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An interview with SLOW WEST director, John Maclean.

I’m not a huge fan of the term “anti-western” but there seems to be no better phrase to describe SLOW WEST, the debut feature by Scottish director John Maclean. Maclean’s film follows the young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he searches the Western plains of America for his love Rose (Caren Pistorious). Along the way, Cavendish meets bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) who promises to keep him safe for a small fee.

When one thinks of a western, one of the first things that should come to mind would be America, yet there is really nothing American about SLOW WEST. Though it takes place in Colorado, the film was shot entirely in New Zealand. Furthermore, none of the films stars, including the villainous Ben Mendelsohn, are from the US. “It was always the idea,” Maclean tells me, when we meet in Toronto the day following a special advance screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox. “I think when I started reading about that time you soon discover that the land was being settled by people from all over the world. So cowboys were German and Irish and Scottish. When you watch a western and everyone’s American, you kind of question that when you read the reality of the times. I wanted to readdress that.”


Though the idea of a non-American cast was always in place, it was not always Maclean’s plan to shoot in New Zealand. Ideally, of course, any director would have preferred to shoot the film where it was set, but when you’re working on Michael Fassbender’s schedule, negotiations must surely be made. Maclean explained, “Michael became available for November and December, summer in New Zealand, winter in Colorado. The sheer distances of [the United States], you could be in a forest for two days before you reach a plain, whereas New Zealand was more manageable to shoot in.” Aside from the costs in bringing a Native American actor over to New Zealand, Maclean assured me that it was ultimately the right choice.

Making the film even more unusual is Maclean’s choice of title. The film is called SLOW WEST, yet there is really nothing slow about it. Running just over eighty minutes, the film goes by in a flash. “It didn’t occur to me stupidly that people would think it was a slow film by calling it SLOW WEST.” Maclean says, laughing. “I called it SLOW WEST because I was thinking about bursting some of the clichés. Everything in film seemed to be about the quickest draw and the fastest gun in the west. When you look at the reality of the west, it is vast distances and everything did kind of go at a slower pace. I was thinking about why does fast in film have to be good whereas fast in food is generally bad? There’s no such thing as slow food.” Maclean explained, laughing once again.


If Maclean’s goal was to reinvent the Western, then he definitely succeeded. With an almost Wes Anderson like feel at times, SLOW WEST definitely shakes things up for a largely abandoned genre. Anyways, would you really rather have a grumbling John Wayne over the smooth talking Michael Fassbender? I didn’t think so.

SLOW WEST is now playing in select theatres and on demand.

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