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15 Facts About Bone Tomahawk That Will Make You Fear The West

"Bone Tomahawk" was released in 2015 as the directorial debut of S. Craig Zahler. He came out of the gates swinging and delivered one of the best westerns in years. The story tracks the efforts of a rescue party that goes up against a brutal tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes. The pragmatic sheriff (Kurt Russell), the elderly deputy (Richard Jenkins), a womanizing sharpshooter (Matthew Fox), and the broken-legged husband (Patrick Wilson) of an abducted woman (Lili Simmons) set off on a dangerous journey through the old west that they have little hope of returning from.

The film features strong performances, complex characters, visceral violence, and an edge of horror that creeps up on the viewer and shoots to kill in the final act. In a film that truly pulls no punches, the level of violence makes this a film that is definitely not for the squeamish. Even though the horror elements only take center stage for about 15 minutes of this two-hour-and-12-minute-long movie, "Bone Tomahawk" is more effectively disturbing than many full-blooded horror films.

Zahler, the mastermind behind the film, is a unique and uncompromising voice in modern filmmaking. His approach to the medium differs from many other writers and directors, so let's dig into some facts about the unique creation of "Bone Tomahawk" that will make you appreciate the film even more.

The first draft of the script was shot

In an all-around great western, the strongest individual aspect of "Bone Tomahawk" is arguably its script. The plot is tense and goes in unexpected directions, the characters are layered and authentic, and the dialogue is distinctive and compelling. What makes this all the more impressive is the fact that S. Craig Zahler only wrote a single draft. That impressive feat holds true for the majority of Zahler's work.

During an interview with Creative Screenwriting about "Bone Tomahawk," Zahler said, "With this you're looking at basically the first draft and the same can be said of most of my screenplays that are out there." He went on to clarify that he does go back to fix typos and make simple edits but that he doesn't alter the story from its original state. The old adage "writing is rewriting" does not apply to Zahler.

When Creative Screenwriting asked him about the genre fusion of western and horror, Zahler revealed that he considers "Bone Tomahawk" to be a straight-up western first and foremost. "For me, the movie is kind of a classic western," he said, adding, "I just see it as a western where, when you're dealing with the enemies, it goes further than you would expect." Elements of both horror and comedy work their way into the story in the same way that they end up in all of his projects. "Everything that I write has comedy in it. It's sort of the backbone of what I do. ... The other thing that is in almost all of my work is horror."

Bone Tomahawk was preceded by two western novels

Fans of "Bone Tomahawk" who are voracious for another S. Craig Zahler western will be disappointed to find out that he hasn't yet made another film in the genre. However, there are more Zahler westerns out there in novel form.

A few years before becoming a filmmaker, Zahler became an accomplished author. His first book, "A Congregation of Jackals," was published in 2010. Zahler emerged fully formed as an author and was even nominated for a Golden Spur Award presented to the best in western fiction. His second novel was another western with the similarly strong "Wraiths of the Broken Land." Both books are extremely violent and feature shades of horror, just like "Bone Tomahawk."

The three westerns aren't connected by story or characters, but a direct line can be drawn between "Wraiths of the Broken Land" and "Bone Tomahawk." When speaking to Deadline about making his directorial debut, Zahler revealed that he was explicitly asked by his agent and producer to make a low-budget adaptation of his own "Wraiths of the Broken Land" novel. Rather than shrinking down the scope of the book, he opted to write a brand new story in the same vein, telling Deadline, "Even a great movie version of [Wraiths] would always feel smaller than the book. So I said, 'Instead of that, let me write another rescue mission western.'"

The shocking wishbone scene didn't surprise only the audience

"Bone Tomahawk" has shades of horror and some gruesome violence all throughout, but it is the final act that the film makes a left sharp left turn into out-and-out horror. The ritualistic torture and murder of Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) as he is scalped, cleaved crotch first, and ripped in half like a wishbone was hands-down the goriest scene of the year and a strong contender for any list of the most violent deaths ever put to screen.

This scene certainly shocked viewers, and it even managed to surprise S. Craig Zahler himself as he wrote it. In an interview with Hey U Guys, Zahler explained how he approaches storytelling, "My writing process is 'surprise myself every day,' and this is why there are the shocking moments, or surprising comedic moments, or surprising dramatic revelations in my movies and in my books."

When he sits down to write, Zahler's day of work isn't done until he has put something on the page that he wasn't expecting when he started. When speaking to Creative Screenwriting about his writing process, he explained how it leads to extreme violence like Deputy Nick's death scene. "My process is very much one of surprising myself every day that I write. So when it gets dark, it tends to get really dark."

Kurt Russell was a fan of Zahler's books before they worked together

Leading the rescue party across the desert is Kurt Russell as Sheriff Hunt. Getting a name as big as Russell to star in your low-budget directorial debut would typically be an incredibly difficult feat, but S. Craig Zahler had a leg up. Russell was a fan of Zahler's work as an author and was eager to work with him, despite being unfamiliar with working at such a low budget range. As Russell told Esquire after the film came out, "I had never done one of these independent-type pictures before."

When Zahler's second novel, "Wraiths of the Broken Land," was published, it featured a pull-quote endorsement from Russell on the back. Russell's quote, "Zahler's a fabulous storyteller," has been used to endorse all of Zahler's subsequent novels and is featured in his author bio. Conversely, Zahler was a fan of Russell's work as an actor. He told Deadline that his favorite Kurt Russell performance was in his 2002 film "Dark Blue."

Zahler and Russell being fans of each other's work culminated in the production of "Bone Tomahawk." The project took a couple of years to come to fruition, and different actors came and went throughout that time, but not Kurt Russell. In an interview with Joe Leydon, Zahler said, "There were so many versions of this movie, and so many companies that came and went." Nevertheless, he said, "Kurt Russell was constant throughout this whole thing."

S. Craig Zahler used to work as a caterer

S. Craig Zahler is a man who wears many hats. Before making his directorial debut with "Bone Tomahawk," and even before having his first novel published, Zahler worked in the entertainment industry in a drastically different capacity. As is listed in his author bio, Zahler spent several years working as a catering chef. This got him close to film shoots, but not as close as his other former job.

Alongside his catering career, Zahler also worked as a cinematographer on a number of independent shoots throughout the '90s and into the 2000s. None of these projects managed to find much of an audience and they are all difficult to track down today, but they did lay the foundation for Zahler's later filmmaking career. It was over a decade later that Zahler made his directorial debut. Benji Bakshi served as the cinematographer for "Bone Tomahawk," but when speaking to Deadline, Zahler said his background as a cinematographer and his experience as a director of theater productions both proved to be invaluable. As a cinematographer, Zahler said, he had "shot movies with far fewer resources than this" and knew how to shoot fast and stretch a budget. "We were told that for five times the money, with a shooting schedule twice as long as the one we had, this movie couldn't be done," Zahler said, but he and his cast and crew proved the naysayers wrong.

The script is available to purchase for $2.75

Though he has only directed three films thus far, S. Craig Zahler has and continues to produce a prolific body of work. Many of them have yet to be made, but Zahler has written and sold dozens of screenplays (per Cowboys and Indians). To date, two of Zahler's scripts have been directed by other people: "Asylum Blackout" also known as "The Incident," and "Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich," which was the 13th entry in the long-running horror series.

Zahler's other scripts may still get produced someday, but until then, fans of his work have another option to check out more of his writing. His personal website features a "store" tab. From this store, fans can purchase PDF copies of a number of Zahler's screenplays for $2.75. The selection of scripts available changes from time to time, but listed currently are all three of Zahler's written and directed films: "Bone Tomahawk," "Brawl in Cell Block 99," and "Dragged Across Concrete." Also for sale currently are two of Zahler's screenplays that have yet be to made: "Fury of the Strongman" and "They Repair Us." These scripts could still go into production someday, so by selling them on his website, Zahler is essentially leaking his own scripts to fans.

Timothy Olyphant nearly starred in the film

As we know it today, the core cast of "Bone Tomahawk" consists of Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Lili Simmons, Richard Jenkins, and Matthew Fox. With just one exception, the cast almost wound up looking completely different. Industry outlets like Deadline began reporting on the production of "Bone Tomahawk" back in 2012. Russell was involved in the project from the very beginning and stuck with it through thick and thin, but the rest of the cast came and went. In these early stages, the role eventually played by Wilson would have been played by Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Olyphant would have played the part that went to Fox, and Simmons' role would have instead been played by Jennifer Carpenter. Though the timing of this first movie didn't end up working out for her, Jennifer Carpenter ended up appearing in both of Zahler's other movies.

With years transpiring between when they signed onto the film and when it went into production, it's easy to understand how these actors' busy schedules precluded them from being in "Bone Tomahawk" when it finally got going for real. Jenkins was the first pick for the Chicory role but he too ended up needing to step away for another production at one point — the HBO miniseries "Olive Kitteridge." Luckily, "Bone Tomahawk" was delayed long enough that Jenkins was able to wrap that other production and rejoin Zahler's cast before it started shooting.

The low budget prevented a key element of the film from coming to fruition

From his time working as a cinematographer, S. Craig Zahler was no stranger to making do with limited budgets. For "Bone Tomahawk," the budget was around $2 million (per The Guardian). The stars involved, the number of locations, and especially the length of the script were problematic for the number of resources at their disposal. As revealed by the film's producer in a piece for The Tracking Board, Zahler's screenplay was about 138 pages long, which is far beyond the ideal range for a low-budget indie movie.

The film nearly had a larger budget, but financiers demanded cuts that Zahler refused. With fewer resources at their disposal, the production mostly got by okay, but there was one key area that Zahler was unsatisfied with. As he explained in an interview with Deadline, "The thing I am least happy with in the entire movie are the exterior locations." Zahler wanted to shoot the film in New Mexico but wound up needing to settle for Los Angeles.

As the characters moved towards their goal, the idea was to have the landscape change around them. "It was very specific in the script how the landscape was supposed to progress." The ideal progression of landscape would have been, "From hills and green, to flatter and green, to green and dirt, to dirt and red, to white, to rocky, to an almost primordial setting." Zahler said the finished film was about 80% of his total vision for the script.

Conan O'Brien called it the best film of the decade

Former talk show host and current podcast extraordinaire Conan O'Brien has interviewed thousands of celebrities throughout his 30-year broadcasting career. One person he has never interviewed is S. Craig Zahler, but that doesn't mean O'Brien isn't a fan of his work. When he appeared on the "Unspooled" podcast in 2020 in a special retrospective episode looking back at the best movies released throughout the 2010s, O'Brien named "Bone Tomahawk" as his No. 1 film of the entire decade. "It's a fantastic movie," O'Brien said. "I can't describe it. It is incredibly ... it will freak you out."

O'Brien is far from being the only notable name to endorse "Bone Tomahawk." Bret Easton Ellis, the author of the "American Psycho" novel, called the movie "2015's best filmmaking debut" on Twitter. Patton Oswalt echoed similar sentiments on Twitter, calling it "fantastic" and praising the cast. Critical outlets levied matching heaps of praise onto the film. The Hollywood Reporter named "Bone Tomahawk" one of its top 10 movies of 2015 and said of it, "When the flint hits the bone, the movie delivers on some truly memorable gory horror."

There was one scene Zahler refused to cut

"Bone Tomahawk" nearly didn't get made because S. Craig Zahler refused to compromise on his vision. There was one scene in particular that financiers wanted him to cut, but he refused and walked away from potential funding as a result. It would be natural to assume that the scene in question was the extremely gory death of Deputy Nick, but it turns out the financiers with actually fine with that scene. During an interview with Cowboys & Indians, Joe Leydon asked Zahler if the financiers were "squeamish about the horror elements," and Zahler dispelled that notion.

What they actually wanted him to cut was the scene where Chicory talks to Sheriff Hunt about the troubles of reading in the bath. It is a quiet, character-driven scene that was targeted for removal by financiers because it doesn't explicitly move the plot forward. To Zahler, the scene was worth walking away from instant funding to keep. He goes against the popular notion that every scene needs to move the plot forward, saying, "I think that's one of the reasons in general that the aesthetic of current moviemaking isn't to my taste for the most part. There's this feeling that everything needs to move the plot forward." Of the bathtub scene in particular, he said, "Yeah, you could cut it out, because it has nothing to do with the story. But it has everything to do with why I made the movie."

The director composed the score himself

"Bone Tomahawk" doesn't feature a great deal of music. Most of the film is played with purely diegetic audio. This approach is one that S. Craig Zahler stuck to in his two subsequent films as well, with the only needle drops playing over radios within the movies' realities. It is easy to miss since the music is varied and utilized with such restraint, but Zahler himself has been involved in composing the soundtracks of all of his movies.

The complete "Bone Tomahawk" soundtrack consists of 10 mostly-brief tracks, some of which are songs while others are closer to being ambient soundscapes. This soundtrack was composed by the duo of S. Craig Zahler and Jeff Herriott. The two also collaborated on the soundtracks to "Brawl in Cell Block 99" and "Dragged Across Concrete," working in conjunction with soul music legends The O'Jays on the two later films.

Zahler and Herriott are close friends and have collaborated on numerous musical projects over the years, with their latest endeavor being the synth duo Binary Reptile. This new project was formed to create the original soundtrack to "The Narrow Caves," which is a horror audio drama written by Zahler and produced by Fangoria.

S. Craig Zahler became a cartoonist

S. Craig Zahler's last movie to date was 2018's "Dragged Across Concrete." For fans of his movies wondering what Zahler has been up to recently, it might come as a surprise to learn that he became a cartoonist. After dedicating his focus to this new artistic pursuit, Zahler released "Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus" in 2021. This black-and-white crime horror comic was both written and illustrated by Zahler singlehandedly. The following year, Zahler's second comic, "Organisms from an Ancient Cosmos," was published by Dark Horse Books. This follow-up effort was more than double the length of the first and was again written and illustrated solo by Zahler.

In an interview for The Comics Journal, Zahler described his passion for illustration, saying, "The first thing that I was ever interested in doing artistically was drawing." He also describes how animation was a key focus for him when he first went to film school, but that he gradually drifted toward live-action filmmaking instead. An animated film is still something Zahler would like to tackle at some point in his career, and he has even tried to get one greenlit in the past, saying that a couple of years ago, "I was trying to get a hand-drawn animated movie going," but after meetings with producers, he says he ultimately decided, "Maybe the idea of doing it as a comic book first would be the way to go."

Park Chan-wook was supposed to direct the next Zahler western

Nearly a decade before he made "Bone Tomahawk," S. Craig Zahler wrote a different western screenplay that made major waves in the film industry. His script "The Brigands of Rattleborge" topped the Black List in 2006 (per Variety), which is an industry list of the most liked but unproduced screenplays of the year. The script was bought by Warner Brothers, and Zahler was set up with a three-picture deal at the studio (per The Hollywood Reporter).

Despite the massive success of this script, it has still yet to be made even 17 years later, but that is not for lack of trying. Many different iterations of the film have been in and out of development over the years. As Zahler told Creative Screenwriting, "At different times Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Leonardo DiCaprio — to name three — were all interested in that movie. I'd actually done development notes for both DiCaprio and Cruise on it ... and I watched different directors come and go."

According to IndieWire, the latest director attached to the project was acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. The title was changed to "The Brigands of Rattlecreek" and was taken up by Amazon Studios. A few more years have gone by, and Park Chan-wook went on to direct "Decision to Leave" in the interim, without any further updates on "Brigands." He's next attached to the miniseries "The Sympathizer" (via Deadline). Park was first announced as the film's director all the way back in 2012 (per /Film), so this much-delayed film might still be on the back burner.

Quentin Tarantino went to the Bone Tomahawk premiere

The same year that "Bone Tomahawk" was released, Quentin Tarantino put out his second western with "The Hateful Eight," both of which star Kurt Russell. As two directors with old-school sensibilities and a love for cinematic violence, the filmmaking styles of S. Craig Zahler and Quentin Tarantino have often been compared. Some have even called Zahler "The New Quentin Tarantino." It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that Zahler and Tarantino have crossed paths. Tarantino attended the premiere screening event of "Bone Tomahawk" and had a great time. When speaking to Deadline, Zahler said, "Quentin came to the premiere of the movie and was sitting near me and cackling a lot throughout the screening."

When "Bone Tomahawk" and "The Hateful Eight" were directly compared, Zahler was blunt about his opinions. He said that he is, "A fan of Tarantino's stuff in general," but that "The Hateful Eight" was not one of Tarantino's best in his opinion and that he was disappointed by some of the performances and character work. He also shared his thoughts on Kurt Russell's work in the two films, saying, "I certainly prefer Kurt's work in my movie over his work in 'Hateful Eight' by a gigantic margin."

Zahler rejects comparisons to The Searchers

The film that comes up most often as a point of comparison when discussing "Bone Tomahawk" is the John Ford western "The Searchers." This 1956 John Wayne-starring classic of the genre certainly shares similarities with S. Craig Zahler's film, as both of them center around men going on rescue missions to save people from a native tribe across the desert. However, this isn't a comparison that Zahler agrees with.

In an interview with Geek Tyrant, Zahler dispelled the notion that "The Searchers" was any kind of inspiration for his film. He said that he likes John Ford's westerns in general but that "The Searchers" was a film he hadn't seen in 22 years and says didn't have much of an impact on him. He described his actual influences as the filmmakers Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, and especially Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann.

When "The Searchers" was brought up in an interview between Kurt Russell and Esquire, Russell also rejected the comparison. He considered "Bone Tomahawk" far more realistic, saying, "'The Searchers.' That's the normal western dialogue of the time, which in no way represented reality. I love 'The Searchers.' I think it's a cool movie. But the dialogue style? No way. It can't compare to 'Bone Tomahawk' or something like 'Tombstone.' This is much more of that true flavor."