S. Craig Zahler loves Westerns. He has written them as novels and screenplays, and he made his directing debut in 2015 with “Bone Tomahawk,” a successful effort to invest a Western with horror elements.
But he’s not impressed with any talk that 2015 could spark a revival in Westerns. He has heard it before. And he’s not keeping his fingers crossed.
He sees it this way: If “The Revenant” is a hit, people in Hollywood will say it’s because Leonardo DiCaprio is the star. If “The Hateful Eight” is a hit, they’ll say it’s because Quentin Tarantino directed it. Nobody will attribute commercial success to the fact that they’re Westerns.
“I enjoy Westerns, and ‘Bone Tomahawk’ is the fifth Western I’ve written,” Zahler said from New York. “I can’t say my No. 1 goal is realism. My No. 1 goal is to be interesting.”
The quality of Zahler’s dialogue made “Bone Tomahawk” stand out. His characters speak in a manner that suggests the 19th century (“I shan’t”) but with a contemporary, often comic edge. People in Hollywood liked his script, so much so that he attracted a first-rate cast. Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, David Arquette and Lili Simmons agreed to work for reduced salaries, allowing him to make the film on a $1.8 million budget.
Zahler calls the film a “rescue mission” Western. In a small town, a deputy and a rancher’s wife (who also happens to be a doctor) are kidnapped by cannibals identified in the script as troglodytes: a mysterious race of cave-dwellers with chalky white skin and bone whistles implanted in their throats that allow their Tarzan-like cries to carry for miles.
The rancher, the sheriff, his “unofficial backup deputy” and a well-spoken gunman head to the mountains to rescue the kidnap victims.
“Bone Tomahawk” received a limited theatrical run in October and is available on DVD and through streaming services.
“We’ve already made our money back several times over,” Zahler said. “It’s the movie I wanted to make. I shot it in 21 days and didn’t have all the resources I needed, but I was satisfied with the result.”
Zahler, 42, grew up in Miami and attended film school at New York University. He has played drums in a death metal band and worked as a cinematographer on other low-budget films.
If, by chance, “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight” trigger a revival, Zahler is ready
“I’ve been waiting,” he said. “I launched my screenwriting career with a Western in 2006. But even if these movies do well, I don’t know if that will change anybody’s mind. The answer is that in Hollywood there’s a perception that Westerns are not commercially viable.”