Featuring one of the most disturbing death scenes in recent memory, a desolate desert setting, and a strong cast bolstered by Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk is easily my favorite film of the year. With the cannibal Western hitting Blu-ray and DVD today from RLJ Entertainment, Daily Dead recently had the pleasure of catching up with Bone Tomahawk writer/director S. Craig Zahler, who discussed working with the legendary Russell, his approach to the movie's most violent scene, and much more.
Over the years, you've written and sold many screenplays that never made it to the big screen. What was it like to get behind the camera and ensure that this story made it to the finish line?
S. Craig Zahler: The experience was very satisfying. I must point out that it took a long time to get there. This piece was engineered for me to direct it at a low budget. I sold some screenplays or had them optioned—the number now I think is 22 different ones, maybe 23. None of them had been made in Hollywood and there were two Westerns amongst those, a bunch of horror movies, a bunch of crime pieces.
Screenplays are blueprints for movies, and even though I’ve put my novelist prose in those screenplays, if they’re not made into movies, they’re incomplete. So although I was paid well for a lot of those screenplays, I was getting more artistic satisfaction by far by having my novels published and having the albums that I recorded come out, the heavy metal stuff, the death black metal stuff that I was doing, because those were taken to completion.
It [Bone Tomahawk] got out of the zone of, “Let’s discuss how to get this made,” or, “Let’s discuss what changes do or do not need to be made to the material.” I made the material pretty much exactly as I wrote it, so it was very, very satisfying. But for a lot of years, all my scripts are just stuck in purgatory in a bunch of different places. I actually derived a lot more artistic satisfaction from my novels and albums than my screenwriting, even though the screenwriting obviously paid the bills for me.
Bone Tomahawk is Kurt Russell's triumphant return to the world of Westerns. How did you go about getting Russell—who also happens to be a fan of your novel Wraiths of the Broken Land—involved in this project?
S. Craig Zahler: His [Russell's] representative, Michael Cooper, had given the script to Peter Sarsgaard, who was originally cast in the role of Arthur O’Dwyer [played in the movie by Patrick Wilson]. Peter Sarsgaard is known for not liking stuff and being a hypercritical dude. He loved the script and I met with him and we had a very good meeting and he signed on to the movie. It went really quickly.
We basically had this stamp of approval from Peter Sarsgaard and his agent passed it off to Kurt Russell, who read it pretty quickly and came onboard. And then we had a talk in terms of my experience on the set, because if I’d never been on a set before and was trying to do this for the first time, it certainly would be overwhelming. I worked as a cinematographer and shot a bunch of shorts and indie features. And when I say “indie feature,” I mean the kind that is a feature-length movie that costs $50,000 shot on Super 16 film.
So I’d been in the trenches and was able to give him [Russell] some assurances that we weren’t going to get on set and I was going to buckle or not have any idea what to do. I had a very focused plan from the beginning of doing this movie and knowing that it was always going to be a tight schedule—though I didn’t know it was going to be this tight—and so we had a really good conversation.
He actually read the book Wraiths of the Broken Land after, which he prefers to Bone Tomahawk, as do I. But that piece is much more elaborate and actually far nastier than Bone Tomahawk. Dallas Sonnier, the producer of the movie and my manager and friend had said, “Can you adapt Wraiths of the Broken Land and make it into a movie?” And I said, “No, but I can do a rescue Western.” And that was how I wrote Bone Tomahawk. It’s [Wraiths of the Broken Land] kind of the sibling piece, just a lot bigger, more elaborate, and nastier. Kurt has mentioned interest in doing that as well.
What was your experience working with a living legend like Russell?
S. Craig Zahler: In terms of working with him, there wasn’t really time to stand around and be awestruck—it’s not really my personality anyway—but something with Kurt Russell that’s really terrific are the cadences in his lines. There are probably about a dozen lines in that movie where after he delivers it and nails it the right way—and a lot of these that I’m talking about are maybe the final line in a scene where it lands on him—the cadences in his voice and his inclination, you just get to see that other thing that, on top of being a good actor, exemplifies a movie star.
There’s just a quality there and a charisma that he has and these inflections that aren’t hammy or overselling it—there’s a gravity to some of these readings. There’s that additional thing when you hear him deliver his lines that comes with a movie star personality like that.
With a low budget and a tight shooting schedule for Bone Tomahawk, what was the atmosphere like on set?
S. Craig Zahler: The reality is that we shot it in 21 days and the budget was $1.8 million. When we took this thing around, people told us it probably needed to be a 60-day shoot and $10 million. So the situation is that I needed to move on and I needed to keep my eye on the schedule. I had no safety net. I had a lot of great performers, and that’s the only way that a movie like this can happen in this amount of time. You have a lot of people who are bringing it. Freddy Waff, the production designer, he brought it. Hugo Villasenor, the makeup artist, he brought it.
But we had a day where there were multiple guns malfunctioning, problems with special effects, problems with makeup, problems with talent, problems with the location, problems with trick lines, problems with pretty much everything. Those are the days where you’re just losing time and wondering what it’s going to impact.
So then you get to a scene like Chicory talking about how to read a book in a bathtub—I believe you’re looking at the first take in one of two takes that we did of that scene. We probably got an extra five days out of how good these performers were and these people bringing it. We discussed every single scene in detail during a rehearsal period prior to the movie, which was extraordinarily helpful. But they were all onboard with the script pretty much as it was. There were little suggestions here and there. Kurt Russell certainly had more than a handful of good suggestions regarding moments of violence and action moments, how to make the beats a little longer, a little bit more impacting. But for the most part, they were onboard with the plan and then we went and executed the plan.
Amidst a strong cast across the board, Richard Jenkins really steals scenes as back-up Deputy Chicory. Jenkins' dialogue is so natural and seemingly spur of the moment. Did he improvise a lot on set?
S. Craig Zahler: He was my first choice [for Chicory], the first guy we went to. So I processed that it was going to be Richard Jenkins’ voice, and then he came in with that voice that he does for Chicory, which has an accent and the raspy voice of someone who’s overstrained their vocal cords over time. Initially, I didn’t even want to open up the door to an accent, but Richard said, “Let me show it to you,” and I’m certainly glad that he did. He read it the way I wrote it, but once I put Richard in it I was happy to shift to his normal voice, but he really pushed for the voice that you’re hearing there.
But in terms of the interior work and where he is with the line readings and the cadences, that is a lot how I saw it and that was very much on the page. But you can’t teach comic timing and he [Jenkins] has it. Those lines are in the script, but they’re there to be turned into gold or murdered by the right or the wrong performer, and he really polished a lot of those. That character was a writer’s darling from the moment I finished it and was one of my favorite characters of everything I’ve written, which at this point is 40-something scripts and eight novels.
The cannibals' cave in Bone Tomahawk is host to one of the most disturbing acts of violence I've seen on film. How did you approach filming the violence so unflinchingly in that scene? [Spoiler warning]
S. Craig Zahler: There haven’t been many movies in my life that have bested me, where I had to look away or shut off—really only a couple once I became an adult (when I was a kid I was scared of everything). By age 13, though, I was a child of Fangoria and had posters on the wall where my mom couldn’t walk into my room without taking off her glasses because of all the hideous shit on the walls. One of the couple movies that bested me—and probably the movie that bested me more than anything I’ve seen in my life—is a movie called Men Behind the Sun. It’s a movie from Hong Kong. It won a lot of awards and it’s a story of a Japanese experiment camp in WWII that was doing scientific experiments, vivisections, basically all sorts of torture on Chinese prisoners. So this was researched and this is true, and I actually haven’t watched it since I was a teenager and it bested me, but there was very little music.
The main thing is that it was a very dry presentation of the violence in the same way as Cannibal Holocaust. The long shots of the horrible stuff happening to people, you just see it unfold. When you go in close, those aren’t perspectives anybody ever has on violence unless it’s happening to them firsthand, in which case they haven’t survived to watch the movie. So I kept the style consistent with the hideous violence as with Chicory and Sheriff Hunt talking about corn chowder.
Stylistically [in that violent cave scene], I’m picking a protagonist, you’re pretty close to them, and then you get things from their perspective and that holds true when you get into the cave and see what happens to Deputy Nick. You’re really getting that almost entirely from the perspective of Sheriff Hunt. And a lot of that scene is about the strength of Sheriff Hunt talking the person through it and him handling that scene better than almost any human being possibly would. By showing all that violence and showing him talking the guy through it—for me it was always a real scene of strength for Sheriff Hunt, to not just cower away or start blubbering—he’s talking a person through the worst moment of his life. As hideous as the violence is in that scene, it’s a real showing of character strength for Sheriff Hunt. He endures that and does something during those actions that most people couldn’t do.