How First-Time Feature Filmmaker Jeymes Samuel Is Reinventing the Western With ‘The Harder They Fall’

Photographs by Danny Kasirye

After spending more than a decade teasing out a story of real-life Black cowboys, Jeymes Samuel was finally on location in Santa Fe, N.M., gearing up to shoot his feature directorial debut, the high-octane Western “The Harder They Fall.” His dream project was about to become a reality.

To help him realize his vision, he’d assembled an all-star cast headlined by Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors and Regina King, fresh off her supporting actress Oscar win for “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Netflix had put up $90 million to fund Samuel’s radical reimagining of what he calls the New West, an epic canvas populated by bandits and lawmen, saloonkeepers and stagecoach robbers, gunslingers and sharpshooters, all of whom are Black. The ensemble — which also features Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo and LaKeith Stanfield — had already earned its stripes at cowboy camp, learning to shoot old-school revolvers and ride horses like pros.

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Danny Kasirye for Variety

It was March 12, 2020, and cameras were set to roll the next day.

But just as quick as the draws in the gunfights that Samuel was choreographing for the screen, everything changed in an instant. “We were on set doing a run-through when we got the call: ‘Come down to the office,’” he tells Variety.

Tendo Nagenda, Netflix’s VP of original film, had arrived in New Mexico the day before. He landed just as the NBA canceled its games and Tom Hanks announced he had contracted COVID-19, “which for a lot of people made it real, ironically, at least within the film and entertainment world,” the executive recalls. “So the table read, and then the next day of shooting, turned into ground zero for how Netflix was going to deal with our films in production in the pandemic, in real time.”

The plan came down swiftly — the streamer put all of its productions on hold for 14 days. In some ways, it was comforting that Nagenda could reassure Samuel and his cast and crew in person that everyone would continue to be paid during the shutdown and impart that production would resume once things were safe. “Whether we’re down for two weeks or two months, we’re making this film,” Nagenda remembers saying in March. Production was shut down until September.

One year later, Samuel stepped away from putting the finishing touches on “The Harder They Fall” for his first major interview as a filmmaker over peppermint tea at SoHo House in Los Angeles. It was two days before he was scheduled to fly to England for the movie’s premiere at the London Film Festival. Samuel insisted that he felt no nerves, only excitement, particularly around the fact that his Western was tapped to open his hometown film festival, where he used to hustle to get tickets.

“It’s amazing beyond words, the poetry of it,” Samuel says, revealing that he actually sneaked into the festival’s 2004 screening of “Ray” and, after the Q&A, chatted up director Taylor Hackford about what a powerhouse performance King gave in that film. Now she’s in his movie.

• • •

On Oct. 22, King and the cast of “The Harder They Fall” will ride into select cinemas for an exclusive theatrical run before launching on Netflix Nov. 3, where the film will be widely streamed and meme’d on social media, while also analyzed and dissected by cinephiles and action junkies. It has the potential to launch Samuel’s career into the stratosphere. That’s because the movie was made as much for the internet generation as it was for Western aficionados, both of which define the director, who fell in love with the genre growing up in London, watching episodes of “Bonanza” and movies like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

But the faces that gazed back at him from the screen under those ten-gallon hats were almost exclusively white and male. And when they weren’t, the Black characters and women were written as stereotypes or painted as subservient to the John Wayne- and Clint Eastwood-style heroes.

“Woody Strode is the most bronzed, chiseled Black man the Lord had ever given us. In ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,’ this guy couldn’t even get a drink in the bar,” Samuel notes, remembering a line from the film in which Strode’s character is told, “We don’t serve your kind here.”

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Danny Kasirye for Variety

“Can we at least see the bar where he goes to get a drink?” Samuel wonders. Samuel believes that kind of erasure and omission is why Westerns fall flat with many people of color.

“The problem is historically, more often than not, we’d be shown a really narrow viewpoint of what Westerns are,” he explains. “I grew up knowing all the words to ‘Windy City’ by Doris Day, from ‘Calamity Jane.’ But I never learned anything about Stagecoach Mary or Gertrude Smith. … I never learned anything about all of these amazing people of color.”

As a kid, Samuel took it upon himself to begin researching the Old West, discovering stories about outlaws and renegades like Rufus Buck, Nat Love and Cherokee Bill, reading about these Black people and becoming immersed in their mythology much in the way that other kids embraced comic books.

He started making short films around the same time. “My mom bought me a Super 8 camera when I was like 7 or 8,” he says. As he grew as an artist, filming music videos and crafting cinematic anecdotes for social media, his passions collided, and all Samuel could imagine was making his own Western to fill in those Hollywood blind spots.

First came the 2013 short “They Die by Dawn,” which led to “The Harder They Fall,” where Samuel spins a yarn about the outlaw Nat Love (Majors), who wants revenge against Rufus Buck (Elba), the ruthless criminal who killed his parents.

“It was almost like I couldn’t do anything else,” Samuel explains. “My first feature film had to be a story where I bring all of these people to the fore, bring all these real characters together, assemble them like the Avengers, but in a fictional story.”

“The Harder They Fall” is a full-service “Jeymes Samuel film,” with the newcomer not only directing the movie but co-writing the screenplay with Boaz Yakin, as well as producing the project and overseeing the music with longtime collaborator Shawn Carter — better known as Jay-Z. Only a handful of other Hollywood figures, including Orson Welles, who produced, co-wrote, directed and starred in “Citizen Kane”; Warren Beatty, who did the same on “Heaven Can Wait” and “Reds”; and Eastwood, who has produced, starred in, scored and directed several movies, have achieved that kind of creative control. Of course, with the exception of Welles, those other icons had a number of films under their belt before they added directing to the mix, whereas Samuel is coming out of the gate guns blazing.

By both directing and writing the film’s score, Samuel — best known by his musical moniker, the Bullitts — does his best impression of Western royalty, embodying both the director Sergio Leone and the composer Ennio Morricone while breathing fresh life into a tired genre much as the spaghetti Westerns once reimagined and reinvented the films of John Ford and James Stewart. What unfolds during the two-hour-and-change running time of “The Harder They Fall” is not the work of a neophyte; it’s the assured expression of an exciting new cinematic voice. Samuel takes his encyclopedic knowledge of Western cinema, crafting a bloody romp with heavy doses of family drama intermixed with romance, humor and spontaneous musical moments. The $90 million movie also looks expensive — with every dollar spent on transporting the audience back to the 1890s with a lavish production and costume design that elevates the dusty landscape into a swagged-out Technicolor that practically explodes off the screen.

The movie also comes as Black cowboys are having a pop culture renaissance, with everyone from Beyoncé (through the rodeo collection of her Ivy Park clothing line) to David Oyelowo (who is set to star in a Bass Reeves series) celebrating the hidden histories of these pioneers. “The Harder They Fall” even marks Elba’s second time on horseback in a movie this year (he also starred in and produced Netflix’s “Concrete Cowboy”) — and the actor is allergic to equines.

But the one thing this movie doesn’t focus on is its characters’ Blackness. Samuel deftly weaves in elements of the Black experience, paying homage to the past and representing the present. In an early sit-down with Netflix’s Nagenda and the company’s film chief, Scott Stuber, Jay-Z laid out the production team’s goals.

“Our ambition is for it to be one of the great movies of all time. Not one of the great Black films of all time. Not one of the great Black Westerns of all time,” Nagenda recounts. “We might not reach those heights, but we should be thinking ‘The Godfather’ in terms of its import and ability to transcend the genre.”

Thus, Nagenda explains, it was important for Netflix to give the movie the budget it required to swing for the fences, despite the fact that Samuel was a first-time filmmaker.

“The reality is that our business probably takes bigger risks and commits more money to a lot of different ventures — in theory, first-time directors or even second-time directors who have stepped up from an indie film into a big-budget film, they just rarely look like Jeymes Samuel, in a lot of ways,” the executive says. “And it wasn’t that big of a risk after sitting down and understanding exactly who was telling the story and how he was going to tell it.”

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Danny Kasirye for Variety

But getting to this point almost didn’t happen, as COVID-19, that once-in-a-century health crisis, seemed like it might force Samuel to shelve his grand ambitions.

Looking back on those early moments of uncertainty last year, King says, “I remember we were all sitting in a room together, and I think for some of us, we probably felt like, quite possibly, will we do this film? Does this mean a pause or mean that it’s over?”

Elba had been in the “Harder They Fall” mix for more than a decade, when Samuel was first laying out plans for the New West, and approached his good friend and musical collaborator about playing Buck. “I felt sorry for him because there he was, greenlit movie with the most incredible cast and then told, ‘No, we’re not making this now,’” Elba says.

And things were about to get much more dire. The following Monday, Elba learned that he’d tested positive for COVID-19 after being exposed while away from the film’s set.

“Everything was thrown into disarray. And God bless Idris because at that time, no one, including him, knew how bad the effects of COVID could be,” Samuel recalls. “Idris took it on the chin. He contacted everyone, made sure everyone was cool, because obviously we’d all been exposed. Fortunately, he didn’t give it to one person, and then we were shut down.”

Though his fairy tale was rapidly turning into a nightmare, somehow Samuel never lost hope. The filmmaker was aided in part by the film’s lead, Majors, who showed up to his rental house just as Samuel was packing to leave Santa Fe and go back across the pond.

“My car was outside, and he was just like, ‘Where are you going?’ And I said, ‘To London.’ And he was like, ‘No, you’re not. You have to stay here, and we have to weather this storm,’” Samuel recounts. “I looked him in his eye, and I knew I couldn’t leave him. So we both stayed in New Mexico writing songs together, not leaving the mental environment of the film, staying in the trenches, until we were back up and running.”

But some stars’ schedules kept them from holding out for the restart, with Cynthia Erivo, Wesley Snipes and Sterling K. Brown falling out of the project. “We’ll saddle up next time round,” Samuel says, explaining that he then shuffled the deck with the cast, moving actors to other roles, building another winning hand.

King, who also stayed put throughout the shutdown, says it was Samuel’s attitude that helped those involved in the project maintain a “pandemic be damned” attitude that kept the train on track as they waited six months for production to resume in late September.

“I’m one of those people that really believes in the universe and that things happen for a reason. It’s not by chance,” she explains. “While the pandemic did hit, I don’t think that there was ever a moment in Jeymes’ mind — there was not a molecule in his body that felt like it was going to stop ‘The Harder They Fall.’ And that energy is very powerful.”

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So what was it about this first-time filmmaker that had Netflix, his cast and crew and the A-list producing team of Jay-Z, James Lassiter (“I Am Legend”) and Lawrence Bender (“Pulp Fiction”) so enraptured that they pushed through the pandemic for him? Everyone chalks it up to the clarity of Samuel’s vision and the vividness with which he conceived his story.

The 42-year-old musician-turned-filmmaker, who is also the younger brother of Grammy winner Seal, sees the world in almost symphonic terms. He speaks rhythmically and often launches into a cappella renditions of songs, drumming on his chest or the table during the interview, as he explains how they fit into the storyline.

“I see music and I hear film — they go hand in hand,” he explains. “I’ve never known really how to do anything different. When I’m writing a script, I’m seeing melodies.”

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Danny Kasirye for Variety

King recalls a similar experience when Samuel approached her to join the project, with the filmmaker breaking out his guitar during their first meeting and giving her a taste of the Caribbean music and Afrobeats he planned to infuse into the film.

“Jeymes is just a visionary. I was not a fan of Westerns, and I sat down and had a FaceTime with him, and by the time we got off that FaceTime, I was like, ‘Man could probably have talked me into doing anything,’” says King.

For the movie’s soundtrack, Samuel assembled a collection of artists ranging from Kid Cudi and Lauryn Hill to reggae legend Barrington Levy and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, showing off the skills he acquired when he was tapped by Jay-Z to serve as the executive music consultant on Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” in 2013. Samuel collaborated with Jay-Z again on “4:44,” helming a short film, “Legacy,” that was released in conjunction with the 2017 album.

Music found its way into Samuel’s soul early on. Raised on West London’s Kilburn Lane, the son of Francis and Mummy Samuel says, “I grew up in the hood in London, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t downright musical and hilarious at times.”

It also made Samuel resourceful. “I used to call Pinewood Studios and they would send me all of their short ends — just all of the unused film stocks — and I would shoot short films, according to the speeds of the Kodak film stock,” he says. “I remember ‘The Mummy Returns’ sent me cans and cans and cans of film stock. I must’ve shot like five music videos on that.”

He began making music as a teenager and released his first single, “When It Rains,” in 2001, going on to develop his signature style that merges music and cinema. For example, the music video for the Bullitts’ “Close Your Eyes,” with Jay Electronica and Lucy Liu, pays homage to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s “Un Chien Andalou” (Samuel’s cinephile mother showed him the noted film.)

Shortly after “The Great Gatsby,” Jeymes unveiled “They Die by Dawn,” starring Erykah Badu, Rosario Dawson and the late Michael K. Williams. That directorial debut was coupled with the first Bullitts album, “They Die by Dawn & Other Short Stories.” Some of the characters cross over between “They Die by Dawn” and “The Harder They Fall”: In the earlier film, Badu plays Stagecoach Mary, with Bokeem Woodbine as Bill Pickett, Harry Lennix as Sheriff Bass Reeves and Williams as Nat Love. In “The Harder They Fall,” those roles are portrayed by Beetz, Edi Gathegi, Lindo and Majors.

But “They Die by Dawn” was a small-scale production, self-funded and filmed in four days, which was not how Samuel intended to make his theatrical splash. “As a Black person, if we get a proper Western, I need bank robberies, train robberies, jailbreaks, quick draws,” he says. “I need all of the tropes, and then let me turn it on its head and do something entirely new with it, speaking the language of where we are today.”

Because Samuel was determined to get “The Harder They Fall” made on an epic scale, it took nearly a decade to develop, with actors like Williams aging out of their roles.

It was serendipity, then, that when casting his new Nat Love, Majors was brought to Samuel’s attention. Majors had played a younger version of Williams’ Ken Jones in “When We Rise” in 2017 (before playing Williams’ son on HBO’s “Lovecraft Country”), but the filmmaker hadn’t yet seen that performance. An interview with Majors where the actor described his process was all that was needed.

“He was talking about his inner workings of his psyche, how he arrived to the character he played, and how he was giving motivation to another actor who he was working with in a movie. I said, ‘That’s Nat Love,’” Samuels recalls.

Majors says he and Samuel have since developed a very deep collaboration. “We’ve established this artistic community between us where we talk about music, art, popular culture, all these things,” he explains. “It’s like a Warhol and Basquiat; it’s like a Scorsese, Leo or De Niro; or Spike and Denzel. It’s one of those things where it’s like you’ve just always been together and just didn’t know it.”

It’s the type of kindred connection that many actors say characterizes working with Samuel. Elba describes Samuel’s take as “revolutionary,” saying: “Here is a genre that has been pretty misogynistic, racially biased, un-inclusive, and he’s going to change that and flip that. He had these real-life characters that have been completely wiped out from history, and he extrapolated a story that is rich with its music and its culture, but in the encasement of a genre movie.”

Elba is hopeful that by highlighting those untold Black stories, the film inspires Hollywood to widen its narrow aperture. “Let’s look at genres that typically ignored any sort of culture — not just Black culture; brown, Hispanic, whatever you want to say — and concentrated on one,” he says. “This film shows future filmmakers that there are different ways to tell stories. It doesn’t have to be all-Black or -white. It just needs to be culture rich. Let’s not erase history; let’s make history.”

Elba’s were the first scenes to film when production officially resumed, with both actor and director breathing sighs of relief when they walked on set. Samuel recalls waiting for the official word that production was cleared to start, thinking, “I’ve learned my lesson now. I’m not gonna say ‘Okay, we start filming this day or we start filming next week’ until I yell, ‘Action.’”

The first set-up for the movie was a shot of the cuffed hands of Elba’s Rufus Buck coming out of his jail cell. Samuel says everything came into focus when the actor arrived on set. It wasn’t his friend who’d arrived, but instead his outlaw alter ego. From Elba’s perspective, he remembers looking at Samuel and feeling grateful that the director’s decades-long journey had not been in vain.

“The possibility of the film being made was really slim,” Elba notes. “So, when I got on set for the first time, Jeymes and I had that moment where we looked at each other and were like, ‘Wow, brother we did it.’”

With production finally underway, Samuel could finally focus on his two mantras: “Obey your crazy and get your shots.”

“Your crazy will always steer you right. I tell it to musicians, any creative when they ask me,” he explains. “You have those thoughts for a reason. They only seem crazy because you haven’t done them yet.”

The second half of the mantra came from his second second AD Ricky Weaver — Denzel Washington’s nephew, John David’s cousin.

“The first day of shooting, I said to Ricky, ‘I made good time right? I made my day,’” Samuel recounts. “And Ricky gave me a really serious look, and said, ‘I don’t ever want to hear you ask me about time again. Get your shots. If you get your shots, you make awesome movie. You get more time. If you worry about time and don’t get your shots, and you’ve got some trash, but you’re on schedule. Leave time to your AD department.’”

And when it came to filming during COVID, the new restrictions like wearing a mask and goggles at all times or the six-foot social distancing guidelines were no problem for the newbie director. Considering the fact that Samuel had never conducted business on such a big-budget project before, he explains, he simply had no frame of reference for doing things any other way.

“This wasn’t crazy. This was Sparta,” he explains, with great dramatic effect. “Show me the parameters of which I have to make this movie, and I will make this movie. If I haven’t shot a feature film before, then all of it to me just means that’s how I make a film. [If I need] goggles and the mask and six feet? Spielberg must’ve had goggles and a mask and six feet.”f

Tears flowed on the final day of filming. The director embraced Majors while the thespian was still atop his horse (Samuel is a towering 6’2” so it was easier to accomplish than you might think), as all of the memories from the intense experience rushed back at once. “That last shot was a tearful moment, and then I had to race and get on a plane,” Samuel says. The director was heading back to London just in time for his son’s birthday, which was two days away.

“I’d been gone for a year,” Samuel explains. “It was the most heartbreaking — it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. All of those people took their time and just showed me such faith. They all felt the need to ride with me on this … on this … crazy journey to the New West.”

The Oct. 6 world premiere went off without a hitch, with Samuel bringing his wife, son, aunts, sisters, younger brother and mother as his dates for the event. It had been particularly important for his mother “to see the movie on the big screen in all its glory,” he explained. But Samuel was surprised when she stayed quiet throughout most of the raucous celebration, where the movie was greeted with great enthusiasm from the crowd.

“I asked her, ‘Were you overwhelmed Mummy?’ And she went, ‘No. I was taking it all in and saying to myself, ‘I knew he’ll do it.’ It was a deep thing,” Samuel says, relishing the emotion of it before adding: “My auntie was there hemming and hawing about the violence. She said, ‘I love it Jeymes, but next time maybe you can make something a little more gentle.’”

The budding auteur already has plans for his next project, sharing that Lassiter has written a script that he will direct, though he’s not ready to reveal what that movie is yet. Nagenda is also privy to the top secret details of the project, but stays mum on specifics.

“I feel like we’re on the verge of discovering a generational voice,” Nagenda declares. “A voice that will luckily make movies and tell stories for decades to come, and that’s rare, because they can both create it themselves — meaning it doesn’t have to come from known IP — but also uniquely [make it] for really broad swaths of audiences.”

The executive puts Samuel’s talent and creativity on par with the likes of Jordan Peele, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Rian Johnson, boosted by the bonus skill of crafting his own original music. “What you’re talking about is the birth of a new filmmaker who can do it all,” he adds. “I want to make every film that Jeymes Samuel births, and I think his next one will both surprise people, but also inspire them in a new way that’s completely different than ‘The Harder They Fall,’ but just as relevant.

For Samuel’s part, he teases: “I think that when people see it or hear about it, they’ll be like, “It’s just more Jeymes Samuel madness. But I will always live in the Old West. I will always go back to the old west and and swag out. I love westerns too much and literally cannot leave them alone.”

Styling: Neesha Sharma; Grooming: Lance Lowe