Director John Hillcoat and Kate Winslet on the set of Triple 9.

‘I’m actually a humanist’: director John Hillcoat talks crime thriller Triple 9

Even when people are corrupted, they are still human beings - this is what Australian filmmaker wanted to show in new movie, set in the US city of Atlanta and with a high-powered ensemble cast

Directed by John Hillcoat from a script by Matt Cook, the new movie Triple 9 is a gritty, rough-and-tumble crime thriller with an interesting take on loyalty and responsibility. Shot in and set in the southern United States city of Atlanta, the film takes place within a world of hi-tech weapons and low-down double-crosses, where law enforcement, criminals and ex-military intersect.

A team of former military personnel and corrupt cops carry out a series of heists, including a daring plan to use the police force’s highest distress call – 999 – as a distraction. The film features an impressive cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr, Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Gal Gadot and Michael K. Williams. Kate Winslet plays the head of a Russian-Israeli mob in an outsized performance that is part garish, part chilling.

Hillcoat’s previous films include The Proposition , The Road and Lawless , and each of those films created a specific world; Triple 9 is no different. The Australian-born Hillcoat currently lives in Los Angeles, where he recently sat down for an interview to talk about the film.

Casey Affleck in a scene from Triple 9.

The movie has a large cast, as did your previous feature Lawless . What appeals to you about that?

When you’re working with an ensemble, I think you really need different energies, because you don’t have much time with each character to make them feel real. You want strong personalities that are very different. Traditionally the Hollywood approach is you get one big star and then it trickles down to background extras. For me, that’s what I loved about [Robert] Altman’s films, it’s almost like if you chose to go over there and follow that character there’s this whole rich world. Really it’s just trying to elevate the overall cast as high as possible.

Winslet in particular has never played a character quite like this. And other actors had to stretch as well.

We were both surprised. … Especially now, with everything she brings to the screen, she just rules. She was so excited to do that. And those guys, an actor like Chiwetel brings such detail and commitment and power. Chiwetel is already a force, he’s a powerful actor, but physically he had never had that level of training and there’s a physicality to that world, especially ex-Special Forces. So he trained for months with a Navy SEALs guy. Casey also found his own physicality.

Kate Winslet and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from the film.

In the middle of the film there is a police raid on a housing project that is incredibly gripping. How did that sequence come together?

It was deliberately trying to find things we haven’t seen before. We started with the classic busting through doors and taking shots and running. And then because we were working so closely with our advisers, they said, “We wouldn’t go in here without a shield.” And we were like “What?” And also the way they lined up behind each other for protection. But one of the key things we did was the way they clear rooms methodically, just like in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s that military training and we didn’t realise how much it affected the action in the scene. By introducing that it changes the whole dynamic and for us it was really exciting.

I love shows like The Wire and wanted to be sure we got that kind of credibility, so that people in the know, cops, military, street criminals, someone watching it would say, “Yeah, they got it right.”

What is the point of a crime story like this, what’s the larger theme?

I’ve been itching to do something contemporary and urban, in that kind of murky world of crime. There’s all the action and also not knowing how volatile things are, and these guys are living their lives like that. I wanted to capture that. For me it’s all these shades of grey. When people make this choice they know what’s going to come. There’s a part of them that thinks they’re getting out after that one last job to be off on an island somewhere and a part of them that thinks, “Nah, it’s not going to turn out like that.” But they can’t stop themselves.

A scene from Triple 9.

I’m actually a humanist, believe it or not, and I believe even when people are corrupted, even when they’ve gone to the dark side, they are still human beings. Being under pressure always brings out the best and worst in people.

The film is opening against the backdrop of all the recent conversation around diversity on screen and you seem to have avoided any issues simply by depicting the world as it is.

That’s what I wanted to do, to be matter of fact. Just look at an urban city. Atlanta is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, it’s replicating LA. The new architecture could be almost anywhere, and it’s that mix that has made America what it really is. We weren’t making an issues thing of it, we were just being matter of fact. I just like grounding it, and to me that felt like a reflection of where we are in America.

Anthony Mackie (left) in a scene from the film.

Los Angeles Times

Triple 9 opens on June 9