Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson are happy to be in each other’s company again in controversial and timely Western ‘The Hateful Eight’

Story by Kristopher Tapley
Photographs by Bryce Duffy

When a furious Quentin Tarantino scrapped plans to make “The Hateful Eight” after his original script leaked, the director sent the screenplay to one of his trusted longtime collaborators for a friendly look. After reading it, Samuel L. Jackson was not about to let the filmmaker ditch the project. “I called him and said, ‘Dude, how are you not going to make this movie?’” Jackson recalls.

That kind of cajoling, along with a chorus of disappointment among Tarantino’s fanbase, helped bring the director back to the drawing board. He decided to work through the material at a Los Angeles live reading of the script in April of last year, then announced he would proceed with plans to make the post-Civil War Western.

“The Hateful Eight” — which debuts in limited release on Christmas Day and goes wide on Jan. 8 — marks the sixth collaboration between Jackson and Tarantino, but this is the first time the veteran actor could be considered the lead of one of his films.

Theirs has become a storied collaboration, not unlike famed film tandems such as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, or John Ford and John Wayne.

It makes sense that Tarantino would cultivate such a relationship, as some of his favorite directors pulled from stock companies of actors. “That always seemed like the way to go,” Tarantino says. “With me, though, there’s a bit more of a practicality to it: Not every actor can do my dialogue. It’s very specific, and you have to be able to capture the rhythm.”

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Many of the duo’s collaborators often cite comparisons with recording artists. “If Quentin is like a musician, no one has ever recorded his music in the way that Sam can,” says “Hateful Eight” producer Stacey Sher.

Harvey Weinstein, who has backed all of the features Tarantino has directed over the past 23 years, adds: “Sam is the world champion pianist who interprets and plays Quentin’s music like nobody else. It’s a language unto itself.”

Two decades and counting, it’s a relationship largely based on trust and respect.

“There are some people who, when they call you, you don’t care what they’re doing — you just drop your s--- and do it,” Jackson says. “There’s no better place in the world to be than on a Quentin Tarantino set. He knows what he wants to do. He knows how he wants to do it. But in the framework of that, it’s like, ‘Show me what you want to do.’ It’s freeing. I’m just proud of the fact that he trusts me with his stuff.”

Indeed, Jackson is the only actor Tarantino has ever granted rewrite privileges, the director says. And it’s something Jackson does not take lightly. He comes fully prepared to show Tarantino fleshed-out ideas, so the director can see them in action. Often it’s a creative lightning bolt that adds a new dynamic to a scene, such as in “Django Unchained,” when Jackson’s character Stephen begins parroting everything plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) says.

“He knew exactly what line to do it, so he wouldn’t f--- up Leo or his monologue or his rhythms,” Tarantino recalls. “He just added to it.”

In Tarantino’s latest, Jackson plays Maj. Marquis Warren, a Civil War veteran who, not unlike Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz in “Django Unchained,” makes his living collecting bounties. The job brings him to a snow-blown haberdashery in the Wyoming Rockies where two characters are poisoned. Solving the crime brings themes of deception and betrayal among a whodunit ensemble that includes Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demian Bichir and James Parks.

The camaraderie between Jackson and Tarantino is on full display during their cover shoot and joint interview at a dark, lodge-like drinking post in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley that could almost be the setting of Tarantino’s tense upcoming Western. The pair, similarly edgy, fearless artists who effortlessly tap into their dark sides, share an easy rapport, conversing and laughing at each other’s tales as they pose for the cameras.

But events twice conspired to almost keep them apart. They got off to a sour start when they met; Jackson bombed an audition for “Reservoir Dogs,” due largely to being far more prepared to engage with the material than with his reading partners (who happened to be producer Lawrence Bender and Tarantino himself). But two years later, the writer-director conceived the role of Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction” with the actor in mind.

Yet that part also nearly slipped through Jackson’s fingers, when another thesp impressed producers with a reading during an audition. Jackson came back, auditioned himself, blew everyone away and landed the role. “From that point on, every time Quentin wrote something for me, nobody got to read it,” Jackson says.

Ultra Wide

Only 10 films have been shot with the Ultra Panavision 70 format Quentin Tarantino and company use on “The Hateful Eight”

1957
Raintree County
Civil War epic directed by Edward Dmytryk

1959
Ben-Hur
The signature chariot race made good use of the wide screen

1962
Mutiny on the Bounty
Mutineer Brando sailed into the widest of oceans

1962
How the West Was Won
Western omnibus had a star-studded cast and four directors

1963
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Stanley Kramer’s madcap farce kept plenty of balls in the air

1964
The Fall of the Roman Empire
Mega-scale epic is fit for the massive format

1965
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Max von Sydow plays Jesus in this biblical saga

1965
The Hallelujah Trail
John Sturges’ whisky-tinged action-comedy stars Burt Lancaster

1965
Battle of the Bulge
WWII epic was the year’s third film to shoot in Ultra Panavision

1966
Khartoum
Heston again, in the Sudan battling religious fanatics

“Hateful Eight” cinematographer Robert Richardson describes the relationship between the 52-year-old Tarantino and 66-year-old Jackson as familial: “It borders on the level of a brother,” he says. “They tend to push each other, but gently. And also, I think Sam’s a teacher. I saw it in ‘Django,’ the way he worked with other actors. Anyone who doesn’t prepare or is not at that level is going to see a side of Sam that is going to help them. He can be ornery, but it helps bring out (the best in) you.”

Roth echoes the sentiment: “When two people connect in that way — both of them having the ability to deliver at 100% — it’s pretty wonderful for the rest of us. And I think this is their best collaboration yet.”

Jackson says Tarantino keeps him creatively energized. He compares one of his scripts to a Russian matryoshka doll, bearing new depth with every turn of the page.

“I read so much shit between books, comic books, scripts, and I’m usually 20 pages ahead of most writers because I know where they’re going,” Jackson says. “But I’m never that way when I’m reading his stuff. And inside of this great thing is something that’s going to challenge me, characters that have different personalities, intelligence and intellect. They’re all smart guys, but some are smarter in street ways, some are smarter in life ways, some are smarter intellectually. Some are just smart in the fact that they know how to exist in a world that’s chaotic. For me, that’s always exciting, and it’s always a compliment that he thinks I can make them live.”

"Not every actor can do my dialogue. It’s very specific, and you have to be able to capture the rhythm."
Quentin Tarantino

As a devoted intimate, Jackson understands the controversial comments made by Tarantino at an anti-police-brutality rally in New York on Oct. 24, which added one more twist to the “Hateful Eight” saga. “I’m a human being with a conscience,” the filmmaker told the group of protestors. “If you believe there’s murder going on, then you need to rise up and stand up against it. I’m here to say I’m on the side of the murdered.”

His comments drew the immediate ire of police unions, who responded with threats and calls to boycott the film’s release. When Jackson got wind of the dust-up, he couldn’t help but see an unfortunate undercurrent in the official reaction. “If you’re a good cop, he wasn’t talking to you, and you don’t need to be offended,” he says. “If you police your ranks, then we don’t need to be out here in the streets doing what we’re doing.”

Tarantino, meanwhile, stands by his remarks, and further tells Variety: “I don’t think of the police as a sinister organization that targets private citizens. I think they got carried away with their own rhetoric — pretty much what I think they think about me.”

Read More: Old Lenses Give Depth to ‘The Hateful Eight’

Nevertheless, Tarantino admits the controversy is a “pain in the ass” that Weinstein, who is banking on “The Hateful Eight” doing considerable business in the wake of belt-tightening and layoffs at his company, could probably do without. For his part, Weinstein — who according to Tarantino, told the director he was “very proud” of him — denies reports that he is furious at the filmmaker, or that he asked him to apologize. “I respect his right to speak out for what he believes in, while at the same time respecting the sacrifices made every day by the overwhelming majority of our police officers,” Weinstein says.

“Hateful Eight” enters the marketplace at a flashpoint for race relations. When cameras began to roll last December, the events in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, were still echoing through the zeitgeist.

One line in the movie — “Ask people in South Carolina if they feel safe.” — even had to be dropped after a gunman killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last June. Like the Westerns of any decade, “The Hateful Eight” is poised to reflect, in its own way, something of the here and now.

A Frequent Pair

Quentin Tarantino has collaborated with Samuel L. Jackson on six of his films.

1994
Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino has collaborated with Samuel L. Jackson on six of his films.

1997
Jackie Brown

Jackson was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of hitman Jules Winnfield.

2004
Kill Bill: Vol 2

Jackson cameos as the piano player of Two Pines Chapel, site of the bloody Massacre at Two Pines.

2009
Inglourious Bastards

With unmistakable gravitas, Jackson narrates the intro to brutal assassin Hugo Stiglitz (pictured).

2012
Django Unchained

Jackson stars alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as the loyal house slave of the Candyland plantation.

2015
Hateful Eight

As bounty hunter and former Civil War Maj. Marquis Warren, Jackson heads an ensemble cast.

“I think this is Quentin’s most political movie,” Weinstein says. “And it’s very optimistic. But it’s baptism by fire. Even through all that gunfire — no spoilers here — the idea of the relationships at the end are so optimistic. It’s got something to say that’s extremely important about how people should get along.”

But Tarantino’s work has often shined a light on the issue of white supremacy, particularly of late, so the director’s anti-police-brutality comments must be placed in the context of his career and, specifically, “The Hateful Eight.”

Yet the film could face controversy on another level — in the form of accusations of misogyny — for the amount of violence Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, a foul-mouthed, racist gang member, endures throughout. Leigh, however, says she doesn’t see the character as having been treated misogynistically.

“She’s a leader. She’s tough,” the actress insists. “She’s hateful and a survivor and scrappy. (Quentin) doesn’t have an ounce of misogyny in him. He writes very brave, bold, insane, fabulous women. Nobody writes women like he does.”

The National Board of Review would seem to agree, recently recognizing both Leigh and Tarantino for honors, naming her the year’s best supporting actress, and his script as best original screenplay.

"There’s no better place in the world to be than on a Quentin Tarantino set. He knows what he wants to do. He knows how he wants to do it. But in the framework of that, it’s like, 'Show me what you want to do.' It’s freeing."
Samuel L. Jackson

Tarantino’s screenwriting process had long been one of cranking out drafts internally without ever showing anyone the progression. By the time his inner circle would get a look, “last draft” would be scrawled across the script, indicating the set-in-stone finality of his words.

But with “The Hateful Eight,” he changed things up. “I wanted to be, like, ‘Don’t be so sure,’” he recalls telling himself. “ ‘I don’t have to figure out everything right now. Let that third act be something that’s genuinely informed from doing a couple of different drafts.’” The story’s finale had not been fully formed, and plot threads were willfully left dangling when he circulated the script for thoughts and feedback.

Then, it leaked. Gawker widely distributed a link for downloading the script. Tarantino felt naked. Worse, he felt betrayed. He brought a lawsuit against the website (since rescinded), an episode he now regrets. It was a whodunit that almost reflected the Agatha Christie mystery at the heart of the film, but Tarantino mostly blames a system in which the release and circulation of in-progress creative material is so widely accepted.

Read More: Jennifer Jason Leigh on 'Hateful Eight,' 'Anomalisa': 'Two of the Best Roles of My Life'

“This was such a learning process that to have it get out there really just felt like an invasion,” he says. “My fight was with these duplicitous practices that have just been kind of softly given a pass in Hollywood. I shamed them about it.” He went into the William Morris agency, where he is a favored son after remaining a client there since his career began, and had a serious sit-down discussion about ethics.

“I was saying, ‘Look, you guys are dealing with artists, and we have to be able to respect you and trust you. You can’t just say, well, your assistant does this and interns do that. That’s bullshit. Interns and assistants don’t do that at J.J. Abrams’ company. You’re teaching these interns, who are going to be agents, how it’s done. You’re teaching the wrong lesson.’”

By the time production geared up for a snowy shoot 30 miles outside of Telluride in the winter of 2014, Tarantino and his cast had not “chewed the rag on a piece of material” like that, as he puts it, since “Reservoir Dogs.” “It was popping out of the actors’ eyeballs,” he recounts.

Tarantino, a fierce advocate for celluloid in the steady march toward digital standardization — he finds digital projection particularly blasphemous — wanted to add a dimension to “The Hateful Eight” to force the issue on the distribution side. “We conceded too much ground to the barbarians,” he says. “That’s just really not the film industry I signed up for, and I’m not inspired by it.”

The best way to ensure that the movie would be projected via film, he surmised, was to shoot it in 70mm, a large-format process that has seen a slight uptick in recent years with interest from filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master”) and Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar”). He also conceived of “Hateful Eight” as a “roadshow” release, an ode to a time when films like “Gone With the Wind” would screen in limited engagements fit with overtures and intermissions and specialty programs — all the pomp and circumstance a romantic vision of a night at the theater might suggest.

While testing lenses at Panavision in Woodland Hills, however, cinematographer Richardson stumbled onto something that took things to the next level. “It was like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” he says. “We opened up a curtain to go back, and behind there were these lenses that had been sitting on shelves for years. Essentially they were relics.”

They were Ultra Panavision lenses, out of service for nearly half a century. The prism elements within manifest the widest possible cinematic image, and they had not been employed since the 1966 Charlton Heston-Laurence Olivier epic “Khartoum.” It was exactly the unique throwback experience Tarantino was hoping for.

Read More: Tim Roth on Finding Quentin Tarantino's Rhythm 20 Years Later in 'The Hateful Eight'

During production, the director even had the luxury of screening dailies in 70mm. Notes producer Richard Gladstein, “We rented an old Mason hall in Telluride, and put in a projection booth.” And once a week, Tarantino flew back to Los Angeles to screen edited footage in 70mm at the DGA Theater.

But the ambition didn’t end there. While only sixteen 70mm prints for “The Master” were struck for distribution, and 12 for “Interstellar,” the plan for the “Hateful Eight” roadshow is to play in 100 theaters when it opens Dec. 25. Projectors had to be purchased or upgraded, and staff trained on their operation across the country.

“That’s why from the beginning, Quentin wanted the money to go into the retrofitting of theaters,” producer Shannon McIntosh recalls. “That was our goal, to keep our number in production down as far as we could so that the Weinstein Co. could put the money into the distribution aspect.”

As a result, TWC has essentially cornered the market on 70mm projectors, and a whole infrastructure is now in place for high-end celluloid presentation. “It’s a grand achievement,” Weinstein says. “Every once in a while, you have to break the mold.”

That kind of rebellious streak serves the film well — and it’s certainly a trait Tarantino and Jackson share with their favorite movie impresario.