The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Hell or High Water.
Can you talk about the work you did to develop your roles and form your bond on screen?
Jeff Bridges: Actors approach their work in different ways. You get some that say, “please, just call me by my character’s name… I like you, you’re a nice person, but let’s not hang out too much.” The relationship is all between action and cut. And for them that’s great. I work in a different way. I like to get as close as I can to the people, and I think that intimacy with each other creates relaxation, and with that relaxation, the stuff can flow through you better. And Gil, he approached it in the same way. We hung out, we asked each other what we were into… he’s got his guitar, I’ve got mine, and we’d just break ’em out and start to engage musically. And that was probably our main way of communication and hanging out.
Gil Birmingham: I think it’s funny— I’ve done a few of these with David, the director, and he said that it was a fascinating thing to watch us work together that way. We would watch dailies once a week, and afterward we’d just jam together. And David mentioned how interesting it was for him to watch us improvise musically together off set, and then to get on set and have that connection carry over into the acting.
JB: That was another cool thing about the production. Just like actors, directors work so differently from one another. David was such a wonderful director, he worked the way I like to work, which is to create an environment where this relaxation happens. And one of the ways he did that was to invite the entire cast and crew out to a cabin in the middle of Albuquerque every weekend to watch dailies and just unwind. Nowadays they edit the film right along as you’re making it, the editor is assembling it. So we got to see what we were going to do, make little adjustments, and just get to know each other. That was a wonderful thing.
“when we meet her it’s like opening a door and the house is on fire on the inside”
Ms. Bowman, you’re a native Texan and you have an incredible scene in a diner. Could you talk about that scene?
Margaret Bowman: I knew this woman. This woman was my mother! My mother raised and supported herself, three daughters, and her mother by waiting tables. My mother was just about as sassy as they come. And she was a sweet, giving, caring, loving woman… but she didn’t take any guff off of anybody. And so when I read the script, and I read this woman, I gave her a name. I called her “Maisy,” because to me, Maisy is a woman who knows where she is, where she comes from, and where she’s going, and you’d better not fool with her. And so this was my mother, and it was me— I helped support a family waiting tables. That’s hard work. And so I can say that I knew this character. She was inside of me.
Your character is a young woman, but she seems like she’s been through a lot. How did you conceive of her?
Marin Ireland: For me it really started with what was on the page. It seemed to me like this was a person, when we meet her it’s like opening a door and the house is on fire on the inside. So I remember having a conversation with David, talking about back story stuff, and Chris and I talked about how it felt like they were the kind of people that… the dangerous feeling when his character walks in, and the distance we were always trying to keep between us. Whenever we tried new blocking, we’d always say, “we’ve got to stay as far apart from each other as possible, because they’re just going to combust.” That’s the only option— they’re either going to murder each other, or they’ll get back together… and then they’ll murder each other. So it felt like that was really important to feel like that fire was always burning in her. And then any question I had about what was going on felt like it was answered with that. How does she keep going? Well she has to keep that fire going. That’s what’s keeping her moving around the house all day long.
Director David Mackenzie, an Englishman, made this film. Did he have a different kind of process for approaching the material, as an outsider?
Ben Foster: He asked a lot of questions. He wanted to talk to everybody. What makes David such a remarkable filmmaker is that he’s not British first, he’s human first. And he understands the way people feel, and how clumsy it is, and how difficult it is to sometimes be a person in the world. And David’s after that: that’s what he pursues in every scene. What is the sole of it? He doesn’t mind dropping words, changing dialog, changing the direction, improvising… as long as there’s an authentic exchange. So he would ask the Rangers, he would ask our criminal experts, he would ask locals, he would talk to Texans… he’s just wide open and interested, and he’s very intuitive. And is interested in that spark, and that surprise. And I think that’s what makes this a universal story, even though it’s set in such a specific place. They’re the stories we all live throughout the world, in a very fundamental way.
Why do you think your character puts up with so much garbage from his partner?
GB: We had a little bit of discussion about this, actually. And in fact a lot of the comebacks I use in the film weren’t in the script. At some point I asked, why doesn’t he say anything? Why does he take all this crap? And Jeff even said at one point, “are you sure I’m not just coming off as some kind of asshole?” And I didn’t know. And I think the key was, and David gave me that liberty— if something came to me, I could go for it. And I did. “Sometimes a blind pig finds a truffle,” for instance, wasn’t in the script. But I had to find this space of understanding where the love these people have for one another could exist. I think it spoke to the uneasiness of hearing it for the audience, too. Because it’s not easy for the character to hear either. Indigenous people experience that kind of treatment all the time. And how do they deal with it? My character happened to be in a position that he moved himself up to through the same system that makes him deal with that kind of ridicule. And that’s what he deals with all the time.