Interview with Slow West Director, John Maclean

Slow West is one of my favourite films of the year, and is now out on DVD and Blu-Ray. The story of a young man named Jay, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who travels to America on a quest to find his lost love and enlists the help of the slightly shady Silas, played by Michael Fassbender, who may have motives of his own.

I sat down with writer-director John Maclean to talk about the film.

What was it that made you decide on Slow West as your first feature after working in short films?

I think it was knowing that I had worked with Michael making short films so I knew that we could do a feature together and so I knew that he would be one of the main characters, and then I just I thought maybe trying something different. A lot of first films are about personal experiences or challenges or something and then I thought “why don’t I do a western instead?”
So it was just trying to do something different really and then I started having a lot of ideas about the subject so it seemed like a good choice.

Were there any specific worries or challenges you had about going into feature film directing?

It’s hard to remember looking back, I think it was a mixture of glorious naiveté. If I saw the massive process I probably would have been freaked out beforehand, but because you do stuff in stages, I really just concentrated on writing the script and I wasn’t thinking about making the film, and then as soon as the script was finished I started thinking about pre-production and costume, so there’s always little bits to think about; the next step rather than thinking about the whole process of making a feature film. And I think all the prep I did made the shoot go really well, so it was actually a very very pleasurable experience.

That’s definitely good and the end result is absolutely lovely. What was it that influenced the decision to film in New Zealand?

I think early on it was just a few people’s schedules, especially Michael and I think he became available November/December so it was summer in New Zealand versus winter in America. It was just a full outdoor shoot with long days of light was the first main reason, and then going over there and then seeing locations that I had written about specifically that seemed to work. So it started off being practical but quickly became quite an obvious choice really.

It definitely matches the raw wilderness element to the time period.

Yeah. A lot of Westerns are shot in California and Arizona and stuff whereas if you actually look at the places I was basing my story on they were much more Montana and Wyoming, so there was a lot more green and lushness and flowers, that was another reason.

You have a very varied cast of characters. How important was this multi-cultural aspect?

Well that was really one of the reasons for making it actually. When I travel American a lot people always say my great grandfather was Irish or Scottish or Scandinavian and you start reading up about the history of the town and a lot of the cowboys were from Germany and a lot of the shopkeepers from Scandinavia, it just became apparent that this is a world still of settlers and migration. Then you look at Westerns in the movie world and it seems to be all Americans so it was a conscious decision early on to try and make something [with] America when you had the Native Americans but then you had a lot of people from all over the world.

And with the characters from all these different lives, one thing I was struck by was the impression of lots of overlapping of people’s individual stories crossing, was that an intentional element?

Yeah it was, and people say “oh it’s a massive country and how would stories overlap”, but the more I read about that time the more you realise that people did sort of pick people up and drop people off and meet people again because there really was only a few trails that were possible to cross this land. So it would be not just hundreds of people willy-nilly zig-zagging across a vast scale of land. Once I realised that then I thought that I could have much more of a close cast that did interact.

Another thing with the film is that the soundtrack is really lovely, with your own musical past was that something you really wanted to get right in the film?

Of course, yeah, I collect vinyl soundtracks and I’m a bit obsessed about soundtrack music, but having said that kept music off until the very end of the edit, I didn’t want it to sort of drive scenes I wanted it be kind of a bit more subtle than that, so yeah it was important the music was right. And it was nice because half to three quarters of the music I was working with a great composer Jed Kurzel, whose just done Macbeth and a few other films so he’s kind of the new man, but that was a great collaboration, and then for other tracks got to work with old friends that I’ve worked with over the years in music so yeah, that was definitely an exciting part of it.

Is there any particular shot of the film that’s your favourite?

Yeah, there’s a bizarre shot that I had to argue with the editor I was working with to keep it, because it’s a bit random and doesn’t really mean anything to the story but it’s probably my favourite shot which is just a shot of Rose’s dad in America, he’s got massive hands and he had this tiny little cup of tea, so just his hands on the tea cup and then Rose’s hands on the butter, those two shots they sort of go together. They’re very incidental but those are my favourite shots.

The final gunfight, I feel like in a lot of other films that would have been done very over the top, but the way it ends up being in Slow West is very straightforward but very effective.

Yeah, I’m a big fan of economy, especially when it comes to action and it was all very pre-planned and storyboarded, those action sequences specifically, so it did feel a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle rather than mayhem or handheld camera or anything that was sort of was chaotic, I thought it’d be chaotic enough without the camera being chaotic. I think that worked out really well in the end, I was really pleased with it.

What specific research did you do, I’m getting an impression that you really went for it in terms of the research of people in that time.

I just tried to avoid stuff that was written after the fact really. So I was reading a lot of stuff like Little House on the Prairie and Mark Twain and a lot of accounts of writers that were working at the time and you get a different kind of feeling about America than you do with historical wild west accounts when it’s all been kind of really mythologized, so that was the way I wanted to go really.

And is that also where some of the slightly black humour of the film comes from as well, from the reality?

I’m not sure, I think I just like comedy in film, I think every film should have a little bit of comedy. Sometimes really the absurdity of the situation lends itself to comedy so I just went with it there when it happened.

You’ve worked with Michael three times now; do you see yourselves working together again in the future?

I’d love to, he’s not the sort of actor you turn down if you get a chance to work with him. So yeah I’d love to but kind of keeping my options open for the next project because I don’t know where I’m going yet so it might be children or it might be a different kind of story I don’t know, but I’d love to work with him again, yeah.

So what things are you thinking about for your next project?

Oh, early days. Not a Western, I think that’s about as far as I’ve got.

Slow West is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD. Why not order the Blu-ray from one of these retailers?

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