The world premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s staged reading of his latest script, a post-Civil War western, “The Hateful Eight,” is raw, ragged, raucous, riveting. And, as Tarantino promises when the evening presented by Film Independent begins around 8, it is truly one of a kind.
As the clock pushed past 11 Saturday night at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, one of those slightly spruced-up gray ladies with sweeping balconies and red velvet chairs that grace downtown L.A., the man in black — from the filmmaker’s Stetson to his cowboy boots — begins narrating the final “Hateful” chapter, for the final time ever.
Bodies begin falling. Bruce Dern, the old Southern general, is one of the first to go. The Hangman, Kurt Russell, doesn’t last much longer. Boom, Michael Madsen’s down. Blam, Amber Tamblyn gets a wound in the leg, the better to deliver a soliloquy before she dies. Pop, pop, pop, Samuel L. Jackson hits the floor, the bullets rocking him one way, then another. Kaboom, shotgun to the gut and Tim Roth is left writhing. His belly wound means dying will take a while. Stage left, Walton Goggins finally drops the imaginary gun the director’s been trying to get him to lose all night, and collapses, waiting for the end.
The packed house hoots and applauds each death — they were hateful after all — before breaking into a roaring standing ovation to cap this remarkable night.
It is fitting that the director is the one man left standing. He’s been raging against the unauthorized leak of “The Hateful Eight” since Gawker first posted a link to the script in January. The reading, hosted by Elvis Mitchell, who curates Film Independent’s series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is Tarantino’s most inventive reaction yet to the injustice he believes undercut the project in its nascent form. He vowed at the time that “The Hateful Eight” would never see the big screen. If legal mediation doesn’t succeed, “Hateful” will get its day in court next January.
It might also make its way to theaters too. Saturday night Tarantino softens his stance, telling the crowd before the reading that the actors will be using “the first draft. I’m working on a second draft, there will probably be a third. Chapter 5 [the last] will only be seen here, only tonight, it won’t be in there later.” That Bob and Harvey Weinstein are in attendance lend credence to the idea that “Hateful” might well live another day. The indie-producing powerhouses have been in the Tarantino business from the writer-director’s 1992 breakthrough “Reservoir Dogs” through last year’s Oscar winner, “Django Unchained.”
Even without the western garb, Tarantino is theatrical onstage. No surprise if you’ve caught him on the late-night talk show circuit, where he can barely contain his energy or his enthusiasm. He serves as our narrator, our lens, reading all the scene-setting bits with a great deal of brio, except when he is directing: stopping at one point to complain the cast is “drifting away from the script,” then jabbing, “no co-writing!”; running over to occasionally bear-hug his actors as he whispers performance notes, Roth nearly disappearing in that grip for a moment. There are a few instances of “Let’s take it from the top” (the page, not the entire script), and the reading runs about three hours, not including a brief intermission midway for the stage to be reset.
When I first read “The Hateful Eight” in January I wondered how Tarantino, who usually roams vast landscapes in his films, would handle one that takes place mostly inside Minnie’s Haberdashery, a tiny way station on the road to Red Rock, Wyo. The tall tale begins as the stagecoach carrying Domergue (Tamblyn) to her hanging and John Ruth (Russell) to his bounty for bringing her in is forced to wait out a blizzard at Minnie’s. The stagecoach, its six fiery steeds driven by get-along-guy O.B. (James Parks), has already picked up a couple of strangers: first Maj. Warren (Jackson), a former Union cavalry officer, then Chris Mannix (Goggins), a young renegade who’s about to become the new sheriff of Red Rock. There are more strangers waiting behind Minnie’s door. They will take us to eight to hate pretty quickly.
Turns out that that closed universe helps Tarantino concentrate the intensity for the actors who had, the director tells us, been rehearsing only “for the last three days [dramatic pause], and we’re not bad.”
There are sound issues through the night, many of the actors forgetting to grab a mike when the dialogue impels them out of their chairs. No matter that they are supposed to sit and read. To a person, they can’t stop reacting to the script and one another. The blows Russell delivers to Tamblyn seem perilously close to that face. Despite the occasional bumps, as the script moves them, they move us. The air in the theater is electric.
The night is definitely a case of the director getting by with a little help from his friends. All of the actors have done time on a Tarantino film, including Denis Menochet, Dana Gourrier, Zoe Bell and James Remar, who round out the cast. Most play multiple roles; an interesting flashback at one point requires it.
Whether these faces will follow “Hateful” to the screen, they made for a solid core Saturday night, with Goggins, Tamblyn, Russell and Parks in particularly fine form.
Except for Tarantino, somewhat sweat-soaked and red-faced by the end, Jackson owned the night. Maj. Warren is only one of several spokes in the wheel that turn “Hateful” into Tarantino’s typical mix of high camp and moral quandaries peppered by gun spray. But the filmmaker’s been writing roles for Jackson for a long time, and you feel the familiarity of that collaboration in every line.
Jackson played the scenes, he played to the crowd. He became Tarantino’s best weapon in bringing “The Hateful Eight” live stage reading alive.