David Mackenzie: Trying to Avoid Genre

Feature by Philip Concannon | 06 Sep 2016
  • Hell or High Water

Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie, director of Young Adam, Perfect Sense and Starred Up, talks genre, atmosphere and shooting under pressure ahead of the release of his taut new thriller Hell or High Water

As he has zig-zagged from one film to another throughout his eclectic career, David Mackenzie has held fast to two principles: a determination to avoid repeating himself, and an avoidance of anything that gave off a whiff of genre conventions. The director has succeeded admirably in the first instance, but his new film Hell or High Water is a thriller in a classic mould; in fact, it is his second film to conform to a familiar template after his 2013 prison drama Starred Up. So what happened?

“I've always hated genre,” the director admits to The Skinny. “I mean, I spent the first six or seven films of my career trying to avoid genre, and I really got angry when people tried to put films into a genre box. I had to get over it with Starred Up because I couldn't escape it. It was always going to be a prison drama, you know what I mean?”

Just because something fits into a genre doesn’t mean it has to be generic, however, and as soon as Mackenzie read Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay he knew he had something special in his hands.

“The script was a kind of revelation for me because it starts off like you think it's a straight genre thing and then you start seeing resonance, poetry and humour and all those things, and then it becomes something else,” he says. “You realise it's about dispossession and these antagonistic characters who are feeling their way through their relationships and unpeeling the layers of that antagonism to reveal affection, and a lot of it is about the land and themes of contemporary America. As I read it I'm going, ‘Wow, it's a genre movie but it's all this too,’ and then just as I'm getting bored of one flavour another flavour comes in, so as a narrative journey for me it's exactly the kind of thing I'm interested in.”

Letting Hell or High Water’s characters breathe

The experience that Mackenzie had reading Hell or High Water on the page is replicated on the screen. The film contains all the archetypes of a straightforward thriller, with a lawman nearing retirement (Jeff Bridges) chasing down two bank-robbing brothers – a violent hothead (Ben Foster) and a good guy at heart (Chris Pine) – and at 102 minutes it’s a refreshingly lean, taut genre exercise. But what lingers in the mind is the surprising amount of downtime in the film, scenes in which the characters just sit and talk, their dialogue deepening our understanding of the relationship between the two brothers or between Bridges’ sheriff and his partner (Gil Birmingham).

“It's a real juggle to try and do that,” Mackenzie says. “Some of those scenes are people not even talking, they're just breathing in the atmosphere. They're really important to the flavour of the film but you don't want the thing to lag. I've worked with my editor Jake [Roberts], who’s a very talented man, on five films, and a lot of what we're trying to do is keep the flow and feel the different flavours of the film. The two brothers have a different energy to the two rangers, and you're trying to keep a flow that allows you to move forward while giving these things the space to do what they need to do.”

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in Hell or High Water

That sense of breathing space is particularly remarkable when downtime was a luxury that Mackenzie simply didn’t have during the first two weeks of the shoot. Working with movie stars means dealing with movie star schedules, and with Chris Pine’s presence being required on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Mackenzie and his team had to move fast to get everything they needed before Paramount beamed him up. Mackenzie was able to turn this restriction to his advantage, though, shooting everything with Pine and Foster before Bridges and Birmingham even arrived on set, and filming the outlaws’ half of the story in sequence.

“The opening shot of the film was the first thing we shot, and progressing through a film like that, as I did on Starred Up too, is great for a director, because the last thing you did informs the next thing you do, and you don't have to think about it in some weird logical way,” he says. “It becomes very intuitive. Actors absolutely love it because they can do the same thing. I know Chris just loved the freedom that we had, the 'jazz filmmaking' as he called it, and so the lack of time was actually a great benefit.”

The biggest challenge Mackenzie faced came right at the end of Pine’s time on the set, as his schedule overlapped with Bridges by one day and so the director had only one chance to film their tense climactic encounter. “I had quite a lot to do in one day. It worked out alright and I was happy with the scene, but it was a pressurised moment,” he recalls with an anxious laugh. “And then after that it was a different pace. We didn't have so much schedule pressure so it was like a normal film, and we slowed down and enjoyed it. As a result those guys have a different energy, more laid-back, and it really works in terms of those different flavours.”

"The less I pre-plan the better" – David Mackenzie

It helps that Mackenzie is not a man who likes to pre-plan or overthink his approach to filmmaking. “The way you're going to shoot it suggests itself (a) by the environment you're shooting in and (b) by how the actors feel,” he says. “As a director I've developed a sense that the less I pre-plan the better. Obviously if you're doing a stunt thing then you do have to work through it, but the more that you're open to the opportunities of what's really cooking on the day, and the less you lock that down in your head with preconception, then, for me, the better results you get. There's more freewheeling joy in that, and it gives you a better connection to the material than anything you can pre-plan.”

A sense of place also informs Mackenzie’s filmmaking. Hell or High Water was shot on location, in real banks, diners and casinos, and it possesses the sense of authenticity that the director is always striving for. “I really can't imagine going into a set-based environment again, where you can lean on the walls and they wobble,” he says. “With Starred Up half the job was done when we turned up to work in the morning because that location really spoke to you, it was a very powerful atmosphere, so you switched into gear. I guess it's not dissimilar to method acting because you can tap into that reality.”

The production faced a challenge at first in getting banks to let them fire off guns and stage a robbery with the real tellers serving as extras, but their efforts paid off. “The weird thing was, a week after we finished shooting one of the banks we filmed in was robbed for real, so they sort of knew what to do!”

This is the second film Mackenzie has made in America following 2009’s Spread, but he’s not sure where his diverse career will take him next. “I have the attitude that it's all about the project and I don't really have a strong sense of where that's going to take place. I'm developing projects in Britain, the United States and Europe so I'm not sure what's going to materialise first.” A television pilot shot in Canada is next on the agenda, but we shouldn’t expect to see him joining the rush towards small screen storytelling: “No matter what anybody says about the Golden Age of TV, I still think cinema is much better,” he says firmly.

The director is also keenly aware that scripts like Hell or High Water don’t come along very often, particularly in a film industry that often seems starkly divided between tentpole blockbusters and microbudget indies, with the adult, mid-budget films that used to be the pride of Hollywood seeming to be forgotten. Still, Mackenzie is hopeful that we are on the cusp of a change.

“I think it's creeping back. That is exactly what this film was, to some extent, and I think people have realised that the hole in the market of quality material that's resourced enough to make properly, and to possibly work with big-name actors and that sort of thing, is something that's worth revitalising, “ he says. “I have a feeling that there's a kind of mood swing in Hollywood to move back towards that, which I think is great because that's where most of the good films come from. Fingers crossed.”

Hell or High Water is released 9 Sep by StudioCanal