Interview with S. Craig Zahler

Novelist, screenwriter, and now full-fledged director S. Craig Zahler has dropped an atomic bomb of a western on the world called Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, and Richard Jenkins. The film is quite unlike any other, perfectly melding the western genre to the horror genre, with a men’s adventure aesthetic and a story that hearkens back to a bygone era of the pulps. One distinction sets it way far apart from any western anyone has ever seen: the unflinchingly graphic and hardcore horror violence that will outrival the gory scenes from any mainstream film and then raise it tenfold.

The story concerns a rescue mission and a siege on a clan of cave dwelling cannibals – a “lost race” – which is sure to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, and the beautifully rich characterizations of Zahler’s characters comes alive and stays with you long after watching the film. (Bone Tomahawk will be released in theaters and on demand on Friday, October 23rd.)  

I was at the Los Angeles premier for Bone Tomahawk a few weeks ago, and I’ve got to tell you that it’s one of the best films of the year, and certainly the best western I’ve seen in ages. I want to ask you about “the lost race” aspect of it. You mentioned that a little bit in the Q and A after the premier, but it’s such a great concept to put this lost race in the middle of the Old West and have these cowboys go to war with them. You’d mentioned King Solomon’s Mines, but I was thinking more along the lines of Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead. 

First off, thanks for all those compliments you threw at me one after the other. Thank you, also, for making the effort to see it on the big screen, where I hope many people will see it, with a lot of the subtleties in the performances, and obviously the vistas that you get in a western. That’s where I hope that many people have the opportunity to see it, so thank you very much for that. In terms of the lost race … I don’t know Eaters of the Dead. I haven’t read a lot of Crichton. I read The Andromeda Strain. It was maybe the first adult book I read.

That was like 3rd grade or 4th grade. I thought, Wow, this is what adults read, so I didn’t really understand all of it, but that’s there. In terms of the lost race aspect, it’s a subgenre in fiction that I really enjoy. As my interest in westerns has grown, I estimate in the 10, 11 years that I’ve been writing them, my interest in adventure fiction has grown. The lost race is a whole subgenre. It started with King Solomon’s Mines, and there was a plethora of them that came out in pulps. I’m a huge pulp reader. I have a whole, uh, stacks and stacks of these things that I have read and are in the “to read” aisle. It really proliferated in the pulps and in the pulp magazines.

So, for me, in terms of me bringing these together, it seems like a natural fit, and my surprise is that it actually hasn’t been done before, and often. The only example that I know of, and it’s not really this, but it’s called A Garden of Eden, by Max Brand. He’s certainly my favorite western author, and maybe the most prolific pulp writer of all time. I think he wrote 300 western novels alone, not even including all the other stuff he did under other pseudonyms. In general, my writing aesthetic is that all my stuff has humor, and when my stuff gets dark, it goes in the horror direction. I just wanted the enemies to be something new that were distinct to Bone Tomahawk and nothing else.

I didn’t want anyone to say, “Oh, these are Native Americans I’ve seen in another movie.” I wanted something new, and the more time I spent in developing them, figuring out their culture and how they worked and how they communicated, and their history … a lot of details inform what you see on screen, but I don’t explicitly state and don’t have any intention on explicitly revealing … that’s how they formed. There had to be a mystery element to them, and obviously the horror atmosphere helped.


How important was it to get someone like Kurt Russell to be the star of the movie? How important was it to give the audience a sense of security like that? 

The thing with Kurt Russell is he’s a movie star that’s also a really good actor. I would say, in addition to these qualities, there’s a certain cadence to his voice that I think is probably part of the reason why he’s a movie star. Once you hear him deliver a line, there’s no one else who can give the line in quite the same way. In terms of who he is and why he is a movie star – the icon that he is – there is something that he brings that is very specific to him. Humphrey Bogart had it, Burt Lancaster had it. A lot of guys have had it.

There are a lot of good actors now, and there are a lot of movie stars, but there’s not a massive overlap for me with those two distinctions, and Kurt Russell is someone who could have, in the 1950’s, been starring in tons of westerns when they were cranking them out, or a lot of crime pieces. He has that quality, and I think in terms of letting the audience know ahead of time a little bit what kind of movie this is going to be, you show them his face on the poster and you’ll have a little bit of an idea. I’m probably not alone in wishing that in the last 20 years Kurt Russell had made more westerns rather than none since Tombstone, so I’m pretty excited to see Hateful 8 when that comes out as well.

It’s helpful in that regard. In terms of setting up the movie from a financial end, this is somebody who is immediately recognizable and viable and helped with securing the financing for it. The reality with me being a first time director, and this movie being really long and my unwillingness to cut the script down still made this really hard to finance at any level. We eventually shot it for a fraction of what everyone said we could.


I’ve been telling people that I’ve never seen anything like Bone Tomahawk as far as the violence and gore goes. There are sights to behold in it that are impossible to erase from your mind. How did you reason the violence to yourself that you were going to show it unflinchingly? 

Yeah, it goes back to … I write with myself as the first audience, and I directed this movie the same way. It goes back to a movie that bested me, which was unheard of at the time. I was 18, 19, and about to go to college. I got a videotape from a trading place of a movie called Men Behind the Sun. Do you know this movie?


No, I’ve never heard of it. 

It’s a movie from Hong Kong that was basically about a Japanese camp that was doing these experiments on these Chinese prisoners. I think they refer to them as logs. It’s hideous. At that time, I hadn’t been bested. I got really into violent movies and horror and extreme horror when I was about 13. This was the 80’s. I relished all that stuff, but I’d never seen anything from a certain point forward that phased me, but when I saw this movie … which used very sparing music and a really dry approach to handling the violence.

It didn’t turn into the Lucio Fulci, let’s get really tight in and show you every microscopic detail of the violence … I adore Lucio Fulci, so that’s not a knock on him, but that’s the style he did. It’s really going in close and showing you everything, and it’s certainly a leering style that you can probably trace all the way back to Herschell Gordon Lewis, but I’m a much bigger Fulci fan. So Men Behind the Sun had a very austere look and it was well shot, but it really got to me, and I actually had to stop the movie and watch it in pieces in daylight with friends and it really just affected me.

One of the things that is notable about that movie is the quantity of blood was far less than you would see in most things like that. This is where I first started to learn that if you chop into somebody’s arm and blood sprays everywhere, this is kind of what’s expected and possibly sort of comical, but not really violent in terms of something that affects me. But if you chop into somebody’s arm and see a flap of skin hanging, and maybe a little sinew, and the person in the performance is good on top of it, then it’s hideous.

So, those differences between what is kind of fun violence with splatter and blood going everywhere, and stuff that’s truly uncomfortable, which is flaps of skin and performance and actors really delivering convincing performances that the pain is real, that’s where a lot of that comes from. A lot of things that have affected me over the years … certainly Irreversible was not easy to watch – it’s maybe the only movie I’ve seen in the theater where I had to look away. It’s a similar sort of thing where it’s happening in front of you, and it had fewer edits and it didn’t go in really, really close and there wasn’t a ton of music cuing you. It was just happening there in front of you as if you were there witnessing it.


I feel like Bone Tomahawk was made for male viewers in general, but that’s not to say that women won’t enjoy it too, but I think it’s actually made for a certain sort of male viewer. I think the horrific violence puts it in a whole new category where westerns and horror movies come together, but I think it will especially appeal to a select group of male viewers most of all. What do you think? 

I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t completely agree. The driving force of this movie is the characterizations. There’s the characters that I wrote on the page, and there’s the characters these performers created on the set. I’ve had a lot of women come up to me afterwards and actually speak specifically to the romance aspects of the movie, which are pretty strong. All of the relationships these guys have with their women or women in their past or women in the present are defining elements for them. I don’t want to give anything away, but that’s there. It’s the driving force of this movie. I know what you’re saying, but that hasn’t been my experience.

This is the fifth western that I’ve written, and something I’ve heard many, many times is, “I don’t really like westerns, but I really liked this one.” I don’t think it’s a flaw with the genre, or anything like that, but if you write really strong characters that people are interested in, whether they like them or not or have conflicted feelings about them, you’ll have the ability to engage the audience. I’ve had that experience with this movie a bunch of times. People tell me how surprised they were that they enjoyed it. It’s an adventure film that is very character driven.


Your script for this movie is one of the most beautiful scripts I’ve heard in a very long time. Being a novelist, I was wondering if you would ever consider novelizing it. 

Thank you very much! But, no, the inception of this piece was I was going to do an indie gore horror movie. I talked to my friend and producer of this movie, and he encouraged me to do a western, He initially said, suggested, that I adapt my book Wraiths of the Broken Land, which is super nasty. It’s Bone Tomahawk times ten in that regard. The scale of that is big. For me to take that novel and turn it into a movie, I’d have to cut out 70% of it, at least.

The budget would need to be huge because when I wrote it I never thought I’d need to shoot any of it. There are elaborate scenes and I couldn’t quite film it unless it was a big budgeted movie. In terms of Bone Tomahawk, it overlaps that enough in that it’s a western that gets really dark with horror, but that’s really character driven. I have so many ideas I want to do that the idea of doubling back isn’t that appealing to me.

The script is floating around out there for anybody who wants to read it. But for a different western adventure that is this dark and with these kinds of characters and is also a rescue mission, I already have a book like that called Wraiths of the Broken Land, and then there’s another novel before that called A Congregation of Jackals that’s just an altogether different kind of western. There’re so many things I want to write, it’s just a decision of which one I’m going to put my time into. I already have two more western ideas that will be the next westerns I do. Whether they be books, movies, or television shows, I can’t tell you.