In the first scene of Triple 9, director John Hillcoat hides a bunch of famous faces under masks: Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aaron Paul, and Clifton Collins Jr. all hide their faces for a bold daytime bank robbery scene in the middle of downtown Atlanta, while another famous face—Norman Reedus—guides them through the heist and the subsequent getaway. Over the next 20 minutes of the film, we get hit with even more recognizable stars: Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson show up as the detectives investigating the crime, Kate Winslet and Gal Gadot appear as members of a Russian-Israeli crime family pulling strings on both sides, and Michael Kenneth Williams makes a memorable cameo as a transvestite.
That's a lot of star power behind a movie that isn't a blockbuster tentpole or an Oscar-bait ensemble piece. Crime thrillers haven't been the most prestigious of pictures in recent years—even stars like Affleck, Harrelson, and Ejiofor have done their time in recent B-movies such as Out of the Furnace and Secrets in Their Eyes—but Hillcoat, at least, found a downright prestigious cast for Triple 9.
That cast came together through a difficult process—names like Shia LeBeouf, Christoph Waltz, Cate Blanchett, Michael B. Jordan, Jeff Bridges, and Charlie Hunnam had been attached at various points in the film's development. But throughout the process of creating Triple 9, Hillcoat knew that he'd need a lot of familiar faces in place in order to tell a story that was rooted in complex, moral ambiguous themes. In Triple 9, the bank robbers struggle against themselves, the police, and the Russian-Israeli mob. The police department struggles against internal corruption, street gangs, and organized crime, while the mob family fights to maintain control against forces both seen and unseen throughout the film. That's a lot of moving parts in a film that has three different competing forces, all of whom need to be sympathetic to the audience as they seek control over Atlanta and their own lives. When you have as many as nine principle characters, Hillcoat understood, you need recognizable actors to help the audience keep them straight.
"When you have a major movie star, and then they're surrounded by local extras, it takes me out, or makes me more conscious of what's going on, as opposed to losing myself in the movie," he says. "I was conscious of trying to get that richness of diversity in personality that this cast brought. All of these people are so strong in their own sense of who they are, it helped get a more dynamic nature. If we just had one star, and everyone else being unknowns, it wouldn't have been balanced the same way—taking a deliberate view of a group of murky, human characters, and getting that kind of balance, means we needed [recognizable actors]."
Those recognizable actors aren't just faces we've seen before, they're faces attached in many cases to roles for which we have a great affection. Most people who come into the audience for Triple 9 already have some sort of relationship with much of the cast—and Hillcoat was able to draw from those existing relationships in order to be more economical with his storytelling. The Walking Dead fans already know Norman Reedus as a competent, strategic thinker; Breaking Bad fans already know Aaron Paul as a troubled figure struggling with inner demons; True Detective fans already know Woody Harrelson as a good guy of questionable moral character—and Hillcoat was well aware of the fact that he could use those givens to do some of the narrative work of the film.
"For Woody and Aaron, it wasn't new terrain for them, absolutely," he acknowledges. "Not only that, but you need to make sure that they bring variety in their idiosyncratic and innate character. This has many characters in a murky world, where it's not just black and white and you're following the two stereotypes—you're actually getting a smaller glimpse at all of these characters, and therefore we needed to be able to track them and feel their differences all the more."
The casting is effective—when we hear a reference to a character having been an ex-junkie in the first scene, then see that Aaron Paul is playing that part, it's easy to remember that character detail—but Triple 9 doesn't rely solely on casting actors in roles similar to the ones we've seen them play before. It's a tool in Hillcoat's box, but it's not the entire kit. "That would be too predictable," he says. "It was a deliberate balance of doing exactly that, but then throwing in those wild cards to change the relationship, where you think, 'Oh, fuck, that's so-and-so.' For Chiwetel, and Casey, and most all for Kate, it was new terrain."
Hillcoat got to explore that new terrain with those members of the cast, and also with his own filmmaking. His three previous films—The Proposition, a western set in 1880's Australia; The Road, a postapocalyptic drama set in a grimly dystopian future America; and Lawless, a crime drama set in Prohibition-era Virginia—were all defined as much by their setting and the tone that the setting brought to the film as by anything else that Hillcoat did. So when he found the script to Triple 9, by screenwriter Matt Baker, he was thrilled to have the chance to explore the creative possibilities of a contemporary setting.
The resulting film looks nothing like Hillcoat's previous work. The bleak expanses of The Proposition and the paranoid grayness of The Road are nowhere to be found in Triple 9, which takes his eye for detail and turns it to contemporary Atlanta.
"I was actually itching to do something contemporary," he says. "A lot of things changed in that setting—even color. The richness of color, especially in an urban environment where it's a much busier environment, visually speaking. The landscapes of the other films were a more limited color range—they were more organic, in a way. But there's the frenetic energy of a big city, and also the color, that were a big difference. I wanted to capture that kind of urban energy—on top of having a big ensemble to feel like the kind of mass of humanity all rubbing up against each other, as opposed to these bigger, broader, but more desolate isolated canvases."
Setting was important to Hillcoat's previous work, and it's no less important to Triple 9—while it may be busier, more colorful, and more frenetic than Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition, Atlanta itself matters very much to the film.
That was something else Hillcoat was keen to explore in this film. Film incentive programs make Georgia an attractive place for filmmakers to set up right now, but Hillcoat sought to approach the city differently than many of those filmmakers do, consciously trying to embrace the city and its role in modern America.
"The interesting thing about Atlanta is it's become a Hollywood backlot, so most people that film there are trying to make it look like anywhere but Atlanta, so we filmed also in neighborhoods where no film crews were or have been," he says.
That led to an interesting creative process—and some interesting opportunities for both Hillcoat and his cast. The film used real police officers in many roles, and real gang members in others. When actors who are playing those roles can see those people interact on set, they get an opportunity to see their parts differently than they might otherwise.
"It's much more immersive. When you're going into neighborhoods that have a lot of gang activity, and you have not only ex-gang members there, but also gang unit police, you're experiencing that world from an insider's perspective," Hillcoat says. "I think the actors like Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, and Chiwetel really appreciated that kind of immersion, because it made the world that their characters were in much more alive and tangible for them. It's the opposite of the circus coming to town and just steamrolling through a place with everyone being a bystander."
Ultimately, Hillcoat's goal with Triple 9 was to make a film that stood out among the glut of crime thrillers from recent years. ("They've been devoid of reality—these are war zones that people have to live their everyday lives in," he says.) While the resulting film has garnered mixed early reviews, the critiques that mean the most to Hillcoat have been decidedly positive.
"The thing that I'm happiest about is that the guys from the street—the actual gang member community and the law enforcement community—look at this film and they're actually going, 'They got it right.' It's been a while since a film did that, and they really appreciate that. To me, that was a major compliment."