Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan on writing ‘Hell or High Water’

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in "Hell or High Water," which plays Tuesday at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings in the Wheeler Opera House.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Hell or High Water’ at Academy Screenings

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Tuesday, Dec. 27, 5:15 p.m.

How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

After two decades struggling as an actor, Taylor Sheridan quit and started writing.

He walked away from “Sons of Anarchy” in 2010, after three seasons playing the by-the-book deputy police chief David Hale. His first two screenplays since then — for last year’s drug war thriller “Sicario” and for this year’s “Hell or High Water,” which plays at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings on Tuesday — have given American film a Texas-sized dose of originality.

“Hell or High Water” is a deliciously fun cops-and-robbers movie that doubles as blistering social commentary — it’s a Western and it’s a chase flick, starring a smoldering Chris Pine and an unhinged Ben Foster as bank-robbing brothers, with Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as Texas rangers hot on their tail across the dusty plains.

But at its heart, “Hell or High Water” is a story of economic victimization and a revenge tale for post-mortgage crisis America.

In a recent phone interview, Sheridan said he was inspired to write the movie after witnessing the end of a way of life and the “collapse of a region” in west Texas. He pointed to historic drought, wildfires, predatory lending, the abandonment of small towns and the ranching life as factors contributing to this bleak landscape. From that rose his script’s bandit brothers with nothing to lose. This summer, “Hell or High Water” became the biggest indie hit of the year and one of 2016’s most acclaimed films.

Having suffered through what he dubs “unwinnable dialogue” as an actor, Sheridan sought to cut the standard, boring expository lines and throw-away characters. This makes for delectable dialogue and makes even single-scene actors memorable players.

“We’ve seen a ton of movies about Texas in various forms, and most of them are not written by Texans,” Sheridan said. “So they’re really missing the vernacular of certain regions. I wanted to write something that was really authentic and true to the way people talk there. I just really set out to do that.”

Sheridan is shaping up as an heir to Texas bards like Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy and Sam Shepard.

“I think I am more influenced by novelists than other screenwriters,” he said.

Though he’s not a working actor anymore, Sheridan does have a one-line cameo in the film — as a cowboy driving cattle away from a fire — that provides one of its biggest laughs.

“I’d written a role they couldn’t cast,” he explained. “They couldn’t find someone who could both ride a horse and play the monologue. So they were like, ‘You gotta get down here or we’re gonna cut it, buddy.’”

Other than that bit part, he was pretty hands-off during production of “Hell or High Water,” he said, leaving it to director David Mackenzie.

“You’ve got to hand it over to the director,” he said. “Thankfully, David saw it exactly as I saw it. I feel like it’s a really true interpretation of what I intended.”

Audiences will soon get to see what Sheridan does on his own behind the camera. His directorial debut, “Wind River,” premieres next month at the Sundance Film Festival.

That movie completes Sheridan’s thematic trilogy, which began with “Sicario” and continued with “Hell or High Water,” about the contemporary American frontier.

“When I wrote ‘Sicario,’ I didn’t know it was going to be a trilogy,” he said. “But I sat down knowing that I’d be writing about the consequences of settlements and assimilation of the frontier — maybe the single most defining element of our history — and you still see the consequences of those actions 130 years later.”