Western Movies

The Western Godfather

Kurt Russell spills the beans on who really directed 1993's Tombstone.

 Kurt Russell spills the beans.

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It didn't surprise me that Kurt Russell was willing to go off topic during our interview last April.

After all, it was the end of the day and he was likely tired of telling the same handful of anecdotes about Poseidon; about nearly drowning during the production, about accidentally putting a hole in Josh Lucas’ scalp, about peeing in the tank.

And Russell loves to talk—I learned that 10 years ago when we wasted most of my interview time arguing libertarianism and Jeffersonian democratic principles when we were supposed to be discussing Snake Plissken and Escape from L.A.

What did surprise me was how eager Russell was to talk about the movie Tombstone. As soon as I mentioned the famously troubled production of the beloved Western, Russell lit up and began to go into unprecedented detail about the who’s, what’s and why’s.

Actually, surprise is too gentle a word; shocked is more like it.

The fact is, while rumors have circulated about precisely what happened when screenwriter Kevin Jarre was fired as director, early in the production, and was replaced by Rambo 2 director George Cosmatos, the cast and crew have been very close to the vest about specifics. Since the film was released in 1993, the shroud of silence concerning the picture has rarely afforded anyone much more than a glimpse of the real story, for reasons Russell at last made clear in a 20-minute conversation that took place in a suite of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles.

Russell also discussed Kevin Costner’s role in the production, both before the movie started and after the picture was wrapped, details of the financing and distribution, certain curious casting considerations and the legendary missing footage that Tombstone lovers have been dreaming of seeing for 13 years.

 

Henry Cabot Beck: The Tombstone scholars, Allen Barra, Bob Boze Bell and those guys, are getting together in Tombstone in October for the 125th anniversary of the O.K. Corral gunfight.

Kurt Russell: Are they? That’ll be fun. Has it been 125 years? Eighteen—what?—81? I guess so. That sounds right.

At one time I really knew about Wyatt Earp because that movie—Tombstone is one that’s actually worth talking about—that was the one time I had gone out and got the money. I backed the director; the director got fired, so we brought in a guy to be a ghost director. They wanted me to take over the movie. I said, “I’ll do it, but I don’t want to put my name on it. I don’t want to be the guy.”

I said to George [Cosmatos], “I’m going to give you a shot list every night, and that’s what’s going to be.” I’d go to George’s room, give him the shot list for the next day, that was the deal. “George I don’t want any arguments. This is what it is. This is what the job is.”

“Yeah, absolutely.”

I got him from Sly Stallone—called up Sly, said I need a guy. Sly did the same thing with Rambo 2 with George. And I said to George, “While you’re alive George, I won’t say a goddamn thing.” [Cosmatos died April 19, 2005.]

And it was the hardest work of my life. Tombstone was so painful. Tombstone was so tough,  you know what I mean? It was just so painful; it was hard physically to do—I got four hours sleep every night. And I’m so happy that we got it made.

I didn’t get a chance to edit the movie, which I thought was unfortunate because it could have been one of the greatest Westerns ever, ever, ever made. And it’s pretty damn good. We had a great cast. A phenomenal script.

 

 

Some of the direction is terrific. There are great shots—especially the crane shot over Curly Bill [Powers Boothe} when he exits the opium den—

That’s actually how good the script is. That shot is, there’s no way not to do that shot. The movie demands it. The script demands it. But what’s bad about that shot, if you look at it, is it’s badly timed. We had no money. BANG! Half an hour later, the light breaks on the gunshot—Cut. Print it. Go on, move on. But it works.

There’s a lot of great stuff in Tombstone. Great actors who were in a very difficult situation, who I bought their trust by cutting myself out of the movie—as an actor. There’s stuff in that original script that if you were ever to read it you’d go, “Oh ho ho.”

We needed to lose 20 pages. Kevin would never lose the 20 pages. He would never lose it. So once he was gone, there’s only one way I’m going to get the trust of these actors and that is to cut...

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