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Going Through The Slow Burn Of The Old West Though The Vision of Director John Maclean

Updated on May 21, 2015

Introducing John Maclean the Director, not the Great Hockey Player

Writer and Director John Maclean may not be a household name, but he does share in common ironically his own name with that of NHL great former New Jersey Devil and New York Rangers forward who won a couple of Stanley Cups during the 90's and 00's which will confuse some. This John Maclean is the new fresh voice in Hollywood behind the camera as his sensational new film, "Slow West" starring acclaimed actor Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smith-McKee stars of the upcoming, "X-Men: Apocalypse."

The film is a lean, mean and stark Western that makes the most of its' New Zealand locations to recreate the intense and mysterious Old West of America. A tough as nails film that would make Clint Eastwood proud of or would've even directed during his biggest success period after his Oscar winning and revisionist Western, "Unforgiven." Maclean, a former musician turned artist and now acclaimed director, has really created a film that will definitely garner a lot of attention and also make him a sought after director in the years to come.

For this very special interview with John, he candidly shares with me his thoughts on writing, directing and working on his beloved film, working with talented actors such as Michael Fassbender, his artistic background and what he would like to do next as a director. So please sit back and let me introduce you to John Maclean, Director of "Slow West." Enjoy!


Q&A With John

Hi John, It’s truly an honor to meet you both and I admire your work. I hope everything is well you today. Before we begin talking about your film “Slow West”, can you please tell the readers about what inspired you to become a writer/director.

JML: Thanks, I’m well I grew up loving the cinema of my local video store – "Die Hard", "Predator, "Robocop". The thrill of a fifteen year-old renting 18 certificate films (R-Rated films here in the U.S.). I never thought it was something I could do. I worked in a cinema called the Cameo in Edinburgh and Tarantino came to town with Reservoir Dogs, and hearing him talk for the first time, I thought it possible to pick up a camera, gather friends together and just shoot. Editing software on Macs was becoming affordable, so I just started writing – Samurai films and car chase films which were all under five minutes. All zero budget filmmaking.

Let’s talk about your film “Slow West” which has received a lot of critical acclaim and is your writing and directorial debut. What was the inspiration behind it?

JML: Again starting with budget, I thought a western filmed entirely in a forest would be a great way to make something cheap look good. As the script developed buildings and horses and guns appeared so that went out the window, but I was still very conscious of the practicalities of making a first film and kept things tight. I loved to travel North America and while travelling, I would meet so many people that would say ‘my granddad was Scottish / Irish / German, so the thought there was something in making a western populated with migrants which felt real to me.

The film is about a young man played by Kodi Smith-McKee who travels all across America during the 16th Century looking for a woman he’s in love with named Rose. Do you think the film plays off as a love story in a way with dark elements surrounding it?

JML: When I watched many of the classic westerns again, many of them were love stories, "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", "Red River", and "The Searchers". Some between two men such as "Shane", and "Pat Garrett (And Billy The Kid)." I think of "Slow West" less of a story about love and more about desire, fantasy, and what someone does in the name of love.

Your casting for the film is very inspired of course you have Michael Fassbender, whom you’ve worked with in the past and now is a star, you got Kodi Smith-McKee and Ben Mendelshon. When you were writing the film, did you envision that you would end up getting such great talent like this?

JML: I knew I had Michael from the start. We made two short films together with the goal to make a feature together, so this was always a plan. When you have Michael, he attracts other great talent, as I hoped the script did too. So yes, I was very lucky for my first film and I should also point out that the New Zealand cast was also fantastic and everyone stepped up in every role.

There was a lot of use of raw language in the film spoken by the cast in the David Mamet style that leads to something. Was that your intention early on to just go all out and do an R-rated, no frills film in that regard?

JML: I never thought about the rating at all. I was thinking about keeping the dialogue minimal, like a film noir, snappy. I worked on every line to make it try to say something deep while sounding shallow.

You got to shoot in New Zealand substituting for the U.S. What was it like to shoot the wonderful landscape that you chose for the films’ setting?

JML: New Zealand had less spiders than Australia. There were times we shot into scrub-land with the most amazing lakes and mountains behind us. if it didn’t serve the story I didn’t want to film it and so much of the time it was trying not to be wooed by the landscape and let it take over from the story.

As you were writing the film, was there a character or characters you felt had your own personal ideals that now have transcended on screen?

JML: Yes. I think Jay’s love for the older girl perhaps was personal when I was 16. Silas was more wishful thinking, someone I wish I was like, and Werner the German (who Jay meets) perhaps speaks of my views on Native American history.

When it came to the films’ music, what inspired you to choose Jed Kurtzel as your composer?

JML: First, it was practical. I needed an Australian composer due to co-production needs, and Jed had some time off before working on Macbeth. But when I met him, we clicked immediately and when he brought me the first demo, he had got it straight away and was amazing to work with.

The music in the film plays a major part in this young man’s journey. When you were writing the film, did you want the music to also be a voice to tell your story?

JML: Strangely, having been in a band etc, I don’t think or write musically. I did listen to a lot of Moondog records, and thought that fitted with the vibe and theme. European classical music mixed with Native American percussion, but I find more musicality in the rhythm of editing. I edited without music, hoping the rhythm of the shots would be enough and then you can add music on top at the end and it only adds up. Silence is very important to me too.

When you finally saw the finished film, what was your reaction after you finally saw your creation on screen in front of a large audience?

JML: The closer to the end the more I had to watch it, grading and sound. I began to see it as a piece of work and not a series of edits. Then the first screening was Sundance, home of the Western and American audience so in at the deep end. I was so happy with the reactions, especially the gasps and the laughs.

When you’re writing or directing, what drives you or inspires you?

JML: Paintings, albums, films, books, all too many to mention - thrift stores, cycling around London, visiting a ranch (Zapata) in Colorado was a huge inspiration for "Slow West."

You’re also a musician and songwriter as part of two bands one of which you formed The Beta Band and The Aliens in the late 1990’s. What was it like from going being a painter to now a professional musician? What was the transition like?

JML: I felt very confident with the ideas behind our music sampling. I loved hip-hop and making collages at art school and I saw sampling as the link. I also loved making the music videos and album covers. I was a little obsessed with Warhol when I was young and liked the idea of mixing discipline. At the end of the day its' all either good ideas or bad ideas.

Do you think that the art world and the musical world are similar in that you have to create sketches to get to the final product?

JML: Yes and its same thing in film. Storyboarding is very important to me, I storyboarded the whole film shot for shot

While you were with your groups, you directed music videos for your respective bands. Please share your experiences working on them?

JML: A few were decent budget and I got to work with a crew which is good. Most of the videos I directed, were very low or no budget and were incredibly useful for problem solving and working out how to shoot with what you have rather than moaning about what you don’t have.

You also made a couple of short films, Man on a Motorcycle, a short film starring Michael Fassbender one of the stars of Slow West, which you filmed on a cell phone and then Pitch Black Heist in 2011, which won the best short film. Please talk about those experiences working on them.

JML: "Man On A Motorcycle" was my first ‘proper short’ and my first time working with an actor, which happened to be Fassbender. I had met him through his agent and he’d seen some of my Beta Band videos. He offered a day of his time. I decided to film on my mobile phone which was an old Nokia because I had been making lots of films on it and felt I knew how to work the camera. The filming went well and Michael then offered three days for "Pitch Black Heist." Again it was a big step up. The budget and crew and now three actors and I worked for a long time on the script and spent some days working with Michael on it too. I then story boarded every shot so it felt confident.

Is it difficult to work on a short film or subject as it is working on a film like Slow West for example?

JML: In some ways its so different. A stroll in the park vs. climbing Mount Everest. But in other ways when you break it down, its still you, a cameraman and an actor. You learn to pace yourself and ignore the circus that way.

Do you feel now that you’ve made a major film, do you feel that you learned a lot of what you applied in the film from those experiences working in both music videos and short films?

JML: Absolutely. As I said, problem solving and making the most with what you have and not what you don’t have.

Do you miss being apart of the musical scene?

JML: I miss the one to two hours on stage. That’s all. The rest of it I can do without. The cables I always tripped over, the technology I could never keep up with, the lack of good coffee on the road, and the waiting around. ‘Hurry up and wait’ is the true cliché.

Do you still paint?

JML: I still draw, I was always more into drawing than painting because the paint took too long to dry.

In looking back at your work so far, what would be the biggest goal that you both would love to accomplish or share in the celluloid world?

JML: In the past, "Slow West" feels like a real accomplishment for a first film. In the future, I don’t really know where I want to go until I set off. So we will see where the pen and paper takes me.

If there’s something you would love to write or direct at this moment, what would it be and why?

JML: I love the noir/heist genre and would love to do something with a more contemporary setting.

There many aspiring directors in this world and I’m still personally growing as one, what advice would you give to those trying to succeed?

JML: Make films whatever your means. Write, a pencil and paper is cheap. So that if you are presented with a stroke of luck, you are prepared. You have the material to show the industry and you have the practice of writing all those bad scripts before the good ones.

What future projects do we have to look forward to from you?

JML: Hopefully, my next film.

I’d like to personally thank you John for your time in granting me this interview. It really is a real pleasure to meet you both and the best of everything for your future directing wise.

JML: Was a pleasure, thanks.

Scene from Slow West Starring Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smith-McKee


Very special thanks for Director John Maclean for being gracious with his time for doing this special interview and I wish you the best in the future. Also very special thanks go to Brenda Camperos for her invaluable assistance. Muchas gracias como siempre.


Director John Maclean's Biography

"Scottish artist John Maclean studied drawing and painting in Edinburgh and London before creating music videos for two bands he formed, The Beta Band and The Aliens. Maclean directed his first shorts—Man on a Motorcycle(2009) and Pitch Black Heist (2011)—both featuring actor Michael Fassbender, who also stars in Maclean’s debut feature, Slow West (2015)."



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