Growing up in the 1970's, filmmaker John Hillcoat became fascinated with how "the new breed of fimmakers" was re-inventing genre films. He wanted to be a part of this medium of visual storytelling, but didn't dream of being a film director.
"I never thought I could go near it," he confessed to IndieWire in a recent phone interview, "It was too big."
Instead, he worked in animation, which led to helming a wealth of music videos for the likes of Elvis Costello, Depeche Mode, Bush and of course Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. This recurring collaboration with the dark god of gothic rock led to Hillcoat making the leap to feature-length films in 2005 with the Cave-penned Western "The Proposition," which earned critical praise and the attention of Hollywood.
"That came out of a very vibrant moment in history when there was a lot going on, a cross pollination between music, film, photography, art, writing," he recounted of "The Proposition"s creation.
Since then, Hillcoat had built a name for himself making gritty anti-hero dramas with revered stars, like the Viggo Mortensen-fronted post-apocalyptic adventure "The Road," and the bootlegger biopic "Lawless," which boasted cast members Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain and Guy Pearce. This weekend, this Aussie auteur follows up with the grimly realistic "Triple 9," which first won headlines in 2010 when the original Matt Cook script landed on the coveted Black List.
Named for the cop code that means "officer down," "Triple 9" follows a harrowing heist carried off by former soldiers turned crooks and crooked cops. To buy them the time they'll need to break into a highly protected vault, they plan to kill a cop, which will send the full force of the Atlanta police department toward their deadly distraction. For this riveting ensemble crime-drama, Hillcoat pulled together a show-stopping cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Norman Reedus, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Gal Gadot and Michael K. Williams. When we spoke with him, our conversation ranged from curious casting to his love of anti-heroes, and hot topics that "Triple 9" can't help but touch on, #OscarsSoWhite and Black Lives Matter.
Between, "The Proposition," "Lawless" and now "Triple 9," you've chosen projects driven by to anti-heroes. What attracts you to anti-heroes?
Well, I like characters that have flaws. Television has really embraced that in a way that cinema has kind of lost its nerve. I just think they are more interesting. Heroes tend to be over-romanticized, and are often one-dimensional. It's the murkiness of humanity that I find endlessly fascinating. I like the realism of anti-heroes. It's a healthy thing. I think heroes can be vey unhealthy at times, because it doesn't connect you to reality.
Yeah. Anti-heroes explore a moral complexity that oftentimes Hollywood heroes don't get into.
Exactly. And there is that moral complexity and murkiness that makes us human.
Has this made you at all interested in working in TV?
Absolutely. I have plans to do so for that very reason. I consider myself a humanist. Even if I do very dark worlds, I try to make those characters real humans, as opposed to just cartoons.
I think that's very clear in "Triple 9," where the characters are "bad men," but they are so complex that we are able to relate to them.
Yeah, and that’s the thing.
It's a deliberately unconventional approach, in the sense that I just wanted a
slice of life in the street. And that matter of fact view —
rather than making a big message or having a clear character you're rooting for — I want to with that ensemble have this murky humanity there. And just treat it from a very matter-of-fact point of view.
Speaking of the ensemble, you've got an incredible cast. How did you manage to get so many acclaimed actors and admired character actors into one movie?
Even on a large ensemble where their parts are relatively small — because having ten main characters obviously effects their screen time — the thing that attracts great actors is when there is that challenge to get some reality into something. This genre hasn't had a lot of reality in it for a long time. And I think that was one attraction, trying to give them that kind of research and footage to create a reality. But also what we just talked about where it's not just black and white. You don't know who to root for. It's this kind of murky grey.
And that is something that attracts great actors. Even if they have one scene, they're going to embrace that because it's connected to humanity. And these are extreme worlds that often leave all that out. It just tends to be about the fireworks, and nothing else.
I think your reputation as a filmmaker would be another draw, but also the way you play against type in your casting. Like Casey Affleck—
Well, yes. Yes. Actually that's a great point. That's the other thing. Sometimes doing deliberately the opposite of that. We did want to get a whole ensemble that had that unpredictability. So sometimes you have might have a predictable thing, where it's Aaron Paul (playing a dirtbag) or Woody Harrelson playing another cop. But then finding what else they can do with that trope that they developed. With Casey, Chiwetel and Kate, it's doing something we've never seen them do.
Specifically with Casey, we've seen him play cowards and hardened detectives. But here he plays an idealist, which was unexpected, yet worked beautifully in the film's context. What made you see that in him?
Well, he's got this kind of boyish sparkle about him. Yet, he's also grown into being a man. So, it was that element that I thought was really interesting.
Also, he's got this kind of energy to him, like he's tightly wound, even in voice. It's kind of like the tension in the vocal chords. So it's that tightly wound quality and that sparkle in him with the boyishness and his eyes. To take this idealist that's driven to the point where he can't sit still. He's got to be chomping on gum, or always in perpetual motion, was where all that came from.
"Triple 9" has several stars of color, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr. I'd like to hear your thoughts on #OscarsSoWhite. And when casting the film, was representation and diversity something that came into play in your decision-making?
Yes. Especially when we were setting it in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta is one of the fastest growing cities in America, and it has a rich mix of ethnic communities. In L.A., it's more segregated. There are gated communities. Compton is a war zone, and it's far out of sight of West Hollywood. In Atlanta, there's more intersection. There's still these different communities and different neighborhoods. But we wanted to give an accurate read of the demographic that exists.
So in a matter-of-fact way, it was always meant to have a look at how there's always been different power plays on the street, different ethnic communities. The best of America has always come out of this mix of ethnic diversity. It's just a matter of fact. America just wouldn't exist, it wouldn't be on the map without this mix of ethnic communities. So, it's crazy not to (include it), especially when you're doing a contemporary picture of urban city life on the street. It's crazy to not have that mix. And the talent is just crazy. The talent that exists in all these different ethnic groups should be utilized more.
So, I am an advocate for not only is there a rich pool of talent, but I am an advocate for realism. Anyway, that might be a little — I think there's also a weird self-censorship. People are inadvertently racist in the way they are so tip-toeing around and not being bluntly matter-of-fact about things.
"Triple 9" has been in the works for six years. But in the past couple of years, while you're developing this movie that contains violence against police — within and without their own ranks — the U.S. has been embroiled in a heated debate about our police force. How has the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter debate shaped your film?
I'm very conscious that the criminal landscape has changed dramatically. One of the big differences is the paramilitary background. The Latino cartels that run the streets and the Russian-Israeli mob have that military background. The stakes have risen. And the police, it's been like throwing petrol on the fire, or gasoline on the fire, because the police have also become militarized. The stakes are so high now that corruption is just at an all-time high.
As one of the heads of the organized crime unit in the FBI did tell me, the reason there is so much corruption now is that the stakes have risen so high. So, I've been very aware of that tension that's out there. Again, I just wanted to be truthful and matter of fact about it. Rather than make a big issues picture, I just wanted to show it in a straightforward way. The thing about corruption is that corruption happens incrementally.
I think the big problem is the war zone, the battle zone, where the police have their SWAT teams active, there's a whole battle for the streets. The drug war has failed. It's all happening in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. So, that becomes a real problem for the people in those communities. I've been looking at that. But I was aware of all that before these more tragic series of outcomes have emerged. I knew that was coming because it was already going on.
It's just sometimes we focus on things, and then other times we don't focus on it. Like for instance, Compton is a true war zone. There's hundreds of people being killed. It's still a war zone. And most of the time we ignore it.
"Triple 9" opens nationwide this Friday.