Despite a formidable filmography, Oscars, and critical and box office acclaim, Quentin Tarantino doesn’t seem any more formidable than any other average Joe Six Pack who knows a thing or two about movies. He’s warm and genial when greeting people, and he’s refreshingly dressed down – wearing an oversized black and white Wu-Wear hoodie and all smiles as he makes his way into a downtown Toronto hotel room for our interview.
The Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds director is in Toronto promoting his latest opus Django Unchained (opening on Christmas Day), and it isn’t until he opens his always eloquent and fast paced mouth that it becomes apparent how special and vital of a filmmaking voice he truly is. The self-taught film scholar vibe that’s been affixed to his name for the better part of his 20 year career isn’t an exaggeration. While one of my colleagues would later tell me that he’s become a lot better of a speaker in recent years instead of informally saying “you know” to start off every sentence, he still seems like someone when you talk to him that if you pull the cord and let him rip or riff on any subject, he will credibly keep going until he has nothing left to physically give.
For his latest feature, he re-ups with Basterds stand-out Christoph Waltz and enlists Jamie Foxx’s assistance in this antebellum southern tale of a bounty hunter and the slave he purchases to help suss out a trio of very bad men for a large reward. In exchange for the former slaves help – who just so happens to be named after Franco Nero’s iconic spaghetti western hero from the works of Sergio Corbucci – the fringe lawman agrees to help grant the man freedom and help to free his wife (Kerry Washington) from the ownership of the equally foppish and bloodthirsty plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Dork Shelf got a chance to catch up with Tarantino during his time in the city to talk about the bridge between Basterds and Django, what makes an effective spaghetti western, his rumoured casting choices, shooting on a real Southern plantation, moving his production due to a lack of snow, and the potential for a revival of westerns as a genre following his film.
With Inglorious Basterds, you literally re-wrote World War II history, and here with Django you are esentially doing the same for the pre-Civil War U.S. What kind of balance do you have to strike between the history in the background and the genre trappings of your latest film?
Quentin Tarantino: In the case of Inglourious Basterds, you can’t really bristle much if you say it’s an alternative history because I kill Hitler at the end! (laughs)
Which is our preferable history…
QT: Yeah, exactly! But I don’t really think this is really alternative history at all. Everything that happens in the movie has a really strong historical basis. I’m not following a true story, like “Based on a true story!” I’m not following a slave narrative from the history books, but the world that the movie takes place in – the business of slavery in Mississippi at that time is very true to life.
When you do a movie that has “Django” in the title – and you’re a fan of Django films, very clearly, with all the knock offs and rebrandings out there – what are the key points that you have to get when you make this sort of a film?
QT: More than trying to think about it as a Django movie, it was more about evoking the West that Sergio Corbucci constantly dealt with in his movies as opposed to Django movies and all the Django rip-offs and knock offs which I’m proud to say I am now one of. (laughs) This movie fits very nicely in the line of Django rip-offs that have nothing to do with the original movie. But I was more influenced by Corbucci’s career as a Western director himself, because all the really terrific Western directors all presented their own version of the West. Anthony Mann’s West is Anthony Mann’s, Leone’s is Leone’s, Peckinpah’s is Peckinpah’s, and Corbucci’s was Corbucci’s. I think of all the Wests that have been depicted in cinema, consistently his was the most brutal, his was the most violent, his villains were the most depraved, and his heroes were in some ways the most unheroic – they could be bad guys in another movie, but by virtue of the fact that his villains are so loathsome, that they’re the good guys by process of elimination because they don’t like the bad guys.
But I also do think that Corbucci’s Westerns, as opposed to any other Western director’s Westerns, they were basically dealing with fascism. Almost all of them dealt with the fascism left over from World War II to some degree or another – which would be honest enough coming from his point of view having lived under Mussolini.
And is that why the film almost feels like a natural extension of Basterds to this in a lot of ways?
QT: I do think so. You know a lot of that might actually be me having just done Basterds and reading that into it. But if you look at the movies you can make the case.
There’s a residue from Basterds that seems to carry over…
QT: I definitely think so. And also, more than Leone, he brought over the top violence into his movies and an even more surrealistic view of things. Leone might have brought a more operatic view, but his was more surrealistic. With that in mind, in trying to think of a tale that I could use this Corbucci West to illustrate– what could that be? What could be a place that would be so brutal, and the land and the people so pitiless, and I thought being a slave in the antebellum south would be the perfect American representation of a Corbucci West.
How was it to shoot the movie on a real plantation?
QT: It was heavy. It was heavy there. On the one hand a lot of ugly stuff happened in those places, but then there’s the weird dichotomy of how beautiful these places are. I like the way it plays in the film – you think of and describe Candyland as like hell on Earth, and then you get there and it’s actually quite pretty. It’s not Dachau! It has a completely different feeling there even though things like that happened there in Candyland.
That makes it more evil doesn’t it?
QT: Yeah, it does make it seem even more sinister.
And kind of like the American Roman Empire?
QT: Well that’s exactly one of the things I was coming from on it. For instance, the scene where Broomhilda gets whipped – we did that in the area of the plantation where the slaves lived. When you see that those are all the actual slaves living quarters that are still standing to this day; You could feel the blood in the grass. You can feel the bits of flesh in the trees. And you also felt the spirits of the people that came before us kind of watching this story that we were telling.
Speaking about the Western as a genre – this is new territory for you – do you think Django Unchained will help revive the genre at all? As it currently stands, we’re only getting one or two new Westerns every year, if we’re lucky.
QT: Yeah, but you know one or two every couple of years… It’s funny because both Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven opened up a slate of Westerns. I think maybe six or seven Westerns came out after those two successes – which was kind of a lot considering how few came out in the 80s! We’ll see. But the last couple of Westerns that came out did pretty good. 3:10 to Yuma did pretty good, True Grit did pretty good, and I think we’re going to do pretty good, so this kind of “box office poison” thing or the “young kids don’t give a damn about this anymore” idea, I think maybe that’s going away.
But one of the reasons that maybe that happened though is – I think it started in the 80s and continued through the 90s – for the most part directors wanted to do Westerns and they were never lucky enough to get them going. But when the filmmaker finally did get them going they were so enamoured with themselves that they were actually making a Western that they all wanted it to be their classic Western for all time. They all wanted to make these classic movies. They all got really long and beauty shots became the most important thing about them. But Westerns in the 50s and 60s, they were the action movies! They weren’t the “artistic” movies, they were the action movies that people went to go see like people go see cop movies or serial killer movies now. And so with all these beauty shots and all the trying take on John Ford with this or that and the other, for the last few generations of people growing up who went to see Westerns they think they’re boring because they’re all pastoral! Westerns were never supposed to be that pastoral!
And this one isn’t!
QT: I tried not to, I tried not to! (laughs) I was like “I’m talking a lot of talk here, but I can’t fall in love with the sunsets and all the beautiful imagery.” I have pretty imagery in it, but I can’t fall in love with it and it can’t just be a movie about pretty pictures.
I read that at one point you had to move the production because there was no snow in California and you had to move it to Wyoming. As someone who wants this kind of a genre film, do you get a little bit of enjoyment that as a filmmaker you’ve now reached the point where you have the freedom to just pack up and move?
QT: Oh yeah, no that was fantastic. Shooting Wyoming was amazing and wonderful…
That was Jackson Hole?
QT: Yeah, right in the Grand Tetons – right where they shot Shane! And I wanted real snow, not just a little bit of snow. The globe is ravaged by global warming now, so really the only places you can go in America and count on snow is pretty much Wyoming and Utah.
So would you say that it doesn’t matter if it looks really gorgeous as long as it’s real? Is that something you strive for when you make something like this?
QT: I actually think probably the most gorgeous shots in the movie are the snow shots during the “I got a Name” montage. But to me it was more important to see that breath – the real breath that you see – or the fact that you actually see the horses struggling trying to walk through the snow. That was what was really important.
As a side note: that was a great fucking snow man!
QT: (laughs) Oh yeah, that was a pretty great snow man. I agree!
At one point before Jamie Foxx was on board, Will Smith was actually supposed to star, but that didn’t end up happening. What led to Jamie’s casting and pairing him up with Christoph Waltz?
QT: It’s been a little blown out of proportion that I was offering Will Smith the part of Django on a silver platter or that I was writing it for him – that really wasn’t the case. Django was Django when I was writing him the entire time. I really didn’t have an idea of who would play him. I considered Will Smith. I considered a few other people, but he got the script, he read it and he liked it, and we got together to talk. We talked it out for a while, but it just didn’t seem the right fit – and we both agreed that there might be one down the line but maybe this isn’t it. This could be it, but it’s got to fit like a glove, especially if you’re going to be the lead character – if I’m going to trust you with my lead character. This didn’t fit like a glove and so we agreed to part ways in a nice way. We still had a very healthy conversation though. We got together for a couple of days – I’d just finished the script – and we had a really nice discussion about the material.
But I couldn’t agree with you more. I met a few other people and talked to them about the character. Especially when it comes to your lead character, you’re going to know the right person when they walk in. You don’t have to be convinced. You don’t have to be talked into it. You’re just waiting to fall in love and then you fall in love. And Jaime walked in – he came over to my house – he read the script and he really liked the script. He liked what it said, he liked Django’s journey, he liked the fact that this movie would exist and what that could do. It’s going to be exciting! Now we’re thinking of it as this brand new movie coming out, but in a few months that won’t be the case anymore and we’ll live in a world where Django Unchained already exists. There are a whole lot of black kids yet to be born, and I think Django Unchained might be a seminal movie for them as they grow up.
Jaime got all that. He was also my cowboy – there was this cowboy quality to him. He’s from Texas, we’re more or less around the same age, he knows what it’s like to be a kid in the 70s and actually experience racism. He shared that. That was a big part of his whole thing with me, giving me a little hint into his life and what he’s experienced. Yeah, now I frankly can’t imagine anybody but Jaime being Django.
It seems like Leonardo Dicaprio wasn’t your first choice for Calvin Candie, so who did you have in mind for this character?
QT: I didn’t really have anybody particularly in mind per se, but I did imagine Candie as an older character. I did have one person in mind – I won’t say who it is – but the reason I decided not to go that way was… I just realized while I was thinking about them during the writing that they were far older than I actually wanted Candie to be. That’s my kind of thing: I’ll think of somebody who did something in ’91 and think “Oh wow that was really great” and not take into account that 20 years has passed since then and they might be really old! I guess that was a while ago, wasn’t it? Go figure, they’re actually different now.
But at the same time that can also be a big opportunity because you’ve written the character. The character has become the character he is. You’re not thinking about an actor’s limitations one way or the other when it comes to them. Boom, you’ve got this fully formed character. So when Leonardo said he was interested in playing the guy and wanted to get together and talk with me about it, which was exciting. Oh wow! Yeah, let me think about it like this! We got together and talked, and he had a really interesting take on the piece. So then it became fun to rethink the whole movie with a younger Candie- what would that do? Would that change anything? Is there anything negative happening here? Is there anything positive that’s coming from them? And it all became positive to me when I started thinking about it. As opposed to Candie being the soiled, old, brutal king of the plantation, him being the petulant boy emperor – more of a Caligula-like character or a Louis XIV in Southern drag.
BONUS: Our Noah Taylor caught up with Tarantino on the red carpet of a screening for Django Unchained in Toronto to ask him what film people should watch first to get the best idea for what to expect was from his latest, and who some of his favourite Canadian filmmakers are.