Quentin Tarantino takes ‘Hateful Eight’ script out for an all-star live test drive

“Okay, we're drifting away from the dialogue a bit. Let's bring it back. No more co-writing.”

By far, the most exciting element of Saturday night's live read was actually seeing Quentin Tarantino work with his cast as they performed his latest screenplay, “The Hateful Eight,” for a sold-out capacity audience at The Theater at the Ace Hotel.

Depending on where you were seated in the theater, the physical experience ranged from the tolerable to the punishing, with the audience in the upper balcony essentially getting a free sauna as the total lack of air conditioning and the preposterously close rows combined to make the running time of over three-and-a-half hours almost impossible to bear. It is a testament, then, to the compelling nature of Tarantino's script and to the great cast he put together that no one seemed willing to leave before the end, no matter how hard it was to stay seated.

Tarantino explained at the start of the evening that he is still working on the script, and both Bob and Harvey Weinstein were in the audience for last night's event, listening carefully to the audience's reactions, I'm sure. He is currently writing the third draft, and it sounds to me like he plans to make the movie. He promised that the final chapter of the first draft will be reworked completely, making last night's live read the only time an audience will see that version of the ending. That's encouraging, because that wrap-up was by far the weakest part of the experience. It's also encouraging because so much of the rest of the script is already a treat.

The cast last night was a mix of Tarantino regulars and interesting new faces. Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Amber Tamblyn, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, James Remar, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Zoe Bell, Denis Menochet, and Dana Gourrier all took the stage at some point during the event, with several actors doubling up for a few roles during a flashback scene. The stage was fairly minimalistic, with only chairs to suggest the various sets. Tarantino brought a blue metal coffee pot that used as a key prop for several scenes, but for the most part, this was just great actors seated, the emphasis on the words.

I'd be curious to know how close this was to the cast Tarantino had in mind when he wrote the film. At this point in his career, he's got to know that he can basically get anyone he wants, especially if he's worked with them before. O.B., the stagecoach driver who is the first character we meet, was played by James Parks, who was in “Kill Bill” with his father, Michael Parks. He's the one who is driving a stagecoach through an increasingly bad winter storm, and he's the one who first spots a black man sitting in the middle of the road, perched atop a saddle that is on top of three dead frozen white men. This is Major Marquis Warren, and I can't think of a role better suited to Sam Jackson's particular mix of menace and cunning. This has got to be his role if the film gets made, and last night, he made a strong case for why he's the one who has to play it.

Like Django, the main character in Tarantino's last film, Major Warren is a bounty hunter, and a former officer on the side of the North during the Civil War. Warren's looking for a ride to someplace he can sit out the blizzard that's rolling in, the same goal that O.B. has for his stagecoach and his passengers. Warren asks for a ride, but it's not up to O.B. He tells Warren that he'll have to talk to the guy who paid for a private trip to Red Rock, the nearest town, and when Warren tries to approach the coach to talk to him, he finds himself at gunpoint.

Turns out John Ruth, another bounty hunter, is transporting Daisy Domergue so she can be tried and, presumably, hanged. Ruth and Warren have very different approaches to their bounty hunter jobs. Warren believes in the “dead” part of the “dead or alive” warrants, while Ruth has earned his nickname as “The Hangman” because he believes in delivering his prisoners intact so they can face justice. Ruth is suspicious of anyone else's motives because Daisy is worth $10,000 to him, but he knows Warren just well enough to decide to give him a ride.

Kurt Russell played the part of John Ruth, and while he's always got a bit of John Wayne to his swaggering tough guy performances, he was channeling the Western icon last night, a perfect choice for this particular character. Amber Tamblyn read the part of Daisy, and I thought she crushed it. From her uber-cheery “Howdy, nigger!” entrance to her eventual fate in the film, she played Daisy as a dangerous animal, cornered and furious, always looking for an angle she can play.

Oh… and regarding that word… when Amber dropped it the first time, Tarantino paused things for a moment to point out that for anyone keeping count, this was the word's first appearance in the script, and it was on page 7 of the script. Sure enough, it was deployed repeatedly and by almost every character, and racial tension is a major component of the film. Set in a post-Civil War America and populated with characters for whom the conflict is still a fresh wound, “The Hateful Eight” doesn't shrink from the ugly realities of the time.

Because Tarantino is still working with the material, I won't detail the entire script. I wouldn't do that even if it was a review of a film in release, so why would I want to ruin everything about this one? Suffice it to say there is more than one person waiting along the side of that snowy road, and when they're forced to take shelter at Minnie's Haberdashery to wait out the blizzard, there are a number of other people there already. Some of these people may have designs on helping set Daisy free, while others are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but all of them are going to end up having to confront the business end of a gun by the end of this long, stormy night.

From the moment the group arrives at Minnie's, things ratchet up appreciably in the tension department. For one thing, General Sandy Smithers, played by Bruce Dern, is a former Confederate officer, still wearing his old uniform, and the moment Warren sees him sitting by the fire, tempers begin to flare. It doesn't help that Chris Mannix, read with all the considerable charisma Walton Goggins could summon, was a devoted Reb himself, and that the two of them serve as an irresistible target for Warren's anger as the night wears on.

There's also something wrong in general, something that Warren notices the moment they walk in. As the name would suggest, Minnie's Haberdashery is owned and operated by a woman named Minnie, and she's nowhere to be found. Her famous coffee is also absent, and the surly Frenchman Bob (Denis Menochet) who is supposedly watching the place for her doesn't seem to have the right answers about why she's missing. Tarantino fans know Menochet from that great opening sequence in “Inglourious Basterds,” where he was interrogated by Christoph Waltz, and Menochet had a ton of fun with his dialogue and the way he could use his accent to really nail down the punchlines.

Michael Madsen was Joe Gage, a cowboy who seems to be on his own, and Tim Roth seemed delighted to play Oswaldo Mobray, a foppish Englishman who introduces himself as the actual hangman, on his way to Red Rock to execute the guy who killed Red Rock's former sheriff. Mannix says he's on his way to Red Rock to replace that sheriff, but John Ruth seems unconvinced. Tarantino sets up all these various tensions between the various characters, but holds off on giving you the truth about them as long as possible, and he has tremendous fun with the small details of behavior involving things like the broken front door of the Haberdashery or the little blue coffeepot that becomes such an important piece of the overall puzzle.

Broken into five chapters, the film plays with chronology in the same way that most of Tarantino's movies do, doubling back on a few moments to show us different perspectives on something or going back in time to show us how something ended up happening, and it builds towards the same sort of showdown that we've seen at the end of “Reservoir Dogs” or in that basement bar in “Basterds.” There's a sense of anti-climax to the ending the way it works now, but I have no doubt that even if the script hadn't linked, Tarantino would have continued to rework it, aiming for something that really pays off all the various character arcs.

There was one moment in particular last night that I think would end up standing with the best work that Tarantino's done so far. At one point, Warren decides that he wants to provoke the General into a deadly fight, and the way he does it is masterful. Bruce Dern never got out of his seat and never really raised his voice, but the back and forth between Jackson and Dern was riveting. It is an ugly, brutal sequence, but it speaks to the insidious way that racism can color your entire world view and rob you of reason. People who get angry about the way Tarantino uses race language in his films miss the way he has enjoyed giving power to the powerless in his pictures. There is nothing he enjoys more than letting a character build a righteous head of steam.

There was an electricity to the performance last night, almost inevitable when you are at a live event, and the cast seemed to have a blast. There were several moments where Tarantino stopped things to whisper a suggestion to an actor, but at other times, Tarantino wasn't afraid to tell the audience to be quiet or to tell the actors to back up and take a second shot at something. He seemed to enjoy himself enormously, and the standing ovation at the end of the night had to be encouraging. I have to believe that general audiences are going to get their chance to see a version of “The Hateful Eight,” maybe even by the end of 2015, but being in the audience for this singular performance was a great reminder that Tarantino is an entertainer as much as a storyteller. His huge smile as he yelled, “GOOD NIGHT, LOS ANGELES!” was a clear sign that no matter what happens with the project in the future, Tarantino loves that give and take with an audience.