The 13th Floor

Interview With BONE TOMAHAWK Writer/Director S. Craig Zahler

One of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of 2015 was the directorial debut from acclaimed novelist S. Craig Zahler, BONE TOMAHAWK; an all star Western fronted by Kurt Russell that feels like a Coen Brothers film that just happens to stumble upon a tribe of deadly cannibals.

It’s truly a remarkable, unique and ambitious first feature, but it was the strength in the writing of the material that attracted names such as Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins (in one of his absolute best supporting roles to date) to the project. was fortunate enough to chat with the mastermind behind the film and learn how his unique perspective helped him craft one of the best horror Western’s in recent years.

"Bone Tomahawk" world premiere during Fantastic Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)
“Bone Tomahawk” world premiere during Fantastic Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Photo by Jack Plunkett) Judging from your history, you’re tremendously prolific, having dabbled in music, writing novels & screenplays and doing some film work as a cinematographer. Why was this particular story for BONE TOMAHAWK the one you choose to be your directorial debut?

S. Craig Zahler: At the time that I wrote this, I think I had sold or optioned 20 different pieces in Hollywood and none of them were made. I had one made in Belgium by Frenchmen with Englishmen pretending to be Americans and that was ASYLUM BLACKOUT and that one is OK, I think it’s decent. There’s some stuff I really like about it, some stuff that I don’t, in particular the ending they threw on. But it was getting frustrating for me to sell so much material, have it optioned and then see none of it get made. Really I’ve gotten artistic satisfaction these last 6 or 7 years mainly from my albums coming out and my books coming out. The books are complete. There’s no discussion of “wouldn’t it be cool if so and so attached themselves to direct it?” The 4 books I wrote were published pretty much exactly as they went around. So that’s very satisfying. But all these scripts were in purgatory and they’re blueprints for movies I never made. So, I was at a point where I was watching a lot of indie horror, micro budget stuff, stuff in the Toe Tag / August Underground world and Michael Todd Schneider who was involved in AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S MORDUM then made his own movie, AND THEN I HELPED, which I thought was even better than the Toe Tag stuff. I can talk forever about these movies. (Laughs) I had planned on making one of those and it was called FLESH BENEATH THE CONCRETE and it was going to be far gone into NC-17 (or perhaps NC-35?) territory. It was going to be pretty extreme and at that point I’d made a fair amount of money as a screenwriter that I felt I could make my own $50,000 dollar gore movie. At that time, I had a few Western novels and a few Western screenplays that were sold. It’s just a genre I’m better at writing than straight horror. I was asked if I could do a low budget western and we reverse engineered it. How many days can we have horses? How many people can be in the cast? We made a list and (producer) Dallas Sonnier had suggested adapting WRAITHS OF THE BROKEN LAND because that’s his favorite of my Western books. Most people that have read my Westerns cite that as their favorite and it’s my favorite too. The scale of it is massive though, and I didn’t know how I could do that without dumping out 60-70 percent of what’s in the novel. But I said I could write a rescue Western and that was the genesis for BONE TOMAHAWK based on those parameters we set. I dug in and 30 days later we had the script and we starting putting a cast in place and it was designed that way. It is one of my favorite scripts, so it wasn’t just a convenient script that I had. It was specifically geared for me to do on a low budget level and to play to my strengths as a director, with nuanced performances, dry humor and this sense of adventure and moving around.

Bone Tomahawk 008 One of the things I think is so strong about it is the writing, itself. When you finished the script, were you able to attract the caliber of actor based on how strong the material was? Because you’ve got so many great, recognizable names in this. Kurt Russell, Rickard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox. Or had your previous scripts been floating around Hollywood and these people were familiar with them already?

SCZ: It was based on this script in Kurt Russell’s case. Matthew Fox I knew was aware of another one of my Western pieces to go around. And I was transitioning from a catering chef who’s playing death metal and directing weird theater pieces into a guy who’s actually making a living full time as a screenwriter, even if it were, at the time, only for scripts to theoretical movies. The other guys were oblivious because I don’t think they’re reading scripts for movies that weren’t going. Everybody came on board because of that script for BONE TOMAHAWK. The cast starting lining up pretty quickly once we went out to actors. Kurt was the second person on board. The first person on board was Peter Sarsgaard for the Arthur O’Dwyer role that later went to Patrick Wilson. He was instrumental in the sense of him liking that script was a huge stamp of quality, because he’s known for not liking too much stuff. Once he liked it, his representation passed the script to Kurt. That happened pretty quickly. Kurt and Richard who came on board shortly thereafter and remained on this piece for 2 years through ups and downs. It almost got made several times. We were scouting New Mexico. Utah, we physically went out there and found the locations and we were ready to do that version. But that version collapsed. And then we were working on a version in Romania, and that one didn’t happen. Finally this last version came together in Los Angeles, where it seems to be the last place in the world where anyone wants to shoot a movie these days. (Laughs) All the actors across the board are so strong, but I have to say that I did not recognize Richard Jenkins until maybe a half hour into the movie. It could be the best performance of his career. His rapport with Kurt Russell was just fantastic. When you’re a writer, obviously your material means a lot to you. What was the collaborative process like? Were you open to collaborating with people like Kurt and Richard in terms of finding their characters? Or did you have a very specific idea of what you wanted to see?

SCZ: What you’re seeing is what I wrote. There’s very little improvisation in the movie. The first editor, Fred Raskin, thought it was about 98 percent what I wrote. I think it’s a bit lower than that. Just because of mechanical things that don’t make sense and change along the way. Richard Jenkins, one of the first things he said to me regarding the script was, this isn’t a script with a bunch of characters. These are f-ing people. Kurt’s comments about the script were, if you don’t know what to do with these characters the way they’re written, then you’re a terrible actor and should be fired from the business. I write in a lot more detail than almost any screenwriter out there. I’ve only been told this because I don’t read other people’s screenplays, I’m reading pulps from the 20’s and 30’s in my spare time. But I’ve seen and looked at scripts and mine have a lot of detail.  You can tell I’m a novelist when you look at my scripts. That relationship between character and actor is there on the page. Of course, they brought stuff to it. The most significant contributions were probably Kurt – he had a lot of ideas about some of the action moments and ways to make them a little more dramatic. He came with a lot of experience making movies like that. A movie like this would be pretty difficult to make in 21 days if everyone was suggesting “let’s try this, or let’s try that.” There was a plan and fortunately we had 3 or 4 days of rehearsal discussing every single moment and line, and there was very little that didn’t ring true to them. We shot this in such a short amount of time and everyone came on board for a terrible payday, because they believed in the material. That’s the only way we could’ve gotten this done.

Bone Tomahawk 006 I wanted to talk about the music, because the score, while minimal, is great. I had heard Jeff Harriott whom you co-composed this music with talk a lot about BONE TOMAHAWK on The Damn Fine Cast. Was it given that, because of your music history, you’d work on the score yourself along with Jeff?

SCZ: Jeff and I have been friends since we were 13. We were debate partners and terrible debaters because we didn’t like to do research, we just liked to argue. We’ve just been friends forever and played heavy metal together. We’ve worked together in a bunch of different capacities. And an ongoing argument we’ve had for years revolves around movie music. I had said that I feel movie music is coaching emotions in a way that I don’t feel is entirely honest. I should say, there are many movies that are much better than BONE TOMAHAWK that are loaded with music. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a far, far better Western and that thing is crammed with movie music. That movie is also very cinematic and a heightened style and one thing that I wanted to do was really have a limited style. Greg D’Auria, the 2nd editor on the film called my style an “anti-style.” Which I thought was a good way to put it. I wanted very little of the director ego getting in between the performers and the audience. That’s why there aren’t a lot of camera tricks and that sort of stuff. I feel that the music is a little bit that as well. If there’s a sad scene and I put sad music over it, to me that would be ridiculous. And if those scenes aren’t sad for you or don’t work for you in that way (without music), I don’t want to tell you that they’re sad. I don’t want to make it worse and say through music, this moment is really sad. So my choices in music were let’s have the music strong when the camera is pretty far away from the characters. When they’re taking a rest or taking a break from the immediacy of the story or the character’s emotions, let’s say something with the music. And obviously, when the horses are riding out in a normal movie, you get the bugles going and you’re having some sort of triumphant music as the people are riding out. That’s not the sort of music you’ll hear in BONE TOMAHAWK. The music you hear in BONE TOMAHAWK is saying these people are probably going to die. This is going to go badly. I wanted to say something differently with the music than what would normally be said. I wouldn’t want to try to bring out or force things you’re seeing on screen in a redundant way. It’s a very specific thing we’re doing. We unfortunately couldn’t get locations that were as scary as I envisioned, so we’re making up the difference in some spots with the music. All the music there is by design and to give additional information and brush strokes on the canvas when the viewer is a little further away from the characters.

Bone Tomahawk 000 I always love talking to people about discovering the horror genre. What’s your earliest horror recollections?

SCZ: I was a child of Fangoria so when I was about 13, I flipped from being a kid that was scared of just the preview of ALIEN to becoming a huge horror fan. The unrated version of RE-ANIMATOR was something I had a tough time watching the first time through because of the gore, but I had to watch it again! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it so it’d be interesting to see what I think of it now, because I know there’s a lot of comedy in there and I’m not necessarily into comedy/horror, it’s usually not my taste. But that was there and then I discovered Dario Argento. I got into his stuff and looked for any of his movies that I could find on video tape. SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED which is my favorite of his movies. Later the Lucio Fulci stuff and of course THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The Sam Raimi movies, in particular the first EVIL DEAD. The less money he has, the better the movies he makes! A SIMPLE PLAN and DRAG ME TO HELL are far better than his big budget SPIDER-MAN movies. The original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is still my favorite horror movie. It’s interesting because I know DAWN always comes up because of the satire aspect, but I’m really big on NIGHT. GREMLINS was something I saw in theaters again and again and again. I drew my own GREMLINS comic books. I had the stuffed dolls. I was a big GREMLINS guy. That’s one I saw on the big screen a few years ago and it’s still as great as I remember. I’ve been trying to get a GREMLINS sequel going forever. I have all these weird pitches for it. It’s the only franchise I’d have any interest in doing. The Argento stuff is what really led me into being interested in filmmaking to begin with, because when it comes to Dario’s movies, the stars of his movies are great camera work, amazing gore set pieces and Goblin music!

BONE TOMAHAWK is now available on Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD.



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