothers are on their crime spree, and who stands to suffer from it, the moral lines are increasingly blurred.
This is your ninth film, and all of them have really been well received, but the critical response to Starred Up was on another level. Did it feel like that to you?
Yeah. I had a slightly similar sort of thing with Young Adam in a way, but yeah, Starred Up felt like it hit a nerve in a way.
Why do you think that is?
I think I’m getting better at making movies [laughs]. I’m learning how to do it. Starred Up was a slightly back-to-basics type thing — we shot it very quickly, we shot it on a single location, we shot it sequentially — it was pretty raw. And I evolved various directing methods that I’d been kind of thinking about along the line. It felt like a very pure, from the heart process. Movies don’t always happen that way. Learning how to do that, and channel the reality and the honesty of approach, and keeping things cooking and alive, is something that I think is really important, and I certainly learned about that — and applied a lot of that to what I did on Hell or High Water. I think that’s why we got such a rich flavour, and humanity, and nuance, and sense of aliveness to the film. I’m sure the evolution of a technique that I’ve been learning over the years is a major part of that.
Did the response to Starred Up make it any easier to put Hell or High Water together?
It made it great for me that Jeff Bridges had seen Starred Up and loved it, you know what I mean? Therefore Jeff was happy to have a conversation with me about this. And happy to see this film through the lens of that film, and connect the two — and the same with Chris and Ben. I could show them that I meant business, I guess. It helped them understand a) what I was about, and b) the kind of things we were aiming at in this film.
Right, because despite the fact that the films have very different settings, they have some common themes, particularly the idea of inheriting social problems.
Sins of the father, and all that kind of stuff. There’s definitely a family link, there’s a criminality link. Hopefully there’s also a link in terms of the way that the characters, even if they’re not necessarily good people, they’re as humanised as they possibly can be. I’m very keen on humanising my characters, trying to get under the skin of them, and I kind of believe that as a human being as well as a director.
Was it a particular challenge trying to maintain the balance of the audience’s sympathies between the robbers and the Rangers?
Well in a way that is the game of the film. The obvious challenge is to get that balance right, and not let one in some way obliterate the other. To keep asking the question and keep unpeeling the layers of the relationships. I think both of them start off as antagonistic relationships, and as you go along you start to see that there’s some deeper threads of affection. They’re both very male relationships — kind of tough love, not overtly expressing affection, those kind of things, classic male traits. But underneath it all there’s obviously the brotherly love, and also the Rangers’ deep sense of affinity with each other. Jeff’s character is, at first glance, being racist, and then you sort of think, ‘Well, is he, or is he being race aware? Is that humour, is that pure antagonism?’
It’s an uncomfortable place for the audience for a minute, and then you start getting into it. I really like the idea of putting the audience into positions where their immediate impression is one thing, and then they start to question that impression.
You keep that ambiguity through the film about whether Gil’s character is comfortable with the race jokes or not.
It’s a scary thing. Jeff, Gil, myself, none of us are racist people [laughs]. But there are people in that world who are, and you’re trying to represent that, and you’re trying to ask those questions, swim in those waters. There was obviously pressure to soften that, but I pushed hard not to soften it because I think that’s important, it’s part of the snapshot of America that the film is.
And it is a very distinctly American setting, specifically Texan. As a British director, how did you feel trying to capture that?
That was a challenge that I took on board. I’m a big fan of American cinema, and particularly that sort of Midwest world — not just the Western genre, but that sense of middle America is something that I find very fascinating. I have spent a little bit of time in west Texas, so I was able to channel a little bit of that experience back. And I really tried my hardest not to be an outsider; I tried to look at it from the inside in, rather than the outside in.
Obviously there are bound to be things where my comparative naivety about the life there is going to take me into a different space, but I tried to surround myself with enough knowledge and information, and leant back on Taylor [Sheridan, the screenwriter], who’s from Texas, to make sure that we were representing it as well as possible. A lot of the feedback that we’ve had from people in Texas is that they think we’ve done a good job in terms of representing it. And that’s one of the things that I’m really quite proud of in the film.
Hell or High Water is out in UK cinemas from September 9th.
Words by Dominic Preston