Notes from the Underworld: Interview with 'Triple 9' Director John Hillcoat

on February 26, 2016


by Daniel Loria

A stark, uncompromising crime drama with an ensemble cast of morally ambiguous characters, Triple 9 very much feels like a film from a different era. The film's screenplay first drew attention after its inclusion on the popular Black List, a ranking of the best received unproduced screenplays, back in 2010. It wouldn't be until Australian director John Hillcoat (The Road) became attached, however, that the project began to build momentum. It was clear from the beginning that the production needed a cast as strong as its screenplay, thus beginning a multiyear pre-production saga to pull together an ensemble of actors that could commit to the film's shooting schedule. After multiple false starts, Triple 9 finally entered production anchored by strong performances from Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson, and Kate Winslet. The film draws its title from the police code that indicates "officer down," a last-resort tactic that a renegade group of dirty cops and ex-special ops agents employ in order to create a distraction to pull off one last heist. Boxoffice spoke with director John Hillcoat on the making of the film and its heart-thumping action set pieces. 

Bank robberies are one of those unforgettable vicarious thrills that the cinema affords us. If executed correctly, they're impossible to forget. Classics like Gun Crazy, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and Heat are just a couple that come to mind. How did you want to approach the way you shot your own heists in the film?

I find action very interesting when you try to ground it. That's when you get unpredictability. If you ever talk with guys that have been around those sorts of situations, they'll tell you it's always messy, chaotic, and unpredictable. I spoke with several advisers, people who advised Michael Mann in Heat and contributed to the Bourne Identity series, and I went to YouTube to research live-action actual robberies, police shootings, all that kind of stuff that is now accessible. I also looked at DVDs that I love, like the big shootout in The Getaway-I think Peckinpah was one of the masters of action. [His work] has something that has always stood out for me: focusing on the reactions of everyday people. That's the sort of detail I was going after: bank tellers wetting themselves with fear, that kind of messy realism. We researched as much as we could and were very specific about details like what happens when a body is Tasered. It all had to do with research in both the real world and the cinematic world; I find that's the aesthetic that best keeps you on edge, when it's rooted in reality, as opposed to some recent crime thrillers that are becoming more and more divorced from that reality. It's become overly stylized and cartoonish. I wanted to return to those great films and worlds that I find more interesting, those that have one foot in reality. 

Getting those scenes right is crucial for the film to work; were you pressured by that?

I'm never relaxed, and when you're juggling so many characters there's an additional challenge to it. I did have the benefit of research, as I mentioned, and a lot of the gang unit officers who appear alongside Anthony Mackie in the film are the actual guys from the unit. A lot of the extras that appear as the Latino gang members are actual ex-gang members. We used a lot of SWAT-trained police advisers on set and on camera. Actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor were trained by Navy SEAL guys. We used different advisers for different situations. At the time of shooting I made sure we had enough coverage for when it came time to edit; that was very important.

You put together a great ensemble cast in this film. What was the biggest challenge of bringing such a talented group together?

I've worked with ensembles quite a bit in my time, but this was the biggest and most stressful. It was because of the schedule juggling and less to do with the different personalities. Everyone on board were serious actors genuinely excited about the project, and they fired off one another like in a play where everyone is reacting to each other onstage. There was a communal aspect to it, like a family; everyone raised their game because of that interaction. That's when you know they're not just interested in the spotlight-it doesn't have to be on them the whole time. It was a nightmare when dealing with their schedules, though. These are working actors who are very busy. 

The theme of good versus evil is present throughout the film, and it's never depicted in a black or white manner, especially where religion is concerned.

I tried to find a matter-of-fact authenticity wherever I could, and shooting the film in the South, in Atlanta, I noticed in the gang unit that most of the guys were very religious. When facing such extreme situations, sometimes people lean on certain beliefs that help rationalize that chaos. I was intrigued by that and how there are two sides of the fence; doing things in the name of religion can sometimes be very dangerous. I find that morality, when it comes to extreme action and violence, is never black and white, but religious dogma sometimes does tend to make things black and white. That's why I tried to present, on one level, how these high ethical codes are leaned on to help justify actions, and in the end you can see how damaging and compromised those actions really are. I really wanted to get those layers across. I don't believe that life is black and white, especially when it comes to high stakes and serious moral dilemmas, and when it comes to violence there is no true victor-everyone is tainted by that experience. I wasn't trying to single out anyone in particular-when depicting law enforcement, a lot of them turned to Christianity, and the pecking order of the world's top organized crime association used to be the Italian Mafia, who were Catholic, and today it is the Jewish Russian mob. It's all very well documented, and I didn't want to cast an aspersion on any religion. It's just trying to be truthful to those specific characters

What sort of films have inspired your career as a filmmaker the most?

I've been very influenced by world cinema, but the reason I'm comfortable working in America is my love of genre films. I love the type of films that test characters and the great American genres like westerns and crime films-to me they reached a high point in the '70s when they mixed the skill set of the studio system with the maverick film school students that were influenced by world cinema. It was a hotbed of creativity that has now been going on in TV over the past 10 years or so. For me the '70s were like the renaissance following the golden years of Hollywood that spanned from the 1940s to the '60s. It was definitely the high-water mark. 

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