Seventeen years ago, when Reservoir Dogs was setting American cinema on fire, Quentin Tarantino drove up to his favorite watering hole, a Hollywood Dennys, in a tiny Geo that I mistook for a rental car. During a scheduled hour-long interview that stretched into nearly three, I nagged him about the casual violence in his debut film, which, in retrospect, is a bit like getting on Lewis Carrolls case about the lack of realism in Alice in Wonderland. Tarantino heard me out, then politely set me straight, positioning violence as one of cinemas key aesthetics and reeling off a list of admired forebears and contemporaries who, like him, trafficked in blood and guts because both they and the audience got a kick out of it. Of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino said happily, Im trying to wipe out every movie I ever wanted to make in that first one.
Some would say he went on to make that movie over and over again; others, that hes one of world cinemas premier auteurs. Either way, today, a surprising number of his contemporariesamong them Hong Kong director John Woo, his hero from way back whenhave either dropped off the map or are struggling to stay in the game. For his part, Tarantino has become a durable superstar, crisscrossing the hazy line between studio and indie darling with a steady output (notwithstanding a six-year break between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill) of big successes (notwithstanding Death Proof) under his belt. All but one of his films have come from original scripts he wrote himself, and every last one is a loving homage to the infinite elasticities of genre. But the question remains: Are his films any more than that? And do they need to be?
Back at the same Dennys, by request, we tuck into a brunch guaranteed to set the triglycerides soaring, while the sight of Tarantino causes a young woman with fluorescent orange hair to clap her hand to her mouth and let out a long, sighing Ooooh. In the booth next to us, a handsome African-American man lolls patiently for an hour and a half, wearing an air of studied indifference. When he can bear it no longer, he jumps up, introduces himself, and offers to send his body of work to Tarantino, who graciously responds with his agents name and, with equal grace, declines to give out his e-mail address.
We talk about his new film, Inglourious Basterds misspelled to distinguish it from the title of a 1978 exploitation romp by Italian director Enzo Castellari that Tarantino optionedabout a unit of court-martialed American soldiers who escape from custody and end up in a heroic struggle against the Nazis. In the Tarantino version, the basterds have become American Jews (his friend, Eli Roth, plays one of them with a thick Boston accent), headed by a part-Native-American, heavily Southern-drawled hick enjoyably overplayed by Brad Pitt. These may not be the first movie Jews to turn Apache (see Blazing Saddles), but theyre surely the first to scalp Germans in real-time.
Inglourious Basterds which played to mixed reviews at Cannes this year, perhaps diluting Tarantinos well-known love of film criticshas next to nothing to do with Jews, Nazis, or World War II, though Winston Churchill has a funny cameo and Goebbels a minor, if crucial, role as a twisted auteur of nationalist cinema. Its a highly entertaining, graphically bloody, and woozily romantic rompanother personal credo that, perhaps more than any other movie Tarantino has made, doffs its cap to almost every film genre known to man, and continues to touch on, if not exactly explore, his perennial themes of professionalism, loyalty, and betrayal.
Inglourious Basterds is unlikely to pacify critics who dismiss Tarantinos work as a callow triumph of technique over substance, or argue that he makes lazy use of chapter headings as a poor stand-in for narrative structure, though theyd have a hard time calling him a hater of women on the basis of the movies vengeful Jewish protagonist, Shosanna Dreyfus (played by French actress Mélanie Laurent). And who could cry misogyny on a man who, in conversation, drops the tidbit that hes currently working his way through a biography of pioneering American filmmaker Dorothy Arzner while watching her entire oeuvre?
This time, I know better than to engage Tarantino in another debate about cinema brutality, a discussion that leaves him more indifferent than insulted. But Im curious about whether, midway through his forties, he has changed his thinking on what he wants his movies to be about. Upon this line of questioning, he doesnt clam up. He does his best to comply, insisting that his movies are painfully personal. But no matter where I try to steer him in the direction of real life, the conversation always veers back to the process genre, craft, and the sorry, but never hopeless, state of cinema todaythat remains the love of his life.
Frustrating though that can be, hanging with Tarantino remains a terrific time out. At 46, hes a little paunchier and less hairy than he was when we last met, but that rubber face and bad-boy grin, that machine-gun giggle, remain as unmistakable and as infuriatingly beguiling as his exuberant immodesty. Trying to cram a chat with Tarantino into a coherent story is a fools errand. So heres our conversation, almost word for word and pretty much as it happened.
New Times: On behalf of Jewish people, I want to thank you for dispatching Hitler before his time in Inglourious Basterds.
Tarantino: Youre welcome.
Before I saw it, I thought, Uh-oh. Whats he going to do to the Jews? I dont know if you were aware of it, but you touched on an incredibly sensitive issue for Jews, which is the fantasy of the tough Jew, when, in fact, there was little Jewish resistance to the Holocaust.
Over the years, when I was coming up with the idea of the American Jews taking vengeance, I would mention it to male Jewish friends of mine, and they were like, Thats the movie I want to see. Fuck that other story, I wanna see this story. Even I get revved up, and Im not Jewish. When I bought the title of Enzo Castellaris Inglorious Bastards, which has a good story line, I thought I might take something from his story line, but it just never worked out.
Youve been writing it for years?
Yes and no. I was going to follow the original story about American troops escaping while being convoyed to court martial and execution. I started working on this after Jackie Brown. It was going to be my first original script after Pulp Fiction, so I was a little precious with it. I started writing and couldnt stop; it was turning into a novel or a miniseries. Ideas kept coming to me, and it was becoming more about the page than about this movie I might eventually make. That also happened with Kill Bill, which is why it ended up being two movies. The whole idea of a DVD boxed set is pretty amazing. No writer-director has yet taken advantage of that format, a wonderful one to be a true auteur with.
You mean the way its divided into chapters?
Exactly a novel-length piece that would be written and directed completely by me. Anyway, I put it aside, and did Kill Bill. It came time to go back to it, and I was really considering this miniseries idea and even worked it out as 12 chapters. That was a very interesting exercise. Then I went to dinner with Luc Besson and his producing partner. Im telling them about this miniseries idea, and the producer was right on board. But Luc was like, Im sorry, youre one of the few directors who actually makes me want to go to the movies. And the idea that I might have to wait five years to go into a theater and see one of your movies is depressing to me. And once I heard that, I couldnt un-hear it. I realized that the original story was just too big. Then there was the idea of dealing with a Third Reich cinema, with Goebbels as a studio head making a film called Nations Pride, and I got really excited about that.
Did you do historical research?
A little bit, but I knew a lot of that anyway. I wrote the script in about six months. My original conception of Shosanna was of a real badass, a Joan of Arc of the Jews, killing Nazis, sniping them off roofs, pulling Molotov cocktails. Then I thought, no, thats too much like the Bride. So I made her more realistic, more of a survivor, and then a situation happens that she can take advantage of. Then comes my favorite sequence, a Romeo and Juliet shootout at a movie premiere.
Thats a pretty forceful argument for the power of cinema.
For people of my generation and younger, I didnt want to trap the film in that period bubble, like all the TV movies about the Holocaust, or the war movies, or the Ken Follett miniseries with David Soul [The Key to Rebecca]. I was very influenced by Hollywood propaganda movies made during World War II. Most were made by directors living in Hollywood because the Nazis had taken over their countries, like Jean Renoir with This Land Is Mine, or Fritz Lang with Man Hunt, Jules Dassin with Reunion in France, and [Anatole Litvaks] Confessions of a Nazi Spy movies like that. Almost all these movies, by the way, starred George Sanders. I wasnt taking anything from them stylistically, but what struck me about those movies was that they were made during the war, when the Nazis were still a threat, and these filmmakers probably had had personal experiences with the Nazis, or were worried to death about their families in Europe. Yet these movies are entertaining, theyre funny, theres humor in them. Theyre not solemn, like Defiance. Theyre allowed to be thrilling adventures.
Christoph Waltz, the veteran Austrian television actor who plays the evil S.S. colonel, Landa, walks away with the movie.
Hes one in a million. Landa is one of the best characters Ive ever written. He comes from a long line of suave, charming Nazis. I tried to have the audience, almost against their will, invest in him being a detective. You want him to figure out what the basterds are doing just to see what hell do.
To make him a closeted opportunist is a lovely twist. Mostly, one sees movie Nazis as so devoted to the cause. And you figured out that there are worse things you can do to a Nazi at the end of the war than kill him.
If you had cast Eli Roth, who plays one of the Jewish Apaches, in the lead, instead of Brad Pitt, that would have truly set the cat among the pigeons. He actually looks Jewish.
I thought about that, but I had a whole history with Pitts character, Aldo. Aldo has been fighting racism in the South; he was fighting the Klan before he ever got into World War II. And the fact that Aldo is part Indian is a very important aspect of my whole conception, even of turning the Jews into American Indians fighting the un-fightable, losing cause. So that lead guy is legitimately an Indian. Also, the dichotomy of this Southern hillbilly and his verbiage bouncing off them is interesting. And Eli Roth does a great Boston accent.
In the 17 years since we last met, youve become this huge star. There has been criticism, including by me, about violence and juvenility in your movies. Others think youre a misogynist. I thought if you saw my review of Sin City, you might not agree to this interview.
Thats Roberts movie. I only did one scene.
Was Death Proof your answer to critics who find your work violent or misogynistic?
I dont think my work is misogynistic. I had a lot of female friends in their mid-to-late twenties and early thirties. For the past five or six years, theyve been really important in my life, and I hung around with a lot of different girl posses. So Im the one guy with the four girls, and I got a really good sense of their dynamic, how they talk. So this was my girl movie, my way to write girls now, not me remembering what girls were like in college. It became my version of The Women. But I directed it like an exploitation film. Every other movie Ive ever done, Ive always been a gentleman about how I shot women. Not in that movie. I was a leering bastard in that one.
Youre 46 now. Life must feel different to you than it did when you were 29. Does that change your attitude about the movies that you still want to make?
It definitely does. Yes, theres stuff Ive grown out of.
And what would that be?
Well, I dont know if I have any specific examples.
Would you, for example, do the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs again?
Oh, heavens to Betsy, yes. In fact, in Inglourious Basterds, I dont do it off-camera anymore I get you a bit closer to the scalping. No, back then, I was so gagaI want to do this, I want to do that, da da da da. After Jackie Brown, I realized Id gotten that kids stuff out of my system. For example, I had flirted with the idea of a Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie. But I grew out of the idea. Also, Pulp Fiction broke the mold of what I was expecting to happen with my career. What I mean by this is, normally, if you made a film like Reservoir Dogs for the studios, theyd say, That guys pretty good. Maybe if we match him with more commercial subject matter, that will take it to the next step. So I do my little art thing, Pulp Fiction, in my little auteur way, and maybe it makes $30 to $35 million. OK, now were ready to bring him into the studio system for real. Lets give him Dick Tracy or the Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie, something like that. Well, that didnt happen. I didnt have to wrap my voice in some commercial project to get it across. My voice, me being me, became huge, so I never had to do that. I rise or fall by my ability.
True, but you also have to answer for the fact that the world is now full of would-be Taranteenies, not all of whom have your gifts.
Ive heard that: a lot of guys in black suits. It just makes my stuff look all the better when you eventually see it again. Oh, well, I never want them to match me. I never want them to do a better movie than mine. Anyway, its dropped off now. Im flattered by all those guys, but every time people start writing me off because of them, I come up with a new movie and they go, Oh, thats how its supposed to sound. Actually, I like some of those movies. I got a big kick out of everything that happened after Pulp Fiction. Its like, I love Sergio Leone so much, and he made spaghetti Westernshe re-created the Western genre and then made this subgenre that everybody followed. A case can be made that I re-created the gangster film and set forth the next higher subgenre that other directors followed, and there were some good films that came out. Love and a .45 was really good; it was very close to True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and Reservoir Dogs all combined. That might be the only film that guy ever made, but he had a gift for really funny dialogue. Lucky Number Slevin was pretty good. My least favorite was The Usual Suspects. But the ones I loved the most were from foreign countries the Hong Kong gangster movies, [like] Johnnie To or Too Many Ways to Be Number 1.
Do you worry that your movies might be remembered for the triumph of technique over substance?
I dont feel that way about my work.
By the time people hit their mid-forties, their parents are growing older, and the more tragic side of life seems to come out more. Does that affect your work?
My movies are painfully personal, but Im never trying to let you know how personal they are. Its my job to make it be personal, and also to disguise that so only I or the people who know me know how personal it is. Kill Bill is a very personal movie.
But you wont say why.
Its not anyones business. Its my job to invest in it and hide it inside of genre. Maybe there are metaphors for things that are going on in my life, or maybe its just straight up how it is. But its buried in genre, so its not a how I grew up to write the novel kind of piece. Whatevers going on with me at the time of writing is going to find its way into the piece. If that doesnt happen, then what the hell am I doing? So if Im writing Inglourious Basterds and Im in love with a girl and we break up, thats going to find its way into the piece. That pain, the way my aspirations were dashed, thats going to find its way in there. So Im not doing a James L. BrooksI loved how personal Spanglish was, but I thought that where Sofia Coppola got praised for being personal, he got criticized for being personal in the exact same aching way. But that doesnt interest me, at least not now, to do my little story about my little situation. The more I hide it, the more revealing I can be.
Presumably, some of the time you dont even know youre writing about yourself.
Oh, very much so. Most of it should be subconscious, if the work is coming from a special place. If Im thinking and maneuvering that pen around, then thats me doing it. I really should let the characters take it. But the characters are different facets of me, or maybe theyre not me, but they are coming from me. So when they take it, thats just me letting my subconscious rip.
At what point do you score a movie?
In three stages. I pick a lot of music as Im writing, some of it even before I write. I have a vinyl room, like a record store, in my house thats one of the perks of being me. I dive into my record collection, I have a turntable already set up to make tapes, and Im trying to find the rhythm, the beat of the movie. For instance, I wanted to set Jackie Brown in a more black world than the book took place ineven if its not a blaxploitation movie, it will have that energy or vibe. So then I go diving into 70s soul music. Usually, Im trying to find that opening credit sequence and once I find that, then Im like, OK, I can do this now, cause that gives me enough to be excited by it. Also, if I get tired writing, or whenever I just need enthusiasm, I go into that room, play those songs, and imagine watching the movie with my friends and everyones oohing and aahing, and that gets me going again. I might even play those on the set. Then Im always looking for music while Im doing the movie, and then that last thing is in the editing, Im diving for more stuff. And Harvey [Weinstein] always wants me to put more music in. Im like, Harvey, the reason it works so good is that theres not wall-to-wall noise, [so] when it comes on, its cool. [Its] the last little thing before we lock picture because Harvey pays a lot of money for my movies so let me give him a little respect. I dive in, and if I find something [else], its good, and if I dont, I dont. But I know that if I look hard enough, Im going to find something.
I know that, unlike many directors, you read a lot of film criticism.
Film criticism is in a strange place. Talk about 17 years later! I could never have imagined that print film reviewing would be dying. Its unfathomable to me. I dont like reading film criticism on a laptop. I like holding it in my hand.
Youre a geezer, Quentin.
Exactly. It seems to me from reading a lot of the film criticism that came out of Cannes this year that the few print critics that are left writing are so busy combating these Internet bozos that theres a new formalism, a new self-seriousness among remaining critics, to prove theyre professionals. Even some of the younger critics who are still writing in printwell, theyre not that youngare coming across like young fogies. There are some good online critics, but then there are these fanboy types: Ooh, this sucks balls. Its a little bit like 78, 79, 80, where exuberance in filmmaking is not getting its due anymore. For example, The Blues Brothers never got any respect. Now, it truly is beloved, as it goddamn well should be. I mean, its sad to think of what happened to John Landis after An American Werewolf in London, but in those two movies, he was the first fanboy director making movies out of his head.
I feel very lucky to live the life of an artist in this town, in this industry. I have no intention of ever being a director for hire. I just started guiding myself as things have gone on. One of the huge lessons I learned is that these writer-directors come out, and their films are idiosyncraticthey have a special voice and those first two movies are like that. But its hard work to go back to a blank page, to start from scratch every single, solitary time and make a great movie every time. There are exceptions. Woody Allen is one of them.
Not necessarily for the better.
I think hes in a renaissance, except for Melinda and Melinda I loved Anything Else. But its much easier [for a director] to say, What scripts are out there? Either they buy it and rewrite it, or they work with a writer. And they get more movies made. Thats all well and good, but cut to 10 years down the pike, and all of a sudden, they dont have that voice anymore. Theyre sucking dick for the Man. Im not interested in just doing a job or working with this actor just to work with them. I learned something after I did Jackie Brownand dont get me wrong, I love Jackie Brown. But when it was all overeven when I was making itthe fact that it was just a little bit once removed made me a little bit disconnected from it. Thats why I havent done another adaptation since then. I want to naturally fall into the next thing thats going to turn me on.
Is there pressure on you to work more often?
No. I mean I dont want another six-year gap like what happened between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. I make a movie every year and a half, two years. When I finish, I take six months of doing nothing, and thats great. But you can live life while youre writing. Its a fun life, actually, cause Im working and committed and passionate, but I go out and see friends. When Im making a movie, the world goes away and Im on Mt. Everest. Obama is President? Who cares? Im making my movie.
Is it hard to maintain friendships when you work this way?
They understand. But Im still a younger guy. I havent settled down, and these will not necessarily be the friends I have for the next 20 years. I dont have a family. Im still allowed to run away with the circus. The way I live my life, I like the yin and yang. Even though I quit school when I was in junior high, Im an academic at heart, and my study is cinema. Ive been writing a movie review book over the years, and Im not in any hurry to finish it. I started writing the book because it wasnt enough that I was just seeing moviesthey were being lost to the atmosphere. Its like my whole life Im studying for a professorship in cinema, and the day I die is the day I graduate.
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If we meet again in 17 years time, will you have settled down?
Well see. There was a time in the early part of this decade that I kind of had baby fever. And it just didnt work out with a couple of women. And now I dont have baby fever. Not that I dont want a baby, but, like a writer, I want it to be . . . lets set this up a little bit more.
How do you look back on that 1992 Sundance Film Festival where Reservoir Dogs was first screened, and you were part of that group of young Turks?
Since then, and even then, we mythologized that Sundance, with all the directors that came out of there. We called ourselves the class of 92. The thing about it was, I just assumed all those directors would be around with me for the rest of my career. I just bumped into Allison [Anders] a couple of weeks ago at Astroburger. Alex Rockwell, Tom Kalin. Gregg Arakis still around and making movies. And even though he wasnt at Sundance that year, I still consider him part of that groupNick Gomez [Laws of Gravity]. Hes the one that surprised me the most when he drifted away. I thought, for sure, he was going to be around for a long time. I thought all of us were going to be around forever.