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Making of ‘The Harder They Fall’: How Jay-Z, Regina King and Idris Elba Helped the Ground-Breaking Western Reach the Big Screen

First-time feature director Jeymes Samuel faced an uphill battle to get his dream project off the ground, but the dedicated support of some A-list collaborators ensured that his bold vision for an all-Black Western got made: "Everyone sensed that we wanted a win for this guy."

Pitching his would-be Western for the better part of the 2010s, Jeymes Samuel had been in a lot of tough rooms. One of the most nerve-wracking was in customs and immigration at LAX.

At the time, Samuel had been flying back and forth between Los Angeles and his native U.K. so much that, he says, he was flagged by immigration. “I said, ‘Listen, I am trying to work here but I am not being paid. I am trying to make a movie.’ They said, ‘What’s the movie?’ ” So, as he did on studio lots and to indie financiers many, many times before, Samuel pitched The Harder They Fall, a Western that brings together an all-Black cast for a fictionalized epic about how real-life Old West legend Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) attempts to avenge the death of his parents at the hands of the ruthless outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Sitting in a windowless room in LAX’s international terminal in 2019, he won over the group of gathered immigration and customs officers but was told he had 90 days before he needed a visa. The next time he returned to Los Angeles, Samuel had a visa and backing from Netflix.

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Regina King was finishing the final edit on her directorial debut, One Night in Miami, while filming. Courtesy of NETFLIX

An established musician and producer who goes by the stage name The Bullitts (he also composed the film’s score), Samuel was able to convince one of the industry’s most moneyed studios, an Oscar-winning actress and Jay-Z, among many others, to buy into his vision for The Harder They Fall. The filmmaker’s occasionally manic but always contagious resolve was enough to get the production not only greenlit but through a day-one COVID-19 shutdown. As producer James Lassiter puts it: “Everyone had the sense that we want a win for this guy.”

Lassiter met the writer-director through Jay-Z, who had worked with the musician turned filmmaker on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. The two had been workshopping the Western for several years, with Samuel releasing his 2013 short film/proof-of-concept They Die by Dawn starring Michael K. Williams and Erykah Badu, among others, on Jay-Z’s Tidal music streaming service in 2015. “I said, ‘Ugh, a Western? That’s not my thing,’ ” remembers Lassiter, who acquiesced and read the script, finding himself “blown away, not just by the content but with the audacity of the attempt.”

When it was pitched as an independent feature, an early proposed budget for The Harder They Fall was $12 million. Lassiter knew that wouldn’t work: “Any seasoned producer would read this and say, ‘You can’t make this movie for this much.’ ” The eventual budget for the film would be $90 million. But the producer also knew he’d be battling against some stubbornly ingrained preconceptions in the industry: that international box office is too risky when tied to an American genre like the Western — and especially one with a nonwhite cast.

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Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., with Samuel. Courtesy of DAVID LEE/NETFLIX

So Lassiter narrowed in on the ideal distributor. Says the producer: “My experience working all of those years with Will Smith [the duo founded Overbrook Entertainment in 1998], it was [always] as simple as we wanted the most eyeballs as possible.” At the time, Netflix had over 130 territories’ worth of eyeballs.

Samuel was in an Uber in London when he got a call from Jay-Z. “Jay’s voice is in this high aspirational octave,” notes the director, diving into an uncanny impression: ” ‘Yo! Peace to the God. Where are you?’ ‘I’m in London.’ ‘What are you doing there? We’re good to go.’ “

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In foreground, from left: Delroy Lindo, King and Jonathan Majors on set in Santa Fe. Courtesy of DAVID LEE/NETFLIX

Elba — Samuel’s longtime friend who had always offered to be a part of his cast— was set as the film’s main foil, Buck, but the team still needed to find the rest of the gunslingers.

“I don’t particularly like Westerns,” admits Regina King, but her agent, ICM Partners’ Lorrie Bartlett, insisted on a meeting with the director. “I have been with Lorrie for 25 years,” she explains. “For her to be impressed by someone, that does not land lightly on me.”

King was in the middle of filming HBO’s Watchmen, already earning Oscar buzz for If Beale Street Could Talk (she would eventually win the best supporting actress award) and was in prep for her directorial debut, One Night in Miami. When she joined their scheduled FaceTime meeting, an enthusiastic Samuel popped onto the screen and exclaimed, “Peace to the Black queen, Regina King! What’s cracking?!”

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“I’ll be damned if he let a little pandemic come through and rip away 20 years of [his] life,” says Majors (center, with Elba and Samuel) of convincing Samuel to stay in Sante Fe during the COVID-19 shutdown. Courtesy of DAVID LEE/NETFLIX
“He was explosive — he can convince you to buy a pair of shoes that are two sizes too big,” remembers King, who immediately signed on to play Buck’s right-hand woman, quick-draw specialist Trudy Smith. She and Elba would eventually be joined onscreen by a who’s who of some of the leading Black talent in Hollywood, including Majors, LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo and Zazie Beetz.

Once on the ground for the 62-day shoot in New Mexico, the crew was tasked with building out the world of The Harder They Fall. Samuel is a Western obsessive, growing up on reruns of Bonanza and Rawhide before graduating to John Ford and Sergio Leone, but he didn’t want his department heads beholden to the genre.

Costume designer Antoinette Messam’s reference images ranged from Edwardian and Victorian black-and-white photography to jewel-toned haute fashion of the ’70s and ’80s. “Let me show you what it is supposed to look like, then let me throw in a few things to twist it up a little bit,” says Messam of her modus operandi. Hand-made riding coats and vintage Stetsons were paired with modern Ralph Lauren blouses and Golden Goose cowboy boots. Production designer Martin Whist swapped the traditional dusty browns and greens of Western sets for deep purples and cerulean, pulling more inspiration from the contemporary architecture of New Orleans and the Caribbean than from Montana or Texas. The film had no soundstage shoots, with everything built on the ground in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Samuel says Elba would come to his Santa Fe home every evening during filming to “make sure I was fed, to make sure I was recording [the soundtrack] and to make sure my headspace was right.” Courtesy of DAVID LEE/NETFLIX
Still, some Western touchstones remained in frame. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. used Panavision anamorphic lenses to capture that quintessential expansive, widescreen Western look. Says Malaimare: “No matter how new and different your project can be, you still have to pay tribute to the genre.”

In March of 2020, the cast, who had already undergone a “cowboy camp” where they learned how to ride horses and handle firearms, coalesced for a table read. The NBA had just suspended game play and Tom Hanks announced he had contracted COVID-19 by the time a Netflix production exec called Lassiter and Samuel into the production offices to tell them filming would be halted the day before it was set to begin.

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Majors with Zazie Beetz, who plays legendary Old West figure Stagecoach Mary. Courtesy of DAVID LEE/NETFLIX

Samuel was getting ready to fly back to London when Majors made a bold move: Despite being something of an unknown quantity at the time (he’s since led HBO’s cult hit Lovecraft Country and has joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe), the actor showed up at Samuel’s Santa Fe home and convinced him to stay on the ground even after the rest of the cast and crew had left. “I am the lead of the film, and he is the director of the film,” explains Majors, who says he was first considered for Nat Love after Mahershala Ali suggested him to producer Lawrence Bender. “The second we move out of pocket, we let everyone off the hook.” And so they stayed in the desert, together.

They filled their days working on the script, and Samuels taught Majors how to play the guitar. Majors incorporated facets of Love’s life into his own day-to-day. He took off his cowboy boots only to exercise. Remember Samuels: “He changed the cutlery.”

The rest of the film’s cast and crew joined Majors and Samuels in New Mexico in September. Through a mask, a face shield, goggles, and six feet’s worth of distance, Samuels was still able to communicate his vision. This was evidenced during the filming of possibly the film’s most complicated shots. The sequence was meant to have the audience float over the length of the film’s primary location, Redwood City, ahead of where the final shoot-out takes place.

“You are talking about three days of work for one shot,” says Malaimare. Two cranes were positioned at opposite ends of Redwood, with 100 yards of cable running between. The camera is placed on a remote rig that would travel along the cable. Wi-fi and radio frequencies would interfere with the remote, halting the shot it mid-take and they would have to reset. In all, it took six takes to accomplish, with the shot finally captured right before they lost the day’s light. Samuels says the sequence came out exactly how he pictured it.

Much like the film itself, Lassiter says of the shot, “At first, only Jeymes could see it.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.