We Went There: The Live Read of Quentin Tarantino’s (Probably Not) Abandoned ‘Hateful Eight’ Script
Turns out maybe we can have nice things after all! On Saturday night, Quentin Tarantino revealed that he intends to write a second draft (and therefore, presumably, someday make a movie) of The Hateful Eight, the ensemble Western he seemingly pulled the plug on in January after a version of the screenplay leaked online. Tarantino made the announcement before a staged reading of the Hateful Eight script at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles in front of 1,200 fans who’d paid $100 or more to watch an all-star cast bring his first draft to life. And fans means fans — the kind of people who sort of whoop knowingly at references to Red Apple tobacco products or Alexandre Dumas. They — OK, fine, we — could probably have just waited a year or two for the movie, which now seems inevitable and probably never wasn’t. But since the script remains widely available on Scribd, we could also have read it off the screen to ourselves while attempting to not ruin the mood by rolling over the talking ad for cat litter on the right-hand vertical. This was more fun.
Tarantino, whose capacity for forgiveness is famously Beatrix Kiddo–like, is still suing Gawker for merely directing readers to the leaked script. Accordingly, no chances were taken when it came to security at Saturday’s event. Anyone who’d disregarded the “no cell phones” warning printed on their ticket was asked politely but firmly to check their devices at the door. Metal detectors were in place to discourage scofflaws from attempting to smuggle a burner in a sock or some more Christopher Walken–ish hiding place.
Thwarting spoiler culture with black-site secrecy in the name of controlling how your work is experienced has become a standard auteur power move, from director J.J. Abrams feeding Star Wars fandom a steady diet of nothing to Matthew Weiner turning Mad Men’s next-episode teasers into inscrutable koans about people saying “Get the door” and “What happened?” while Elisabeth Moss frowns into a telephone. But this was somehow above and beyond, both because the cone of silence was an actual physical space (the former United Artists Theater, an ornate and candle-drippy Spanish Gothic palace whose cheap seats, Grantland can exclusively report, offer an unbeatable view of the dome in the ceiling) and because of an implied requirement to play nice, lest Quentin decide to take his ball and go home for real. Abrams can’t cancel the Star Wars sequels if footage of Adam Driver rehearsing with a lightsaber shows up on YouTube, whereas the only person who decides whether Tarantino scraps Hateful Eight is Tarantino himself.
Accordingly, the night ended with Tarantino confrere and LACMA Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell, the evening’s host, expressing his hope that Quentin actually makes this movie, cueing everyone to applaud that sentiment, which in context felt a little like we were being exhorted to clap for the life of a Tinkerbell who’d already jumped into the Pussy Wagon and driven off to pick up a tasty burger. It began a little more than three and a half hours earlier, with introductions/admonitions from Mitchell — “It happens here and only here,” he promised/threatened — before the man whose wallet says Bad Motherfucker on it (it really does!) moseyed (he really did, there’s no other word for it!) out of the wings to thunderous applause. Tarantino wore a black Western shirt with red piping, a black cowboy hat, and a buckaroo-knotted bandanna, as if in order to be here tonight he’d canceled plans to hide behind a rock and get the drop on the Cisco Kid. The first word he said was his famous catchphrase, “OK.”
He reiterated that this was the only time anyone would ever hear this version of the story — and specifically this version of Chapter 5, the film’s last segment. He and the cast had been rehearsing for three days, Tarantino said, “And, uh, we’re OK. We’re not bad.” Then out came that cast — Samuel L. Jackson, Amber Tamblyn, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, James Parks, and Denis Ménochet (who played the French dairy farmer who squares off with Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds), with Django Unchained’s Dana Gourrier and Death Proof star Zoë Bell in supporting parts. Dern, Roth, and Madsen were the three actors Tarantino said he’d given the script to in January, and on Saturday all three seemed to be reading roles tailored to their specific voices. So did Jackson, whose character, Major Marquis Warren, the film’s nominal lead, is written as a “sly Lee Van Cleef type” whose ire occasionally finds expression via You-will-know-my-name-is-the-Lord-ish monologue.
Aside from a few chairs, the odd end table, and a soon-to-be dramatically significant blue coffee pot, there were no props, and aside from Tarantino’s urban-cowboy getup, nobody wore a costume; Roth walked out with a messenger bag still slung over his shoulder. Tarantino stood stage right at a lectern, read every word of the stage directions aloud, and occasionally paused to whisper in an actor’s ear. Everyone else mostly sat down, except when the script called for them to flop on the floor and pretend to be dead. (Yes, people die in this Tarantino script; other, more specific spoilers follow from this point on, so consider yourself warned.)
Tarantino set the scene. It’s an undetermined number of years after the Civil War. We open on a snowy Wyoming mountain range, filmed in “breathtaking” 70mm Super CinemaScope — “As is the whole movie,” Tarantino added. That beat is in the script, but it played in the room like a joke about the less-than-epic nature of the production we were about to see. A stagecoach driver stops, spotting a lone figure on the road. It’s Major Warren, who turns out to be acquainted with one of the coach’s passengers, bounty hunter John Ruth (Russell, doing his best John Wayne since Big Trouble in Little China). Ruth is known for bringing his bounties in alive, not dead, regardless of what their wanted poster stipulates. “I don’t like to cheat the hangman,” he says. “He’s got to make a living too.” At present, he’s handcuffed to one Daisy Domergue (Tamblyn), a treacherous Southern spitfire who he’s escorting to the gallows in Red Rock to hang for crimes not immediately ennumerated. Daisy greets Major Warren with a peppy “Howdy, n—–!”
At this point Tarantino cried out “Ding ding ding ding ding,” as if interrupting the action on a game show. “For those of you in the audience who are keeping count,” he said gleefully, “the first ‘n—–‘ was said on Page 7.” (It was not the last one.) “In fact, I like that line so much I’m gonna have Amber say it again. Amber, say that n—– line again.” (She did. This being a Tarantino movie set during Reconstruction, in which free blacks interact with white Confederate loyalists, it is probably not necessary for me to reveal here that The Baddest Word flies around in this script like popcorn in a popcorn machine that is also somehow full of tiny, pissed-off Eazy-Es.)
Warren’s stranded, his horse having succumbed to the cold. Ruth agrees to ferry him into the nearby town of Red Rock — and out of the path of a nasty blizzard. On the way they encounter another stranded traveler. Chris Mannix is, per the script, “a rather untrustworthy fellow in his early 30s with a mouthful of rotten teeth and an admittedly fly winter outfit.” He’s also the son of an infamous Confederate rebel, but claims he was on his way to Red Rock to assume the position of town sheriff when his horse also collapsed. Warily — and not without observing that it’s an oddly unlucky night for horses — Ruth agrees to let him come aboard as well.
Some Tarantinoid pleasantries are exchanged on the way. (“You fought the war to keep n—–s in chains,” Warren tells Mannix. “I fought the war to kill white Southern crackers.”) Unable to make town before the blizzard hits, the stagecoach and its crew instead take refuge at a secluded mountainside way station called Minnie’s Haberdashery, at which all may not be well.
The best thing about reading Tarantino’s scripts is catching the little flourishes of gratuitous information and Quentin-enjoying-Quentin in the stage directions — my favorite is in the shooting draft of Death Proof, when Jungle Julia calls her no-account film director boyfriend Christian on the phone and Tarantino the writer makes sure to tell Tarantino the director that Christian’s outgoing message was recorded in the Hemingway Bar at the St. Regis in Paris and that you can hear head bartender Colin Field explaining how to make a drink in the background.
Here, in part, is how the Hateful Eight script describes Minnie’s:
“If serving two bottles of tequila, one bottle of Mezcal, and one bottle of brandy qualifies you as a bar, it’s a bar. If serving stew qualifies you as a restaurant, it’s a restaurant. It sells a few hats, and gloves, and snowshoes for the stagecoach passengers. And supplies for the mountain folk. And it received special packages for people in Red Rock. Like say when Carlos Robante (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) in “Rio Bravo” buys those red bloomers for his wife Consuela (Estelita Rodriguez), but doesn’t want everybody in town to know about it. If he lived in Red Rock, he’d buy them through the mail, have them sent to Minnie’s, and when they arrived, Minnie would get word to him, and he’d ride out there and pick them up.”
Again: He reads all this. It made for kind of a long night.
There was a brief rearrangement of chairs as the action moved INT. MINNIE’S. The lights stayed down and Tarantino instructed everyone to stay in their seats. Everyone stood up anyway, and looked around awkwardly, the way groups of circa-2014 Americans who’ve been deprived of their phones tend to do.
Once at Minnie’s, The Hateful Eight becomes a one-room piece in the vein of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents–inspired segment of Four Rooms, and the pub scene from Inglourious Basterds. As usual, words build a tension in these spaces that only violence can resolve — although no Tarantino story has hinged so much on characters not talking. A group of bandits communicate by blinking. John Ruth keeps hitting Daisy to shut her up. Madsen’s cowboy, Joe Gage, says little, but sits in a corner writing what turns out to be his life story in a leatherbound book. Dern’s General Smithers barely says a word until Major Warren provokes him to wrath with an outrageously profane monologue involving forcible oral copulation, which Jackson couldn’t make it through without cracking up. Even the special effects were verbal: Tarantino indicated each gunshot by shouting “BANG.”
And Tarantino was 150 percent QUENTIN TARANTINO, god bless him. “Guys,” he said to his actors at one point, “you’re starting to drift a little bit from the dialogue. Bring it back to the dialogue on the page. No more co-writing.” It got a laugh, but was clearly not in any way a joke. After intermission, he launched back into the script while half the crowd was still returning to their seats, then sternly admonished the entire audience to “quiet it down a bit.” But who cares? You want a bashful, ingratiating dude to be a fanboy of? Someone you can imagine hugging? That’s why the secular-humanist forces that govern our universe made Joss Whedon. You go to Tarantino for art born of total control, and for unashamed dickitude in art’s service when dickitude is called for. Watching The Hateful Eight on Saturday, you could see the great movie it will almost certainly become, but you could also imagine him directing it as a great play. There’s no way someone with QT’s taste for revenge hasn’t been plotting his triumphant return to Broadway all along.