Michael Fassbender first worked with director John Maclean in the Scottish filmmaker's first short film, 2009's “Man on a Motorcycle.” Back then, Fassbender was not an A-list actor and Maclean was only a few years removed from the Beta Band – the succesful Scottish alt-rock group that released three albums in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now the duo has reunited for Maclean’s first feature film – “Slow West” – which premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival over the weekend.
“Slow West” stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish, a young Scottish boy who travels to the American west in search of the love of his life, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who was forced to flee to the Colorado territory with her father (Rory McCann) after an accident in Scotland. Outlaw Silas Selleck (Fassbender) finds Jay and offers to guide him safely to Rose – for a price – but he may have other motives. Unbeknownst to Jay, there is a $2,000 bounty on Rose’s head, drawing all sorts of undesirables out West, including the ruthless bounty hunter Payne (Ben Mendelsohn).
Writer/Director John Maclean spoke to the International Business Times at Tribeca about how a Scottish director and a primarily European cast came together for the acclaimed western. Read the full interview below:
INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS TIMES: How did you come to this story?
JOHN MACLEAN: When I decided to write a western there were a few little seeds in the beginning. One was that perhaps it would be populated by Irish and German and African and Scandinavian [characters], so kind of a migration to the west period. And then there’s an element of love story – young boy seeks attractive girl who is kind of out of his league, which was maybe from a bit of personal history.
The story kind of grew from there – the idea of someone travelling from Scotland to America; from a place of relative comfort to a dangerous place.
IBT: So the story is semi-autobiographical?
Maclean: I did a lot of traveling. I sort of got obsessed with the States through movies probably. Then, after college [a few friends and I] took cars through America delivering them. So, I did a lot of traveling in America. That probably led to me wanting to do a western.
IBT: Have westerns been a big influence on you?
Maclean: I think if you love cinema it’s up there – you can’t ignore it. So, when you are talking about genre, heist or film noir are probably my favorite genres, but westerns are definitely up there.
I think in the beginning I thought that I could probably just do something cheap – dressing up a few people as cowboys and shooting in the forest, avoiding the sort of town westerns. I never really liked the town westerns anyway as much as some of the landscape westerns.
IBT: What are some classic westerns that influenced this film?
Maclean: When I started thinking about this film as a sort of Europeans in the west story, I started avoided westerns and looking at a lot of European directors and Japanese cinema. I was interested in the whole fantasy element that you see in [“Slow West”]. Early westerns kind of looked to Japanese cinema so it was going back to 1940s and 1950s Japanese cinema.
As for westerns, everything from “Shane,” to “My Darling Clementine,” to “Rio Bravo” – that whole period.
IBT: How is “Slow West” an atypical western?
Maclean: I definitely shot it differently. I shot in 1:66:1, which is a little bit narrower than the usual widescreen affair and I avoided being influenced by a lot of westerns – especially the spaghetti westerns. I think [that style] had been done as well as it could be done. I wanted to maybe go back to the melodrama of early westerns, the love story and journey westerns.
IBT: What were the challenges of taking on your first feature?
Maclean: There were not as many as I thought, apart from the scale. I guess it was the amount of people involved. When you get closer to the edit you have a lot of people with opinions and you have to hold on to that voice.
More people does not necessarily mean scarier. You just have to pace yourself differently. I loved the shoot.
IBT: Before your film career you were in a band [The Beta Band]. Do you like collaborating with the same group of people?
Maclean: Definitely! I’m talking with other people about where I want to go next time and I’m gathering a team. Whether or not it will be Michael [Fassbender] next time will depend on the writing, but I’ve definitely gathered a great cameraman in Robbie Ryan, a great producer in Rachel [Gardner], who produced this one.
IBT: Was film always a big passion for you, even during your music career?
Maclean: When we formed the Beta Band and I directed the first music video, I said to the record company that I wanted to direct the videos. I think I was already starting to write little attempts at alien films or samurai films.
Rehearsing with Beta Band, I remember we would all choose a film a day, then rehearse, take a break and watch a movie, then rehearse again. So, for all of us film was a big part of the music.
IBT: Speaking of The Beta Band, did you know that scene in “High Fidelity” [the 2000 Stephen Frears movie, starring John Cusack] was going to happen?
Maclean: Yeah, but I didn’t know it was going to be such an ad for the band in the middle of the film. They came to us and said ‘can we license the track’ and we said ‘yes.’ We never thought about it again until we went to the premiere and as soon as it happened we were all so giddy and weirded out that we all just left. I don’t think I’ve seen the end of the film.
See the scene from “High Fidelity” below:
IBT: What’s next for you? A film noir?
Maclean: Maybe! I would love to write something in the heist or noir field. It’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve stopped thinking about “Slow West” and started thinking about the next one. It’s early days.
Watch the trailer for “Slow West below: