Taylor Sheridan sinks his Texan roots into Hell or High Water
Taylor Sheridan makes a remarkable statement about Hell or High Water in a call to the Straight from L.A.
“There was not a moment of the film that didn’t look like I imagined as I was writing it,” the screenwriter says, audibly to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s. But it seems that the Texas-set cops ‘n’ robbers flick (now playing)—easily one of the best American films of the year—was guided or at least favoured by any number of sympathetic forces.
“It came together extremely fast after sitting for almost three years,” Sheridan says. “I think [director] David [Mackenzie] signed on in late Spring, and I don’t know how he did it, but he was shooting eight or 10 weeks later. It just flew. Flew.”
Unlikely as it sounds, the Scottish filmmaker’s sensibilities mesh perfectly with the ruggedly American material, although it sounds as though Sheridan’s life experiences were baked right into that screenplay, the second to arrive on the big screen by the Sons of Anarchy actor-turned-screenwriter after last year’s no less impressive Sicario.
If the previous film took a blunt, top-down look at America’s preposterous “War on Drugs”, Hell or High Water peers upward from the hard soil of Sheridan’s home state, where generational poverty finds itself in an endgame with post-crash casino economics and the fallout of predatory lending.
“Go back and watch it again and you’ll see all these characters, they’re all facing some type of crisis at the moment that we meet them,” notes the writer, whose tale begins with a series of small-town bank heists committed by the dirt-poor Howard brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster).
It gradually becomes clear—both to the viewer and to Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement—that any notion of simple morality is unbuttoned by the Howards’ motives, which tie back to a malignant mortgage handed to their dying mother.
“He understands,” says Sheridan. “It doesn’t mean he agrees. He’s put in an extremely tight moral crux, as is Toby [Tanner], and they’re sort of bonded forever in what they did and didn’t do. It’s heavy stuff.”
It’s also very sincere stuff, imbued with the screenwriter’s own familiarity with the territory, both geographic and psychic. The Texas-drenched soundtrack, featuring the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Ray Wylie Hubbard, was at least partly written into the film by Sheridan.
“When I grew up as a kid we didn’t have a lot of money,” he says, “so we didn’t have a stereo. Bbut there was an 8-track player in our truck, and so my dad and mom would get a six pack and we’d all sit in the truck and idle in the driveway and listen to Waylon Jennings. It was the soundtrack of my youth. I grew up on a ranch in west central Texas, so these are all the people I grew up around. It was a really easy script to write from that standpoint. I knew that world so well.”
No less unaffected is Bridges himself, skirting some sort of grace state in the midst of uniformly inspired performances (including the most memorable T-bone-steak-diner waitress we’re ever likely to see.) You wonder if Sheridan had the veteran American actor in mind all along.
“You know,” he says, with a laugh, “Yes! The character of Marcus is based on my uncle, and then it’s a mixture of voices in my head. You have to be really careful when you’re writing a screenplay, if you write it for one specific individual, because if you don’t get that individual, usually the role reflects that person so much that everyone else goes, ‘Nah, this reads like Bridges. I don’t wanna try and play Jeff Bridges.’ And yet it was hard not to. He’s the first person we went to. It’s just extremely logical, you know? The whole thing just made perfect sense, casting-wise.”
It also makes sense in ways that are more ineffably logical, given the arc of Bridges’ career, and where it really began for him back in 1971.
“Well, you know,” starts Sheridan, who cites Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and a certain Larry McMurtry among his own writerly influences. “Look, Last Picture Show, if you think about it, that’s Archer City, and Archer City is the first bank that’s robbed in Hell or High Water. I didn’t do it intentionally, but yeah—that wasn’t lost on him. That wasn’t lost on Jeff. He’s, like, ‘You know, I shot a movie here 45 years ago.’”