Magic in the West

Director John Maclean on fairy tales, magical realism and two-trick ponies in Slow West.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Slow West director John Maclean:
Slow West director John Maclean: "It really came about in the writing stage. It started feeling a little more like a fairy tale and coming of age." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Find out what Pier Paolo Pasolini, John Ford, fairy tales, Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino, Ben Mendelsohn in David Michôd's Animal Kingdom, and Andrew Robertt mean to Slow West director John Maclean. What two-trick ponies do for Michael Fassbender as Silas, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Scottish lad, Jay Cavendish, in the American West, on their search to find Jay's beloved Rose (Caren Pistorius) is unexpected and humorous. Mendelsohn's outlaw Payne enters painlessly into the picture, dressed in an enormous furry coat, to compete for the boy's soul and the bounty set on Rose's head.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You start with once upon a time and then you show someone shooting at stars, then Native Americans walking around in blankets in a forest that does not look like the American West. You clearly make it your own tone. Can you talk about this tone?

Michael Fassbender as Silas. John Maclean:
Michael Fassbender as Silas. John Maclean: "I wrote the part for Michael. I knew he was on from the beginning."
John Maclean: It really came about in the writing stage. It started feeling a little more like a fairy tale and coming of age. The more I wrote the character of Jay, who is 16, the more I started seeing him like a fairy tale character. When it came to storyboard, it felt that I could get away with doing something a bit more magic realism.

AKT: Did it give you freedom?

JM: My taste in cinema was never really sort of… I was never really going to do a western that was…

AKT: John Ford?

JM: John Ford. Oh, I love John Ford. I guess almost more Tarantino or something, or spaghetti westerns. I guess I wanted to make something a little bit more kind of dreamy.

AKT: The hyacinths in the forest are dreamy. Did you plant those for the movie? Or do they grow like that in New Zealand where you shot the movie?

JM: There was quite a lot of them actually in New Zealand, yeah. And I did research, they are in America as well. They're quite amazing.

AKT: You have one of the best uses of a laundry line in cinema. I loved that it comes back - I don't want to reveal anything. But it is not a one-trick pony.

Michael Fassbender as Silas Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay. John Maclean:
Michael Fassbender as Silas Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay. John Maclean: "No It's a one-trick two ponies. When I write, I do like chain of events."
JM: No It's a one-trick two ponies. When I write, I do like chain of events. It turns into a gag and then something that saves them. The way I write is I watch the film in my head. It happens when I think, okay, their horses are now tied together. What happens if?

AKT: And very practically, how do they dry their clothes? I was laughing out loud at the press screening about a name you chose. And that name is Werner. Did you tell the actor to make his speech sound like that of the famous Werner?

JM: Yeah. Only a few people notice, I think. There haven't been that many screenings yet. I sort of saw him as maybe Werner's great-grandfather. Or some relative that's very interested in anthropology. I thought it would be too much to ask Werner to play that part.

AKT: The actor did a good impersonation.

JM: He's an incredible actor [Andrew Robertt]. He is from New Zealand. All the guys that were not necessarily the leads were all fantastic. And he came back with that accent that was spot on.

AKT: The leads, Michael, Kodi and Ben have very good chemistry with each other. Was that your dream cast?

JM: I wrote the part for Michael. I knew he was on from the beginning. That made writing that part easier, knowing his physicality. I thought it was going to be difficult to find someone who was both frail but still strong enough to be in the west and tough. In a way, his toughness is misguided and he still has got a lot of energy. I thought Jay was going to be tough to cast, because a lot of younger actors they go to the gym more often. And I wanted someone who was a bit more alien-looking, which Kodi is.

AKT: And Ben?

Michael Fassbender as Silas in John Maclean's rugged Slow West
Michael Fassbender as Silas in John Maclean's rugged Slow West
JM: And Ben, I had seen in Animal Kingdom, maybe while I was writing Slow West. So he was definitely on my mind from early on.

AKT: One scene confused me. In it, Jay is hiding under the bed and there is a cat in a basket at his face level. Was there an additional scene that got cut?

JM: There was. There was something that I cut out. When I was shooting it, I made that scene a bit longer. There was a story there about that cat. Someone brings in a cat that talks. Someone says, "Why has he got a cat in a lobster creel?" And he says, "Well, because the cat told me it was a witch." It's sort of like an old Scottish story.

AKT: That sounds great. I'm sorry you cut that.

JM: Well, the problem with dream sequences and flashbacks is that people want to get back to the story. I was getting too much away but I didn't want to cut it completely. So I thought it was a nice moment and I'd leave it open.

AKT: The balance between the magical components and the violence is very tricky. I think the audience needs some relief from the violence.

Silas (Michael Fassbender). John Maclean:
Silas (Michael Fassbender). John Maclean: "I didn't really want anyone to enjoy the violence in my film."
JM: You know, I'm really surprised that people think it is a violent film because I was trying to make the violence kind of quick and not really exploitative. I've watched a few other films recently that had come out and they were really violent for me even. I was like "Wow", there's that kind of MTV violence where you're really supposed to enjoy this. I didn't really want anyone to enjoy the violence in my film.

AKT: Your use of violence points us back to the fact that this is a film. In the scene with the salt, for example. This is in the classic tradition of tales - the Brothers Grimm had characters sprinkle salt on a wound to signal to children something painful occurring. Tell me about your very funny use of the salt!

JM: I think that came out of a conversation with Michael. I think we were riffing. I had a few days when I was riffing with Michael about the character and about things. Those riffs tend to get quite silly, more than you would be on your own. I always like films with an element of humor. I think I read somewhere that every film should have humour. Even someone like Pasolini got humor in there. Without any humor things become ponderous or almost pretentious.

AKT: In life, too. Sometimes in the most dreadful moments something silly happens and you laugh. That makes you feel alive. Tell me about the three musicians making music in the middle of the prairie, speaking French, saying "Love is as universal as death."

JM: I went to the Congo a few years ago and I listened to Congolese musicians and fell in love with that music. So that's the first thing. And then I was reading a lot about when the North was fighting the South in the American Civil War, there was a lot of African and black American regiments that were fighting for the North. So I imagined they were part of a regiment that was just gone. There was a backstory that no one would ever know. And then it was an opportunity to maybe mention the theme of the film - which is love and death. And I guess, another way to show the difference between Silas and Kodi. Silas doesn't notice anything that's poetic and just wants to continue and Kodi is flowery and interested in all this.

Slow West poster
Slow West poster
AKT: And has to be tied to a tree. Are you planning another western?

JM: Not a western. I'll start writing pretty soon. Maybe something contemporary. I'm interested in keeping that kind of tone, which is something that mixes genre and mixes the comedy and the tragedy.

AKT: Did you ever have another adjective for the title?

JM: I've had other titles. Slow West, I was surprised that people went for it with "Slow" in the title. But no one complained. I just like the words together, really.

Read what Ben Mendelsohn and Kodi Smit-McPhee had to say about working on Slow West.

Slow West screened at Sundance and Tribeca film festivals and will open at cinemas in the US on May 15 and in the UK on June 26.

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