This used to be an abandoned department store that we broke into a few times,” says John Maclean, surveying the plush dining room of Edinburgh’s Double Tree Hotel. The former Beta Band keyboard player turned Bafta-winning filmmaker is here to discuss his debut feature, Slow West. Given the film is a western featuring Michael Fassbender and plenty of lawlessness, the breaking-and-entering confession feels somewhat apropos.
Really, though, such reminiscences are down to us currently sitting square in the middle of his old stomping ground. Just round the corner, for instance, is Edinburgh College of Art, where Maclean, who grew up in Tayport in Fife, studied painting and drawing for four years in the early 1990s. This was before joining the Beta Band, the seminal Edinburgh-based art-rockers used by John Cusack’s record shop owner in High Fidelity to signify his own hip taste in music. Further along the road, in the opposite direction, is the Cameo Cinema, where Maclean worked part-time while a student, screening late night double bills.
Working at the Cameo and watching movies was, he says, the extent of his formal film education. Which isn’t bad for someone who’s now made three films with Michael Fassbender (prior to making Slow West they made the short films Man on a Motorcycle and Pitch Black Heist). His practical education, though, came from making videos for the Beta Band. “That side of it started to feel a bit more natural to me than the music,” he says. “I struggled sometimes in the studio because I just didn’t have the ear for it. I felt a lot more comfortable with the videos.”
After the Beta Band broke up (in 2004), it was those videos that brought him to the attention of Fassbender, whom he met through a friend of the actor’s agent just as Fassbender’s career was starting to go stratospheric. Fassbender had seen and liked Maclean’s Beta Band promos and suggested working together. Or as Maclean recalls it: “He said, ‘I’m shooting with Tarantino, but I have a day off coming up, do you want to do something?’”
Maclean came up with Man on a Motorcycle, a short film shot on a Nokia camera phone that he made with Fassbender on the actor’s day off from Inglourious Basterds. The film debuted at the 2010 London Film Festival. “Edinburgh Film Festival turned it down,” sighs Maclean. “But it got into London and that was the breakthrough.”
Next came the black-and-white Pitch Black Heist, also starring Fassbender. It won Maclean a Bafta and had its US premiere at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Yeah. You go to dinner and all the directors are there, and De Niro’s at a table. I was typically Scottish and was like, ‘I’m just going to go up and say hello’. Everybody else was being cool.John Maclean
Did he meet De Niro?
“Yeah. You go to dinner and all the directors are there, and De Niro’s at a table. I was typically Scottish and was like, ‘I’m just going to go up and say hello’. Everybody else was being cool.
“But I’ve met a lot of people though Michael,” he adds. “Michael’s the sort of guy who says, ‘Let’s go to the pub, I’m meeting my mate Vincent,’ and you think it’s just a mate from Ireland, and it turns out to be Vincent Cassel.”
Maclean says Fassbender was “100 per cent instrumental” in getting Slow West made. “He can get a film funded,” he says, “but the script still has to be great.” As he says, it wasn’t as if Fassbender was going to turn down all the amazing offers he gets to do his film just because they’re friends and have made a couple of shorts together. “That was never going to happen, so a lot of work went into getting the script up to par.”
Slow West is certainly an ambitious first feature. A lean, slow-burning western, the film is set in the 1870s and revolves around Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young Scotsman of aristocratic descent who runs off to America in pursuit of the girl he loves. Having naively followed his heart, he finds himself ill-prepared for the ruthlessness of the American Frontier, relying on hired gun Silas (Fassbender) to fend off the desperate and the dangerous.
The idea came partly from Maclean’s love of the genre, which is fully evident in a couple of stunning set pieces that showcase his facility for no-nonsense, hard-hitting action. But it also came from his desire to do a western in which most of the characters are European. “You read about the Highland Clearances and the famines and people going on boats to America and you never really see that overlap with the West. I just thought there was something there.”
It would be tempting to describe it as revisionist in this sense, but Maclean thinks the term is redundant. “I watched practically every western again and all of them could be seen as revisionist, right back to the beginning, because they’re all not quite straight. They’re always a western and something else as well.”
For Maclean, Slow West was a chance do a western that felt more real in terms of the diverse nationalities of its protagonists, but also felt like a European fairytale. “Those were the two things I was going for,” he says, citing Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as inspirations.
His casting of Smit-McPhee added to the off-kilter nature. Maclean hadn’t seen him in anything since The Road, when the actor was ten. “It’s quite hard to find a 17-year-old actor who doesn’t spend time in the gym,” he says. “They all end up looking quite contemporary, but Kodi is skinny and had this classical look that could have been Scottish aristocracy.”
Ensuring Smit-McPhee, who is Australian and lives in Los Angeles, nailed the accent was, he says, his biggest concern. “I didn’t want to make a bad Scottish accent film because I knew I’d get ripped. But we had a voice coach and I got an actor from Edinburgh to record the whole script for reference. And on set, if he strayed, I’d say.”
Having now made his first feature, Maclean reckons he’s allowed to legitimately call himself a filmmaker. He looks back on his music days as useful preparation: teaching him how to deal with the compromise between art and commerce, but also making him more at ease in public. As he says: when you support the likes of Radiohead in front of 20,000 people at Madison Square Gardens and The Hollywood Bowl, you lose your inhibitions pretty quickly. That’s useful too when the likes of Charlize Theron tells you she loved your band back in the 1990s. “It’s always nice to hear that,” he beams.
Maclean’s first Hollywood moment like that actually came at the London premiere for High Fidelity. Though he knew the Beta Band’s song, Dry the Rain, was going to be on the soundtrack, none of the band realised John Cusack was going to name-check and play it so prominently in the film. “When the scene came up it was so surreal we left straight after and went back to the pub. It just felt like an advert for us in the middle of the film.”
They weren’t the only Scottish band referenced, though.
“Belle and Sebastian were in High Fidelity as well,” he reminds me, smiling. “The drippy guy said something about them. We got the cool guy.”
Slow West (15) is in cinemas from Friday.