Director John Maclean and Stars Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn talk about “Slow West”

Slow West held its New York premiere on April 19th at the SVA Theater during the 14th annual Tribeca Film Festival. Writer and director John Maclean joined stars Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn in speaking with me about the Michael-Fassbender-lead western on the red carpet.

Ben Mendelsohn is a renowned Australian actor who in Slow West takes on the larger-than-life role of Payne. Payne, in his oversized furry coat, is the leader of a vicious gang that Fassbender’s character Silas used to run with, and like his character, Mendelsohn seemed a bit bitter at the abandonedment of his gang-mate…

Lauren Damon: Can you discuss the relationship of Silas and Payne
Ben Mendelsohn: Okay, so Silas and Payne rode together back in the day and Silas essentially decided he was gonna go his own way–you know, he’d had enough, like ‘Yeah yeah, I’ve got what I wanted, I’m off doing my own thing’ Which, when you think about it is sort of a really punk move, you know? Because essentially Payne you know, gave this guy A LOT. Now, I’m not saying Silas isn’t a talented man, he is. But basically, he packed up and he got his tail between his legs and off he ran. And you know, time’s come now where our paths  have crossed again and [Silas]’s got this fine little bounty he’s traveling around with and really I just wanna know what’s up with that? Are we gonna share this spoil? Or are you gonna TRY and take it all for yourself? Or are you gonna try and be “a good boy”? So that’s a lot of what that’s about.


LD: And how did you all develop the look of Payne?
Ben: Oh the coat is genius. The very talented wardrobe lady [Kirsty Cameron] had it made and showed me all the pictures of trappers and what not from that period with these massive coats on. So once you put that coat on and that hat and you’ve got the tattoos, the rest of it’s a cake walk.


LD: How was it to shoot in NZ and with that wardrobe?
Ben: It was…yeah, it’s really crazy open wide spaces. It’s very desolate, it’s harsh. It’s a harsh sort of enviroment but very beautiful too. New Zealand’s a great place to shoot, it’s really got an extraordinary array of you know, locations and looks and feels…it’s all there. It’s a beautiful place to shoot.


LD: What attracted you to the film? I mean for a western it had a sense of humor about it too that I didn’t expect at all.
Ben: Yeah, I wasn’t sure how that would go. Michael Fassbender had started with John Maclean and they’d done a couple of short films and essentially the fact that you know that Michael Fassbender had sort of backed this to the degree he did was a very good sign. I’d seen his short films that John Maclean had done and they had something. You know, you could feel there was something there, western, it felt pretty cool. It felt like a good bit of fun with a decent chance of it working.


Director John Maclean had previously worked with Michael Fassbender on the short film Pitch Black Heist, which was shown at the 2012 Tribeca Film Fest.
LD: Can you talk about how you initially came to work with Michael Fassbender, what drew you to him or him to your work?
John Maclean: I think it was around the time that he was shooting with Tarantino [on Inglourious Basterds], I knew his agent. And his agent had given Michael some of my early short films I was making on my own. Michael saw something in them, came to me and said you know, if you want to do something, I’ll give up a day. So we started working together there.


LD: And when you approached this script, there’s a lot of dark humor in it—did you primarily come at it as a comedy or a western first?
John: I think, like my favorite films—I mean you look at a film like Fargo and it’s not a comedy, it’s not a thriller—I think some of the films I’m interested in, I think you just have to try and be truthful. And like life, comedy comes in to sad moments and sadness comes in to comedy moments.


LD: And it’s unconventional that your young romantic lead, his love interest doesn’t actually like him like that back!
John: I think “spoilers” here!

LD: I know, I’m sorry, my review says he’s been friend zoned
John: I just I mean, maybe that was from personal experience (laughs) when I was younger. But that’s what happens with young boys, I think. I guess it was for personal experience actually but um, I think he was never right for her. I think she was always more practical and he always too much of a dreamer. So from the beginning, I guess it’s doomed.


LD: How do you describe the back story between Payne and Silas?
John: Yeah, I think that’s the hard thing with wanting to make a shorter film—you can’t branch out into too many of the backstories but…I just imagined that the wild west, there wasn’t that many people at that time. So people sort of crossed paths much more often than you’d expect. I imagine they travelled together and [Silas] was part of Payne’s gang and then didn’t like the senselessness of some of the violence and left and went to go alone and Payne’s trying to draw him back into it.


Kodi Smit-McPhee was recently cast as Nightcrawler in next year’s X-men: Apocalypse, seeing as his previous film co-starred Nicholas Hoult (“Beast”) and this one he shared the screen with Fassbender (“Magneto”) I had to ask about joining them as mutants.

Lauren Damon: Have you contacted your past coworkers here for advice on joining the X-Men?
Kodi Smit McPhee: I haven’t contacted them yet. So we got Nicholas Hoult, Ty Sheridan and Michael Fassbender whom I know well. And I really can’t wait to get on set and work with them. And I haven’t said a word to them.


LD: What’re you most looking forward to about playing Nightcrawler?
Kodi: I really love the warmth that comes with the passion behind his character. And the novelty within just the tradition of him. I don’t necessarily have a desire to bring new things to it, but just show the world that they love.


LD: And are you familiar with Alan Cumming’s take on it from X2?
Kodi: Yes, absolutely. Usually, I mean if I don’t need to–like for Let Me In, I didn’t look at Let the Right One In–but for something like this, I thought it  was right to just find all the roots, you know, see how Nightcrawler evolved into who he is now.


LD: If you could choose your own X-power what would it be?
Kodi: I would love to physically, and within my own body, be able to travel back and forth and time. See how the history and the future plays out.


LD: Back onto Slow West, I was rewatching The Road recently and I saw your character there sort of as the young optimist to an older guide, like Jay in this film, did you feel that connection there?
Kodi: Absolutely and maybe in fact this whole story itself and the concept of a western story, it was very much like that. Like desolate and moving towards something hopeful. So yeah I really loved that idea and that was never intentional, but I guess it’s something that I’m just great at expressing and hopefully with Nightcrawler, I can move onto other things.

Next week: A more in-depth discussion with John and Kodi, meanwhile, you can check out my review of Slow West here.

Interview with Andrew Okpeaha MacLean

Andrew Okpeaha MacLean is the Writer/Director of Alaskan thriller “On the Ice”.  The film is a thriller set 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Barrow, Alaska.  It is based off a short firm titled “Sikumi”.  Media Mikes had a chance to chat with Andrew about this new film and what he has planned next.

Mike Gencarelli: “On the Ice” is based off a short film, “Sikumi”, tell us about that?
Andrew Okpeaha MacLean: “Sikumi” translates to “On the Ice” in the Inuvik language. That came out in 2008 and it did very well at several festivals. We actually won the Jury prize for a short film at Sundance that year. That gave me the opportunity to start thinking about making a feature. Both films deal with a killing and the immediate aftermath. The short is actually a period piece set in late 50’s early 60’s. The feature is contemporary and the characters are teenagers as opposed to the short where the characters are adults. The short came from a few different inspirations. I took the characters from another script I was writing based on an event from my grandfathers life. One of the characters is directly based on my grandfather. The script didn’t end up going so well so I took the characters and put them in a different situation. I had always wanted to write a western but based in Alaska. There is something about the landscape there that is appealing. It is very vast and monochromatic.

MG: What made you choose to film 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Barrow, Alaska?
AOM: I am originally from Alaska and I grew up there. Barrow is my home town and I am related to I think half the people who live there. (Laughs) It feels that way at least. I knew the place before I knew the film. The place inspired the film.

MG: Since it was your first feature directing, what were your biggest challenges?
AOM: There were a lot of challenges. I think the most common problem with independent films is money. This was no exception. Where we shot is a hard place to shoot logistically. Getting the cast and crew out on the frozen ocean was tough. There are no roads out there so the only way to get everything out there was to pull it on sleds. The sleds were always breaking down because we were using them so much. One of the cast members happened to also be a mechanic so he sort of became our onset mechanic.

MG: Tell us about your casting process for the film?
AOM: It is all pretty much first time actors. There is not a lot of opportunity to get involved in acting up in the Arctic. I sort of knew going in that we would be finding people who hadn’t acted before. There are just no trained Inuvik actors of the age group we needed that were capable of understanding the characters. I wanted to cast people who were from the culture they were portraying. I also wanted them to be close enough to the lives of characters so that they could understand them very deeply and intimately. We took a big casting trip all over Alaska looking for people. We talked to thousands of people to try and get a sense of if they would be good on camera. We managed to narrow it down to 15 or 20 people who we thought had some real possibilities. We had them go through a week long intensive audition/acting workshop in Anchorage. Out of that we came away with our cast. This was all done prior to receiving any funding for the project. We had to know ahead of time that we had people who could pull this project off.

MG: When can people expect to see the film?
AOM: It opens Feb. 17th in New York and in several cities in Alaska. Over the next few weeks it will be traveling around visiting other cities. If people go to they can see the full release schedule for the film.

MG: What do you have planned next?
AOM: I have a bunch of projects that I am attached to that are in various stages. I also am writing scripts as well. I don’t know what the next project will be to get green lit but I am excited to find out.


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