To Hell and Back

Taylor Sheridan on how his acting helped him create the complex characters of Sicario and his latest effort, Hell or High Water.

©2016 CBS Films
Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water.
August 12, 2016 Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
David Longendyke/Globe Photos Taylor Sheridan

The biggest part of my acting experience that I draw on is something that a lot of actors refuse to get their head around. It’s not how many lines you get; it’s how you fill a scene.

“Outlaws, like poets, rearrange the nightmare,” posited bestselling author Tom Robbins in his 1980 tome, Still Life with Woodpecker. There may or may not be poetry about the acrid, blood-spattered landscapes and wizened, brass-knuckled denizens populating Taylor Sheridan’s first two produced screenplays, 2015’s thrice Oscar-nominated Sicario and this month’s Hell or High Water, starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, but Sheridan’s writing is concerned primarily with allowing profoundly flawed characters the opportunity, however dicey or improbably, to shatter the puzzle and reconfigure the jigsaw pieces into a less damning tableaux.

Five years ago—and less an outlaw than a good, old-fashioned iconoclast—Sheridan awakened to a certain kind of nightmare himself. After more than a decade of recurring roles on TV series like Veronica Mars, various iterations of the CSI franchise and, most famously, Sons of Anarchy, where he portrayed Deputy Chief David Hale, gigs he found largely thankless and unfulfilling, the ruggedly handsome actor found himself on the business end of a runaway, thug-filled van. Just like that, Deputy Chief Hale met his maker and Sheridan was out of work—and about to become a first-time father.

Though Sheridan is loathe to embrace the “if you don’t like your opportunities, make better opportunities” ethos, at least in its pithiest, bumper sticker variant, that’s exactly what he did. Booted from Sons’ crime-ravaged smalltown of Charming, Sheridan allowed the joys, furies, and frustrations of life as an actor to merge with his enthusiasm for classic 1970s cinema to ferment into a pair of screenplays that have many in Hollywood forgetting he’d ever circulated headshots or rushed cattle calls. In other words, Sheridan doesn’t write pretty well for an actor. He writes incredibly well for a writer.

When did you have a sense that writing was important to you?

It was on Sons of Anarchy, definitely. That was a tremendous group of writers, a tremendous group of people. Everyone rooted for everyone on that show. I became friends with a lot of the writers—not because I had any agenda or idea about becoming a writer myself, but because they were just really excellent people. Eventually, I started seeing the show through their eyes, which was too fascinating for me to let alone.

Yet you didn’t write anything until well after your two-season stint on Sons was over.

Yeah, I just wasn’t really thinking about writing at that point. I just hung out a lot with the writers and asked them a lot of silly questions and, eventually, I started taking mental notes.

What were some of the silly questions you asked?

I’ll give you an example: there was this scene in season one of Sons where my character meets [series lead] Tara for the first time. The writing was lean. There was a lot of room there for interpretation. I pounced on that. I decided right there on the spot that I’d try something a little radical and play the scene like my character had always been in love with Tara. It wasn’t on the page. It became kind of a thing between the characters on the show—not that I can really take any credit for that. But it was a choice I made as an actor that was really more like a writer’s choice. I got some good feedback on that from some of the writers, and we went from there. There was something I found in that experience that really changed my world. As an actor, I’d always been at the mercy of other peoples’ vision. Suddenly, I realized that I had some control over the vision too, and I liked it.

When did you actually start writing then?

About a year later, a couple things happened all at once: my wife was pregnant and I was renegotiating my contract on Sons. FX and I had very different ideas about what I was worth. Ultimately, they decided I was worth running over with a car in the first episode of season three [Laughs]. It burned. A lot. But you know, it was a good choice for the show. It moved things forward, dramatically speaking, and of course, the show went on to do very, very well without me.

Business is business.

And I decided to read that whole situation as an invitation to control my own destiny. To control my own storyline. I started writing what would become Sicario pretty quickly.

Many actors have confided that the only power they really have is the power of choice— what will they say yes to, what will they turn down.

Right. So you write a screenplay to make some new choices.

And then you don’t act in the films you write. Explain.

By the time I started writing, I’d been losing my interest in acting for a long time. I know the story about the actor who isn’t happy with the roles he’s being offered, so he goes off and writes himself a great part. That’s not what I was doing. I didn’t want to act. I wasn’t writing roles for me. I never was. I was interested in telling great stories—and the time being a screenwriter would allow me to spend with my family. When I’m acting on a show, I’m gone all the time. When I’m writing a screenplay, I’m down the hall from where the kids are playing. Turns out, I’m a better writer than actor anyway!

With Sicario and Hell or High Water, you’re on a roll. Both films have been very enthusiastically received.

Yeah, it’s worked out really well. There were no guarantees that it would. I was an actor. I had no experience with writing screenplays. I had a lot of experience reading them—and most of them were not very good. Some of them were unreadable. I had the pleasure, as an actor, of being involved in some really bad writing!

Do you learn much from those experiences?

Definitely. Acting in bad scripts was my film school. It was my PhD program. I shot straight with myself when I first started out: “Look, everyone thinks you’re an actor. You have no idea what you’re doing in front of this typewriter. Just think about all the things other writers have done that are terrible and then think about all the things other writers have done on films that you love and keep sitting down and trying. Eventually, you’ll get good.”

You got good faster than one might have reasonably expected. What were some of the things you kept in mind, writing Sicario and Hell?

Most of the acting jobs I’d had were in television. Television is very plot-driven, usually. Plot, to me, is one of the least interesting parts of watching a film. My favorite films—and the kinds of films I like to write—are the ones that don’t sweat over plot, that spend as little time as possible on plot. The best movies are the ones that keep the actual story incredibly simple. The simpler the plot, the better the film.

What were some of the cardinal sins committed by the mountain of terrible scripts you read as an actor?

One of the biggest challenges facing the screenwriter today is this idea that everyone in the audience has got to fully understand what’s going on at all times. That is absolute death. On a basic level, that means you’re removing all complexity and ambiguity. Everything is stripped down to its simplest component. It’s all utility at that point, like a bunch of prefab parts you’re clicking into place. You’re building a machine, basically. On another level, if everyone in the audience has to understand everything at all times, you’re also adding an awful lot of “clunk” to your script—unnecessary exposition, awkward dialogue, scenes that are meant to spell things out for an audience and end up being incredibly redundant. You lose all grace in your storytelling if you’re trying to write something that every person is going to instantly “get.” I’m much more interested in taking my time, in leaving things to simmer as long as possible, in allowing characters to be everything that they might be—not just good or bad. And if you can identify my politics from one of my movies, I’ve done a terrible job. An audience has to do some of the work. That’s where the fun is.

The late Elmore Leonard had an old maxim about how he would never plot out his stories in advance.

I don’t either. I just have a basic idea of who and what and theme.

Leonard said his job was to get two people in a room and get them talking. Deceptively simple advice, right?

Yes. But also perfect advice. Film allows us to observe behavior. What’s the point of observing behavior if the behavior is already completely programmed? So sure, get two people who want opposite things going at it.

There are some extraordinary scenes in Hell along those lines. The diner sequence is already being hailed a contemporary classic.

Well, good acting is good acting.

Spoken like a former actor.

Pay compliments when they’re due, right?

When you’re writing a scene like that, are you channeling the part of you that acted for so many years? It’s impossible to resist imagining an actor like Jeff Bridges not licking his chops at some of the dialogue you’ve given him.

The biggest part of my acting experience that I draw on is something that a lot of actors refuse to get their head around. It’s not how many lines you get; it’s how you fill a scene. As a writer, I’m ruthless with myself. I’ll cut half the dialogue out of a scene after I’ve written it because I see that there’s so much more that could be said by giving an actor the room to glance a certain way or shrug out of a scene or those little pieces of business that communicate everything perfectly. You don’t necessarily want your movie to feel totally written.

That takes a lot of trust in the filmmaking process, doesn’t it? If it’s not on the page, there’s no guarantee it will end up on the screen.

So next year, you’ll get to see my directorial debut, Wind River. Look, I’ve been very lucky with the talent that’s filmed my scripts. Very lucky. So I thought I’d give it a shot, directing one of these things, before my luck ran out.

In a recent interview, you commented on how many years you spent playing characters with “very ordinary arcs.” As a writer, if you’re devoting less time and energy to convoluted plotting, you may be able to better serve your characters.

That sounds right to me. As far as plot goes, we’ve seen it all, haven’t we? At least as far as the movies being made today go, we’ve seen it all. How many times are you genuinely surprised when you go to the movies? Yeah. Me too. So that’s the kind of script I want to write: character-driven, simple plot, full of surprises, right down to the very last scene. That movie’s not being written today. If it is, it’s not being made today. So I’m going to provide that service. I’m going to introduce it. Write it. See it get made.

Your two produced screenplays both capture very unique moments and perspectives in American history—the war on drugs and, with Hell or High Water, the financial collapse of 2008 and its ramifications on Middle America. They are Wild West stories set 100 years after cowboys hung up their spurs, even if they’ve not given up the prairie ethos. What’s the draw to those stories?

Like a lot of people, I was brought up to figure that what was coming next would be better than where we were and a lot better than where we’d been. That’s kind of the American Dream, right? But that’s not really what living in America feels like a lot of the time. If you really look at the lives we lead in America today, most of us are still reeling from the fallout of stuff that happened a hundred years ago. People are still being rounded up and forced onto reservations or slaughtered wholesale or persecuted or oppressed, no matter how much we like to pretend that’s not the case. There are parts of this country that aren’t much better off today than they were 130 years ago. What I mean is: there are people in this country who are still suffering like they did a century ago. That’s some ancient suffering. What does that do to a character? I like that question.

There’s no way you survived a studio meeting with a pitch like that.

Probably not!

Both Sicario and Hell are genre films, basically—Westerns, thrillers, action films, basically. Are the genre trappings the spoonful of sugar?

I guess you could look at it like that. For me, I’m a kid from the ‘70s. The best movies from that period, what genre were they? Can you tell me? What genre was The Conversation or Taxi Driver or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? I don’t know either. You just tell your story honestly. When I was going to the movies as a kid, we didn’t have genre movies; we just had movies. That’s what I’m trying to write: movies.

From a craft standpoint, what does the writer in you learn from going out there and directing your own script?

I realized that dialogue is even less important than I thought it was. It’s practically not necessary at all sometimes. There is no line of dialogue that will articulate a character’s feelings better than a great actor’s face in the right context. So on Wind River, I cut even more dialogue than usual.

In the film genres in which you write, dialogue—even if it’s sparse—matters immensely. That hardboiled patois, it can sound arch and corny on a razor’s edge. How do you get the dialogue to sound just right?

Well, I’ve said a lot of lines of dialogue, back in the day. I know when the rhythm feels right, when it sounds right. It’s not like I’m sitting there, saying the dialogue out loud, but you feel it when it sounds right.

You mentioned that you don’t do a lot of pre-writing. What’s the process then?

All I need is a basic story or theme, a character, and the resolution. I need to know where I’m starting. I need to know where I’m ending. Everything in the middle, I want to surprise myself as much as I surprise the audience. I don’t want to know what happens next until I write it. Every time I sit down to write, it’s just to surprise myself.

What advice would you impart to up-and-coming screenwriters?

I’ll give you some advice from the actor in me: actors are allergic to scenes where they have to say “yes,” “no,” “hello,” or “goodbye.” I’m allergic to those scenes. I was as an actor. I am as a writer. There’s always a more interesting way to do the things we do all the time without thinking about them. If you’re bothering to write a script, think about them.

So what’s a better way to say “so long”?

“Call me late again, and you won’t call anyone again.”

© 2016 Writers Guild of America West

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