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Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

“If You Move in a Hasty Manner, I’ll Put a Bullet in You”: S. Craig Zahler on Bone Tomahawk

Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk

With its careful widescreen compositions and painterly period-motivated lighting, Bone Tomahawk possesses a classical visual style that belies its pulpy genre mash-up logline of western-cum-cannibal horror film. There are no elaborate tracking shots in the feature debut of writer/director S. Craig Zahler. No Steadicam moves, no booming Technocranes, no extreme close-ups.

“All of that stuff, to me, is like the director is sitting next to the viewer and saying, ‘Hey now, look at this.’ And I wanted as little of that as possible,” said Zahler. “You see a lot of first-time directors really out to impress the hell out of people with all these elaborate camera moves. For me, I didn’t write this script to facilitate my career as a director. I directed this script because I wanted to correctly realize a piece I’d written.”

Having his work realized on screen has been a long time coming for Zahler. A former cinematographer and current novelist, Zahler has sold more than 20 spec scripts but had only one of them prior to Bone Tomahawk make its way before the cameras.

Zahler spoke to Filmmaker about his directorial bow, which follows four men (Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins) on a mission to rescue a kidnapped woman from a tribe of cannibalistic cave dwellers.

Filmmaker: What was the first screenplay you ever wrote?

Zahler: The first feature-length screenplay I actually completed was something I wrote in college called Reasons for Leaving. It was three different stories, each one taking place in a different kitchen. At that time my day job was working in a kitchen. One was a kung fu story, one was a musical, and one was a horror piece. I later expanded the horror piece into a feature-length script called Incident at Sans Asylum, which is actually, other than Bone Tomahawk, my only script to get made.

Filmmaker: It’s wild that, of all the spec scripts you’ve sold, the one that got made was your first.

Zahler: I think Asylum Blackout (the film’s US release title) is decent. They threw on a twist, kind of a gimmick at the end, which is certainly not in the style of anything I would ever do. It was optioned and almost made by a different company prior to (being bought) by the French company that made it. I think it was made largely because it was a cheap, contained horror movie. Of the twenty-plus different scripts I’ve had optioned over the years, it’s not the one I would’ve chosen to first represent me, but it’s decent.

Filmmaker: Did you start writing novels out of frustration that your work on these unfilmed screenplays wasn’t reaching an audience?

Zahler: No, actually my interest in writing novels preceded my interest in writing screenplays. I was working on a novel when I was maybe 23. It was a Dickensian orphan tale, but really Gothic and strange. I worked on that novel and a couple others during that time, but they weren’t things I finished. After that I focused on these one-act theatre pieces that I would write and direct and I was writing screenplays. By doing those things, I learned how to better organize my time and how to complete things.

After I’d written five or six screenplays and sent them around and received some compliments — and certainly some negative feedback — I went back to writing novels. There’s always been a back and forth for me. Writing screenplays helped me finish my first novel and then writing that first novel really changed my prose style so that it became more elaborate in my screenplays.

Filmmaker: What was the spark of inspiration that initiated Bone Tomahawk? Was there ever a thought of it being a novel?

Zahler: I was watching a lot of independent, micro-budget horror movies — things that cost $5,000 and are made in your mother’s basement. Really, really small things.  It’s shot on video. It’s cheap. Some of the acting doesn’t work. But it’s really independently-minded and it’s the personal and singular vision of the filmmakers. I was watching a lot of that and I decided I was going to make one. At that point I’d sold enough screenplays and was doing well enough financially that I was just going to make like a $50,000 indie horror movie that was going to be uncommonly violent.

I started discussing this with my team — Dallas Sonnier, who is a producer on the movie and my manager, and Julien Thaun, who is the agent who discovered me while I was sending my scripts around and still working my day job as a catering chef. They suggested instead of doing a low-budget horror movie that I write a western. At that point I’d already published two western novels and sold two western screenplays. Now that we were talking about making a western, it was no longer something that I was going to throw on my credit card. It became a more complicated experience. And once we went out to actors and got Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins on board, which was right at the beginning, it was clear that it was going to be a movie of an altogether different scale — though still for the kind of thing it is, incredibly cheap.

Filmmaker: What are your favorite westerns?

Zahler: When I was 13 or 14, I started watching a lot of older movies and The Wild Bunch really resonated with me. I’ve been interested in westerns from that point on. The truth is a lot of what drove me to start writing westerns was around 2005 there was a revival of western movies at Film Forum (in New York) and I went and saw 18 or 19 of them in a two-week period and I didn’t like a lot of them. Around that time someone recommended that I read Blood Meridian, which I know is this beloved western and certainly one of the most popular western books written recently, but I didn’t like Blood Meridian. So after that combination of experiences, I figured out a lot of what I wanted to read and see in a western. I never really try to just follow behind something I enjoy, because that thing already exists. I try more to look at things that I think are lacking in a genre and what I can do to fill that gap.

Since that time I’ve delved a lot deeper into the genre. I watched a lot of the Anthony Mann westerns and the Budd Boetticher films — The Man From Laramie, Man of the West, The Tall T, Seven Men From Now. Those are pretty terrific westerns. And I really enjoy The Shootist and Red River. Those are my favorite John Wayne movies. Seeing Once Upon a Time in the West for the first time on the big screen in New York was also a really memorable experience. That movie and The Wild Bunch remain my favorite westerns.

Filmmaker: Since you mentioned Red River, did you think at all of the roles Walter Brennan played in Westerns when creating Richard Jenkins’s role of Chicory?

Zahler: I’ve heard that comparison a ton — as I’ve heard the Searchers comparison — but neither of those were things that I thought of when writing the film. I just tend to like to write older characters. Most of my books and scripts have older characters. I just find them more interesting. Richard did a wonderful job inhabiting that character and really bringing him to life.

Filmmaker: You wrote this great monologue for Jenkins where – at a point in the story when our heroes are facing an unpleasant demise – he ruminates on a flea circus he’d once seen in town.

Zahler: That was always my favorite page of the screenplay. I had a couple of pulmonary embolisms around six-and-a-half years ago and I was hospitalized and in the ICU and did not know whether or not I was going to live or die. So certainly the headspace of that character — wondering and fixating on this thing in his past and wondering about life and death and mortality in a metaphoric way — always connected to that experience.

Filmmaker: I expect Jenkins and Kurt Russell to be great, but I was surprised by the performance of Matthew Fox. I never watched Lost so I didn’t previously have much exposure to his work, but he’s a very interesting actor.

Zahler: Yeah, he is. He goes very deep. When we started having conversations about the character — and he and I had a lot of those — I saw how seriously he was taking the role and how much thought he was putting into every aspect. We would have discussions sometimes on whether two words should be a contraction or not. It was that level of detail. He took the character in a slightly darker direction than I had originally written. You’re not the first, second, third, fourth, or even fifth person to point out how impressed and surprised they were by his work in the movie.

Filmmaker: I was equally impressed and surprised with the way your characters turn a phrase. Kurt Russell threatening with “If you move in a hasty manner, I’ll put a bullet in you” is not typical western dialogue.

Zahler: It’s enjoyable to write that stuff. It’s some of why I do westerns. There’s a flavor to the dialogue and certainly a weight to what people say, because a wrong word can bring about a gunshot. Having people eye each other and try to appraise whether someone is going to draw a gun and shoot or whether they’re going to laugh, that is really in play in a western.

Filmmaker: Bone Tomahawk essentially has three sections, each transpiring in a different location. We have the opening act in the town of Bright Hope. We have the men riding through the desert. Then we have the final act, once they reach the cave and face its inhabitants. You only had 21 days to shoot the film. How did you break up your schedule?

Zahler: We didn’t shoot (in continuity), but we did shoot each of those locations in order. So basically the first five days were in the town. That’s proportionally a ton of the movie to shoot in that amount of time but we had to do it. The next two weeks were all of the out-on-the-trail scenes. Then the last week was mostly inside the cave.

Filmmaker: Is that cave a set on a stage?

Zahler: It’s a set, but it’s not on a stage. It’s out in the desert. It was used in the first Iron Man movie.

Filmmaker: What about the town of Bright Hope?

Zahler: That’s Paramount Ranch. When we were there, Kurt remarked that the last time he’d shot there was something like 50 years ago when he was working on Gunsmoke. It’s a very storied Western town. There’s only so much you can do with the exteriors, but our production designer Freddy Waff did a great job on the interiors. For instance, the sheriff’s station with the jail cell, there was no jail in there when we started, nor was there any furniture or anything on the walls. It was just an empty space and Freddy built out everything.

Filmmaker: Great care is given to the widescreen compositions and the lighting in the film, but Bone Tomahawk has a decidedly classical visual style. If the camera moves, it’s for a functional purpose.

Zahler: To me all that showy stuff, which I certainly can enjoy (as a viewer), calls attention to the movie as a two-dimensional thing on the screen. As a director, I wanted to just get out of the way. I wanted to capture these performances and these moments and then present them to the audience in as unfiltered a way as possible.

A stylistic thing that nobody’s really picked up on thus far is that almost all the edits are motivated by the actors in the scene.  So when Chicory looks (at another character), that’s when we cut to our over-the-shoulder shot. We didn’t always adhere to that — sometimes when you’re dealing with horses or action that’s happening on multiple fronts at the same time, you can’t — but that was the concept.  I don’t want the audience to feel like we were sitting in the editing room with the editor saying, “Yeah, I just want to look at this now. Alright, now let’s look at this.” That just feels arbitrary to me. I want the audience to be with the character whose perspective we have for that scene.

Filmmaker: One break from that style comes in a shot that I love in which Russell and his cohorts – in a static wide shot – tiptoe bashfully up to a barn where a body has been found.

Zahler: I also wanted to have these locked-off wide shots that, as a cinematographer once eloquently put it, are “the environment’s perspective” of the characters. Watching a scene like that unfold is something I enjoy and certainly I’m influenced in no small degree by the Japanese aesthetic and people like Takeshi Kitano, Akira Kurosawa, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Filmmaker: Let’s close by talking about the foley in this movie. It’s not an aspect of moviemaking that I routinely notice, but once we get to the final act in the cave things get audibly nasty.

Zahler: The foley artist (Jay Peck) came up with a ton of amazing stuff. Generally, I went with what I thought were the most realistic sounds out of the menagerie that he sent in. A lot of the drier sounds are the ones we used instead of the squishier gore sounds that you’d hear in a Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci movie. There’s so little music in the movie that (the sound effects) really come to the fore and there’s a lot of space for them to resound and for you to hear all the detail. That’s a pretty enjoyable process and was much more fun than I expected it to be.

Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.

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