“You never know when a movie’s going to do well,” mused Kurt Russell, assessing the future cult status of his new Western on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles.
No, not Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. His other new Western, the Searchers-meets-Cannibal Holocaust pic Bone Tomahawk, in which the legendary actor plays a lawman battling savage people-eaters in the Old West.
“The Thing came out the year of E.T.” he exclaimed, letting loose a hearty Kurt Russell laugh. “Oops, wrong monster!”
Before starring as a gruff bounty hunter nicknamed “The Hangman” in this Christmas’s highly anticipated Hateful Eight, Russell leads the ensemble cast of indie “graphic Western” Bone Tomahawk, in theaters and on VOD this month. We’re talking the day after the gory period horror flick premiered at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, where Russell was scheduled to appear before an old baseball injury sidelined him.
“I found out I have severe calcific rotator cuff tendinitis with a partially torn rotator cuff,” said Russell, who fears he might have to have surgery next month. “Now I don’t know how I did it this time, but 40 years ago I did it playing professional baseball. It’s what took me out of the game.”
If it hadn’t ended his baseball career, the switch-hitting batting champ and former child actor might not have returned to show business. Five years later he teamed up for the first time with a young filmmaker named John Carpenter on an Elvis biopic that nabbed him his first Emmy nomination and marked the start of a fruitful friendship.
Over the years Russell, 64, has seen his quirkier indie roles become celebrated cult classics in the hearts of his fans. His work with Carpenter in particular raised a generation of VHS-devouring action-sci-fi nuts who worship at the altar of Snake Plissken, Jack Burton, and R.J. MacReady.
More recently there was Stuntman Mike, the muscle car-driving serial killer of Tarantino’s Death Proof, the movie that plucked Russell out of a run of feel-good studio hero roles and gave him a renewed badass raison d'être.
“I love that people come up to me more and more now and say, ‘I just saw Death Proof!’” Russell said. “Sometimes movies come out at the wrong time or are misunderstood, there are all these reasons. I don’t know why, but whatever it is, I’m drawn to them.”
It’s not just the genre antiheroes with attitudes that Russell gets approached for. Overboard, his 1987 comedy co-starring longtime partner Goldie Hawn, is another. “People love it, and it’s very different from Escape from New York or The Thing or Big Trouble in Little China or Used Cars or Tombstone. I’ve done other movies, but the ones that you look in their eyes and they get something out of them, they mean more.”
Russell diehards should get a kick out of his turn in Bone Tomahawk as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, the mustachioed moral authority tasked with keeping the peace in the frontier town of Bright Hope. That peace is shattered when cave-dwelling cannibal savages kidnap three townsfolk, including the wife of a local cowboy (Patrick Wilson), prompting Hunt to lead a rescue mission into desolate terrain filled with bandits and barbarians.
The brutally violent indie horror brings Russell full circle to his Western roots. Long before he starred as Wyatt Earp opposite Val Kilmer in Tombstone, Russell cut his teeth on television Westerns like Sugarfoot, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, and The Virginian before launching his movie career as one of Disney’s brightest 1970s contract stars.
“Tombstone was one that now is just on everybody’s Western list because as one guy wrote recently, it’s just so damn much fun to watch,” Russell said of the 1993 biopic that he once claimed he essentially directed via Rambo II helmer George V. Cosmatos, during an infamously tumultuous production.
“I think this one you can’t put a category on,” he said of Bone Tomahawk, written and directed by first-timer S. Craig Zahler. “You can call it a horror-Western, whatever that means, but that’s not going to give anybody an image or anything to understand. I call it ‘graphic Western’… The beginning gives you only a little hint of what you’ll see, but by the end it goes into hyperviolence.”
Russell proudly recalled haggling on set over one memorably horrific scene that will go down as one of the best movie kills in recent memory. Thanks to Kurt, one of Bone Tomahawk’s killer cavemen strips a man naked before dispatching him with the titular weapon. Originally he was to be fully clothed but Russell put himself in the cannibal’s shoes, so to speak.
“I said, ‘That’s insane—that ruins the movie. We can’t do that.’ We had a long talk about it, because then it’s just violence for violence’s sake,” he said. “These troglodytes are doing nothing more than skinning an elk—they’re not bad guys, these other people just came to the territory, and thank God, that’s fantastic, it’s like free food! We don’t even have to go hunting! Pull these guys up, string ’em up, and we can eat them over the next couple of weeks.”
The gusto with which Russell will dive into a lengthy, wholehearted defense of evil limb-hacking cannibals is one indicator of the geek heart beating within. Waxing philosophical on misunderstood cannibals, his musings jumped to how critics savaged The Thing without looking for deeper meaning beneath its B-movie trappings.
“The movie The Thing, when it came out the reviewers had a very hard time seeing the movie. Which is to say, it’s a movie about paranoia, it’s not a movie about a horrific thing. The Thing, in its fight for survival, has been to many different planets so to us it looks insane. And to us, the troglodytes in Bone Tomahawk behave insanely, like savages.”
“But they’re just doing their thing, trying to make it,” he said, laughing. “They don’t like it when people roll through their hood.”
Like many of his films, Bone Tomahawk can be read as a prismatic exploration of masculinity hiding beneath a surface mélange of guns, monsters, action, and mayhem. That thread pops up in everything from the clumsy swagger of Big Trouble in Little China and his Jack Burton to this year’s Furious 7, in which his beer-swilling government spook infiltrates Vin Diesel’s diesel-fueled familia.
“It reminded me of how different the male species is today in America than it was just a hundred years ago,” said Russell. “It wasn’t that long ago, and men were very different. Those men were proud—as my character says, in civilized cities like Bright Hope you look a man in the eye when you talk to him.”
“You wore a tie, you wore a hat, and there was decorum to be presented in town,” he continued. “They were the modern man. And these guys have no clue to what they’re getting themselves into, but it doesn’t matter because they all felt a sense of responsibility for one reason or another. Once you get to know them you really pull for them against these savages who are extremely brutal. It’s kind of fun to watch and see who comes out and who doesn’t.”
These days for Russell, life is full of wine. He runs his GoGi Wines label out of the Santa Rita hills outside of Santa Barbara, where he fell in love with the local vintage while filming Death Proof. His passion for vino pairs well with his Aspen ranch, where he raises high-end beef.
“It’s not something I just slapped my name on,” said Russell, who occasionally slings glasses of his exclusive line behind the bar at the 1800 Union Hotel and Saloon in Los Alamos. “I’m real serious about it. I’m a real pinot poodle. [We have] a serious, complex, elegant pinot noir that’s full-bodied and very structured.”
But given his epicurean endeavors and film roles in Hateful Eight and the upcoming Deepwater Horizon, forays into the indie genre like Bone Tomahawk may be fewer and farther between.
“[I think], who is the director? What does he want to do? What’s the studio? What’s the push going to be? This is a labor of love, there’s no question,” he said. “I mean, there’s no money in it; you’re just doing it because you want to see it done. I’m going to be doing very few of these because I don’t know if it’s worth it. It’s physically hard, you’ve got to make them fast in 23 days or something like that, but we did great, I think we pulled it off. All the actors’ hearts were really in it.”
“Everybody’s working for peanuts and we were having a good time having a rough time,” he continued. “I think all of us thought, we’re never going to read this kind of stuff. This doesn’t come along very often and it’s really different. But who’s going to see it? I don’t know.”
Next year’s Peter Berg-directed true tale disaster drama Deepwater Horizon, Russell predicts, will be controversial. “What they did was they came in there and tried to capture the way it felt to be on the rig. That’s where Pete’s coming from. And of course you do a little bit of the building up to it, which is to ask, Who’s to blame here? That’s the controversial part, but I don’t think that’s what he was as interested in as much as this is what happens when it goes wrong.”
“You leave it up to the audience to figure some things out,” he said. “Like, it ain’t easy getting oil out of the ground and into your car.”
Making a studio movie out of the 2010 BP oil spill disaster means taking on several of the powerful corporate entities involved, which Russell says may prove tricky for the Lionsgate release.
“There are still some outstanding lawsuits on that, and there’s enough to make you wonder,” said Russell. “Obviously these guys had to deal with a bank of lawyers everywhere, because these are big players. You’ve got BP and Halliburton, the big outfit that builds everything, you’ve got [rig operator] Transocean… multi-gazillion-dollar companies that have to deal with problems all the time, and I think they’ve all been looking at, ‘You can say this,’ ‘You can’t say that.’ They were doing that up until the days of shooting. I suppose in the editing they’ll have to show it to everybody and I wouldn’t be surprised if this goes through a whole process before it can get out there.”
In the meantime, Russell will be seen in back-to-back Westerns, including a reunion with Tarantino the actor calls “the greatest experience I’ve ever had.”
“It’s a great thing to make movies with John Carpenter, Bob Zemeckis, Ron Howard, Mike Nichols—I don’t want to leave anybody out but I’ll leave at least 10 of them out—but it’s always a great time,” he said. “But when you’re working with Quentin, he’s a different thing. He just loves it so much that you chuckle. You really do laugh at how much fun he’s having, and you’re having. It’s hard work with him because nobody wants to let anybody down.”
Russell stars in the post-Civil War ensemble piece as John “The Hangman” Ruth, a frontier bounty hunter escorting female prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) across wintry Wyoming to be hanged for her crimes.
Hateful Eight’s murderer’s row of thesps includes Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, and Demian Bichir, who shot the 70mm pic with DP Robert Richardson last December in Colorado, using the same lenses used to film Ben-Hur.
“All the actors kept passing the ball off—and when it’s passed to you you’d better not drop it, you’d better carry it across the line,” Russell said of the shoot, which reunited much of the cast Tarantino assembled last year to do a live-read after an early script leaked online.
Russell was one of Tarantino’s first calls. “Now, I’d heard from my daughter about some script that Quentin had that was leaked and he was mad and decided not to do it,” Russell recalled. “But I didn’t know it was this. We had a rehearsal. Then they said, we rehearse again tomorrow and I thought, ‘Wow, whoever he wants to see this it must be important to him.’ And then I learned halfway through the second day that we were going to do it in front of 1,200 people in a theater! I thought, Jesus Christ! I also found out that was the script that had evidently leaked. There’s always stuff going around and I’m the last to know.”
“Afterwards I asked Quentin, ‘Did you see what you wanted to see?’ He said, ‘Yeah—it gave me a lot of answers.’ Months later they call and say, Quentin wants to do the movie,” he said.
The resulting film is vastly different from what attendees saw during that live-read, although Russell won’t spill just what’s been changed.
“There are quite a few changes,” he teased, “but I’m not going to tell you what changed. I’m not going to ruin it for you! But the changes are spectacular. I see now why he was mad about it being leaked, because he was in the process of working it. He wasn’t anywhere near done yet.”
“He made significant changes in terms of what the first act is, and leading up to it,” he continued, dancing around specifics. “This is not different, but it’s fleshed out—it’s a matured version of it. He was just taking that thing out for a spin that night: The engine starts, it’s got pretty good traction coming out of the turn… but I want another 100 horsepower so we’ve got to put a brand new engine in it, I’m going to need a complete paint job, I’m going to take the bumpers off of it. Now he’s got his finished version of what he wanted to do.”
Russell did reveal how he celebrated the conclusion of the Hateful Eight shoot: by supplying the cast and crew with bottles of his wine. “It’ll probably be the last time I do that because it was a lot of wine,” he said, unleashing another of those booming Kurt Russell belly laughs. “And my wine is $75 a bottle, so a case of wine is 900 bucks. And it goes fast!”