'Hell or High Water' Director on Tackling a Great Depression Drama for TV

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David Mackenzie

“I get the impression from the network that they want to see it a bit like 'Mr. Robot,'" helmer David Mackenzie of the planned USA pilot for 'Damnation.'

Fresh off the critical success of the acclaimed Hell or High Water, the Western starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges that became summer’s sleeper hit, director David Mackenzie will helm the pilot of USA’s Great Depression drama Damnation.

The shoot will take place in Calgary starting in the first week of October, though the cast has not been announced. The story follows striking farm workers in Iowa struggling between communist agitators and corporations.

“I get the impression from the network that they want to see it a bit like Mr. Robot, which has been their big success and in its own way is very political, and I think they want to try to swim in similar waters with this, which I think is fascinating for TV,” Mackenzie told The Hollywood Reporter.

Thematically it bears some similarities to Hell or High Water, about two brothers who turn to robbing banks in order to save their ranch, but also speaks to the tough economic times facing the working class in much of the U.S.

It also flows into what he jokingly calls his “socialistic” style of directing, including eschewing clapperboards, script supervisors and on-set monitors, leaving the camera rolling between takes, encouraging improvising and holding a weekly crew party where he screens edited versions of the week's scenes. “The crew was sort of shocked at that level of sharing and delighted, laughing and really engaging with it,” said Mackenzie. “I don’t think people normally share that much with their crew.

“It allows the actors to engage with the material in a more intense way. I try to make everything feel very intuitive and exploratory,” he explained. “And I was particularly successful in doing that on this film. We had a very creative set and it’s all about the magic of the moment.”

The Hell or High Water cast also held weekly sing-alongs with Bridges and Birmingham on their guitars. The musical moments allowed the two actors, who play partner cops in the film, to create a rapport that carried over into filming, and much of their buddy banter was improvised as a result.

Pine, who was used to the big-budget production scale of the Star Trek franchise films, called the freer form “jazz filmmaking.” The actor and the director are discussing working together on other projects in the future.

“He can’t just be Captain Kirk. It’s lovely to see Chris become someone else and — no disrespect to Captain Kirk — be a bit sexier than him in a way. A bit more intense, more introspective,” said Mackenzie of Pine's modern-day West Texas outlaw.

Hell or High Water, which premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section, opened on 32 screens and rolled out to over 1,300 following stellar reviews. It currently has a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is set to open across much of Europe this week.

Mackenzie said he hasn’t read the reviews, but has heard the awards-season chatter. He added: “It’s early days. There’s a whole bunch of films that are coming out soon, but you know I’d be very happy if the actors and the film were given some attention.”

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