Interview: Director John Hillcoat talks Triple 9

Mandy chats to the director about how to attract such a high quality cast, the importance of research, and the current state of franchise-obsessed cinema

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Australian director John Hillcoat is no stranger to characters in extreme circumstances, with previous films including “The Road”, “The Proposition”, and “Lawless”.

“Triple 9” marks his first film set in the present, following a gang of criminals and corrupt cops as they plan the murder of a police officer in order to pull off their biggest heist yet across town.

Mandy sat down with the director to talk about how to attract such a high quality cast, the importance of research, and the current state of franchise-obsessed cinema.

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You’re no stranger to genre films but what was it about this script that attracted you?

John Hillcoat: I’ve actually been looking to do a contemporary crime thriller for a long, long time. I do love genre films but the thing about crime thrillers that I always loved, films like “The French Connection”, Sidney Lumet’s “Prince of the City”, there’s always this sort of gritty reality to them as well as the larger than life characters under extreme pressure. It’s very difficult in genre films to find new surprises or narrative twists that are unexpected. Also with the criminal terrain out there it’s all changed now, so I wanted to make something contemporary. Long past are the days of the Italian mafia, and those criminal groups are being dwarfed by new forces globally and particularly in America. I wanted to make that thriller action crime film just feel very real, and likewise with the characters make them feel like flesh and blood.

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Absolutely and I thought that was balanced really well. You had quite an ensemble cast – as you’re no stranger to – how difficult is it to manage so many quality actors, I would imagine they all have their own approach to the material?

John Hillcoat: Yes that’s right. And that was the big challenge – eight main characters. I’m actually deliberately looking and investigating two or three main at the most now [laughs]. But I think with these sorts of actors is they’re always looking for something to sink their teeth into with the character and I do a lot of research so I think they gravitate to that idea. For instance, Casey Affleck, we gave him access to a gang unit that he spent months hanging out with, but also going in when they were responding, having raids. He got very involved in that. Also Chiwetel was trained by a navy seal operator because that was his backstory. Anthony Mackie was more talking about the character because he lives in New Orleans, he has a lot of friends in that world. Some actors wanted different things but they all wanted more to sink their teeth into and that’s what I find for them. A big thing with this was, like with Kate Winslet, offer them something they’ve never done before. I knew Kate Winslet had it in her, she’s such a great actor with such a huge emotional range, that if she explored the dark side and was a villain, she could really pull that off. And I’ve never seen an actor so excited – just by the fact of playing something that she’d never done before. So it was a combination of stretching them as actors and giving them resources and access to the world we were creating.

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That definitely came across. During the raids for example it really looked like these guys knew what they were doing. I had a look at Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus and Gal Gadot’s Instagram pages and, obviously they worked very hard, but they seemed to really relish the opportunity, they seemed so excited about the film – that must be nice to tap into.

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A photo posted by norman reedus (@bigbaldhead) on

John Hillcoat: Yeah, oh it was an amazing group. When you’re working with such extremes, in genuinely scary neighbourhoods that no film crews had been into, having that experience together – it either bonds you like a family or tears you apart [laughs]. So we became family but it was a mutually very positive experience which is great.

It had a real energy too, the location in itself was almost like a character – just to add another one to the mix!

John Hillcoat: Yep!

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Looking at the film slate coming up it’s, as I’m sure you’re aware, very franchise/sequel/reboot driven and it’s so nice to see an original story. Is it getting harder to get these original films made though?

John Hillcoat: Absolutely. I was at the premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” with my son and I had to restrain myself, I was almost compelled to approach George Lucas and Spielberg and just say what they gave birth is now just crushing the possibility for so many other filmmakers to make movies that used to have a space. I mean those films used to have a space. In fact I did a screensaver on my computer because I was so shocked, of an IMDB Pro list of pre-production, production and post production films, and every single one of them was some kind of franchise, you know “Fast and the Furious 8” and all those. And look, I enjoy some of those films. I haven’t seen “The Fast and the Furious” [laughs] but I enjoy some of those big spectacles.  I think you’ve just tapped in to something that’s very hard. For filmmakers like myself, they are being squeezed out and the only option left really is television. With the movie business I think their big mistake was they lost their nerve and gave away the mature audience. They gave that mature audience to television. Series like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire”, all the way through to “Breaking Bad”, “Six Feet Under”, and this long history of almost like a renaissance in television in terms of flawed, rich characters and original material. But movies in the meantime have just put all their focus into pre-existing markets where they think they can make hundreds of millions of dollars. But now we’re in a world where it’s all becoming one anyway. Everyone in movies wants to do television, everyone in television wants to do movies, and the Netflix model is one of many – Amazon, Apple’s about to jump in the ring with iTunes doing movie content – so it’s all becoming one giant soup. But we’re being squeezed and these sorts of movies are getting harder to make.

Well hopefully “Triple 9” will inspire more distributors to get back on board!

John Hillcoat: I’m not giving up on that, and this is why I gravitate to genres and what I love about American cinema, I like to elevate the material. The idea of genre films is to make them fresh again so they can keep going and keep growing. So I’m determined to keep on that path and hopefully there’ll be appetite out there to keep going and funding these sorts of films. I’m trying [laughs].

“Triple 9” is in Australian cinemas 3 March 2016.