Chapter One: The Play’s the Thing.
Much like his revered fellow dialogue maestro Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino the scribe starts with characters and lets them talk. He writes in longhand with black or red Bic or Flair pens in a white-paged notebook. He may have known ahead of time that David Carradine’s character in “Kill Bill” was going to meet his demise, but otherwise he lets his characters lead him to their various denouements. With the sprawling scripts for “Django Unchained” and “Inglourious Basterds,” “I’d get to the third act,” he told me over tea at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “That, I try never to maneuver. By the time it gets to the end, I was open to the characters to drive it. What the characters dictated, that’s what happened.”
But his process changed on “The Hateful Eight,” he said. “I did this one differently than I’ve ever done any other script before, and I’m so happy with the result that it might become my new way of doing it.” After he’d worked on it for a long time, “I was ready to wrap it up,” he said. “Maybe I was wrapping it up too soon. I wanted to hang with the material some more, so I made the decision from the get-go that I would do three specific drafts before I ever considered it the official first draft that goes out to the world. I wanted to live with things. It wasn’t about putting it all in the first draft.”
For example, at the live reading at the Ace Hotel, one of the movie’s key threads—the Lincoln Letter —was only brought up in the opening stagecoach sequence, as it is in the movie. “I knew I wanted to do more with it,” Tarantino said, “but I wasn’t ready yet. I didn’t have any obligation to do anything other than not finishing the story the first time, and I wanted things to reveal themselves, even if that meant I had to type it up by hand all over again. They ended up being so vastly different drafts. That’s why I was so upset when it got leaked—it was the first step in a long process.”
But he hung onto the Third Act’s oddly jarring voiceover narration, which he wasn’t sure he should do himself, he admitted. But he had such a good time reading the stage directions at the live read that he decided, with encouragement from his team, to record it. “I never liked the sound of my voice,” he said. “I asked Uma Thurman, I brought it up to her.” No worries about throwing people out of the continuity? “I never worry about shit like that,” he said. “It’s not the first time and not the last that I throw in a literary narrator, it clears things up at that moment. It doesn’t mean that I need to carry it all the way through. I’m down with using any cinematic tricks I need. In ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Sam Jackson comes on and explains the whys and wherefores of nitrate film vs. safety film.”
This brings up another question. Who does Tarantino listen to? Over eight movies, the filmmaker has enjoyed astonishingly consistent success and dedicated patronage from the Weinsteins. It’s a symbiotic relationship: they both need each other. Tarantino doesn’t go out on the open market to establish his value to other studios, although he has turned down offers for such studio projects as “Speed Racer” and James Bond. He and the Weinsteins have been rewarded by movie fans for his unique dialogue-driven movies—only “Jackie Brown” was adapted from another writer, Elmore Leonard.
Similarly, on “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” editor Fred Raskin tried some things in the editing room that did—and did not—make it into the final film. Tarantino is open to discussions, said Sher, and would read in-progress scenes aloud to her and others, and ask them questions. On “Django Unchained,” Leonardo DiCaprio added research—such as Calvin Candy’s phrenology—that Tarantino incorporated into the film. “He’s always looking for ways to go deeper and more intricate,” said Sher. “It’s rare that a person writes that level of dialogue and characters and is also such a gifted structuralist. He’s peeling layers like an onion in the characters and where they go.”
Tarantino agreed to do a Long Beach preview of “The Hateful Eight” multiplex version to gauge how it played (without cards), and talked to moviegoers afterwards, asking them questions about length and genre. “It’s a mystery,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean we should tell people that.”
By doing this Tarantino violates the tension that he has painstakingly built up inside that fraught enclosed claustrophobic space. Now we go back in time (something he has played with before with stronger results) and all the mysteries are answered. Now we know more about the mysterious Daisy Domergue, and we watch as one after the other of the Hateful Eight meet their maker in various inventively grisly ways. And in a surprising twist, two characters who started out as incompatible opposites on either side of the North/South racial divide become allies. The Lincoln Letter raises the question of truth and lies and why we believe what we want to believe. It’s the throbbing heart of the movie.
Oddly, two other well-wrought dramatic screenplays set in enclosed spaces this season would make great theater productions—Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs” and Emma Donoghue’s “Room”—and the animated feature “Anomalisa” started as a Charlie Kaufman radio play. One reason so many smart Hollywood folks are migrating to television and Broadway is that the theater is a writer’s medium, where you can follow your imagination with far more artistic license than the movies usually afford. Even Tarantino, who has more leeway than most, with “The Hateful Eight” had to keep his production’s $50-million-plus budget and ultimate commerciality in mind. Which may account—as it did for Guillermo del Toro’s mis-marketed studio hybrid genre film “Crimson Peak”— for the level of gore.
Sher and the production team worked overtime to keep the production on track in Telluride, Colorado, consulting with Canadian experts about working in snowy altitude conditions. They provided warming tents, medics and oxygen, hauled equipment on snowy roads with snowmobiles, and cared for the horses, who had to grow out their winter coats.
Tarantino believes that this Ultra-Panavision widescreen movie (the first since 1966’s “Khartoum”) tapped his experience as a director. “On the one hand, this is probably my favorite piece of material I’ve written,” he said, “and on the other, in a mature directing/staging way, it may be the best handling of my own material. It shows my growth as a filmmaker that might not have been there the first couple of movies, all right. I do not think I’d be as moving as efficiently through this in the ’90s. For example, in Minnie’s, there’s always two plays going on simultaneously, with actors in the foreground and background. It’s important that I’m using chess pieces of the characters and where they are on the board at any given time and you the audience—unless I don’t want you to—have to know what’s going on. Over 22 years of directing I’ve gotten good enough to do that.”
To each his own. But I prefer the multiplex cut of “The Hateful Eight,” watched on a home screener in my living room, to the roadshow presentation. I have to say, the 70 mm footage that Tarantino presented on a gigantic screen in Hall H last July at Comic-Con was one of the most glorious things I have ever seen. But when I watched an LA screening of the movie from the back row at the Linwood G. Dunn it looked smaller. It looked grand and gorgeous again at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. So yes of course 70 mm looks great—but we didn’t need the whole overture and intermission presentation, and the selling of the special roadshow event.
I love the original score, Tarantino’s first, by lauded spaghetti western maestro Ennio Morricone. who usually likes to supply music before the film is shot. But Tarantino approached him at his home in Italy after principal photography with a narrow window to deliver. Finally, they accommodated each other, and music editors blended pieces of Morricone’s score together for the road show overture, and wove in unused Morricone music written for John Carpenter’s “The Thing” as well. This all speaks to a certain anxiety on Tarantino’s part to gussy up this little movie, to make it feel bigger and grander.
The actor whose part was not written for him was Damien Bichir (“The Bridge”); Tarantino changed his Frenchman to a Mexican after the live read. He was the actor who surprised Tarantino the most. When he first showed up at the airport to fly to set, Bichir told me at one of the Weinsteins’ string of award-season parties, no one recognized him. “Where the fuck did he come up with that crazy character?” Tarantino asked. “It was not necessarily on the page. He came up with that on his own. Courtney Hoffman, the costume designer, helped him with the coat of many cats, the coat went a long way to helping to define his character. Literally that character was the driest character on the page, but every line he has was a laugh, it was his own weird concoction of what he found in that guy.”
The actors had to be prepared to turn on a dime because of the weather, said Sher. “They were off book from day one, ready to drop into any scene anywhere.”
Not only did Tarantino ask her to learn how to play the guitar to accompany her song, don heavy daily makeup, and move in sync hand-cuffed to Russell—who carefully calibrated his beatings so that they did not harm her— but to accept liquid “vomit” poured into her mouth. “She felt so safe with him,” said Sher. “They are all still on a chat board together.”
But that was small stuff compared to the acting challenge. “Jennifer didn’t have the luxury of learning Sam Jackson’s speech and delivery,” Tarantino said. “When you think about where she had to go, Jennifer had to commit to being Daisy every day of the shoot and do all the material that leads to and allows her to do that last chapter. She had to reveal her character little by little— or conceal her character little by little— and go through the entire shoot and then we get to that last chapter, then she’s able to be that person because she’s lived it, and before she gets shot in the foot, gives that great Beckett speech. I told her, ‘get so you know every solitary word 100% and don’t even think about it, just commit to it, one take will have one flavor and one another flavor, but you have to get every word in for it to work.’ That was the most difficult job. Also, Sam Jackson had to leave, so if the camera in the last chapter is on Jennifer, she’s playing opposite me.”
Epilogue: The Reception
Finally, “The Hateful Eight” is not the critical and audience smash that “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” managed, amazingly, impossibly, to achieve. We all knew this at the time of the live read. It’s a less expansive auteur achievement, crammed with more than enough enjoyably delicious goodies for any cinephile. Is it perfect? No. But we don’t want Tarantino to be anything more than his fabulous idiosyncratic self. While he has said that he still wants to win a directing Oscar (as opposed to two for screenplays), it looks like he may be settling for a writing Oscar nod again, along with expected kudos for BAFTA and Golden Globe nominees Leigh and Morricone. In an intense competition for stunning cinematography this year, Bob Richardson’s stellar camerawork may be overlooked—partly because he was largely deploying that Ultra-Panavision camera indoors.
Industry insiders speculate that Tarantino may stray from the Weinsteins for what he says will be his last two movies, as he plans to retire with a 10-title filmography. If one is the “Kill Bill” sequel, that’s with them. That’s a question I did not ask.