Having exacted revenge against the Holocaust’s perpetrators and killed Hitler three years ago in Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has turned his attention to a dark chapter in America’s history in his new movie Django Unchained, exposing the gruesome brutality of slavery and the inhumanity of those who practiced and advocated it.
“As much as Inglourious Basterds was a European story, this is an American story,” he tells me when I meet him at the London Hotel in New York.
Django Unchained tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), an emancipated slave-cum-bounty hunter, who in his quest to free his wife from her master (Leonardo DiCaprio), butchers every slave owner daring to stand in his way. Ironically, this time the good guy is a German bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who frees Django, trains him and helps him in his mission.
“Kind of busted the Germans’ ass a little bit on Inglourious Basterds didn’t I? This was like a tiny bit of payback,” Tarantino quips. “I wanted the other character in the film, the Sundance to his Butch, the Django Butch so to speak, to be an outsider, who is not an American, who doesn’t understand quite the whole customs here and completely removed from the whole slavery issue, and he is learning it through Django’s eyes. And then through Schultz’s eyes we worked out the whole thing.”
Indeed, Dr. Schultz, who supposedly came from the bourgeois revolution in Germany where he fought against slavery, is the only one to react to the hideous scenes that unfold before his eyes: slaves herded in iron shackles for days under the scorching heat or forced to fight to death, or mulled by a pack of dogs or submerged naked in a water well. Shockingly, even the slaves are not seemed to be fazed by this barbarity. Dr. Schultz often grimaces and averts his gaze, attempting to shield his eyes and his mind from the traumatic images, but in vain; he is surrounded by them from all directions.
Insisting on being authentic, aside from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tarantino hired actors from the south to play the perpetrators. “I didn’t want to do what’s happened often times in movies that deal with this kind of past, where British actors are cast to play the Southerners. No, Americans did this,” he stresses as he bangs the table with the palm of his hand.
“Being an American and making a movie about that time in America’s past can be rough,” he adds.” One of the biggest challenges we have in doing this movie is the fact that there’s not a whole lot of movies like ours.”
Watching Django Unchained is bound to shock and horrify an audience, but the only tears that it may squeeze from the eye will be tears of laughter, for Tarantino has shrewdly injected humour into even the darkest and bloodiest moments, a tradition that he has perfected in all his movies. Although, he is proud of those comedic elements, Tarantino insists that his films are dramas, not comedies. “Because there’s some stuff in it that’s not funny. And I don’t want to make it appear that everything in the story is light, or just a laugh or a giggle. That’s why my movies are dramas. But inside of that, I ribbon comedy all the way through it, if it works out. I can’t help; it just comes out.” he laughs, nodding his head.
Tarantino agrees that Django Unchained falls within the subgenre of a spaghetti western, a genre that he has often referenced in his movies to different degrees. “I’ve always just had an affinity for a combination of heightened genre storytelling in spaghetti westerns, the heightened music and then the way it brings things up to operatic proportions. Those are just three elements that you can’t lose if you blend them the right way. Even Pulp Fiction, I always referred to it as a rock and roll spaghetti western. I guess that’s always been a part of my aesthetic, what I have I responded to. So now I finally get a chance to do it proper,” he enthuses.
Indeed, Django Unchained looks as western as it gets, with references to Tarantino’s favourites from the 70’s, 50’s and 40’s such as Budd Boetticher and Candyland. But none of those westerns could match up to the amount of the violence and bloodshed that Tarantino has splashed on the screen, as he has always done. “I think for certain things there could be too much blood,” he explains. “If I was doing a romantic comedy, I’m not saying there would not be blood, but there might be too much blood in my Kate Hudson romantic comedy movie. But who’s to say, never say never,” he giggles.
Of course, the gore in Tarantino’s work has also been inspired by the slasher movies that he grew up watching from a young age with the approval of his mother, who raised him on her own, having been deserted by his father before he was born. Tarantino’s obsession with movies was later fulfilled when he found a job working a clerk at a Video Archives in Manhattan beach, where he imbibed every image on every video tape, cloning the entire archive in his own mind, which later became instrumental in creating his own masterpieces.
Other than watching movies, the young cinephile, who flunked out of school at ninth grade, was also an avid reader, particularly of genre fiction. “I think my three favourite authors growing up were J.D. Salinger, Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurty,” he says. “I was inspired by the way that in Larry McMurty’s books, he’d have a floating cast of characters, that the supporting character in one book could show up three years later as the star of their own book. A character who was the star of one book could be a supporting character in another book down the line. I was always really inspired by that aspect of this kind of the novelist created world.”
Indeed, his movies often have novelistic structure, such as Kill Bill 1 and 2, which was told in chapters, and invariably imbued with witty, sharp dialogue and sassy characters. In fact, Tarantino began his career in the film business as a writer, having sold two of his screenplays True Romance and Natural Born Killers, before he made his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), which he followed with the groundbreaking and much-imitated Pulp Fiction, which won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1994.
Interestingly, when writing a script, Tarantino rarely thinks about directing. “It really is a literature experience that I’m trying to create on the page when I’m writing,” he says. “The written script should be almost a full enough artistic expression on its own. In fact, when I’m finished with it, I should feel, wow, let me just publish this and then I’m done. Now, I never quite do that. I always make the movie,” he laughs.
Once he dives into the pre-production of a project, the director’s mind gradually starts taking over and by the time rehearsal is over, the writer’s mind completely ebbs away. “From that point on, then I’m kind of just making the movie and feeling it,” he says.
Sometimes, however, he reawakens his writer’s mind in order to fill in blanks or to add a new neat idea that may arise from a situation on set or a location. “I have a lot of things planned out, but I’m also leaving it open for things to happen on the day. I know where I’m going. But because I know the story I’m trying to tell, I can be a little looser than just a whole bunch of storyboards and this is what we have to do,” he says.
Animated, witty and bubbling with energy, the 49-year-old speaks with such unbridled enthusiasm and uncontained passion that one feels as if every muscle in his 6 ft tall frame moves with every word he utters. Talking to him is like watching a performance. His obsession with moving pictures is still firmly ingrained in him, so much that nothing else matters to him. He is still single and lives on his own in a big, cluttered house in Beverly Hills, full of accoutrements.
“The house I have has a big master bedroom,” he says. “It’s got a nice bed and a good pacing place for me. But off my bedroom is my record room, where I play my soundtracks and different music when I am thinking about the movie and working things around in my head. I also do a lot of my writing on the balcony that’s right outside of my bedroom, which, compared to the rest of the house, is uncluttered, but is still cluttered,” he giggles.