Alex Moreland chats with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan about Hell or High Water and Sicario…
Hi, how are you doing?
I’m doing well, how are you?
I’m good, yeah.
So, obviously, first of all – massive congratulations on the Oscar nominations for Hell or High Water.
Have you had a chance to see any of the other movies that have been nominated?
I have, I’ve seen – I mean, obviously I’m trying to see them all, but I’ve seen Moonlight, which I adored, because it’s a phenomenal film. I’ve seen Hacksaw Ridge, which again I was extremely surprised at how much I liked that, and I’ve seen Arrival, which I thought again was outstanding. And La La Land, which was… it’s hard to make an original – it’s so fresh, and yet it’s a musical. I really liked it. How about you? I’m sure you’ve seen them all.
I’m still working my way through them – La La Land is one I’ve not seen yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it. And, of course, I really enjoyed Hell or High Water. I was going to say, actually, that it must be quite vindicating to have this level of success, because I understand during the development and the writing of it, you had some difficulty getting it made in the first place?
Yeah, it was really hard. It wasn’t hard to write, to put together – it was really difficult to find the perfect director and the perfect combination of actors. It took years, and a lot of patience by the producers, and once we found David Mackenzie [who directed Hell or High Water] then it all came together extremely quickly.
What do you think makes the movie resonate so well with people?
That’s a good question. I think that people were able to relate to the difficulties that Toby primarily was enduring, and I think that there was a real honesty in the way that Chris [Pine] played that character without any self-pity, and yet I think that the frustration which carried and then exuded, really resonated.
We’re living in a pretty divisive time, and I think people from all… I mean, it wasn’t just successful in the Midwest, the movie did as well in Los Angeles and New Orleans as it did there. I think that’s because of the fact that everyone, regardless of walk of life, was able to connect with these characters, and sort of see the sameness in all of us.
Yeah, I certainly found that. Now, it’s fair to say that this is quite a personal movie to you, isn’t it? But, in that regard, it’s a bit different to something like Sicario, which is more of a departure – so did you find that, when you were approaching both of these scripts, that you were writing them differently, or that you had different experiences in writing them?
Absolutely. Sicario was a very complicated screenplay; you have these characters you know nothing about, and you don’t really know anything more about them personally at the end of the film than you did at the beginning. The one person you do learn about a bit of his past, Alejandro, does things in a way you would never expect. The structure of the screenplay itself, I wrote it like a Shakespearean tragedy – it’s on a five-act structure. So there was a lot of… it was a very intellectual venture for me, as opposed to Hell or High Water, which was more stream of consciousness writing. It took me a number of months to write Sicario; I wrote Hell or High Water in a couple weeks.
Well, that leads quite neatly onto what I was going to ask you next. Something I noticed in Hell or High Water and Sicario is that you’re quite careful with how they’re structured, in terms of you present information to the audience to guide our perception. Like, for example, Alejandro’s backstory, or the bit about the reverse mortgage in Hell or High Water. Did you find that it was difficult to structure those reveals, and make sure the beats landed how you wanted them to?
I don’t know if I found it difficult to do, but I was really aware of it. Audiences are so educated nowadays, they’ve seen so much, that structure is an interesting way to play with an audience’s expectations. It allows you to do things that really – I love the idea of making the audience struggle with who to root for. Who’s the protagonist? Who am I cheering for?
I wanted the audience to like Toby and Tanner in spite of what they were doing, and as soon as you find out what they’re doing seems to have, on the surface, some noble cause – by the time you’ve learned that, you also learn that they ain’t gonna get away with it. I like playing with structure in a manner that makes it difficult for the audience to know what’s going to happen next.
Well, when I first watched Sicario, I was already vaguely aware of the basic outline of what was going to happen with Alejandro – if not the details of the twist, but certainly the general shape of it. I was going to ask, when you’ve gone to the level of effort that you have, and taken that care to structure those reveals, do you find it disheartening for it to be spoiled, or that not every member of the audience has experienced it in the way you intended them to?
For sure. I tell stories to entertain and to enlighten, so if someone gives me their time, two hours of their day, and their money, but they don’t feel that it was earned… it’s art, so it’s opinion. Some people are going to not like it. But if someone doesn’t respond to it, there’s a certain sense that you let that specific person down. I can’t really articulate it. It’s one of the reasons I don’t read reviews, because people take it so personally.
I found, watching it, because I had a vague idea of where it was going it was easier to spot some of the nuances and foreshadowing throughout the film. Personally, I found that I appreciated it, if not more, but certainly in a different way than I would have otherwise. It is, in any case, a very good movie.
Now, I understand you’re also an actor – with that performance background, do you find that influences your writing?
Absolutely, absolutely. What it does, when I write dialogue, I try really hard to – you’ll never hear “hello” in my movies. You’ll never hear “yes” or “no”; I try to find interesting ways to say that. I’ll give you an example: in Hell or High Water, there’s a moment when Marcus walks into the café and asks the guy who’s sitting there, “how long you been here?”, and one of them, who wanted to watch the boys rob the bank that’s been robbing them for thirty years, says “I’ve been sitting here two hours”.
And that would have been fine – but it doesn’t tell me anything about the characters. I try very hard, because as an actor I spent so much time playing these peripheral small characters, I try to give each of those characters a life of their own. I think it helps give an authenticity to the landscape.
As an actor, you did a lot of television roles, but in your writing, it’s been predominantly film based. I was wondering what you thought of the advantages of the two mediums; would you ever be interested in writing a television series?
You know, the distinction is with television you have seventy hours to explore a character, and in a movie, you have two. There’s obviously benefits in character exploration to that longer format, but there’s something really energetic about the real acute observation in that window of time that I find really inspiring.
I grew up fascinated with the movies – I didn’t have cable TV until I was a late teenager – and so going to the movies was an event that shaped me in that regard. Probably because I spent so much time acting in television, I really enjoyed exploring worlds through the medium of film.
Since you’re talking about those formative experiences, I was wondering what would you say have been your biggest influences as a storyteller and a creative person?
I was very influenced by Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Toni Morrison – strangely novelists, that write with a real cinematic style, were very influential on me. And then Michael Mann has been a big influence on me, and Clint Eastwood – his films, I grew up with them. Unforgiven, I think, is one of the finest films ever made, and The Insider, that Michael Mann did, to build such tension, it was riveting storytelling. His flair with dialogue has been very influential on me.
I would say that those are the two greatest influences on me, and there’s Apocalypse Now. I’ve watched it a hundred times; talk about a unique structure of a story. It’s a shocking, shocking film.
Out of interest, then, because I’m a bit of a Cormac McCarthy fan myself – which is your favourite of his novels?
I think The Crossing was my favourite. I was a big fan of All the Pretty Horses, and I loved Blood Meridian, but to me, there was something about The Crossing, it was like I was watching that movie. You know what I mean?
Yeah, I understand what you mean exactly. My personal favourite was The Road, which I’m very fond of.
I mean, yeah. Yeah. That book was sensational.
Would you ever write a book yourself?
I can’t say no! But maybe.
Are there any projects that you’re working on at the minute you could tell us a little bit about, perhaps?
I have a couple that I’m working on. One is an adaptation of this French film called Disorder, for Sony; it’s a really interesting French film. I’m also doing a project for Warner Brothers – they won’t let me say what it is, but I’m really excited.
Do you feel, given the success of Hell or High Water and Sicario and so on, that there’s more pressure for these ones than there would have been for previous instalments of your work?
I think, certainly everything I do will be judged against what I’ve done, but when you’re writing a screenplay, you have to write the movie for yourself. You have to believe it, it has to be honest for you; you have to try to write a good movie. You can’t try to write a great one.
You just have to try to write a good story, and let it be that simple. So, yeah, I’d say that there’s probably going to be added pressure, but the pressure won’t come from writing the screenplay. It’ll be in someone else’s hands. Let them take on that pressure!
I understand though that you’re also beginning to move into directing yourself, so I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about Wind River?
Yeah. Wind River was a story of a murder on an Indian reservation, and it really explores the failures of the reservations. We just premiered it at Sundance, and I’m quite proud of it.
Did you prefer having the greater level of control that comes from directing it yourself?
I did, but there was a lot of – the difference between writing the screenplay, and writing the screenplay and then directing the movie, was that there’s no one to blame but me. There’s no one to blame but me. The director has to stand in front of the piece and defend it, and defend every choice he or she makes.
For the screenwriter, if there’s a choice that differs from my vision, I can complain about it or whatever. As a director, you’re on an island. It’s a very naked experience.
One last question, then: we’ve spoken a lot about your work today, and so I was wondering – is there any particular idea or theme that you most want someone to take away from your work?
That’s a good question. I think that there’s different things I want people to take from each one. But as an overview, I would have to say that initially I want you to be entertained; hopefully I’ve given you something to think about when the movie is over, something to think about.
At the end of the day, there’s a lot of responsibilities for a movie to be socially reflective, and I try to be that without preaching, without judging. If someone goes and sees a film that I wrote, I would hope that they’re entertained, and it gives them something to think about later.
Thank you very much, Taylor, it’s been a pleasure. Best of luck with the Oscars!
Thank you very much!