Exclusive on-the-set report

By Clark Collis
Updated October 13, 2015 at 06:36 PM EDT
Credit: Scott Everett White

“It’s warm — but it’s not crazy hot yet,” says Kurt Russell, last October, on the permanent Old West town set of the Paramount Ranch, where he is currently shooting the horror-western, Bone Tomahawk.

To borrow a quote from 1982’s Russell-starring horror classic The Thing, the actor has got to be f—ing kidding. In 1927, Paramount Pictures bought 2,700 acres of land around 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles for use as a “movie ranch.” Since then, literally hundreds of films and TV shows have shot here, from Preston Sturges’ 1944 screwball comedy, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, to CBS’s longrunning Jane Seymour vehicle, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman to Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.

But it’s hard to believe many shooting days in the location’s long history were more unsparingly hot than this one. To make matters worse, the four lead actors of first-time filmmaker S. Craig Zahler’s movie — Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins — are clad in heavy costumes to play a four-man posse who set out to rescue some folks from the clutches of cave-dwelling cannibals. Oh yes, and they have also spent much of the morning filming scenes in the shadeless main street of the Old West town, atop those four-legged heat generators known in the trade as “horses.” Nevertheless, between takes, the mood of the actors seems upbeat as Wilson utters a high-pitched “Beep-beep-beep-beep!” while backing up his ride or goodnaturedly ribs Jenkins about his character’s severe-looking chapeau. “It’s like a pilgrim’s hat,” he says. “Doubles as a soupbowl!”

Bone Tomahawk producer Dallas Sonnier is grateful for his actors’ cooperative attitude. The film is being made by Caliber Media, the company Sonnier founded in 2008 with his business partner, the filmmaker Jack Heller. Caliber’s credits include this year’s Heller-directed horror movie Dark Was the Night, which featured Kevin Durand from The Strain, and the recently-released slasher film Some Kind of Hate, whose cast includes Disney Channel actresses Grace Phipps and Sierra McCormick. ButBone Tomahawk, which is out in theaters, VOD and iTunes on Oct. 23, and also boasts the acting talents of David Arquette, Sean Young, Lili Simmons, horror veteran Sid Haig, and Fred Melamed from the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, is the company’s starriest project yet.

That’s the good news. The bad? The film’s budget is a mere $1.8 million or around 1 percent of the money spent on Russell’s recent blockbuster, Furious 7. Zahler has just four weeks to shoot the movie, an extremely tight schedule, which doesn’t allow for much in the way of thespian tantrums from his leading men. “All four actors have set such an amazing tone on set,” says Sonnier. “They’re all taking this very seriously and they’ve put such preparation into these characters. The tone that they’ve set has helped so much. Because we don’t have any money for big trailers. We don’t have air-conditioned video village and all that kind of stuff. They’ve been real troupers.”

Russell himself seems genuinely unperturbed by the blazing hot conditions. While his three costars gratefully accept bottles of water from crew members whenever possible, EW doesn’t see the man who played bad-ass Snake Plissken in director John Carpenter’s Escape From New York take so much as a sip all day, despite his face glowing radioactively beneath his lush whiskering. “Kurt deliberately burned himself in the sun,” explains an impressed Sonnier. “He said his character would have been sunburned, so…”

Sonnier is not the only one on set to be more than a little in awe of working with Russell. “Come on! Snake Plissken!” laughs Wilson. “It’s all I can do to not quote his movies all the time. [Adopts whiny, prepubescent voice] ‘Remember when, uh, in, um, Escape From…?’ I’m a huge fan of Kurt’s. So, to do a movie with Kurt is one thing — to do a western with Kurt is like, ‘Alright! I’m going to be next to Wyatt Earp up there on a horse!”

Credit: Scott Everett White

You wait decades for a Kurt Russell western to come along — and then two turn up damn near simultaneously. On Christmas Day, two months after the release of Bone Tomahawk, writer-director Quentin Tarantino will unleash The Hateful Eight, another “oater” starring Russell alongside Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, among others. “It’s quite a different style, different type,” says Russell, when asked to compare the two projects. “Quentin’s extremely unique.”

Russell’s three releases of the year — Furious 7, Bone Tomahawk, and Hateful Eight — represent a full-scale return to action, in every sense, for the actor who has been almost entirely absent from screens since playing the homicidal Stuntman Mike in the Tarantino-directed Death Proof. For Russell’s many fans, the arrival of not one but two westerns starring the 64-year-old is a particularly mouth-watering prospect. The last time the actor signed up to make a film in the genre, the result was 1993’s Tombstone, a much-beloved retelling of the Wyatt Earp legend that over time has gained the status of a bona fide classic. “If you’re a child of the ’80s, your westerns are Silverado and Tombstone,” says Wilson. “I mean, really: they’re the big ones.”

Russell’s experience in the western genre stretches way, way back. As a kid actor in the ’60s he made appearances in a number of Old West-set TV shows like Gunsmoke and the High Chaparral and even starred in one, The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, which ran during the 1963-64 season on ABC. Russell says he shot at least one show at the Paramount Ranch, although is hazy on the specifics. “Some western, obviously,” he smiles. “Gunsmoke or — you name a western, I did ’em. It’s been a long long time. That’s over 50 years ago!”

The actor has packed a lot into that half-century. Around the time of Jamie McPheeters, an impossibly cherubic Russell could be seen kicking Elvis Presley in the King’s 1963 movie, It Happened at the World’s Fair. But he first became well known as a Disney star, appearing in a raft of the studio’s projects including the 1969 comedy, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and its two sequels. “A couple of years ago, I was curious to see when he’d really developed his skill set, because it’s different for every actor,” says Zahler. “And I watched [1975’s] The Deadly Tower. I don’t know how old he is in that but he’s really young, and he’s playing the shooter in Austin (Charles Whitman, the perpetrator of a 1966 killing spree in Texas). It’s a really unnerving portrait. He was fantastic then. You see different guys at different points in their career just really nail it or get into their groove. But he really had it from the beginning.”

In the early ’70s, Russell embarked on a career as a professional baseball player, turning out for California Angels minor league affiliates the Bend Rainbows, among other teams, before an injury forced him back into full-time acting. In 1976, he costarred with Tim Matheson in yet another western show, NBC’s short-lived The Quest, and then teamed with up-and-coming director John Carpenter on the 1979 TV movie, Elvis, which secured Russell an Emmy nomination for playing his onetime big screen costar.

Over the next decade, Russell and Carpenter would collaborate on three big screen genre projects — 1979’s Escape From New York, The Thing, and 1986’s martial arts-fantasy spectacular Big Trouble in Little China — which, like Tombstone, have over time garnered huge and devoted fanbases. “What I’ve enjoyed is, a lot of the movies that I’ve done in the past, they hold up, you know,” says the actor. “I never really looked farther into my life when I was young — to look at what it would feel like when I was going to be older and have people talk about anything I’ve done. But I do know that the integrity that we felt we needed at the time has paid off and I’m glad that happened.”

Credit: Everett Collection

For much of the ’80s and ’90s, Russell was a major star. True, he was never a box office draw in the same league as Sylvester Stallone, with the whom he appeared in 1989’s Tango & Cash, or his Vanilla Sky costar, Tom Cruise. But Russell was one the most versatile leading man around, as comfortable in a thriller like 1985’s underrated Mean Season as he was in the following year’s Big Trouble in Little China as he was in the following year’s romantic-comedy Overboard, in which he starred alongside his longtime real-life partner Goldie Hawn. And while Russell has appeared in his fair share of clunkers, his good movies tended to be pretty pretty good. You might not love Silkwood and The Thing and Overboard and Stargate. But if you don’t have a place in your heart for at least one of them, then it’s possible that loving movies might actually not be your bag. “He’s just one of those guys that, every role he does, it comes with such passion and heart,” says Wilson. “What was I watching the other day? A movie with J.T. Walsh and Jack Noseworthy? Breakdown! I mean, there’s just such tremendous heart in every line that comes out of this mouth.”

After Grindhouse, the actor quietly slipped into semi-retirement, partly due to a chronic hip injury. “I wore down my labrum in the hip so I had to have that repaired,” he explains. “It’s been a long road back. It’s tough.”

Russell also had a new interest away from movies. Over the years, Russell developed a taste for wine during European vacations with Hawn and their family. While shooting Death Proof in Santa Barbara County, the actor came to the conclusion that the area was producing vintages that rivaled those of Italy and France. In 2008, he partnered with Ampelos Cellars in Santa Rita Hills and launched his own boutique range of wines called GoGi. Given the choice of tending to his movie career or tending his vines, Russell mostly opted to do the latter. In the eight years between Death Proof and Furious 7, the actor appeared in just two, barely released movies, the 2012 football drama Touchback and the 2013 comedy The Art of the Steal. “Yeah, I was in the winery,” says Russell of his low profile. “I like making wine!”

While Russell was stepping back from the film business, Zahler was trying to get a foot in its door. In 2006, he had made the Blacklist — an annual roundup of well-regarded but unproduced screenplays— with his western script, The Brigands of Rattleborge. In the next few years, he would sell close to two dozen more spec scripts for films and TV pilots. But his sole produced work was a 2011 thriller titled Asylum Blackout. “As happens in Hollywood, in the development process, things get stuck, or trapped, or put on shelves,” says Bone Tomahawk producer Sonnier, who manages Zahler. “We felt it was time for him to showcase his work and, if all of the brilliant people who are attached to all of his projects weren’t able to get these movies made, we were going to do it ourselves.”

Zahler came up with the idea for a western about a quartet of cowboys and what the Bone Tomahawk publicity materials describe as “a tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes.”

“A lot of the press releases focus on the cannibalistic troglodyte aspect of it,” says Zahler. “But the piece, like pretty much everything I do, it’s really character-driven. Simply put, the story is, we get a sense of the town, and there’s an abduction, and then a group of disparate individuals come together and ride out — but it’s [really about] what happens on the journey, who these individuals are, how they interact with each other.”

Credit: Scott Everett White

Zahler always thought Russell would be good for the role of posse leader, Sheriff Hunt — luckily, the star agreed after reading the script. “This one got me,” says Russell. “I like the way it’s written. It’s the best western I’ve read since Tombstone. Craig has a way with words the same way [Tombstone writer] Kevin Jarre did.”

Jenkins, meanwhile, was attracted to making a western and making any film on which he would be working with Russell. “Kurt doesn’t remember this but I auditioned for Overboard,” says Jenkins.

The Goldie Hawn role?

“Yeah, the Goldie Hawn role,” chuckles the actor, whose credits include the Will Ferrell comedy Step Brothers and the 2007 drama The Visitor, for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. “Actually, [it was] the part Ed Herrmann ended up playing. But I auditioned at their house. The car dropped me off at their gate and Kurt says, ‘Who is it?’ I say, ‘It’s Richard Jenkins, I’m here to audition for Overboard.’ ‘Oh, come in, come in.’ He said, ‘I’m gonna take the kids to the video store, we’re going to get pizza and videos, you want to come with us? There’s nobody here. You can just stay here if you want to stay here. You want me to turn on the TV?’ It was so nuts. So, I just kind of sat there and then Roddy McDowall and Goldie came in, and I was there for a long time talking to Goldie, and Kurt came back with the kids. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I like this guy.'”

In October 2012, it was announced that the Bone Tomahawk producers planned on shooting the film in the spring of the following year and that the movie would star Russell, Jenkins, Jennifer Carpenter, and Peter Sarsgaard, who in a subsequent interview described the film as “Alien meets The Searchers.” When Caliber was unable to secure the necessary finance, the project was postponed, resulting in the loss of several cast members.

However, both Russell and Jenkins remained attached. “Kurt’s unwavering support of the piece in all its incarnations is why we’re here today,” says Zahler. “When we were looking at New Mexico, and Utah, and Romania — he was up for all of them. And that’s why it’s getting made.”

By the summer of 2014, Caliber had finally secured the film’s budget with assistance from U.K.-based production and film-financing company, The Fyzz Facility, and replenished the depleted cast ranks with the additions of Fox and Wilson. Like Jenkins, Wilson says he was also attracted to the project for the opportunity it offered to work with Russell. “I’d get the DVDs of both Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China and watch the commentary,” he says. “It’s so funny that that he just worked with James (Wan, the director of Insidious, The Conjuring, and Furious 7). James and I always had this joke of wanting to do [something like] Big Trouble. ‘Where’s the Big Trouble in Little China of right now?'”

Not that Wilson’s fondness for Russell stopped him having a little fun with the man who has twice played the ocularly-challenged Snake Plissken. “We all sat around for two days straight rehearsing,” says the actor. ” I said to Kurt, ‘I have an idea for you: [what] if Sheriff Hunt wore an eyepatch?’ I was like, ‘You could really create an iconic character…'”

Credit: Scott Everett White

Sonnier says he and Heller, with whom he is producing Bone Tomahawk, only really started to believe the project would actually happen shortly before production began. “We took the guys horseback-riding on the weekend before we started shooting,” says the producer. “Kurt rode this horse halfway up a mountain at full gallop and then all the way back down. Jack and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening.'”

Russell himself expresses delight at returning to the western genre more than two decades after Tombstone. “Listen, it’s been 21 years,” he says. “I really like them, and I think, when they’re special, they’re great to do. There’s some physical things that are tough to do for me when it comes to the horse because of the hip wreck that I had. But I’m getting past that. I’m glad we’re finally getting to do it.”

Russell doesn’t give Zahler an entirely smooth ride on the day of EW’s set visit. At one point, the actor and Wilson are shooting a scene, on horses, in which Sheriff Hunt explains to Wilson’s character, a cowboy named Arthur O’Dwyer, that their quest will be a testing one for the latter, who has an injured leg. “Mr. O’Dwyer, I need to say this to you, and I don’t want you to get sore,” intones Russell, while putting on a pair of gloves. “We’re making a five-day journey in three days. Riding long and sleeping the bare minimum. We need to take care of these animals and ourselves. If our horses die on the way there, or if we go into hostile territory foggy with exhaustion, we won’t rescue anybody…”

After a few takes, Zahler declares himself satisfied. Russell, however, has other ideas, and makes his clear his wish for another crack at the scene. “I don’t want to make a f—king B-western!” he informs Zahler, voice raised, prompting the director to inform his crew that they are indeed going to film the scene again.

If Russell’s contradicting of Zahler’s authority can’t help but serve as a reminder of his star status, it is not an egomaniacal move. The actor had already filmed his side of the conversation between Hunt and O’Dwyer. He was now out of shot, feeding Wilson his lines. But Russell believed he hadn’t given a good enough performance for his costar to bounce off.

“He felt bad that, on my coverage, he stumbled on a couple of lines,” says Wilson, later. “He’s very considerate. That’s the kind of actor you want to be like on set. You’re the guy that comes in there, does his job, busts his ass. It’s not about anything else, it’s just about the work. ‘S–t didn’t work for us? Gotta do it again.’ There’s nothing else going on.”

“Nothing different here from any movie I’ve ever done in the last 55 years,” chuckles Russell, when EW asks him about the episode. “We had a minute here where I didn’t like what I was doing so I didn’t think it was fair to the actor on camera. I just said, ‘Let me have another crack at it, for him.’ That’s the idea — you team up with your director, you team up with your actors, you team up in every way you can to have everybody be as good as they can possibly be. Look, it’s a tight schedule, it’s a western, it’s not like anything else. Of course, it’s difficult but I think Craig’s doing great and we’re all trying to get his vision on the screen.”

Russell demonstrates his commitment to the Bone Tomahawk cause in the last piece of filming EW witnesses, a theoretically simple shot of the actor getting on his horse. To help Russell in this task, a wooden crate and log have been placed by on the ground, out of shot. Zahler shoots a couple of takes of Russell mounting the beast which look fine to this writer. The actor, however, is clearly unhappy. Eventually, Russell himself drags the box and the log away from the horse. After Zahler calls “Action!” once more, the actor leaps onto his steed like a man with two good hips and 20 less years on the clock.

And, then, Kurt Russell rides out of town.

You can see the trailer for Bone Tomahawk, below.