How Director Jeymes Samuel Reinvented The Western
Jeymes Samuel wears many hats—director, writer, producer, singer, songwriter, and more. The prolific artist and filmmaker talks reinventing westerns, working with producing partner and friend JAY-Z, and his all-star cast in his debut feature film, Netflix’s The Harder They Fall.
Jeymes Samuel marches to the beat of his own drum and the words of his own script. The prolific British creator, also known as singer-songwriter The Bullitts (@thebullitts), has taken over Hollywood with his first feature film, the Netflix Western The Harder They Fall (which premiered on the streaming platform in November). As a film buff, his love of Westerns is what first drew him to filmmaking. “I had the idea of a film just depicting people of color in the Old West, strong characters and strong women,” he says. He loved Westerns but got frustrated with their stereotypes. “If they gave us people of color they always gave reason for why they were there—they were always subservient somehow. The same thing with women characters; it was very rare you find strong female leads in Westerns.” And so, he made it his mission to reinvent the classic Western.
“I NEVER KNEW THE JOURNEY OF MAKING THIS FROM PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY WOULD BE SO JOYOUS.” –JEYMES SAMUEL
As a creative, Samuel is always looking to tell stories, whether through music or film. “I’m always studying filmmakers and I’m always studying film; it never stops for me,” he says. He also enjoys reading and researching Black cowboys and cowgirls from the Old West. “I uncovered all of these amazing characters and amazing people from the old Westerns that actually really existed, so I kind of assembled them—all real characters—and put them in one fictional tale, in one place in time,” he says of the characters in The Harder They Fall. His team of “superheroes and supervillains” who told this story with no subservience includes an all-star cast with Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield in the starting lineup.
Behind the scenes with director Jeymes Samuel and Zazie Beetz PHOTO BY DAVID LEE, NETFLIX © 2021
Samuel notes that although his cast is Black, because of the time and place the story is set in, the story remains universal. “It was important for me to tell that story because there were people living in their own towns and their own lives, their own families and their own communities—outside of the eye of racism,” he says. “These people were just people; they had nothing to do with the world beyond it.”
The London-based director shot the Western in Santa Fe, N.M., with his “dream team” of actors, including close friend Elba. “Me and Idris know each other from a varied background—music, primarily, and even every day when Idris would [come to] set I wouldn’t recognize him. He’d be Rufus Buck and that really was shocking considering I’d be with him in the evening and he’d be Idris Elba,” he says. “Jonathan Majors, our lead who plays the real-life character Nat Love, turned the entire living environment into the Old West. He would change the cutlery I was using; he changed everything and that was super shocking to me but made it all the more fun.”
Jonathan Majors as Nat Love and Beetz as Mary Fields PHOTO BY DAVID LEE, NETFLIX © 2021
As for King, who had just wrapped on directing her own film One Night in Miami, she found pockets of time to help Samuel out on his debut feature film. “[She] and I didn’t know each other prior to The Harder They Fall; we had not even met,” he says. “She was in postproduction for One Night in Miami, so come evenings or when she had pockets of time when she didn’t have to be Trudy Smith, she’d be schooling me on different areas of the production to look out for because she had just done it herself.” Samuel adds that King helped him with tips on shooting in the middle of COVID-19.
“I never knew the journey of making this from principal photography would be so joyous,” he notes. The filmmaker was grateful to Netflix, which he calls the “dream studio.” “They didn’t force any cuts on us,” he says of cutting the film alongside producers James Lassiter and JAY-Z and editor Tom Eagles. Together with Lassiter, he says the trio “can conquer the world!”
A sneak peek of new film The Harder They Fall. PHOTO BY DAVID LEE, NETFLIX © 2021
Like JAY-Z, music is constantly a part of Samuel’s life. “For me, music and film have always been the same thing. Everything we say, every word we say, is in melody,” he says. “I always say I hear film and I see music—they’re exactly the same thing.” He reveals that music is always playing in his brain and when he’s writing dialogue. “Music and film are just two different colors on the canvas of storytelling, but they both paint—it’s all the same—both [are] the same brush I paint with, so to speak.”
Samuel already has his next move lined up. He starts shooting his next film in the spring. “This is going to be hopefully nonstop,” he says. He teases that his next film will be different from The Harder They Fall, but may be connected in some way.” He adds that there are many stories that he wants to tell, including many Western plots. “I’ll never stop going to the Old West filmwise.” As for his music? “Film and music are Jeymes and Samuel,” he says. “It’s literally who I am as a storyteller. I use all of these—a guitar, a camera, whatever I could get my hands on—to tell stories. I’m not going to stop.”