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How ‘Hell or High Water’ Oscar-Nominated Writer Taylor Sheridan Turned Failure Into Art: Awards Spotlight

With his directorial debut on the horizon, Sheridan talks about drawing inspiration from his son and an entire state.

Taylor Sheridan Daniel Bergeron

Taylor Sheridan

Daniel Bergeron

With Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank-robbing brothers and Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger on their tail, David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” debuted at Cannes to critics’ raves and earned an original screenplay Oscar nomination. The indie box-office hit of 2016 is the result of that increasingly rare invention: an original screenplay. It sprang from the mind of Taylor Sheridan, a Texas-born actor who, in the tradition of “The Last Picture Show” and “Hud” author Larry McMurtry (another Texan whose stories fueled some great 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. The writer sees both films as part of a trilogy of “the modern-day American frontier,” he told us, “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.”

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.” 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. “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.”

Next up: Sheridan is writing a remake of the French film “Disorder” for Sony and launched his directorial debut “Wind River” at Sundance.

Sheridan compared the structure and form of his modern western to “Sicario,” particularly in the way that it follows its characters’ struggles. “I wanted ‘Hell or High Water’ to feel like a road movie and an exciting fun film — until it’s not,” Sheridan said.

On the genesis of his ideas: “I had a one-year-old son,” he said. “How will my failure or success limit what he becomes? I was trying to write screenplays. It doesn’t pay very well until you sell one, I was poor.”

Visiting fire-ravaged, post-recession Texas, Sheridan found himself  “watching where I came from disappear at the same time I was conflicted about what my future would be. That manifested into a tale of brothers and a life with no purpose. I wanted to accurately show that world, the beauty and the weakness. “ He neither shied away from casual racism nor the limited job opportunities for women who wind up bank tellers or waitresses. “It all fits in the soup,” he said.

For Sheridan, the bank-robber brothers come from two failed generations. “The two brothers are failures who are figuring out a way to express it. Society and their parents made things hard for them, but choices become very limited,” he said.

“When I write a movie I write it for me,” he told us. “I let characters be human and flawed and relatable. When we do things that aren’t that great we can understand it.”

In the film, Texas Ranger Marcus has his reasons for acting like a racist. “If we can start a dialogue that’s our job. If we can do it in a way that’s entertaining and riveting, that’s the holy grail,” Sheridan said.

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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