Continued from last week: click here to read the first part.
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.
But also Americans are proud of their guns. Maybe now more than ever that’s a complicated topic. Did you maybe feel a certain responsibility to show guns in a certain way?
That’s a tough one…. I mean… hmmm.
(Here John hesitates, shifting on his feet a little. After walking a few yards in silence, considering his response, he continues.)
I don’t know, it’s hard.
I don’t think it’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to…I don’t know. I could make a western without guns, but I grew up on violent films like Die Hard and Predator and the bigger the gun the better. You know… I just think there’s a difference between screen-violence and violence, and I think to wipe out violence on screen wouldn’t necessarily correlate in any way. I think about things like 24-hour rolling news these days where, in the past you get the news once or twice a day; it gets shown so many times that it becomes like a movie and you can see it unfold. I think it becomes almost a greater problem than film violence, because it glamourises real people and gets real people's attention and they show it again and again and again for days on national television.
Exactly. So all I could do was have a little ode in my film with dead bodies and try and say "These are real people, this land is built on violence, and this is the consequence. All these people died - some of them were desperate." The whole problem with the USA now having gun violence is that they’re just saying that they are evil people, as if there is good and evil inherent in people, rather than people who get into bad situations… and this idea of good and evil is a bit of a problem.
In Slow West, do you think the idea of someone being absolutely bad was at all present, or was it a response to context?
Payne is supposed to be close to evil, but there’s a distinction to be made between glorifying violence and showing it. I find Saw and any torture scenes very hard to watch. It’s that fine line between a real-life thing, and the thing you’re supposed to be getting enjoyment out of.
Do you think people are supposed to shut down their empathy when they watch it?
It’s just that fine line. You’ve got things like Night of the Living Dead or Evil Dead 2 which is highly enjoyable violence, but somehow gets away with it, and then you’ve got other films that I find to be in bad taste. But I think normal people can judge that line for themselves and in Slow West I was surprised how violent people found it, because I didn’t think it was that violent, but I guess it is.
(A tourist interrupts at this opportune moment to ask where he can get a taxi. John directs him up to the bridge before returning back to the interview.)
I really enjoyed the dream sequence with Rose’s character. Was there a deliberate ambiguity over whose dream it was?
Yes, absolutely. The idea was that it was supposed to start off as Jay’s dream and then halfway through it switches to Silas’ dream. In a way it was supposed to be the actual "Whose story is it?" in the film, so up until the middle of that dream it’s Jay’s story and then you come out as Silas at the end of the dream. It becomes more Silas’ story, and Silas is narrating. It was trying to subtly shift that. Very few people have picked up on that point.
There were lovely stories within the story and I think in a sense also in Pitch Black Heist, the background to it. Does that reflect a storytelling culture you grew up with?
Scotland’s got a huge storytelling tradition, and joke-telling. You get long jokes and they’re like stories. In a way, as well, I do love that about Tarantino: in Hateful Eight it was one of my favourites and also in Reservoir Dogs when you go into another story about a drug-deal. I think they’re always useful.
And how was it going from telling a short story to a feature-length film as a writer?
Very very tough. I had a script editor who really helped, and I think I couldn’t have done it without her, because I didn’t know which rules to keep and which to break, and some rules I didn’t know about at all. I think some people think that when they’re writing a feature film it’s about breaking rules and that will make things more experimental and unique. That’s not the case. It’s more…directions…It’s more about having fun within the rules that will make it. There are certain rules that you just can’t break. What I’m trying to say is if you’re making a drama, there are dramatic rules.
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.