Hell or High Water: Interview with Director Mackenzie and Writer Sheridan

hell_or_high_water_posterAs a genre, the heist thriller has a storied history that goes back to the 1903“The Great Train Robbery.”  It seems every generation has produced its own revealing visions of the often coolly atmospheric genre. 

Like many of its predecessors, “Hell or High Water” builds to a showdown between lawmen and outlaws in the desolate borderlands of America’s extreme Southwest.  But this is not a simple bank-robbing saga of black-hatted bad guys and upstanding sheriffs.  This is the Western re-jiggered as morally complex, bitingly humorous and set in a new West where the banks getting raided are now the most degenerate and cruel of villains themselves.  




The film is the 9th feature from award-winning UK filmmaker David Mackenzie – whose body of work also encompasses “Starred Up,” “Hallam Foe,” “Asylum” and “Young Adam” – and one that has taken him new places, geographically and cinematically.  Working deftly with a high-powered cast playing down-to-earth Texans, he brings his own distinctive POV into the American badlands – visceral, muscular and emotionally raw, yet deeply compassionate towards characters who are each facing either a crossroads or the end of the road.  Echoing the story’s haunting landscape, Mackenzie plays with both grand scope and stark intimacy to merge the lyricism of a mood piece with the tension of a robbing spree on a collision course with the law. 

Says Mackenzie:  “As a filmmaker I’m always drawn to stories which are not black and white in terms of their moral shades.  One of the elements I was interested in of this film was what I call ‘redemptive criminality’ where good people do bad things for good reasons. There’s something really interesting about that balance, and that is definitely an area of attraction for me as a filmmaker, and in particular in this film.” 

hell_or_high_water_2As a director who has shifted into different kinds of stories, Mackenzie was also drawn to the idea of blending genres – genres that each are a form of Americana, but are rarely combined– into a story that defies surface expectations.  “The film is a lovely kind of mix of everything – you know there aren’t too many Western, comedic, bank robbery road movies,” Mackenzie observes. 

Mackenzie brings “Hell or High Water” to life as far more than a renegade 21st Century robbing spree. It is an ode to brotherhood and family loyalty, an elegy for lost dreams and stolen land, a portrait of small town values in their fading twilight and a probing of how people get trapped by expectations of who they’re supposed to be.  In a time of rapid change even at the edges of America, the film cuts deep into questions of legacy and what people yearn to leave behind as their own personal legends. 

The film’s dark wit, desperate characters and contemporary themes drew an extraordinary quartet of actors who bring to life two pairs of men committed to each other to the end.  Chris Pine and Ben Foster portray yin-and-yang brothers who, despite taking drastically different paths, are drawn together to set things right for the future.  And Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play disparate Texas Ranger partners whose racially charged ribbing belies a never-spoken depth of connection. 

For producer Carla Hacken, President of Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, the film felt both exhilaratingly timeless and part of our times – tackling ideas as ancient as robbing Peter to pay Paul and as current as bank foreclosures. “This is a bank-robbing story, but it is also unusually relevant to our times with its theme of a family losing their home to the bank.” she describes.  “At the same time, the brothers Toby and Tanner bring in a kind of Cain and Abel angle as well.   It has all the visceral elements of a heist thriller, but you are hit with the emotions of a family fighting for one another.” 

Producer Julie Yorn, who oversees production at LBI Entertainment, says a lot of elements all came together to make “Hell or High Water” such a rich mix of emotion and intrigue.  “You have the voice of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, the directorial magic of David Mackenzie and these fantastic performances from Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham – all of which seem to work together in balance and complement each other,” Yorn observes.  “At heart, the movie is about brothers reclaiming their land and their heritage – which is such a deeply American concept.  It’s very much a movie about last hurrahs and last stands.” 

hell_or_high_water_1The story of “Hell or High Water” is, at first glance, a simple one:  two hard-luck brothers go on a small-town bank-robbing spree, only to be doggedly pursued by a legendary Texas Ranger on the eve of his unwanted retirement.  But underneath its two interlocking plot strands lie currents that delve into family, masculinity, loyalty, family and historical cycles, and the way a new world of faceless greed is colliding with an Old West of rugged individualists. 

The screenplay, which is rife with humor and humanity, is written by Taylor Sheridan, known both for portraying Deputy Chief David Hale in the hit series “Brothers of Anarchy” and as the writer of the critically acclaimed Oscar-nominated Sicario

Sheridan, who hails from Texas, wrote “Hell or High Water” just after “Sicario” as part of an intended trilogy about the New West.  The taut script soon won the so-called Blacklist of the year’s hottest unproduced screenplay – but it did not go unproduced for long as Sidney Kimmel Entertainment soon acquired it with Peter Berg’s Film 44.

David Mackenzie became the choice for director after they saw his previous feature “Starred Up,” which was acclaimed for its distinctive mix of raw-edged realism, high-wire tension and emotional sensitivity. 

“It was when we saw ‘Starred Up’ that we were completely blown away,” recalls Carla Hacken.  “Like this story, it was raw and gritty, yet it had heart and a moving father-son story. It was beautiful yet edgy — and we wanted all of that for ‘Hell or High Water.’  David proved to be a great choice.  He captures the scope of the action, the emotions and the landscape in mesmerizing ways.” 

Adds Julie Yorn:  “’Starred Up’ had so much muscle to it – David’s style felt right for this story.  And we all though it was really interesting to have this very talented European director tackle such an American story.” 

Mackenzie welcomed the chance to bring his own gritty, modernist vision to a story that may carry all the standard components of the traditional American Western – lawmen, robbers, shootouts and chases — but is actually a portrait of something happening right now:  a portrait of old ways and social structures breaking apart into something new and unpredictable, with people and families struggling to come to terms with it. Mackenzie’s past films have flirted with genre – “Young Adam,” for example, carried the intense mood of a classic film noir and “Hallam Foe” took the coming-of-age tradition into the territory of a dark fable. But it was really with “Starred Up,” Mackenzie’s prison drama that shook up the category with its gut-punch emotions, that he began experimenting with how he could take a pure genre story and reconstruct into it something authentic and emotionally real. 

“In the past I was uncomfortable with the notion of genre as I was trying to make films I thought were original and different, films that would only find themselves on the outer edges of a genre box by default categorization,” he says.  “But my last film ‘Starred Up’ was inescapably a genre movie and it was the first where I tried to embrace the genre completely — even though I also tried to smuggle a family drama into the center of it,” he notes.  “But while ‘Hell or High Water’ is a Western in many ways – an idea which we embrace completely and pay homage to past Westerns — it also has the DNA of a heist movie, a buddy movie and a road movie, as well as a family drama.” 

Within that mix-mastering of styles, Mackenzie had another aim:  to bring out the story’s evocation of American life in the early 21st Century, with all its familial, economic and racial tensions.

“To me, what makes this film so exciting is that between all the genre elements there is a reflection on themes of contemporary American life:  on race, guns, the abuses of banks, the loss of the Old West and its values, the break up of families and society, the urge to take things into ones own hands.  As an outsider, it was a privilege to try to somehow take a snapshot of the nation in this election year,” says Mackenzie.  “I tried hard to make a film which feels as American as possible, and felt an obligation to be as respectful to the feeling of the country as I could.” 

Mackenzie goes on:  “Even if I am engaging in a genre, it’s not that in itself that excites me.  It’s the power of the story, the world, the themes and the characters of the piece.  This was a very special script from Taylor Sheridan, one that had all this in a very fresh way, but also had a very clear sense of great movies from the past, particularly from the golden age of the 60s and 70s.  To me, it recalled flavors of two of my favorite American filmmakers of that time:  Don Siegel — in particular, the great ‘Charley Varrick,’ one of the few films he made set in the Midwest — and Hal Ashby, whose humanistic freewheeling style of filmmaking I often try to follow.  It also put me in mind of three great films that Jeff Bridges was in as a young man:  ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,’ ‘Fat City’ and ‘The Last Picture Show.’”

Relationship between Brothers

Mackenzie was keen to bring to the fore the often tricky bonds of brothers, whether blood brothers or brothers on the job. Wary as Toby and Tanner or Marcus and Alberto can be of each other, they are utterly devoted to one another’s survival. 

“One of the hearts of the movie is the relationship between brothers, which is a very strong thing. I have a great relationship with my brother, and I was very drawn to that relationship between brothers – and what brothers are prepared to do to help each other.” Mackenzie says.  “As I said, Toby is prepared to do bad things, but he’s essentially doing it for his family.  It’s not a justification but it feels like it’s a moral weight against some of the amoral stuff that he’s doing.” 

            The easy, wisecracking but racially fraught rapport between Marcus and Alberto becomes a mirror image to Toby and Tanner’s different approaches to survival. “Marcus and Alberto have a funny double act in how they deal with the antagonism between them,” Mackenzie observes.  “As well as being serious as Texas Rangers, there’s lightness in there, too.”

            Some of the more intense moments in “Hell Or High Water” are, paradoxically, moments of nearly wordless confrontations that Mackenzie excavates to their emotional depths.  Toby’s humble porch, in particular, becomes the setting of high drama.  This was important to Mackenzie’s take on the film.

“I never really thought of this film as a thriller,” says the director.  “It had to be about a balance between the genre bank robbery elements and the deeper exploration of land and space and people lost in the erosion of change.  These are people who don’t have easy articulacy; they communicate as much in their silences as their sentences.  The ‘porch moments’ feel to me absolutely essential to the film and we felt instinctively drawn to them whenever the opportunity arrived.  When you spend time in that huge very hot empty landscape the porch is such a place of sanctuary and just looking out into that endless horizon feels like second nature — scanning for potential threats.” 

The aliveness of the film’s porch scenes emerges in part out of Mackenzie’s directorial style, which is modern, minimalist and immersive, eschewing typical film set machinery like playback monitors.  He prefers to shoot in long, organic takes, waiting to instinctively discover the truest moments as they happen.

“I like the idea of us feeling like the cameras are almost running all the time, so if you’re in the moment, you’re kept in the mood,” he says.  “It feels to me like modern filmmaking.  It is kind of my method … The way I like to shoot, we get a lot more done in our day and we can build up the performances.  Everything’s more fluid and more energized and more time is spent doing the work.” 

On “Hell or High Water,” Mackenzie works with a veritable icon in Jeff Bridges and a rising leading man in Chris Pine, but all of his characters are stripped down from bravado to vulnerability.  The palpable masculine energy of the film is at times interrupted by women – but it is clear, Mackenzie notes, that these are men who don’t allow women deeply into their worlds. 

“It’s hard to imagine the narrative working with these men grounded by successful relationships with women – apart from Alberto who hints at being in a stable relationship,” Mackenzie observes.   “It is quite consciously a masculine story.  I was very keen to make sure that the women in the story — almost all of whom are passing encounters — were well drawn and sympathetic, but like ‘Starred Up,’ it is essentially a film of men without women.” 

 “Hell Or High Water” has taken Mackenzie’s work to a new level. “I feel I have gotten closer to a more commercial, accessible style of filmmaking in a way which hasn’t compromised the integrity of my work,” he says.  “I now feel ready to tackle films of bigger ambition and scale and comfortable that I can bring humanity and my individual sensibilities to these projects.” 

Taylor Sheridan was thrilled to see how Mackenzie transported his script to the screen with so much visual power and feeling.  “I think David’s a very gifted director,” says the screenwriter.  “He has that rare ability to keep the big picture of the storytelling at the forefront while hammering in on the finer details that make everything come alive. I found him completely ego-less and collaborative … until we got on set and then he knew exactly what he wanted and where to draw the lines, which is as it should be.  In the end, I felt the film was beautifully filmed and orchestrated.” 

Hailing from West Texas himself, from a long line of law enforcement as well, Sheridan says he always hoped “Hell or High Water” would be “a love poem to my home state.”  He explains:  “People in Texas are such fighters, and one way or another, they have been fighting for land, for right or for wrong, for centuries. The history of Texas has been a repeating pattern of conquest and assimilation.  Being from there, I’ve seen it and I’ve also seen that one thing no can ever seem to beat is the bank.  So the bank has become an umbrella symbol for all the ways that West Texas has become a way of life that is now largely for the wealthy, and for all the ways in which it has become nearly impossible for some people to carve out a future there.” 

Sheridan was gratified by Mackenzie’s willingness to grapple with the film’s emotional and social complexities.  “The film is about a state of affairs,” Sheridan says.  “It’s about cycles of poverty and their consequences; it’s about the destruction of the nuclear family; it’s also about how men show love to other men.  You see the reality of a family like Toby and Tanner trying to make a living off 100 cattle and bad land – and you realize along with them that the only way they can truly change this cycle that’s ravaged their family is with money.”