Craig Zahler is a novelist and screenwriter who has made a name for himself with a successful services of western novels. They include the likes of A Congregation of Jackals and Wraiths of the Broken Land, which helped him earn the attention of Hollywood. He wrote the 2011 horror film Asylum Blackout before embarking on what may be his biggest creative triumph to date: Bone Tomahawk, which has garnered widespread critical praise and made a name for itself amid the arrival of more prominent westerns like The Hateful Eight. The film is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and video on demand, and if you can handle the violent ending (seriously, it’s gruesome), we can’t recommend it highly enough. In an exclusive interview with Cinema-stache, he sat down and talked about the project with us.
Question: What was the first impetus for tackling a subject like this as a western?
Craig Zahler: A western helped kick-start my career; I had a couple of western novels and actually a few western-horror scripts that never got produced. Most of my stuff, regardless of genre, has elements of horror in it, partially because when we get to violent scenes, I want to show something people haven’t seen before: something that goes further than you expect or something that you didn’t expect at all.
When it came to Bone Tomahawk, I initially wanted to do a micro-budget horror movie: something I could finance myself and do on my own terms. My agent, however, suggested my taking on a western, which would have been out of the range of something I could budget myself. But it also plays to my strengths and eventually resulted in a script that could attract the level of acting talent we got for this.
Q: Would you call this a horror-western?
SCZ: I wouldn’t. I’d just call it a western. Granted, it’s a western that goes to some very dark places, but I don’t think that’s out of line with what westerns deal with. If I felt it was a horror movie, I’d have a lot of scary things and things you can identify as horror. Most of this is an adventure piece, a travel piece, a piece mostly focused on these characters. But I wanted them to land somewhere new, which is where the troglodytes came from.
Q: Did you have a sense of how that finale was going to go?
SCZ: It was always that way. If we establish that these were what the troglodytes were, and that this was a natural extension of how they lived, it was going to end with something like what we show. I didn’t want it to be gratuitous, which sounds funny when you look at the scene, but it’s true. Gratuitous violence, to me, is violence that serves no purpose except to shock. In this case, this was a part of the troglodytes’ world. This was an average weekday to them. And it was important, in being honest about what they were, to show all of that with no blinders on. It doesn’t become a leering gorefest – and I love gorefests, but the focus of those movies is style and atmosphere. The focus here is character, and the final scene was meant to emphasize character in the face of a very intense and horrific threat. Obviously, that’s not going to be an experience that everyone wants to have, and that’s okay. This film isn’t for everybody.
Q: Along those lines, how important was it to have VoD available as a distribution outlet?
SCZ: I’ve learned about video on demand, limited release, all that stuff, while I was making Bone Tomahawk. I live in New York and you’re based in LA, so we get limited release movies all the time. I was unaware of what that truly meant. I’d never watched a movie on demand. Almost everything I want to see, I’ll watch on the big screen. I suppose I’m behind the times on that front. But I did know, creatively, what I wanted to do with the movie, and I was pretty specific. That’s one of the benefits of a long production cycle. And with the way you can get a movie out now, via video on demand and things like that, it allows you to keep that vision intact. We’d made our money back before the film was released. We made it for $1.8 million and shot it in 21 days. VoD made us show a profit, and while I’d love for everyone to seeing it on the big screen (it’s had those), VoD let us make the movie we wanted to make.
Q: The dialogue is a big part of the film’s success too, yes?
SCZ: I enjoy writing dialogue, and I think most of the dialogue I initially wrote made it into the final film. We changed a few things to fit logistical needs and there was a little ad libbing, but I’d say about 95% of it was there when I’d finished the first draft. I’m proud of that, and I’m also grateful because it helped us get the kind of onscreen talent we had for this. We could never have gotten Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson and Richard Jenkins and everyone we had for the salaries we offered if the dialogue wasn’t there. It was some of the worst paychecks these guys had ever received, I can guarantee it. And they killed it. The dialogue got them onboard, but they had the timing and the delivery and the skills to just nail it. That brought the material up to the level I hoped it could be.
Q: Where do you think the western is going in the 21st century? What do you think it has to say?
SCZ: We’ve seen a fair amount of remakes, and a lot of gimmick westerns like Cowboys and Aliens. I’ve not seen Cowboys and Aliens, so I can’t speak to its success or failure, but we’re living in an environment of reworking older films and playing with a lot of high concept stuff. But this winter, we’ve seen some original westerns arriving, or at least westerns that we haven’t seen before: something like The Revenant or The Hateful Eight. I’m hopeful for the genre because of efforts like these: they focus on dialogue and character first. I’d say the same thing about the Coens’ remake of True Grit, which I really love. Hopefully, these films can be successful and they can dispel the long-running conventional wisdom about westerns, which is that they don’t make money. Talent like the kind we’ve seen behind these types of westerns may be what finally breaks that stigma, and I hope it does because I think this genre has a lot of life left in it.