Some three weeks back over chili cheese fries, Quentin Tarantino suggested to his buddy, interviewer Elvis Mitchell, that he might want to do a live read of his first-draft screenplay of "The Hateful Eight." Director Jason Reitman has been staging Hollywood classics at Film Independent at LACMA for the past three years, including Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs." Needless to say, Mitchell and his team made it happen.
"I'm wondering why I thought this was a good idea three weeks ago," admitted a nervous Tarantino as he doffed his black cowboy hat to a crowd of revved-up fans and Hollywood hipsters downtown at the refurbished United Artists Theatre at the Ace Hotel. "We've been rehearsing this for the last three days." He also warned that nobody else will ever see the final chapter of this typically verbose five-part western, which plays like a twisted post-Civil War sequel to "Django Unchained." That's because, as a first draft, it still needs work. Tarantino takes great care crafting and polishing his scripts; here he read the narration and entertaining descriptions and provided bits of business. "Chapter One: Last Stage to Red Rock," he started out, describing driving horses and a snow-topped mountain range in 70mm Cinemascope.
This charged live event played as Tarantino's claustrophobic homage to "The Petrified Forest" or "Key Largo," where a group of strangers trapped in a contained space need to figure out who the others are in order to survive. In this case two stage coaches and their passengers, including one handcuffed prisoner and two bounty hunters, converge on Minnie's Haberdashery, a remote inn on the road to Red Rock, in the face of a raging blizzard that threatens to hold them hostage for several days--assuming they live that long.
One mystery--aside from what Tarantino hoped to accomplish from this live staging of his in-the-works script, which he promised will soon see second and third drafts--was who would be reading at this sold-out event. Tarantino's patrons, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, were sitting with Jennifer Jason Leigh, LACMA chief Michael Govan, writer-director Peter Bogdanovich, "Django Unchained" producer Stacey Sher, and James L. Brooks as a row of reporters furiously took notes-- bereft of cell phones. After Tarantino shared the script with a small group and it was leaked online with a link from Gawker, Tarantino lost his temper, saying that he wouldn't make the film. According to one of Tarantino's reps, he has calmed down a tad, after figuring out who leaked the script, and forgiven him, and will likely make "The Hateful Eight" into a movie someday. But for now he's been prepping some other things to do first.
"These are the Tarantino superstars!" the writer-director cried. The audience roared to its feet as already announced Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson strode on-stage, script tucked under his arm, all in black with a black straw hat and a cigarette. He dominated the proceedings as a pipe-smoking "bald Lee Van Cleef type," ex-Cavalry major Marquis Warren, who enjoyed fighting for the Union and wiping out "white southern crackers," but now functions as a bounty hunter who prefers to bring in his quarry dead rather than alive: "I don't want to work that hard." He's trying to deliver three frozen white corpses worth $8,000, but has lost his old horse in the snow. The first N-word in the script, for those who are counting, said Tarantino, is on page seven.
Coming to the rescue with a coach and six is his opposite, bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (a bearded Kurt Russell, channeling John Wayne), who's shackled to a tough woman prisoner worth $10,000 named Daisy Domergue (Amber Tamblyn), who he wants to see hang in Red Rock. He likes punching her in the face and calling her "bitch."
"When you get to hell, tell them Daisy sent you!" she tells her torturer.
Also commanding during the reading and showing substantial stagecraft was "Justified" and "Django Unchained" star Walton Goggins as the third mystery man, Chris Maddox, who insists that he's about to be sworn in as the new sheriff once he gets to Red Rock. "You guys having a bounty hunter picnic?" he asks.
"Keeping you at a disadvantage is an advantage I intend to keep," says Ruth.
Inside the inn are an assortment of suspicious men, including a grizzled Confederate General, well-played by Bruce Dern, and several others who may not be who they claim to be, played by "Reservoir Dogs" vets Michael Madsen and Tim Roth (in a role as a Brit posh tailor made for Christoph Waltz), French star Denis Menochet ("Inglourious Basterds") and James Remar ("Django Unchained"). Starting out late at about 8:15, after one intermission, the reading ended more than three hours later.
"Cut to black!" Tarantino said at the end of four chapters, which are packed with references from "Gone with the Wind" to "Rio Bravo." "No more co-writing!" he warned actors who were straying from the script. You can imagine what this opened up wide-screen movie could be--complete with time-shifting perspectives, secrets to be solved, wind blowing through kicked-in doors, surging horses, raging blizzards, knives, blazing guns, smoldering corpses, projectile vomiting and bodies piled on the floor. So could the audience. After the drawn-out fifth chapter, "Black Night, White Hell," Tarantino yelled "The End!" and took his bows to another standing ovation.
"It's more 'Ten Little Indians' than 'The Seven Samurai,'" observed one wag on the way out of the theater.