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Scottish director messes with Texas in Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is set in West Texas, a hardscrabble part of the U.S. with land so scorched you feel you have to shake off the dust as you leave the theatre.
Ben Foster and Chris Pine star in the gritty, contemporary western Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie.

Hell or High Water is set in West Texas, a hardscrabble part of the U.S. with land so scorched you feel you have to shake off the dust as you leave the theatre. Pretty much the last place you’d expect British “navy brat” David Mackenzie to have developed a fondness for.

The director now calls Glasgow home but was drawn back to the region after spending time there a few years back. “This is the land where Giant was shot… I love the cinematic poetry of it,” Mackenzie says. “Here was an opportunity for me to make a proper American film — as an outsider who has loved American cinema all my life and enjoys Americana in general, it was a gift that just felt right.”

The film, from a script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), tells the story of two brothers who go on a bank-robbery spree to save their family ranch from being repossessed.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner, estranged brothers who reunite in time to put the plan into action. Toby is a divorced father determined to leave a better life for his son; brother Tanner, not long out of prison, risks it all to make things right. On their tails is Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger with one more kick at the can before a reluctant retirement, as well as his partner Antonio (Gil Birmingham).

It’s an old-style western dunked in contemporary issues: the land has been ravaged by drought and subprime mortgage foreclosures, and no one is shedding any tears for money that the bank might have lost. The film’s release date a few months ahead of the U.S. election is well-timed. “I don’t think the film is taking sides and I don’t think it’s deliberately not taking sides,” says Mackenzie. “But it’s bringing up conversations along areas that seem to be fault lines in American culture at the moment.”

The director admits to wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson for the duration of the shoot (“I am totally method in every way”) and says that country music playing before and during shooting helped the actors rapidly assimilate into the culture. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis collaborated on the soundtrack, which also features Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt and Chris Stapleton.

Bridges is a well-known music aficionado: he reportedly sent co-star Brimingham a CD of his music before filming began. The two actors jammed between takes on set and their onscreen chemistry is borne out of their love for music, says Mackenzie. The director himself produced the music on his last film but insists he is a non-musician. “I was kind of playing up and down one string of a guitar while the others tried to follow me, Jeff and Gil helped me.”

Was Jeff Bridges his first choice? “Everyone was my first choice, short answer,” he says. “But yes, Jeff is a brilliant actor and I’ve admired him in many of his early films… he’s a generous person and an incredibly creative guy.” His character Marcus is abrasive and offensive to his half-Cherokee, half-Mexican partner, abuse that disguises a depth of affection shared by the two men.

There is one scene where Bridges’ character is tasked with an extreme act and chokes back tears, laughs and has a palpable rush of adrenaline all at once. “That’s one of my favourite scenes in the film too,” says Mackenzie. “That’s the magic of Jeff Bridges. We were on top of a mountain, we had one or two takes, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”

Bridges comes full circle with this film: the first bank robbery in Hell or High Water takes place in Archer City, where Peter Bogdanovich 1971 film, The Last Picture Show, starring Bridges and Cybill Shepherd, was set. “There’s a rich seam of really strong cinema that I’m totally tapping into with this film,” Mackenzie says, counting Billy the Kid, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Fat City (again starring Bridges), Hal Ashby movies, and “those American films of the late ’60s and 1970s with very humanistic, free-wheeling attitudes to things” as influences.

“I love that period of cinema and how much it loved its characters — you had great movie stars doing quite small films and quite realist films, going away from the studios into the real world. I think American cinema has kind of lost that because we’re going back to big movies that are more event-based, and I think it’s a real shame.”

Mackenzie was under the gun to get the shoot done, especially with the scenes featuring Pine, who was only available for two and a half weeks before Star Trek was scheduled to start. “It was mad,” he admits, but he never saw anyone other than Pine playing the role. “Chris usually plays kind of swashbuckly, handsome leading men so to take an actor who’s well known for that and scruff him up and make him quiet and uptight… For Chris to have the cajones to play it down and not to play it for leading-man kicks, I think he was very bold.”

And opposite Pine’s brooding, weighed-down character is Ben Foster’s Tanner, a loose cannon going for broke. “Ben is superb at harnessing that kind of chaos. It’s a beautiful combination, that brotherly Odd Couple.”

Supporting characters are no less meaningful and memorable in Mackenzie’s film, from the old-timer who witnesses a robbery to the waitress (Katy Mixon) who refuses to give up her $200 tip as evidence. “When you have this road movie kind of thing, it’s a picaresque. [Supporting characters] have one or two scenes to come alive,” Mackenzie says. “I was definitely very conscious of the fact that the film would live or die by the convincingness and strength of these minor characters.”

The director’s love for the Texas landscape is evident but with three kids in school back in Scotland Mackenzie says he isn’t ready to convert and recite the Pledge of Allegiance just yet. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t hesitate to return to Texas for another movie shoot.

“I’d like to wait and see what happens in November,” he says, hinting at the election. “But I would definitely consider it… if you’ll have me.”

Hell or High Water opens Friday at Fifth Avenue.