Sundance Interview With: John Maclean and Kodi Smit-McPhee

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John Maclean is a musician, writer, and filmmaker. His second short film, Pitch Black Heist, won the 2012 BAFTA for Best Short Film. In 2015, his debut feature, Slow West, starring Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, had its World Premiere to significant acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival. Slow West will be distributed by A24 Films and Soda Pictures.

Kodi Smit-McPhee is an Australian actor known for his roles in Let Me In [2010], Dawn of the Planet of the Apes [2014], and The Congress [2013], among others. In John Maclean’s Slow West, he stars opposite Fassbender’s Silas as Jay Cavendish, a wealthy teenager who travels from Scotland to Colorado in the 1870s to pursue his lost love.

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Kodi Smit-McPhee and John Maclean, in attendance at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism to discuss the response to Slow West, the haunting influences of international colonialism on their film, and taking the feature from their New Zealand set to U.S. audiences. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.

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Sean Malin: Kodi, audiences first saw you in Richard Roxburgh’s Romulus, My Father [2007], but since then you’ve had a few big years, especially 2014. Going from the world of small films like Romulus to something like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and back again [for Slow West] must have been big jumps for you, no?

Kodi Smit-McPhee: Definitely, yes. It wasn’t necessarily that I said, “I’m ready to go into studio films now.” I had had opportunities before that I chose to pass on, but the industry is like a roller coaster: you miss certain jobs but you continue forward. But Matt Reeves being on [Dawn of the Planet of the] Apes was such a big deal for me that it felt obvious. If franchises can still offer anything at all, I think they can be worth doing.

SM: I think the Apes series is one of a very select few that continues to do so, actually.

KSMP: I was extremely happy with how it turned out. I thought that Matt managed to put his viewpoint into it; and the story itself had real momentum, which was equally cool.

SM: It’s interesting that you feel this way because John has spoken in interviews about wanting to avoid cynicism in the film industry, so much of which gets directed at franchise films and studio blockbusters. Did you guys manage to avoid those cynical traps while making Slow West?

John Maclean: Yeah, we absolutely did. Shooting the film in New Zealand was quite nice because you’re so far away from that whole part of the industry.

KSMP: It’s simply gone. I sometimes say that New Zealand is just Australia if it had been put through a filter.

JML: *Laughs* Even Michael [Fassbender] felt that.

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SM: After the way his star has risen since your first collaboration, Man on a Motorcycle [2009], that really surprises me.

JML: It just felt like we were making this little film. We did not do any hype for it beforehand and people were not really aware the project was happening. That created this lovely little bubble for us.

SM: I lived in Australia for a short while and I remember how mythic New Zealand felt for the people on the continental mainland. For Australians, N.Z. is similar in some ways to how Americans think about the Old West – where your film is set – but there are big differences, too. Were there any geographic issues that came from using New Zealand to recreate 19th-century Colorado?

JML: Not really, because even though it was set within a big landscape, I never shot just the landscape. Slow West was shot in a 1:66:1 ratio, so it doesn’t really create the widescreen needed for landscape shots. [The landscape] is just there. What’s funny is that sometimes we would be filming on this beautiful lake, and under these amazing mountains, and I’d have to say –

KSMP: “Turn the camera around!”

JML: *Laughs* We avoided the trap of making a tourist video of New Zealand.

KSMP: New Zealand is so rewarding that you actually have to tone the landscape down a bit when you’re shooting something like this. All the places you need to shoot are seconds away from each other.

JML: Right.

SM: It could not have helped that the film is a period piece, so you have to shut down any semblance of contemporariness and the modern day even further to achieve your look, while at the same time researching the props, costumes, and imagery that put us into the 1870s Wild West. Setting it in this very particular historical moment must have posed its own challenges.

JML: The research came mostly from authentic accounts and other writings from that time. We didn’t want to look at any mythmaking stuff. I didn’t even really look at Westerns…I mean I did watch Westerns just so I could learn the language of making Westerns, but Slow West didn’t get strongly influenced by them. People have asked Kodi a lot about the Western influence but I didn’t suggest any of those films to him in prep.

KSMP: We literally never paid attention to that together.

SM: So what did you give him to look at for this project?

JML: The look came more from Japanese and European cinema but there weren’t many of those recommendations either.

KSMP: If there were [recommendations from John], they were more in regards to the inner world of Jay Cavendish: his personality, his thoughts, his history…

JML: The history of Scotland was important, for example.

SM: Some reviewers have highlighted similarities between your heritage and the attention paid in the film to the atrocious treatment of Native Americans in my country’s history. It’s not so different in our case from Scotland’s case.

KSMP: Or Australia’s.

SM: That’s true. Did your awareness of that kind of historical abuse and horror make its way into the performances in the film?

KSMP: Totally. Personally – and when I say that, I mean for me, Kodi, rather than the character I play in the story – I have a deep admiration for how John laced that through the story. It comes in so naturally that it goes along with the story without having anyone say, “Look! Here’s a Native American problem you need to think about!” Rather, it just happens. That’s important because it’s such a weird topic these days –

SM: It’s become taboo again, hasn’t it? For all of our countries in some ways.

KSMP: It has but it’s a subject that needs to be spoken about more. And John managed to incorporate it naturally.

JML: It’s something that’s still happening all over the world even now – Scotland, America, etc. I don’t want to get too far into the politics of the film, but it’s definitely one of those themes that I was highly aware of when writing it.

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SM: Kodi used a word that I find really apt here: “naturally.” John, your previous two short films and this work have a fluidity and atmosphere that feel grounded and natural. The only shifts out of that style are in these abrupt, shocking moments of humor and loud emotion. How do you maintain and regain that naturalism after such extreme moments in your work?

JML: Those moments are tied to simple things like deciding never to go handheld, and always being on a board or a track of some kind. Or choosing to focus on images like a hand or a foot.

KSMP: Many of the directors I’ve worked with like to get mass [shooting] done while we’re in the space for it. Whereas for John, the way we shot was quite quick and a big part of the visual work was done in the editing room. I enjoyed that a lot because it created this sense of fluidity, as you say.

JML: There wasn’t much coverage so we did have to move quite fast throughout the shooting days.

KSMP: Basically like shooting and editing as we went.

SM: That style is familiar to some of the influences you have cited in your previous work: Bresson, Béla Tarr, Tarkovsky.

JML: Oh, yeah – when you mention shooting a hand or an isolated foot, you’re talking about Bresson. Big influences on me.

SM: Were you studying these guys as you went instead of the Westerns? You mentioned European cinema before but not specifically whose films.

KSMP: In my case, I had to play a character who was present in that Western time, not in “Now.” So my process was such that I read the script as many times as I could in order to juice the character completely of anything outside of what the director and writer had given me. From there I put in whatever aspects of my own fit; and other than that, sometimes there’s very little research or rehearsal in the whole process.

SM: Do have a preference for whether there’s a ton of research and rehearsal to be done versus little to none?

KSMP: That depends on the kind of film it is, of course. For Slow West, we did a small amount of rehearsal but it was exactly what was needed to get the material into our heads. It let me know what to expect when I was playing Jay. The experience of filming can be so much more enjoyable when you know what you should be doing *laughs*.

JML: As I was saying earlier, there was never any discussion like, “Here are five or six DVDs you have to watch.” If anything it was about the history of Scotland [where Cavendish is from]. I think Kodi’s character, Jay, is not the type of person who would really even be interested in that material.

KSMP: It’s that sort of royal attitude. But for me, as Kodi, I loved that stuff and it made seeing the finished film amazing for me.

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