This week in theaters comes the film “Hell or High Water” and I am on the dusty trail of being excited about it. As you can read from my review of the film, I couldn’t be more pleased with the direction, story and casting of this unique film.
Director David Mackenzie has brought a modern Western to the screen filled with the themes of outlaws versus lawmen, but the story of the outlaws is much more than being “bad guys.” This English director is responsible for films that cause conversations with such films as “Young Adam” in 2003, “Perfect Sense” in 2011 and 2013’s “Starred Up.”
Gil Birmingham’s resume is long and filled with characters ranging from Native American characters to law enforcement. In 2008, Birmingham would play the role of Billy Black in the world-wide phenomenon series of “Twilight” and continue this role until his character’s demise. I would see him again in 2014 in a few of my favorite series including “House of Cards,” “Banshee” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with these two fine gentlemen to discuss their film “Hell or High Water,” hitting theaters this week. Directed by Mackenzie, the film tells the story of two brothers who believe the only way to solve their financial problems and save the family ranch is by robbing banks. Birmingham plays Alberto Parker, Texas law enforcement who along with Marcus Hamilton played by Jeff Bridges investigates who the robbers are and how to stop them.
Jeri Jacquin: Thank you both gentlemen for speaking with me today about “Hell or High Water.” I have to say, at the Q&A after the screening it surprised me how detail oriented the audience was about the film, like the gentlemen asking about the casino scene.
David Mackenzie: That was an interesting and strange question at the same time, wasn’t it? The casino scene was done in the actual casino, and yes, there are so many sounds going off it can be quite distracting. There is some work done in post production but it was all quite real.
JJ: The humor of the film having lived in the south is hilarious to me, and the wise cracks were pretty good. Of course, the Dr. Pepper-Mr. Pibb line really did have me rolling. I mean seriously, you don’t put a Mr. Pibb in front of a Dr. Pepper person and think we won’t know the difference.
DM: <laughing> That really was an education for me. I didn’t know about that until someone brought it to my attention. It’s lovely to play those details.
JJ: I was please also to learn that Taylor Sheridan wrote the script for the film.
DM: I think this script truly does come from him and it’s so well written.
JJ: When you first read the script what was your reaction?
DM: I thought it was almost a perfect script actually. I loved the journey it went on beginning so hard and tough and delving deeper into the character and even being humorous. The script does get into deeper things and just changes into so many different levels. For me as a film director, there were enormous opportunities to be cinematic and to explore bigger American themes, but in a not heavy-handed way. These are great characters and it offered amazing opportunities to cast the story with such talent like the man sitting next to me here. It was a love affair for me really. I had been to West Texas and wanted to do something with a western theme and in that landscape. So when the script came, I knew I could do just that — which is very exciting for me as a foreigner.
Gil Birmingham: That’s the amazing part, that you captured it all. Several people at the screening last night were from the south and they wanted to know how he captured that.
DM: I had a great team and material and a strong desire to represent this world as well as I could with an open heart and an open mind.
JJ: Gil, when you read the script, what was your thought on playing Alberto Parker?
GB: I thought it was brilliant layering and touching on so many different aspects of what the culture is currently, economically, socially and politically. There are issues of race, issues of guns but not any heavy handedness in the approach to each one. It is also in a humorous way many times. People will be able to be open to receive these thoughts and how we conduct ourselves with fellow human beings.
JJ: I also have to say, I don’t think I can recall a film where Native Americans are the subject of such direct joking. I find it happens easily within a family but here it is between Parker and Hamilton so openly. What is your feeling about that?
GB: That is a great question and I think when I first read it it was the thing that stood out for me as well. It happens in families, as you say, and that brings the question of the relationship between Marcus and Alberto. What is their relationship and how does Alberto receive things? Sometimes he jabs back at him, but what became clear is that they were brothers and Jeff’s character is my brother who knows the hot spots and triggers just like a family member would. They learn to deal with one another and that was the capability of the character, by ribbing his “brother” he is showing his affection.
JJ: We know no one but family can do that — no one!
DM: It was important to me that we looked at those issues as well. We didn’t shy away from anything. When you first hear some of that ribbing, it is a bit tough. As a result of that it helps with the arc of their relationship and you realize that this thing that feels shocking is part of their relationship. I think it gives it a special dimension.
JJ: An example for you is last night there was a woman next to me that when the ribbing started she pushed back into her chair with her jaw slightly open yet I’m sitting there laughing. That’s when I realized that Hamilton and Parker’s relationship ran very deep.
DM: We were all a bit nervous about it so it’s good to hear that it has come across that way. There is a concern about being sensitive and it could have gone either way.
GB: The other part of it was the Native culture of respect, understanding and compassion are all the core elements that I know had to be there. Jeff’s character had suffered the loss of his wife two years prior and now being forced to retire from a job that is his identity. Alberto wanted to still have this last hurrah with him, being the one to be with him so these jabs get filtered.
DM: I love the resilience on his face and the “here we go again” and the unspoken that shows clearly. Gil brings all of that though the looks he has. I think it is a lovely dimension.
JJ: Last night you also talked about the dimension of the characters. We are dealing with two sets of brothers and whether you see it as good or bad, as a director these four characters never really meet until the very end. How was that for you working with two and two?
DM: What was really very interesting was the schedule, and I had to shoot Chris and Ben first which was right before “Star Trek,” so I had very little time. There is a very real energy, and we shot almost sequentially. We connected with the odd couple of this brotherly relationship. It was all about the brothers — it was a strong element because we did it so quickly. That finished siding with the outlaws and then Jeff and Gil come in and we side with the lawmen! I was really very happy that the schedule forced that on us so we could focus on each side individually rather than juggling the two. The two brotherly dynamics are very different, but have echoes of each other with the tough love and antagonism but the deep affection beneath it.
JJ: Gil, you and Jeff spent a lot of time together obviously. What did you learn from him because you are pretty alright yourself.
GB: <laughing> Why thank you! You know Jeff is such a generous individual. Jeff is about the love and he shares it whenever he can. We got to play music together and that’s how we got to connect from the very beginning at such an intimate level. We have been playing since we were kids. The first thing he said was “let’s jam,” and it really opened the door to connect with that language. That opened the trust for us to cross over into the film language.
JJ: Did you realize that you are playing with — “The Dude?”
GB: Yes, I’m sitting there thinking I am the dude jamming with The Dude!
DM: I think Jeff’s performance as this character is just as iconic as other characters he has played as well.
JJ: He just nails the laid-backed, yet don’t take this laid back as you can pull something over on me type of character.
GB: You know he is such a skilled performer and actor, he has such a trove of experience that he brought it all to this character.
JJ: That’s what drew the audience in, the fact that everyone was invested in the story before they knew they were being drawn in. What would you each like the audience to take away from this film?
DM: I think the film is a film that should be enjoyed first and foremost with elements of a bank robber-Western genre elements. It is about American now and hopefully it asks questions about what is happening now and I hope those questions will resonate. I also want to say that to anyone who doesn’t know it, there is a lot of humor as well and although it is dealing with a serious subject there is also a lot of moments that really help you get through as it were.
JJ: Well, Café Lady is my new heroine! (This is a character in the film that I will not tell you about because she has to be seen to be believed.)
DM: <laughing with Gil> She is a very fine actress and lovely.
GB: So I hope everyone has a great time and is entertained. I love the fact that it is set in a way that there is some ambiguity about it. That people don’t really know who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. It is so perfectly written out and Hollywood at its best will provide a platform for people to have creative discussions about things like the subject matters in our film. There is the question of guns and economics and so forth, all things that need to be discussed. If we can present them in a way that people feel entertained yet thought provoking at the same time we are pleased.
JJ: Thank you gentlemen for your time and for allowing me to prod you without giving too much of the film away for audiences to enjoy.
DM: Thank you Jeri, so much.
GB: Yes, thanks Jeri, we appreciate you wanting to speak with us.
The pleasure was all truly mind and congratulations to both director David Mackenzie and Gil Birmingham – the film is exceptional with a cast that brings so much to the screen.
This is a film that will leave audiences thrilled for a piece that is thought provoking, shocking, humorous and asking “how far would you go for family?”
“Hell or High Water” is the film to see!