As if you needed more evidence that John Maclean was talented, he went ahead and made his first feature film- Slow West, which is the best new western not made by a guy named Eastwood or Tarantino. The Scottish filmmaker has always been involved in the arts. He received his education at Edinburgh Art School and the Royal College of Art in London, before forming the 90’s alternative rock group- The Beta Band. Now, he has a Sundance award winning film. Slow West is a gradual climb, against a picture painted background. It stars Maclean's friend Michael Fassbender as a bounty hunter named Silas, who travels across the western frontier with a young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that is searching for his one true love. Maclean sat down with AMovieGuy.com to talk about what inspires him, working with Michael Fassbender, and making a western in today's cinema.
AMG.com: What inspired you to work in the genre of the western?
John Maclean: I am really into westerns as a genre. I think I also thought if I couldn’t get funding for this film, I could make it for relatively cheap by directing a couple guys and putting them in the forest. I never really thought about making an Italian western, I always thought it would be more of a landscaping western. My experience of traveling the United States is a big part of it. Traveling to the west from Scotland was a more cherished viewpoint, and I could see myself adding something to the genre.
AMG.com: You attended art school, you are a musician in The Beta Band, and now you are the director of a great feature film. What does it mean to you to be a well-rounded artist? And what have you enjoyed doing the most?
John Maclean: It’s absolutely the filmmaking for me. I love to be in areas of collaboration, and I love to draw. Drawing is a very sedentary pursuit, but I think to be an artist, the anthem is collaborating. You can be in a band, or you can be in film, so generally utilizing other people’s talents. Having said that, I spent a couple of years writing the script for “Slow West”. You certainly enjoy the excitement of the seven weeks you spend shooting film for. The rest of the time it’s the editing and the writing, which is a bit more solitary. I think the highlight of everything comes from the shoot. Being on set and everyone being like a family is the most fantastic element.
AMG.com: How did your first two short films- “Pitch Black Heist” and “Man on a Motorcycle” prepare you for “Slow West”?
John Maclean: I didn’t have money to make those two films, and all the previous short films I've made with The Beta Band, so all the preparation enabled me to solve problems without having the budgets. I don't want to make it all about what we didn't have and what we did have. Not needing money to solve problems though is quite good. Secondly, I also learned to prepare and learned to storyboard and follow a script. Otherwise I am in a way, flailing. Having said that, the jump from a short film to a feature film is quite incredible. It took me by surprise.
AMG.com: You have built a great friendship working with Michael Fassbender, why do the two of you work so well together? What do you love about working with him, especially on Slow West?
John Maclean: Being able to talk to Michael when your script is half done allowed freedom for us both to say anything about it to each other, even if it’s ridiculous. Being open is key, and we imagine where we can take these characters in situations. The dynamic is totally different on set and that’s one of the things...you have this amazing, strong talent, an incredible talent. Hopefully he has the faith in the dialogue and the scenario and he can take the character where it needs to go. It’s such a great experience watching him work.
AMG.com: I’m going to tell you a bit of what I saw in the film and you tell me if I am on to something: I found the character of Jay to represent someone with an optimistic outlook of life, and every other character to be a representation of the cold harsh reality of life. Is there truth to this in our time today?
John Maclean: Absolutely, I tried to convey that. It’s basically Jay's optimism...as you said. I always tried to have him looking up to the stars. I never wanted to portray him as an idiot, I just saw him as young and naïve. Together with him you have Silas, who represents a cold reality. He is always looking inward or peering at trees watching for someone to be hiding there.
AMG.com: There is beauty and symmetry in every shot like, almost like a Remington painting. Was that something you had in mind? Or was that just use of excellent locations and your cinematographer Robbie Ryan?
John Maclean: I think part of that is the storyboarding. We used a static camera for all the storyboards and shots. There is only one hand held shot in all of the film, but I didn't turn up and go “oh okay, let's put the camera here so it looks that way”. The camera was always standing still, so when you add in Robbie and his ability to capture the light in an incredible way for every shot, nothing ever looks flat, and everything looks gorgeous.
AMG.com: When you think of other great western directors such as John Ford or Sergio Leone, do you try to use some of the directing style that they had or do you create your own style?
John Maclean: I have different references for different aspects of film. I am a big fan of the color references from Peckinpah, and the costume references from Altman. I was picking and choosing a bit of which director I refer to. In general, I think I was keeping literary works or old Japanese films in mind. Because the characters were coming from Europe, I wanted to try and be influenced by European directors as well. I stayed away from Leone because he has done that genre so well that you can't really compete. We tried to make it a bit more of a classical western style and bring that European feel back into the genre.
AMG.com: Well thank you so much John, I think “Slow West” is one of the best movies of the year so congratulations about your success.
John Maclean: Thank you very much Leo. It was great to speak with you. Cheers.