Slow West: ‘I wanted to make a film about desperation’

Scottish musician turned filmmaker John Maclean discusses his debut feature Slow West, a distinctive and thrilling revisionist western.

23 June 2015

By Ann Lee

Slow West (2015)

“Shane, High Noon, My Darling Clementine, Red River, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West…” Scottish writer-director John Maclean is reeling off a list of all the classic movies that he tried hard not to emulate when making Slow West. “They’ve been done – well – and you don’t want to make an ode to them.” You see, he’s not really a big fan of following the obvious route. That’s why he decided to make a western for his debut feature. “I was thinking a lot about people’s first films. It’s always something from childhood. I thought, ‘Why not do something completely different?’”

His take on the genre, one that seems so intrinsically American, puts immigrants at the forefront of the story for a change. The Wild West, still a dangerous obstacle course filled with guns, horses and spectacular mountain vistas, is seen through the eyes of Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a naive Scottish teenager.

It’s 1870. He’s looking for his sweetheart Rose (newcomer Caren Pistorius), who’s on the run with her dad (Rory McCann). Along the way, he’s taken under the wing of cynical Irish bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender) but the vultures are circling after marking him out as easy prey. Outlaw Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) is hot on their heels with his gang, eager to claim a reward offered for the fugitive father and daughter.

Slow West (2015)

The idea for Slow West was inspired by Maclean’s adventures around the States when he was touring with cult folktronica outfit The Beta Band. He was their DJ and keyboard player, cutting his teeth in filmmaking by directing their music videos until they broke up in 2004.

John Maclean

“When I travelled around America everyone said to me, ‘oh, my grandfather was Scottish,’ or, ‘my great-grandfather was Irish.’ When you read authentic accounts like Little House on the Prairie, the dad’s Scottish. In one or two westerns there are nods to that but I just thought it would be quite nice to fill a film with that because it hadn’t been done before. It seemed more truthful.”

Part coming-of-age drama, part buddy movie, part savage thriller, Slow West steadily deconstructs the myth of the American Dream using a distinctively European sensibility. The shoot didn’t actually take place in the States, with New Zealand standing in for Colorado, adding to the sense of eerie dislocation.

Maclean’s offbeat depiction of a cultural melting pot full of drifters a long way from home, whose only common language is violence, is wonderfully surreal. At one point, a Congolese band appears out of nowhere, one of them using his wheelchair as a drum, and no one bats an eyelid.

Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous cinematography enhances the film’s dreamlike feel; from the smear of blood on the side of a house to a caterpillar wriggling over a man’s face, every frame is crisply composed and awash with vivid colours. This is the revisionist western reimagined as a whimsical fairy tale viewed through the warm nostalgia of unrequited love. Deadpan gallows humour, in the spirit of the Coen brothers, provides the laughs.

Rising star Smit-McPhee, all wide-eyed wonder and gangly Bambi legs, had the exact look Maclean was searching for, and with his gentle Scottish brogue you’d be hard-pressed to guess he’s actually Australian. “I looked in Scotland a bit but it’s quite hard to find 17-year-olds who haven’t gone to the gym, or who have the classical otherworldliness that Kodi’s got.”

This is the third time Maclean has worked with Fassbender; he also starred in his shorts Man on a Motorcycle (2009) and BAFTA-winner Pitch Black Heist (2010). Is he now a muse? “Oh, yeah it would be hard for him not to be a muse,” he smiles. “But muse sounds a bit like he’s not a collaborator and he’s a good person to collaborate with.”

So much so that the actor came on board as executive producer this time round. “When I said I was interested in making a western, he was up for it. He’s of a similar generation to me who grew up loving The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” The part of Silas was even created with Fassbender in mind. “I was writing someone that I knew was tough yet sort of vulnerable, who could do something quite brutal but was able to maintain sympathy.”

Unlike many westerns, Slow West is more interested in notions of innocence and vulnerability than it is in macho posturing. It’s what Silas sees in Jay, and he instinctively seeks to protect it, carefully cupping his hands around the flickering flame to prevent it from being extinguished even as he schools him in the art of killing.

Slow West (2015)

“The tutor becomes the student and vice versa,” Maclean explains. “It’s like a brotherly relationship. Silas is teaching Jay to be a man but without realising it, Jay is teaching Silas that, like it says in the film, there’s more to life than survival. He’s so preoccupied by self-preservation, he hasn’t bonded with anyone.”

Ben Mendelsohn, resplendent in a magnificent fur coat, is menacingly charismatic as the baddie. Maclean gave the actor a copy of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) to watch so he could study Butler, the film’s charming but ruthless bounty hunter. He wanted Payne to be just as ambiguous. “I wanted to give sympathy to the bad guy and put doubt in the good guys so there’s more of a grey area, just because I think that’s more interesting. I didn’t want to make a film about good versus evil. I wanted to make a film about desperation.”

Slow West (2015)

Nuanced characterisation isn’t limited to the male parts. Rose is no stereotypical damsel in distress, despite what Jay might think. The director rails against the familiar trope of men as knights in shining armour. “It’s funny in cinema now, we’re still having men going over to save helpless women. There’s an interesting western called Meek’s Cutoff (2010) that dealt with the stupidity of men more than the greatness of women. It definitely felt like there was an element of that in this where the men mess up and bring all the violence and trouble, and the women have to deal with it.”

The filmmaker is leaving the past far behind for his next project, which will be something “contemporary”. “I’m interested in the noir heist genre,” is all he’ll reveal. Will Fassbender be in it? “If the script’s good enough and there’s a character he can get his teeth into, at least I have his number.”

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