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Q&A: “BONE TOMAHAWK” Director/Microbudget Horror Fan S. Craig Zahler

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The horror/Western BONE TOMAHAWK, opening today in theaters and on VOD from RLJ Entertainment, has a big-ticket cast, but writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s heart has a section reserved for the scrappiest small-budget fare. That became a key topic when FANGORIA chatted with him about his new movie.

BONE TOMAHAWK stars Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson of the INSIDIOUS films and THE CONJURING, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, Richard Jenkins, David Arquette, Sean Young, Kathryn Morris and Sid Haig, telling of a quartet of Old West gunslingers heading out to rescue settlers who have been abducted by cannibalistic savages. It’s the first feature directed by Zahler, who also scripted the 2012 release ASYLUM BLACKOUT, has published a handful of Western/thriller novels and has gotten plenty of attention of other scripts he’s sold. But when they wound up unmade, as he confesses when Fango speaks with him at Austin, TX’s Fantastic Fest, he considered turning to the DIY side…

S. CRAIG ZAHLER: I’d been watching a lot of microbudget horror, and in particular I’m a really big fan of Brian Paulin’s stuff, like BONE SICKNESS, FETUS, BLOOD PIGS… I was at a point in my career when I’d sold maybe 22 different screenplays to Hollywood and seen not one of them made, and I was getting tired of that. You can make a good living doing it, but it’s frustrating not seeing things taken to completion, and I was watching all this indie horror—Olaf Ittenbach and the Toetag guys and all that stuff—and I said, “I’m gonna do one of these.” It was gonna be called FLESH BENEATH THE CONCRETE, and it was going to be as far-gone extreme as anyone had seen—but with the characterization and that sort of stuff that I tend to do.

FANGORIA: Why is that?

ZAHLER: If I’m doing horror, I want the bottom line to be about scares, but like most of my stuff, it’s also about the characters and their journey—specific stuff that I also want to accomplish in the Westerns I write. But the idea of paying for that on my credit card, which is what I was gonna do on my microbudget horror movie…

FANG: Why didn’t you make that film?

ZAHLER: In terms of the amount of work and the cast we could get—if I had done FLESH BENEATH THE CONCRETE, all the actors would have come on for some of the worst paydays they’ve ever received, if not the worst.

FANG: Why do you like to write such extreme material?

ZAHLER: The interesting thing is… I mean, I was a child of FANGORIA, and had the posters on my wall. My mom would walk into my room when I was a kid, and she would have to take off her glasses ’cause she couldn’t look. The EVIL DEAD eye-gouging was on the wall, and the DAY OF THE DEAD surgery with the intestines coming out. I had a FROM BEYOND poster that she couldn’t look at, TEXAS CHAINSAW 2—all that stuff.

BONETOMAHAWKZAHLER

FANG: How was it writing in the vernacular of the Western for BONE TOMAHAWK?

ZAHLER: Western dialogue is something I’m pretty comfortable with at this point. Some of it is assimilation of all the stuff I’ve seen. I read a lot; I probably spend more time reading than anything else in my spare time. I’ve read a lot of stuff that was written kind of close to the time, like Max Brand—this dude was writing in, like, 1920? So that was not too far removed from that period. So it’s just about having a sense of “This feel right” and “This doesn’t.”

I also read lots of pulps, crime stuff from the ’30s, and they’re always talking about, you know, “Give me your gat!” And of course I’m thinking, this is stuff I heard in rap music in the ’90s—they talk about their gats; that slang was popular then. So I try to capture a sense of what plays real, what feels authentic and what makes sense for the characters.

FANG: How do you translate that to the set, when you’re shooting it?

ZAHLER: Well, this movie is pretty close to the script. I mean, there were a couple of changes Patrick suggested, like where he’s reading the letter: “Oh, if this part came at the end…” So we flipped that. Kurt had a handful of suggestions, like, “Instead of that line, how about this one that’s in the prose?” But there weren’t a lot of figuring it out on set. We shot this movie in 21 days, which was a punishing pace, and frankly unfair to every single person involved, but that was the reality of this production.

FANG: Going on set and creating this world—you’re used to writing, you’ve created these characters and a rhythm, and then it was time to manifest it.

ZAHLER: Right. So I was looking at these people, because I had experience as a cinematographer and as a theater director, and looking at what happens on the set, and it’s basically a two-step process. The first is “Does anything I see look phony?” It could be a prop, it could be an effect, it could be a line reading—does anything stick out to me as false? I would rather have a movie where 100 percent of it is underdone in terms of performance and things like that than have a movie where even 10 percent is overdone.

FANG: Last question: Can I get a Kurt Russell story?

ZAHLER: I don’t want to spoil the moment for viewers, but there’s a scene where something is jammed in his mouth. These guys were all sports and doing their own stunts, but this, to me, of all the above-and-beyond-expectations moments, was at the top. So we were doing all this stuff, and all these guys were tired and everyone was getting beaten down by this point in the shoot, and Kurt had this thing jammed in his mouth and corkscrewed around. And of course, on a movie like this, the way you do it is you jam it in his mouth and spin it around. None of the effects were digital—the arrows were set on tricklines. All of the gore was practical; I was dead set against any CG blood—that didn’t speed us up!—and I know FANGORIA readers will appreciate that, as I am one and do as well.

So Kurt came to me that day when he was gonna have that thing in his mouth, and said, “Craig, this is some really bad timing, but my tooth is really hurting”—on Friday, and this was the Monday that we had to shoot the scene—“and I had a root canal yesterday.” So for that scene, when he had to have this thing jammed in his mouth, he’d had a root canal maybe 12 hours before, and did it like a trouper. His only request was, “Please just wash that thing each time, so it doesn’t get infected.” That’s the kind of actor he is.

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About the author
Heather Buckley
Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank's Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley
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