Interview: BONE TOMAHAWK Writer/Director S. Craig Zahler

I really enjoyed Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, but that's not the only western Kurt Russell starred in this year. The other is Bone Tomahawk, the directorial debut of novelist S. Craig Zahler, and it's an absolutely stunning movie that is definitely going to end up at or near the top of my favorite films of 2015. It has a tremendous script and ended up being a fantastic piece of filmmaking — a western that introduces some terrifying moments of horror that have been seared into my brain forever.

In honor of the film's release on Blu-ray and DVD today, I had the chance to jump on the phone and speak with writer/director S. Craig Zahler about the film's short shooting schedule (they made it in just 21 days), why he chose to make this his directorial debut, the potential of a Bone Tomahawk sequel, and more. Enjoy! (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

GeekTyrant: I love this movie. People have different aspects they value most about film, and for me, if the script isn’t solid, everything else can easily fall apart. The screenplay for Bone Tomahawk is fantastic, and you were recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for writing it. Is that validating in any way for you?

Zahler: It is. The reality is, I believe in my material. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do this. It would certainly be hard to persevere in Hollywood — after selling so many pieces, having so many pieces optioned and not getting any of them made — if I didn’t think my stuff was different and good. I can’t say I was looking for a form of validation because I already believed in it. But at the same time, I’m glad that this many people are having a positive response to it because that’s what I didn’t know. I wouldn’t want to come off as somebody who doesn’t care about the audience, because that’s not true — I want people to like the movie. There are ways to make this movie more audience-friendly so more people would like it, and I didn’t do those things because they’re not my tastes, they’re not what I wanted to do, and yet still the critical response to this movie has been fantastic. So all of that stuff is really nice. I wasn’t really looking for validation, but I want people to respond well to the material and knowing that I took so many risks with the style and with the material, I was expecting it to be more divisive than it is, to be honest.

Did you happen to see Patton Oswalt’s tweets about the movie when he watched it last month?

I did, actually. I’ve never been on Twitter. I don’t have a Facebook account. I listen to records on vinyl. To my left is the adventure pulp I’m reading from January 3rd, 1920. So I’m not a Luddite, but I’m a little out of touch with that stuff. But someone passed that along and I was pretty pleased to see that Ratatouille himself was behind it. (Laughs) To his credit, he said, ‘This is an Anthony Mann/Budd Boetticher kind of chamber western,’ and he is correct. In general, people go to the John Ford Searchers [comparison] because of the mission aspect, but that’s a movie I’ve not seen in twenty-two years and is not really an influence on me. I like the John Ford stuff, but the influence is an unconscious one. The influence is more Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, to those guys. And then Clint Eastwood westerns, when he directed them as well. Certainly [Oswalt] isn't the first or even the thousandth person who remarked on the fact that they would have rather seen the movie on the big screen in a theater than on a television, but such is the limited release of this movie. Some people had the opportunity to see it on the big screen and others did not, and also others might have the opportunity but didn’t even hear about the movie until after the fact. But the Patton Oswalt stuff was cool. I was happy to see that, and happier to see the names Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann, because this is someone who actually knows westerns.

The reason I bring it up is because he was wondering why it was released on VOD instead of in theaters, and my understanding is it’s because you opted for an unrated cut and many theaters won’t play movies that are unrated. Was that a tough decision for you to make — sacrificing a larger audience to keep your vision in tact?

For me, I wrote this thing and there are a couple scenes in particular that would be pretty hard to get into an R-rated movie. Those are on the screen as they were written, pretty much moment by moment. I always wanted them in there. Different financial entities that had been involved with the movie at different points [wanted us] to tone that stuff down to get an R rating. The company that released it, RLJ, they watched it and were particularly enamored with the violence. They thought it was really striking and something that people discussed and it stuck with people. I don’t know that they ever thought, ‘Well, we should send this to the MPAA and get into the back and forth of trying to trim it down to make it R.’ You’re correct — some theaters won’t show it, but AMC shows stuff that’s unrated, and they showed this movie. So that’s a pretty big chain that does deal with that, and this release was never going to be a massive, massive release. The amount of money we made the movie for, which is 1.8 million dollars, we were eight or nine days into release when this movie was profitable. The pre-sales of DVDs and Blu-rays of this movie made it so that before this movie came out, I was offered financing to do a sequel. So this movie was geared in such a way, because we made it so cheaply and we have all these great actors and well-known names — particularly Kurt Russell in terms of a real name and recognizable face — that they knew it was going to be profitable in this way.

If there was a point where someone said, ‘Will you cut it down to get an R?’ To me, if it was a question of doing that, I don’t want to do that. If it was a question of, we remove two seconds of something and the movie gets a release that’s a hundred times the size of the one we got? That would be a discussion. I didn’t know what that process would be like. It was something I was not looking forward to from the moment I wrote this piece. I never had to make that decision. If it was presented, it may have been a dilemma for me, but I was actually never presented with that because the people who released the movie were behind all of those aspects.

You mentioned that they offered financing for a sequel. Is that something you’re actually interested in and you’re going to pursue?

Certainly not now. Basically, I’ve spent three and a half years of my life on Bone Tomahawk. I always have ideas of more things I could do with any world or any character. It isn’t my inclination to revisit the same world. I have more western ideas that I would be interested in writing. I finished the Bone Tomahawk story, and I know exactly what happens after this. I’ve described it to a couple people involved with the project, like, ‘This is what happens if there’s another one.’ I’ve spent three and a half years of my life living Bone Tomahawk, and there’s no piece I’m less interested in doing right now than more Bone Tomahawk. But I know what these characters would do, and I know what the repercussions of this movie are. So that’s a possibility at some point when I’ve gotten further away, if everything looked good and the cast was interested, but right now, it’s the number one thing I least want to do. I have so many different pieces out there, and I’m pushing multiple different pieces right now as my next piece to direct and they’re all really different than Bone Tomahawk.

I know you’ve written a bunch of scripts before, but this is your directorial debut. When did you know this was going to be your debut, and of all the unproduced screenplays you’ve written, why did you choose this one?

This one was written for me to direct. I’ve only written one other script in the past decade or so with that intention, but I was at the point where I’d sold so many scripts and had so many optioned, that the futility of doing it was really clear. People liked my material in Hollywood, I have a number of fans out there in television and film who will buy my scripts, but none of my stuff is safe. I’m pretty direct in terms of dealing with people, in terms of if they want to [change] stuff and their ideas are bad, I will let them know they’re bad. I do this stuff because I want to see these pieces made well, but I don’t actually have any desire to follow down the line if I see a piece is turning bad or someone has bad ideas just to get it made. So after seeing this happen for so long, my interest in writing more things that will sit on more shelves for people to admire but not necessarily have the courage to fully back, or creative people to want to get involved and really mess around with what the work in a way I found objectionable, it’s frustrating. I’ve spent a lot of times doing westerns and they play more to my strengths in terms of characterization and spaciousness and pacing and all of that stuff. So it was suggested that I adapt Wraiths of the Broken Land, which is the second of my western novels, and I said, ‘That thing is big and I don’t want to chop it down so it fits a movie length. I’d need to remove two thirds of this book so it could be a movie. But I can write another western that’s another rescue mission western.' And that other western was Bone Tomahawk.

I heard an interview in which you were describing your writing process and you were talking about how you tried to surprise yourself every day. I know you shot this movie on a very tight schedule, but did that “surprise yourself” mentality cross over into directing?

No. This was [a case of] we had a plan, and we needed to deliver it. Writing is a far, far, far more creative experience for me than directing. Directing, some of that is creative, I would say the major part of it is managerial. Seventy to eighty people are coming up and asking me questions, and you’re the boss of these people — or collaborating with them, depending on who it is — and you just need answers, and I’m decisive, well-suited to it, and comfortable with it. But it would be potentially more creative given more time. Directing, for me, is basically, there’s an A and a B. A is: look at the scene when the actors are doing it, and does anything ring false? Is anything really lost? Does anything seem like acting rather than seeming real? So that’s the first thing. Given time, or seeing very little of that stuff, then the second thing is, how do you make some of these moments better? How do you make the comedy funnier, the pathos more dramatic? That second part of enhancing stuff is more fun, more creative, but oftentimes, we had very little time to do that. There are lots of things in [the film] that you’re looking at the first take or the second take, largely because I had performers who were so talented and so good that they delivered this stuff straight out of the gate, that was how we were able to maintain this pace. It was punishing. In terms of surprising myself every day and finding those new moments, in a situation where I had three times as much time, I think more of that would have happened, but as is, I only needed to make sure I had enough to cover the scene. However it works, it was very much ‘make sure I have everything to tell the story of this scene’ rather than 'let’s find new stuff and new little moments.’ Though certainly, you get a ton of nuance and a ton of little moments in terms of what the actors are bringing to it, but not surprises in the way that I mean when I talk about my writing process.

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