Hillcoat and Three Stars Discuss Triple 9, Coming to East Hampton This Weekend
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 2/24/16)
By Danny Peary
John Hillcoat’s tough cops and mobsters thriller Triple Nineopens this Friday nationally, in New York City, and at the United Artists Cinema 6 in East Hampton. Set in Atlanta, it’s about a group of troubled corrupt cops, including Anthony Mackie’s Marcus, and a damaged former cop, Aaron Paul’s Gabe, who are beholden to the Russian mob and perform robberies for them. The female who is in charge while her husband is in a Russian prison–another against-type portrayal by Kate Winslett–orders them to do a risky, final bank robbery. To pull it off, they need a huge distraction so they decide to kill Marcus’s new, honest partner Chris, played by Casey Affleck. They realize that calling in a “Triple 9”–code for “a policeman down”–will result in almost the entire force rushing to the scene, far away from the bank. For the Australian magazine, FilmInk, I was with a group of journalists who visited the set in Atlanta last July, on the day Hillcoat was to film Marcus engineering Chris’s murder, in an abandoned building that had actually once been a dormitory for Morris Brown College. Below are my brief exchanges with Hillcoat (The Proposition, Lawless), Mackie, Paul, and Affleck.
Danny Peary: You’re an Australian making a film about the Russian mob and corrupt police in Atlanta, Georgia. Do you consider this film distinctly American?
John Hillcoat: Very much so, especially because we deliberately set it in Atlanta. It started in L.A, and moved to Atlanta, so it’s location-specific and very specific to what’s happening in America right now regarding the criminal landscape, from the streets all the way to the people on top right now. I spoke to the top guy in the FBI on organized crime in Atlanta, and he confirmed that this hardly a worldwide pattern but it’s specifically happening in America. The Russians are at the top of the chain. They are Jewish Russians. Israel has opened its gates to money laundering in the way that Switzerland used to. So I’m told that all of the top Russian mobsters now have Israeli passports. So we have this Irina character, played by Kate Winslett. Her husband is in the gulag because had an altercation with Putin–I’m probably giving too much information—and Irina’s in Atlanta running the show for him. The thing about the Russians is that they subcontract. So most of their business as a criminal organization tends to be hands-on only if it is personal. Otherwise they subcontract it to other criminal gangs. And what we have in the film is a criminal gang that consists of corrupt cops, ex-Blackwater, maybe ex-Navy Seals. They’re a freelance group of criminals and they’re working between the Russians and the next layer down, which is the cartels, and they actually control all the streets now,
What’s interesting is that Georgia is predominantly African-American, and there’s huge gang activity. I say our police gang unit, because we’re replicating reality, is between 12 and 15 officers, and they deal with 50,000 gang members. The African-American gangs do not challenge the Latino gangs, because even though the Latino gangs are the minority and are outgunned, they have the back-up of the cartels, which are distributing the drugs they’re bringing in. So the African-American gangs are helping distribute it, and they know not to mess with the Latinos. So that’s kind of the landscape that we’re in, and we’re trying to make what I call, an epic crime thriller. It involves the very top down to the actual street gangs, who are near the bottom. We’re relentless on the research, and actually we have two technical advisers here today. Some of the cops are real cops, some of the gang guys are real gang guys. Of course we have our actors as well, who are great actors.
DP: In terms of the storyline in which some of the characters set out to do the crime, is there an inevitability of what’s going to happen? Is there fate at work?
JH: Definitely, we’re working on an existentialist level. Like a lot of these criminals, they’re in it for life, this is their lives. It’s not one of those movies where they’re all trying to buy their way out, and be something else. This is who they are. By being that way, there is some level of fatalism, but there is also a lot of moral conundrums, and moral conflict. Basically, every single death in this film matters. Even if it’s a minor guy in the streets, to the top-level, we’re trying to make every death mean something. I’ve always been anti violence. I’ve always thought of it in terms of: there will always consequences.
DP: You want it to be real.
JH: Yeah, yeah. And it’s messy. And it’s physically painful and it’s psychologically devastating. We’re trying to weave that into it. It’s not an escapist film. I have to say, in terms of the scale we’re trying for, the action is kind of unpredictable and kind of crazy. The horror of violence is something we’re not shying away from, but we’re not making it gratuitous, I’ve always tried to not do that. We’re actually filming one of the climaxes today.
Danny Peary: Tell us about your character.
Anthony Mackie: The movie exists in two different realities. On one side of the film is the mafia, and on the other side is the police department. I play a cop who has to walk between the two worlds.
DP: Is Marcus a morally ambiguous character?
AM: The ambiguity is not there so much. I think his morals are straight to the point. I think most public workers feel like they’re overworked and underpaid, so they’re always looking for a second means of income. Schoolteachers, firemen, police officers. I feel those are three of the most important jobs in our society, and three of the most underpaid jobs in our society. If you’re good at it you should be compensated fairly. I feel like this movie plays into that desire.
DP: Does Marcus have guilt at all?
AM: Extreme guilt. I think one of the reasons I wanted to play this character so much and begged and pleaded to have this opportunity is because there are so many different colors to him. You get to see Marcus in his true element working with everyone and figuring out how they, as bad guys, are going to pull off this crime. But the reality is, unless you’re in a James Bond movie, or Spiderman, a bad guy never walks around with a T-shirt that says, “I’m a Bad Guy.” A bad guy really believes in what he’s trying to do.
DP: So Marcus doesn’t think he’s a bad guy even though he commits crimes?
AM: Right. He doesn’t look at himself as a bad guy. He’s not doing something to be bad, he’s doing it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. The longest conversation John Hillcoat and I had when I signed on to this movie was, “Why is Marcus doing this?” Because that’s what determines why does what he does at the end of the movie. If he’s just, “All right, let’s rob a bank and get a lot of money and move to Jamaica and have a great time,” that’s one thing. But if there’s another reason for doing it, then the idea of killing another cop isn’t such a big deal because it’s the means to an end. He has fear and sadness about what he has to do, but knows that it’s the right thing for him. That moral aspectt gives him all those colors and makes him so complex and three-dimensional,
DP: Are there any scenes of Marcus at home?
DP: Can you picture him at home?
AM: I think that he’s a bachelor. He’s guy that loves chicks. I mean, he drives a Mustang, and if you can’t get chicks with a Mustang, you can’t get chicks. I feel like if you drive a Mustang, any year, a chick will know you’ve got some class. And you can outrun a Porsche or a Ferrari. He’s enjoying the life of a cop. And he’s enjoying being able to come back to the neighborhood and still have his feet in the underworld of his neighborhood. Even though he’s made it out and made it to the force, he’s still part of his community and has friends there, and it’s a stronghold that he came from.
DP: Is he proud to be a cop?
AM: I think so. I think every cop is proud to be a cop. I don’t think they’re proud of what they get paid, but I think they’re proud of making it out of the academy and becoming a cop. It’s so hard, so why do it otherwise?
Q: How would you say this movie stands out?
AM: I think what’s unique about this one is that the cops are more human. I feel like a lot of times you watch TV and movies, and cops are just hardass guys in great shape that just yell and beat up people. I’m like, “When do they unwind?”If every cop is so pent-up and so aggressive and so annoyed at life, at what point do they just release? I think with this movie, the fun thing is, John is allowing us the freedom to show that release, to show where they get their rocks off, and where they actually become three-dimensional human beings. Because this movie’s so plot-heavy, we have to figure out ways to make our characters three-dimensional, to make the plot a piece of set dressing as opposed to being the focus of the movie, and our becoming pieces of set dressing.
DP: Any favorite action sequences so far?
AM: No, but I’m hoping today to get to shoot my gun at somebody. Specifically at Casey Affleck.
Danny Peary: Have you met any other actors from Idaho?
Aaron Paul: I’m very proud to be from Idaho. I’m sure there are others, although I can’t think of any right now. There are lot of actors who live in Idaho. Bruce Willis has a place there.
DP: Are you considered a big thing back there?
AP: I’m not sure but the governor dedicated an “Aaron Paul Day,” in October. It’s crazy that I’ve been in L.A. for almost eighteen years.
DP: I am sure since Breaking Bad, you’ve been increasingly recognized in Hollywood. Are your fans from the show mostly male?
AP: No, definitely both, although at the very, very beginning I think it was more guys as a driving force. But today it’s girls and guys, both for sure.
DP: What is it like for you to play a policeman?
AP: I haven’t done it before. Actually, Gabe’s an ex-cop. It’s been years since he’s been off the force. It would be fun to show up for work and put on the attire, but it doesn’t really feel much different. He’s going through a lot of issues right now, or he has been for the last few years. The backstory is he’s seen some pretty awful things. And there was a corrupt cop when he was in the force, and he did a “suicide-by-another cop,” which is just cop wanting to commit suicide but having another cop to kill him instead. So that’s what happened. Gabe just had enough, he just couldn’t be a part of it anymore, so he left. And now he’s still doing robberies and that sort of thing. He’s really tactical, he really knows what he’s doing. He’s actually the one who comes up with the plan to pull a Triple Nine, which is the police code for “Officer Down.” And that’s just going to drive the entire police force to one side of the city, making it clear on the other side of the city for them to pull off their next heist. He comes up with this idea as more of a joke, and then they take him seriously, and he’s desperate throughout the entire movie to try and get them to stop, because he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
DP: Does your guy understand he’s a bad guy, or does he think he’s okay?
AP: No, he knows he’s a bad guy. For sure.
DP: Anthony Mackie says he thinks Marcus is a bad guy, but Marcus doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy.
AP: I think both Marcus and Gabe are struggling with their decisions. They definitely have done some bad things in their lives, but the Triple Nine they both disagree with. Gabe definitely disagrees with hit; Marcus is kind of on the fence, but deep down he knows it’s wrong.
DP: In a lot of police films it used to be that there’d only be one bad apple, and now it seems like there’s systematic corruption. Do you find that this film, which is a cops-and-robbers and heist film, at all reflects the real world?
AP: About corruption. I honestly couldn’t answer that question. I have no idea. Maybe. That world is so foreign to me. I’m not sure. There are corrupt cops out there and there are definitely some good cops out there, lots of good cops.
DP: Is it a warzone out on the streets, in LA and Atlanta?
AP: Oh yeah, an absolute warzone out there. On a ride-along I did in LA, I had a chance to go into that world that I’m not used to, a world that is there 24/7. I got just a peek behind the curtain and I saw little kids on their little razor scooters having handguns. They’re the ones who are at the malls selling the drugs. I’m talking about twelve-year-old kids, and they have no choice. They’re born into that world, and they have to join a gang, because if they don’t, they’re in danger. So it’s almost like it’s not their fault. Some people are able to break away from that but the majority can’t do it.
DP: Are you still having lots of talks with John Hillcoat at this point in the filmmaking, or was that done all at the beginning?
AP: No, it’s every day, same sort of thing. When I first started in this business it was hard for me to get the courage to say anything. I was 17 years old, I was a baby, I was just excited to work –just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. But through the years you learn to stand on your own and have your own opinions about things, and create things with the writer and the director.
DP: Judging from your make-up today, with the beat-up face, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a slow day for you…
AP: Yeah, there’ll be a little action! This is towards the very end of the film. He’s been desperately trying to get the rest of the group to not pull off the 999, and finally he’s taking matters into his own hands. “Spoiler alert! I get shot and die tonight. So there will be some action. I’ve died in a lot of movies. I don’t know what that says. END SPOILER ALERT
Danny Peary: You have risen to star status playing characters who have little or no education, no real money, and not much power, except if you want to consider your psycho lawman in The Devil Inside Me. Have you ever played a character who got a degree and has many opportunities in life?
Casey Affleck: There must be some parts where I’ve played educated characters, but I can’t think of them.
DP: There’s always crime in your characters’ world. Why do you pick these characters?
CA: That’s true, that’s the kind of thing my kids ask me, too. They don’t get to see a lot of these movies so they want to know why I can’t just do something they can see. But sometimes the parts pick you, to be perfectly honest, and you kind of just take what is offered. There are certain things that are available to you and you choose the one that’s sort of the highest quality, or has a group of people who you like. Sometimes I choose projects just because I want to work with the director. I realize it’s pretty dark material, or it’s pretty violent, but I think these are a group of talented people and I can learn something from them, so I end up on these jobs. It takes a great amount of effort and luck to change the way that people perceive you, so then they’re offering you different things. They’re not sending me, whatever, Tom Hanks parts. They’re sending him a certain kind of role because he started off as a certain kind of actor. And I guess they think of me with police officers and veterans and private investigators.
DP: Is your character the white knight among all the corrupt policemen or is he something different?
CA: Chris is definitely the least corrupt of all of them, but I don’t know if I’d call him a white knight. John has talked about him using terms like, “he’s got a steadfast moral code, he’s uncomplicated, he’s solid to the core.” I think he’s meant to be a kind of a surprisingly gritty, moral person. He’s our hope.