What’s the quickest way to show off your cinematic bona fides these days? Paradoxically, it’s to go long.
Today, the long take – those single-shot feats of visual trickery that serve to announce that a filmmaker means Serious Business – can be found everywhere, from television (True Detective’s six-minute shot in Season 1, Episode 4) to the art house (the full final hour of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night).
For his new historical epic Outlaw King, tracing the battles of Scottish hero Robert the Bruce, director David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water) decided to take the long road, too. The filmmaker announces his bold intentions from the very beginning, with an unbroken eight-minute opening scene that encompasses exposition provided by King Edward I (Stephen Dillane), a zippy sword fight involving Robert (Chris Pine) and the firing of a giant trebuchet on a nearby castle.
It’s a neat trick to witness on the big screen – but most audiences will view Outlaw King on a smaller-sized screen in the comfort of their own home, given that the film is a Netflix production.
During this past September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Outlaw King made its world debut, Mackenzie spoke with The Globe’s Barry Hertz about going big, long and small.
Let’s open with, well, your opening. Was that shot always part of the conception for the film?
The story of Robert is a complicated one to tell, so to try to get all the prehistory in but also set up the characters and the interplay in the world, we needed to find one scene to convey that. So we set it at the Siege of Stirling, a real event, and fired that trebuchet to show it off. But it was about trying to capture the world. I like the challenge of doing a shot that contains all that information. A lot of those single-take things filmmakers do is less informative, so to try to combine information with cinematic qualities was something I was really interested in doing.
Do you think it’s becoming somewhat of an overused device, or even a cliché at this point?
That sounds like a negative question, but I'm very happy with what we did and how we pushed the boundaries. I've done quite a few long takes in the course of my career, and I love what happens when everyone has to combine all their energies and efforts to make it work. There's a time and place where opening a movie or getting into a narrative is a good place for it. The whole movie isn't based on a series of massive long takes, so I like the idea of cinema with changing rhythms and changing tones. The savage and the tender.
Ahead of the premiere last night, you said that you just finished the film the Monday before, and that you didn’t even know if it was finished. Are you happy with the version that screened?
I really enjoyed the screening, and I think it's very strong to see it on the big screen and to engage with the audience. There are one or two technical bumps I'd like to fix. I'm getting a little bit of feedback on concerns about length. I might trim things back, but we'll see. [Editor's note: A few weeks after the TIFF premiere, Netflix announced Mackenzie would be cutting about 20 minutes out of the film before its Nov. 9 release.]
The action here is pretty brutal. Was there ever a concern that it should be dialled back, or were you always intent on showing that extremism?
I was going for what I like to call epic realism. We wanted it to be as real as possible, to try to get the sense of medieval society. It was important to me that the brutality of medieval warfare was explored in its fullness. I find myself portraying violence in the films I’ve done, but I hope it’s honest and not particularly balletic or aestheticized. I used the same stunt team here that worked on my prison movie Starred Up, and we borrowed that sense of grounded brutality, but applying it on a much larger scale.
So you’re working on this larger scale with this large canvas – epic shots and battles. But how would you like audiences to experience this film? Because it is a Netflix production …
Netflix is going to put it out in theatres at the same time as it’s on the streaming service, so in a way, that seems the best of all worlds. I had a very good relationship with them in the process of making the film – they let me make the uncompromising film I wanted to, and they supported me all along the way.
Did you go into this saying it had to be on X number of screens?
They don’t do those kinds of deals, but they are moving toward the theatre model as much as they can. My dream would be they have a relationship with the theatre chains and all that, but the chains are suspicious of them. So how is it all going to work in the future? I know people need to see films communally, and it was wonderful to hear the laughs and engagement last night. But in truth, I watch more stuff at home than in theatres. I have kids. We’re all using home-entertainment systems to watch movies anyways. It’s a little disingenuous to suggest that people don’t, that there’s something new about that. A lot of the art cinemas, you get a tiny release and then you’re on DVD anyway. It’s not so radical a difference.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Outlaw King opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto Nov. 9, the same day it starts streaming globally on Netflix.