One of the best movies at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, Slow West, which opens in New York on May 15, is an accomplished, original Western by first-time feature filmmaker John Mclean (formerly a member of the Beta Band). In it, young Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his guide (Michael Fassbender) strike out to find a young woman named Rose. Shot in New Zealand and written and directed by a Scot, it looks at the American West through what Mclean calls “a European point of view.”
There’s a lot going on in this movie, but one of the main themes is how many different cultures came together to create the United States—from south of the border, from Africa, from all over Europe and more—and how the Native Americans who were here to begin with were shut out of that process. What made you want to focus on that part of our history?
I traveled around America a lot when I was younger, and I met a lot of Americans who said, “Oh, my grandfather was European.” So I decided to write it from a European point of view. Then I started reading up on the story of the West, and it’s a lot more tragic than all these Western movies tell it.
Why did you want to make a Western?
I think it goes back to my love of traveling America, and I used to love Westerns when I was a kid. I liked the idea of doing a forest Western, not a town Western. I thought it would be cheap, because you just had to have the right setting and then dress up people. And I didn’t want a lot of extras. No one was an extra in this film. Everyone in it had a backstory.
How did you do your research? Did you read historical materials to find out how things really were, or watch a lot of Westerns to see how they’ve been depicted, or both?
Everything. I watched every Western possible—in order to avoid the clichés, really. I was inspired by Westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and also some classics like Shane and High Noon. When it came to books, I read the Little House on the Prairie series, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain. Writers who were writing at the time, which I think is the most sensible thing to do.
I don’t think of Mark Twain as writing about the West.
He does in Roughing It, which is about his travels across the country. It reads like a Western.
Payne [a bandit played by Ben Mendelsohn] has a woman and a couple of young orphans he picked up along the way in his gang. Was it not too unusual for outlaw gangs to include women and children, or did you make that part up?
When you start writing, things sort of happen inevitably: you think, in that situation, what would logically happen next? So Payne would come along next and pick up the two kids [after they were orphaned]. Sometimes people would fall by the side of the road [on the Western frontier], and someone would pick them up. There was a great film about that a couple years ago called Meek’s Cutoff.
It’s interesting that you’ve mentioned McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Meek’s Cutoff, because I thought of them both while watching Slow West. All three movies share a kind of modern sensibility and a feminist point of view. Rose, your female love interest, has her own motivations and skills and relationships, and Jay’s love for her is completely unrequited, as we learn early on. That complexity and female autonomy makes it feel different very modern at the same time that it feels authentically old.
I completely didn’t want a damsel in distress, which is something you see even in movies coming out this year. Meek’s Cutoff reminded me that sometimes men bring trouble to the woman and women are forced to take things into their own hands to clean it up. That was definitely what happened to the Rose character.
You used to be a musician. Are you still, or have you switched full-time to film?
I don’t think of myself as a musician who’s making movies now. I think of myself as an artist and filmmaker who was in a band for a while. I studied art—my first love was painting and drawing. I was a musician mainly because my friends were all in bands, so I joined a band. I was really interested in making music videos for the band.
You obviously have a talent for attracting talent. Michael Fassbender stars not only in Slow West but also in your last two films, both of which were shorts. I read that he wanted to work with you because he saw a short film you had made with some friends. How did he happen to see it, and how did you get him to act in a short?
I got to know Michael’s agent, Conor [McCaughan], through a friend. Michael and Conor are quite close, so they were hanging out and Conor played him one or two things I had on YouTube. So Michael offered his services.
At first, I had just a few hours with him. I made sure he enjoyed it, so I got three days on the next film, and I made sure he enjoyed that too. Each time I worked with Michael he got more involved, kicked around more ideas. I always knew he would be one of the main characters [in Slow West]. I wrote the character of Silas for him. •