Why Indie Director S. Craig Zahler Should Be On Your Radar

May 15, 2023

While his name may not be immediately recognizable to the everyday moviegoer, writer-director S. Craig Zahler has been steadily building a reputation as one of the most singular American independent filmmakers working today.

In a lot of ways, Zahler’s films share much in common with some of the best filmmakers working today: Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, and Quentin Tarantino come to mind. While he hasn’t had much success in a traditional sense, he has garnered a dedicated cult following, and it’s only a matter of time before his name is mentioned alongside the A-list talents his scripts often attract. Here’s why S. Craig Zahler and his filmography should be on your radar.

RELATED: The Best Directors of the 21st Century (So Far)

A Multi-Faceted Talent

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Zahler wears many hats; he’s a director; a musician (he plays drums in a number of heavy metal bands); an artist and animator (his most recent work, a graphic novel entitled Organisms From an Ancient Cosmos, was penned, illustrated, and lettered by him); and a cinematographer. But early in his career, he found most success as a novelist.

Much like his films, Zahler’s books are often uncompromising and violent; focused around flawed but principled characters going up against unspeakable evils. His debut novel, a revenge-western called A Congregation of Jackals, was a huge success for an otherwise unknown writer.

Zahler stayed in the western sandbox with his follow-up novel, Wraiths of a Broken Land, which focused around a desperate father who teams up with his sons and a posse of killers to rescue his kidnapped daughter from a brothel. Despite its harsh violence, the novel attracted the attention of Ridley Scott, who signed on to direct the feature adaptation in 2016, with Drew Goddard penning the script. Unfortunately the project fell through for reasons unknown.

And that isn’t the only time this has happened to Zahler; his fourth novel, Mean Business on North Ganson Street, was acquired by Warner Brothers before the book was even published. The project was intended to star Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx as two less-than-compatible officers partnered together and charged with investigating a string of brutal cop killings. Although Zahler was hired to pen the script, the project – much like Wraiths – fell apart.

A Writer That Directors Love

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When he isn’t penning books or graphic novels, Zahler is writing scripts, having penned approximately 20 screenplays that have attracted some big-name talents. Unfortunately, none of these projects have come to fruition – not yet, at least.

The first script to attract some major attention was The Brigands of Rattleborge, a revenge-western (the man has a speciality) that turned a lot of heads when it hit the trades in 2006. The script topped The Black List, an annual list of the most-liked unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Although the script was well-received, its violent content scared off a lot of players. However, Amazon nabbed the script in 2019, with South Korean auteur Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, The Handmaiden, Decision to Leave) signed on to direct and Matthew McConaughey attached to star.

His next script to get some major attention was a crime-thriller called The Big Stone Grid, a film about a pair of detectives investigating a series of grisly murders that are tied to a mysterious group. The script was set to be directed by Michael Mann and produced by hitmaker Michael DeLuca, but – as is the case with many of Zahler’s scripts – talks fell through. As of 2016, Taken director Pierre Morel has been attached to the script, but there have been no updates since.

Even though Zahler’s scripts tend to attract a lot of big names, he hasn’t seen much success in getting them made. As a result, Zahler – who’s known for being a self-starter and a go-getter – decided to take matters into his own hands; if no one else was going to make his movies, then why not him?

Stepping Behind the Camera


Before getting in the director’s chair, Zahler had only seen one of his scripts produced; a micro-budget horror movie called Blackout Asylum (aka The Incident) that follows a group of cooks working at an insane asylum who get locked in with the inmates following a massive thunderstorm.

But in 2015, Zahler released his directorial debut Bone Tomahawk. The gritty (and very gorey) horror-western is set in the 1890s and stars Kurt Russell as Franklin Hunt, the Sheriff presiding over a small township in the middle of the desert. When three residents are kidnapped by a group of troglodytes, he teams up with Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Arthur Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) to hunt the monsters responsible and rescue the kidnapped citizens. Shot for less than two million dollars, the film was a modest success when it premiered in 2015. But more importantly, it made Zahler a genre-filmmaker to watch.

He took advantage of his spotlight and immediately jumped into his next directorial effort: the 2017 grindhouse flick Brawl in Cell Block 99. It stars Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a former boxer-turned-drug runner who lands in prison following a drug deal gone south. In order to protect his pregnant wife from the criminals he now owes money to, he must take out a high-valued target in a brutal, maximum security prison overseen by the uncompromising Warden Tugg (Don Johnson).

While Brawl wasn’t as successful as his previous effort from a commercial perspective, it earned Zahler a lot of critical praise, landing on a number of year-end best-of lists including Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, and The A.V. Club. It was also a New York Times Critics Pick, and has earned a permanent spot in the Museum of Modern Art’s film collection.

His third film – and the last one he’s directed – was Dragged Across Concrete, a hard-edged crime-thriller and stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as two corrupt officers who plan to rob a group of violent thieves. While Brawl may be his most playful film, Dragged Across Concrete is a more mature piece of work, reminiscent of the films of Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, and David Fincher. It’s meticulous, ambitious, wildly thrilling, and demonstrates Zahler’s true talent behind the camera.

RELATED: Dragged Across Concrete: Why the Controversial Netflix Movie is Better Than You Think

What’s Next for S. Craig Zahler?


Unfortunately, Dragged Across Concrete wasn’t a very successful film; not only did it fail to make back its $15 million budget, but it’s been mired in controversy since its release. The casting of Mel Gibson rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and Zahler’s long-time producer Dallas Sonnier has been accused of covering-up sexual assault allegations within his production company, Cinestate, resulting in its eventual closure.

As of late, Zahler had been hard at work on his fourth film, an adaptation of his fantasy children’s book Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child (a mouthful, much like many of his works). The film, which features an animatronic puppet as the protagonist, is described as an “orphan’s tale” that’s a mix of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. And it was lining up to be more ambitious than anything he’s ever done: three hours long, shot in black-and-white, a mix of live-action and puppetry, and “Dickensian” in nature. Despite securing a cast and the involvement of the Jim Henson Company, the film was ultimately shut down due to lack of financing.

Which is a true shame, because Zahler is an undeniable talent; one of the most unique voices to emerge in the indie scene in a very long time. His works feel like genuine throwbacks to a forgotten era, brimming with hardened criminals, unsavory violence, and questionable morality. If that sounds enjoyable to you – or if you’re just a fan of film in general – then the works of S. Craig Zahler deserves your attention.

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