Interview: S. Craig Zahler on Bone Tomahawk

screens_feature6In September 2015, I sat down with writer-director S. Craig Zahler in the bar at the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas. His debut feature, horror-tinged Western Bone Tomahawk, was scheduled to play as the closing film at Fantastic Fest that night. We talked about the influences of the film, his approach to shooting its more gruesome moment, and his refusal to compromise on making the film the way he wanted to make it (parts of this interview have previously appeared in the Austin Chronicle).


Richard Whittaker: Was there ever a point where you thought, “I’ll do the soundtrack as well,” because you did everything else on this?

S. Craig Zahler: Well, I did! I did it with a friend of mine, Jeff Herriot. He and I have an epic metal, slightly doom metal band together named Realmbuilder. We’ve been working together forever, and he’s a music PhD, and I knew he knew all the orchestral stuff, and I said, well, I can come up with some melodies, and he can orchestrate it, and we worked on it, and he came up with some melodies and I orchestrated some stuff.

I don’t want to give away any surprises in the piece, but there are certain things connected to the troglodytes that came from me knowing, as I was writing it, there was going to be very little music. I wanted it to be very, very natural , and if it’s not going to be emotional for you, I don’t want to tell you it’s emotional with a bunch of music to pout frosting on it. If it doesn’t work for you, it’d doesn’t work for you, and that’s OK.

RW: So what is it about the Western that so appeals to you as a writer and now as a filmmaker?

SCZ: Maybe it was 2006, there was a Western festival at Film Forum. I live in New York, and that’s a theater there, and I saw a lot of Westerns there. A loy of classic stuff, a lot of not good stuff, and I watched 18, 19 Westerns in a few week period, because I really like seeing stuff in 35. So with watching a lot of the ones that didn’t work, I started wondering about what would work better. Then I’m a big reader – I probably spend a lot more time these days reading than doing anything else. Someone had recommended to me Blood Meridian, the Cormac McCarthy book, which I didn’t like. I know this is a cherished treasure, and all that sort of stuff, and I read it and it was the same thing. This is lacking heart and characterization. If you like his prose style, it’s probably an enjoyable reading experience. I can’t stand his prose, and I just thought it was a travelogue of violence. If I wanted that, then there’s The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński, which I think is better written and much more horrific.

But I digress. A lot of what I do comes from me having the satisfying experiences I want, and specifically I can say my metal band, well, there isn’t this epic doom band that is doing this with this kind of orchestration. Certainly some people really like it, some people think we’re terrible, but I’m basically putting out something that I want that doesn’t exist. In the case of Westerns, after those experiences with Blood Meridian and at that festival, I said, OK, this is the stuff I really want. I want different characterization. When it gets nasty, I want it to be really nasty – obviously I’m a horror fan. So clearly I’m making something for myself. I hope other people will like it, but I’m not making choices so that more people will like it. I mean, I could sit in an editing room for two days and make this movie more commercial, and make it make more money, but I’m not going to. That’s the fortunate situation of doing it this way.

We shot the original script. It’s English and French money, The producer, Dallas Sonnier, paid for this. There’s not an American dollar for this on the front end, because they didn’t really see it.


RW: They’re the ones that will tell you the Western is dead, and the rest of the world keeps it alive.

SCZ: There were American companies that were interested, but they wanted a level of creative control I would not give up. We wasted a lot of time with a lot of companies. One company in particular, we got to a point where I said, if you ask me to cut one more page, I’m walking away from the movie, and it’s not just because I’m an asshole – although certainly there are many people who will tell you that. It’s because, if I’m going to bother to do this, and live this experience, as I wound up living for three and a half years, from writing it to it being completed, I need to believe in it 100%. And if I’m not, I just put out albums. One of the reasons my voice is about an octave lower than usual is because I had about five days of doing gang hall vocals and lead vocals for the next album. I have two of the three novels that I wrote during the period of trying to get Bone Tomahawk made that I’m going to take around and try and sell. Those are things where I can take things to completion and get the satisfaction from those. I don’t feel the need, like I have to make all these compromises to get my movie made. I made none.

RW: Mazel tov!

CZ: Thank you!

RW: So what was it about this particular script that made you say, I want to keep it, I don’t want to hand it to anyone else?

SCZ: The origin of this script is that I was watching a lot of micro-budegt horror movies, lets say this was 2011. When I say microbudget, I’m talking Brian Paulin, Michael Todd Schneider, the Toetag guys, Fred Vogel. You either know all this world or you don’t know it all. So I was watching a lot of this stuff, and I went, I’m going to make one of these, an extreme horror movie, Olaf Ittenbach, in that sort of world. So I had the idea for this piece called Flesh Beneath the Concrete, and I had a meeting with my manager, Dallas Sonnier, and Julian Thaun, the agent who signed me back when I was a catering chef and doing my death metal band, and in that meeting they said, if you think you do a horror movie, you’re going to be in that world? What about doing a Western? Well, I’m a better Western writer than I am a horror writer, but I’m not putting this on my credit card, like I was planning on doing with the horror movie. They said, well, here are the parameters. You can have horses for this many days, and you can have this many actors at this many locations, and I said, OK, and then 30 days later I had written Bone Tomahawk for the purpose of me directing it.

Because, and I might be off by one, but I’ve sold 24 different pieces to Hollywood, and none of them have been made. The only one that’s been made is a piece called Incident at Sans Asylum, which became Asylum Blackout or The Incident or Shining Night, or whatever for whatever region you’re in. It was made by a Frenchman in Belgium with English people playing Americans. So that was the one of that entire lot that was made.

RW: You’ve got Joe Lansdale syndrome.

SCZ: What is this?

RW: I’ve talked to Joe Lansdale about this. For years, the only thing of his work that got adapted was Bubba Ho-Tep and Incident on and Off a Mountain Road, and I asked him, doesn’t it ever bug you? And he said, no, it’s great, because I sell the options, it never gets made, they never fuck it up, and five years later, the rights come back to me, and I sell them again. He said, I’ve made more money off not films not getting made than I ever would on points off films that did get made.

SCZ: I make a very comfortable living off that. And the other thing is that, with selling that amount of material, there isn’t the sacred baby. I’ll generate more material. Right now, I have a list of 30 things that I could write – science fiction, westerns, horror, crime. But there’s romance, children’s stiff, sit-coms, there’s all kinds of things in there, and I’ve sold all these things. So I can keep generating, but in terms of what you’re talking about, that piece, the one that got made, that was the third time that got optioned, so I know that world well. To me, the thing that’s really nice about that is that, it’s not that I don’t care about money at all, but it’s not a factor in any of that. Do I think it’s going to get made, do I think this version is going to be good, are there chances in this, do I beleive in this? So that’s a lot of different pieces to have in circulation, and this is how I’ve made my living for eight years, so I’m averaging three a year. I’d obviously like to see them get made, but if my stuff keeps moving in Hollywood and generating income, and I’m writing my novels and writing movies to direct, well that’s certainly going to be my focus now. Getting the first one made is the hardest one, not to mention it’s a Western, an ensemble piece, we have no money, and horses, and all that jazz.

bt-1RW: I’ve got to ask you about the cast, because if there’s one great living Western actor, it’s Kurt Russell. As soon as he grows out the mutton chops, you know where you are with him. So I was wondering about, knowing that you’re writing this specifically as the project you want to do, was it always him?

SCZ: I never write – I shouldn’t say never, because there’s been a couple of times when an actor’s been involved before I’ve written it – but with all of my specs, almost everything I’ve ever written, I don’t think of actors, because I’m thinking of the character. Once it was written, he was obvious, and it would be terrific to get him. But certainly there was no thought of any actor for any of the parts, because that’s just not how I write.

RW: So when did he come on board?

SCZ: The beginning of this was I wrote this script December 2011, and a couple of months we had the first of many, many financial entities coming in and waving their junk around and telling us what to do. That thing collapsed and we just started going to actors a few months later. The first person who read it was Peter Saarsgard, and he was originally in the Arthur O’Dwyer role that Patrick Wilson plays. He came on board and he read it and he liked it, and that seems to be a rare occurrance. He’s known for being particularly critical. So he wanted to meet me because, even though I’d worked as a cinematographer and directed theater, to the world for the most part I was a first time director. I met him and we had a great meeting, and his representative Michael Cooper also represents Kurt Russell. So once we had essentially the stamp of approval from Peter Saarsgard, Kurt Russell read it shortly thereafter. Maybe it was five days later I was talking to him on the phone, and he had his concerns about me being a first time director, and I told him that I worked as a cinematographer, where I was often my own loader and often my own gaffer, and so I knew the movie set. He became confident then and he locked in and was there for all the incarnations. Mexico, Utah, I scouted and had everything and had our crew, and that collapsed. Romania, where we were pulling a really different version together. And finally the one we were did in Los Angeles for a fraction of what people said was the dead minimum we could do this movie for, in terms of budget. He stayed on through all of that stuff, he was really supportive. He gave me a blurb for one of my books that he enjoyed, a super-nasty Western. And certainly in terms of, you have someone like that, and you have someone like Richard Jenkins, who I don’t think I’ve mentioned an actor to other actors and seen more uniform reverence and praise than for him. And Kurt, I’ve heard a lot of actors say, ‘He’s my single favorite actor working.’ He’s fantastic, and incredibly subtle, and good to work with.

RW: There was a quantum change in Westerns from ‘it’s tough out on the Range’ to ‘it’s fucking dangerous out on the Range, and you can die at any time.’ On top of that, you’re bringing in a pretty gruesom component. How far did you want to push that? I was watching it and I had films like Man From Snowy River, and the classic Italian cannibal movies in my mind. They shoot in a similar way, in that they’re suddenly horrifying jump scares. These are cold, brutal acts, and the camera is not going to turn away.

SCZ: Congratulations on correctly describing the style of it. Because people don’t. So thank you for using your eyes. The whole thing with this is that it was a mistake I saw when I was a DP, the first time director wants to impress people with his or her directing chops, and kind of over-compensating with style. And so, unlike many first time directors, or maybe all of them, but certainly most of them, I didn’t write this script to propel my career as a director. I am directing this to properly realize something I wrote, and it’s all in service of that. So as the director, one of my editors, Greg D’Auria – he was the second editor who came on, and he and Fred Raskin did a great job with it – he described my style as an anti-style. Because most of the edits, if you look, when the style is working at its best, most of the edits are when the character is looking at something, and the edits are determined by the performers. It isn’t just that we’re in the editing room and ‘let’s just show this shit because it’s cool. Let’s look at his feet. Let’s look at his hands.’ It’s none of that. You’re looking at the actor.

Most of the scenes are the correct realization of the style. We didn’t always have time to do it, but there is a clear protagonist of that scene, and you’re seeing things over their shoulder. A lot of the edits, the majority of edits that are the ones by design, and not ones in action scenes because you can’t quite do it that way, are off of people looking. You’re putting the editing decisions into the hands of the performer, and removing the editor and the director from that process a little bit.

So in terms of the violence, well, I’ve had to turn off one movie in my life. It’s a Hong Kong movie called The Men Behind the Sun.

RW: Oh yes.

SCZ: Have you seen that?

RW: Oh yes.

SCZ: It was the only one I’ve ever had to turn off. It was the scene where they’re dealing with flaying the woman’s arms, and I was getting really nauseated, and tunnel vision’s going, and the edges of my peripheral vision sparkling, and I’m going to pass out. I’m watching this on a video tape, and this is 1989, right before I went off to college, and I’m like, I’m going to faint if I keep watching. So I stopped it, and I watched it piece-meal with my friends to get through the rest of it. But that is the driest presentation of violence I have ever seen, and the thing is you’re seeing the actor’s faces, you’re seeing their bodies. Hey, I love the Italian gore stuff, Lucio Fulco, Dario Argento, I love that stuff. That’s obviously not at all the style of this movie, and I don’t think if you want to unnerve somebody, that’s necessarily the best way to do it, with the fun gore movies. But Men Behind the Sun, with that super-dry presentation of violence, rattled me in a way that nothing has. Irreversible, that one I looked away for a moment. Cannibal Holocaust, to go more to the Italian front, is pretty difficult to watch on a big screen. Also the animal stuff in there is sort of foul.

RW: They just re-released it with two edits, one with the animal stuff and one without. Because even hardened gore hounds are going, no, I don’t want to see you doing that.

SCZ: To me, there’s a line with this stuff. I’m a big wrestling fan, and I could give a shit about the UFC. Make it look real, but don’t have it. There isn’t really anything you’re doing other than your moral compass is off.

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