As soon as the reading was announced in early April, the big draw, apart from the first legal opportunity for a select few to sample Tarantino’s latest western, became the mystery of who would be cast to participate in this one-time-only, never to be streamed or recorded performance. And what a cast it was, labeled the “Tarantino Superstars” by their perpetually excited ringleader, filled with a dozen famous faces and welcome character actors (plus the filmmaker himself, reading directions), each of whom having already worked with
Tarantino at least once before: Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Denis Menochet, James Parks, James Remar, Zoe Bell and Dana Gourrier. The applause for the cast reveal alone would have been enough to cover most performances for an entire evening, but the reading itself kept the audience alternately cackling, cheering, applauding, and occasionally gasping throughout the whopping three and a half-hour runtime, which did include a very brief intermission.
The plot in a nutshell can be described as sort of a Western take on Reservoir Dogs, with the movie’s familiar single-setting, traitor-in-our midst set up being transported to post-Civil War Wyoming. This time, the criminals holed up in a warehouse after a botched heist are substituted for bounty hunters and various unsavory characters waiting out a terrible blizzard inside a cramped stagecoach stop. The setting becomes even more claustrophobic as the characters’ previous connections and ulterior motives are revealed, all the while exacerbated further by the lingering wounds of the Civil War and its outcome. In the event that everyone else does get a chance to experience The Hateful Eight for themselves in one way or another, to say anything more would be to give away the many twists and shifting alliances. This being a Quentin Tarantino script, however, it spoils nothing to say that this boils over into copious amounts of profanity and bloodshed before the storm is over.
Tarantino, dressed in VERY colorful modern cowboy getup and constantly clutching an old iron coffee pot (an important prop, as it would turn out), made some opening remarks reminding the audience of the script’s rough draft status and that the cast had about three days to rehearse. “We’re okay. We’re pretty good,” he half-joked. The performance and its staging remained pretty loose throughout the night, with most of the cast casually dressed and clutching their scripts, sitting in chairs roughly positioned to correspond with the imagined blocking of the scenes. During the more exciting moments and fights, the actors would get out of their chairs and move around a little. Once a few characters died, the very game thespians playing them fell
dramatically out of their chairs and remained on the floor for the duration of the show.
The only hiccups came with the occasional flubbed line (totally understandable, under the circumstances) and the occasional call from the jittery but authoritative Tarantino to re-do a certain bit. Thereading provided a rare glimpse of what it must be like on his sets, with the director occasionally breaking the fourth wall to joke with his old friends in the cast or chastise them for going off script and attempting to “co-write” (his words). If there was ever any doubt that he considers himself God on the set, this performance proved that every single syllable in a Tarantino script is there for a reason, and when giving direction the man knows exactly what he wants. Still, one of the most human and amusing moments of the night came when Tarantino leapt into the middle of a scene and excitedly whispered a new idea in Samuel L. Jackson’s ear. “He’s directing!” the actor quipped to the audience, which was met with wild applause.
Even without much to look at on stage, the words on the page provided a clear visual of how this would play as a movie. Tarantino’s uniquely conversational approach to descriptive writing, as well as his wildly enthusiastic and energetic delivery, painted a mental picture of every shot he had planned, from the opening images of a six-horse coach outracing the snow to the description of the room where most of the story takes place to the comically brutal violence that comes later. The words “in glorious 70-millimeter Super Scope” became the running joke of the evening. As for the expected historical and pop culture references, they flew by so quickly that they were hard to keep up with, though it’s safe to say that no character name is an accident. Samuel L. Jackson’s character, the former Union soldier Marquis Warren, seems to nakedly reference Rawhide and Gunsmoke writer Charles Marquis Warren (thanks to Henry for pointing that one out!), for instance.
As with all past Tarantino projects, casting is everything, and if this exact cast were transposed into the feature film version with a bit more rehearsal, hardly a critic or movie fan would be likely to complain. Not only did the evening provide a fun reunion for Tarantino alum from throughout his career, but they all seemed to legitimately have great fun with their characters and with each other, even while saying and doing some pretty terrible things. Kurt Russell affected his best John Wayne as the bounty hunter John Ruth while Jackson delivered one particularly filthy monologue with devilish glee as the aforementioned Warren. It was a treat to see Tim Roth and Michael Madsen playing off each other again, albeit as very different characters. Recent Oscar-nominee Bruce Dern, playing a former Confederate general, had few words to say, but gave them such quiet gravity and solemnity that one can see why the director apparently tailor-made the role just for him. Among the younger cast members, Amber Tamblyn really held her own as Daisy Domergue, the prisoner around whom most of the intrigue centers, and Walton Goggins provided a great deal of comic relief as Chris Mannix, another former Confederate and self-proclaimed Sheriff-elect. The entire cast proved that their charisma was not restricted to on-camera performing, as is sadly sometimes the case.
As for the lingering questions hovering over this project, Tarantino declared that he is already at work on later drafts, which would seem to pretty clearly indicate that this project is not dead, in spite of his earlier statements and the ongoing lawsuit with Gawker over linking to the stolen, unfinished script. The presence of Harvey and Bob Weinstein at the performance also suggest that, if this wasn’t the master plan all along, somewhere along the way this reading of a “dead” project became an unprecedentedly public workshop on the way to resuming pre-production.
The other question one might have after seeing the script acted out in its entirety is whether or not the produced film would make for a worthy addition to the Western genre or to the vaunted Tarantino canon. While it’s obviously hard to say and all still very hypothetical, the initial impression is that it’s about as much of a Western as Django Unchained. The setting is a bit more traditional than the previous film’s mostly Southern locales, and The Hateful Eight’s details regarding the hardships of frontier travel are more specific and pronounced than the more mythic qualities of Django. Still, this story lacks the sweep, scope and sensitive subject matter that made its predecessor such an “event”.
At least for the time being, it wouldn’t be unfair to call this minor Tarantino, something more in line with Reservoir Dogs or Death Proof, both stripped-down genre exercises elevated by the voice of their author. And even if it’s smaller, it’s by no means tighter, since the performance started at eight o’clock and let out a little before midnight. This dry run of The Hateful Eight consistently entertains, but its characters still require further definition. The broad strokes are there, but one can feel jokes still waiting to be found, and the emotional core is a little elusive. Tarantino continues to play with the juicier topics of the time period, such as race, gender and post-war attitudes, but it feels like he hasn’t quite yet found what it is he wants to say about them. The script, like many of Tarantino’s past works, is divided into chapters, with the final chapter already having been scrapped by the director, who has promised that any future version will end differently. That is probably for the best, as the ending we saw performed, while certainly exciting, might ring a little similar to past successes and thematically hollow or without a greater purpose, which can be somewhat applied to the script as a whole.
Having said all that, if Tarantino is still tinkering, and if he’s as hyper-aware of audience reactions as he seemed last night, there’s still hope. The lengthy standing ovation at the end may have been the encouragement he needs to whip this thing into shape. The guy remains incapable of making anything less than interesting, and his growing enthusiasm for all things Western can only be a good thing for the genre’s standing in Hollywood. Even in its current compromised, unproduced form, The Hateful Eight still makes an impression. And if, worst-case scenario, the movie still doesn’t make it to screens, Tarantino’s already got a hit play on his hands.
Those of us attending the third-Wednesday-of-the-month Cowboy Lunch @ The Autry had a wonderful time listening to great Peckinpah stories from Bo Hopkins, L.Q. Jones, stunt ace Gary Combs, and WILD BUNCH costumer-turned Peckinpah producer and co-writer Gordon Dawson – that’s Dawson wearing the cross he made for Strother Martin to wear in THE WILD BUNCH. I never noticed Jesus had been replaced by a bullet! Much more coming soon to the Round-up!