Interview: Director S. Craig Zahler on the Making of BONE TOMAHAWK

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More words from BONE TOMAHAWK writer/director S.Craig Zahler.

BONE TOMAHAWK helmer, musician, novelist, writer and now director S. Craig Zahler, has crafted one of the stronger films of last year that fortunately leaked out into a few multiplexes before hitting home video. And with recognized praise from fans of the horror and western genres, filmmakers, and the Best Director win at the Sitges Film Festival, SHOCK eagerly looks forward to more strong works from this singular artist.

Appearing recently with the film for a theatrical presentation as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Contenders’ series, Zahler opened up a round-table discussion with the audience.

BONE TOMAHAWK is an accomplished first feature. How have you developed yourself as a director?

I went to film school at NYU where I studied and focused a lot on animation and cinematography. I got out of film school when I worked on a bunch of independent movies, most of which went nowhere, and now I blog. I worked on a bunch of indies as a cinematographer and learned how to make your no-budget movie look like it had a budget, but there was a point where I realized that if the material wasn’t there, the end result wouldn’t be good.

I also supplanted the exception of the only good script I ever shot is a friend of mine, Steve Danzinger, but other than his … I pretty much shot movies that weren’t good, or were terrible, and I realized that no matter what I did as a cinematographer wasn’t really going to change the end product so I started focusing more and more on writing. I wrote a Western called “The Brigands of Rattleborge” which got me a three-picture deal with Warner Brothers. At the time, I was also in a death metal band, Charnel Valley, and I was directing some theater pieces.

I made a living for a while selling scripts to Hollywood, and with the exception of Warner, I wrote when I was in college called “The Incident at Sans Asylum” which was turned into a movie called “Asylum Blackout,” and that was made in Belgium by Frenchmen with a bunch of English people pretending to be Americans, not the most authentic movie out there, but some stuff in there that I like, and certainly there’s some interesting movie-making there. I’ve sold, probably at this point, 22 different pieces in the Hollywood system, and I’ve not seen one of them made. I had the background, I directed some theater and worked as a cinematographer. It’s fairly frustrating to see the scripts go out, and celebrities come and go.

There’s a certain point where I just decided I was watching a lot of indie horror stuff, really, really micro-budget stuff for $5,000. I was watching a lot of these, and thought, “I’m going to make one of these.” I talked with my representatives, one of whom is Dallas Sonnier, who is the producer of Bone Tomahawk, and is my manager, and also who paid for half of it out-of-pocket because there wasn’t a single American company that got behind this movie without insisting on a bunch of changes I would never make, so that’s how that went forward.

He asked me if I could adapt a book of mine called “Race of the Broken Land” and I said, well, besides being probably 10 times nastier than this movie, the scale of it is also huge and not anything we could do cheaply. So I said I can run another rescue mission Western that has a strong war component, and that is how I came to be writing for “Bone Tomahawk” then the road after that was we got Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins attached, and dealt with various financial entities because it certainly wasn’t Dallas Sonnier’s first choice to pay for it out-of-pocket.

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Kurt Russell is always a strong actor and seems even more particularly suited to this role. When did he get involved?

He was on board from the beginning. The first person who signed on board was Peter Sarsgaard who was initially in the Patrick Wilson role, and him liking the script was a real seal of quality, or standard of quality rather, in the Hollywood system because he’s a really bright guy. He’s known for being picky, and uncommonly critical, and he enjoyed the piece a lot. We had a very good meeting when he came on board. He’s represented by the guy who represents Kurt Russell, so that having it to pass on to him was pretty easy.

For your first feature film you have this cast of Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, and Patrick Wilson. Was it daunting walking onto set the first day?

In a certain way, they made it less daunting. The daunting thing was we shot that movie in 21 days, and our budget was under $2 million. For me, I went into this movie knowing we had to get a certain amount of it done everyday, and the amount of experience I’ve had where different crew people would take me aside for the two to three weeks leading up to production when we were in hard prep, and everyone says, “We’re never really going to be able to pull all this off, start cutting pages,” and really everyone took me aside to tell me this. What I was was When we’re failing and unable to get these days, then I’ll start cutting pages.

The on-screen chemistry really gives a feeling of solidarity between the characters.

Yeah, again, one of the ways that a movie like this can happen in 21 days is that you have actors of this caliber. Richard Jenkins is the first person we went to for the Chicory role and he was right away very natural. I don’t think there’s anybody better than him working. I think he’s fantastic and he is just fantastic in general. He came on and he and Kurt immediately started hanging out. We did rehearsal leading up to it, again, because we had very limited time, but those two were going off to dinner and seemed in cahoots. They cultivated that relationship which I think really plays well on screen.

One of the reasons that you’ve got guys like Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Sid Haig, David Arquette, Patrick Wilson, all these people on board, was that they liked the material. Nobody knew anything about me until they talked to me, and then they had some confidence that I might actually be able to pull it off because I had the background of doing independent movies for far less money than this one. They really liked the dialogue and the characters and knew what to do. I remember a comment that Richard Jenkins made to me very early when we first met, and he said, “These aren’t characters on a page, they’re effing people.” Kurt had said something along the lines of, “If you don’t know what to do with these characters the way they’re written, you’re a terrible actor, you should retire.”

It’s on the page, it’s clear if you take a look at the actual script that I’m a novelist, certainly that could be to the detriment of some of my material going around Hollywood because they feel it’s pretty wordy, and I get really, really detailed like there’s a lot of information there for the actors, the art director, for everybody.

 

Were there any Westerns, both classic and contemporary, that you were looking at while creating this story?

I wanted to try something new. I write to my tastes. One of the reasons I started writing Westerns, and this is the fifth that I’ve written, I’ve two novels and two other screenplays out there, there’s a lot I really enjoy about the genre. There was a Westerns festival, maybe in 2005, at Film Forum. I think I saw 19 in two weeks. I do like a lot of the classics, it’s mixed, but for whatever reason at that festival I saw more stuff that I did not like than stuff that I did like. With watching all the stuff that I didn’t like, I started to come up with the approach that I would want which is the really character-driven stuff and spacious stuff. In terms of filmmaking style, there isn’t really a Western that I think compares to this.

When we were selling the movie, and I would talk about it to investors, and talk about some stylistic reference points, I was talking about John Cassavetes and Larry Clark, and Wong Kar-wai, and Takeshi Kitano. These aren’t Western filmmakers.

One of the things I knew before I’d even written the script was that there was going to be very little music. There’s actually slightly more than I initially intended, but this was the approach when I felt like I really wanted people there with these characters and going into the spaces. One of those things is not using close-ups all the time because most of the time you interact with people, you’re not looking just their faces from a close distance unless you’re intimate. You need to look at whether it’s Patrick Wilson in his handling of the throat pipes or all of the gesturing that Richard Jenkins does in his flea circus monologue. Including the hands is important and it’s something that I think with a lot of modern filmmaking going so regularly to the close-ups, you’re missing a lot of the body language, in particular the hands, which tend to be really, really expressive.

I regularly see movies where they have the close-ups of the face and then closeups with the hands, and they’re going back and forth all the time, but every edit is a suspension of disbelief, and I just wanted it to play out as much as I could. Even still, there is more editing than I would have liked, but that’s a bit of a product with Russell’s schedule.

To me, it’s a Western through and through. A lot of people talk about it being a horror Western, but to me actually the reference point of the other genre of fiction that I really like is the lost race fiction. This is H. Rider Haggard. “King Solomon’s Mines” is the first one and maybe the best, it’s a fantastic role, this is like 1886, ’87, somewhere around there. I wanted to do a lost race Western, and it’s not something that I ever read or had seen anywhere. I wanted to create my own mythology, and I’m a big pulp reader in general. I’m a really big fan of Max Brand, and that kind of mythologizing the West, a frontier story.

You chose to not fully focus on the troglodytes with your camera. It actually makes them a little more scary.

With the troglodytes, I knew I wanted to create something new that would have its own mythology, and there’s a bit of a utilitarian approach to their culture, but I wanted it to be mysterious. I had no desire to explain it. There’s information I give actors that I don’t really have interest in sharing now in terms of explaining what they were working with, but I think they did a really good job.

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Was there anything you outright cut out of the film?

I spent a lot of time in the movie and in the script, and in terms of scenes of significance, there’s one scene, maybe two, of significance in the script that’s not in the finished film. I spent a lot of time developing the characters, and just in their world developing the town, and almost that town Bright Hope as a character, and all of that stuff, there’s really mentality of Hollywood which is so against my approach re-writing, and there are notes that I get on those 22 plus pieces that are out there, which is every scene should drive the plot. I think that’s a terrible approach to writing because I think every scene should have a reason to exist, and it might be to explore characters, it might be to develop the world, or it might be some humor or something like that, but this plot is extremely simple for this movie.

You really have to have a lot of faith that these characters are interesting enough, and that the audience is going to care enough. Certainly there are people who are bored out of their skulls with the first third or two thirds of this movie, and that’s fine. It wasn’t intended for everybody, but the attitude of it is not for everybody doesn’t go well with people who are going to put millions of dollars into your movie. Basically I want people to like the movie, but I’m making no creative decisions so that more people will like the movie.

I think I cut two, and that was just necessity of having a problem, having an extra night moment, and so combining two scenes that were maybe twilight at night into one twilight scene that’s easier to like, and then a little piece of it not quite working. But we really shot the whole thing, and the biggest cut was basically the scene that they didn’t work because horses aren’t fantastic about hitting their marks. There’s this one scene with the horses hitting their marks, and then the movie initially had three epilogues as I see it and now it has two. There’s another epilogue that is a bonus feature on the Blu-ray. You can see that other scene and there were reasons it went away. There were a couple of moments that just didn’t land quite well enough to have the scene that build them up.

There are some great lines in the film. The humor is so deadpan.

Everything that I write has humor, I don’t know if there’s a single exception to that. It’s one of these things where you’re dealing with a serious situation, but if everyone is frowning and dour all the time, and you don’t see life or love in these characters, I don’t know why you care; that was my experience watching “The Revenant” wondering why anyone would care at all about anything happening to any person in that film.

Given that were such little music in the film like you mentioned, how did you decide where and when the score would go?
The key composer of this movie is a friend of mine named Jeff Herriott. We’ve been friends since we were terrible debate partners in junior high. He’s a music professor in Wisconsin, and he and I have regularly had discussions and arguments about using music. I generally feel it’s to some degree cheating, in terms of emotional coaxing. Now let me say there are many movies that are much, much, much better than “Bone Tomahawk” that have a lot of music, but what I wanted to do was try and get something where it was really honest. If you felt scared or you felt sad, it was just because of the content of the scene. I went into this knowing where I wanted music which was basically in moments for the most part where we are a little bit further back from the character.

Certainly the most noticeable score coming in is when they arrive out of town, and that’s when it really comes in strong to the first time, more about forty minutes into the movie, and it’s something where the camera and the audiences were moved and far away from the characters, and there’s a break, and there’s a breath, and in that space, I wanted to put music, so for the most part it was that. There were a couple of other spots where basically we didn’t have time to get to the kind of locations I wanted to get to, and so they weren’t as intimidating as I originally thought, so I put in a couple of some ambient drones that I composed with Jeff Herriott in those scenes.

Did your strategy behind the music also help develop the troglodyte’s musicality?

I knew ahead of time that there was going to be very little music in the movie. I’m a musician and one of the reasons that the troglodytes communicate the way they do in a musical fashion is for this reason, because I wanted notes in the movie in an eerie quality, but actually diegetic rather than just thrown on top to tell you it’s scary.

What are some Westerns that you enjoy? Do you also like things like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST?

In terms of Westerns I like, I’m a huge Western fan and a big Western reader. What kind of kicked off me writing Westerns was seeing a bunch where I wasn’t satisfied. In terms of Westerns, I like THE WILD BUNCH, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, TALL TEA, a lot of Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, most of the movies by all of those guys. That’s stuff I enjoy. As for reading, I’m a huge Max Brand fan, and his prose is great, and a lot of his stuff is really, really compelling in terms of the sophistication of the characters.

In terms of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, it’s pretty grim sitting through all the animal mutilation in that movie, but it’s effective overall. I just wished the animal stuff wasn’t there. To me, that movie succeeds in what it’s wanting to do. A point more specifically in terms of violence with the movie that bested me when I was a kid and I had to shut it off, I had a bootleg video cassette of a Hong Kong movie called MEN BEHIND THE SUN.

It’s about a Japanese camp that’s doing experiments on Chinese prisoners in World War 2 and it is awful, but it’s really well made. The style is very dry. There’s nothing leering when the violence gets really graphic, and it’s extremely graphic, and it’s just presented in a very matter-of-fact way that makes it all that much worse because it’s not going in like a Lucio Fulci movie or an Argento movie for these tight shots on the gore that in a way make it easier. It’s just happening in front of you, so that has always been in my mind that that was the movie that bested me, and why did it best me, and that’s an other reason.

Where did you film that cave?

The cave is a set, it’s in California. It had been used, I believe, in both an episode of WEEDS and the first IRON MAN movie. Our production designer who had one penny split and a half to work with really redesigned a lot of it because there’s very specific stuff in this movie in terms of the cells that the people are in. He built this thing, and I think he did a really good job, and knowing the budget, an almost unbelievable job.