Genre fare will always be a premium in Hollywood, but original, literate voices that embrace dark material are anything but common. Enter Craig Zahler, whose path to industry recognition is about as uncommon a narrative as anything in his ultraviolent, supernatural horror stories.
Zahler began his post-NYU film school career as a cinematographer. Several bad low-budget indies later, he had a change of heart. “I eventually came to the realization that no matter how good a job I did, if the film was badly written it was going to suck at the end,” says Zahler. “So I decided just to focus on scripts.”
In the late ’90s, he gave up production work to become a catering chef while writing during his off hours. “Cooking works out really well for me because it frees up the mind — the amount of writing that I’ve done while dicing garlic or chopping up onions has been essential to my work.”
By early 2004, Zahler had written six scripts — everything from a David Lynchian experimental yarn (“The Twisted Spine of the Midnight Collaborator”) to “brutal, nihilistic ’70s-style horror.”
He then took “time off” from the screenwriting to write a 736-page fantasy novel called “Slaves of Uzrehan’be” (currently unpublished) before embarking on the spec that would put him on the map, “The Brigands of Rattleborge.” A dark, character-driven, ultraviolent Western set in the late 1800s, the script began making the rounds this spring and soon was snapped up by Vertigo Entertainment (which is behind Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “The Departed”).
“Craig has a completely original and unique voice as a writer,” says Vertigo’s Doug Davison. “While that voice is very different from that of Charlie Kaufman, for example, it is no less unique. This kind of talent is very rare.”
Vertigo will be taking “Brigands” out to studios later this year and is developing two additional horror projects with Zahler.
“What I try to do in my work is elicit dread,” says Zahler, who also plays drums in several New York heavy-metal bands. “For me, writing is like music — it’s about improvisation. About two-thirds of the time, I write something that, when it’s finished, surprises me.”
Inspirations: He sites “Titus Groan” by Mervyn Peake, “the most beautifully written book I’ve ever read.”
Favorite unproduced script: “The Brigands of Rattleborge,” which Vertigo and UTA will be shopping around town.
Reps: Agent: Julien Thuan and Geoff Morley (UTA); attorney: P. J. Shapiro (Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie & Stiffelman)