6 Filmmaking Tips From David Mackenzie

The director behind 'Outlaw King' and 'Hell or High Water' talks authenticity, artistic evolution, and why Netflix deserves more love.

David Mackenzie Directing Outlaw King
Netflix

After a string of well-received short films, Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie made his feature directorial debut in 2002 with The Last Great Wilderness. But it was his sophomore feature, Young Adam, that gained him international attention as an up-and-coming filmmaker to watch. Two more daring dramas followed, Asylum and Hallam Foe, then the sex satire Spread, sci-fi romance Perfect Sense, and musical comedy You Instead, demonstrating the incredible range of Mackenzie’s directorial interests and ambitions.

His next two films, the 2013 prison drama Starred Up and the 2016 “neo-Western” crime thriller Hell or High Water would prove to be his biggest critical and (in the case of the latter) commercial successes to date. After dipping his toes in television with Damnation, Mackenzie has returned to film with his latest release, Outlaw King, a gritty, no-frills medieval epic about 14th-century Scottish king Robert the Bruce. It’s his biggest-budget film to date and his first to be distributed through Netflix.

With 10 feature films now under his belt spanning a genuinely impressive range of genres and styles, Mackenzie has plenty of great filmmaking advice to share. Here are six of his best tips:

Be A Bit Jazz About It

While this feature has included advice from a number of filmmakers who embrace more intuitive, playful attitudes towards filmmaking over the years, Mackenzie managed to communicate the sentiment in a unique and especially compelling way when speaking with Den of Greek in 2016:

The secret is to have some great, original material. And actually, both Taylor [Sheridan, screenwriter of ‘Hell or High Water’] and John [Asser, writer of ‘Starred Up’] are quite similar in a way, in that they came to writing late in life through other things, and write very intuitively. So I have that as my backbone, as it were, and then have a very free environment on the set, and explore stuff, play with the ingredients and keep things lively — not be too prepared. I don’t want to sound too wanky, but just be a bit jazz about it.

David Mackenzie On The Set Of Hell Or High Water

David Mackenzie on the set of ‘Hell or High Water’ (photo: Lorey Sebastian via CBS Films)

Make Decisions the Day Of

The lead-up to a film shoot involves an incredible amount of planning. Stars have jam-packed schedules that must be maneuvered like high-stakes Tetris. Permits must be obtained. Crew members hired and wrangled. Sets built, costumes designed and fitted, and so on and so forth. All that being said, Mackenzie made a convincing case for leaving what decisions you can until the day of shooting in a 2016 A.V. Club interview:

“The way I generally work is that I do try to leave as many decisions as I possibly can to the day of, because it feels like that’s where you’re most in tune to what’s going on. I sort of feel like my job is to be a conduit to opportunities, to maximize the creativity of the day itself—because that’s when the cameras are running. That’s the important thing to me. Some of these shots you need to think about it advance; you need to have some ideas for them. And some of them are things where you just go, “Well, let’s try that.” As I get more confident as a filmmaker, I don’t need to prepare so much in advance. I can trust that I and my team can come up with a solution.”

David Mackenzie Directing Outlaw King

David Mackenzie on the set of ‘Outlaw King’ (Netflix)

Play The Game of Authenticity

Although his films have varied widely in tone, location, and time period, Mackenzie makes a point of “tuning into” the settings of his films and striving for a sense of veracity, even where so many other filmmakers would not. Never has this been more clear than with Outlaw King, which takes a no-frills approach to the medieval world, arguably the time period filmmakers — and storytellers in general, really — are most prone to romanticizing. In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Mackenzie elaborated on his commitment to authenticity as follows:

“A lot of cinema is about the game of authenticity – do you feel it’s real? […] As a director, when you embrace a project, you try to understand as much as you can about its world, and you do that by embracing and engaging with people who are in that world. Then it’s down to your best instincts, which is what most directing is about anyway.”

Neil Davidson / Stills Photographer

David Mackenzie on the set of ‘Hallam Foe’ (photo: Neil Davidson via Magnolia Pictures)

Evolve

In terms of either genre or style, it’s difficult to try to stick even two of Mackenzie’s films under the same banner. From romance to thriller to comedy to western to medieval epic, his filmography has touched on practically every genre without ever producing a film that could be comfortably pigeonholed. As he told The Movable Fest back in 2014, this constant mutability has been very much a conscious effort on his part:

“I’m constantly trying to evolve the [directing] process. The process itself becomes or can become oppressive — it becomes predetermined. I’m always trying to do things a bit differently in order to keep it alive, just like I’m always trying to choose film subjects a little bit differently from the last one just so that I don’t feel like I’m treading the same ground.”

David Mackenzie Directing Young Adam

David Mackenzie directing ‘Young Adam’ (Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Edit and Edit Some More

Having built up something of a reputation for being a well-paced director whose films do not overstay their welcome — the average runtime across his films is less than 100 minutes — critics at the Outlaw King premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival were surprised and underwhelmed to find a rather poorly paced and rambling behemoth. Rushed and brought to TIFF without test screenings — Mackenzie reportedly only finished the festival edit 48 hours prior to its premiere — it quickly became clear to the director that things needed to change. He went to his producer the next day and expressed a wish to go back and edit, which Netflix happily granted.

The version of Outlaw King that premiered November 9th on Netflix was not just more than 20 minutes shorter than the TIFF version, but according to those who have seen both, it is exponentially better. While far from any filmmaker’s dream outcome for a festival premiere, the experience did prove extremely educational, as Mackenzie recently told IndieWire:

“I didn’t know if streamlining those elements was going to work […] but as soon as I did it, it as like — snap! — this is good, this is the way it should be. I didn’t really change the structure too much, it was more about lifting out whole things and going ‘gosh, the story doesn’t collapse when you do that.’ It was quite educational, really.”

David Mackenzie Directing Outlaw King

David Mackenzie directing ‘Outlaw King’ (Netflix)

Stop Worrying and Love Netflix

A lot of people, especially in the film industry, have a lot of very strong feelings about Netflix, particularly what it’s doing to traditional distribution platforms and methods. One particular point of contention is movie theaters and the loss of the cinema-going experience in straight-to-Netflix releases, and the inability of a TV, computer, or any such personal screen to match the immersive experience of a darkened cinema and a full-sized movie screen.

However, as Mackenzie told The Playlist in a recent interview, there’s a lot to be said in favor of Netflix from the point of view of a filmmaker, especially considering how the “theatrical experience” enshrined by these lamentations tends to be a highly idealized version that differs significantly from the typical reality:

“[‘Outlaw King’ is] being screened in 193 territories. A massive reach which I have never had before. I know people that on Friday, when it is released, are going to be sitting in front of their massive entertainment system in 4K and that, to be honest, is better than watching in a theater. At a theater, they will try to turn down the bass, scared that the sound will pollute the next theater. I think people have got a slightly romanticized version of what the big screen experience is and I find many of the mainstream theaters that people go to are not well managed, I’m talking about the multiplex. The Netflix experience is the modern experience and I don’t see why we can’t adapt to that in the near future. All the other studios will be making their own streaming services at any moment, so the “theatrical” experience is an artificial nostalgia.”

What We Learned

Just as being pigeonholed in mainstream films or a particular genre can be artistically limiting, so can purposefully avoiding conventionality for the sake of “artistry.” Instead of worrying too much about cultivating a specific brand, Mackenzie has let his style and approach evolve with each and every film he has made. In addition to producing great films, this attitude has made Mackenzie a particularly dynamic, and therefore fascinating, director to watch.

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