Still young and nimble, John Maclean has already had two successful careers. Oddly, neither was in the field that first held his attention.
The quietly spoken, humble Scot originally set out to be a painter. While studying at the Royal College of Art in London, he somehow found himself being inveigled into folk-rave-krautrock collective the Beta Band. Now, a decade after the group failed to convert rollicking acclaim into massive sales, Maclean has become one of his nation’s hottest film directors.
Slow West, a taut western starring Michael Fassbender, took the World Cinema Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
“I asked my distributors if we were staying for the whole festival,” he says. “And it was all: ‘Nah, nah, nah!’ I think it was very expensive to stay there. We were told we were leaving on Tuesday.”
He met up with his wife in California and they went on holiday around the western and northern states.
“When Sundance called to say we’d won, we were in a car in Colorado, which I suppose makes sense. Ha, ha.”
I suppose it does. Slow West (which is not quite so existentially leisurely as its title suggests) casts Fassbender as a desperado escorting Kodi Smit-McPhee's Scottish immigrant through dangerous forests and yawning plains. It is set in Colorado, but such are the demands of independent cinema, it was mostly filmed in New Zealand.
“I’ve just come from a drinks thing for Sundance London,” he says. “And the Sundance people didn’t know it was New Zealand.”
They’re based in Utah. That must be a particular compliment. “Yeah, exactly.”
Reeling in Fassbender
Slow West really is the most unlikely project. After leaving the Beta Band in 2004, Maclean decided to devote himself to cinema. He plugged away at a few short projects and somehow managed to catch the eye of Fassbender's agent. On his days off from Inglourious Basterds, the Kerry man did some work on Maclean's short Man on a Motorcyle. "I knew he liked bikes, so I made sure to include that in there," Maclean says, laughing.
When directors come to their first feature, they are often forced to make the best of what surrounds them. As a result, such projects can end up being autobiographical works set around the kitchen sink. It requires whatever the Caledonian version of chutzpah is to embark on a period piece set a long way away. It’s not even as if the western is still in vogue.
“Well, I think it was partly fear of shooting in the streets,” he says. “If I disappeared into a forest it would be more manageable. I was influenced by a lot of Japanese cinema. They just wore robes and shot in the woods. That’s a lot cheaper and easier than urban settings, actually.”
I have heard him say that, when approaching investors, he would first say he had Fassbender on board and only then break the news that the film was a western.
“Yes. Though I think the Brits secretly all want to make westerns. The people at Film 4 certainly did. Some of the investors did shudder a bit when they heard. But I think it’s everyone’s ambition to make a western.”
It is worth saying what Slow West is not. We have got used to the contemporary western offering endless self-conscious commentary on the traditions of the genre. Maclean's film – busy with European accents – is much less concerned with that sort of meta-storytelling. It is a simple tale told forcefully with an apparent effort at historical accuracy. Then again, how can we tell? Almost everything we know about the west we learned from the movies.
"Yeah. There's an incredible amount of photography recording the west," he says. "Talking to the costume designer and others, we said, 'Let's take this from the original photos.' We didn't look at any books that were mythologising the west. We read Mark Twain. We read Little House on the Prairie. That proved more helpful."
A neat fellow in sensible glasses, Maclean doesn’t seem much like a recovering rock star. Mind you, the Beta Band weren’t much like any other rock band. Formed in the mid-1990s, the group delivered a sui generis, often repetitive noise that combined insidious tunes with a hint of roots music under the seductive beat. They were among the most critically adored bands of the era, but I’m betting nobody made a huge amount of money.
“No. We made an enormous amount of debt,” he says. “But I don’t regret a moment. If we put on a show in, say, Austin it was the same multimedia extravaganza we’d put on in London or New York. Nobody stopped to think about it. This was all before the whole music crash.”
So how did a painter end up operating the sampler and the keyboard in an experimental rock group? Shouldn’t he have been inveigling his way among the Young British Artists?
“Well, we just happened to be living in the same flat,” he says. “I bought a sampler and had a record collection. Steve was writing songs. Robin was playing the drums. So we made a four track and we thought: let’s give it to a record company. We did and we somehow got signed. We just fell into it. ‘Oh, we’ve been signed by EMI. We may as well be a band’. ”
Big into Warhol
The eerie music in Slow West by Jed Kurzel – brother of director Justin Kurzel – is excellent, but one still might reasonably wonder why Maclean didn't have a hand in it. He is a professional, after all.
“I was big into Warhol. I thought I’d be doing album sleeves and design. I never even sang into a hairbrush as a kid. But I did like the idea of the multimedia stuff. I saw all that as training for movies.”
The Beta Band were not the sort of outfit to break up amid a flurry of thrown TVs and crashing beer bottles. It seems as if they all mutually decided to embark on different projects in 2004. Maclean played in a “band of friends” called The Aliens. He dabbled with his short films.
“I never shot an ad. I never did any TV. But I somehow managed to get by. I am not swimming in cash, but I somehow get by.”
I think your time may have come, John. Your time may have come.
- Slow West is on release from June 26th
MUSICIANS TURNED DIRECTORS: FIVE FILMS OF NOTE
- Renaldo and Clara (1978) Bob Dylan's endlessly experimental film strained the patience of even his most devoted followers. Forty years later, the meandering epic – whose structure defies summary – is still waiting reassessment.
- W.E. (2011) Madonna's study of Wallis Simpson (actually, her second feature), starring Andrea Riseborough and a then-unknown Oscar Isaac, got an unfair kicking. It's not appalling, merely rather dull.
- True Stories (1986) Talking Heads fans got pretty much what they expected from David Byrne's amusing feature. The singer stars as a laconic stranger collecting odd tales in a Texan town. Co-written by comic Stephen Tobolowsky.
- Under the Cherry Moon (1986) Well, we will always have Parade, the classic "music from the film" LP. Prince's directorial debut, an absurd monochrome mess, may be most notable for offering us a first sighting on film of Kristin Scott Thomas.
- Once (2007) Perhaps a more useful comparison to Slow West, John Carney's low-budget musical romance, featuring Glen Hansard, his old chum from The Frames, was an international critical sensation and grabbed a most unlikely Oscar. His last film, the lovely Begin Again, was a smash in Korea, you know.