First published (in a shorter version) by Grolsch FilmWorks
A founding member first of the Beta Band, and then of the Aliens (whose videos he also directed), John Maclean went on to make two short films, Man On A Motorcycle (2009) and Pitch Black Heist (2011), both starring Michael Fassbender. Now his feature debut, the oneiric oater Slow West, also stars Fassbender as the outlaw Silas who guides 16-year-old Jay Cavendish (Cody Smit-McPhee) to his fugitive love Rose (newcomer Caren Pistorius) in the wilds of Colorado.
Anton Bitel: Hey there, John. Slow West opens with Silas’ voiceover declaring, “Once upon a time, 1870 to be exact…” We see the stars above, and hear Jay reciting their names from ancient mythology, and yet there he is, lying on his back, literally grounded. How important was it for you to find a balance between the mythic and the historic, the universal and the specific?
John Maclean: I think that’s what sparked making the film in the first place, really. I tried to do something which I felt was truthful, and from my experience of being wide-eyed, and being in America, and noticing how wide the sky was there, and how important the stars were, and – all those elements, with something that was very much like a fairytale, and very dreamlike. Those were the starting points of the film for me. Definitely the fairytale element was something that started to come out while I was writing the film.
AB: In a flashback to Scotland, Jay’s beloved Rose calls Jay her ‘Romeo’, alluding to the social barriers that doom any relationship they might have. Later Rose will be involved in another relationship that is forbidden “until”, as she says, “civilisation arrives”. Are the frontiers in your western erotic as much as geographical?
JM: Yeah, I think there’s a scene with Payne and Silas as well, when they kind of, er – they get quite close. That’s where I was trying to be universal or contemporary in a way, and also maybe add something that was truthful personally for me. I was never – obviously – around in 1870, but I’ve known what is felt to love an older woman who doesn’t love you back when you’re a teenager. So it’s really trying to approach the personal but then take it to the nth degree of ridiculousness. Instead of just not being able to bond with a girl who says, “You’re the little brother I’ve never had,” Jay chases her across the Wild West of America – [which] is a different thing.
AB: The story of Slow West features magic mushrooms and absinthe, and your cinematographer Robbie Ryan appears to have used unorthodox lenses to produce some impossibly deep focus. And of course your film is full of Jay’s memories and dreams. Did you intend these narrative and visual elements as complementary to the somewhat hallucinatory approach that you are taking to the western genre?
JM: I had three rules for Robbie when we started: I wanted everything in focus, so deep focus; I wanted mostly fixed camera or track, but no real handheld or anything, and I wanted the dream sequences and the absinthe sequences to be filmed with a similar straightness to the straight sequences. [In other films] sometimes when people have flashbacks or dream sequences, suddenly the grade changes or the style changes, but I thought it was enough for the situation to change and then keep filming it in the same way. The dream sequences and the absinthe sequences are actually shot pretty similarly to the shootouts in a way, [with] the same kind of technique. In order to achieve full deep focus, we had to use split diopters sometimes, so there was a lot of in-camera stuff. We were just using every way we could to keep everything in focus, really.
AB: How do you think your film relates to the western genre?
JM: I think it mixes my love for America and my love for the western, and everything I learnt from watching not just The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, but watching Shane and Red River and Rio Bravo. You know people talk about certain westerns being revisionist, but it seemed to me from watching all these films that every western is revisionist, every western kinda mixes genres. So you have the kind of realistic arthouse western of McCabe and Mrs Miller, then you have the action western of The Wild Bunch, and then you have the kind of melancholic melodrama of Red River, or even the sort of male-male love story of Shane. So I feel like it’s just another western, because it does what all those films do, which is take the western and try and do something different with it. At the same time I’m a European filmmaker and I’m coming with these sort of European tourist eyes, so really, we’re trying to make a tourist view of the west or something.
AB: Your film uses New Zealand as a double for Colorado, and your story is populated with characters from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Sweden and the Congo – as well of course as Native Americans. Was this multiculturalism something imposed by a British/New Zealand co-production, or are you also making a comment on the melting pot from which the modern United States emerged?
JM: Very much the latter – it was all in the script. Before I even chose New Zealand. I had all these characters. You know, when I travelled America, and when I talked to Americans, the first thing a lot of Americans would say to me is, “My grandfather is Scottish,” or “My great grandfather was Irish.” And then, reading the history of the West, a lot of the cowboys were German, and a lot of the shopkeepers were Scandinavian – so it felt that that wasn’t really truly represented in some of the history of the western, where everyone’s just kind of American already. One of the early scenes of the film was to link things like the Highland Clearances and the famine, and people that were travelling out there from Scotland and Ireland into that world, and then linking that to the Wild West.
AB: Jay’s private dream – which we see, and which is realised in all kinds of odd, unexpected ways as the film goes on – was that also a version of the American dream?
JM: Not so much maybe the American dream, but more the birth of America, I think. The people that survived America were practical people – like Silas, and like Rose – because it was always all about survival and practicalities. And then having these Swedish kids come in later as well [in the film]. When I read about the movement around America at that time, the pioneers, you know – someone would be left at the side of the road and their family would have not survived, and the kids would have been picked up by people from a different culture and a different country. It just felt like some of the birth of that kind of post-native America. So I guess that dream was, as well as being about the personal journey of Jay and his loss in the future, it was very much about the birth of modern America.
AB: Andrew Robertt plays a German anthropologist/adventurer recording the emergence of the New World. Did you name this character ‘Werner’ as a tribute to Werner Herzog?
JM: Yes. I just felt that he was perhaps some distant relative, some great grandfather of Herzog, who was interested in documenting what was going on at the time, with the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity. Part of me always thought that – spoiler alert here – he robbed from Jay to give to the natives – that he was not quite as bad as he could seem, considering what he did. I’m a big fan of Herzog’s cinema as well, so it was nice to put that nod in there.
AB: What were the key cinematic influences on Slow West?
JM: I think, unusually, maybe something like Bresson was a key influence, all these Bresson films. When I talked to Robbie Ryan about camerawork and stuff, I mentioned Bresson quite a lot. And then some early Japanese cinema like Woman of the Dunes and Onibaba. They were key for the landscape and the way that the story is constructed around small sets – and wheatfields. And then there’d be Badlands, and Days of Heaven, and McCabe and Mrs Miller, and films that mixed that dreamlike quality with a certain realism. And perhaps Fargo as well – the Coen brothers – for mixing humour with tragedy, butted up against each other. They were some of the main influences.
AB: You have already worked with Michael Fassbender on your first two shorts. Is he your muse, or what?
JM: ‘Muse’ would be disrespectful to Michael, because I always think that’s someone who doesn’t really have input, whereas it’s more really a collaboration, you know. That’s the best thing about it. I think being able to collaborate, even at script stage, and let Michael read it, talk about the character, is a treat to have from an actor, especially an actor as busy as Michael and as talented as Michael. Yeah, he saw something in my early work, and we decided to do something together. I got him for one day on Man on a Motorcycle, and the I got him for three days on Pitch Black Heist. I think if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so we just keep going, keep rolling with it.
AB: What’s next?
JM: I think something perhaps contemporary. I’m a big fan of the noir heist crime genre as well, so I might look into thinking along those lines at the moment, so that’s kind of a rough palette to start with.