Published on May 28th, 2015 | by Allan Brown0
Interview: Director John Maclean Talks Slow West
When the Scottish folktronica group ‘The Beta Band‘ called it a day back in 2004, the groups resident DJ and Keyboard player John Maclean begun setting his sights on a rather different career path. Having developed a particular set of skills and taste for directing the band’s music videos over the years – coupled with his unbridled love for cinema, ultimately lead the ambitious Scotsman in pursuing a career in filmmaking.
First come ‘Man on a Motorcycle’ in 2009, followed by ‘Pitch Black Heist’ in 2011 (for which Maclean won the BAFTA for best short). Both films were greatly received and marked the beginning of a strong working relationship with acting giant; Michael Fassbender, who starred in both.
Recently John was kind enough to grant Movie Review World the opportunity to interview him about his glorious début feature: SLOW WEST (hitting UK cinemas on 26th June 2015). Not only has the director garnered an impeccable roster of talent for his first feature film – Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn, but has taken on the genre of the mighty American Western with astonishing effect. Here is what he had to say…
Having studied at the Edinburgh and London colleges of Art, you then went on to form the critically acclaimed and much admired folktronica band; The Beta Band. How did the opportunity come about for you to venture into film-making, and was it always something you were interested in pursuing from the start?
John Maclean: Hi, it was something I was always interested in – While at art school I worked in a Cinema in Edinburgh called the Cameo and worked late night double bills , which was my film education. When we started the Beta Band I made sure I got to direct the videos and made them very short film-like , so again learning to edit and write and direct without a budget, so when the band split up I began to make short films.
Your first feature film Slow West gets its UK cinema release on 26 June; can you tell us what we can expect and where the inspiration for the film came from?
JM: I travelled America often, before the band and with the band, and I read about the highland clearances in Scotland and the famine in Ireland, and was thinking about the migration from Europe to America in the 1800s , and thinking about Westerns and the overlap , not fully explored in ‘Westerns’ cinema
As a relatively new film-maker, you haven’t half managed to muster a powerhouse of talent for your first film. How did you manage to assemble such a wealth of talent for your début feature?
JM: Well I made 2 shorts with Michael Fassbender, he’d seen some of my Beta Band videos and offered his services for a day shoot back in 2009. So I developed a working relationship with Michael and he signed on to Slow West from the beginning. Once you have a name like Michaels attached to the script its easier to attract actors that would love to work with Michael , also the script was tight, I spent a long time perfecting it, so that helps
The look and feel of Slow West stuck me as incredibly real and authentic, unlike many of the more romanticised recreations we often see in Hollywood films. How much research did you have to do in the period, and as a Scotsman, where you at all worried about taking on the MIGHTY western genre that is almost sacred to American movie culture?
JM: I did a lot of research. Mainly reading books written at the time of the Wild West – Little House on the Prairie, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bearce, Hawthorne, which are more authentic than historical myth making literature. I thought that as long as I was truthful then it would be fine tackling the American genre , so I filmed through the eyes of a young Scottish boy , as a tourist, like I was when exploring America. And I respect the genre, so have watched most Westerns and do not see Slow West as an ironic take on the western , more a love letter to the Western.
Did the actors have to go through any kind of Wild West boot camp before filming, and did the landscape of NZ (where the film was shot) present any challenges?
JM: I think Colorado would have presented more challenges trying to play Colorado than New Zealand. The weather was great in Nov Dec in New Zealand, and the specific locations I had written about in the script were more accessible in NZ.
Young Australian actor Kodi-Smit-McPhee offers one of the most authentic Scottish accents from a non-Scottish actor, I have heard in recent memory. Born in Perth, did this mean you were his go to guy and voice coach to nail the accent? 😛
JM: Yes , there was a triple whammy for Kodi, first we recorded an Edinburgh actor saying the lines, then we had a great voice coach on set, then as we filmed if anything was still wobbly, Id correct Kodi and we’d retake, but props to Kodi as it’s a tricky accent
Slow West will mark your third collaboration with Michael Fassbender having previously made two shorts; ‘Man on a Motorcycle’ and the Bafta winning short ‘Pitch Black Heist’. What is it in your view that allows for such a strong working relationship?
JM: Firstly the material has to be up to scratch , and then I have to be very prepared. As he is super prepared as an actor, so respect. And a willingness to be brave with the script and take it in different directions to try to come up with something original, which is what Michael is interested in too.
With two shorts films behind you, how did you find the transition to shooting a feature length film with a much larger cast and crew, did it come naturally or was there a transitional period where you had to find your feet?
JM: It actually felt quite natural, once you get used to the circus, it is the same in the end – me the actor and the camera man , the storyboard and the intention of the scene. It really is all the massive preparation that is different.
Having worked in both the Cameo cinema in Edinburgh (my haunt) and the Gate in London, you said you used to watch as many films as often as you could. Is there any stand out directors, actors or indeed films that you could say are direct influences in your work as a film-maker today and what was the last film you saw that left a lasting impression?
JM: The last film I saw in the cinema I loved was Force Majeure , but Mad Max also left a different kind of impression. I could list 100 directors, films, influences.. for Slow West , I guess – A Man Escaped, Assault on Precinct 13, Mccabe and Mrs Miller, My Darling Clementine, Red River, Woman of the Dunes, Onibaba, Tokyo Story, Die Hard, The Iron Horse, Shame (Bergman), Badlands , Days of Heaven, High Plains Drifter etc etc.
If you were offered an unlimited budget to direct a film with your choice of any actor/actress, is there a specific passion project tucked away that you have always wanted to tackle?
JM: Unlimited budget would have to be a Sci-Fi /Space movie.
A question I often like to ask when interviewing film-makers, is their opinion on the industry today. Do you think there is still an audience for smaller indie pictures in amongst the huge scale blockbusters that dominate the multiplexes? Is it becoming increasingly difficult to find finance for such films, and what do you think the future holds for the independent film-maker?
JM: I think it’s a pretty good time for cinema, I don’t like to break films down into indie and mainstream , because some main stream films, Mad Max for example are more indie in spirit than some indie films, and World cinema is another term which is meaningless to me . Some of the huge cinema chains in London are fading and some independent chains seam to be springing up again , so like video stores, it is blockbusters that dies, and small independent stores survive.
What’s next for John Maclean, do you have any protects on the horizon you can tell us about?
JM: I’m writing again , possibly a thriller / Noir and possibly contemporary , that’s all I have at the moment.
Interview By: Allan Brown
SLOW WEST arrives in UK cinemas 26 June 2015. Check out the latest trailer below or for the film review, click here