S. Craig Zahler is a successful author with books like A Congregation Of Jackals (2010) and Wraiths Of The Broken Land (2013) to his credit. He’s also a successful screenwriter, musician, cinematographer and now director with his first feature, Bone Tomahawk currently in theaters nationwide. Here he sat down with GRUESOME MAGAZINE to talk about his experience in writing and directing his first major Hollywood film.
Gruesome Magazine: I truly enjoyed Bone Tomahawk a great deal! It wasn’t what I was expecting though.
S. Craig Zahler: That’s because they’re advertising it in a way that I wouldn’t. It’s being pushed as something it really isn’t. Tell you what, you can tell me what your thoughts are, or I could explain what I mean.
GM: Well, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this.
SCZ: I’m known for my Western novels, and from the beginning as I was taking this script around to agents, word started getting around that this was something of a giant cannibal beatdown, which it wasn’t. But it’s a Western first and foremost, it just happens to be a Western with some other elements to it. It’s a character driven, deliberately paced Western. There’s an exploitation aspect to it, but that’s not what this movie is. It’s really about the characters, and the journey they take.
GM: Agreed. It’s very character driven and I think that’s great because I got to know the characters. And, once again, it wasn’t what I was expecting judging by my first look at the poster art. It was a nice surprise.
SCZ: Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to has said the same thing. They appreciated it being more character driven than they expected it to be. I’m hopeful that people will sit down and enjoy the experience for what it is.
GM: How did you get your cast? Did they sign on because of the quality of your script, and the way you present your characters in it? Or did you hold open auditions?
SCZ: It was completely because of the script. What happened is I was going to do a micro budget horror film, something like the Toe Tag movies (August Underground, August Underground’s Mordum) of which I really like, and Brian Paulin’s films (Bone Sickness, Blood Pigs) which I like a lot as well. My plan was to finance it myself, because at that time I had sold 22 or 23 screenplays that people in Hollywood really liked, but thought they’d be too hard to make, so that was getting tiresome. I worked as a cinematographer and as a theater director earlier, so I believed I had the necessary skill set to go ahead and make a movie of my own. There was some talk of making my second novel, Wraiths Of The Broken Land, into a movie, but the budget was way more than I could do on my own. So I had written the script for Bone Tomahawk, and as it started making the rounds actors began to circle around it. First one aboard was Peter Sarsgaard, and he was going to play Arthur O’Dwyer, the role that Patrick Wilson ended up with. And having him aboard was a stamp of quality because he’s known as a hyper critical reader of scripts, and he’s obviously a very smart guy. So he came aboard the movie, and we had a very good meeting about the movie. Shortly afterwards, we got Richard Jenkins so our ball was officially rolling! Unfortunately, we ended up losing Sarsgaard due to unforseen circumstances, but we ended up with Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, David Arquette, Sid Haig and of course, Kurt Russell. Now the script had been making the rounds, and once the studios saw who we had lined up to be in this movie they came knocking on our door with deals to produce the film. But ultimately, they wanted way too much control over the film, far more control than I had wanted to give them. Actually I didn’t want to give them any at all, so we ended up going on with a fraction of the money that was being offered to us. And that meant that the actors we had were working for what had to be the the worst paydays they’d ever worked for. But it was they were there because they believed in the material, and when you have actors of this caliber interested in doing your film for next to nothing then you know you’ve got something special.
GM: I noticed that there’s barely any music in the film, and I wasn’t sure if it was an incomplete version of the film I was watching or…
SCZ: Nope, that’s correct.
GM: What was the reasoning behind that?
SCZ: I don’t want to spoil some of the reveals of the Troglodytes, but there’s a musical element to the Troglodyte tribe that you hear early on in the film. That was designed because there’s purposely very little music in the film. Actually, there a bit more music than I wanted. I co-composed the music with Jeff Herriott, he and I have been making Heavy Metal music for 12 years in a band called Realmbuilder. Most film scores try to coax emotion from the audience in a schmaltzy way, I didn’t want to do any of that. Bone Tomahawk is going to be emotional for you, or it’s not. I’m not gonna tell you it’s emotional and spoon feed it to the audience. There are a lot of edits in the movie that are based on people looking at each other, and it’s really driven by what happened on the set. It’s a different experience without music there telling you when to be happy or telling you when to be sad. If there was sad music anywhere in this film, it’d just sound sappy. There’s a standard that I think was left over from the silent movie age in which music was just slapped over scenes that are supposed to be emotional, and I think it’s outdated – it just covers up stuff. I just feel that it’s the material that should elicit emotions from the audience, and if you need a lot of music to get those emotions from your audience, then your material probably isn’t as good as you think it is. I’m sure there are people that want more music in their films, and that’s fine, I understand that. But to me, it’s a little less honest and it’s hard for me to look at stuff that I find genuinely emotional between actors on a set and say “I should put that music here” or “This scene is really intense. Let me put some intense music over it”. I think that most music in films is a crutch that most people use.
GM: The lack of a score made the movie more stark for me. I liked that aspect of it, it felt genuine.
SCZ: That’s a well chosen word, stark. I think the lack of music makes the viewer less comfortable, it feels a little more real to the viewer when it’s that way. Understand that I think there are many movies that are better than this one which embrace all of these conventions I’m decrying here. But I wanted to do something very earthy and real here, something that showcased the performers.
GM: There’s plenty of dialogue that showcases your performers here. But was there a lot of ad libbing going on as well? I got the feeling that Jenkins was having a ball ad libbing some of his lines.
SCZ: No, there was none! There were a handful of line changes that were suggested by the actors a couple of times, but that’s pretty much it. The actors stuck to the printed word on the script. I asked my editor what percentage of the spoken words in the film were from the script, and he said about 98-99%.
GM: It felt to me like some of Jenkins lines were almost afterthoughts, he really has a way with his delivery. But I loved the way the actors paced their lines to each other as they spoke, it didn’t feel like they were reciting from a script. It felt very natural and real.
SCZ: It worked exactly the way you just described it. Jenkins is a phenomenal performer, and he really does have a way with a line. It’s amazing how well it all worked out, especially since we only had 21 days to make this. That’s a brutal schedule, completely unfair to everybody.
GM: So now with your first movie under your belt, are you anxious to direct another one?
SCZ: Oh sure! I’m pretty much caught up with my novel writing for now. I’m actually ahead of the game in that aspect, so I’m all caught up there. I’m very anxious to get back in the saddle and start work on the next movie. And the one after that!
GM: If you had your druthers, would you stick to movie making or would you continue writing novels?
SCZ: That is really tough. Let me put it this way, If I continue to make movies and be able to maintain this level of control over them, and have better resources before we realize anything – it would be a real toss up. If it’s going to be like this, where there’s a little bit more compromise, a little less control and the inability to get everything I want, then I’d probably stick to novels. Because the novels are things that are completely realized by me with no compromise. My voice is a little bit deeper than usual because I’ve been singing Heavy Metal songs for the last four days, and there’s a satisfaction in that as well. I guess the real answer would be that I have books coming out and I have an album coming out, and I like alternating and knowing that these things are gonna come out the way I wanted them to. The books and music are what help me to endure the endless battles of film making.
GM: Last question: What is it you would like to hear from the people that went out to see Bone Tomahawk as they exit the theater afterwards?
SCZ: I’d hope that they were surprised by the experience, and they really cared about the characters. Everything else is gravy!