By writing and directing his debut film, the fish out of water western Slow West, John Maclean has fully transitioned beyond the limbo that a musician can experience after their band breaks up. Formerly best known as a member of the critically-lauded Scottish post-Brit-pop act the Beta Band, Maclean dives into the film world by telling the story of a young Scottish noble who teams up with a stoic Michael Fassbender to travel the American west. Over at AllMovie, editor Jack Rodgers gave Slow West 4 1/2 stars, praised its respectful handling of the genre’s hallmarks, hailed the visual style and unique tone, and ultimately singled out Maclean as a “major new talent.”
Perhaps his talent in the film world is new, but music fans got to know Maclean’s work as the DJ, sampler and keyboard player in the Beta Band, who put out several hailed releases during their seven-year existence, including the albums Hot Shots II, Heroes to Zeros, and the collection The Three E.P.‘s. In the interest of seeking out parallels between his experiences in music and his new life as a filmmaker, we got on the line with Maclean to talk about how the writing and editing of Slow West had strong musical influences, his relationship with Michael Fassbender, and the unlikely influence Cypress Hill on his debut motion picture.
As a fun aside, Maclean was on a press tour in Manchester, and called from a hotel overlooking what used to be the famed Haçienda nightclub, known as the home base for Factory Records and a key setting in the film 24 Hour Party People. It’s now a block of apartments.
AllMusic: Lots of first-time directors don’t have the benefit of having a hardened exterior when it comes to reviews, but with your experience in the Beta Band, you might have a toughness some first-timers might not.
John Maclean: I guess so. The band never got three stars, it was always five or one, depending on people’s taste, so that’s kind of a good thing. I guess it prepared me for that, I think the worst thing would be if you were getting mediocre, middling, take it or leave it reviews. So in that way, it did prepare me. I do read them, not constantly, but I think it’s generally good to get a flavor. I read Twitter as a sort of overview of what critics think, but also what the general public think, because it is quite interesting, especially with cinema, you want the audience to respond and see what they think is good or worth listening to.
AllMusic: Social media was pretty new by the time the Beta Band wound down, was getting up to speed on that a new experience for you?
Maclean: In the Beta Band it was all about MySpace, we got that set up, and then everyone moved to Facebook or the other ones that were non-starters. You’re constantly chasing the next thing. With a film at least it seems fairly set up now for the industry, and I’m not on Facebook, so I decided Twitter is quite good for film stuff.
AllMusic: With music, you can tweak a song when you play it live if you’re not happy with something on the recording. When you put the movie out, there’s nothing else you can do. Does that take getting used to?
Maclean: I’m lucky enough to be able to say I made the movie I wanted to make, so I’m fortunate in that, and I feel I wouldn’t change anything.The craziness of the shoot, that’s the real smash and grab, that’s when you get what you can get, and the editing process and the music, you get a decent amount of time to really explore and try absolutely every angle so there’s no excuse not to be happy, because you have that time to work it through.
AllMusic: Do you enjoy editing?
Maclean: I do, yeah. With all the Beta Band videos I was making, I learned to edit, and with my short films before Slow West, I was editing myself, so editing was the closest to actual music, in a way, you’re involved with rhythm.
I didn’t think about music being important, other than the music of the film, until I started making it and I realized it was all about rhythm, you work with different editors and they have different rhythms, it’s like playing with 10 different drummers who all play a simple beat slightly differently, and there’s nothing you can do to change that, that’s just in every person, a slightly different rhythm. So it’s really important for me that it was a rhythm that was something like I’d thought of even in the script stages, and then in the storyboard stage and in the shooting stage, always that rhythm, I was thinking about, so I was trying to get that rhythm in the edit.
AllMusic: In the editing process, filmmakers sometimes use placeholder soundtracks with songs they know they can’t use. Did you do any of that with Slow West?
Maclean: Yeah, there were a few things. One, I was interested in hopefully using some Moondog stuff, the 1950s and 60s street musician. It very much seemed to fit with the ethos of the film, I was listening to a lot of Moondog while I was writing it, because it had this idea of being classical influenced, mixing with Native American tribal beat influences, and that encapsulated the feeling of the film. So I was listening to a lot of Moondog, but when it came to editing, my instinct was just to not put music on it, because I really wanted it to work without music until the very last moment, then put music on.
Music can disguise bad editing, I think, you throw on a tune and suddenly it looks good, but it’s maybe not such a successful edit. Christopher Nolan said the same thing, to not put music on until the very last moment, so I thought, “OK, I’m not alone there in doing that.” But the trouble with that is it can feel really underdone, and you have to allow that space for the music so you can watch it and think, “Oh my god, nothing happens, no dialogue, no sound,” it’s just silence for 10 minutes, but you have to have faith that it’s going to work with music at the end.
AllMusic: So it was clear that you needed a score instead of a soundtrack.
Maclean: Yeah, I have a crazy huge record collection and I was putting songs to it, but I always felt like the 60s or 50s or 40s, it had some sort of that feel about it, and it was closer to the final stages of the edit that I realized that it would have to be a complete score that was recorded, and I knew I couldn’t do it, so I turned to a composer. There was the composed music, which happened right at the end, and there were tunes my friends had done for the film, and there were scenes edited to music, there were some sequences and one single riding shot that I got my friends to make the music for.
AllMusic: You’ve worked with Michael Fassbender a number of times. Have you developed a kind of shorthand between yourselves at this point to get what you want quickly?
Maclean: Yeah, absolutely. Michael knew that I recorded the first take, and if it was good, move on. That speed and the way I worked suited the film I was trying to make. And I had the advantage of talking to Michael about the film now and again through the scriptwriting stage, as well, we talked about the character quite a lot before the script was finished. It was very useful, having that relationship.
AllMusic: Did the Beta Band use first takes a lot?
Maclean: In a way, it was almost the opposite, the band gave me the guts to use first takes, because sometimes the first takes are the best. When we did stuff in the band, it was either the first take or the fortieth take. The first take had this unique freshness, a feeling that everything was almost going to fall apart at any second, and that dies away the more you play it and become professional at it, and you get bored with it and frustrated, and eventually you get excited again and hit it again. Sometimes the first take, with music as well, can be great.
AllMusic: With your musical background, as well as how many hats you wore making the film, were you comfortable handing off the score to someone else or were you tempted to do it yourself?
Maclean: I wrote one song in the film, that the minstrel character sings around the campfire, but I think that it was the difference between songwriting and scoring, when you’re really trying to set up some mood or character reference, it really felt like it’s a second discipline, and especially because I wanted more of a string quartet thing, as well, which I achieved. Coming from a musical background, it was unique to discuss music with the composer and say things like, “I know it’s a classical ¾ time waltz, but listen to Cypress Hill’s backing tracks, they’re a big reference,” and to have that not sound ridiculous to the both of us. That was useful.
AllMusic: Cypress Hill?
Maclean: Cypress Hill was quite a big reference I gave to the sound department, as well. I just thought that with film and with music, these days, because Pro Tools can go up to a thousand tracks, people start layering far too much on and it can become thin and confusing and cloudy. If you listen to the Black Sunday album, there’s only snare, a bass drum and bass line, it’s chunky and clear, and that’s what I wanted with the sound effects and the score.
AllMusic: What do you say now when someone asks, “What do you do?”
Maclean: I’ve switched to filmmaker now, for sure. When I made my short films I sort of mumbled, “Filmmaker…” but I felt like I was cheating in saying it. Now that I’ve made a feature film, I think I’m allowed. It’s quite nice at the airport when you’re going through security and they ask you and you say, “I’m a filmmaker.” So that’s that.
AllMusic: What’s your relationship with creating music these days?
Maclean: I still DJ a lot and still collect a lot of records. My brother is in a band called Jungle that are doing well, and I’m sort of living my music fantasy by going to see them again and getting excited for them. The second band I was in was the Aliens, and Gordon [Anderson], our lead singer, has one or two tracks on the Slow West soundtrack, so I’m working with friends and musicians and buying a lot of records still, and I’d love to drag the sampler out and plug it in at some point, but I’m not up to date with the modern technology in music, so I’d just have my old sampler plugged in, I guess, old school. But I’m happy just to be doing the film stuff now.
Find out where Slow West is playing near you, or catch it on VOD.