Premise: A group of cave-dwelling cannibal Indians abduct a woman. The race is on to rescue her before she’s turned into lady-stew.
About: S. Craig Zahler wrote an amazing script five years ago called “The Brigands of Rattleborge” that is still unmade. Blimey! My understanding is, like a lot of projects, it’s stuck in some development snafu that, even though the company who has it isn’t able to do anything with it, they’re not going to allow anyone else to do anything with it either. And this is why some great movies never get made. While Zahler’s written a handful of scripts since, it looks like he’s tired of the waiting game. So he’s doing what more people in this town should do – he’s taking his career into his own hands and directing Bone Tomahawk himself. This is one of the sweetnesses of being a great writer. Sooner or later, you’ll have the opportunity to hold people hostage with your talent. You say to them, “You get my hot script, but only if you let me direct it.” The project has secured a nice looking cast that includes Patrick Wilson, Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins. It comes out next year.
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Details: 125 pages
Despite my being far from the biggest Western fan, Westerns always seem to end up in my Top 10. It’s doubly surprising that a script like “Brigands” would find its way there because it commits one of the cardinal sins of screenwriting – the rule everyone agrees you don’t break. And that’s excessive description.
Excessive description is saved for novels (which Zahler writes as well). In the screenwriting world, the goal is to move the reader’s eyes down the page as fast as possible. The huge distinction that so many writers forget is that while novels are the end of the line for that writing process, screenplays still have one step to go. They’re the “proof of concept” for the end of the line. Because so many other scripts are ALSO vying to get to the last step, readers and producers need to get through screeplays quickly, so they can go on to the next one.
But here’s why Zahler seems to get away with breaking this rule. A) He’s a writer who excels at description and B) he writes in the genre ideal for description – Westerns. Westerns require the writer to set a mood, a tone, to pull them back into that time and into that world. You need a little extra description to do that.
With that said, I’ve watched a lot of writers try to pull off the same thing and they’re just bad at it. They don’t focus on the right words or the right phrases. They’re clunkier, less imaginative. Description is about finding those power words that provide a perfect conduit to the moment and if you don’t have that talent, you don’t want to play in that sandbox. Which is fine, because for almost every other genre, you want to keep the description short and sweet.
Bone Tomahawk begins with two pieces of shit named Buddy and Purvis, who have just murdered a group of people. When they believe they hear others coming, they retreat to a nearby mountain to hide. Weaving their way through the mountain crevices, they find a bone-laden graveyard. Spooked, they try to get away, but not before an arrow pierces Buddy’s neck, an arrow with a tip made from a bird’s beak.
Purvis, the dumber of the two, hightails it out of there to the nearby town of “Bright Hope.” He’s immediately tagged as a suspicious character and, in a confrontation with the sheriff, shot. Samantha O’Dwyer, the local nurse, is brought in to clean the wound, but when a group checks on the two, they find them gone. In their place is another one of those bird-tipped arrows.
Samantha’s husband, Arthur, is pissed and wants to go after the kidnappers, but due to a recent accident is on crutches. Still, he convinces the local sheriff, an Indian hunter, and an older gentleman, Chicory, to let him come along and get his wife back.
So that’s what the four do. Well, sort of. The next 60 pages take our heroes through the endless plains of the old West as they track these cannibals back to their home. Along the way, they lose their horses, which means Arthur must stay behind. But as the others continue on, Arthur never gives up, vowing to save his wife.
To give you an idea of what I was saying earlier, here’s the first paragraph of Bone Tomahawk.
That’s a sure way to send the average reader packing. But I’m going to tell you why it works, at least in this instance. Read the first sentence again. That’s not just a description. That’s a story. Three men are dead, the blood still draining from their throats. Now had this only been description for description’s sake (no deaths), the paragraph would’ve been a tougher sell. But this is far from a boring paragraph.
Alas, I wish I could say the same about the rest of Bone Tomahawk. The script truly does start out great, with the murder, the emergence of these mystery cannibals, and with Samantha abducted. You’ve got all the elements in place for a classic GSU tale.
But Zahler went ahead and forgot the “U.” Once our characters are on their way, very little happens for a long time. It’s a strangely pedestrian exploration of the West, with most scenes limited to characters yapping away about trivial topics. For example, one scene centers on Chicory’s confession that he’s lousy at reading books in the tub, as the books keep getting wet. Far from edge-of-your seat storytelling.
When you send a group of people off on a journey, the drama needs to come from one of two places. Outside or inside. As cool as our bone tomahawk cannibals are, we see them a few minutes in the beginning, twenty minutes at the end, and that’s it. Bone Tomahawk runs into the most classic pitfall in all of screenwriting – the boring second act. And that’s because there isn’t enough happening. Not to our characters from the outside (their horses are stolen but that’s it) and not from the inside either.
Every once in awhile, characters would have a minor disagreement about something (“Why did you shoot at the Mexicans?”) but other than that, everyone seemed to be on the same page. If you’re not going to throw a lot of plot twists and plot points at us (exterior stuff), you need to create problems between your characters (interior stuff), either unresolved things arising from their pasts or issues that develop as they go (challenge to authority, differences in philosophy, people having breakdowns, etc.).
That was one of the great things about Aliens. Nobody agreed on anything. These disagreements caused tension and conflict which resulted in drama. This amongst a story that already had one of the most intense EXTERIOR conflicts in history – those terrifying aliens. That’s the way I’d prefer writers do it. Create conflict in both places, interior AND exterior.
Then again, I understand that this is a Western, and Westerns move at a different pace. That’s something I’ve never been completely comfortable with. I know, technically, that you’re supposed to allow Westerns extra time to build. But you have to put a limit on it at some point, right? There has to be mark on the dial where you say, “We need to go faster here.” I’m sure Western purists are going to be more forgiving of the pacing here. But for me, not enough happened in the allotted time.
Another curious aspect of Bone Tomahawk is that we’re not sure who the hero is. That’s a very “studio-ish” note. That you have to have a single hero. But it truly did hurt the read for me.
I assumed that Arthur (Samantha’s wife) was going to be our hero. But then he barely speaks on the journey, to the point where we often forget he’s there. The character who spoke the most and acted the most was the sheriff. So you’d think he might have been the hero. But his is the least personal journey here. He seems to be acting only out of duty.
Arthur does make a late push to lead the charge, but he’d been so absent by that point, that I was no longer invested in him.
I’m super-curious what Zahler is going to do as a director. He seems like a deep intense guy, sort of the screenwriting equivalent of Cormac McCarthy. With that being the case, I know he’s going to bring something extra to his vision. As a screenplay, though, Bone Tomahawk moved too slow for me, and didn’t have exciting enough characters to keep those slow sections entertaining.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Yesterday we talked about the value of adding uncertainty to your story. The more certain the audience is of what’s going to happen, the more bored they’ll get. To me, these plains gave the story such an opportunity to create an endless thread of uncertainties. But everything pretty much went according to plan. Even the surprises (their horses getting stolen) were predictable. It’s really hard to keep the audience entertained when you’re not giving them anything they don’t expect.