Thursday, February 8, 2018

There Will Be Blood and Almost Certainly Bone Snapping and Maybe Cannibalism: An Interview with S. Craig Zahler

S. Craig Zahler may not be a household name yet, but if you've paid any kind of attention to online film talk - especially of the brutally bloody variety (and if you haven't, why are you even here?) - chances are you've heard of his films Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. The former is a stripped down horror/western with Kurt Russell's mustache out in front of a terrific cast of character actors.

The latter is a brutal crime/prison flick featuring a freshly-shorn and never more physically imposing Vince Vaughn. He wrote the nasty and funny Asylum Blackout (2011) and look for Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, penned by Zahler, later this year. His next effort as writer/director is the awesomely titled Dragged Across Concrete featuring Vaughn and Mel Gibson as disgraced cops off the chain and out to settle scores.

He's done grungy cop-fare before in the novel Mean Business on North Ganson Street. It's set in a fictitious rust-belt city in Missouri, and as a St. Louis resident, I spotted enough regionally-specific nods and colloquialisms to imagine it an actual nearby locale, but, as with his films, it starts out pretty grounded in a familiar reality only to gradually roll back the curtains on a hell-scape as vicious and rotten as anything John Carpenter (who shot a lot of Escape From New York in St. Louis) or Walter Hill (whose treasure hunting in an urban warzone adventure flick Trespass is set just across the river in not-quite-real East St. Louis) might imagine.

He describes his next crime novel, The Slanted Gutter (not yet with a publisher)as an intricately plotted psychological warfare crime piece with horror elements that made him uncomfortable to write.

As with many of my favorite authors who sometimes write 'crime' (folks like Tom Piccirrilli, Duane Swierczynski or Joe R. Lansdale), his imagination is unable to be fenced in by the rules of the genres he's clearly a fan of. As a novelist his work cover sensibilities from western and horror, to crime and science-fiction, while his latest book, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child is a Dickensian gothic. Even his work as a musician with outfits like Binary Reptile, Charnel Valley and most appropriately, Realmbuilder, seems concerned with narrative and, um, world-constructing. 

One of the things that first draws me to his projects are the titles. They conjure images visceral and specific, so when I spoke to him on the phone in January I asked - do your projects start with a title?

S. Craig Zahler: I have a rule of thumb when I title a piece: the title needs to be unique to that piece and should put in your mind some kind of image. Often the first thing you learn about something is the title. I don't like these watered down, lowest common denominator titles where they maybe add an article - The Hero - or make it plural - The Heroes - to me it just seems like this was the least objectionable title that twenty suits in a room agreed upon rather than something distinct to the piece. Most of the fiction I read, most of the heavy metal and prog-rock I listen to is distinctly titled. I think the most important thing other than the thing itself is the title. So I spend a lot of time with that.


In some cases the title was there before I wrote the piece and other times the title changes as I'm writing because it no longer fits. The original title for A Congregation of Jackals was The Wedding Marshal and I just felt it was a little light after I finished the book. Wraiths of the Broken Land had a different title - at one point it was called The Buried Phonograph which I thought was a cool image, but didn't quite put Wraiths of the Broken Land into your mind.

Dragged Across Concrete was always Dragged Across Concrete, but Brawl in Cell Block 99 was originally Three-Day Brawl in Cell Block 99... the titular brawl does not last three days. I briefly toyed with the idea Two-Day Brawl in Cell Block 99, but to me that sounded weak. I actually do think Three-Day Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a better title than Brawl in Cell Block 99, but it's no longer accurate.

Bone Tomahawk was always Bone Tomahawk and Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child believe it or not was always that title even when it was first conceived by me 21 years ago. That piece has been alive for me in different incarnations for a very long time.

JA: Is it your white whale? Have you been chasing it the longest?

SCZ: It's not so much that I've been chasing it as the character has been alive for me for a very long time. I started writing a novel when I was 23 - a time when, I shouldn't say I was less disciplined - but I was focused on being a cinematographer, learning how to play drums and writing theater pieces. The idea of writing a novel isn't what I was prioritizing.

Around 2005/2006 when I began making a living as a writer when my western script The Brigands of Rattleborge landed me a three-picture deal at Warner Brothers I thought I'd revisit the Hug Chickenpenny character - I thought there was something different about the character that let me explore different creative impulses and world-building than I do in my pieces of... dudes being mean to each other. Albeit in a book where people are mean to a child.

I wrote a script version about a decade ago and the script had chapters so it was already a hybrid a book first - started in '97, but unfinished. Right after Bone Tomahawk I revisited it as a book and about a year and a half ago I cleaned it up and it became the version it is today. It's nice to have it out there in this incarnation - clearly I plan on visiting it as a movie as well. It's a story that has a lot of depth for me and the approach I would take as a film maker is a little different from the book stylistically, though the content will be very similar.

JA: When you've got a story to tell how do you decide whether it's a book or a film?

SCZ: Some of that is determined by the simple question: How can I take this to completion? After the Bone Tomahawk experience I knew that movies of a certain size I could take to completion. I have some enormous science fiction pieces that would likely be gigantic studio movies and I'm not interested in the process of having a lot of people involved creatively in my work with all the compromises that would mean. So the giant science fiction or fantasy pieces are things I'd be more likely to write as a novel unless I could interest someone in it who would give me the proper amount of control.


A lot of it comes from the standpoint of: How can I finish this? As a novel I can finish anything. Movies of a certain size I think I can take to completion, but if I want to let my imagination go anywhere and not be concerned about how I can make it happen on screen such as an enormous horse-slaughtering scene or a three-hour standoff both of which occur in Wraiths of the Broken Land. I wrote that as a novel, but now it's at Fox with Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard. We'll see if they actually make it, but those are people who can get it done because they have all the resources to do it.

For me creative control is far more important than financial resources. I'm okay to live in the house that my creative control has built.

Zahler's modest-scale directorial efforts to date have managed to snag terrific casts of that-guy faces from the highly recognizable mugs of Don Johnson and Richard Jenkins to cult favorites Udo Kier and Sid Haig, as well as future indispensables like Fred Malemed (who's three for three appearing in Zahler's films). And when folks like Michael Paré, Sean Young and James Tolkan show up for tiny parts like a roll-call of representatives from all my favorite films from the 80s, I know I'm watching the work of a film maker to whom detail is key.


JA: You've got a real gift for casting. The collection of faces you put together in your films are terrific - I mean Sid Haig was nowhere in the promotional material I saw for Bone Tomahawk, but he jumps right of the screen in the opening scenes - right down to James Tolkan in that tiny role.

SCZ: I think that was his last role. He was such a sweet man. He was great to work with. It was enjoyable and the thing is once a project starts gaining a certain momentum I'm putting together a cast from all different types of material. With Udo Kier and Sid Haig you're clearly appealing to a certain group of people, and obviously I am one of those people, and then you get a group like Kurt Russell and Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn and Matthew Fox and everybody knows who they are. I'm just trying to get performers I like who I think are good for the part. It's all different types coming in to these.

Two years ago nobody said I'm gonna go see that movie where Vince Vaughn has a showdown with Udo Kier, but I love bringing them together and seeing the interesting magic that happens bringing together these disparate personalities and just watching them go. It's a lot of fun working with both of them - and they're both in my new movie.

JA: Oh man, I can't wait for Dragged Across Concrete. I love saying the title... With your reputation for loving attention to gory violence (deserving favorable comparison to Cronenberg) that title just... gives me a boner.

SCZ: I suspect you'll like it. One thing I'll say about Dragged Across Concrete, although the title is certainly the most violent of the three, it's the first of my films to get a major release and I'm not needing to tone it down and it will most likely land an 'R' - it certainly has its violent moments - but what's different about this piece is the plotting is more intricate by comparison. This and some of the some of crime stuff I've written recently is more intricately plotted. Sometimes I want a piece where the plot is really simple and just the road upon which the character's journey happens. Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 are both like that and I wrote those in 2011 and that's what I was doing then.

I wrote Dragged Across Concrete in 2016 in between film productions and it's more of an ensemble piece, kind of like Bone Tomahawk with multiple leads. It's a bit of a different thing. You will certainly recognized the attention to detail with the characterization and lack of a score, but for a site called Hardboiled Wonderland it will be the 'down-the-middle' fit. It's a crime piece that's plotted in that style with little surprises, clues and some detective work.

JA: If you wrote it after working with Kurt Russell on Bone Tomahawk - I remember you saying Dark Blue was a favorite among his performances - will Dragged Across Concrete (ahem) cover similar ground?

SCZ: It's big. It'll be quite a bit longer than the other two. I'm a big L.A. Confidential fan and I enjoy Dark Blue... it can hang out it that sort of camp. Going into I was thinking about Dog Day Afternoon and probably Prince of the City more than most pictures.

Any time I'm writing crime I look up to the picture that's kind of the pinnacle of that sort for me, Sweet Smell of Success which has probably the best screen play ever written. All of that stuff is in there - strange stuff - the thing that it will most feel like is my other two movies, but where the plot is more intricate and kind of core element of the piece with a lot more things in play throughout. The longer running time reflects all the time I'll spend on characterization that I did in the other films.


JA: Certainly your reputation for violence is merited, but there's definitely a character sensibility and sensitivity you apply - I love that conversation between Vaughn's and Jennifer Carpenter's characters at the beginning of Brawl - it really signals that there's more going on than a straight up exploitation movie. The nuance is nice.

Vaughn's character is a familiar type (American flag waiving, straight shooting, jeans and T-shirt) that is often played for a laugh in your average Michael Bay picture or as the whole cast in Logan Lucky - but Brawl took him seriously and portrayed him in a sincere and straightforward manner. Was that a challenge you set for yourself, to take on this character type, that people tend to make jokes about, in a straight forward way?

SCZ: When I'm writing something no matter the medium I'm trying to represent the mindset of that character. I'm not writing to put forth any kind of political agenda. Being pretty much the middle of the road politically and not that politically interested frees me up to write people who are far right, far left, have opinions similar to mine, much different than mine, from a place of empathy and getting in their mindset.

This, to me, is a pretty universal situation where you feel like your place in the world is lost a little bit. I wrote this in 2011 and certainly political elections run on this idea. For me it was a logical motivating thing for this character who's trying to figure out his place - an inherently good guy, but like most people, perhaps everyone, has a degree of hypocrisy in their life. The conflict for him is being uncomfortable with some of the decisions he has to make, but looks at the greater good - and looking at the greater good is the reason countries engage in warfare - the things he's doing may not be nice, but they may be necessary to achieve his objective... it didn't come from a place of 'it's going to be novel to write this character who you're not seeing in Hollywood unless as a buffoon stereotype' it came from a place of 'why would someone who has this moral code get involved in a line of work he doesn't feel he should be involved in?' It's more that than trying to do something iconoclastic. Though I can be seen as somewhat iconoclastic or contrarian, I think if you're consistently doing that stuff, you're setting your creative choices in just supposing what's out there. Where I'm just coming from a place of writing stuff where I understand what the characters are doing and, like all of us, these characters are flawed and make mistakes - they may be terrible mistakes and some of those may be small mistakes. Being almost politically neutral helps me write anybody anywhere and be comfortable with it.

JA: I've heard you respond to questions about 'realism vs. imagination' questions about your work with the statement "It's more important that you ask the question than that I answer it" and somehow that doesn't come off as a dodge. It sounds like you've got something about storytelling that you're onto. Would you expand on that?

SCZ: I say it's more important that you ask that question than I answer it because I have a bottom-line philosophy - and it's a problem I have with all of the agenda movies whether I agree with what they're saying or not (and I agree with plenty of them - so this doesn't come from a place of not agreeing with the point or not being behind the point): I don't want to be lectured to when I'm reading a book or watch a movie. Once something starts getting didactic, and certainly the line between didactic and pedantic is pretty thin, I just feel that the world of the piece starts to dissolve and I just see the author of the piece giving me his or her views and it's just an experience I don't like.

The bottom line with all the stuff I do is first and foremost I want to be entertaining and if it isn't entertaining who cares about the other shit? A lot of people come from a different place where the piece is to make a point, to make a statement about society - to change people's viewpoints or expose a certain community.

I mean... at this point how many people do you think are having their movie nights and talking about the movies they love and they're bringing up Philadelphia? Okay, at the time it was different to see these stars playing gay characters, but it was such a bland, vanilla, no-personality, nothing-going-on piece that it's hard for me to imagine anybody is returning to that movie actually thinking that it's good. Already at the time you were dealing with really good theater that had homosexual characters  dealing with AIDS. Angels in America predates it, so that stuff was out there, but it's something where people felt it was important and it got celebrated, but man, it's impossible for me to imagine that groups of cinephiles are getting together for movie night and saying 'let's watch Philadelphia.'

It existed at a point in time it where people thought it was 'important,' but as a movie I would choose to watch for entertainment it's an empty experience. You can put a message in a movie - there's a subtle way to do it.

So my answer that it's more important for you to ask the question than for me to answer it get to one of the things to me that's important about good art no matter what it is: that the world it creates seems larger than the thing itself. I saw people online the other day talking about Brawl in Cell Block 99 where they were saying "I think before the movie opens this happened or these characters probably have this relationship at this time". To me it's a success if they're thinking about these people and this imagined world and piece of fiction as living breathing things that exist and have their own rules. If it lives on outside the edges of the piece, I consider it a success.

If I explain, as I did to the actors who played the Troglodytes, the origins of the Troglodytes and how they work and how their society functions - the clues are in there, just like there are clues about what happens after Brawl in Cell Block 99 ends, so people can find them or not - it's not like there's a right or wrong answer, it's just what you take from it. If you're still wondering about it, if it's still alive in your imagination that's a level of success beyond just being entertaining for the period of time that you're watching it.

I suspect I'll be bringing Zahler's name up more in the future. Some more of my thoughts on Brawl in Cell Block 99 are here. You can keep up with his various projects at his website. His latest book is Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child. Look for it wherever books are sold.

3 comments:

Joey Hirsch said...

Thanks for this, Jed. "Brawl" was the only movie I saw last year that stuck with me. Zahler's movies have that weird gravity like Jarmusch's or Kubrick's where even when it's silent you can't look away and it feels like something is happening. Aside from Andrew Dominik he's the only director whose movies I will check out with no advance knowledge of plot/details beforehand.

jedidiah ayres said...

Come for the violence, keep coming back for the little details and jagged edges that won't leave you alone... The scenes I think about in BONE TOMAHAWK the most are Richard Jenkins' weird seeming non-sequiturs... his wonder is contagious

Craig said...

Excellent post. I'm linking to it with the hope that some of my readers will swing by and became fans (if they're not already)!