S. Craig Zahler is one of the more distinctive directors working in cinema today, with Dragged Across Concrete – out now on digital, Blu-ray and DVD – continuing a run of films with visceral, often shocking action that dare you to root for characters with problematic world views. We talk to the filmmaker about being surprised by his characters, the shifting entertainment landscape and The Brigands of Rattlecreek.
Your titles always have a literal, visceral quality – do they come early on or are they part of crystallising a movie’s tone?
Option B. It’s part of crystallising the mood and concept, and Option A, they come very early on. I almost always have the title conceived before I start to write. It’s an image that hangs over… it occasionally changes: Brawl in Cell Block 99, the original title for that was Three-Day Brawl in Cell Block 99, and then I wrote it and I was like “This brawl doesn’t last three days, this title’s gotta change”. And I prefer the other title, which sounds less like a Don Siegel movie. I do like literal and figurative meanings being applied to titles. For me, the most important thing is that it puts an image in the mind of the reader or anyone who’s heard the title, that it’s evocative. The second most important is that it’s memorable. I mean, how often are you seeing a movie that’s come out of a studio and it’s a one-word title and it takes you three or four times to encounter the preview or poster to even recall the title at all? And that’s because it’s gone through this creatively withering process and eventually landed on a word that 30 people in a room said is inoffensive. But it’s not distinct and it’s not memorable. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – that’s a movie title.
You’re known for your extreme set pieces – do you have any of them in mind already when you start to write a film or look to find them as you go?
Writing is a process of discovery. A day of writing feels a little bit dead for me if I didn’t surprise myself in some way. I’m surprised when a character thinks of something you didn’t expect them to think of, or a new bad guy shows up, a character dies who I didn’t expect die, a thunderstorm. Every day I’m looking to surprise myself. So that very much keeps the process alive and I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s hard to guess the specifics of any of my pictures as you’re watching them. It’s a process of discovery throughout. Depending on the piece, I’ll have some ideas and some stuff going forward, and the more I’ve written – I have eight novels, the sixth is about to published, a crime piece, probably the closest in tone to Dragged Across Concrete, it’s called The Slanted Gutter – and probably about 50 screenplays, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with really just improvising. As long as I have a general idea where the script is gonna go, and a complete understanding of the characters, there’s never a day where I don’t know what to do; I try and make more interesting, typical decisions but it’s rare for me to outline too much.
When I start to get towards the end, I’ll come up with an outline for that portion, 40 pages out from the end of the screenplay. Then I’ll write that day, something new and surprising will happen and I’ll need to come up with a new outline. In the case of Dragged, obviously, there are multiple, literal and figurative meanings for that title, but in the original conception, there was a scene where two of the main characters get handcuffed together and another is dragging them around. Which never happens. That was in my conception of the piece, then a lot of people started doing things I wasn’t expected, and this thing went away, but the title still held and you’ve got about four instances of people being dragged across concrete in different ways, and you’ve got a bunch of things being dragged across concrete. I think a lot of people, after Brawl in Cell Block 99, had a very visceral anticipation of what it was going to be.
“There are sequences I write where I’ll go further than I think I should and have to deal with leaving that in.”
Your films balance these unpredictable shocks and questionable character behaviour with sometimes surprisingly sympathetic character motivations – is that balance something you work on when editing the movie together?
That process is a lot more to do with when I write the picture. If you were to look at the scripts for these movies and the finished movies, I’m gonna guess they’re more accurate to the script than 99% of the movies that you watch. So this is all conceived at that stage. I know what I’m playing with with these characters. It isn’t that I’m putting this stuff in to provoke people or push boundaries, it’s getting in the minds of people who are in these situations and I like to play around with flawed characters. Certainly people like B in Bone Tomahawk and Bradley in Dragged Across Concrete and both of the cops and Henry Johns, all of these people all have problems and flaws and they’re all trying to do things to better their lives or they think will better the world. And then the way they go about it is certainly open to criticism. I’m writing from the characters’ perspective, not so much thinking ‘Oh, this is really going to push the buttons or make people uncomfortable’. What are these cops doing here? Well, this woman who they were just going to question ran away from them and ran into a bathroom where she has a purse with a gun in it, so now they’re going to treat her differently than if she just came out and spoke to them. So that doesn’t mean what they’re doing is right, but it affects the way in which they interrogate people. So it comes from the perspectives of the characters.
So the experiences that audiences have when watching your films – is that the same experience you have when writing?
Yeah, it is. Certainly, there are sequences of violence I write where I’ll go further than I think I should and have to deal with kind of leaving that in there. Brawl in Cell Block 99, when the Placid Man, and describe what’s going to be done to Bradley’s wife, originally, when I was writing that scene, he said ‘We have your wife hostage, you need to go to prison and kill this person’ and that was it. But when he sat down, this other stuff started coming out, in terms of what’s the worst nightmare for a man imprisoned with a wife whom he cares for dearly? What’s the worst nightmare that he could live through? And that was the germ of that sequence and resulted in an uncommonly nasty threat. And that was discovered in the process of writing, not ahead of time.
With the rise of streaming, filmmakers seem to be getting more creative control while benefiting from financial support and a platform that can reach a wider audience – is that an exciting time for a filmmaker like you?
I mean, at this point that hasn’t played that directly into what i’m doing. I think, to some extent, there’s a sense that you can reach a different audience and you don’t have to open up in 500 or 1,000 screens and I like the idea of all of that. Thus far, the three things i made are motion pictures I want people to see on a big screen, but it’s a bittersweet thing, the idea of more freedom and different ways to get your material out to people that would facilitate making further ranging pieces, against the idea that no one is going to see it on a big screen the way it was meant to be seen. I use a lot of wide shots, I’m not a big close-up guy, and these are better experienced on in the threat than on television. Obviously, I’d rather someone see it on television than not at all, but… it’s mixed. I would also hope that as they have all these whatever, Fandango events, that they just randomly show some older movies or anime or something like that and the fact that you’re no longer shipping all these gigantic crates of 35mm film, but digital files that could be downloaded or sent as a physical thing, I would hope that facilitates more theatres getting more creative with their programming. I’ve seen it occasionally, but it would be interesting if it went that way, if some of the theatres used that technology to show more different and varied kinds of movies.
Would you ever make a TV series, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young at Amazon?
Indeed, I’ve already written one: a limited series that’s a Western. Depending on how the movie I’m currently trying to get set up, the limited series might be my next project, or would be one after. I’m very interested in doing that, for all the reasons you said, and obviously, I have two 2 hour 13 minute movies and one 2 hour 39 minute movie, so at a certain point, I think you’re starting to ask audiences to ask to sit in a theatre for too long for one story. I don’t think I’ve reached that point yet – the feature I’m currently working on is 3 hours 10 minutes, and to me that is about the minute. I’m not going to ask someone to sit in a cinema for five or six hours, which is what the limited series I wrote is. So I’m very interested in that and it would also be great to dos something like that where a network or streaming service was promoting the hell out of it and backing it in that way. Because, you know, the limited release and promotion of these movies it’s been a little disappointing. It’s not the reason I do it, but certainly, I think bigger audiences could be found for all three pictures than were found for all three pictures. In the end, I’m proud of these pictures and that’s why I do it. If the audience never got bigger, or even got cut in half or quarters, I would continue doing it as long as I maintain creative control.
Finally, your script The Brigands of Rattlecreek was picked up by Amazon a while back with Park Chan-wook attached to direct – is there any word on progress with that?
I’ve been cut out of that loop for a really long time. I saw some version of it that was some of the script I wrote, and some of a script that had been rewritten. I didn’t understand or like a lot of the changes. But we’ll see where it lands. He’s very interesting visually, but it’s tough when you create a world and a story and a bunch of characters and then someone else is giving them new dialogue and new actions to do. It just doesn’t feel authentic. Anyone in the world would be more objective to what that piece is than I would. For me, if you put a wrong hand gesture for a character… what I do as a director is try to find everything that’s authentic. So as the creator of the characters to watch anyone take them in a different direction is probably not going feel true to what I originally conceived.
Dragged Across Concrete is available now on digital HD, Blu-ray and DVD.