Following the success of the wondrous western Slow West starring Michael Fassbender (you can read our review here), we had the chance to pose a few questions to director John Maclean…
You started by studying painting and drawing, you were in a successful band and now you’re a feature director. Did that feel like a natural progression for you?
John: ‘(laughs) It does, it feels like…there are links between all three. It sounds like I was oil painting, then suddenly I was playing the guitar and then I was holding a film camera. But I’m not quite that talented, erm… but it was interesting, drawing in art school, then sort of being interested in collage and montage and surreal cinema, and then doing the music videos and really starting to be interested in cinema whilst I was in the band. I also did sampling ,which felt a bit like collage and montage.
So going into film from the band felt like a progression, as there was montage in both. The only difference really being storytelling, which I really had to try and learn in order to write scripts. But the visual aspect always seemed to be a development from my early career.
How is it that you went from these DIY music videos to then having a BAFTA and now all of a sudden you’ve got your first feature film with award winning actors. What’s your secret?
John: I mean, most of that is down to Mr Fassbender really. I made a lot of zero budget music videos, shoot experimental stuff, then Michael’s agent showed him my stuff, we were introduced and then, a few weeks later, Michael suggested that he was up for doing something. So, I wrote the short ‘Man on a Motorcycle’ for him. I only had one day with him and he made sure it was an interesting day for both of us. It was a fruitful collaboration, so I was then able to suggest another short film that I would need 3 days with Michael for and once again, it was a fruitful collaboration that ended in a BAFTA. Me and Michael then talked about making a feature next. I had an idea for a western and he said ‘Go for it and I’ll be in it!’ so I was lucky enough to write the part of Silas for him.
Speaking of westerns, is that the sort of film you’re drawn to? What would you say is your favourite films when you take yourself outside of being a director?
John: My favourite genre is noir actually. I’ve always loved films like Chinatown, which has always been kind of up there as my favourite film – as far as all the aspects go, like script to costumes, cinematography and acting , they all seem to register pretty much a ten out of ten for that film, for me.
You write and direct your own films. Is that something that is essential to you or would you perhaps in the future consider writing with someone else or developing someone else’s script?
John: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it was kind of out of necessity as I didn’t know anyone that wrote film scripts, and if you want to be a film director, you either need to know someone or write yourself so, I just started writing. Then, it gradually became a confidence thing ,because I was a borderline failure at English in school, so once I got the confidence up and running, and once I realised that scriptwriting doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with literature – it has more to do with daydreaming and imagining and playing the film in my head – it made the process much more enjoyable and easier.
When you think back to Slow West and developing that script, was it the story that drew you in first or were you drawn to the genre?
John: I think there were two or three early threads, you know. One was that the western was an unusual choice for a first film and so that interested me. I’d always loved America, and when I travelled there and I met people, they’d always say that their grandfather was Scottish or their great grandfather was Irish…. And then when I watched westerns and saw Americans I thought, wait a minute, there is something about migrants at the time that could be told through this genre. And this really kicked off the idea of making a western. And then the story came by working with my script editor, you know.
Slow West is a story about a man who goes to rescue someone that doesn’t necessarily need to be rescued or want to be rescued – a bit like Ford’s “The Searchers”. What was the inspiration for that story? Was it a personal experience?
John: It was! I mean, when I was 16 I liked girls that possibly didn’t like me back. So there’s that! Then I really didn’t want to make it a damsel in distress film, where men come and rescue the poor helpless woman, so definitely those ideas were playing through my head as I was writing. I’ve watched bits of The Searchers but I haven’t actually sat down and watched it from beginning to end.
Some say that the Western as a genre has died. What are your thoughts on this?
John: Well, people are always saying that painting is dead when someone creates video art or technology art or whatever. And it’s always after someone says that, that someone has a great painting show and there’s a great return to painting. So I don’t think that anything creative can die. When fashion people say short skirts are out and long skirts are in, people start wearing the opposite and so it comes back around again. It’s just the way it works.
The western was a prevalent genre in the 60’s and now it’s not. I don’t think it will ever return to that glorious days when nine out of ten films were westerns, but I definitely feel that people nowadays can still have their own personal takes on the genre.
Can you tell us a bit more about your collaboration with Fassbender?
John: Well, the first day I worked with him I only had him for one day. In terms of acting, I had just worked with mates before, so when he started acting in front of the camera, I almost fell over. Working with an actor was a revelation. It was just one day though so it was sort of a smash and grab of footage really, but when it came to the next project we had one or two days to bounce ideas around about the script, so it became much more of a collaboration. For Slow West, I was a bit busier so we didn’t have so much time beforehand, but we would have days when we would have script readings and we’d talk about ideas and come up with stuff. It was definitely a great collaboration.
When it comes to director and actor on set, I don’t really know what it’s like because I haven’t worked with a lot of other actors, but it seems that he runs to his intuition most of the time and that turns out to be right. That meant there wasn’t as much toing and froing and I just let him get on with it really. Whatever he did was beyond my expectations anyway, so it was a matter of one or two takes and then we’d move on.
It must have been a really interesting experience to Kodi, an up and coming actor, as well, to play off him so much. So how did you find their dynamic as a director?
John: I mean, Kodi has probably been in the industry as long as Michael or longer even! So they were both experienced and they’re both the kind of people that felt entirely at home on our set. So there was never an issue with nervousness or Kodi being in awe of Michael. They both actually got on really well which was great!
What was it like shooting in New Zealand? Not the usual western location…
John: I was sceptical at first. Oh, I’ve written it in Colorado and it’s a western, how can I not shoot it in Colorado… and then there was a time when all the kind of cards came into place and Michael’s schedule became available, but it happened to be in November-December. So you’ve got six hours a day of shooting light, Colorado winter versus 13 hours a day shooting light in New Zealand, and it just seemed like that was too big a practicality to ignore. During the reccee I realised that I could find locations that were very similar to how I imagined them in the script. So then it became obvious. It was fantastic because the crews are amazing out there.
You were the writer/director on this and you’re obviously very close to the material, so how did you find post production and being in the edit suite?
John: That was the toughest part. I’ve only ever edited my own stuff so I’ve never worked with an editor before, so that was a new kind of experience. It was tough to begin with, as editing is all about rhythm and I’d imagined the rhythm of the film in my head and was hard to communicate it, so I did have to get my hands on the edit quite a lot. I hadn’t really shot a great deal of coverage because it was all storyboards, so in a way it was all there really, you just had to change a few frames off the front and back, and you change the perception of the film, it is all very subtle. It wasn’t as though I was vastly telling the story in every edit but more doing a lot of fine cutting and getting the edit and the tempo right.
And what’s in the future for you as a film director or as a writer? What kind of projects do you have coming up?
John: I’m going to write script number two, so I’m just trying to think of ideas now. Something else, something new that’s not a western, perhaps a contemporary setting. I’m just starting to read and research this at the moment.
Okay, final question. If you were to start again as director, what kind of advice would you give your younger self?
John: (laughs) That’s a hard question because you learn by doing it. When people starting out ask me for advice, it’s quite difficult not to say ‘just do it and you’ll’ learn”. I guess the more reading – script reading – you do and the more films you watch, the better, so just do even more of that.
Thank you very much!
Our many thanks to Lauren Papendorf that brought our questions to John Maclean and transcribed his answers for us.
Slow West is in cinemas now.