“Triple 9” is the latest film from John Hillcoat, the Australian director perhaps best known for a string of films that approach familiar genres in new ways. “The Proposition” is an Australian western; “The Road” is a literary post-apocalyptic tale; and “Lawless” tackles the gangster genre.
Like those films, “Triple 9” finds the director adding his own spin to a well known template— it’s a cop movie with a modern noir twist. Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Clifton Collins, Jr., Teresa Palmer and Gal Gadot comprise an ensemble for a film tellling the tale of a group of crooked cops who embark on a dangerous bank heist on behalf of Russian gangsters.
“Triple 9” debuts a partnership between Hillcoat and Atticus Ross, who with partners Claudia Sarne, Leopold Ross and Bobby Krlic (aka Haxan Cloak) composed the film’s score. Hillcoat had worked with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on his prior three movies, two of which were also scripted by Cave as part of a regular collaboration that goes back to Hillcoat’s feature debut, 1988’s “Ghosts… of the Civil Dead.” The new score represents a marked departure from the very recognizable Cave/Ellis sound.
The Plalylist spoke to Hillcoat about that change and the myriad demands of adapting the “Triple 9” script and cast in the years leading to the film’s shoot.
You went back to Atlanta to shoot this movie after filming “Lawless” in Georgia.
That was unexpected. The script was always set in L.A. But it was also a lucky accident in the sense that we couldn’t afford L.A. That’s a shame —they should fix that bloody rebate, instead of all these people having to leave the state. But it was a choice between cities like New Orleans and Atlanta, because we wanted a big, modern city.
I did my research on Atlanta, and saw it was a blessing in disguise. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities. Latino gangs have been infiltrating Georgia, and having spoken to the FBI in Atlanta, the Russian/Israeli mob are there as well. Then there’s the history of the city, as well as the strong hip hop scene there, which has had an enormous influence on Southern hip hop, and the whole history of the South in general. America’s founding tragedy came out in a huge battle there, and out of that comes the most amazing music and writing. So I embraced Atlanta and ran with it big-time. Plus, people use a lot of the backlot there for other places, and it’s great to say “this is Atlanta.”
Tensions between police and black populations are high in America right now, but this script predates events in Ferguson and other cities. Was there any effort to change the script to reflect current conflicts?
I think it’s referenced, in the sense of the raid in the housing projects and the way the community and bystanders are swept up into it. Those neighborhoods are battle zones. There’s also the militarization of the police —the main cops in the film are ex-military, and they do use excessive force. That’s all part of the problem. Though the bigger picture is that the stakes have been turned up —not only in the organized crime global world, but the underground economy has direct connections to terrorism and drugs. It’s like throwing petrol on the fire. The stakes keep going up. The FBI was saying that these days that FBI [agents] are routinely corrupted. It’s impossible to stop, since there’s too much money and risk. So I think what’s happened is because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military come back join the police force. And those forces are getting SWAT training, and that’s all in the film. And then added on top is Cypress Hill’s track about police corruption [“Pigs”].
But I love genres. The first and foremost focus of this was to make an action/crime thriller movie, which I’ve always wanted to make. I love that tradition in American cinema. How do we make it contemporary and fresh again? [That conflict] became more of a backdrop and a matter-of-fact part of the world, rather than [being] ]about that specific issue.
That interest in genre is very evident in your work. You’ve put your spin on genres several times in the past.
Definitely. And I love that about music, and I love the South for giving birth to great musical genres. The vibrancy of genre is it comes out of traditions and the world that they create, but then genre has to constantly be reinvigorated by reinvention. That’s the challenge and that’s what I love about movie genres and music genres.
This is the first film you’ve done in quite a while without a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Can you talk about working with Atticus Ross and his collaborators?
It was controversial and it was a painful decision, to be honest. We have a long history of working together on music projects as well outside films, but this was so outside Nick and Warren’s wheelhouse. I wanted to reference sounds from the South and hip hop, and I like the way that hip hop has started to utilize electronic music in a really interesting way. Ironically, I knew Atticus Ross back in England when he was working with one of [Nick Cave’s band] the Bad Seeds. He knew Nick when he was a young DJ.
Then he teamed up with Trent [Reznor, for Nine Inch Nails albums and scores for “The Social Network,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl”] and he’s involved in the electronic world and the hip hop world. His wife, Claudia Sarne, and his brother Leopold are this amazing unit. They brought in another DJ, Haxan Cloak, to bring in a contemporary update of noir and to reference hip hop without having the obvious playlist.
I saw a comment from Ross where he said the score was complex and difficult because they’d write material for your film, and then scenes would change. I’d love to hear your side of that process.
Well, that’s right! Everything was in flux. The script was set in L.A., then we had to go to Atlanta. We had gang unit guys on set advising the actors, and they were both off- and on-screen. We had ex-gang members in the cast. With all that, some of the stuff we shot kept changing. Using the raid as an example, and speaking of excessive military force, those advisors said “this is like a military operation.” We had it where the cops burst through the door and chase their guy, but they told us it would be a real sort of military operation. We thought that was amazing, so we reworked the whole thing. Plus, with eight main characters juggling that narrative with all the twists and turns, that made it a lot more complex than a two-hander. It was a different experience, especially for Atticus.
He’s maybe used to working with David Fincher…
Right, where things are all locked down months in advance.
It seems like getting the cast together was a Herculean task.
That was the hardest thing. They’re all busy actors at the top of their game, so to line up a window where we could get everyone took years.
Does that lead to changes in the script to accommodate actors?
In terms of the mix of the cast, there were more Latino characters when we were in L.A. When we went to Atlanta, we wanted to reflect the demographics, so we had more African-American characters. So the cast did evolve slightly for a couple characters. Because of the eight characters, I really wanted the right balance. I wanted a rich variety of personalities and idiosyncratic character traits. That made the casting even trickier, but also very interesting. Each was very helpful with bringing stuff to the table. I presented that challenge —what can you make out of this character that distinguishes them more? Because in the world of crime films, people fall back on stuff.
Can you recall anything specific that an actor brought in?
Casey Affleck’s character talks about having a relentless energy, and we wanted to get away from the cliché of the ex-military guy suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Which is a serious thing, but it’s been explored so much in film. We wanted to find something different, and Casey met some guys who talked about the idea, almost like an existential noir character, of being driven. He’s always in motion. So he’s chewing gum, and when he’s sitting he’s clenching his hands. He brought that tension and that restlessness, which made him a more interesting character and very different from his laidback kind of persona.
Chiwetel Ejiofor was also really interested in that kind of exercise. I showed him Jean-Pierre Melville films like “Bob le Flambeur,” and “Flick” and “Le Samourai.” I was talking about these guys who choose a life and can’t stop. They almost know that one day it’s just going to come down. And he loved that idea. He brought a lot, and was suggesting ideas about the way his character’s son would be used against him. The whole cast was really fantastic that way —everyone had ideas and was very committed to the work.
“Triple 9” opens in theaters this Friday.