Write The Movie They Won’t Make: “Hell or High Water’s” Taylor Sheridan

The writer of sleeper hits Hell or High Water and Sicario, talks about breaking all the rules to write the movies he wants to see.

Write The Movie They Won’t Make: “Hell or High Water’s” Taylor Sheridan
Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in Hell Or High Water, 2016 [Photos: Lorey Sebastian, courtesy of Lionsgate Films]

Taylor Sheridan is on the warpath.


Five years ago, he was a semi-recognizable television mainstay–with guest turns on forensic alphabet soup like CSI and NCIS, and a recurring role on Sons of Anarchy. After branching out with his first screenplay, Sicario, though, Sheridan has since become a hotly sought-after filmmaking force. The reason he’s so in demand is that for two years in a row he has delivered an elixir to the pandemic of superhero franchises and tentpole adaptations, first with Sicario and now with Hell or High Water. He makes no-frills thrillers for adults with a lot going on beneath the surface, and they actually play in theaters and they actually get asses into seats. It’s a commentary on our current cinematic climate that this is now considered a marvel, but it’s a tribute to Taylor Sheridan that he is the ultra-rare rookie to do it right out of the gate. What makes his success even more interesting is that he makes these films on his own terms.

Taylor Sheridan and Jeff Bridges on the set of Hell or High Water

Sicario was by no means an easy sell. It was a complicated treatise on the militarization of the police and the failings of the drug war, with Emily Blunt as the lead. It went on to make $85 million worldwide, with a sequel in the works. Hell or High Water is an equally complicated neo-Western that’s also about the aftereffects of the mortgage crisis in West Texas. So far it’s more than doubled its $12 million budget, earned a coveted 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is a dark-horse award season contender. These movies exist because they are the ones Sheridan wanted to see, and he won’t even consider writing anything else–despite no shortage of lucrative possibilities.

He’s also taking his filmmaking career to the next evolutionary step in 2017 with his directorial debut, Wind River–which he finished writing six weeks after finishing Hell Or High Water. With the latter movie arriving on Blu-ray and iTunes recently, the dynamic, prolific writer talked to Co.Create about his no-fucks-given approach to making movies.

Read a Lot of Bad Screenplays To Write a Good One

“I learned a tremendous amount about dialogue because I suffered as an actor,” Sheridan says. “I had to push exposition through dialogue, which is really, really hard for an actor do. I think I was a decent actor, but it took a lot of work for me to make a choice on how to read a line. Josh Brolin is fascinating to watch because he is just so effortless. It’s like watching a really gifted athlete run and I just didn’t have that. So when I sat down to write my first screenplay, I told myself, I said, ‘You have no idea how to do this but for 20 years you’ve been reading how not to. Don’t do any of the shit you were forced to do and it’ll probably turn out okay.’ I didn’t realize that I’d been doing the wrong thing and then I went ‘Oh damn, I wish I could have those 20 years of acting back.’ But if I hadn’t done what I did, I don’t think I’d be the writer that I am today.”

Don’t Start Until You Know Where You’re Going

“I have 50 great ideas but what helps me choose what to write is knowing how it ends,” Sheridan says. “You gotta know how it ends. You don’t have to know exactly the mechanics of the journey but you have to understand the journey of the hero–like how is he or she different? What does it cost them, what do they gain? And then what are you trying to say? The movies that move me the most don’t tell me what to think but ask a lot of questions. I’ve sat down a lot of times with a great idea and somewhere around the middle of the second act, the well runs dry and you realize you didn’t know where you were going. And I’ve got 10 of those sitting on my desk. Every now and then you have an idea that answers the whole thing. But yeah, for me, I gotta know where I’m going.”

Ben Foster as Tanner Howard in Hell or High Water

Write The Movie They Won’t Make

“I would love to say that I’m so Machiavellian and smart that I planned these movies to hit in these ways. But I didn’t,” Sheridan says. “When you write an original screenplay, unless you’re someone that’s already established, what you’re really doing is writing a showcase for your work and you don’t have any idea it’s ever gonna get made. I had a lot of freedom with Sicario because I was certain that it was never getting made. And with Hell Or High Water, I didn’t think about it from that standpoint, I just wrote it. I think if I’d tried to, probably neither of the movies would have worked, ’cause I would’ve been trying so hard to please this sector or check off this box.”


Shooting The First Draft

“Once you get a studio involved it becomes much more challenging, there’s a lot of concerns. Everyone wants to be heard and a lot of good ideas come from that but it’s definitely a much more communal process at that point. We shot the first draft of Sicario, we shot the first draft of Hell Or High Water, the first draft. There was not a revised anything. About two weeks before we went into production Hell Or High Water, David McKinley and I sat down and went through, like is there anything we need to clarify? Should we get this out of the house and put it on the road? Readying it for production, for the physical act of making a movie. But when a studio is involved from the beginning, the process changes.”

Don’t Compromise On What You Believe In

“After Sicario, [the studio executives] came to me and said, ‘Did you ever think about a sequel to it?’ And I was like no. Not a sequel per se,” Sheridan says. “The interesting thing about almost all of these characters is that they don’t arc intentionally. For what they represent, they don’t arc. The arc existed in Kate’s character. And for the reason that immigration and this issue has not gotten better–it’s gotten worse, sadly–there are still things to explore through these characters that are telling of the way we police drugs. And so there was still unfortunately much room to explore. So when they made me the offer, I said ‘Okay, but I gotta do it like I did the first one. Like, we can’t sit down and have this outlined and notes and all that kinda stuff. You just gotta turn me loose and I’m gonna show up with it.’ And they agreed, so that’s what I did.”

The Rules of Structure Are Mad To Be Broken

Sicario is written on a five-act structure and a five-act structure within that. I leave the protagonist for 20 minutes at the climax of the movie in Sicario to follow the villain. In Hell Or High Water, they don’t tell you why they are doing what they’re doing or even what they’re doing until two-thirds of the way through the movie. And I love playing with that. Audiences are so smart, they have seen so much. Whether they’re aware of it or not they’ve almost got PhDs in film criticism and earned it. You can trick ’em a couple ways and one is visually and one is through story. I don’t write big blockbusters so I don’t know how to do that, so I do it through story and I think it makes an audience feel like they don’t know what’s going to happen next and that makes for a really exciting ride. I look at each movie as, ‘How am I breaking the rules this time?’”