I committed a cardinal sin at Fantastic Fest: I watched a movie twice. There are so many films to see, and to give up one of your finite film slots for a movie you saw two days before is nigh unforgivable. But Bone Tomahawk, the new Western starring my cinematic hero Kurt Russell, was the closing night film, and I feared I wouldn’t score a seat. So I woke up at 7:30 in the morning (a FEAT, if you’ve ever spent a week at Fantastic Fest) and watched a press screening with a half-dozen other groggy souls. And I was kind of blown away by what a singular film it was, astonished at how I hadn’t really been prepared for it by anything I’d read, and completely willing and eager to see it again when it turned out I managed to get into the closing night screening.
Bone Tomahawk plays like a snappily-written 1950s Western, with funny, crackling dialogue and rich, colorful characterizations. Its setup - four good men ride out to rescue three townspeople taken in the night by a tribe so savage the resident Native American hesitates to call them human - is delightfully anachronistic. And for 90 minutes it’s a solid throwback to a world in which I, as a fan of old-fashioned Westerns, enjoyed luxuriating. Then it turns - HARD - into a nightmare cannibal story, and that relentless narrative shift (along with some nausea-inducing foley work) plays a large part in why the calloused Fantastic Fest crowd were reduced to squirming in their seats and covering their faces during the film’s third act.
I think Bone Tomahawk is something really special, and it was a privilege to be able to chat with the film’s two producers, Caliber Media’s Dallas Sonnier and Jack Heller. We discuss working with the legendary Mr. Russell, the job of facilitating and protecting the vision of writer/first-time director S. Craig Zahler, and how the work you love can sometimes make the people you love vomit, and how that’s okay.
BMD: When I watched Bone Tomahawk (twice, by the way), I knew I had to talk to its producers, because I came out wondering two things: how does a movie like this get backing, and how does a movie like this get marketed? We’ll get to the marketing part at the end, but exactly how does one secure financing for a low budget, (mostly) classical Western in 2015?
JH: I have to give a huge amount of credit to Dallas, his tenacity and the personal stakes he took on to get the film financed. Without that commitment and our ability to plan out the shoot as we did, this film wouldn’t have happened.
DS: It was fucking brutal. Inexplicably, my mother and father were both murdered within two years of each other, just as my wife had given birth to our two beautiful children. The genesis of Bone Tomahawk came in the middle of all of this personal chaos, and instead of proper therapy, I fixated on getting (writer/director) S. Craig Zahler’s movie made at any cost.
JH: No financier believed in our low budget version of this film. We were always told we needed $5-10 million.
DS: We had the money committed a few times over the development period, but the requirements for funding were so insane, like one financier insisted that his brother had to play “Brooder” (the dapper gunslinger ultimately played in the film by Matthew Fox). Every interested company wanted to cut down the script, and it was always the same-targeted scenes. Zahler was only willing to go so far, and Caliber backed him implicitly during these battles. At one point, we were fully cast and two days away from going to Utah to start prep. I even had a hotel room booked. The financier at the time could not get bonded based on our run-and-gun production schedule, and they shut us down. It was devastating and we lost two cast members. Ultimately, every single Hollywood company passed. Hundreds of submissions. Time was running out and our remaining cast was willing to give us one last shot. Zahler deserved to make his movie. I knew that if I didn’t get Bone Tomahawk made, I was going to quit the business. So I did something completely insane: I decided to take out a bank loan that I had to personally guarantee in order to pay for production. Was this a terrible idea at the time? Absolutely. Did my risk ultimately pay off both creatively and financially? You betcha. (As I quickly nod to my hero Robert Evans.)
BMD: Nicely done. People have compared the plot to The Searchers, but tonally I think the film’s modest budget and personal scale put it more in the realm of the (amazing) Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher films - Buchanan Rides Alone, The Tall T, Seven Men From Now. And like those films, there’s a real tightrope act in making something that feels authentic and mature, but the film is also conscious on some level of being a “movie” movie, with very classical performances and heightened dialogue. It’s as if there’s an old school priority to make it an “entertainment”, if that makes sense. It’s a tone that surprised and excited me. How exactly did it come to be, and how do you nurture that tone to make sure it makes it to the screen?
DS: Bone Tomahawk is as much of a singular vision by a director, Zahler in this case, as the original Terminator was the vision of Cameron or Star Wars originally of Lucas. Zahler is one of the last remaining analog guys in a digital world. He sent his first text message in 2014, and he favors writing late into the night for less distraction. He regularly watches old Kung Fu movies at the theater and reads tons of old detective pulp magazines. Those are as much his influences as are the classic American films from any genre and any decade. But most of all, his novelistic writing style is simply infectious and its impossible not to become consumed by the beauty of his prose. The actors were completely cognizant and thrilled to have such clarity on the page. And Zahler was able to capture that vision as a director and nail it with a sledgehammer to the screen.
BMD: Let’s talk about the cast. You didn’t just get Kurt Russell; you got Kurt Russell in an era where he’s basically doing your movie and Quentin Tarantino movies. Kurt isn’t showing up for just anything these days.
DS: You make a great point. Kurt just fell in love with the project and hung on like a bull rider.
JH: Our younger selves stole a time machine to high five us the night we found out! He stuck with this film for years to get it made and that says a lot about the guy, not just the myth.
BMD: What happens to a movie this size when Kurt Russell signs on? Feeling a little validated at that point?
DS: He was adamant that the script be fully realized, even saying one time that “the tomahawks need to be made out of motherfucking bone!!” Once we had Kurt, we were validated, and other actors were willing to give us a chance. On the first day of production, I gave Kurt a framed email from Zahler to me saying “KURT IS IN!!!!!” because his initial and lasting commitment meant so much to us. We pre-sold all the foreign rights to the film just on his attachment alone before we made the movie. Can you imagine what its like to be a valuable commodity worldwide? Kurt Russell is a national treasure and deserves his own holiday.
BMD: Agree 100%. How did the reality of working with him measure up against the dream?
DS: This was the worst payday, the worst trailer, the worst set of comforts that Kurt has and ever will experience on a project. I mean, my assistant drove him to set everyday in a jalopy. There were times when I was embarrassed that we couldn’t give him more appropriate accommodations, but there just wasn’t any money for that. We put every cent on screen. And Kurt never once complained because he knew this movie had a shot if he played ball.
JH: Working with Kurt was a dream come true because he lives up to his image.
DS: There is simply no delineation between on-screen Kurt and real-life Kurt; he’s the same guy. Imagine Jack Burton standing by craft services between takes telling some amazingly over-the-top story about working with John Carpenter back in the day. Or when things got tough - imagine R.J. MacReady taking you aside to discuss how to best attack this scene. I say this with love. He’s a bona fide movie star and I’ll cherish our working friendship forever.
BMD: What was really exciting about Mr. Russell's work here is that he's not just cashing in on some existing persona; he's actually adding a new role to a rich repertoire of characters. There's a resigned, elder statesman-type calm to Sheriff Hunt. It’s like his “badass” side has ripened into something we've never seen from him before.
DS: So many actors say “I want to be challenged, I want to try new things.” I just don’t think Kurt gives a shit about that. Every character he’s ever played is a distant relative of each other. In my mind, Kurt is methodically building a veritable Redwood on Ancestry.com of brilliant leading men that he alone makes iconic. Sheriff Hunt is simply the great-great-great-grandpa of Eldon Perry (Russell’s character in 2003's Dark Blue).
BMD: As huge a fan I am of Mr. Russell, I walked out of the movie pretty much worshiping Richard Jenkins. He’s always a reliable presence in films, but he's just so wonderful here, and I don’t think we’ve ever seen him in this kind of role. Did he surprise the crew as much as he surprised my audience?
JH: Richard Jenkins was a revelation on set and in the final film. He was constantly delivering the goods and we were in awe of his performance. He was also extremely generous with the other cast and kind to the crew.
DS: Our sound mixer Brian Hackett and we would be listening to the scenes from video village near the monitors. And in between takes, Kurt and Richard would stand around taking about their past moviemaking experiences. They talked about when Richard auditioned for Overboard, how much they both loved Mike Nichols, and all the inner workings of Silverado and Tombstone. Brian, Jack and I were just sitting together quietly enjoying a peek into the amazing lives of these two men.
BMD: The supporting cast has so many other familiar faces. Not just Sid Haig and David Arquette in the opening, but later in The Learned Goat (the town bar) we see Sean Young, James Tolkan, Michael Paré, you’ve got one of the Frog Brothers from the Lost Boys in there (Jamison Newlander). How did the supporting cast fall into place, with so many recognizable actors?
DS: Well, my two favorite movies are Top Gun and The Lost Boys. I can quote every single line beginning to end as long as I have the movie playing on mute in front of me. So when Zahler told me he knew Jamison Newlander, I about shit myself and we quickly made Jamison the 3rd person cast behind Richard and Kurt. I also talked James Tolkan out of retirement and flew him all the way in from Lake Placid to play the pianist. He never once made me feel bad for asking him 10 billion questions about flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong. Sean Young was a hoot. She was taking lots of photos and enjoying every second. And I had just worked with Paré and Arquette on our upcoming film Chuck Hank And The San Diego Twins. I think Zahler was ultimately thrilled and honored that so many legends came out to support his film in smaller roles. And it was a blast hanging around them all on set.
JH: The supporting cast reflects our united love of the last few decades of movies. Being able to work with these actors was a highlight for us, a little extra icing on the cake.
BMD: That bar scene also introduces a character called “The Professor” (Zahn McClarnon) for some expository dialogue, and he was so compelling to watch that I couldn’t believe he was only in one scene. It was really illustrative of the surprising level of restraint this film had: not many low-budget first features are confident enough to introduce an amazingly colorful character like that, and somehow NOT wring that character dry. Who gets credit for that?
DS: Zahler, 100%. Zahn was someone that Zahler just flat out insisted on casting. I think Zahn’s deadpan manner was made for Zahler films. The guy just nails it. Zahler has no problem sending characters packing once they have come in and delivered.
JH: It comes back to the Zahler’s confidence and dedication to his vision. It takes a lot to show the restraint he does…
BMD: On a similar note, it’s easy to see how there might be, in a more standard development process, a temptation to make Patrick Wilson's character sort of fatally flawed, or for Matthew Fox's character to have some sinister agenda. But no one is pulling a bait and switch here, there are no sneaky reveals. From beginning to end these are four good, human men, though each very different from the others, united in their goal. It’s almost Hawksian in its approach. Was that any kind of conscious draw for you, or even for the actors? It struck me as a really refreshing choice.
DS: I’m not going to lie. Zahler was not open to my script notes (or anyone’s for that matter) from the beginning. So I just put my head down and ran as fast as I could with blinders on towards production. I didn’t concern myself with the script because I was simply too busy casting the roles and finding the money. But we just had such faith in Zahler as a filmmaker that we didn’t need to worry.
JH: It’s what makes Zahler's script and now the film so successful. It doesn’t crowd the narrative or the characters for the sake of it. It’s specific and necessary, and allows you to commit to the film and its choices.
BMD: You get this script and you get this budget - what goes into making sure it can be done on a 21 day schedule? Is that your job, or is there another wizard who makes that happen?
JH: While we are extremely hands-on, we have an amazing group of people we collaborate with to make sure we can provide the right production plan to get the directors vision on the screen.
DS: We use the same crew over and over again on our films, starting with our trusted line producer Jon Wagner, who has been temporarily stolen from us by James Franco for his slate.
JH: Jon Wagner works hand in hand with us making the budget, watching over the set, and most importantly keeping everything in the house of cards that is production stay sturdy.
DS: I’m proud to admit that we got our start producing direct to video action movies. We worked with guys like Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Michael Jai White and Stone Cold Steve Austin. When you take this low-budget producing mentality and apply it now to the killer script of Bone Tomahawk, and (put it) in the hands of a visionary director and top-notch actors, we were able to make a stunning movie on a shoestring budget.
BMD: Still, you’ve got a first-time director, very little money, and even less time to shoot a Western that’s maybe 75% exteriors. How smooth a shoot could this have possibly been?
JH: On paper this film is a producer’s worst nightmare, and it would have been if Craig hadn’t been so sure of vision from the kickoff. We didn’t waste time or energy on things that tend to slow you down on these types of shoots. We didn’t have a long pre-production period, but more importantly we had a specific one, allowing us to prepare for the shoot in a faster way. Craig was never indecisive about his choices. I can’t say enough how that helped our low budget production keep on track.
DS: One shortcut was hiring Peter Sherayko. He was the western advisor on Tombstone and has seven warehouses full of period costumes, furniture, and weapons in his backyard. Sherayko is the Wal-Mart of Westerns, with a lit cigar permanently attached to his mouth.
BMD: What were some of the big hurdles?
DS: The major stumbling block was the last day. We just simply had to finish the movie, so we just kept shooting. I’m pretty sure we shot 24 hours straight. Clearly not appropriate but we had no more money to extend an extra day, so we just paid about $15k in overtime fees and shot until the next morning. One of the actors lined me up like I was back in a fraternity pledge meeting and let me have it, rightfully so. But we didn’t have a choice, plus the movie turned out great and all is forgiven. We all aged presidentially getting this movie through production.
JH: There were definitely hiccups along the way: shooting 8-10 pages a day, uncooperative horses, blocking scenes with a dozen actors, and over 24 locations - all in the desert - can wear on the flow of production. But everyone saw these amazing and accomplished actors next to them in the trenches - humping it over mountains and through canyons all while giving epic performances, day in and day out, and it sets a standard that everyone was excited to take on.
BMD: When it was announced, I’d heard this movie being described as a “cannibal Western,” as if that was some kind of sub-genre that already existed. And after watching it, I worried that people might be expecting a film that is a horror movie set in the West. But without spoiling too much this is a film that, for 90 minutes, is very much a classic, old-school Western, with a script that could have easily been written in 1959. And then it...takes a very nasty turn. We’re told throughout the film what our protagonists are going up against, but I don’t think a single person in my audience was prepared for what occurs in the last 30 minutes of this movie. On the eve of release, how are you feeling about how the cannibal stuff is going to be received? The Foley work alone inside that cave…
DS: My wife vomited in her mouth the first two times she watched the movie during “that” scene. But there is nothing gratuitous about the violence or the cannibalism. In fact, its realism is what makes it so hard to swallow. Zing! As for the Foley, I will allow a photo from Foley artist Jay Peck to answer this question...
BMD: Yep, I definitely know what scene that’s from.
JH: The best part about putting something like this in the world is hearing how the reactions vary, how people handle it, and what they take away from it.
BMD: Well, rest assured it nearly broke the hardcore crowd of genre fans with whom I saw it. As producers, are you worried about how to market this film? A horror crowd might not find it to be much of a traditional horror movie, and any Western crowd is most certainly going to be caught off guard by the third act. From a creative standpoint, I have to say it all feels earned and organic and it’s perfectly executed, and that achievement in particular is why I keep calling Bone Tomahawk a very special film. But now you have to sell this to the masses. What’s the plan?
JH: People like you who enjoyed the film are our best way to get the word out! Tweet, blog, Instagram, tell a friend!
BMD: On it.
DS: Your colleague Scott Wampler wrote a great article questioning our trailer. And since I know Scott, I told him that I felt like our trailer as well as the US poster were geared towards a broader audience. I don’t think the Birth.Movies.Death/Fantastic Fest crowd should necessarily watch our trailer; Scott is right. I think that audience is already in tune to the film and willing to give it a shot. But when you don’t have 3,000 screens and millions of marketing dollars, you have to make sure you get the less aware folks to click RENT or BUY right then. There is no courtship. So we specifically created the Brandon Schaeffer poster (below) first to attract the BMD crowd and prove to them that we were of a certain taste level, and then we created the US distribution poster to sell hopefully tons of VOD and DVD.
BMD: It’s a beaut. And not to speak for Scott, but I know when he and I talked about the trailer it was more genuine concern that the amazing film we loved and wanted to evangelize about wasn’t being showcased all that…accurately? I see where you’re coming from, though. It's a great movie whose qualities are hard to sell in two minutes and change.
DS: I hope that my honesty here is seen as genuine as I would not want to mislead audiences. But I love the trailer and both posters and everything serves a specific purpose. We love the divisive nature of this film and its marketing. We made Bone Tomahawk to prove to ourselves that we could pull off this difficult feat, and now we are so thrilled with the positive reaction. It’s beyond our wildest dreams.
Bone Tomahawk hits select theaters and VOD this Friday. Get tickets here.