Filmmaker John Maclean comes at the offbeat Western “Slow West” from two unusual angles. One, he’s a Scotsman working in a genre that is inherently American. Two, he’s a musician — the keyboards and sampler part of The Beta Band, who disbanded in 2004. Maclean made many of the band’s videos, and he brings his unique gifts to bear on an oater that sometimes feels like it’s mixing disparate elements into a strange whole. The film stars Michael Fassbender as a Cyrus, cucumber cool cowboy helping Jay, a Scottish teen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), traverse the Old West in a mad search for his beloved.
There’s an interesting mix here between old school genre elements, like Fassbender’s taciturn badass, and something more realistic, and at times arty.
I really wanted to stay away from myth and mythologizing. That’s why the land is populated by Germans and French. It’s “Slow West,” not “Fastest Gun in the West.” I also tried to stay away from the pulp angle with the violence and make it a bit more real. But then you have this dreaminess, which I think is more Jay’s personality. We see it through Jay’s eyes. The dreamy element is more like magic realism than fantasy.
It’s not even shot like a Western. In terms of shot selection and editing it resembles other genres, but not Westerns.
I was inspired by the European style — people like Bresson, who shoot a hand and a face in separate cuts, almost like in-camera editing. There’s a lot of that. With the dreamier parts, the last thing I wanted to do was suddenly go into slow-mo. A lot of European filmmakers, like Bergman, shoot dream sequences like regular sequences. There’s not change to the look. It makes them more interesting for me and less cliched. And then I watched a lot of Japanese cinema from the ’40s and ’50s. I wanted to keep away from the whole Western style that people usually associate with Morricone and Leone. I stayed away from that because they’ve done. You couldn’t do any better.
There is a long tradition of outside-the-box Westerns and anti-Westerns. “Dead Man” is one film with which this has a lot in common.
“Dead Man” for all its trippiness is not really that trippy. There’s a straight story underneath it. It can be more real and even authentic. People did go on train with guns shooting buffalos from windows. That happened. When you go back to the old Westerns, like “Red River” or “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” or “High Noon,” they are quite straight and are maybe a little similar to the way I shot this. It didn’t feel like I was completely doing something that hasn’t been done before. I was coming back to a slightly more classical approach. But even I was making something like a comedy or a heist film, I’d still do it like this. I’m not a huge fan of the swinging handheld camera that is prevalent these days, and shooting seven hours of footage for a minute of screentime, just because you can. We treated it like we were shooting on film. We wanted it to be disciplined. Instead of taking 1000 photos you take three great ones.