Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to revive an archaic, epic film format and use it to create one of the most intimate, theatrical movie experiences in years.
The Hateful Eight, his latest work, is a talky, stagey production, featuring a small cast and just a few cramped locations. The movie, a brutal neo-Western about bounty hunters and gunslingers in the aftermath of the Civil War, is set in the snowy mountains of Wyoming. But much of the dialogue takes place inside a cramped stagecoach, and the second half of the film is confined almost entirely within a single-room set that in both size and layout feels more like a theater stage than a traditional movie set.
It's a seemingly strange fit for such an ostentatious, epic format — and yet it's making an argument for the primacy of the movie theater experience.
The Hateful Eight revives a decades-old film technology
One of the most unusual aspects of this film is that it was shot in Ultra Panavision 70mm, a rare film format that hasn’t been used on any motion picture in decades.
The format, which was only ever used on a handful of films between 1957 and 1966, allows for an unusually wide frame, with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 — meaning that the screen is 2.76 times as wide as it is tall. In comparison, virtually all American movies today are projected in either 1.85:1 or an "anamorphic widescreen" format that is usually measured as 2.35:1. (High-definition television screens feature a 16:9 ratio, which is pretty close to 1.85:1.)
Tarantino’s decision to shoot this close-quarters story in this format — and then to exhibit the film in a special roadshow edition using 70mm film projectors — might seem odd at first. (The film is also playing in a slightly shorter, non-roadshow version, which is presented using more typical digital projectors. You can check whether the roadshow version is playing near you here.)
Wider formats like Ultra Panavision are generally considered more epic, best suited to showcasing sweeping vistas rather than close-up interiors. In the 1950s, studios gravitated toward the format, along with other big-screen innovations like Cinerama (which used three projectors to create a curved cinema in the round), while facing increased competition from television. The idea was to create a bigger, more immersive theatergoing experience that couldn’t be experienced on a small, boxy television screen at home.
Even in its prime, the format could only be displayed in a fairly small number of grand theaters, typically during special "roadshow" engagements. It was used for golden-age Hollywood epics like Ben Hur and How the West Was Won, helping to transform these films into events. You didn’t just watch a movie; you went out to see a show.
That same idea helped inform Tarantino’s decision to exhibit The Hateful Eight in a limited roadshow engagement across the country. Tarantino has said that he wanted to bring back the feeling of a cinematic special event. "The thing about the roadshows is that it made movies special," he said. "It wasn’t just a movie playing at your local theater. They would do these big musical productions before the normal release of the film. You would get a big, colorful program. It was a presentation."
Early on in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino provides glimpses of the sort of vistas you might expect from the Ultra Panavision, with wide shots of horse-drawn wagons plowing their way through snowy mountain passes. The spacious panoramas show off the stark beauty of the natural backdrops while emphasizing the isolation of the characters, who appear as tiny figures against the imposing scenery.
These sweeping shots help balance the film’s claustrophobia with a parallel sense of chilly expansiveness. They help with pacing, too, by giving viewers a chance to breathe between the film's many tense, up-close encounters. It’s glorious and occasionally breathtaking, and it works in precisely the sort of epic, cinematic way you’d expect.
Tarantino uses the ultra-wide image to turn the screen into a stage
But what’s more surprising is how well-suited the format turns out to be at capturing the script’s theatrical intimacy. As the action moves into smaller spaces, Tarantino frequently uses the ultra-wide format to produce a kind of split-screen effect, with characters positioned on opposite sides of the screen and, in many cases, a divider of some sort between them.
This is most obvious in the carriage scenes during the first hour, where long conversations about race, war, and politics unfurl in extended takes, with characters facing off on each side of the frame and little if any cutting back and forth between them. The result is that you can see both the speaker and the reactions of the person he or she is talking to.
Sometimes these scenes are shot from inside the carriage, with windows to the outside dividing the action, and sometimes they’re shot from outside, with stagecoach windows used to frame the characters on the inside. Throughout the film, Tarantino uses windows and doors to create multiple mini frames within the overall rectangle of the screen, dividing up the action so that it can be shown in parallel. In the process, he asks viewers to consider both parts of the screen at the same time rather than sequentially.
This continues once The Hateful Eight moves inside to its main location, where Tarantino is constantly staging multiple planes of action, using doors and windows to divide his shots into discrete areas of simultaneous activity. The effect is to make viewers take in the whole image at once, without the director always indicating exactly where to look.
Tarantino’s slightly longer roadshow edit of the film emphasizes this further through its use of longer shots and slower editing — what Tarantino has called "big, long, cool, unblinking takes" — letting scenes play out rather than chopping them apart to keep up the pace. In other words, he uses the ultra-wide format to turn his screen into a stage, giving his characters space to move around and act in parallel, showing them even when they’re not talking, then letting viewers choose where to focus their attention.
This proves to be more than a clever way to divide up the image. The stage-like blocking and long takes let the story’s tension simmer and build by refusing to cut away from the action. They also reinforce the uncertainty built into the premise, in which a bunch of killers and lowlifes meet up and tell their stories — but may not be telling the whole truth. The Hateful Eight’s slow pace, unedited shots, and wide-angle images allow viewers to listen to those stories while watching the whole room, warily, judging its inhabitants and waiting for danger — just like its characters.
Tarantino is making an argument about the importance of the movie theater experience
Other aspects of the roadshow presentation reinforce the stagey theatricality of the production. I caught the film at AFI Silver, a big art deco theater just outside of Washington, DC, that often screens films in 70mm, and it’s quite the show: The lights slowly dim, a long musical overture (part of the first Western score by famed composer Ennio Morricone in three decades) begins, and only then does the curtain begin to pull back, revealing the exceptionally wide screen, a dramatic moment all its own. It’s more like the start of a play than a movie, and it sets the tone, preparing you for what you’re about to see.
A ticket for the roadshow version of The Hateful Eight costs more than a typical movie ticket, reflecting the considerable expense of acquiring and assembling the rare, old projectors required to show the format — in the range of $80,000 per theater, according to a New York Times report from November — something that has already proven difficult to operate correctly. (The print and projection I saw were nearly perfect.)
The roadshow is more than a novel way to see a movie. It’s Tarantino’s attempt to make an argument that the particulars of presentation are a huge and important part of the movie theater experience, and that much of the glory of going to the movies has been lost as movie theaters have switched to all-digital projection. Tarantino is a devoted cinephile who has frequently expressed his love of old, analog movie technology — like Ultra Panavision — and his general distaste for digital filmmaking.
"If I can't shoot on film I'll stop making movies," he said last year. He has also complained about the dominance of digital in theaters. "If we're acquiescing to digital projection," Tarantino said, "we've already ceded too much ground to the barbarians. The fight is lost if all we have is digital, DCP presentations. To me, that's just television in public."
Of course, Tarantino also agreed to release The Hateful Eight in a conventional theater-friendly digital format, and that’s how most people will see it. But the roadshow edition is his way of demonstrating what the alternative to "television in public" is. And with The Hateful Eight, he makes a strong case that it’s worth it.