Director John Maclean talks Slow West, working with Michael Fassbender & more

Written by Ryan Demarco

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Everyone remembers their first time.

For feature films that is. When it comes to Director John Maclean, his first time went a lot better than most others. And it didn’t involve an old bottle of rum, a rusty nail, and an apology the following morning. Slow West is a new film that takes place in 1870’s America, where a young boy travels from Scotland to find the love of his life and inadvertently befriending Silas, a mysterious and dangerous drifter who promises to guide the boy safety. (You can read my full review of Slow West here.)

An ambitious choice for a first feature from a self-taught director who edited his friends music videos on a zero budget. The film stars Michael Fassbender (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Prometheus, Steve Jobs), Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, The Place Beyond the Pines), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). I had the chance to talk to Maclean about the process of making his feature film debut, his first experiences getting in the game, and making a name for himself.

You come from a background of music, what ultimately led you to film making?

I actually started off at art school. I did drawing and painting and after that I joined a band, partly because my friends were musicians and we just hung out and became a band. I immediately wanted to do the music videos for the band so that was really my film education in zero budget filmmaking. I made quite a lot of them over the years and started to prefer doing the videos rather than the music. So when the band split up it was an easy transition to go into filmmaking.

Director John Maclean attends the "Slow West" Premiere during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival at The Marc Theatre on January 24, 2015 in Park City, Utah. Photo Courtesy of CW3 PR.
Director John Maclean attends the “Slow West” Premiere during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival at The Marc Theatre on January 24, 2015 in Park City, Utah. Photo Courtesy of CW3 PR.

So for your first feature film you a chose a film set in the Old West, which is interesting for a director’s feature debut, what inspired you to do that?

There is a tradition in Britain to sort of go and do a kitchen sink family drama or something for their first picture, or something about your childhood. I thought to just go against the grain and be quite ambitious with a western. As soon as I left college I wanted to travel around the States. I spent a lot of time in America traveling and when I met people in America they always said, “Oh my grandfather was Scottish or my great grandfather was Irish,”so I felt that wasn’t really done in Westerns. It just seemed like everyone in Westerns were American. I wanted to talk about the migration and the fact that there were a lot of settlers coming from all over the world.

That’s an interesting approach, and was one part of the story I found to be refreshing. Can you talk about your decision to center the film on the young Scottish boy migrating to America instead of the character of the mysterious Silas?

I didn’t really want to make a Western with a male character that the hero or the one who saves the damsel in distress. I think that it was a nice switch to have the hero character, which is Silas, start off as a dark cowboy and gradually become something else. He isn’t really the classic hero saving the woman. At the same time the kid shows his flaws and romanticism that he thinks he can go save the woman when he actually can’t. The woman doesn’t need saving actually.

Now this is your third project working with Michael Fassbender, who plays Silas. Did you have him in mind while you were writing that character?

I did actually, yeah. The first short I managed to just get one day with him, it was very much about seeing if we could work together or if we could come up with something together and luckily that worked out and we were given three days to work on the next short film which was a fifteen minute short. That worked out well and we started to talk about the possibility of working together on a feature, and if I could, write a feature with him in mind. So right from there I was pretty sure I’d get Michael as a main character. It was quite interesting. I began writing it as a main character film for Michael and slowly the young kid came in and the writing took over and Michael liked that. He liked the fact that he would be secondary in the story in a way playing off the young kid. It felt like a giant collaboration and I was hugely lucky to get an actor of his caliber in my first film.


So Michael helped you mold the character and certain functions of the overall story?

It was really hard getting time with him while I was writing the script because he’s a very busy man, but any days I did get with him it was great to read through the script and riff a few ideas. It felt more than him just turning up on set and being an actor for hire. We talked about the character and the script. So again, very fortunate!

Speaking of fortunate, lets talk about this small caliber film attracting such a grand sized cast. How was your experience working with Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendlesohn on this project? Did you learn anything from them?

Oh yeah! I mean I haven’t worked with any actors until I worked with Michael. Before that it was just my mates, so the first huge lesson was just working with an actor. I think with this the learning was working with different actors that have different approaches and needs and different ways of working. It was great to see. All three actors you mentioned among others like Rory McCann and Caren Pistorius, they all worked differently, but were so easy to direct. They believed in the project, believed in the script, they get the essence of the film and they’re also really experienced. Kodi is seventeen and has been in the game for quite a while, so I felt like I hardly needed to mold them and that was all there was to it.


Speaking of the script, I really enjoyed how lean the story was. Were you ever concerned making the story longer or did extra material get cut once you started editing?

Not really. A lot of certain expositions about the backstory of Jay got cut out because I find that incredibly boring (laughs). I would rather just leave certain questions open about the mechanics of things like — how Jay got to America or how Rose got to America. In a way it sort of felt more of a fairy tale, like a once-upon-a-time-story so that freed up real practicalities. It made it more about telling the stories and to just tell the good stuff really, and I’m really a fan of such stripped down dialogue anyway. I try to make each line mean something rather than just have the actors rattle on for hours. I was really inspired by film noir where they keep it down to around ninety minutes and especially endings of film noir were there isn’t an extra half an hour of people saying goodbye to each other you know? It ends when the drama ends and the credits roll. I was very influenced by that.

Now that everything is wrapped up with your first feature film, what did you take away from it most? Any favorite moments? Any moments that were incredibly difficult?

Hmm, I mean the entire shoot was my favorite part. It was so much fun. Everything seemed to go my way with the weather and working with such a great cast and crew. It was just really enjoyable. In the end, some things got a bit tricky and I’ve always edited my own stuff so it was about trying to build relationships with editors and seeing how that could work and it took a bit of getting use to. In general, you only learn how to make a film by doing one, everything was new. From working with sound guys to post production stuff and composers and actors. It was all a learning experience.

Slow West

As of this time do you have any other projects lined up? If so, is there anyone in particular that you are looking forward to work with?

I’m starting to write again and I enjoy the process of writing. I think it helps when I direct from the fact that I’ve written it. So I really got the film in my head. I already know where the camera is going and the writing, but I do admire these kind of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers that gather a team and work with similar actors again and same producers and cameramen so you know that’s the way I kinda want to go. I have my cameraman and I’ve got my producer. I loved working with Michael and Ben and Kodi and hopefully get all these guys again.

Well I wouldn’t complain if that happened!

Yeah! (laughs) If they want to work with me that might be a different thing, you know? (laughs)

Lastly, what tips would you give to aspiring filmmakers to help get their projects off the ground?

I mean really just script. It’s funny when you’re in a room full of students and there’s about nine directors and one writer you know and it just feels like it should be the other way around because scripts are the real currency for filmmaking and everyone is looking for a great script. You can’t make a great film without a great script so either start writing or have a friend that writes, and if you don’t have a friend that writes then start writing!

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