John Maclean brings fresh ideas to an old genre

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Slow West
RPL Film Theatre
July 16-19

Once the most straightforward movie genre, the western has been getting a facelift lately. Outside of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the most interesting approaches have come mostly from overseas: The Proposition, The Salvation, and now, Slow West.

There’s a surrealist, off-kilter quality to Slow West that’s similar to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. The film follows the adventures of one Jay Cavendish (an all-grown-up Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In), a young Scottish man travelling across America in search of the woman he loved and lost. All Jay knows about surviving the inhospitable and violent region comes from flimsy pamphlets that happen to be wrong most of the time.

Enter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a bodyguard for hire who recently split from a gang of bounty hunters. The starry-eyed Cavendish and the weary Selleck enter a reluctant partnership that’s bound to change both of them, whether they like it or not.

The ending features maybe the funniest moment I’ve seen in a non-comedic film. It’s a perfect cap for an unabashedly pessimistic yet oddly endearing flick.

Scottish director John Maclean cooks up some original imagery that sets Slow West apart; it doesn’t hurt that Maclean chose New Zealand to stand in for Colorado. The result is rather stunning and emphasizes the otherworldly feel of the movie.

I had the chance to speak with Maclean at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Clad in socks and sandals, the filmmaker makes it clear he’s willing to work hard. Maclean storyboarded every shot, which allowed smooth sailing throughout production, although he might tweak the process a bit in the future, he says.

“The next film I make I’d do the same again, but not rely on storyboards so heavily. Otherwise you lose the spontaneity.”

Here’s the rest of our conversation.

Can you pinpoint the exact moment you came up with the idea for Slow West?

Yes. I read about or saw a picture of a cowboy standing in a wheat field. It struck me as strange — I’d never thought of a cowboy in that setting.

There are plenty of original visuals, especially for a western. Did you always have them in mind or did you come up with them during production?

I was lucky enough to have Michael Fassbender come on board in the beginning. Through the years I was writing the script, I’d get the odd day to hang out with Michael and riff, [and] we reached the point in which we were trying to one-up each other. The final visual gag came from those encounters and strengthened the whole tragedy.

How long was the shoot?

Six weeks in New Zealand and one week in Scotland. It sounds like a lot, but we worked hard — there was no hanging about. Our last day was mayhem trying to get all the shots done.

Did you allow yourself many takes?

No. The storyboards dictate where the camera goes. I don’t block or do coverage, I just get the shot that’s needed in maybe one or two takes. We shot on digital, but I told everybody to pretend we were shooting on film. I didn’t want to go to the editing suite with hours and hours of shooting and having to construct the story all over again. In a way, choice is an enemy. Michael likes that style; it’s very fast.

How do you direct actors? Are you very specific about what you want or do you give them leeway?

With people like Michael and Kodi — both experienced actors — I didn’t want to tell them what to do. Either they like the action and the dialogue or, if it’s not working, they would try different versions and perhaps circle back to the page. There wasn’t much improvisation since the script was very tight.

You made two shorts with Fassbender early on in his career. Was he attached to Slow West before he became “The” Michael Fassbender?

He was doing Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds at the time. Everybody in the industry knew he was up-and-coming and very in-demand. He was very gracious and took a leap of faith.

I understand that your initial intention was to film in Colorado. However, New Zealand gives the movie a feeling of surrealism. Was that your intention?

That wasn’t the intention, and it became an interesting byproduct that people liked. It adds a fairy-tale, dream-like quality to it. I knew Colorado very well and I picked places that matched my impression of the place. It was only afterwards I realized it added another element to the off-kilter nature of the project.

What do you like about westerns?

Everyone who likes or makes westerns has their own take. The western clichés are so well-established; it’s easy to play with preconceptions. Also, you can mix it up with other genres.