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Filmmakers Chat: John Maclean on Slow West

June 29, 2015

Film + EntertainmentInterview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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Getting any film made nowadays is some sort of serendipitous, miraculous event that requires talent, luck and connections but even then, things might fall apart last minute. That’s why I was particularly impressed to learn that this indie Western starring Michael Fassbender, winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was the feature debut of John Maclean, a Scotsman who shot it entirely in New Zealand.

A graduate from the Edinburgh College of Art and London’s Royal College Of Art, the multi-talented Scotsman formed the ‘folktronica’ group The Beta Band post-university-years which was on the music scene from 1997 to 2004 and that was followed by another band, The Aliens, from 2005 to 2008.

Yet, film had always been a massive passion that led him to make many of the bands’ music videos, hence it was only a matter of time before Maclean fully transitioned to filmmaking. In 2009 he made the short film Man on a Motorcycle, starring Michael Fassbender, filmed entirely on a mobile phone which led to continue the artistic collaboration on his following short in 2011, Pitch Black Heist, which went on to win the BAFTA award for Best Short Film.

When I finally saw Slow West for the first time back in April, I loved it so much I made sure to attend another press screening. Seeing it again only cemented my feelings, making it currently my favourite film of the year and I’ve profusely explained why in my review. Obviously I couldn’t help but try my best to talk to the man himself and geek out about how he managed to achieve such an outstanding first feature. The main answer I got was “taking risks”.

Meeting Maclean at (distributor) Lionsgate’s fancy headquarters in central London, immediately makes you realize that taking those risks has well paid off for this extremely polite and lovely-to-chat-with filmmaker, whose talent clearly matches his boldness. After all, you don’t manage to score Michael Fassbender for two short films and your debut feature unless you’ve got some spunk and learning how Maclean transitioned from music to cinema is awe-inspiring.

I’d like to start with the title of your film. Without giving anything way, one of Jay’s flashbacks/daydreaming moments made me think that ‘A Thousand Ways To Die’ could’ve been a good title with a cool symbolic reference. Did you toy with other ideas before picking Slow West?

Yes, it was quite tough to come up with a title. When I went ‘romantic’ with it, I had something like “The Railroad And The Moon”, which symbolically represented Silas as the railroad and Jay as the moon but it felt like it lost the grit of the film. Then at the same time when I tried to go gritty, I was losing the magic realism and romantic aspect of the film. In the end I thought I’d go for a title that wasn’t immediately suggestive for any of it, aside from the basic plot. I was thinking a lot about breaking down the myth of the West as being this fast place. When you read about it, you realize how not only it’s slow paced because of the scale and the transport but also for the violence that was at the center of it.

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In that pivotal moment between these unlikely travel companions, Jay clearly spells out the theme of the film when he tells Silas that “there’s more to life than surviving”. That of course shifts the focus more on Silas but also made me think how current the film is, given what’s happening these days in the world with the immigration crisis and how this concept of survival despite having taken a different shape, still applies to many people.

Absolutely. If you see this film as plot-driven, you just have people going from A to B and their backstory and you miss the themes of the film. But when I was writing it, all these things you’re talking about were much more important in my mind. As you say, at first you think it’s all about Jay but then you realize how Silas is the character that does have the main arc really: the teacher becomes the student. Also, that theme of displacement was very interesting to me with people getting kicked out of Scotland and Native Americans getting slaughtered on their land. So yeah, it feels like sadly, not a lot has changed in many parts of the world.

Scoring someone like Michael Fassbender first on your short films and now for your feature debut makes all the difference but it’s definitely a testament to your talent. Do you have any advice for up and coming filmmakers who might not be lucky to get connected with someone like him?

Yeah of course I do. I think it’s about being prepared and having something to show when you get a chance at being connected with someone like Michael. If I hadn’t made like 20-30 short films on my mobile phone or any other device I could get my hands on, and also the music videos I shot for the band that I always tried to make as if they were narrative short films, with friends acting in them, I wouldn’t have learned so much about working with what I didn’t have. It meant that when I got the chance to being connected with Michael, I got him to work with me because he saw some of those films and liked them. Also, I’d been reading so many scripts and watched so many films and at the same time I’d been writing a lot of bad scripts that hopefully I’d learned something so that finally, when the chance came, I could take it and least try and have something he would consider. The sooner you start, the longer you have to get better at it.

There’s a lot of great filmmaking talent in the UK, yet many first-time filmmakers make kitchen-sink dramas and get stuck in them. You’ve already made a bold choice by choosing a Western as your feature debut. What drove you to that?

There are indeed a lot of kitchen-sink dramas from first-time filmmakers, though it must be said some are really great. I thought that was even more of a reason to make a Western: going against the trends. I think that taking risks is something that Michael saw in me that he liked and convinced him to work together. Like when we did our first short film and I shot it on my mobile phone even if everyone was telling me to shoot it on camera and then make it look like it was shot on a mobile. Doing something more unpredictable and risky seems to always have worked out to my advantage. And yet if you wind up failing, at least you feel like you took a risk and tried to do something different. I think all that was constantly on my mind as I was working.

I loved the cinematography in the film which especially for a Western is so important. I know you shot in New Zealand which is even more impressive since it does feel like the Old West. That’s a testament to your DoP (director of photography) but also to your vision. Can you talk a bit about that? I noticed your smooth-moving camera and your choice of a narrower aspect ratio which I thought works really well for a film that’s not focused on crazy action that you’d expect from a wider frame.

Exactly, that’s something you’d expect from a spaghetti western and despite my nods to it, in the end this film felt more like a fairy tale, seen through European eyes so I thought a more European aspect ratio was a better fit. I storyboarded the whole film very specifically, shot by shot. It meant that when I worked with Robbie (Ryan, the DoP), there was a lot freedom for him to do his job and really handle the lighting to be amazing. I wasn’t too fussed about which lenses to use but I had some basic rule I wanted to stick to which was trying to keep a static camera and a deep focus because I’m a fan of deep focus. And then obviously like you were saying, I’m also a big fan of tracking movements rather than handheld which has become the thing everyone uses and I just don’t find that very cinematic, especially when there’s a lot of focus-shifting, it gets distracting.

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Your transition from music to film feels like a dream path to have but also goes to show you must’ve always had a lot of creativity that needed to be expressed. Do you consider anything at all as pivotal to help you making it happen?

I grew up in an artistic environment but I was also fortunate with being friends with great musicians. Even at school I was attracted to hanging out with people that maybe weren’t that good at school but could play an instrument and were creative so I bonded with them and later on went into bands with them. I think having people that you can talk to and be creative with helps a lot, otherwise you’re just fighting against those who want you to get a proper job. I never had that. Even with my family, I always had the support to be creative and that’s really important.

What would be your ideal next project genre-wise? You’ve mentioned ‘noir’ in previous interviews. Is that on the menu?

Well, I’m a big fan of noir cinema and my favourite genre is the crime heist noir. I do like that cinema for being able to play with archetypes and storytelling but somehow hopefully trying to throw off the audience a bit, have action, tension and drama which is what I love the most when I watch movies.

Would you have anything to say to audiences that are not huge Western fans to entice them to check out your film, aside from the obvious guarantee of quality which is Michael’s presence?

You know, a lot of people at screenings walked in saying they weren’t into Westerns and then walked out saying they liked mine. I think it’s not necessarily for Western fans and it’s got a strong female character. The best thing I could say is that it’s something different.

Slow West is out now in UK cinemas

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor