John Maclean on Slow West

As his Film4-backed debut Slow West saunters into UK cinemas, John Maclean talks to Michael Leader about westerns, directing his first feature, and the similarities between filmmaking and sampling...

Slow West is your first feature, and it’s not just a change in length from your short Pitch Black Heist, but in many other ways - from black and white to colour, from modern-day to period, from a UK setting to America. Did those changes present a new set of filmmaking challenges?

It was new because I’d always edited myself, so I could always have the film in my head and then kind of just present it completed. So that was kind of a new process I kind of learnt, but in general it just felt like the same sort of process: I wrote the script, then I storyboarded, then I shot, then we edited and then the very last thing is to find the music, so yeah that process was just the way I’ve always worked really.

It’s one of the roles of the director, isn’t it, holding a firm steer on the course all the way through?

Of course, yeah, especially with a film like this. You have an idea for what the film’s going to be in your head and then collaborate with all these people at every level and then end up with something that exceeds your expectations, that’s the kind of beauty of it. You have a rough idea, and you’ve storyboarded, and that gives you the chance to imagine the look of the film. And that frees up Robbie [Ryan, cinematographer] to really work on the lighting and make it extra beautiful.

When it comes to communicating that central idea to the cast and crew, did you have specific reference points? I think every part of the film has a different style of references.

So, Ben Mendelsohn’s character, I might have given the costume designer two references for his jacket - McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Iron Horse, the John Ford film. But in general I didn’t give Robbie or Michael or Kodi any westerns just because I did want to steer clear of just making a western. I knew it was going to be western enough - set in Colorado with guns and horses and cowboys - that I didn’t really need to go for the spaghetti western look.

So with Robbie I talked a lot about European cinema and I gave him a lot of early Carl Dreyer films and Bresson films, and we talked about the European film noir way were shooting things, with the deep focus. And then I talked with Michael about Toshiro Mifune, Akira Kurosawa’s main actor, so definitely not western characters. I didn’t really talk to him about many other actors really. I thought between the script and his intuition would be enough for him to sort of create the character.

You’ve said that Slow West delivers a European perspective on the western, and you’ve mentioned using European filmmakers as inspiration, but is that perspective reflected in the characters’ stories, too? Both Jay and Rose both come from Scotland to the frontier.

I’d travelled around America, and people do say, ‘oh yeah, my grandfather was Scottish and my great grandfather was Irish’. And in the history of the west there was a long period where the American accent hadn’t even formed; it was the place of settlers and migrants and Native Americans, so there was that aspect that was slightly, possibly over the years had been kind of forgotten about. The place was full of European people, the original cowboys were probably some type of German, and you know all the Scottish and Irish were over there sheep farming. So there’s a sense that there was a lot of Europeans there at that time.

On Film4 we play westerns day in day out, and something that might have been forgotten is that ‘the western’ is just as much a setting as it is a genre. There is a breadth of style within what we would commonly call a western: you can have spaghetti westerns or weird westerns, psychedelic or comedy or musical westerns, it’s not such a hard and fast line.

The reason for making a western is that you can mix two different genres together. It is odd when people say ‘you’ve made a revisionist western’, because if they went back and watched the history of the greatest westerns they all seem revisionist in a way. I mean High Noon seems to be revisionist compared to Shane, and you know McCabe & Mrs Miller seems revisionist compared to spaghetti westerns or Sam Peckinpah. And as you say you know you’ve got the melodrama westerns of the 50s, and then you’ve got the comedy westerns of the 70s, and the anti-Vietnam violent westerns of the 60s and the 70s. So it kind of encompasses war movies, action movies, love stories, coming-of-age road movies, there’s never just a “western western”, or if there is it’s pretty crude.

This process of cherry picking from very different traditions in order to comment on a specific genre puts me in mind of the work you produced with The Beta Band, which sampled from many sources to create music that sounded like nothing else. Is that an interest that you carry with you from music to other creative endeavours?

I did my masters dissertation on sampling - so yes! I mean that’s how I got into music, really, by being interested in sampling and buying a sampler. My favourite album might be Chill Out by The KLF which is a sample-fest. But I think that nowadays you can almost be too shorthand and end up with Quentin Tarantino-style checklists. But from my research of sampling, I think all filmmakers to an extent do that anyway, and they’ve always done that. You know you look at some 60s films from Stanley Kubrick or somebody that you think is so unique and then you sort of see references you know. Stanley Kubrick’s referencing Last Year At Marienbad. You can always trace back, you can always trace back from Bela Tarr to Bergman to Dreyer.

When you’re dealing with all these sources and influences and samples, what’s the secret to making it more than the sum of its parts?

I think if there’s an original story, it becomes the difference between influences and kind of ripping people off. It’s the same with music, if you’re a band who just likes The Velvet Underground then you’re going to sound a bit like a crap version of The Velvet Underground. But if you’re a band - like The Beta Band - that loves Wu Tang Clan as much as you love Neil Young then you’re going to get something else I think. My love of Die Hard, Robocop and Predator is probably on a par with Tarkovsky and Bresson. So you end up with this mix of things that people like to put labels on - 'world cinema', 'world music' - but then you realise the ridiculousness of labels, really.