If there's anything more fun for an actor than working on a Western, it's doing it with Quentin Tarantino's words on the page and his eye behind the camera.
And it sounds as if the stars of "The Hateful Eight" made the most of their moment in the saddle: In a rollicking press conference, Tarantino was joined by a blend of his veteran actors – Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth – and the latest additions to his select troupe – Jennifer Jason Leigh, Channing Tatum, Bruce Dern and Damien Bichir – to wax hilarious on their stint in a decidedly different kind of horse opera.
On the decision to shoot big – literally – in 65mm film:
Quentin Tarantino: One of the tricks that I thought about was the intimacy that provides you, particularly in close ups. I mean, I shot a lot of close ups of this man, right here. But I've never shot them as beautiful as I did in this movie. …One of the things, I remember when I did the film, when it was reported that I was going to do it in this format, people were actually speculating, and I guess I understand it. They were like, "Well, yeah, OK, that all sounds really great, but why would he do it for a thing that's just so set-bound?" And I think that's actually just kind of a not a very profound thinking when it comes to 65mm – that it's basically just for shooting travelogues or shooting mountain sceneries and nature and stuff.
I actually felt that especially in bringing into Minnie's Haberdashery, if the film isn't suspenseful, i.e. the pressure-cooker situation of what's going on in the movie, if that's not part of it, if the threat of violence, but the pressure-cooker situation – if the temperature isn't always getting upped a notch every scene or so, the movie's going to be boring. It's not going to work. And I actually felt that the big format, one, it would put you in Minnie's Haberdashery; you are in that place, you are amongst those characters. And I thought it would make it more intimate when I got in close with them.
But the other thing that I thought would be very, very important is that there's always two plays going on in this movie. Once you're in Minnie's particularly, there's two plays going on at all times. There's the characters that are in the foreground of any given scene, and then there's the characters in the background. And you always have to be keeping track, especially in this scenario, of where everybody is. It's like they're pieces on a chessboard, and you always have to see it.
And so maybe, it might be Chris Mannix and General Smithers who are dealing. But you're also clocking Joe Gauge at his table, and you're clocking John Ruth and Daisy at the bar. And that becomes very important, unless I don't want it to be. Unless I want to cut them out and not show it to you. But I think that helped ratchet up the tension as things went on.
On the newcomers to Tarantino's established acting troupe:
Channing Tatum: All these guys work together a lot, and it is a unique experience to be in a Quentin movie, I can promise you! And you're really intimidated, but every single person was so – I mean, Sam, I did my first movie ever with Sam, and to come full circle like this is pretty extraordinary. I think on the first day, I must have looked so geeked out because the very first shot was this crazy 360. And I'm just, like, wide eyed and trying to figure out what not to screw up, and Tim goes, "Yep. Yep. You're about to be in a Quentin Tarantino film. Pull it together, Channing." I looked so, like, scared. But it was amazing. Every single person here is people I admire greatly, and has learned a lesson every single moment.
Tarantino: I told him when we were in rehearsal, I go, "You do realize you get to shoot Coach Carter, don't you?" "I haven't thought about that! Holy shit! I get to shoot Coach Carter!"
Samuel L. Jackson: All those suicides, all those push-ups.
Bruce Dern: This is the first movie I've ever done where I felt privileged to lend a hand, because that's what you do for him. He expects everybody – I don't know what percentage, but let's say casting is 80 percent of a movie, and he expects the people that he brings to do what he hired them to do, and not act and be somebody else. And I felt that he asked me to come along and lend a hand.
I mean, when you go to work for him, everybody on the set, and we're talking about everybody behind the camera, division by division by division, everybody knows you have a chance to go to the playoffs. But what you don't know is that what you're going to end up in this one, it's my first time in an opera, because the guy made an opera. And just to be a part of that. …I couldn't sit through a fucking opera, but … [laughter]
Damien Bichir: I just had the best seat in the house. From day one, meeting [Quentin], being a big fan of his films forever. It was great to see him in action and see how he does what he does. And I remember having this first table reading with all these beautiful actors, reading those lines. That was, for me, a beautiful ride. And I still have the best seat in the house. I'm just having a lot of fun. And you need a crazy director, a free director, a director that's not afraid of taking risks in order to help you get where you want to go. So that's pretty much what we're doing.
On spending an entire movie connected at the wrist, even when the actors could be swapped out for dummies:
Kurt Russell: Aside from the fact that I had a really good ticket, a front-row seat to watch all these guys and not have to worry about lines and I could just listen to it and watch it be played out. But I wanted to be there for her [Jennifer Jason Leigh] to do whatever she needed to do. … So for her, if she felt like she needed to paw John Ruth, that's going to be different than a dummy, and I knew that by being there and by continuing the day to day that we all had talking to each other, it was just something that had to happen.
Michael Madsen: Until that "dummy" fell asleep.
Russell: Yeah, that's true. That was like, "Oh, Jennifer, why did you stop?" "Uh, 'cause John Ruth is snoring.” [laughs]
Jennifer Jason Leigh: They had a dummy for him. It was 30 degrees in that room, so they had a full dummy with a full face cast, beautiful. Like you couldn't tell from far away. I mean, Walton has a lot of video.
Walton Goggins: Different people would go up and just slap "John Ruth." OK – Bam! Or just like play with his moustache.
Leigh: I couldn't have done that scene without him there. And that really was three weeks of like 16-hour days, lying on a cold floor. But I needed him, and he was so there for me. That just really, really touched me.
On veteran Tarantino actors reuniting with the filmmaker after a hiatus:
Madsen: Well, at least Tim and I didn't get stuck together this time. Tim and I embraced each other on the set of "Reservoir Dogs," and we had both so much blood on our bodies that we were stuck together. And we were stuck together, like, more than we wanted to be. It was like the hug that lasted a little too long. And they had to take a garden hose to separate us. So it's good this time we're on opposite sides of the room.
But I enjoy so much watching Tim and watching him find his character. I think back in the "Dog" days, I was a young man. I was very naïve. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. Not that I do now. But I enjoy watching Tim, and I enjoyed watching him much more than I would have remembered from the years before. What changed for me is I grew to appreciate and watch him, how wonderful he is, as a friend also.
Tim Roth: It's been a trip. It was kind of a weird sensation to be the old school, the old boys come in. Because Sam's been around as much as I have. But I've had a long break, so I didn't know that new kind of version of how he filmed and the kind of atmosphere on set that he's encouraged and developed. It was brand new for me. So it was almost in a sense like coming to Quentin fresh again. It was wonderful.
On just how sacrosanct that acclaimed Tarantino dialogue is:
Samuel L. Jackson: Quentin and I have conversations about what I say, and I don't just willy-nilly change things. If I want to say something else, I'll go to him and discuss it with him, and we'll talk about it. And he'll say, "Well, let me hear what I wrote." And I'll say what he wrote. And then, "Let me know what you want to say." And I'll say what I want to say, which is very close to what he wrote. I just want to say it another way because I think it comes out of that character's mouth a different way. And he'll say "OK," or he'll say, "Hmm, leave it the way I wrote it." And that's generally what happens. The rest of these motherfuckers need to say what he said!
We got on the same wavelength. And generally, when I get it, it's exactly what it needs to be. As characterization starts, and we're in rehearsal, there are times when I feel like I didn't say enough, or I didn't have enough to say. And I'll say to him, "Could you add something here so that I can answer that or clarify this?" And Quentin will do that. But by the time the rehearsal period is over, and we get there and we're ready to do it, nothing changes.
Except the only big change we have from being around the studio table in Minnie's in the studio and being outdoors with the stagecoach was the cold. That was the one thing, the wild card that we didn't really know about. And all of a sudden, it changed the urgency of everything we wanted to do [laughs]. Especially outdoors. It's like, "OK, I want to get inside the stagecoach now because I don't like the snow running down my neck."
Goggins: There was a one day in particular – I read this stuff like 300 times; we all do. And Quentin said at the outset, "You need to know these words." As every actor up here does, not so that you can be ready at any given moment to kind of go wherever it is in store. But you can give this man a hundred different versions if that's what he needs in order to reach his vision. And that's just kind of what I do. That's how I look at it.
And there was one day in particular where Quentin gave me a monologue, and it was just like a page. And I spent 14 years in television -- learning 10 pages, for me, in an hour is no problem. But this is Quentin Tarantino dialogue. And it started off in the morning. I got it first thing as soon as I got there, right after our coffee; we have a coffee club in the morning. And so I'm sitting there – man. I'm having the best fucking day. I know 150 pages of this script, I know everybody's shit! And I get this thing from Coco [Francini, associate producer], who just kind of comes up and says, "Hey, Quentin wants you to say this later on today." And it's like, here -- it's a whole thing. And it just, like, freaked me out. Like, it brought me down. It's like, "Oh, fuck, really?"
Now, I got to get up from the coffee house and start walking around. And people see that I'm freaking out a little bit. And Tim says, "Hey, man, what's wrong with you?" I said, "Look, I got this, right here. I got this today." He said, "You got that, man." I said, "No, I don't! I don't fucking have this!" And then Kurt, literally an hour later. I'm just pacing around back and forth, and Kurt said, "Hey, man, what's wrong?" " This, man, this!" He said, "You got this." I said, "No, fuck, no!" And the same with Sam. He said the same thing too because I was just walking. I pace. And then, that night, it all came down. It was the last thing that we shot. And it was me and Bruce. And we were sitting there in the chair. And even then, I'm just fucking freaking out. And Quentin just looks at me and he says, "You got this, bro." And then it came out.
Jackson: And it's not in the movie!
Goggins: No, it is, it is!
“The Hateful Eight” will open in limited 70mm release on Friday before receiving wide digital release on Jan. 1.