'Hell or High Water' Producers on How the Movie Reflects the U.S. Today

Hell or High Water Chris Pine
Chris Pine and Ben Foster in "Hell or High Water."

The KCET Cinema Series screened "Hell or High Water" at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on Tuesday, July 12. The film, due in theaters on August 12, stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers who turn to bank robbery to save the family farm from foreclosure. Jeff Bridges plays the Texas state trooper in pursuit of them. 

Following the film, John Penotti, president of Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, and Carla Hacken, president of production at the same company, joined KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond for a Q&A session about the making of the film. An edited portion of their conversation appears below. 

The KCET Cinema Series is sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation and the E. Hofert Dailey Trust and brings some of the most anticipated films to audiences prior to their release date. Screenings are followed by Q&A sessions featuring the minds behind the movies. The summer season of the KCET Cinema Series runs at the Aero Theatre every Tuesday through August 2.

On the genesis of "Hell or High Water"

Carla Hacken: When I got to Sidney Kimmel two-and-a-half years ago, the script was sitting there and it was sort of incubating, kind of coming together with another sort of creative group and it wasn't going anywhere. I was a huge fan of the script before it got to the company and I vowed that I was going to get it made and so we then started over and I saw "Starred Up"... David Mackenzie's movie "Starred Up" and was so blown away and felt that everything about that movie was what this needed. It had all the testosterone the film needed, but it was deeply emotional, the father-son relationship, and I really felt that this movie could operate on all those levels, not just as a genre, modern-day western. 

On the morality of "Hell or High Water" and what it says about the United States

CH: One of the things that I struggled with is [that] it's good people doing bad things, but for a good cause, so to speak. Sort of a modern-day Robin Hood in a weird way. It was important to me that it got the morality of it. I think the end of the movie doesn't say that they got away with it scot-free. I mean, Tanner gives his life and it's anyone's guess if Toby stays a free man, but it's that cycle of poverty that he talks about; it drives people to do things that they wouldn't normally do. I think everyone could relate to the big bad bank. I think we all could. 

I think there's a fine line without going overboard on how evil the banks are, but I think it's pretty well-represented here. 

John Penotti: I think also David Mackenzie, not to put a finer point on it, but being Scottish... kind of observing that fairly unique electorate and a fairly unique dynamic, it was extraordinary to see his view on something that would seem very basic to us, or some of the comments that he made that seemed quite obvious. You could gloss over them, another director would gloss over them. That comment about "these banks have been robbing…" that's in the ether now. To find a way to put it in that guy's mouth. That's not an actor. That's a guy who has lived that life and his view, his ability to find that person to say those words, exemplifies his mastery of it. 

Hell or High Water Robbery Scene
A robbery scene in "Hell or High Water."

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On getting Jeff Bridges for "Hell or High Water" 

CH: I sort of sometimes get an idea in my mind, "I will get that person no matter what." With "Devil Wears Prada," it was like, I don't want to make the movie unless we get Meryl Streep. For this, we knew from day one that we wanted Jeff Bridges and we were going to do everything we could to get him. It was thrilling. I wasn't sure we would because, you know, he's played similar characters in other movies... It was a quest for all of us to get Jeff to do it and very exciting when he said yes.

On getting "Hell or High Water" made

JP: Two things. First I had the good fortune of joining the company just as this was going into production, so I was very lucky there. However, I was very close to Sidney for 20 years and when he acquired this script, I guess four years ago or so, he had sent it to me to read just as a friend. At first, I read it, "this is not you Sidney." Then I thought about it again, "No, that's exactly right." He loves commentary. He loves social commentary. If you look at a lot of movies he's done through the years, whether they're more genre like "Lincoln Lawyer" or something more thoughtful, "United 93" or "Breach." He loves the social commentary. It ended up making real sense.

How, eventually, it gets done, it's not alchemy... Well, first of all you find David Mackenzie. And Jeff Bridges says that may be something that works. And you slowly put those pieces together.

CH: I have to say that the first person that came on this was Chris Pine. His availability was what drove us getting into production. He loved it. I mean, loved it. 

JP: He's pretty good in it too, right?

Pete Hammond: He's great. I've seen him do stage. I've seen him do acting-acting and this is really one of the best things I've ever seen him in. Maybe the best. When it's opening three weeks after "Star Trek Beyond," which is his movie, which can only help in the timing of the release. 

CH: I hope so. He loved doing the movie. He was really sad the day we wrapped and he had to go "Star Trek." He said, "I have to cut my hair." He was so enthusiastic and so committed that it helped drive us getting the movie into production. So, he came on first. 

KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond talks "Hell or High Water" with producers Carla Hacken and John Penotti. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

On the shooting location for the movie 

CH: It was outside of Albuquerque. 

A lot of small towns outside of Albuquerque. Those small towns look exactly like West Texas small towns. We sent David and the production designer and DP on a tour of Texas before we started in Albuquerque. 

On screening "Hell or High Water" at Cannes

CH: I was scared to death. Thank god that people like you saw it in the afternoon and it got positive feedback or I would have been dying that night. It was amazing. It was one of the best screenings I've ever been in. 

JP: Tremendous ovation, but real trepidation, not because it was its first screening, but it's also in France and these audiences are famous for being very vocal when they don't like something. 

PH: Tell me about it. I've never heard so much booing at movies as there are there. It's unbelievable.

JP: But, since the festival, it played well, the reviews have been great. Not just great, it's been a, it doesn't happen all the time, but, when it does, there is an extraordinary outpouring of critical support. 

CH: The press screenings in France... the comments were identical to the American press. It was amazing. 

PH: Well, it is the kind of movie that you used to see in the '70s pretty regularly and that sort of thing, and in the '60s, the kind of stuff that Paul Newman would gravitate to and great actors. I think Chris Pine compared his character to something Gary Cooper might have been interested in doing and I can see that now, but when I look at a movie like this, I go, "wow, I just don't see movies like this much anymore." 

JP: Go out and support it so there's more. 

CH: That's right... I've been at the company for two-and-a-half years and it was my ambition to come in and try to get movies like this made and get them made well, and hopefully make them commercial so that we can keep making movies like this.

Hell or High Water Chris Pine Solo Film
Chris Pine in "Hell or High Water."

On the title of the film 

CH: It was called Comancharia and that's how it's pronounced by our screenwriter. Every single person in Hollywood, all the agents and everything, called it Co-man-cheria. No matter how many times we said, "Co-man-cha-ria." People couldn't pronounce it. So, by the time we were done with productions, our partners at CBS, everybody agreed that we needed to change the title.  

Lionsgate is also a distributor on this and they distributed "Zachariah," and I think they will tell you that people had trouble with the title. 

PH: "Hell or High Water," how did you get that?

JP: It's a line in the movie. 

PH: So you just pulled it out?

JP: Yeah, and it's also about tenacity, tenaciousness, about the guys and what they're pulling off. I think that's what was in people's minds. We wanted something that could tell of the severity or the film, at least after you see the movie, it fits even better. It's very hard to name a movie. Very, very hard. 

CH: I mean, we went through hundreds of titles and all the best ones were already taken by John Wayne movies. 

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