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True Color And The Colorado Sky: John Maclean Discusses “Slow West”

By:  Marjorie Galas

To a young Scotsman visiting his first visit to the American open range, the starry skies seemed larger and brighter. Writer/director John Maclean wanted to emphasize this phenomenon in his feature debut, “Slow West.” A little creative editing provided a solution.

“When you come from Europe, the night sky seems much bigger. We captured a starry sky in Colorado for those sequences,” said Maclean. “The sky is an important part of ranch and cowboy life, we just hadn’t seen it in other Western films.”

The magical sky was a perfect addition to one generally overlooked Western genre perspective Maclean wanted to share: that of the Europien immigrant. His Scottish ancestors crossed the Atlantic during famines in search of more prosperous lands. “Slow West” becomes a fresh take on the classic American dream: the script is populated with characters from far-reaching corners of the world, searching for new opportunities and the promise of a better life. The protagonist in Maclean’s script is Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a 16 year-old Scotsman who’s come to America in pursuit of childhood love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Naïve and innocent, Jay sees the world for its beauty and promise. Everything is new, green and exciting for the youngster who’s poetically written travel guide rests by his side and fantasies of Rose are ever-present in his mind. Unfortunately Rose and her father are wanted for murder and are being hunted by bands of outlaws, including Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender.) After rescuing Jay from the attack of a barbarous Union officer, Silas tricks the boy into hiring him as a guide, a plan that will lead Silas directly to Rose and a hefty $1,000 bounty. The film’s New Zealand sets also enhance the quality of traveling across an unknown landscape. A variety of reasons required the shoot to take place in New Zealand. Hefty production incentives aided the independent’s budget, and the location was convenient for Fassbender, a veteran of Maclean’s previous shorts. Maclean and his production team searched for locations that matched the Colorado landscape as closely as possible; however the director was aware the environments weren’t a perfect match.

“I realized it does have an off-kilter effect. During the film’s screening at Sundance, people didn’t know exactly what it was that made the setting seem unfamiliar,” said Maclean. “It adds to the films ethereal quality, the feeling of being everywhere but nowhere.”

With a location established, Maclean’s next major hurdle was securing a strong crew. He fought for Australian DP Robbie Ryan, who’d shot his previous short, “Pitch Black Heist” in 2010. Despite a full schedule, Maclean worked out an arrangement that brought Ryan, along with his selected crew, to the “Slow West” New Zealand location. The remainder of the crew was sourced locally, including production designer Kim Sinclair and costume designer Kirsty Cameron. “When they’re not shooting a Peter Jackson movie, you get the very best crew,” said Maclean. With a full crew in place, Maclean presented his fully developed story boards that illustrated the specific look he was aiming for. He wanted the film to have a vivid, natural look that relied heavily on strong lighting and minimal color grading.

“People are used to a de-saturated look in Westerns,” said Maclean. I wanted to go for vivid color. What you see in the film is very close to what we were getting in camera.”

Sound and music was also an important element to establishing tone. To support the immigrant’s journey, Jed Kurzel’s score is filled with Eastern European instruments avoiding the common Americana trope. Maclean saved a blast of American influenced music for the closing credits. A former musician, Maclean also took inspiration for the film’s sound design from classic hip hop; the loudness of the music is emphasized by utilizing less instrumentation.

“There is a capacity to fill up 100 tracks. For people watching the film, that wall of sound is so much it just becomes mush,” said Maclean. “I only wanted two to three sounds at a time.”

Maclean was excited to cast Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay. While he was familiar with McPhee’s performance in “The Road” he didn’t have a particular actor in mind for the part. McPhee’s name appeared at the top of a list sent over by a New Zealand production company. The young actor immediately related to the character and brought the perfect physicality and tone Maclean was looking for. Although Maclean went through many learning curves working on his first feature, the abilities of his actors and DP kept him confident and in control. ”It’s you, your camera man and your actors, doing what comes naturally.”

Something that was unnatural for Maclean was allowing an editor to take full control of the film. ON his previous shorts, Maclean has performed all editing duties, but saw the benefit of bringing in a full-time editor for “Slow West.” His musical background makes him keenly aware of rhythm, and he felt he established a strong editorial guideline in the storyboards. While he enjoyed the perspective editors Roland Gallois and Jon Gregory brought to the story, Maclean did spend a few final weeks working on the last edits.

“Editing is where the story really comes together, so I want to continue to be a part of that,” said Maclean. “I’d be jealous to not be in on the edit.”
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