Slow West

What is the best way to break into directing films?

Study at somewhere like the National Film and Television School? Go down the guerrilla route and finance and shoot your own? Make videos for the Beta Band while being part of that act?

At a time when the sometimes regressive Britpop ‘movement’ was running out of steam, The Beta Band emerged and were immediately notable for a more experimental attitude, a big part of which was due to former Cameo Cinema employee, John Maclean, who as well as contributing keyboards and samples, also cut his directorial teeth by directing several DIY promos for the band, although post-Beta Band (and Aliens), he did go on to shoot a short film on his mobile phone which is pretty guerrilla even if did feature Michael Fassbender, who was a big fan of those Beta Band vids.

Next up for Maclean was another short, the BAFTA winning, again with Fassbender and 2015 saw the release of his debut feature, Slow West, which you might not be too surprised to discover, Fassbender was again a part of.

Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a gangling sixteen year old boy from the Highlands of Scotland, who has travelled to America to be with his girlfriend Rose (Caren Pistorius) after she was forced to leave her homeland in the wake of an incident that I won’t reveal as it could be classed as a spoiler.

This young man really is a hopeless romantic and also a hapless traveller, a ‘jackrabbit in a den of wolves, fortunate to be alive’, who treks across the American frontier in a dusty three piece suit, riding in the baking hot heat with no hat on – cowboy or otherwise – for protection from the sun.

If the wide-eyed and clueless Jay had a polar opposite it might well be Silas Selleck (Fassbender), a rugged but enigmatic loner who agrees to accompany Jay to Rose’s little house on the prairie for a fee. All, though, is not what it might seem.

Quentin Tarantino once said: ‘Any of the Western directors who had something to say created their own version of the West’ and this is exactly what Maclean has achieved here, albeit it would be stupid to categorise him as a western director.

Maclean’s script flips many expectations along the way and he presents viewers with a fresh vision of the old West. The scenery isn’t quite like anything you’ve ever seen in old John Wayne cowboy movies – probably as the bulk of the shoot took place in New Zealand’s South Island with the rest in Scotland (possibly making this the first Kiwi & Haggis Western). Again unlike the majority of movies from the genre’s classic era, many of the characters speak with the accent or even languages of their homeland and, unusual too, is the fact that events are seen mainly through the unusually youthful eyes of Jay. As for alcohol, I reckon this must be the first time I have ever seen anybody drink absinthe in this setting.

Think a Greek tragedy shot through with quirky, Coen Brothers style humour with some Sergio Leone thrown in there too – Fassbender incidentally favours the Man with No Name style of smoking a cigar, once lodged in the corner of his mouth it never leaves that position as he chomps away at it.

Maclean has assembled a great cast here, along with the three actors already mentioned, there’s Ben Mendelsohn as Payne and Rory McCann, best known for portraying Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane in Game of Thrones (but who I will always somehow think of as Kenny in The Book Group). Kodi Smit-McPhee outshines them all though, even his co-star.

While not perfect, this is an exceptionally assured debut and I really have to mention the cinematography, which is startling at times and could have come straight out of something by Terence Malick. Cameraman Robbie Ryan was surely at least a little unlucky not to earn an Oscar nomination.

Slow West did though win the Grand Jury prize for best international drama at 2015’s Sundance Film Festival and is now out on DVD/Blu-ray and packed with extras, including a Q&A with Maclean hosted by Edith Bowman, interviews and Pitch Black Heist, although sadly no Beta Band vids, so from the 2001 album Hot Shots II, here is Squares:

Meanwhile Maclean’s former Beta Band-mate, Steve Mason has a new album, Meet the Humans, out on the 26th of this month on Domino. If it approaches the quality of Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time from 2013 then I’m in for hours of happy listening. From it, here’s the lead single Planet Sizes:

For more on Slow West click here, and for more on Steve Mason click here.