Zander Sharp went for a stroll with director John Maclean along the River Thames for a chat on reworking the Western, gun violence in America, and the transition from short film to feature-length production.
Looking at the ‘Slow’ half of Slow West, were you hoping to put your own stamp on the Western genre?
Yeah, I think the first thing was to not have Americans really, because when I was travelling in America I started doing a lot of reading and realising that in 1870 there still would have been a lot of first and second generation Scottish and Irish and German. Most cowboys were German, most shopkeepers were Scandinavian - all that kind of stuff. So it was just coming at it from more of a migrant perspective. That was the main thing.
And what about having such a vulnerable protagonist in a traditionally macho genre?
Well that just naturally went that way. I started off liking the idea that the sort of British Aristocracy would be fine dining and all that the same time that the Wild West was going on and then that started me thinking along the lines of "let’s make him really out of place." That contrasted with Michael [Fassbender] playing Silas from the beginning and that he could be nothing but capable...
(At this point we are separated by a flock of German tourists. We loop around them and rejoin.)
I thought the development of Fassbender’s character in Pitch Black Heist to a parallel but equally deceptive character in Slow West was an interesting link.
Yeah, there’s definitely a theme where people aren’t what they say are and I’d say "Ah I don’t know where that’s come from whether I’ve been cruelly wronged in my life, or whether I’ve wronged….not sure which…"
Going back to that topic of migration, I thought it interesting that you didn’t mention the Highland Clearing at all.
There was more of that initially, because there’s an extended flashback that I filmed - a lot of conversations where it cuts back to the Scottish croft and there’s a lot of men come in and they start talking about the clearances, but it stopped working as it couldn’t be Jay’s memory. So we were trying in the edit, but people wanted it to be in America and it went too off-topic. So the other problem with the highland clearances is they were so black and white. When you’re making interesting films you’ve always got to have the grey area, you can’t just have absolute goodies and absolute baddies. The landlords can’t be good and the crofters can’t be bad because it’s just undermining the treachery of the time. It’s a bit like the Native Americans. American cinema would have them as running cowboy bow-and-arrow stuff in the 30's and 40's, and then in the 70's and 80's have them as these truly good people, which was patronising and insulting.
So how were you going to try and break that pattern you had noticed?
I read a lot of accounts at the time of Native Americans and the main sort of things I realised was that they just come into the house because they don’t really have the same concept of European borders and boundaries. They just walk into the house, lift something up, and then walk out again. And the other thing was that there were certain tribes that were horse thieves and always had been. I think the Apache tribes were always nicking horses. Horses were so…
Yeah, I didn’t actually realise they’d been introduced by Europeans, um, but then also they became survival because all of a sudden they were a gift for nomadic tribes. So uh…
(At this point John trails off and listens to a busker for a moment.)
The Native Americans influence…
Yeah, I do feel that there was such a bad holocaust for the Native Americans that in America for the US film industry to keep making war films and Nazi films is a bit odd. At some point they need to acknowledge their own massive holocaust of the Native Americans. And also the Mexicans and Chinese - they got such raw deal in the building of America that was just ignored.
Did you find British and American audiences responded differently?
Thankfully they responded the same. I opened at Sundance, which is named after a Western, and there are lots of real mid-west Americans that I spoke to at a few American screenings and the response was really good. I got a call from a director that was going to make a western and he wondered how I’d managed to get the atmosphere of that kind of time and place and space not coming from America.
Or filming in America...
Yeah, I was slightly concerned that Americans are so proud of being American. So to suggest that not long ago they were migrants… I thought that would maybe strike a nerve. But I knew travelling in America that they’re also proud of their heritage, especially the Scottish and Irish there; always keen to talk about their grandparents there and know as the first thing…. I met Robert Redford at Sundance and he said [in a US accent] "Oh my grandfather’s Scottish".To be continued next week.
Maclean's Slow West was the 2015 winner of the Sundance Institute’s World Cinema Jury Prize. It features Shame’s Michael Fassbender as Silas, an outlaw who agrees to guide a young Scottish man (Kodi Smitt-Mcphee) across America in pursuit of the woman he loves. Maclean first came to critical attention with his 2011 BAFTA-winning short Pitch Black Heist, also starring Fassbender. John Maclean was named one of BAFTA's 'Brits to Watch' and was sampler/keyboardist for cult 'folktronica' band The Beta Band. He is currently working on the script for a second feature.