Quentin Tarantino: My Films are Spaghetti Westerns

Husam Asi with Quentin Tarantino

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.

Leonardo DiCaprio is taking a break from acting to reflect on his life – interview

Husam Asi with Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio has been very busy this year, playing major roles in three movies back to back: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. It’s not uncommon for the veteran actor to wrap more than one movie in one year, but he admits that this has been a unique situation for him.

“They were all roles I really, really wanted to play,” he tells me when I meet him at the London Hotel in New York. “It’s been 3 movies in a row and usually I like to have a lot more time in between to think about them but it’s given me a lot of newfound sort of energy. It’s interesting because once you get into that mode of just constantly working and constantly focusing it’s like a basketball season; you’re just constantly playing. You have no time to stop or reflect, just go, go, go and it’s amazing. It keeps you in good acting shape,” he laughs, nodding his head.

But this hardship has taken its toll on the 38-year-old actor, who still retains a trace of the boyish look and demeanour that he is known for. Hence, he has cleaned his next year’s slate in order to take time off to reflect on everything in his life and refocus his attention on his environmental causes.

“I already have a few things lined up that are going to be very important things for me and for my foundation. I plan on travelling and getting even more involved with those issues as well as getting some rest and getting to see my friends again and being home.”

But the committed environmentalist will be around to promote his work and perhaps collect some awards for it before he retreats into his personal domain. Recently, he has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his supporting role in the anti-slavery movie, Django Unchained, in which he plays a vicious slave trader from the south, Monsieur Calvin Candie, who derives pleasure from watching his black subjects fighting each other to death or being mauled by a pack of hungry dogs.

Set two years before the US civil war, Django Unchained tells the story of a slave-cum-bounty hunter, Django (Jamie Foxx), who plots a plan with his emancipator and mentor, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to free his wife Broomhhilda (Kerry Washington) from Candie’s plantation.

Reading the script the first time, Dicaprio was stunned by the level of savagery depicted in the movie. “I asked Tarantino ‘Do we need to go this far?’ and he immediately said ‘People will resent you for not depicting the reality of what went on in our country, the atrocities of what happened,’ and at that moment I got it. I needed to go to that extreme.

“It’s a product of the time and it’s something that we as a society need to look at and remember and I commend the fact that there are films about this to remind us of what our history was like in this country.”

Indeed, as one would expect from a Tarantino movie, the film is imbued with hideous images of bloodshed, physical abuses and body mutilations and drenched with obscene racist language, dominated by the N word, which DiCaprio was not used to. “It was incredibly difficult for me to do these scenes and to treat people with this cruelty and have this viewpoint on race.”

Nonetheless, he did and did it convincingly, transforming himself into a malicious, spoiled, Caligula-like creature, who believed that Africans were not only genetically inferior to whites but a different species and hence treated them like a commodity for trade, in spite of having been raised surrounded by them. “Not that I have any connection with this human being whatsoever or I agreed with in any respect, but you have to understand that at the time slave ownership was their form of power. It was the equivalent of oil,” he stresses.

Immersing himself into researching that dark chapter in America’s history, DiCaprio was horrified by discovering that his character’s atrocities were relatively tame next to what occurred in reality.  In fact, during the civil war, slave owners invoked phrenology, a science often used to examine human emotions and instincts by studying the skull, in order to prove that African slaves were a different species and justify slavery.

DiCaprio offered his findings and ideas to Tarantino, who enthusiastically embraced them and even pushed them to new extremes in the movie. “Those are the type of directors I love working with, ones that love that collaborative process and it was great to work with him in that respect.”

Indeed DiCaprio’s superstardom endows him with the privilege of choosing to work with  Hollywood’s most prominent directors, most notably Martin Scorsese, with whom he has collaborated on Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island and most recently on The Wolf of Wall Street. He has also worked with Steven Spielberg on Catch Me If You Can, Chris Nolan on Inception and Clint Eastwood on J. Edgar.

“I have an appetite to work with the greatest directors I can possibly get the opportunity and be so fortunate enought to work with,” he smiles contently. “I think that is paramount. I think that when you make a movie, these are the real decision makers, who shape a storyline and a performance, and if they have the talent to do so can make a movie great.”

Born and raised in Hollywood, DiCaprio began his acting career in commercials and TV at the age of 14, before he landed his first film role with Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life (1993), which he followed with another impressive performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) for which he earned his first Oscar nomination, when he was only 19 years old.

DiCaprio’s acting career continued to flourish in the early nineties as he was granted lead roles in major pictures such as Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Marvin’s Room (1996), but it was the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), in which he played an impoverished American artist falling in love with Kate Winslet’s young aristocrat, that catapulted him to instant superstardom and turned him into a teen idol, adored by millions around the world. He quickly reigned supreme as the biggest male box office attraction.

Although he enjoyed the perks of his international fame, DiCaprio was chiefly interested in transitioning from a child actor to an adult star, which he has achieved by judiciously choosing to inhabit tormented characters in auteurs’ movies instead of playing superheroes in summer blockbusters. His toil was duly recognized with multiple awards and two additional Oscar nominations for his lead roles in The Aviator and Blood Diamond.

“I don’t do a film because I feel it’s time to do a comedy, or science fiction or another genre. I do it because I’m motivated and I feel like I could be of service to that character and whether there are a lot more questions to be asked about him. If I read a screenplay, where the person is clearly defined and there’s nothing left for me to do then I usually don’t do it. There has been a consistent theme in my career of the types of characters that I’ve been drawn to, but that’s the way I am and that’s what I like to do and I feel fortunate as actor to be able to choose the type of work and I don’t want to squander the opportunities while I have them.”

Recently however, the 3-time Oscar nominee has been contemplating the thought of helming a project. But having endured the hardship of directing in 2006 when he made the global warming documentary 11th Hour, DiCaprio is still wary of committing to that idea.

“I don’t know yet,” he ponders as he pauses momentarily. “I have to get that piece of material that makes me want to sort of take a break from acting and commit myself because if I do something I know I’m going to be obsessed with it and I know no matter what the post production process is, I know how I am in the editing room. I am a little afraid of how obsessed I might become with it, because I know I want to get it as perfect as I possibly can. But I do want to try it someday, I do!”

In spite of his intense schedule and utter dedication to his craft, DiCaprio is notorious for partying hard and dating a multitude of supermodels from around the word, and he is yet to settle with one. When I ask him about any prospect of forming a family, he struggles to find an answer.

“What about you?” he facetiously asks. “I’ll tell you if you tell me,” I reply. “It will come, Man. With the right one at the right time,” he says half heartedly as his eyes drift. But I won’t suggest to any female fan to hold their breath. Several superstars are far older than him and still celibate, so I won’t be surprised if DiCaprio remains a bachelor for the rest of his life.

In the meantime, DiCaprio spends his holidays and Christmas with his parents, who split up when he was only 1 year old. “I usually celebrate Christmas with my mum on 24th and then my dad on the 25th,” he giggles.

DiCaprio is invariably sociable and friendly, but I’ve never seen him in such a high spirit. Obviously, the superstar is cheered by the prospect of his hiatus, but will he be left alone to reflect and contemplate?


Brits Shine at the Golden Globe Awards Nominations

Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt earn Golden Globes nominations for their roles in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

British pictures and talent dominated the 70th Golden Globe Award nominations, which were announced this morning at The Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. Comedies The Best Exotic Hotel and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Tom Hooper’s musical Les Miserables each gained a nomination in Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. They will be competing against Silver Linings Playbook and Moonrise Kingdom in the same category.

Salmon Fishing in The Yemen, also earned two nominations in the Best Performance by An Actor and Actress in Comedy or Musical for British actors Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt respectively. Two dames, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, joined Blunt in the same category, which also included Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook).

Ewan McGregor will be competing against Jack Black (Bernie), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) and Bill Murray (Hyde Park On Hudson).

British actors were also featured in the Drama section of the Golden Globes nominations. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) led the nominations in the Best Performance by An Actor, which also included Richard Gere (Arbitrage), John Hawkes (The Sessions), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) and Denzel Washington (Flight), while a third dame, Helen Mirren (Hitchcock), and Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea) were joined by Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone) and Naomi Watts (The Impossible) in the Best Performance By An Actress in A Motion Picture.

There were no surprises in the Best Motion Picture in the drama section, which included Spielberg’s Lincoln, Ang Lee’s  Life of Pi, Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Ben Affleck’s Argo, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Each one of the above pictures also garnered a nomination for Best Director and Best Screenplay, except Life of Pi, which lost to the script of Silver Linings Playbook.

Django Unchained also took two nominations in the Best Performance By An Actor in A supporting Role for Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio. They were joined by Alan Arkin from Argo, Philip Seymour Hoffman from the Master and Tommy Lee Jones from Lincoln.

The nominations in The Best Performance by Actress in A Supporting Role category were bestowed on Nicole Kidman (Paperboy), Amy Adams (The Master), Sally Field (Lincoln), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) and Helen Hunt (The Sessions).

British pop star Adele lead the nomination in the Best Original Song for Skyfall in the recent Bond movie. She was joined by Keith Urban (For You – Act of Valour), Jon Bon Jovi (Not Running Anymore – Stand Up Guys), Claude-Michel Schonberg (Suddenly – Les Miserables) and Taylor Swift (Safe & Sound – The Hunger Games).

Counting nominations per movie this year reveals that Lincoln is the frontrunner with 7 nods, followed by Argo and Django Unchained, both of which have 5 nods.

The Golden Globes also honours TV in similar categories, namely it splits the awards into Drama and Comedy/musical. Like in Films, the TV nominations were dominated by British talent.

British series, Downton Abbey, which won the Golden Globes last year, gained 3 nominations including in the Best Television Series – Drama alongside Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, The Newsroom and Breaking Bad; and in The Best Performance by an Actress in Television Series – Drama for Michelle Dockery, who will be competing against Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife), Claire Danes (Homeland), Glenn Close (Damages) and Connie Britton (Nashville); and in The Best Performance By An Actress In a Supporting Role for Dame Maggie Smith, who was joined by fellow Brit Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife), Sarah Paulson (Game Change), Hayden Panettiere (Nashville) and Sofia Vergara (Modern Family).

BBC drama The Hour was honoured with a nomination in the Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television alongside Game Change, The Girl, Hatfields and McCoys and Political Animals.

In the same category, Brit Sienna Miller received a nod for Best Performance By an Actress for her role as Tippi Hedren in The Girl. She was joined by Nicole Kidman (Hemingway & Gellhorn), Jessica Lange (American Horror Story: Asylum), Julianne Moore (Game Change) and Sigourney Weaver (Political Animals). In the meantime, Miller’s co-star Toby Jones earned a nomination for Best Performance by an Actor, as Alfred Hitchcock. He will be competing against fellow Brits Clive Owen (Hemingways & Gellhorn)  and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), and  Woody Harrelson (Game Change) and Kevin Costner (Hatfield & McCoys).

British Actor Damian Lewis (Homeland) led the nominations in the Best Performance By an Actor in Television – Drama, which also included Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom).

Musical Smash and Comedies The Big Bang Theory, Episodes, Girls and Modern Family each won a nomination in the Best Television Series – Comedy or Musical.

Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation), who will be hosting the Golden Globe awards show next month, were among the nominees in the Best Performance by An Actress in a Television series, which also included Lena Dunham (Girls), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) and Zooey Deschanel (New Girl).

The Golden Globe Awards are the most important awards in the film industry after the Oscars. They are voted for by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which is composed of 90 Hollywood-based journalists, who represent international media outlets. The awards will be announced at the Golden Globe Awards show, which will be broadcast live in the US on NBC on 13 January, 2013.