Once a successful character actor on shows such as Sons of Anarchy and Veronica Mars, Taylor Sheridan has now made the jump to screenwriter, last year penning the Oscar-nominated Sicario. His follow up Hell or High Water, the second in a proposed trilogy, once again explores the artificial borders humans construct and the ramifications when these borders begin to crumble away. In Hell or High Water, the border isn’t between Mexico and the U.S. but within America itself – exploring the poverty-stricken ‘American West’ as Capitalist forces alter the fabric of life there.
Ben Foster and Chris Pine star as bank-robbing brothers, holding-up the very banks that are threatening to take away their land. On their trail, two Texas Marshalls (Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham) investigate the robberies, seeking to bring the culprits to justice. Hell or High Water though has far more on its mind than a simple outlaws-versus-cops morality tale. The antagonists in Hell or High Water aren’t even the cops or outlaws, but the corrupt faceless institutions (capitalist and governmental) that control them. The film examines the hopelessness Pine & Bridges face when up against cold bureaucracy, one forced into breaking the law, the other resigned to uphold it.
In the following interview with Sheridan, the screenwriter discusses the socio, political and existential themes at the heart of Hell or High Water. He also reveals the difficulties in transitioning to director on the upcoming Wind River and the writing process behind the Sicario sequel.
Taylor Sheridan: A lot of things – one: at the time I came up with the idea, Texas was going through its worst drought in a century. It was a back breaker for many of these cattle ranches that were facing their own calamities completely independent of the drought. I was back visiting a friend and we drove through the town of Archer City. It was just empty house after empty house after empty house. I went back to this area of Texas — where my family’s from… All the stores that had once been there were gone or had been boarded up. It looked like it had been evacuated. It was sad. So I was very intrigued by that and curious. I mean – I knew why but I was curious to explore it. Likewise I called my cousin Parnell McNamara who’s been a Marshall in Central Texas for thirty-four-years, but was forced to retire at sixty-five. He dedicated his life to this profession and all the sacrifices that come with that and then one day, arbitrarily, he’s told he can’t do it anymore. So that notion of a life without purpose and seeking purpose. Those two things combined for me and that’s where the story came from.
How important is it for you craft these important topical and existential messages into a genre film?
For me – it’s vital. I have no interest in telling a story that isn’t reflective of a place or a mirror to us as a people. The fact that I use what’s called ‘genre films’ to do it… They didn’t call it that in the 70s. Nobody ever called The Deer Hunter a ‘genre movie’. They never did that. They do that now. I’m not sure why. I write movies that I want to go see and the people that influence me, the filmmakers who have influenced me, Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann, and the writers who have influenced me, not screenwriters so much as novelists – Larry McMurty and his incredible gift with dialogue and relationships and character, Cormac McCarthy with his austere sense of place – I try to write with them in mind and try to write movies people want to go see.
How long did Hell or High Water take to write?
I write really fast actually.
Do you outline?
I don’t outline. I spend months playing the movie in my head to a certain degree until I really understand what this character is trying to do. What are they seeking? It doesn’t really matter if they get it; but what do they learn whether they get it or not. And as soon as I understand that, then I try to articulate it with every breath that character takes. You don’t want to find yourself in a moment that’s independent of the character’s journey. I don’t want to see the character have a random conversation with someone that doesn’t somehow move his or her journey forward. Plot doesn’t really matter. I write really simple plots. The simpler the plot, the more time I have to really look inside the character which to me is much more interesting.
Do you feel like your background as an actor makes you focus on character over plot?
Oh for sure. I spent a lot of time in television as an actor. Character is largest in television for a lot of reasons, the largest being you don’t have the time or the money to show a lot of things. You have to tell the things. So you’re always moving the story forward with dialogue. I’m allergic to exposition as a result because I was forced to shovel it for so many years. I’m just not that interested in plot. I want the simplest plot I can come up with that allows me to explore the world, landscape and people.
Do you give yourself deadlines?
No — I get deadlines given to me…
But you wrote Hell or High Water on spec…
Yeah I wrote it on spec — so my deadline was when do I want to pay the rent.
It’s funny — the specs I tend to write a lot faster than the one’s on deadline. I don’t know why that is. Probably my own issue with authority, I guess.
Do you do a lot of rewrites on your scripts?
I’ve been very fortunate with my three spec scripts — which is sort of my thematic trilogy of the American Frontier. With Sicario, Hell or High Water and then Wind River – which is the third – there were no rewrites. It was the first draft for all three. There were minor polishes done to get them shaped up, move a location because you can’t find that location or you can’t afford that location. But I’m very fortunate…
I was going to ask about Wind River. Have you finished shooting it yet?
Yeah — it’s done.
Are you in the process of editing it now then?
It’s done. We’re doing visual effects and finishing up the score now…. It’s never ‘done’. The Weinstein Company is going to distribute and I haven’t had the chance to show it to Harvey yet. I’m really excited to and he may have thoughts. If you look at his experience and body of work, he may have thoughts I really want to include – so I can’t say it’s finished until I’ve sat with him.
I’ve heard you describe Wind River as the thematic end of this trilogy. How do you feel it ends things thematically?
I mean… you know to say it would be giving it away. Look – a lot of people may go see Sicario and Hell or High Water and Wind River and never pick up on it. But for the filmophile, it’ll be pretty hard to miss when you see Wind River.
Well then… what do you see as the thematic tie between all three films?
There are ties about purpose and forging morality. Facing your morality and deciding what it is. Assimilation — people living in places they probably shouldn’t, where historically they didn’t or moved out at a certain time. The Shoshone and the Arapaho and the Cheyenne and any number of different Indian nations lived in that Wind River area and they left it when eight feet of snow fell and moved somewhere else. But they don’t have that option today, so that’s something that’s explored. How does one endure in a place they shouldn’t be condemned to live in? You could take that same question and apply it to any number of neighborhoods in any number of cities. So it’s not exclusive to these remote regions. In these remote regions, where there are less people, the consequences are more acute… so it’s a little easier to point the microscope.
What was the shift to directing Wind River like?
I mean… directing is a holy unpleasant experience to be perfectly honest. I have a goal and it’s to get this thing that’s in my head… My wife said – I was complaining about everything – and she said it sounds to me like childbirth where the only enjoyable part is the result. I thought that was a pretty good metaphor. You’ve been entrusted with a lot of money and a lot of careers and a lot of people put their faith in me and every director goes through that every time. There are moments when you do capture something that’s exactly the way you intended or in a way you didn’t intend but is better. It’s a really satisfying feeling that you can’t hang onto because you still have another thirty days to go…
I have to ask about Sicario 2 — are they going to start shooting soon?
Oh yeah — they’re going to start shooting real soon.
What sort of take did you have writing a sequel to Sicario as opposed to the original?
Lionsgate understood that they bought something that was a spec [on the first film]. So there was a certain amount of latitude they had to give me [on the sequel]. What usually would be a long meeting about what’s this character about, what’s his arc — we didn’t have that. They trusted me to just go do it — and with Sicario, which I’m really proud of, it really approaches some difficult subjects. I didn’t want to demean that with the second one. So I really wrote something I double dared them to actually make. Ten times… more unsentimental, more vicious and really reflective… It’s funny a lot of people think Sicario’s about the drug war and the cartels. It’s not. It’s a movie about American policy and the way that we police and [Sicario 2] is that on steroids.
Hell or High Water opens in select theaters Friday.