“Whoa whoa whoa!” Jennifer Jason Leigh blurts out in The Hateful Eight, responding to Kurt Russell snatching an acoustic guitar out of her hands and smashing it to bits against a post. This was her character talking, but that chagrin belonged at least as much to Leigh herself, since she knew — and Russell did not — that he was demolishing an antique Martin from the 1860s, adding a bit of real-life chagrin to her Oscar-nominated performance.
Kurt Russell Smashed a 150-Year-Old Guitar in ‘The Hateful Eight’ & Its Museum Is Really Mad
“I thought we were going to trade out the guitars,” Leigh tells Billboard. The actress, who’s up for best supporting actress for playing the conniving outlaw Daisy Domergue, says “you’re never going to cut a scene until Quentin says cut. And Kurt thought it must be a dummy guitar. I don’t think Quentin knew that it was the [vintage instrument], either. The scene was going exactly the way he wanted it to go, and he wanted to play one scene in the movie in real time without a cut, in one long take. Kurt felt terrible; he had no idea. When he found out, his eyes literally welled up. It ended up being great for the scene, but very sad for the guitar, and for my guitar teacher, and for me.”
For all the violent deaths that occur in The Hateful Eight, then, it turns out the movie is also an actual guitar snuff film. Leigh had extra reason to mourn the six-string’s unceremonious passing: She’d actually learned to play for the first time on that particular 1860s Martin, after Tarantino asked her to sing and play for a key scene in the film.
“I was heartbroken about the guitar, because I was quite in love with it,” says the actress. “I got to actually take it home with me, and I played it every day. It had the most beautiful, warm tone. I had asked how much it cost, and I was told $4,000, so I was kind of saving up my forced-call money, thinking, ‘At the end of this movie I’m gonna buy that baby… And it’s gonna be my memento that I give to myself.’ I got a few zeroes wrong — it was a $40,000 guitar, and it was also a museum piece, so I never would have been able to buy it… But Kurt knew how much I loved that guitar. Then Quentin gave me another Martin guitar from the 1880s as my wrap present, which was kind of extraordinary.”
It was Leigh’s belief that “the people who were least upset about the whole thing were the Martin company. Their response was, ‘Do you need another guitar? We’ll send one out.’ They just wanted to have the pieces saved so they could put them in their museum.”
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Actually, it turns out the Martin people haven’t been quite so sanguine about the whole affair. After reading similar comments by the film’s sound mixer, Martin Museum director Dick Boak spoke with Reverb, saying, “We want to make sure that people know that the incident was very distressing to us… We didn’t know anything about the script or Kurt Russell not being told that it was a priceless, irreplaceable artifact from the Martin Museum… We’ve been remunerated for the insurance value, but it’s not about the money. It’s about the preservation of American musical history and heritage.” Boak also told Reverb that the days of Martin loaning out guitars for film productions are officially over. (The company declined to comment to Billboard for this story.)
After the Martin was destroyed, there was thought given to trying some other takes, but “you couldn’t, I’m telling you,” says Leigh. “They gave me a Washburn, but you can’t go to a Washburn after playing an 1860s Martin. It’s really rough! But then ultimately Quentin really had what he needed. He wanted it in one take and he got it.”
Leigh was initially distressed when Tarantino asked her to perform the old song “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” in the movie, believing she doesn’t have much of a singing voice. Then she spied on his desktop a copy of her 1995 film Georgia, in which she played a somewhat less than virtuosic singer, so she realized “he knew what he was getting himself into,” vocally. Spoiler alert: The musical number, which plays out over several relaxed minutes while the audience waits for a poisoning to kick in, leaves the audience to wonder how Daisy can be both a remorseless killer and sensitive balladeer. “There is something soft and vulnerable to Daisy, just to hear her sing, and to see her free for a moment, when she’s not actually chained to John Ruth.”
But then — spoiling, again — Daisy actually seals her doom when she adds an original verse to the end of the song, predicting the Russell character’s death. That’s what leads him to smash the guitar and re-handcuff her, ensuring there will be no easy getaway. Lesson: “Always be careful of the last verse,” says Leigh.