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John Hillcoat Brings Authenticity to the Big Screen in 'Triple 9'

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Anthony Mackie and Casey Affleck in Triple 9. Photo credit: Bob Mahoney. Distributor: Open Road Films.

Triple 9, the newest film from acclaimed director John Hillcoat (Lawless, The Road), focuses on a gang of bank robbers, made up of former Special Forces and corrupt cops, that are mixed up with the Russian Mob. Catching the attention of the Atlanta police force after their most recent robbery resulted in freeway havoc, the group devises a plan to create a distraction in the form of a “999,” police code for officer down, in order to complete their next high stakes heist at the behest of a cutthroat mob boss. The action-packed thriller looks at the world of crime in explosive fashion and features an all star cast with Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus and Woody Harrelson at the helm.

Academy Art U News recently had the opportunity to sit down with Hillcoat to discuss the amazing cast he assembled for his latest directorial effort, the importance of color used throughout the film and what advice he has for student directors.

I remember seeing the trailer for this film and being very excited because I enjoy these types of crime thriller movies, so I was wondering what caught your attention about the script and did you have any idea about what a triple nine was?

I had no idea about a triple nine. And that was something that definitely caught my attention. When I discovered what it was, it opened up such a moral kind of conundrum. And also led me down a path where I didn’t know what the outcome would be. And in this kind of world it’s hard to find those unexpected twists.

In other interviews, you’ve talked about wanting to bring a grittiness and realistic approach to this type of movie, what challenges came up to portray this story properly on film so the audience feels like they’re watching real life unfold in front of them and not necessarily a movie?

There were many. Really it was just the amount of research and having the neighborhoods prepared for this as well. Because we were filming in neighborhoods that had never been filmed in before. It was just making sure that we paved the road properly and involved the community so that everyone was on board and they knew what was this mayhem that was about to be introduced. The key was just having those technical advisors on set, also in front of the camera. There’s a lot of non-actors in the film working with the actors.

Speaking of the actors, you assembled quite an amazing cast. What did you think this particular group of actors could bring to your movie?

Well, it’s quite an ensemble, like eight to 10 main characters, so I wanted to make sure that even though we didn’t have all that much time to each character, I wanted to make sure there was a believability to each character, a credibility, and almost like you, you know, if you went down that path with that person, it would open up a whole other world. So I wanted to find actors that had real personality and very different character choices. In this kind of world, again like the predictability in the plot, there’s also a predictability in characters, so I was just very careful to try and find different sort of energies and also find actors, some of which will really surprise us, by the fact that they’re doing things that they’ve never done before. So that we always bring pre existing conception with us when we’re watching actors like this, and yet, not do that with everyone, because that would be too obvious as well, so it was a real juggling act. And also actors that were really committed, that I knew were at the top of their game and to be open to the research and immersement.

I thought these were such different roles for Casey Affleck and Kate Winslet, especially Kate as Irina. While watching I just thought, “What a boss role for her.” It was just so different than what audiences have seen from her in past films.

 

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Courtesy of Open Road Films.

Kate was bold. In fact, I’ve never seen an actor that excited about doing something, because it was so contrary to anything she’s ever done before. And Casey too, you’re right, and Chiwetel, I mean they did a lot of training, it’s like they said, “OK, I’m going to be this character.” [Laughs] It’s like literally all the training that went with it, because in that world, there’s so much training that goes with it. All three of these actors are really, really meticulous about the detail. So that was quite special.

You mentioned that Chiwetel and Casey did training specific to their roles, is that something you encourage your actors to do before filming?

Well, with something like this because we definitely wanted that authenticity and also gone are the days of the old, out of shape cops chasing guys down the block, they wouldn’t survive very long in that environment. So they had to have the right physicality, the right body language to be credible, especially, and they knew that I was using real guys next to them, they didn’t want to [be] like, spot the actor, they wanted to blend in. So they met that challenge really well.

There seems to be a specific use of red in the film, like Irina’s boots and the paint bomb in the cash at the top of the film, how big was the use of color in this film?

Very much so. And it was also to get away from the West Coast-East Coast view of crime in this world. When it comes to cops and crime, they tend to be very blue dominated films, even Michael Mann’s Heat, which is an obvious influence, is saturated in blue. So that was a very conscience choice. And also, in Atlanta there’s a real heat, literal heat in the place, and red, to me, for that kind of vibrant dynamic of crime now, I thought red was a more appropriate color...and a nice change.

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Kate Winslet in Triple 9. Photo credit: Bob Mahoney. Distributor: Open Road Films.

I have a couple questions about certain scenes, the first about that initial bank robbery scene and the chase out onto the freeway that basically sets the tone for the film. How much planning and research went into that scene to make that action sequence come across naturally onscreen?

A lot of planning, I mean, we had more meetings about that than anything else. Yeah, we even had models, we had charts, we had all different departments come in, so it was meticulous planning. We even went back to it several times, so it wasn’t just a one-off setting up, we actually went back and did more work with it, so it was a very taxing exercise. So even though it seemed to just unfold, even putting in that sort of degree of accidental things, and when you’re involving bystanders and that kind of stuff, it has to be very well planned to pull that all together, all that detail.

The other scene I wanted to ask you about was when Casey’s character Chris leads his fellow officers on this search while chasing down a suspect. In the past, in films like this, you have an officer here [motions to the left] and one over here [motions to right] and the characters go in almost blindly, but here was something different with the officers conducting this search all in a row.

We hadn’t scripted that way and we weren’t planning it that way and it was only because our technical advisors said, “No, we would never do this, and if you want to be real about it, this is what we would do.” They educated us, and it’s also to do with the kind of militarization of the police, that they’re SWAT-trained and the gang units have a lot more training than the normal street cops, so they are trained in this kind of paramilitary way. And a lot of them are now, ex-military, because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a lot of these guys want to actually find the action still. So they deliberately go into gang units and stuff like that. It’s quite common.

Sort of in line with that, there’s a huge spotlight on the police and the issue of police brutality, do you feel that your film speaks to current issues that society is dealing with everyday?

Well, I think very much so in the sense that it’s that realism is also making the point of how everything has escalated to such a degree, it’s become a real problem. I think what’s happened is the criminal groups out there, like the Latino cartels that run the street have paramilitary backgrounds, the Russian Israeli mob has paramilitary backgrounds, so they’re much more lethal than say the good ol’ days with the respectable mafia family and that has increased, so the police have their own SWAT teams, they have tanks, all these automatic weapons, so everything’s escalated. But the problem is the warzone, the battlezone, is still these lower socioeconomic neighborhoods and a lot of the wrong people get caught up in it. So that excessive force that is now out there is a problem. But I think, using the crime genre, again, that was one of the things that we wanted to reference.

What advice would you give film students that are in the beginning of their careers in pursuit of being a director?

Well, I think the key is to protect and maintain quality. Because ultimately, there’s so much noise, to cut through all that noise that’s the bigger thing to hang onto. It seems like that proliferation of media, there’s so many thousands, I think 10’s of thousands of feature films now made a year, plus all TV, plus all online, so all of that, there’s so much replicating each other, I would say two things that are so rare and valuable is how do I stand apart from everyone  else and how do I create quality from this kind of ocean of mediocrity? That’s the challenge I think for all filmmakers.

Triple 9 is in theaters now.