As Quentin Tarantino introduced the live-read of his HATEFUL EIGHT to a packed house roaring with applause in his honor, he let us know two things: one, that this was only a ﬁrst draft (not the second or third that he promised, all but conﬁrming this ﬂick is still on the table for him) , and two, that this was the only time anyone was ever going to see this draft of this script in any sort of ofﬁcial form. All the LACMA-sponsored live reads start out with a similar warning, but usually when curator Elvis Mitchell says "this is a one-time only event," he is referring to that speciﬁc reading of an already-produced script. Not here. This was a one-time-only production of Draft One of THE HATEFUL EIGHT, directed by Tarantino himself and featuring a cast that rivals any he was able to put together for one of his ﬁlms.
The cast in question? Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, James Remar, Zoe Bell, Amber Tamblyn, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Denis Menochet, and Samuel L. mothafuckin Jackson.
These BMFs walked on stage to as welcome of a reception as I've ever seen. Jackson did his hot- shit strutting thing (looking A+ for a dude in his mid-60s), Madsen gave an appropriately brutish bow before ﬁstbumping Dern. After an announcement from Tarantino that, again unlike the other live reads, he and his cast rehearsed the script before the show (for 3 days, and QT warned, "We're...okay."), we dug into the current (only) draft of THE HATEFUL EIGHT.
I went in fresh, and I'm assuming many of you haven't read the script since it leaked so famously back in January, so I won't go too deep into spoiler territory. THE HATEFUL EIGHT starts with a badass bounty hunter named John Ruth (Russell), who is traversing snow-covered Wyoming mountains with a young woman named Daisy Domergue (Tamblyn) chained to his arm, trying to keep his stagecoach ahead of an oncoming blizzard. He happens upon a black man in army attire (Jackson) standing on the corpses of three white men. He explains that he, too, is a bounty hunter, and the three bodies alongside him add up to about $8,000; while it doesn't quite match the 10 grand Ruth expects for Daisy, he ﬁgures it's safe enough for him to take this man, Major Marquis Warren, aboard. Soon after, another man (Goggins), this one white and younger, pleads for Ruth to take him aboard his stagecoach so he doesn't freeze to death in the snow. He identiﬁes himself as Chris Maddix, the son of a legendary rebel soldier known for his brutality in the post-Civil War reconstruction era. With not even a tenuous degree of trust, the four passengers, alongside stagecoach driver Opie (Parks), head towards the nearby Minnie's Haberdashery (which Tarantino describes as being a resturaunt, a bar, an inn, "basically everything except a haberdashery") to brave the blizzard.
When they get there, instead of ﬁnding Minnie and her co-proprietor Sweet Dave, the ﬁve ﬁnd a quartet of characters. Frenchman Bob (Menochet) is taking care of the Haberdashery for Minnie and Sweet Dave, who have gone to visit Minnie's mother. Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), the local hangman, speaks in a pristine British accent, and is cordial with all parties to a tee. Joe Gage (Madsen), a cowpoke with little use for words, sits in the corner and scribbles something unknown on a piece of paper. And the famous Confederate, General Sanford Smithers, sits quietly, thinking of his departed son he's come to bury. The eight men agree that they are stuck together for at least a couple of days due to the storm, and separate the room (the north and south sides, naturally) between the two groups.
Needless to say, the mutual amicability does not last for very long. This isolated haberdashery ﬁnds itself host to violence, distrust, and, eventually, a host of uncovered secrets. Not all of these men are who they claim to be, and as the snow keeps them locked in close proximity of one another, certain details come to light that make co-existing in such tight corners quite impossible. One spoiler for the road: bodies start a-droppin'.
Before I move onto the cast, let me ﬁrst discuss Tarantino's contribution (on top of, you know, writing the fuckin' thing). As anyone who has ever seen or heard an interview with him knows, the hombre has a presence. He was trained as an actor, and has a talent for diction, but his enthusiasm is visibly (and audibly) evident, a pours from every inch of his body. Beyond rehearsing with his cast days in advance, he did something no other live read director I've seen do to date, which was actually literally DIRECT the actors. More than once, he'd walk over to an actor's ear, whisper some magic words in there, and would restart the scene from the top of the page. He also publicly reprimanded the actors for going off-book, and asked that they please stick to his written words (I should mention, throughout all of these interjections, Mr. Jackson, obviously quite familiar with QT's particularism, was giggling his ass off). At one point, Michael Madsen's character was supposed to look like was "coming in his pants," but Tarantino looked Madsen dead in the eye and shot, "That's what you look like when you come in your pants?!" Madsen replied, "It's never happened to me before," to which QT immediately responded, "Let me show you sometime!" which brought the house down. He was the ringleader of this three-ring circus, and emceed the show with all the ﬂourish you'd expect from the legendary writer/director, complete with a rock star-like "GOOD NIGHT LOS ANGELES!" at the conclusion.
But let's talk about this cast he got together.
Although THE HATEFUL EIGHT is basically a close-quarters ensemble drama (not its only similarity to RESERVOIR DOGS), John Ruth is arguably the lead character, and, needless to say, Kurt Russell is about as epic a leading man as you can get for a western. He was in full John Wayne mode, closer to his impression of The Duke in DEATH PROOF than Jack Burton, but the character was unlike anything you've ever seen from Wayne. He's not Stuntman Mike, but his physical cruelty towards Daisy is intense, and Kurt mimed his character's vicious strikes with an affecting force that made you sympathize with the young prisoner despite the nastiness that pours out every time she speaks. Despite that, due to some subtleties regarding the character and the fact that he's Kurt fucking Russell, you still root for the guy, and more than a few of his line deliveries were welcomed with loud, welcoming laughter. If this was RESERVOIR DOGS, he was Harvey Keitel's Mr. White: ﬂawed, for sure, but human, compelling, and dedicated as a bloodhound to get his bounty to the hangman's noose. When it came time for his character to get a little physical, Russell was more than up to the challenge, giving way more of an effort in service of the story than many stars of his stature would probably muster. His name was maybe the last I expected to hear as part of this lineup, but I hope he's now joining Jackson and Christoph Waltz as part of the Quentin Tarantino Players; if QT ends up making this ﬂick, there's no one I'd rather see in the role.
There've been three Samuel L. Jackson characters in Quentin Tarantino's ﬁlmography (ﬁve if you count Rufus the organ player and the ﬁlm-savvy narrator in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), but I'll be damned if I didn't see evidence that there's plenty room for more. Once we hear the story of Major Marquis Warren, I'd say there's plenty of evidence to suggest his character, like the best ones Tarantino's written, could've warranted his own feature ﬁlm of his own. He is, of course, a badass motherfucker, one who knows how to take charge both with and without the help of a pistol (and, in one scene, a knife). He's a legendary bounty hunter, one whose head was once valued by the Confederates at $30,000, and takes nothing but pleasure in his reputation for slaying white, southern "crackers". Samuel L. was constantly on his feet, walking around the stage, constantly pufﬁng on his e-cig (in place of a pipe), and uttering every line with that trademark delivery of his like he'd been rehearsing the role for weeks. He doesn't take this Tarantino relationship for granted; you could see the same energy, presence, and attention to detail in his Marquis Warren that he showed as Jules Winﬁeld and Ordell Robbie back in the '90s. If this character exists in a shooting draft for THE HATEFUL EIGHT, you can be damned sure he'll be played by Sam The Man himself.
Tim Roth and Michael Madsen sat next to each other for much of the show, and beyond their RESERVOIR DOGS connection, the two melted into their parts wonderfully. As the dapper, wonderfully British hangman Oswaldo, Roth danced with his dialogue in a dialect much like his Ted the Bellboy from FOUR ROOMS. He wasn't as sinister as his ROB ROY character, nor as endearing and innocent as Mr. Orange from RESERVOIR DOGS, just a matter-of-fact professional trying to keep cooler heads prevailing in this hotbed of testosterone and gunmetal. A mid-way monologue on "frontier justice" and its relation to actual, "dispassionate" justice is pure sitting-around-the-diner- table Tarantino, and Roth gave it and every line of his character an affected quality that was fairly irresistible. I don't think I've seen him that *alive* in a role in quite some time. Madsen's Joe Gage doesn't have a ton of lines, but Madsen nevertheless injected the role with his trademark tough-guy presence. Wearing full cowboy get-up, including a purple bandana around his neck to cover up a neck wound, Madsen snarled his dialogue and used his large body for maximum effect. One early scene had his character facing off against Russell's John Ruth, and I had geek chills watching Snake Plissken and Mr. Blonde trying to out-badass one another. Both Roth and Madsen are two of those guys I hope Tarantino always has on speed dial, and 23 years after their ﬁrst collaboration with the director, they were still as electric and dependable as ever.
Dern? Well, Bruce Dern doesn't have to do much to wow an audience at this point. Coming off a white-hot year after his performance in NEBRASKA, he was greeted with perhaps the biggest applause of any of the cast members, and made a huge splash without so much as getting up out of his chair. His General Sitwell is very much a wildcard of the story, and has roughly as much dialogue as Madsen's Joe Gage, but Dern, taking long breaks in between his lines, created a well- rounded character out of the scant dialogue and stage direction. He sat there, slumped in his lounge chair, leaning in and staring his co-stars in the face during their exchanges, doling out each word with that wonderful accent of his. His scenes didn't have a ton of laughs, and rather sustained a sense of intense gravitas that wasn't really present in the rest of the script. There's no irony in his laments over his dead son, and he acknowledges his history as a Confederate legend with a visible level of regret and contemplation. He's the Joe Cabot of THE HATEFUL EIGHT, where you constantly feel his presence even though he's not center stage for the whole thing. I don't know if the role is big enough to attract Dern if/when the script ever makes it to production, but if he signs on, I have no doubt he'll be terriﬁc, maybe even better than he was last night, in the actual ﬁlm.
The biggest surprise of the cast, for me, was Walton Goggins. His Chris Maddix used to be part of the "Maddix Marauders," a roving band of Confederate renegades who openly killed slaves even after the end of the Civil War. But now, he claims he's lined up to be sheriff of the nearby town, Red Rock, and that contradiction in his backstory makes for some great tension early on. Goggins jumped into the role feet ﬁrst, spouting his long stretches of dialogue with an almost sing-songy cadence, winning you over while keeping you in the dark about his true intentions. He was the Mr. Pink, talking plenty without relenting the actual pieces of information that would actually affect the situation, and Goggins did wonders with his young, rambunctious hot dog. He held his own against the biggest names on the stage, and never once seemed like a TV actor delivering movie-grade dialogue. He had a great physical presence as well, moving around the stage for his various exchanges, and holding his hand like a pistol when it came time for his character to draw down (Tarantino, at one point, told him to put his hand down and focus on the dialogue, again eliciting laughter and applause). He was great in his small role in DJANGO UNCHAINED, and I hope that ﬁlm marked the beginning of a long, fruitful relationship between the actor and director, 'cause he ﬁts into his wheelhouse better than some of his regulars.
Amber Tamblyn, as Daisy, wasn't allowed to chew into the physicality of the role due to the restrictions of the venue, and she had to mold her grotesque, scummy character through posing and dialogue. During Daisy's more crucial moments, however, Tamblyn made for a great villain, swearing, screeching, and double-talking her captor and the men in the haberdashery like an insect squirming for survival. I'd imagine QT would go for a bigger name actress for the role, someone on Uma Thurman's level (although the character may be too much of a victim for the former Bride to take on), but Tamblyn's gritty, feral performance was more than sufﬁcient to create the drama and tension her character had to inspire. James Parks and Denis Menochet, as the stagecoach driver Opie and Frenchman Bob, proved great repertory players, as did Tarantino alum Zoe Bell, Dana Gourrier, and especially James Remar in their bit parts. Aside from Tamblyn, it felt like pretty much every character, no matter how small, was written for the actor cast in the role (you can't tell me Bell's character just HAPPENED to be from New Zealand), and everyone added a little bit of spice to the concoction that was THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Even the actors who doubled up and played multiple roles seemed to slip in and out of their respective characters fairly easily, particularly Jackson. When I say I really would be elated if they kept this cast wholly intact for the ﬁnal ﬁlm, I really mean it; I don't see a lot of alternate casting that would do anything aside from hurting the beautiful tapestry that this ensemble (and QT) was able to create.
The script is long, and the program ran a total of 2 hours and 45 minutes (including one intermission between chapters 3 and 4), but it is Tarantino's tightest, most focused story since the aforementioned RESERVOIR DOGS. Keeping all the characters in a conﬁned setting like this allows for an already play-like feel, with only sustained bursts of action/violence but a shit-ton of Tarantino's Oscar-caliber dialogue. Aside from DOGS, another apt comparison would be to the basement scene of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, just stretched out to the length of a feature; we know that, at any moment, something could pop off that could lead to the deaths of everyone in the ﬁlm, but the true pleasure is watching the tension build and witnessing each character size up the rest. Tarantino always throws some backstory and stage direction in his script that will never make into the feature ﬁlm (some of his screenplays have started out in novel form), and THE HATEFUL EIGHT follows suit; for example, the backstory of Minnie's Haberdashery is laid out only in the direction, and is then dismissed as "only a rumor". The script has a ton of references to the intended Cinemascope 70mm format Tarantino would (and still may) have shot this on, but once the characters arrive at the haberdashery, the visual aspect becomes much more micro and focused. There's a Hitchcockian focus on a crucial pot of coffee, which gets passed around and poured plenty before directly ﬁguring into the narrative. The speciﬁcs of the room are laid out in crucial detail, creating a living, breathing environment out of the small mountainside cabin. Even when the plot occasionally jumps backwards in time for key ﬂashbacks, we are still stuck at Minnie's, and the claustrophobia adds an immediacy that's been missing from Tarantino's work since his debut feature over two decades prior.
The multiple stage settings, the theatricality of the performances, and the occasional use of onstage props added a lot to the proceedings, but the thing that really made this live read a wonderful experience was the cast. Seeing this roster of actors on a single stage doing ANYTHING would be a huge deal, but them performing an unproduced Tarantino script was nothing short of religious for me. I don't doubt that at least one or two of the actors will be subbed out when the script goes into production, and that's a big shame; despite all the reservations I've heard from those who've read the script (and Tarantino himself), what I saw last night seemed quite ready to go. Sure, a little tightening could maybe trim the more redundant areas, but the piece, as is, is a wonderful hybrid of the play-like quality of RESERVOIR DOGS and the fascination with the America of the mid-1800s that we saw in DJANGO UNCHAINED. No amount of hyperbole could capture what it was like to watch legends of the silver screen on the caliber of Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, and the rest performing Tarantino's unproduced script, while being publicly directed, live, by the man himself. But if the ﬂick gets made, with this cast and Tarantino (with the help of cinematographer Robert Richardson, who'll have his work cut out for him), it could very well be another QT masterpiece on par with anything he's ever done.