The return of mature, mid-budget movies

We spoke to director David Mackenzie about Hell or High Water starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster in Hell or High Water

With the proliferation of franchises, adaptations, blockbuster and other high-risk, high-yield films in the last few years, many have taken the stance that mature, mid-budget cinema has disappeared. Movies made with budgets ranging from $15- to $40-million with adult audiences in mind are, they say, extinct; the only thing that’s left are micro-budgeted indies or enormous, risky tentpoles.

While it’s true that the landscape of wide-release movies has changed a lot, there are always some exceptions to that rule. While I don’t actually know how much money David Mackenzie had to make Hell or High Water (and it seemed somehow uncouth to ask), it very much falls in line with that type of film so many decry as dead: taut, mature filmmaking that’s both smart and audience-friendly.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play a pair of brothers who find themselves in dire financial straits. Pine’s character is a divorced dad struggling to keep up payments on the family ranch after the death of their mother, and Foster’s character is an ex-con who wouldn’t be able to find a job that pays enough to help out anyway. They devise a plan to conduct a series of small and ostensibly untraceable bank robberies at one specific West Texas banking chain; the low amount and local nature of the crimes means they won’t attract the feds. They do, however, attract the attention of an old codger of a Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his put-upon partner (Gil Birmingham), who begin staking out their next move.

“I think that for a while there was a point where you weren’t seeing movies like this so much anymore,” says Mackenzie. “I certainly noticed that in the projects that we’d been talking about, but there is a kind of movie to go back into that kind of sweet spot, under $40-million, that have a lot to do with dramatic situations and aren’t too limited by the budget. I think Working Title have been making a lot of films like that. (…) There was a time a few years ago where they were squeezing the kinds of films that were being made, but that’s picking up again, and this is, I suppose, in that realm.”

Hell or High Water rangers
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham

While not Mackenzie’s first American film, it is an unusual choice for the Scottish-born director to make a film so deeply rooted in the spirit of the South.

“That was very much the challenge, you know, to give a real sense of place,” says Mackenzie. “I knew it a tiny bit, but arriving there, the place was so big, you know — it is what it is. You get a very sharp impression of the place, and I think that impression goes straight into the film. My DP Giles Nuttgens and I, we both kind of travelled around and tried to get the flavour. Depending on where people come from, they see it in a different way and that’s how the outsider vision operates. I was trying my hardest to serve that landscape, to reflect it and to make it as American as possible.”

Like Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe (profiled in the print issue of Cult MTL and out in theatres next week), Hell or High Water is a genre film where the financial stakes are surprisingly low. Its characters are so strapped for cash and the global economy so shaky that its ultimate prizes aren’t millions of dollars, but in the low six figures.

“The film is set in the sort of shockwaves of the financial crisis which, in rural communities, is very much alive,” he explains. “I think that sort of small-time quality is part of the flavour of the film. But yeah, the amount of money needed for the plan — which is pretty complicated, but I don’t want to give that away — is not very much. You’re not taking a lot, so you’re not drawing too much attention to yourself and all of that.”

As I’m speaking to Mackenzie, it’s something like 36 degrees outside. (I’ve only put on pants because our talk was originally supposed to be on Skype and I’d like to preserve a modicum of professionalism.) This pushes me to ask him about shooting a film in the punishing desert heat of West Texas.

“Particularly the few scenes on that sort of reservation… I think it was something like 104, it was blisteringly hot,” he says. “We were shooting massive wide landscapes and making sure there were no trucks or anything nearby. But, you know, coming from Scotland… I got my cowboy boots and my cowboy hat, got all of it… and kind of enjoyed it!” ■

Hell or High Water is out in theatres on Friday, Aug. 19. Watch the trailer here: