Interview: Slow West director John Maclean

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Originally published on The National Student on 02/11/15.

Stunning crowds at first Sundance and then all over the world, John Maclean’s fiercely different coming-of-age western Slow West has proven since its release to be one of the most unique dramas of the year. 

From its stellar cast to its genre-bending tone, the film is almost certain to turn even more heads upon its home entertainment release this November.

We caught up with John to talk about the film in a little more detail. 

Starting with genre, what made you want to combine the coming-of-age and western genres considering that it’s never really been done before? 

Coming-of-age is quite a familiar topic for a lot of people’s first films, but the idea of a western came first. I thought that it would be a different approach for a first film and I saw how I could make it different, as far as linking it with migration and settlers and linking it with my experiences in Scotland, and my love for travelling in America growing up.

So I thought I had something truthful there, and then in the writing of it, the characters slowly became younger and younger until they reached 16. Then the more I worked on it the more it became this road movie, this coming-of-age tale.

I was drawn to that naturally and then when I watched westerns again – all the classics – you really feel that every western is two genres; some of the early westerns are melodrama and western, then there’s some that are horror and western, and noir and western. So it felt natural for it to be a mix of genres actually, so I just went with it. 

One of the major elements of the western that you really brought to life in the film was the settings – where did you shoot the film and how did you uncover these incredible locations? 

I wanted to shoot in Colorado because that’s where the film’s set. I had a great opportunity to shoot in November/December of that year, which I took, and then realised that it’s winter there and there’s not much daylight, and the whole film’s set outside so I actually went to New Zealand to shoot it because it was mid-summer there with long days and a lot of light.

So when I went over to New Zealand I was really worried that I wouldn’t get the feeling that I got travelling in Colorado, but then I did – I did find the planes, and I found the forest. Some of the locations that I had made up, like the crack in the rock I was amazed to find in New Zealand. So it became apparent quite quickly that I could shoot it there, and get away with it.   

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It’s an incredible cast for a first-feature – how did go about assembling such a great line-up?

Firstly I had Michael [Fassbender] before writing the script; I had made two short films with him and we had developed a working-relationship. When we made the second short film we talked about doing a feature, so it was always the grand plan. So I started writing the part of Silas knowing that I would have Michael. And then once you’ve got Michael on board, that attracts other people to the project. Obviously so many actors want to work with Michael, and at the same time it gives the project a real legitimacy when you’ve got a name like that attached to it.

Then it was just making sure the script was great. I know for a fact that Ben Mendelsohn responded to the script, and that’s all he really responds to, so it was quite flattering that he offered his services. A lot of the other characters were wish-lists that just worked out well, and then a lot of even the minor characters are a collection of some of the greatest New Zealand actors and that was also a pleasure.

The hardest part was finding a 17-year-old kid that I thought could really get the subtlety of the part but also be able to deal with working with Michael, and luckily Kodi [Smit-McPhee] responded really well to the script as well so he came on board and really relished the character. It was a wide mixture, but generally having Michael to start off with really helped with the cast. 

You’ve had a lot of success at festivals as well, especially at Sundance – how was the festival experience for you, touring with the film to so many different audiences around the world?      

It’s still going on – I’m about three-quarters of the way through, I think I’ve got another two this month. It’s great to go to places I’ve never been before, but also it’s great to see what audiences find different, and it’s usually humour. When you’re in an audience it’s the humour that you gage how people are enjoying the film. Other than that you don’t know.

When I went to Taiwan, they found it very funny – the slapstick element. But also just the universalness of the film, so it was nice to take it to America or Chile or England, and have people respond to the same elements of the film. As a filmmaker you really want to make something that’s kind of universal in a way, so that’s a buzz. 

It’s had such an incredible reception for a first-feature, and obviously you’re still touring with the film for a bit longer – but have you thought any more about what you’re going to do next? 

I’ve decided if it ain’t broke – instead of looking for a great script to come through the letter box I’ve decided to just start writing again, and I did enjoy writing Slow West. I’ve just turned a corner in the last month or two in thinking about what’s next, so I’m going to start writing again.

For now it’s just getting the right head-space and the right time to start. I have quite an organic writing process so I don’t really start with a story, I just start with a very loose thing – maybe an image – and then I let it grow. I don’t know what it’s about yet, but it will hopefully be something I’ve written. 

Lastly, do you have any tips for upcoming writers or directors who might want to get into the industry? 

It’s probably the biggest cliche but: make, and do it. That’s what I did, I just made a lot of little films with mates, and especially now with new editing software and cameras it’s easier. I think more important than making films though is writing. So if you want to direct and you don’t have a best mate that’s a brilliant writer then just start writing because really in the industry script is king. So just write. And it’s free – pens and paper. 

Slow West is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 2nd November by Lionsgate.    

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