The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Harder They Fall.
Can you talk about the germination of this idea, for you?
Jeymes Samuel: The film has been in my head since I was a kid. You know, just growing up and loving Westerns. A lot of people say they don’t like Westerns, or think they don’t like them. But it doesn’t even make sense: A “Western” just means a time and place that the movie is set, right? Really we just like stories. And I always loved everything about stories set in that time and place— from the gold and sand on the ground to the swinging doors of the saloon, to the horses… little things, like the cowboy ordering and the bartender just sliding the drink down the bar. I don’t know if that ever happened in real life, but it’s just such a beautiful thing to see. And then, you know, the older you get — and when I say “the older you get,” I mean, like, when you turn twelve or so — you start looking at things a bit differently. You start looking for yourself on the screen, or people that resemble things that are somehow related to you. You know… like, a mother figure: you start looking for women with substance… that aren’t “working women of the night.” You start looking for people of color that aren’t being abused all the time and treated as less-than-human. You start looking at things that resemble life as you know it. And when I started doing that, I couldn’t find them! I couldn’t find them in Westerns. They were always white male-centric. If you were a woman character, or a character of any color other than white, you were treated as a third-class citizen. Or you were subservient to some kind of male plot. If you were a person of color, you were treated as less than human. If you were black, they’ll always give a reference to some slave background… and it just didn’t make sense to me. I got to be about thirteen or fourteen and I started going to the library and I started reading more on this time and place that I loved so much, but I didn’t find representation of me on the screen. And I found all these amazing characters in my reading, like Rufus Buck, Cherokee Bill… Stagecoach Mary, Bill Pickett, Bass Reeves (the inspiration for the original Lone Ranger)… just all of this amazing stuff, this amazing history of America. And you’d learn things: Wyatt Earp died in 1929. My grandmother was alive when Wyatt Earp died! She was born in 1927. But Wyatt Earp died in 1929. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral (Tombstone), didn’t even happen at the O.K. Corral! And it took place in 1881, decades after slavery. So it gets you thinking and just researching more: You find out that one in four cowboys were Black; the term “cowboy” only applied to Black people, white people were called “cowhands.” Just all these types of things. So for me… it just made me really excited to see this stuff portrayed in a Western in a way that I never really saw it before. Just all the way through. And about fifteen years ago, I remember speaking to Idris [Elba] in London: “Hey man, I’m gonna do a Western. All Black people in the cast. I’m going to do a Western with all of these characters…” And we’d just talk about it every so often. And he knew that was my passion. For me, there was no version of this movie with Idris not attached. And then about ten years ago, I embarked on it: Ok, I’m making this film. I started with a short film called “They Die by Dawn,” and that was like a proof of concept. Not necessarily to me, but to the world, to show that we existed. And afterwards, it took maybe about another eight years, nine years, to get to a place where, OK: there’s a studio onboard. Netflix. I had a great team. I had all the tools in my arsenal to go make a great movie. And Idris being there as well. So that was just amazing, and a real gift.
These people actually steal scenes like train robbers
What did you see in the script that made you want to do this movie?
Zazie Beetz: What I like about the script is that it feels like it’s sort of this heightened world, but the acting is super grounded. I think the stakes are all very real, and they give everyone something to chew on and digest. And then when I connected with Jeymes about the story, I felt like he had this very clear vision of the kind of movie he wanted to make, of how it was going to sound and feel, and a clear idea of the reason he was doing it. It was just a very… I don’t know, I feel like anyone who speaks with him can feel his passion, and can feel, you know, that this movie is a cultural phenomenon aimed at changing the traditional narrative around Westerns and also at adding this kind of modern edge to it. And I like revisiting this genre and doing something a little bit different with it. And so, yeah, I just felt very inspired by Jeymes, I felt very inspired by this story, and by the opportunity I had with this character as a lover, and also as an independent woman. And then, obviously, the team already attached was very enticing, and I wanted to work with these people!
Can you talk about writing and casting the part of Cherokee Bill?
JS: Writing the character of Cherokee Bill was incredibly fun! It was just really, really fun. He’s interesting, in the way that he delivers dialog. It’s playful. He’s just really playful. But he is one of the only characters in the movie that repudiates violence. He doesn’t like violence: Every single confrontation he has in the film, he’s telling his opposition, “we’re not here for violence.” But you’re in the presence of extremely violent individuals. Contrary to how it may seem, we don’t like violence. Why does there always have to be one hero? He warns the guy on the train. He warns Jim Beckwourth. He told Bill Pickett, “you had a choice; you chose to stay.” So that contrast in character… you know in real life, Cherokee Bill was a badass. When he was going to his own hanging, they asked him, “any last words?” He said, “I came here to die… not make a speech.” This dude was one of a kind. So to put those things in there… the genius, but to also put this moral compass on him. “When push comes to shove, it’s not about who is quick and who is slow. It’s about who is alive, and who is dead.” And he says these things. So to get LaKeith Stanfield for that character, to have him read it and agree to do it… I was ecstatic! This is going to be haaaard. Hard meaning dope. Dope meaning, real, real good. I knew it was going to be wicked. All of the cast… every one of them, was just so exciting to have involved. I just knew. Even the cast that were relatively unknown on a broad scale, but who were absolutely amazing and as good as anyone else: RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler. These people actually steal scenes like train robbers. It was just amazing, the whole casting process.
How did you work out your scenes with Regina King?
ZB: Yeah! We have this big fight scene that was being shot— I think it was her last couple of days on-set. And at that point, I think because of COVID, things kept getting moved around, and changed at the last moment. And that scene I think was originally meant to shoot weeks before, but then we had gotten shut down multiple times. And so Regina and I were really intent on making sure we found time to rehearse it, because… honestly, by the end of the shoot — and Jeymes can attest to this — I feel like everyday we were asking ourselves, “are we going to get shut down today? Or not?” And… that was sort of stressful! Because you wanted to do your work, and you were preparing for one thing, and then all of a sudden you had to completely change around. And so Regina and I were like, “Ok, you know… production is trying to figure out this scheduling; we’re just going to do our thing.” And so me, her, and our two stunt-doubles sort of planned on our own. We would just kind of meet up at the hotel where all the extras were staying. We would just find a conference room there, and rehearse! It’s really like a dance: even though the fight looks, I think, kind of raw and messy (which is sort of the point), it’s very carefully choreographed. There are a lot of moving parts, and we wanted to trust each other. I feel like we really solidified our connection by doing that together.