Jack-of-all-trades S. Craig Zahler made his directorial debut this year with the bloody frightening horror-western Bone Tomahawk, which is the other Kurt Russell-starring western that everyone is talking about. It’s a film that demonstrates a singular voice—a voice that is intensely focused, open and unafraid. Below, Zahler shares his feelings on this year’s other western films, his frustrations with development hell, and his hopes for the future.
What was your inspiration for this project?
I’m a fan of westerns, and this is the fifth western that I’ve written. In terms of the inspiration, I’d written a book called Wraiths of the Broken Land, which is a pretty nasty western set around this time period. I was thinking of directing something because at that point in my career I’d sold about twenty different screenplays in Hollywood and seen none of them made, which was pretty frustrating. Additionally, I had the background as a cinematographer and a theatre director. So I was thinking about doing something—it was probably going to be a horror piece, but when I’d spoken to Dallas Sonnier, who is the producer of this movie, and my agent at UTA, Julien Thuan, they both asked if I could do a western.
I prefer writing westerns over horror, and they’d asked if I could do Wraiths of a Broken Land as a low budget movie. For me, taking something that’s ninety thousand words or so and crushing it into the length of a movie wouldn’t be that creatively fulfilling, in that I would have to strip away so much stuff that even a great movie version of it would always feel smaller than the book. So I said, “Instead of that, let me write another rescue mission western, but I’d like to play with some different stuff—in particular, making up my own tribe,” And that comes a little bit more from the disciplines of lost race fiction, like H. Rider Haggard kind of stuff, really, than from westerns. So that was the inception. There was certainly no movie that I was trying to emulate.
Was there any resistance from anyone involved about taking on a Western? It’s a genre that’s had a huge resurgence this year, but I’d imagine it’s a genre that’s typically met with some resistance.
Studios are certainly wary of putting tens of millions of dollars into [a large-budget western], but the reason they brought it up is because it’s something I really enjoy doing. I had some success in terms of at least selling two scripts and having two novels published in that genre, and it’s something I write better and can do more with than straight horror. It was always something for us to do independently and have independent financing on. We just never thought that we were going to go to the studios and they were going to pay for it.
I certainly hope there’s going to be a western resurgence. My view on it is, The Revenant got made, Leonardo DiCaprio is a huge star and Inarritu is a big director. I think that movie is probably the single worst movie I’ve seen in the last five years and just totally empty and terrible and didactic. And it’s just awful—lacking humor and characterization, and anything I ever want to see in a movie. But that movie got made because there are two powerhouses there.
And The Hateful Eight only got made because it’s Quentin Tarantino and he can get stuff done. So I think that both of those movies were gigantic, titanic successes, or both of those movies were massive failures. I don’t know that anyone will see that as reflecting an interest in the genre of westerns. I think people will tend to look at that as these two things.
As somebody who’s been trying to get westerns made in the Hollywood system since 2006, I’ve seen a couple different times where people said, “Are the westerns coming back?” Wondering about it with 3:10 to Yuma, which I thought was mediocre, or True Grit. I enjoyed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford more than any of these movies, but that one didn’t do well. I don’t know that the people who pay for movies are going to decide that it is the genre that is popular and not just these particular performers and filmmakers.
Your film is one of two Kurt Russell-starring Westerns released this year. With Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, you’re in pretty good company.
Quentin came to the premiere of the movie and was sitting near me and cackling a lot throughout the screening. In terms of being in the company of Tarantino, they’re two really, really different movies. I’m a fan of Tarantino’s stuff in general. I’ve seen The Hateful Eight, but it’s far from my favorite picture of his. I just thought, in general. a lot of the performances were too theatrical for my taste, but the atmosphere was good and I enjoyed some of the plotting. There’s no way for parallels not to be drawn because of the Kurt Russell thing and the western movie at a similar time, but obviously with Bone Tomahawk, I tried to do, in some ways, a western that embraced a lot of the classic elements of westerns, in terms of adventure on the landscape and all these characters that develop and get to know one another, whereas there’s a strong mystery component with something like Hateful Eight, and in a way, a lot of what you think you’ve learned about these characters, you haven’t learned, and it becomes a lot more about the machinations. They’re pretty different. I certainly prefer Kurt’s work in my movie over his work in Hateful Eight by a gigantic margin, but I tend to like subtler, more contained things. My favorite other Kurt Russell performance is probably Dark Blue. Actually, I liked him more in Death Proof than I did in Hateful Eight. I thought it was really big.
Bone Tomahawk was shot in California. Was that decision based on financial considerations?
The decision was pretty much set up by financial constraints. If I could have picked anywhere to shoot this movie, probably my first choice would have been New Mexico, and certainly the thing I am least happy with in the entire movie are the exterior locations, and this is in no way a chop on our amazing production designer, Freddy Waff, who made a lot of stuff happen, but I had a very specific geographical progression throughout this movie from hills and green, to flatter and green, to green and dirt, to dirt and red, to white, to rocky, to an almost primordial setting that someone compared to Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was very specific in the script how the landscape was supposed to progresss, and I spent an enormous amount of time going around with different people in Los Angeles trying to find the best substitutions I could.
We have stuff that works, but to me, in terms of what I had originally envisioned and what’s on the screen, that’s where it came up the shortest. It’s a movie I’m really, really proud of and I think if you can walk away from your debut and say it’s 80 percent the movie you wanted to make, which is what I would say here, that’s a pretty good thing. It was a western with horses and costumes and a cast that had about 30 people, and even though a ton of the locations were outside—we probably moved to 70 different places throughout the set— so it was pretty ambitious in all of those regards.
My fondness of the genre, my familiarity with it and comfort with writing it is what got that script, and that script is what landed this cast and how this whole thing happened, because there’s no way a movie like this is happening in 21 days unless you have performers who can deliver pretty decent stuff straight out of the gates.
This was your directorial debut. Was there a steep learning curve involved?
I wouldn’t say so. I went in with a background as a cinematographer and shot movies with far fewer resources than this, and tried to turn someone’s 60 thousand dollar feature film that I was shooting on Super 16 into a movie that looked like it was a two, three, four million dollar movie. So I had a real understanding there. I had a very definite plan of attack from the moment I finished writing the script and then broke it down, and there were some locations in particular that didn’t agree with my plan of attack.
By the end of the first week, a week that nobody really thought that we would ever possibly make, and people saw, “Wow, we made it and it’s happening,” people had more faith that this was actually doable, because we were told that for five times the money, with a shooting schedule twice as long as the one we had this, movie couldn’t be done.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m kicking around a piece called Brawl in Cell Block 99. We’re trying to get together the right elements to make this go, and that’s likely to be the next thing I direct. I’m also writing a new crime script which is something that I will consider for the movie after it, and I also have another western idea that I’m thinking about. For me it’s been so many years of watching, on average, three to four projects and not seeing any of them taken to fruition, but now that I have an opportunity to get stuff made and have proven myself with Bone Tomahawk, which, financially, is doing really, really well, and critically it did quite well. I want to take this opportunity and exploit the hell out of it. If I can make a movie a year, I would be good with that. If I could make three movies in two years that would also be good. Additionally I’m pushing some stuff in TV, continuing to develop one of my novels, Mean Business on North Ganson Street. It’s a television show. Some actors are reading that and we’ll see if that goes. So there’s a lot of stuff floating around. A lot of it has been optioned by other companies or purchased outright by other companies so it’s sort of up to them to push the ball forward, but in the meantime, the project that I control, I’ll push forward relentlessly until one becomes my prime job and I’m directing it. And then when that’s done I’ll move on to the next.