This story first appeared in the Jan. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On a blustery Monday morning in late December, Quentin Tarantino stood in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre to accept his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The 52-year-old writer-director, who a week later would release his eighth film — The Hateful Eight, a $54 million, three-hour Western starring Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth and Walton Goggins — was all smiles as he stood at the podium. “The first time I was at this theater was in 1969,” he reminisced. “I was 7 years old, and [my parents] took me to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
At almost that very moment, a group of video pirates calling themselves Hive-CM8 was uploading a stolen awards screener of The Hateful Eight to the Internet. On Dec. 21, while Tarantino was kissing his new star on Hollywood Boulevard, thousands of digital copies of his movie were being illegally downloaded (as many as 600,000 in that first 24 hours alone, according to some reports). “This is a real, real movie day!” he told the gathering, blissfully unaware of what was going on online. “This is terrific!”
In the past, Tarantino has suffered his share of professional glitches (starting with the projector breaking during the Reservoir Dogs premiere at Sundance in 1992, a snafu that nearly killed his career in the cradle). But The Hateful Eight has been an especially rough ride, to put it mildly. Long before the awards screener ended up online, before he’d shot a single frame, there were script leaks that had Tarantino so angry he threatened to scuttle the whole project. More recently, police unions threatened to boycott the film after the director’s fiery speech at an anti-police violence rally in New York in October (he called cops who kill innocent civilians “murderers”), and there were other moments of Tarantino-esque candor (he dissed Ava DuVernay’s directing by saying “Selma deserved an Emmy” and accused Disney of “going out of their way to f— me” by locking up Hollywood’s famed Cinerama Dome for Star Wars: The Force Awakens). To say nothing of the formidable challenges of shooting what in some ways was the most ambitious and technically challenging film of his career — filming with antique 70mm lenses in the middle of winter in the Rocky Mountains. “It was freezing, man, freezing,” recalls Goggins. “You would just huddle under one of the lights to try to get a degree warmer.”
Shooting a stagecoach scene in Colorado. “It was bitter cold,” says Leigh. “Do I get out of the stagecoach and walk to the tent where there’s a heater that’s a football field away? Or do I just sit in the snow?”
Tarantino’s inspiration for The Hateful Eight wasn’t film Westerns like the ones his parents took him to see at the Chinese Theatre. Instead, it was the TV Westerns he watched as a kid and never grew out of. Over the years, he’s amassed a huge DVD library of shows such as Bonanza and The Virginian, and it was while perusing that collection after shooting Django Unchained that he came up with the kernel of the idea that became Hateful Eight. His favorite episodes, he noticed, were the ones with a big-name guest star who turns up with a mysterious past, and the viewers try to figure out if he’s a good or bad guy. He thought, “What if I took eight of those characters and trap them in a room where they can’t leave?”
The story he ended up writing — in longhand, as he does with all his scripts — centers on bounty hunter John Ruth (Russell), who is trying to deliver a female fugitive named Daisy Domergue (Leigh) to Red Rock, where she’ll be hanged and he’ll collect a $10,000 reward. Along the way, the pair get caught in a blizzard and end up trapped with six other mysterious — and dangerous — strangers in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a ramshackle general store/roadside inn. There’s an ex-Confederate general (Dern), a ranch hand (Madsen), a British toff who’s to be Daisy’s hangman (Roth), a taciturn Mexican who claims to be watching the store for an oddly absent Minnie (Demian Bichir), another bounty hunter with three dead bodies in tow (Jackson) and a gunman (Goggins) who may be Red Rock’s new sheriff.
Dummy corpses being sprinkled with snow.
“A really good friend of mine said, ‘Holy shit, man, you’re in a Western!’ ” says Goggins of his first appearance in a Tarantino film. ” ‘How cool is your horse, man?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a horse.’ And he said, ‘Well, I bet you’ve got a cool hat.’ I said, ‘I’ve got a cool hat, but I don’t get to wear it.’ He said, ‘Well, you’ve got a cool gun, right?’ And I said, ‘Nope. I don’t have a gun.’ He said, ‘What kind of Western are you making?’ I said, ‘A Quentin Tarantino Western.’ “
Normally, when Tarantino finishes a script, he throws a party. “I make a whole ritual of it,” he says. “I get like 30, 35 copies and I have a publishing day at my house. All day long, people come by and they pick up their copy — I don’t watermark them or anything — and we hang out and we talk and we have food and drinks.” But, Tarantino says with a chuckle, “This one was a little different.” In late 2013, a still-under-construction version of the script got leaked on the Internet (Gawker posted a link). There were six suspects — the six people Tarantino had trusted with advance copies: Madsen, Roth, Dern, Django Unchained producer Reggie Hudlin and two others whose names Tarantino hasn’t divulged. The guilty party remains unknown, but the leak didn’t leave Tarantino in a partying mood. He went ballistic, suing Gawker for publishing the script and announcing that he was no longer planning to make the movie. The leak had ruined it.
Then he calmed down. In mid-April 2014, he decided to do a live reading of the screenplay at The Theatre at Ace Hotel to benefit LACMA. A packed house of 1,200 (some of whom paid $200 to attend) responded with a standing ovation, and Tarantino was hinting that the movie might be back on. “I’m working on a second draft, and I will do a third draft,” he said. Soon after the event, he dropped the lawsuit, and by early summer the movie was a go.
“Because I’m so confident with the script,” says Tarantino, who writes the screenplays for all his films, “I can be the Flying Wallendas and do somersaults and loop-de-loops with the filming.” However, shooting stagecoaches and horses kept the director’s feet on the ground.
Most of the actors who participated in the reading — all longtime Tarantino collaborators — ended up with parts in the film. But he needed a new Daisy (Amber Tamblyn played her onstage) and held auditions, seeking an actress he hadn’t worked with. And with Tarantino, that’s a pretty unique process. “Usually when you read for a director, they sit a bit away from you and you read with the casting director,” says Leigh. “But Quentin sits by your side and reads with you.” He also studies his actors before they meet with him. “He had seen everything [I’ve done],” says Leigh. “He knew more about my career than I did.” Once an actor is cast, says Goggins, Tarantino invites him or her to his house in the Hollywood Hills to hash out their character while lounging poolside, though some invitations must have gotten lost in the mail. “I keep hearing about all these trips to his house that I never took,” says Jackson. “I said to him, ‘Why does everybody get to go to your house but me?’ ” (The answer: After 20 years and six films together, all Jackson needs is a brief phone call with the director to get going.)
The shoot began in January 2015 and lasted into spring, most of it on location near Telluride, where the temperature sometimes dipped to minus-10 or minus-20 degrees. “A normal director — a director that is not as interested in verisimilitude — would have shot in Colorado for two weeks and then shot the rest on a soundstage for 10 weeks,” says producer Richard Gladstein, who first collaborated with Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs. “Quentin’s the exact opposite. Quentin wants to shoot in the real place for 10 weeks so the actors are walking through snow.”
no longer existed,” says Robert Richardson, who captured the film’s super-widescreen images with Ultra Panavision 70 lenses that hadn’t been used since 1966’s ‘Khartoum.'”]
Russell had some physical moments with co-star Leigh, but nothing ever got out of hand. “The reason I never flinched was because I had so much faith in Kurt,” says Leigh. “I knew he was never going to actually hit me, so I could really be in the moment when the punch landed.”
Tarantino’s decision to shoot the movie in old-fashioned Ultra Panavision 70 — “We’ve ceded too much to the barbarians,” he said at Comic-Con in July, bemoaning the rise of digital projection — further complicated the production.
He got plenty of snow in Colorado, all right, though keeping the outdoor sets looking 19th century pristine turned out to be one of the bigger challenges of the production (and one of several reasons it went $10 million over its original $44 million budget). Untold sums were spent repeatedly grooming the powder free of Sno-Cat tracks. Six-horse stagecoaches, Tarantino quickly learned, are nightmarish to maneuver around a movie set; they have bigger turning radiuses than Mack trucks. Shooting inside the one-room cabin that had been built on a soundstage for a few special effects shots (most of the film was shot in a full-size version of Minnie’s Haberdashery built outdoors) wasn’t any easier, particularly on the actors. To keep their performances frosty and their breath visible, Tarantino maintained a chilly 35-degree room temperature inside the set. Always a stickler for realism, he made sure the props were as authentic as possible. Russell and Leigh spend most of the film chained together, and Tarantino insisted on real chains, even though fake rubber ones would have been considerably more comfortable. Being chained to Russell for 14 hours a day, says Leigh, took some getting used to. But once they got a rhythm down, “we were like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” she says, “a very disturbed version of Fred and Ginger.
Tarantino’s decision to shoot the movie in old-fashioned Ultra Panavision 70 — “We’ve ceded too much to the barbarians,” he said at Comic-Con in July, bemoaning the rise of digital projection — further complicated the production. Lenses once used to film 1959’s Ben-Hur were refurbished and then extensively tested to make sure they could withstand the extreme cold.
Tarantino insisted on releasing the film in 70mm. “Some people you give notes to — with Quentin you’re lucky to get notes,” says Bob Weinstein.
But the real difficulty with the ancient technology is that so few theaters still have the equipment to show a 70mm movie; most had been abandoned over the past decade as theaters converted to digital projection. Tarantino admits to being nervous when he first raised the idea with Bob Weinstein — it would cost The Weinstein Co. as much as $10 million to find and refurbish enough 70mm projectors — but he didn’t get much resistance (“F— yeah!” is how Weinstein remembers responding). As long as the distributor could release the film in about 2,500 digital-projection theaters, TWC would agree to bankroll a 100-theater, limited-run 70mm “road show,” complete with an old-school 12-minute intermission and souvenir program. Considering that Tarantino’s previous two films, Django and Inglourious Basterds, have helped keep Harvey and Bob’s company afloat with their combined $746 million grosses, it was the least a brother could do.
Since its Dec. 30 wide release, the movie has grossed $29 million as of Jan. 4 and has received three Golden Globe nominations. So far, no police boycott has materialized, and few are complaining about the film’s racial language (prominent black critics who blasted Django mostly have left this one alone). But perhaps the most meaningful praise comes from the place you’d least expect it. “The Hateful Eight is an excellent, thrilling and entertaining Western that combines terrific direction, a fantastic cast, a wonderful script, beautiful photography and a memorable score,” Hive-CM8 said in an apology to Tarantino posted Dec. 30 on Reddit (an FBI investigation traced the leak to the office of Alcon Entertainment co-CEO Andrew Kosove, who has denied ever even seeing the screener). “We feel sorry for the trouble we caused by releasing that movie.”