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Hell or High Water Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan on His Oscar Nomination, and What This Year’s Contenders Have in Common

Hell or High Water makes a play as a genre movie — it looks, sounds, and feels like a neatly packaged Western — but it fusses with the genre’s touchstones enough to eventually invert them. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan says that was intentional, especially the final scene, which tees up a shootout that the script intentionally didn’t deliver. In the movie, Chris Pine and Ben Foster play a pair of brothers — one straitlaced, the other daring — crisscrossing west Texas’s forgotten towns robbing a local bank chain, a last-ditch effort to pay off the loans on their family ranch before the bank snatches it away. Jeff Bridges is the crotchety lawman tailing the duo with his partner. For a movie all about Texas men and their immovable masculinity, Hell or High Water wears its heart on its tobacco-stained sleeve: Neither the brothers nor the Texas Ranger ever get a handle on showing the people closest to them their love. Sheridan told Vulture it’s a theme he’s seen in a lot of movies this year, including some of the movies Hell or High Water is up against.

Congratulations on your nomination! How did you hear about it?
I was asleep and my phone started vibrating. And then my wife’s phone started vibrating, and that’s when we both woke up. The first call came from my mother. I think, to quote her directly, she said “Holy shit.”

Hell or High Water got four nominations, including yours. Were you surprised by how well the film was received?
Yes. I’m surprised by all of it. You try to not be, of course, because you feel foolish for hoping for it. The machine of awards season is very stressful. But this is the Oscars! It’s your peers, your heroes, people you admire, the people who inspired you to get into this work in the first place. It’s a pretty overwhelming feeling when you think about it.

Marcus, the character that Jeff Bridges is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for, is really dynamic. He obviously cares about his longtime partner Alberto, but he spends the movie expressing that affection through racist insults. Were you ever concerned about layering that overt racism into Marcus, that people wouldn’t see what it represents in his character?
I was deeply concerned that people would misunderstand it. He’s from a certain generation, but you can’t just blame it on that. With that character, I wanted to explore someone whose purpose is being removed. With his retirement coming, he’s facing a life with no purpose. He’s sacrificed everything for this job, and this is his only meaningful relationship and it’s ending. He’s incapable of expressing that sorrow and affection to his only friend. The way he does it is through insults. And he’s doing it in the most superficial insults that he can come up with. I wanted this to be a look at this kind of casual racism, which I think is important to highlight. Through the character of Alberto — which was brilliantly played by Gil Birmingham — I could educate this man. It was a tremendous risk because people don’t want to talk about it, but I think that’s what has to happen.

The movie does a great job of showing the texture in classically Western masculinity. How did you access that?
That was always my intention. This is a part of the country that most people don’t know anything about. Part of our job as storytellers is to show people pockets of the world that they don’t know. The more we understand, the more we don’t judge.

I want to ask about the ending. In that last scene, Marcus confronts Toby, but they’re interrupted when Toby’s family comes home. The tension in that scene in unbelievable.
Marcus is motivated by failure and guilt. He feels an obligation to try to understand the brothers’ crimes. He went to that house to either kill Toby or to die — he felt like he owed Alberto that. And then, when he gets there, the standoff is interrupted by an ex-wife and two kids. That interruption works to upend the genre, but I also didn’t think the characters should get off that easy. I wanted them to deal a little bit more with the consequences with their actions, so that was the motivator for them to face off without actually facing off.

There’s another great scene in the movie that happens in a little diner. Marcus and Alberto are at a diner and an older waitress kind of lays down the law and tells them to not bother ordering, she’ll tell them what they’ll have. It could have been goofy, I think, but the humor is well done.
Margaret Bowman knocked that thing out of the park. It was sensational. Having been from that region, she understood the toughness. What I was trying to do is create a character that embodied anger, but in a way that wasn’t preachy. I wanted it to be a little funny. I wanted it to put a little sugar on the pill, so to speak. We meet this young waitress earlier in the story, and so the older waitress is showing the result of not getting out of that life. I was trying to get at what happens in these small towns when you don’t have many options: There’s a lack of employment options, a lack of choices.

Have you seen any of the movies you’re up against? What have you really liked this season?
I absolutely loved Moonlight. It’s a devastating, incredible film, magnified for the fact that Barry [Jenkins] made it for almost no money. I know how hard that is — I know how hard it is to make a movie with money. Making a movie with no money that’s that beautiful and that patient is a real achievement. I was surprised by how much I liked Hacksaw Ridge, and its depth. There were a lot of ambitious films this year. Arrival was sensational, so was Lion. It’s a real honor to be included in this group. It’s a pretty powerful group of films.

One moment in Hell or High Water really reminded me of Moonlight, actually. When Toby and Tanner part for what they know will be the last time, it was a really heavy scene. And you could see them not wanting to go there emotionally.
Honest communication is a rare thing. It’s hard to reach that level of vulnerability sometimes. Barry goes into that even deeper in Moonlight. It’s interesting because I think that scene with that emotion exists in a lot of movies this year.

Hell or High Water Writer on This Year’s Noms