By Ramona Zacharias.
Craig Zahler is a man of many talents. Besides being an accomplished novelist, screenwriter, director and cinematographer, he’s also a self-professed metalhead as the drummer, lyricist and singer for the band Realmbuilder. Not surprisingly, Zahler’s many passions have combined to make him an extremely interesting storyteller. He’s taught himself how to put content fit for a novel into a screenplay and applied lessons learned from his drumming to better his writing style, making both obvious and obscure connections between his various careers.
And over the course of his screenwriting career in particular, Zahler has learned much about the movie business. With some 20-plus screenplays having either been optioned or sold and not one actually made in Hollywood, he is familiar with the frustrations facing many writers. His approach? Write what you love, don’t do what you’re not keen on and whenever possible, make it happen for yourself. His latest effort is the grisly western flick Bone Tomahawk, which he both wrote and directed. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins and David Arquette, the film is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes at a favorable critic rating of 88% with Zahler in particular being praised by both critics and audiences alike for his unconventional approach to a classic genre.
Refreshingly candid about his experiences, Zahler chatted about Bone Tomahawk and what he has found works for him in terms of both project and industry.
Let’s start by talking about the genre, which appears to be a blending of western and horror. Do you find the two naturally lend themselves to each other?
For me, the movie is a western. And everything that I write has comedy in it. It’s sort of the backbone of what I do. I feel a lot of movies are a little too monochromatic when they just show a world that is serious all the time.
I enjoyed The Wrestler, but I think it would have been better if it had had about ten more scenes like the one where he’s throwing the lunchmeat on the counter. It just brightens it and it’s not so monotonous. I think that was something that was really terrible about the movie Precious, which I think is just terrible – it’s just monotonously mean.
The other thing that is in almost all of my work is horror. I like to have those sequences and my process is very much one of surprising myself every day that I write. So when it gets dark, it tends to get really dark.
If I write a western or if I write a crime piece – and I’ve written a lot of both of those at this point – it’s going to go really dark. And I think that’s why the horror thing comes up. For me, the movie is kind of a classic western, in terms of the fact that it’s an adventure of people on the frontier…with the frontier as basically a moral and physical crucible for the protagonists. But then when it gets dark, it gets really dark.
So I understand why most people I speak to talk about it as a blending of genres…but I just see it as a western where, when you’re dealing with the enemies, it goes further than you would expect. But I do the same thing with my crime pieces and I’d expect that if I made one of them into a movie, it would get the same kind of classification. Like the movie Se7en – really atmospheric and scary, but to me it feels like it’s a crime movie. It’s just that when it gets dark and nasty, it’s darker and nastier than others.
The opening scene is quite gruesome and really sets the tone for the rest of the film. How important is it to start off your story with a visual that striking?
My hope is that you see that opening scene and you have some idea of what you’re in for. Obviously the shot is a bit of a rough one to open the movie with and that gives you some sense of where it’s going to go eventually. But then there’s a fair amount of character stuff with dialogue…and perhaps an audience that is informed by a preview or synopsis will know that the two characters in the opening scene aren’t the protagonists. But I’m setting it up and spending an amount of time with them where they could be.
The ideal situation for me is if the viewer goes in knowing very little about the movie, or possibly nothing about the movie other than what it’s called. So the scene sets that up, but it also sets up the idea that we’re going to spend time with people, hear them talk, and get a sense of their lives outside the movie. Which is certainly something that I feel is missing from a lot of 90-minute studio movies. Giving you a sense of the world outside the story and spending some time with them.
Where that scene goes obviously lets you know that the world of the movie itself is not safe, and that anyone that you spend any amount of time with may not survive. I’m trying to set all that up there, and I think it has a couple of surprises. You spend a fair amount of time with the characters, you hear a lot of that idiosyncratic dialogue that fills the movie and then you also get some of the horror atmosphere that is in it. So I feel that in a way, it’s like a little sampler plate for the movie that’s to come. I think it’s pretty important to have an opening scene that’s strong and brings people in.
As you mentioned, there is a real focus on the dialogue between the characters and there are often long periods of conversation that break up the action sequences. Tell me a little bit about your process and how you pace yourself to include as much dialogue as you need to properly develop the characters.
My writing process is that I know where I’m going at all times and it’s open to avenues in different directions. In some ways I’m a bit better suited for writing novels than scripts…it’s always a bit of a struggle for me with any piece that has a lot of content to get it into screenplay size. To decide how many details I want to include and which are the most important ones. The process of writing for me is one of surprising myself every single day that I do it and also of not finishing the day until I’ve written pages that I think are good.
So with this you’re looking at basically the first draft and the same can be said of most of my screenplays that are out there – and when I say first draft, I mean that the story I wrote the first time through is the story that’s there at the end. I spend a lot of time polishing the prose and doing that sort of thing, but it’s an enjoyable process for me.
There’s a camping scene where all of a sudden the character Chicory (Richard Jenkins) is talking about how to read a book in the bathtub. I didn’t know that’s what he was going to talk about until it happened. And to have a character like that who’s pretty complicated…someone who has a thought process that isn’t focused and who does have some degree of what’s probably senility in there…and whose filter is down for him in terms of the fact that he speaks and says what he’s thinking…it’s a real pleasure to write a character like that. They’re going to surprise you pretty much every day you write them. Such was the case with that character from the get-go.
This is the fifth western I’ve written – since my initial two screenplays that were westerns, I wrote two novels. It is a world that I’m comfortable dealing with, characters that I’m comfortable dealing with and a type of dialogue I enjoy writing. And certainly the adventure component is really enjoyable and a large part of the reason I like writing the genre.
Do you find that the genre is lacking in Hollywood?
I set up my career as a writer and got a three-picture deal on a western that I wrote in 2006. I’ve watched a number of people come and go on that. It’s a script called “The Brigands of Rattleborge”, and at different times Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio – to name three – were all interested in that movie. I’d actually done development notes for both DiCaprio and Cruise on it…and I watched different directors come and go.
The problem with westerns in Hollywood is that there’s the perception they won’t make money. My feeling is that perception is the biggest obstacle, because what happens then is the people in Hollywood only get behind westerns that have a gimmick. But I can tell you I did not see Jonah Hex. At some point, people had approached me to work on it but I didn’t even want to see what that end product was. Same thing with Cowboys & Aliens, also for which people had approached me because they knew that I was a western guy. I saw a preview for that movie and knew that I had no interest in watching it.
So the westerns that they’re doing are turning off actual western fans – I don’t know many western fans who saw either of those movies. But certainly there was a gimmick and something new that people could say “well this is why these will do well”.
Maybe they’re not going to make a western that’s going to make a hundred million dollars, so maybe they should just scale the budgets accordingly. But Hollywood is moving more and more towards just making gigantic movies like Fast & Furious and Transformers kind of things that make gigantic numbers. Because why bother to make 5 or 10 twenty-million dollar movies that are going to make 30 million dollars when you can make one huge movie that’s going to then make a huge sum on it.
Of course I wish that weren’t the case…but the track record for westerns in Hollywood wasn’t good and then it looked even worse when they made these giant budget gimmick westerns that did terribly. So there hasn’t been a lot there in recent years, but this year it looks like a few are coming out. Obviously there’s this one, though this is certainly an independent movie and has some Hollywood people in it.
But there’s The Hateful Eight and The Revenant…so hey, if a few of these do well, then all of a sudden there should be a mini resurgence. Because if there’s one thing that Hollywood does, it’s follow trends.
Given some of the restrictions we’ve discussed in terms of the industry, do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters?
My advice on screenwriting is going to be dubious, because I break most of the rules in my screenwriting. My prose is clearly the prose of a novelist. At this point in time, I’ve had maybe a minimum of 21 different screenplays optioned or sold, and not one of them was made in Hollywood.
I had one made by a French company in Belgium, but the other 20 or more – and some of those have been optioned multiple times, I had a television series that was at FX that went to Starz that went to AMC – none of them have been made. So my advice isn’t great or especially worth taking in terms of if someone wants to be successful.
I’ve made money doing this and that made me comfortable enough to continue to just do exactly what I want and hope people are interested. It’s also made me financially comfortable so I can spend a lot of time writing novels, of which I’ve written eight and I have a couple of new ones that I’m about to take around.
So my advice would be to write what you enjoy…but at the same time, that’s tough advice to someone who’s really looking to break in and make a living doing it. I didn’t move to Los Angeles when most of my friends from NYU did. And I was ok to not have a living in the film industry.
I like writing books. I’m a metalhead and I’ve played in a bunch of different metal bands. And I’m still, as of last month, recording heavy metal stuff. I was ok to not be involved with the film stuff because books and music are both equally important to me.
The advice I would still give is write what you enjoy, because if you write something that you like and it doesn’t go anywhere, at least it’s not a soulless experience. You’ve written something that you can stand behind.
Any my other advice would be, don’t count on any one thing to land, because in my experience of 20-plus pieces getting optioned or sold in Hollywood and not seeing any of them made, the odds are against every piece. So just keep generating material and don’t be overly precious with any single one of them.
I’m sure some people have had the very different experience of selling one thing to Hollywood and it gets made and the doors are opened…and that might work if that person’s writing particularly commercial material or they just happen to hook up with the right team that gets their stuff done. But with me, I’d say any advice I give to a screenwriter is kind of questionable. Because it seems I write stuff that a lot of people love to buy or option and then it just becomes toilet reading in Hollywood.
I’m writing for myself first and foremost and I have enough supporters that I’m able to generate income doing it…but if the end goal is turning these things into movies or television shows, which it is for me, I haven’t hit that other than once with the French company and in the case of Bone Tomahawk, where I went and directed my own movie. Certainly some of the frustration with watching so many pieces of mine go sit on studio shelves and with different finance companies is what led me to go and do Bone Tomahawk in the first place.
Finally, do you find that your career as a musician ever infiltrates your writing style?
Certainly. I can point really clearly to my development as a novelist and as a drummer. Earlier on in my career, the prose was really elaborate in some of my pieces. Sometimes I’ll look at the prose and think “this is getting a little bit in the way of the material I’m delivering…so let me get out of the way when something exciting’s going on”. That’s a lesson I learned from playing the drums, where I’m backing up a riff that’s really syncopated and interesting and it’s time for me to lay down a straighter beat. If I’m playing underneath a really syncopated riff or something that’s really exciting, maybe this isn’t the time for me to throw in really elaborate drum fills or syncopated double bass stuff.
There’s a connection with all these things. I’m not a great artist in terms of drawing, but I do that as well and I’ve studied animation. But a lot of it is just finding “are your techniques best serving your material?” As a drummer, as a lyricist, as a songwriter, as a novelist…all of it relates to that idea of: Is my skillset getting in the way of what I’m doing? Is it enhancing what I’m doing? Is it simply delivering what I’m doing? And I see those connections all the time. Definitely the kind of beats I’m playing on a Realmbuilder album and the type of prose in my most recent novels and screenplays have a very direct connection for me.