Director John Hillcoat Says The Film Industry Has “Lost Its Nerve”

While most of the current Hollywood headlines are focused on the Academy Awards, there were some new movies this weekend, too — including Triple 9, a sprawling crime drama with a cast that includes (deep breath) Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson and future Wonder Woman Gal Gadot.

I spoke to director John Hillcoat about the film before its release, as well as the broader direction of the industry. Hillcoat’s had an interesting career in recent years, directing movies that are neither tiny indies nor big blockbusters — The Road, for example, was a post-apocalyptic drama based on an award-winning novel, with a reported $25 million budget and Viggo Mortenson in the lead.

Hillcoat has described Triple 9 as his attempt to create “a fresh, contemporary, urban thriller,” sort of an update to classics like The French Connection and Heat. The difference, he told me, is that “the stakes are much higher out there on the streets today’ — a reality he tried to reflect in the film, bringing on advisors from law enforcement and putting real-life gang members on-screen.

“The police force is more like a military operation now, while the gangs and Latino cartels use virtually terrorist tactics in their neighborhoods,” Hillcoat said. “Everything’s been ramped up.”

Hillcoat added that like his other films, he wanted Triple 9 to show “a very morally murky world” where it’s hard to draw the line between the heroes and villains. However, he’s found that’s it’s becoming “harder and harder to make” to make morally complex films aimed at adults. (Triple 9, by the way, is projected to have an underhwleming opening weekend.)

“Actually, film has lost its nerve and given that audience over television, and instead, film is more focused on franchise and spectacle,” Hillcoat argued — so perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s looking at TV projects himself, though he said it’s too early to offer any specifics.

The Oscars did come up during our conversation, if only obliquely. Hillcoat was previously attached to direct The Revenant, the frontier film that may finally get Leo his Oscar and is also a frontrunner for Best Picture. When I asked HIllcoat what he thought of the finished film he paused before answering: “I’m a bit too close. I would have done it slightly differently.”

Still, he said he’s heartened by the box office success of two movies that usually aren’t mentioned in the same breath — The Revenant and of Deadpool. In Hillcoat’s eyes, they’re “two mature audience films that have found a massive audience.”

“To me, that’s a good sign,” he said.