By Paul Risker.
Slow West (2015) finds a young filmmaker stepping onto the landscape of an established genre: America’s own, the Western. It is a journey onto an old and familiar stage that offsets Scottish writer/director John Maclean’s youthful career. Slow West is his feature directorial debut, preceded only by couple of short films and a background at art school.
The popular tendency to lament the demise of the Western reflects our morbid fascination with death. In his review of Slow West for Film International, Eli Savada wrote: “Slow West is the latest film that tries to reinvent a genre that has died off more times than John Wayne can remember. And he’s dead, too.” Perhaps this tendency to lament the death of the Western is another symptom of our obsession with our own (imagined) destruction. And if we are talking of the Western then the emphasis on mortality is inherently implied, yet it seems that someone forgot to tell John Maclean that he was taking a stroll amongst the tombstones of a fallen landscape, and that he’s working in what Neil Campbell calls the “post-Western” (see his Post-Westerns: Cinema, Region, West from University of Nebraska Press, 2013).
Opposite the veteran Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman (2014), Slow West is suggestive of the Western’s capacity to inspire a present and future generation of filmmakers. Maclean with his first steps into feature filmmaking has contributed a notable work to the genre’s canon, a slow and melodic journey in the rugged yet aesthetic beauty of the bloodstained skin of the genre. And under his directorial and cinematographic supervision, the waltzing gaze of his camera, offset by the stillness of his characters in the violent mayhem imbues the film and therein genre with an energetic dance like movement.
In conversation with Film International Maclean recalls the moment that led to his stepping into the shoes of a filmmaker, and the way in which his perspective of the Western and more broadly cinema have been shaped by his filmmaking experiences. He also took the time to reflect how his approach and influences shaped Slow West. “The brilliant thing about the Western is that you can be influenced by them” he explains. “But then you can also go against what everyone else has done.” This is wisdom in genre filmmaking, indeed.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Yeah, I think there was actually. I grew up with my dad taking me to the cinema and I really started to get into film, but always thinking that I could never make them. It was always something someone else did and when I was a student I started working in the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh. I did a lot of late night double-bills screenings of classic films, and it was around 1992 that Quentin Tarantino came with Reservoir Dogs. He did a talk and I was in the audience, and it really struck me what he was talking about – how myself being influenced by old films and music meant that this was something that was possible. I think that was the moment I decided to work towards where I am now.
With short films and your feature directorial debut under your belt, how have these experiences changed your perspective of cinema?
It is funny because I have re-evaluated mainstream cinema, and the more I study film and make films the more I appreciate the commercial end of the spectrum. I guess I grew up watching films like Jaws (1975), E.T (1982), Star Wars (1977-1983) and Indiana Jones (1981-89). I always saw them as just entertainment, but once I’d made a film I began to look at a film like Indiana Jones’ (the first one) camera work, editing and the way that Spielberg told that story, and it just fills me now with much more admiration than I used to have. So it has actually made me re-evaluate some of those popular films.
Bringing the discussion around to the Western, are you a fan of the genre and with the intimate opportunity writing and directing afforded you to explore the Western film, how has this influenced your perception of the genre?
I was a big fan of Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) and the Spaghetti Westerns especially – they were the first lot I really fell in love with. Then I went back to see where they came from by watching a lot of the John Ford films such as My Darling Clementine (1946), as well as High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953). And the more Westerns I watched the more I appreciated the genre. I find it funny how people always talk about revisionist Westerns because when I re-watched a lot of Westerns, each one was a kind of revisionist from the previous generation. And so it feels like Westerns are two genres mixed together – you have horror-westerns, noir-westerns, melodrama-westerns and romantic-westerns.
When I started thinking about doing a Western myself it felt like it became a coming of age or a road movie Western, and I thought that as long as I set it in the West and it had the horses and the guns, then the story should be universal and could be told in any genre. But then the brilliant thing about the Western is that you can be influenced by them and so I was looking a lot at films like McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971). But then you can also go against what everyone else has done. Westerns are usually full of Americans and in my reading of the West at that time there were still a lot of settlers; there was a lot of migration. So why not fill my Western with Irish, Scottish, Scandinavian and Germans, and have very few American Americans in there? So yes, everyone knows the clichés and they are good to play around with.
Your cinematographic approach to action scenes is almost like a dance at times, specifically the way the characters interact with the violence through the positioning and movement of the camera.
Yeah, I think there was a lot of influence from European cinema, especially when it came to the end shootout and the other sequences of action and violence. I really started looking at Bresson and I was thinking how in the end shootout the camera never moves; it was all static shots. I just thought that it would be an interesting challenge to do a kind of mayhem shootout, but with an always static camera. And I think that’s what gives it kind of a dance element because then it very much comes down to the editing and rhythm. You have to be very specific when you shoot statics – everyone has to be in their place and not just running around. So there’s no real blocking and it has to be quite specific.
I think I got a lot from maybe watching people like the Coen Brothers shoot action in Miller’s Crossing (1990), in which it is very storyboarded and the action that is shot is very specific. You could pause, look and study it even though it is in the middle of a gunfight, and I felt that was the way I wanted to go to take it away from the Peckinpah mayhem or some of the other ways people shoot action. So I think this is probably where that came from.
Picking up on your point about the editing, certain wisdom suggests that editing is the best training ground for a director. How important was your experience of editing your earlier shorts in helping you to develop as a director, and how difficult was it transitioning to working with an editor on Slow West?
It was actually quite a hard transition having to start working with an editor because I had edited everything myself, and that’s really where you make the film. You need to build up a lot of trust and mutual understanding to work with an editor. It almost feels like you have to have the same rhythm in your heartbeat, otherwise if the timing is different then it is never going to feel like it is cut in the right place. Although I did take a lot of scenes to edit myself – learning Avid – I was lucky with Slow West because the editor I finally worked with had a rhythm that I really enjoyed, and it worked really well. So yeah that took a bit of getting used to, but I think either editing yourself or the relationship you have with the editor is so important.
And if my research is correct you have a musical background?
Yeah, I went to art school actually and so I feel like I have a painting background. When you go to art school a lot of the people are interested in music and bands, and so I met a bunch of musicians there that I went on to work with. But I was very much interested in the filmmaking even then, and when we finished a song I would relish doing the music video for it. I would try to make it as short filmy as possible, and so that was my training ground.
A filmmaker once remarked to me that writing is like composing a piece of music and directing is like standing on the podium conducting the orchestra. I would be interested to hear how music plays into the filmmaking process for you personally.
I found it not so much in the writing for Slow West, but as a connection, just because it felt so different. It felt a little bit more like architecture, designing a building that would stay up. Music at its best can be so off the cuff, so heartfelt and vulnerable, whereas the script just felt like it had to be a building. I never thought of that before, but yeah, during the shoot there is something about conducting for sure. And even if you are in a band with four other people, depending on who had the idea for the sound someone is still always conducting. But in the edit is when it seemed to really matter. It wasn’t so much the soundtrack or the score, it was much as I said before the editing rhythm. It felt the same as the way you compile an album – you want it to be slow at the start or to build up, or like the DJ set you want to make sure the following record is just slightly better than the record before. You sort of learn something from each scene, take something and make the next scene a little bit, not necessarily better, but a little bit more…. It just felt like the rhythm had to slowly increase throughout the film, and that felt like the most musical process.
Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Would you agree and how has the experience of Slow West impacted you both personally and professionally, as well as having served to inform you moving forward?
It is tough and so I think you have to come out of it having had a metaphorical bloody nose now and again, and having been beaten up a little bit. So I feel like I am just a little bit more savvy; a little bit tougher and the skin is that little bit thicker. When you are making a film you are really trying to hold onto what you had in the beginning all the way through to the end, which may take two or three years. And to never lose that feeling and to hold onto that sometimes is really difficult. So you question yourself as much as you question others around you, and in the end all you have is instinct really. So you just have to follow your instincts, but yeah I definitely feel like you kind of come out of it slightly more battle ready for the next time.
Slow West was released on DVD & Blu-ray through Lions Gate Home Entertainment.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.