The LRM Interview with Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan

– by Edward Douglas

It’s the New Year, and while we have lots of cool interviews to share with you over the next twelve months here at LRM, there was one great interview last year that kind of got away from us, and that was our very long chat with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan.

You may know Sheridan from his acting work on Sons of Anarchy, but he left that show to become a screenwriter and his first two screenplays, for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario and the more recent Hell or High Water, have received a lot of well-warranted attention for their sharp writing and characterizations. Maybe that’s why the respective directors were able to get the likes of Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine on board.

Hell or High Water is a crime drama that takes place in West Texas where Chris Pine and Ben Foster player brothers Toby and Tanner, who have been robbing small banks in the area to get enough money to save their mother’s farm. On their tail is a soon-to-retire Texas Ranger, played by Jeff Bridges, and his partner. 

It’s one of the summer’s smaller movies that found a sizable audience of fans and ended up doing decently—about $27 million domestically, which is twice its production budget.

In the past year, Sheridan has been working on his directorial debut, Wind River, starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen and Jon Bernthal (Marvel’s The Punisher), which will debut at the Sundance Film Festival in a couple weeks, while his screenplay for Hell or High Water is thought to be one that is likely to get awards attention as we get closer to the Oscars in late February.

With that in mind, LRM spoke with Sheridan while he was driving around the mountains of Wyoming a few months back, and talked to him about all the above in the following interview:

LRM: I know that you were an actor and you appeared on “Sons of Anarchy” but I also thought I heard that you wrote “Hell of High Water” before “Sicario,” is that correct?

Taylor Sheridan:
No, no… Sicario is the first one that I wrote, but Hell or High Water sold first. I think that’s the confusion. 

LRM: Since you’d been acting for a while, what drove you to start writing?

When I was on “Sons,” I got very intrigued with story. There was a lot of times where I didn’t understand where mine was going. I became quite close with some of the writers, and I just became very interested in storytelling, much more so than acting. You finally work so long to get on a series and I got on a series, and I was much more intrigued with the notion of telling a story. After a couple years on the show, we were renegotiating for the next seven years, and they had one idea what I was worth, and I had an entirely different one, and they were like, “Nah, buddy, this is what your worth. This is what we do for a living and this is what your worth.” And I thought about that, and it was all I was worth. They weren’t wrong. My wife was pregnant, and I was carrying the notion of living in an apartment with a kid and not being able to afford a house and raising the kid where I wanted to in a way I wanted to. I didn’t want to be 46 years old and missing his Little League games because I had a Windex commercial audition. I just didn’t want to do it anymore. So I guess logic would say, “Well, do the show and write a screenplay on the side,” but it doesn’t work like that. I had to be fully committed, so I quit the show, and I quit acting, and I sat down and wrote Sicario.

LRM: I’m always talking to filmmakers and actor-slash-writers, and they’re always suggesting that actors should write their own material and someone like Joel Edgerton has done that.  He said, “I’m sick of what I have to deal with to get roles as an actor,” so he started writing his own movies.  But that wasn’t your case, because you weren’t writing for the sake of getting better roles.

No, not at all, not at all. In fact, the irony was once I started getting recognition as a screenwriter, I started getting offers as an actor. I turned them all down, ‘cause I just didn’t have any interest in doing it anymore.

LRM: Let’s talk about “Hell or High Water” and what prompted you to write that. Someone at CBS Films was telling me that it was a more personal story than “Sicario” and I was curious about that. Did you actually go around and rob banks with your brother?
Well, no. What’s personal about it is my cousin was a federal marshal in Texas for thirty years, and he was forced into retirement. They had to drag him kicking and screaming out of his office, and he was in a really dark place, because that was his life, that was his purpose, and that purpose was taken from him arbitrarily. He’s a sheriff in Texas now, so clearly he’s still capable of being a law enforcement officer. At the time, he didn’t know what he was going to do, and I thought that was incredibly sad, and he was someone that I’d looked up to, this big Texas lawman with a hat and a badge, a pretty terrifying guy really. He was kind of a hero in my imagination that was forced to retire, so that was one element. Another element was the drought in 2011 in Texas or end of 2010 was the worst in recorded history there. It devastated the cattle and the ranching industry, which was already struggling for so many different reasons. The drought and the fires that came, coupled with the recession, it was like the nail in the coffin for a way of life, and you saw this exodus to the cities, and all these towns that I grew up in, they felt mostly abandoned. That, from a storytelling standpoint, fascinated me, and then it was the notion of poverty as such a difficult generational cycle to break, and how poverty affects familiar relationships and how it fractures families and how it damages them and it almost dooms them to repeat it the next generation. At the time, I had just quit a TV show. I sold everything I could pawn and crammed my little family into this tiny apartment, and I was pretty poor. I was poor by choice but I was poor, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get us out of it. That panic, that fear of failing as a father was a real driving force and a theme throughout the screenplay as well. 

LRM: This is something that’s been going on in the country since at least 2008, though we’ve had recessions and economic downturns that affected people prior to that. The only movie that’s tried to cover it in a similar way was this Brad Pitt movie called Killing Them Softly” directed by Andrew Dominik. It was a crime movie set where the crime came out of necessity since there was no other way to make money. I felt that was similar for the brothers in this movie.

Yeah, I mean it’s an interesting thing. There’s a desperation in that, and at what point do you choose to break the rule that you’ve established to try and take care of yourself and your family, and bend the rules.  Certainly from the outside looking in, you can say that they’re unfairly stacked against those who are the most vulnerable. So yeah, I’m not in any way condoning robbing banks. I was just exploring that desperation, and he had this one specific window where if he could come up with this money, he could literally alter the course of his family’s future for generations, so he chose to sacrifice himself. I think that no one is more surprised than Toby that he got away with it. 

LRM: When I spoke to David Mackenzie (director of “Hell or High Water”) a few months ago, he said something very complimentary about your screenplay, in that there was no development required, and he basically shot what he got. It’s very rare for a director to get a screenplay and say, “It’s ready to shoot, let’s go.” Usually there’s some development. So what was that experience like compared to “Sicario” because Denis has written some of his own material although not as much as he used to.

I got pretty lucky on both. We basically shot the first draft of both scripts so I got very lucky in that directors responded to what the screenplay was saying and the way it was saying it. It doesn’t mean they didn’t make it their own, but they made it their own visually. They found other ways. They didn’t feel the need to alter the script to make it their vision. It’s a unique situation to be in both times, and I’m really grateful for it.

LRM: I actually received the screenplay recently after rewatching the movie, and I noticed that your description of a field of wheat in the opening that’s actually at the end of the movie, which was interesting. So there were changes but the visual ideas were still used.
Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. In the way that he captured images, I think David did a miraculous job, I really do.

LRM: It’s also amazing because he’s Scottish and doesn’t have the connection to the material you might think as someone who lives in Texas, for instance, or someone who has spent time there.

I think, actually, because he is not from here, there’s a certain unbiased with which he was able to see the world. Had it been a Texas director, maybe let’s say there would be some things in there that one could argue don’t paint small Texas in a perfect light, and maybe he takes those out and it changes the movie. Maybe someone else directs it and they have extreme issues with some aspect of it, and they decide, “No, I’m going to put my political commentary on this.” I really wanted no political commentary in this film. I wanted social commentary. I wanted it to have a reflective nature that will allow people to ask questions and really contemplate, “Is this right, is this wrong?” rather than telling them. I can’t stand to be preached to when I go see a movie, so I strive to never do it when I write the screenplay and both of these directors, they didn’t infuse some point of view about a political point. They just held the mirror up.

LRM: When I spoke to David, I asked about the scene where they rob the bank and everyone in the bank owns their own gun, leading to a gunfight. I thought that was an interesting commentary that in Texas, yeah, probably everyone is going to be carrying a gun and there’s a chance you’ll get shot by someone other than law enforcement. So that wasn’t meant as social commentary?

Of course it’s social commentary. I don’t give any answers. I don’t know the answer to all these problems we have. If I did, I’d run for office, but yeah, look, the gun issue is something that’s on the forefront of everyone’s mind, and I explored it. I didn’t say it was bad or good. I show people abusing that right for privilege. I show people exercising it and I show people exercising it and getting killed for it. But they stopped the bank robbery, sort of. What answer can you glean from it? I don’t know, man. When you go out in West Texas, and you call the police and say, “Come to my house, I got a problem,” they might be half an hour away, and so there’s that sense of self-determination that exists, and I just wrote about it. I didn’t judge it. 

LRM: I also liked the structure of the movie where you follow the two brothers on one side and then have Jeff Bridges’ character and his partner on the other, and they really only meet very briefly. We’ve seen that before in movies like “Heat” and I’m not sure if that was one of your models, but it’s nice when you spend a lot of time with different characters without feeling they need to be brought together as much.  I feel like some filmmakers feel like they need to have all the characters meet and interact, but that wasn’t the case here and you kept them separate for as long as possible.

There’s definitely a collision course that’s established. You know they’re going to meet in some capacity, and then for me as a storyteller, kind of the last frontier of surprising or shocking an audience is there’s two ways to do it. One is this wildly intricate plot and one is with an extremely simple plot and really interesting characters and really playing with the structure of the screenplay itself, which is what I do, and I do it for two reasons. #1, because I like doing it, and for me, it’s a fun visceral way of telling a story, and #2, I just don’t have time to come up with that complicated a plot. I can’t keep all that sh*t straight, so for me, this is an effective and fun way to do it.

LRM: I remember when speaking to Denis last year, he mentioned that you were looking to direct one of your own screenplays. I’ve spoken to a lot of screenwriters who have been frustrated with turning over their script and having it changed by a director and not having the control over it, but you two had really great experiences with directors, so what drove you to get into directing so quickly? 

Sheridan: Well, I wrote a screenplay that was deeply personal, and it was about some really sensitive subjects, and I wanted to handle them in a very specific way. I couldn’t be guaranteed that I could get as lucky as I got with Denis and David, so I wanted to do this one myself.

LRM: I don’t know the path of writing the two screenplays to getting made if it was a long arduous journey or they happened fairly quickly?

You know, here’s the thing, they move incredibly slowly until they move incredibly quickly, so for example, Hell or High Water, I sold that script basically at Easter in 2012 and for 2 and a half years, we looked for a director and an actor in the right combination that would guarantee the financing, and then once David came on in I think March of 2015, within 90 days, the movie had been cast and was in production, and then with Sicario, the same thing. It took me two years to even find a producer that would touch it, because it’s so dark and unconventional in the way that it tells the story. Once Denis read it, from the day he read the screenplay to the day they were shooting was about five months. They go incredibly slow until they go alarmingly fast.

LRM: I don’t think anyone’s going to beat the story of “Blue Valentine” that took 12 years to get that made.  You’re still ahead of that curve, at least.

Right! (laughs) With Platoon, I think it took Oliver Stone like 15 years or something. Michael Mann told me with Heat, he had been carrying that idea around and working on that screenplay for like 15 to 20 years.

LRM: As far as “Wind River,” since you’ve already shot it, how far along are you in post-production?

Yeah, we’re almost done. We’ll be done in the next couple weeks and it will be locked up.

LRM: How has that experience been directing? Were you able to take anything away from working with Denis or David that you incorporated into your directing style or did you already know what you needed to do?

Sheridan: I mean, I definitely leaned on my editor In post. I had a lot of questions for him in editing, which is where you really make a movie. When you’re shooting a film, you’re going to get the pieces that you’re going to put together later, and you just gotta make sure you get all the pieces in the right order and then you make the movie in the editing bay really. Shooting it was really, really difficult, because we were working on such a short schedule and the conditions were so rough, because it takes place in the dead of winter in the mountains of snow, so I couldn’t have chosen a more difficult first film, but I knew what I wanted. It was tough, but I had extremely talented actors, I had a really talented DP, so I had people around me I trusted, and we were able to get it. Here’s the thing about directing something that you wrote. Like I said before, I’m very fortunate with both Denis and David that they somehow shot what I imagined and what I thought the movie would look like, both of them. With this, I did the same or I attempted to do the same, hopefully I did, and yet, as a writer, if another director comes along and does your thing, yes, you always have that out. I can always blame it on that guy. (chuckles) I don’t have that out anymore, you know?

LRM: I read that the plot involves an FBI agent and crime, a murder, and it’s interesting this affinity you have for law enforcement, so where does that come from? Is that from the relative you mentioned earlier?

Well, no, it’s specific to this… you know, this is a trilogy: Sicario and Hell or High Water and Wind River are a thematic trilogy. It’s a study of the modern American frontier, and I look at it through that prism and I kind of explore how much the frontier has changed, how much it hasn’t changed. What are the consequences of its settlement 130 years ago? Are we still suffering and enduring consequences of that today, which we are. And so there’s other themes that run constantly throughout all three of them, and so some film buff will pick them up, and it will enrich the experience, hopefully, of all three together. There’s things answered in Wind River that are questioned in both Sicario and Hell or High Water, and so there are similarities and parallels, so that’s the specific reason for various aspects of people who enforce the rule of law in areas where that rule is much different, until we went in and established our own. It calls into questions those things, so that’s the reason that law enforcement is tied into all three of these.

LRM: Have you spent a lot of time with FBI agents and the like doing research on how they do things?

Yeah, yeah. A lot, and then like I said, I have a family of law enforcement officers, so I’m very familiar with it from that regard, so I’m pretty well versed in that world.

You can also read what Sheridan had to say about Soldado, the sequel to Sicario, which is currently in post-production, right here. 

Hell or High Water is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and other formats. Wind River will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21.

Related: The LRM Interview with Hell or High Water Director David Mackenzie

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