Actor Taylor Sheridan talks about writing the screenplay for Hell Or High Water

”I always write the movie that I want to go see, and just assume someone else will want to go see it, too. It’s got to be saying what you want to say the way you want to say it.”

Once a successful character actor on shows such as Sons of Anarchy and Veronica Mars, Taylor Sheridan has now made the jump to screenwriter, last year penning the Oscar-nominated Sicario, and now Hell or High Water, the second in a proposed trilogy, once again explores the artificial borders humans construct and the ramifications when these borders begin to crumble away.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and actor Jeff Bridges during the filming of Hell or High Water

 

In Hell or High Water, the border isn’t between Mexico and the U.S. but within America itself – exploring the poverty-stricken ‘American West’ as Capitalist forces alter the fabric of life there.

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Sheridan never studied writing or went to film school. He learned how to write screenplays from being a TV actor on series like “CSI,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “Veronica Mars.” “I’m been in some bad TV shows, and suffered through so much poor writing,” he said, “that when I had the opportunity to work on any good writing, it stuck with me. So I pulled up good and bad scripts and compared them and figured out why the good ones stood out and what shortcuts people were required to take in television.” As a kid, Taylor Sheridan figured he’d be a lawman. His family was full of them, the most famous being former deputy U.S. marshal Parnell McNamara, who graced the cover of this magazine eighteen years ago. McNamara worked out of Waco, not far from the Sheridan family’s Bosque County property, and young Taylor saw him as a role model. “I thought I’d do something like that: go out during the day hunting bad guys and come home at night to the ranch.” Instead, he wound up playing a cop on TV. Sheridan’s childhood plans took a tumble when his parents divorced in 1991 and had to sell the ranch. He went off to college in San Marcos, where he admits he was a “miserable student,” majoring in theater “because it sounded like fun and the girls were pretty.” The scout bought him a plane ticket to Chicago for an audition. “I’d never been on a plane before. I cashed the ticket in, which you could still do at the time, and drove on up.” After some commercials, he started getting one-off TV gigs and, eventually, a recurring part in Sons of Anarchy, as deputy chief of police David Hale. He had the role for two seasons before being killed off in the third season’s debut. By then, he was ready to get on the other side of the camera.

 

Most actors who write a screenplay do it because they’re unhappy with the roles they’ve been getting. But Sheridan had no desire to star in the movies he was writing. “I just lost interest in performing,” he explains.

He wrote three scripts in quick succession. One of them, Sicario, an ambitious drug-trade thriller, was made into a movie last year, Hell or High Water.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine star as bank-robbing brothers, holding-up the very banks that are threatening to take away their land. On their trail, two Texas Marshalls (Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham) investigate the robberies, seeking to bring the culprits to justice.

Hell or High Water though has far more on its mind than a simple outlaws-versus-cops morality tale.

The antagonists in Hell or High Water aren’t even the cops or outlaws, but the corrupt faceless institutions (capitalist and governmental) that control them.

The film examines the hopelessness Pine & Bridges face when up against cold bureaucracy, one forced into breaking the law, the other resigned to uphold it.

Hell or High Water is the result of that increasingly rare invention: an original screenplay.

Sheridan, a Texas-born former actor who, in the tradition of “The Last Picture Show” and “Hud” author Larry McMurtry (another Texan whose stories fueled some great Hollywood movies), set his story in the Lone Star State.

Sheridan wrote “Hell or High Water” after his first script, “Sicario,” but “Hell or High Water” sold first. “Sicario” was “toxic,” he said; among other things, it had a female lead.

Sheridan sees both films as part of a trilogy of “the modern-day American frontier,” he said, “about how much has changed in 100 years, and how much things haven’t. What are the consequences of decisions and actions that are a century old and today? I was exploring the death of a way of life, and the acute consequences of the mortgage crisis in East Texas.”

Shortly after the bottom fell out during the debt crisis, Sheridan was visiting McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City. “The towns physically felt abandoned,” he said. “‘Someone should rob this place blind,’ I said. That’s where I got idea for the bank robbers.”

And Sheridan had no intention of writing a genre western. “It takes place in rural west Texas,” he said. “People in Texas wear cowboy hats, they’re good at keeping the sun off your neck and face. You set something in modern-day Texas, which is so identifiable as the old west, and everyone’s wearing guns, so it looks like it’s going to be by default partially considered a western.”

Hell Or High Water

Actually, he set out to make a “buddy road film which was also a heist thriller, with elements of the inevitable showdown of a western with some of the real consequences of the flawed characters of a real drama,” he said. “I wanted it to feel real. I didn’t want the movie to end and for everyone to go home and forget about it. For me, the greatest thing a movie can do is rivet you while you’re watching, but also give you something to chew on for days and weeks after you’ve seen it. And give you ideas to think about. And maybe show you a bit of yourself you really like or don’t like, and maybe you’re going to effect a little change without the burden of having to experience the lesson.”

Among Sheridan’s primary influences, besides McMurtry, was Peter Berg’s “Friday Night Lights.” “He accurately captured the landscape and the mood of the people of that area,” said Sheridan, who wrote “Hell or High Water” for Berg to direct. He got the script to him and eventually they met. “He sat down with me: ‘Let’s go make it.’ He took it out and found a home for it (Sidney Kimmel Entertainment). Ultimately, he had other obligations and we went looking for a director.”

It took three years to find director David Mackenzie, whose violent prison film “Starred Up” Sheridan admired for its rough authenticity. “That was the most important thing,” he said. “If the film was stylized, it would minimize the impact emotionally of the story.”

Which is how “Sicario” ended up coming out first. In both films, “the characters are fiction, but the landscape and the lives the characters are navigating are real,”said Sheridan. “The only fiction is the actual mechanics of the stories and the names of the characters.”

Sheridan wanted the audience to root for bank robbers Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster) “in spite of what they are doing,” which is why the script keeps their motivations obscure for so long. “If you know why they’re doing it from beginning, that they have noble reasons, that would make Marcus (Bridges) the villain. I wanted you to fall in love with these boys and then learn what they’re doing, so you are rooting for Marcus and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) as well. So when you see the inevitable conclusion, you don’t mind if the cars crash together.”

He feels no need to apologize for this being a movie that’s only about men. “Exploring how men relate to men is what this is about,” Sheridan said. “It’s about how emotionally dishonest they can be to themselves and each other and how difficult it is to show someone affection and articulate that. Toby and his brother, all they have is each other. And Marcus has to express his relationship with Alberto through insults and superficial, racist means of expression.”

While Sheridan said Mackenzie directed the movie he wrote, “David was able to find ways to visually riff on the themes with some incredible montages and angles, to expand the sense of loneliness and isolation,” he said. “David created a movie that feels like it was shot in 1973.”

Sheridan is writing a remake of the French film “Disorder” for Sony. And yes, he will keep trying to “somehow entertain and enlighten. It’s a lot easier to do one of the two. None of it is easy. It’s easier to go in with the goal of either entertaining, or enlightening. But to try and do both is really hard.”

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In the following interview with Sheridan at a press conference, the screenwriter discusses the socio, political and existential themes at the heart of Hell or High Water.

What led you into screenwriting?

As an actor I was on a TV series, and I had been on it for a couple of years. We were in the process of re-negotiating, and I had one idea of what I was worth and they had an idea that was vastly different.My wife was pregnant, and I was doing the math and I was realizing that I couldn’t be living in a two-bedroom apartment in Hollywood for the rest of my days. I didn’t want to raise my kid there. I had also reached the point where I was really tired of telling other people’s stories and I wanted to tell my own. I quit the show, and sold just about everything I owned and sat down and wrote Sicario.

Both Sicario and Hell or High Water are gritty stories with gray areas of good and bad. What makes you want to tell those types of stories? What genre are these films considered?

I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone that’s purely good or purely evil, myself. I think most of us live with some varying degrees between the two. To me, a purely good individual or purely bad individual, that’s a comic book, that’s a fantasy and I don’t do fantasy. I really want to reflect the world as I see it and play with the notion of “Who am I rooting for?” I think it’s a bit of a last frontier.

Everyone’s seen so many movies, the audience is so educated, and having been an actor for so long, you hand me any five pages from any script and I’ll tell you what the whole story’s about. I just really wanted to demolish the notion of “Who am I rooting for?” I wanted to really challenge the audience. Sometimes they like the guys who aren’t so good; sometimes they’re really frustrated with the guy who is good; and sometimes the clear hero says or does some pretty bad things.

I spent a lot of time doing really unimportant work as an actor, it was important when I started writing that I obviously make it entertaining or no one is going to go see it – but to really make you think, that is my goal.

These movies resemble a Cormac McCarthy novel or a Coen Brothers film. What are some of your influences when writing, through literature or other films?

Well, Coen and McCarthy are massive influences on me. The novelists have influenced me the most. Larry McMurtry’s (Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo) gift was creating these incredibly well-defined characters in a really brief period of time. Cormac McCarthy does the same thing. He is so sparing with writing and there such a desolate eloquence to it and he’s got such a gift and talent for it.

What are the movies that you watch over and over, year after year?

The Insider is one of my favorite films. The screenplay was sensational, the acting is incredible, the simplicity of some of the camerawork and yet the unusual angles they chose to enhance a sense of mood and a sense of shifting power between characters. And it’s so subtle. That’s Michael Mann.

I think Unforgiven is another one where he took the genre and just demolished it to the point that it looked like no one would ever make a Western again. Again, simplicity, the way with which that was achieved.

Those are two films that I go back to a lot.

In what ways has your acting shaped the films? Does it change the way you write characters?

Absolutely. I spent my life as an actor, mostly on television, guest starring on this and recurring on that. When you do that on episodic television, you’re just plot-loading, “They went that-away!” That’s your job.

With an almost teenage rebellious nature in me, there’s almost no plot in my films. I try and come up with an extremely simple plot so I don’t have to explain it. This way, I can really focus on making the journey to get there rich and reflective and focus on the characters, because I spent so much time trying to make very perfunctory dialog sound interesting. I try to find very interesting ways to say ordinary things and it lets the actor build the character, even for smaller roles.

It gives me a little freedom to explore relationships in a way that you don’t necessarily always get. There would have been a way to make a waitress get a big tip from Toby that didn’t become tethered to the security of her family and then you wouldn’t see that hope of, or that sense of desperation, of needing someone to help her.

You can get as deep as you want. That’s why I try and dig just as deep for characters that appear in one scene as I do for the main characters.

Character is largest in television for a lot of reasons, the largest being you don’t have the time or the money to show a lot of things. You have to tell the things. So you’re always moving the story forward with dialogue. I’m allergic to exposition as a result because I was forced to shovel it for so many years. I’m just not that interested in plot. I want the simplest plot I can come up with that allows me to explore the world, landscape and people.

In Hell or High Water, there’s a bit of mystery from Toby and Tanner. Some of that gets resolved throughout the film, but how much backstory is involved and how much do you want to keep a mystery for the viewers?

As a writer, you can’t write where they’re going unless you know where they’ve been. I don’t necessarily know that it’s important to let the audience know where they’ve been, even though it’s fascinating for all of us to wonder. As it becomes relevant to understanding, then you let that leak out.

Obviously, with Toby and Tanner, you have just enough information to know what they could possibly have done so that you can fully digest the consequences of their actions .

You’ve had some huge names in your films. Do you ever write for specific actors or do you solely write based on the character?

For certain ones, it’s hard not to. You can certainly have someone in mind and I have, and then ultimately the character becomes its own thing and they take on their own personalities and they take on their own lives in your head.

What are some of your writing rituals, when it’s just you alone in the room?

I don’t want a wasted word. I don’t outline. I like to go on a journey and my writing style is that I don’t like to rewrite.

I rewrite as I write, so if I was to sit down and write the first five pages of a new screenplay, let’s say, then the next day I start at page one and read through it and then I spend three days refining those five pages, then you end up changing it, and it distilling down to two, and it kind of accordions out like that.

The funny thing is, around the midway point of the second act – if it’s a 3 act structure – it starts to really write itself, and the tone becomes so clear. A lot of times the tone will become so clear that you’ll have to go back and refine what you’ve already done that led to it.

That’s my process.

What do you find to be the most difficult part of the writing process?

It’s that bridge. It’s the middle of the second act, because that’s when any mistakes you made early on in the first act or anywhere else, that’s where they pop their heads up.

If you hit that wall of logic or the emotional journey of the character starts to feel like it’s wavering, the problem isn’t there, the problem’s thirty pages back, and for me, it happens with every screenplay.

That is the spot, and you can either try to write around it or gut check and go back and kill something you probably really liked. That seems to be one I always have to do.

Someday I’ll assemble all of what I think are the best things I’ve ever written – none of which seemed to make it into the final draft of the script, and I’m just going to piece them together and it’ll look like an Altman film… or a mess or something.

What’s something you wish you had known before you started screenwriting or what’s the key takeaway that a new writer can start doing tomorrow to make their writing better?

I had been in the business for so long and I had seen the consequences of a plot hole or a character flaw or something that wasn’t fully developed. And I had suffered that as the actor or had seen it on the screen. I was pretty merciless on myself from the first day I wrote the first thing.

But for 20 years I’d spent most of my time reciting lines by people that took shortcuts. Don’t take a shortcut.

I always write the movie that I want to go see, and just assume someone else will want to go see it, too. It’s got to be saying what you want to say the way you want to say it.

I think to be a really good screenwriter, you have to be selfish, you have to write just for you. You’ll be your toughest critic, but trying to guess what someone else is going to like or want, that’s such a moving target. You’ll find yourself trying to write something that false.

Constantly remind yourself to write what you’d want to see and that you can’t waste a word.

What was the initial spark of inspiration for this script?

A lot of things – one: at the time I came up with the idea, Texas was going through its worst drought in a century. It was a back breaker for many of these cattle ranches that were facing their own calamities completely independent of the drought. I was back visiting a friend and we drove through the town of Archer City. It was just empty house after empty house after empty house. I went back to this area of Texas — where my family’s from… All the stores that had once been there were gone or had been boarded up. It looked like it had been evacuated. It was sad. So I was very intrigued by that and curious. I mean – I knew why but I was curious to explore it. Likewise I called my cousin Parnell McNamara who’s been a Marshall in Central Texas for thirty-four-years, but was forced to retire at sixty-five. He dedicated his life to this profession and all the sacrifices that come with that and then one day, arbitrarily, he’s told he can’t do it anymore. So that notion of a life without purpose and seeking purpose. Those two things combined for me and that’s where the story came from.

How important is it for you craft these important topical and existential messages into a genre film?

For me – it’s vital. I have no interest in telling a story that isn’t reflective of a place or a mirror to us as a people. The fact that I use what’s called ‘genre films’ to do it… They didn’t call it that in the 70s. Nobody ever called The Deer Hunter a ‘genre movie’. They never did that. They do that now. I’m not sure why. I write movies that I want to go see and the people that influence me, the filmmakers who have influenced me, Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann, and the writers who have influenced me, not screenwriters so much as novelists – Larry McMurty and his incredible gift with dialogue and relationships and character, Cormac McCarthy with his austere sense of place – I try to write with them in mind and try to write movies people want to go see.

Do you outline?

I don’t outline. I spend months playing the movie in my head to a certain degree until I really understand what this character is trying to do. What are they seeking? It doesn’t really matter if they get it; but what do they learn whether they get it or not. And as soon as I understand that, then I try to articulate it with every breath that character takes. You don’t want to find yourself in a moment that’s independent of the character’s journey. I don’t want to see the character have a random conversation with someone that doesn’t somehow move his or her journey forward. Plot doesn’t really matter. I write really simple plots. The simpler the plot, the more time I have to really look inside the character which to me is much more interesting.

Do you give yourself deadlines?

No — I get deadlines given to me…

But you wrote Hell or High Water on spec…

Yeah I wrote it on spec — so my deadline was when do I want to pay the rent.

It’s funny — the specs I tend to write a lot faster than the one’s on deadline. I don’t know why that is. Probably my own issue with authority, I guess.

Do you do a lot of rewrites on your scripts?

I’ve been very fortunate with my three spec scripts — which is sort of my thematic trilogy of the American Frontier. With Sicario, Hell or High Water and then Wind River – which is the third – there were no rewrites. It was the first draft for all three. There were minor polishes done to get them shaped up, move a location because you can’t find that location or you can’t afford that location. But I’m very fortunate…