Unchained Malady: Quentin Tarantino Emerges From a Chaotic Couple of Years With His Most Ambitious Film to Date. Will the Academy Really, Really Like It?
Quentin Tarantino has been Googling himself, and it's starting to become a problem. The filmmaker, whose eighth feature, Django Unchained, opens on Christmas Day, is famously an analog evangelist: He writes his scripts in longhand; he bans cellphones from his sets, and hasn't had one of his own in years; he's claimed that the day the film industry "evolves" and makes it impossible for him to shoot on celluloid will be the day he retires. He's also sworn that the New Beverly Cinema, the Los Angeles revival house that he rescued from certain death in 2010, will continue to project 35 mm film "as long as I'm alive, and as long as I'm rich."
"But I do have an iPad, and I have a lot of fun with it," Tarantino tells me. It's a rainy afternoon in late November, and the 49-year-old former video store clerk is sequestered in the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, nursing a healthy pour of pinot noir.
"But because of that, I found myself Googling Django Unchained, seeing what people are saying, the articles that are out there," he admits. "That's been kind of fun for a while, but now I've got to get out of it. It's hard to not want to do that when you have easy access to that kind of shit. And I've never really had that before, so I'm gonna actually have to get rid of my iPad for a while."
By the time you read this, Django Unchained will have been widely screened for industry members and critics, with some suggesting that Tarantino's latest confection could have used more time in the oven, while others name it one of the best films of the year. But at the time of our interview, almost any "articles that are out there" about Django could only be speculative. Aside from Tarantino's collaborators and confidants, no one has actually seen the movie — me included. There are few filmmakers I would agree to interview for a cover story without actually having seen their movie first: This year, the list starts and ends with Quentin Tarantino.
In all that Googling, I wonder, is there anything he's read that's totally inaccurate?
"They've been saying that me and [editor] Fred [Raskin] have been editing up until the last second," Tarantino says, without hesitation. "And we locked our cut two weeks ago."
So why not let me see it before our interview?
"I don't want anyone to see it now, until the mix is finished," he says, adding, "people can see it when I'm fucking done. I'm getting done with it real quick. They can wait a couple days." Besides, "It would actually spoil Saturday if anyone had seen it."
Two days after our sit-down at the Four Seasons, Django Unchained will be unveiled to its first audience, at the Directors Guild of America in Hollywood. "It's almost like a Cannes Film Festival screening, the DGA thing," Tarantino says.
Cannes looms large in Tarantino's legend; the festival hosted the international premieres of each of his features except for Jackie Brown, his only other December release. Cannes loves him, and he has loved soaking up that love. In 2009, after Inglourious Basterds debuted at the festival, Tarantino said, "I wanted to get the biggest standing ovation of the festival, and I got it. They counted it."
But the unveiling of Django at the DGA has symbolism that a Cannes premiere wouldn't. In 2012, 20 years after Reservoir Dogs debuted at Sundance and established Tarantino as the rebel filmmaker of his time, he finally became a dues-paying member of the guild — a Hollywood institution he'd famously resisted joining for the first two decades of his career.
"I'm not a Hollywood outsider anymore," Tarantino recently told Playboy. "I know a lot of people. I like them. They like me. I think I'm a pretty good member of this community, both as a person and as far as my job and contributions are concerned."
Choosing the guild's theater for the first screening of his highly anticipated new film is a sign that Tarantino, the boy wonder who made his name via ostensibly alternative venues like Sundance and Cannes, is eager for the embrace of that community.
But Tarantino still does things his way. "You have to admit," I say, "there's something unusual about doing an interview with someone like me before they've seen the movie."
"I don't think it's so weird," Tarantino protests. "I mean, unless you were supposed to review the movie to me. We don't have to talk about the movie — talk about me."
We will. But perhaps we can only engage up to a certain level, I say, because I haven't seen the movie.
Tarantino fires back: "I'm OK with that."
Back in 2009, Inglourious Basterds — a two-and-a-half-hour revisionist, World War II epic in multiple languages, with subtitles — grossed $120 million domestically. It also stood toe-to-toe with Avatar and The Hurt Locker on Oscar night, netting nominations for Tarantino as writer and director and a Best Supporting Actor win for Christoph Waltz.
The final stop of the Basterds promo tour brought Tarantino to Japan, where violent, midcentury Italian spaghetti Westerns have recently had a resurgence. On his day off, Tarantino went to a record store and found a "treasure trove" of reissues of spaghetti Westerns and their soundtracks.
"I'd been thinking about spaghetti Westerns anyway," Tarantino says today, "because between movies I've been working on a book about Sergio Corbucci." Tarantino has long written what he calls "subtextual film criticism" between making films, as both a hobby and a kind of DIY film tutorial.
Originally a film critic himself, Corbucci directed a number of spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s, most notably the ultra-violent Django (1966), starring Franco Nero as the titular drifter seeking to avenge the death of his wife.
In Japan, under "the whole influence of playing the music and having been writing my Corbucci book," Tarantino says, he wrote the first scene of Django Unchained. Two white slave traders are dragging a chain gang of five slaves through Texas woods on a frigid night. Out of the darkness appears Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter billing himself as a dentist. He announces his intention to acquire one of the bonded men, Django (Jamie Foxx). There is conversation, gunfire, blood and, ultimately, liberation. Essentially, it's the movie in microcosm.
Because Tarantino tends to write his scripts linearly, starting at the beginning of the film and finishing with the end, opening scenes are an important part of the process. "I usually want my first scenes to be pretty good, if for no reason other than to keep people excited when they read the script," he says. "And to keep me excited — 'Oh hey, this is a good idea.' "
In 2006, when Tarantino sat down to write the script for Death Proof, his contribution to Grindhouse, the first scene he came up with revolved around the tale of Jody the Grinder, a character from black folklore with, as Tarantino put it, "the biggest dick." Jody, so the story goes, was perhaps a bit too generous with his anatomical endowment. When his master finally caught Jody in bed with both the master's wife and his daughter, that was it for Jody.
Post-hanging, Jody ended up in hell. "He met the devil, fucked the devil, and the devil sent him back to Earth, with a curse to walk the Earth for eternity, fucking white women," Tarantino says today, laughing.
He ultimately couldn't fit the tale of Jody the Grinder into Death Proof, but his interest in that kind of "uber-masculine black male figure of folklore" carried over into the character of Django. Tarantino saw him as a kind of black Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, whose adventures would have been disseminated (and exaggerated) through "spoken history passed down by slaves, about this one guy, throughout the course of time."
So Django Unchained became a superhero origin story, explaining how "the sixth slave from the seventh on a chain-gang line" becomes a free man legally employed to "kill white people and get paid for it," grows into the "fastest gun in the South," rescues his wife from bondage and ultimately evolves into a kind of angel of vengeance, wiping out anyone and everyone — white, black, male, female — who endorses, enforces, enables and/or is economically enriched by the institution of slavery.
Tarantino says his initial impulse was to get that transformation out of the way at the film's beginning, and then "cut to years later, like, way after the Civil War, and he'd be older now, and I'd have an older actor playing him."
But he liked Django's origin story — and he also liked the idea of breaking from the "mosaic" storytelling style he's associated with, thanks to the out-of-order chapter structures of movies like Pulp Fiction and Basterds.
"I've done that," he says.
With Django, Tarantino became excited about "investing in a through character, who actually goes through one situation from beginning to end, and follow it and not do my normal tricks of having a separate chapter that takes you somewhere else entirely. I didn't want that in this one. It's really Django's story, from beginning to end."
Armed with that first scene, and the bounty of spaghetti Western soundtracks he bought in Japan, Tarantino returned to Los Angeles. He used to write in restaurants, bars, Amsterdam coffeehouses — always in public, and anywhere but home. "As time goes on," he says, his process has become more "professional." Django was mostly written on the balcony off the bedroom of his Hollywood Hills mansion.
"I have a little speaker out there, so I can make tapes and play them. I get up, around 10 or 11 I mosey out there, and I start writing the next scene."
Tarantino puts in a full workday — six, eight hours — and as he's wrapping up, he follows "a trick I learned from Hemingway: Don't finish your thought, have a little left over for the next day." Then, at night, "I'll get in the pool and I'll swim around and think about what I've done. If I know I'm really not done with a scene, I think, 'OK, what do I want to do, how can I make it better?' If I am done with it, then I'm in the pool doing the same thing: 'What next? What happens next?'
"And I've got to tell you, it's as close to bliss as I've ever achieved, in that space, doing that."
Tarantino was in that space, doing that, until April 26, 2011 — the precise date the Django script was finished. Shooting began the last week of November 2011, and wrapped July 24, 2012. (That these dates are all included in the film's official press notes suggests that the breakneck schedule is being posited as something of a selling point.) Before the shoot had even wrapped, The Weinstein Company began the marketing push — screening footage for press in Cannes, tacking a trailer in front of would-be summer blockbusters like Prometheus, planting the idea of the Christmas Day opening in the brains of Tarantino's wide fan base.
Was Django's schedule unusually compressed? "It was, for sure," Tarantino acknowledges. "[But] I've been heading here for a long time. My post[production] schedules just keep getting shorter and shorter and shorter and shorter, because there's always something I'm making it for, some event."
Grindhouse was rushed for an Easter weekend release; Basterds had to be finished in time for Cannes. "It just kept going in that direction — and we kept rising to the occasion. In this case, it wasn't supposed to be this short, I just went really long on shooting. Went a little over."
Ultimately, Tarantino says he had to negotiate with The Weinstein Company in order to get the three extra weeks he needed to shoot a final sequence. In exchange, Tarantino agreed to forgo a chunk of his profit participation. "If the movie does really well, I'll do really, really, really, really, really well," Tarantino says. But, "I don't kick in for a while. I have to pay back the extra money I spent before my thing kicks in."
The four-month postproduction period on Django was further complicated by the fact that, for the first time, Tarantino was finishing a movie without Sally Menke, who had edited each of his previous features. By all accounts, Tarantino and Menke had a symbiotic relationship similar to that of director Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Tarantino has called Menke "my only true, gen-u-ine collaborator," likening her contribution in the editing room to that of a co-writer.
On a sweltering day in September 2010, Menke went on a hike with her dog in Griffith Park, and never returned; her body was found the next day at the foot of a Beachwood Canyon ravine. (No official cause of death has been reported.) They say deaths come in threes, and so it goes: On June 1, 2012, J. Michael Riva, Django's 63-year-old production designer and the grandson of one of Tarantino's idols, Marlene Dietrich, suffered a stroke and died in New Orleans, where Django was shooting. Then, in August, Tony Scott, an early mentor of Tarantino's, who directed his script for True Romance, committed suicide.
Given all of this loss, Django's completion is all the more remarkable.
"It's sad," Tarantino acknowledges tightly. "I've been really melancholy the last few days, because this is usually the time where [Menke] would kind of be running the show, this last little bit. So I'm particularly missing her now."
He has always thought of his last draft of a screenplay as "the first edit of the movie, and the edit is the last draft. I like writing these big, novelistic tomes in screenplay form, and working it out as the movie goes on."
Without Menke around to take charge of postproduction, Tarantino notes wryly, "I have to be more responsible for my own movie."
Again, an "event" loomed: In order to be eligible for the 2012 Academy Awards, Django had to be ready for release before the end of this year. "It's part of our strategy, obviously, or else we'd be opening in March," Tarantino says. "I actually think the movie, commercially, would do fucking awesome in March, all right? But the film gets the push of a little Academy attention, it'll do awesome right now."
At some point in the process, "We had to make that decision," Tarantino says. "Do we have an Oscar movie, or do we not? And we all thought we did."
What makes an Oscar movie? "Well, it's just, like, uh, well, a little bit of it, I guess, is the Weinstein people second-guessing how the Academy will react to it, how will the different guilds react to it, because that's all gonna be part of it," Tarantino stammers. "I can say this: For instance, if I wanted to go more explicit with the movie — it's a really violent movie, all right? But if I wanted to go more violent with it, if I wanted to go further and make it more explicit and make sequences even more disturbing than they already are? Then I would have gone in March."
From where you and I sit, Tarantino likely will be remembered as the key American auteur of his generation. But history records the industry's respect via Academy Awards, and Tarantino has only one of those. It's for writing 1994's Pulp Fiction, and it's an honor he shares with his friend from his video-store days, Roger Avary, who had story credit on the movie.
Since patching that script together nearly 20 years ago, Tarantino and Avary have fallen out; also, in 2010, Avary spent eight months in jail after he drunkenly crashed his car, and a passenger was killed. Avary, his friendship with Tarantino and his contribution to the Pulp Fiction screenplay are not mentioned in the extensive biographical documentary material on the recently released box set Tarantino XX, which Tarantino told me he considers to be "pretty definitive." Given that he has exactly as many Oscars as his ex-con, ex-collaborator, it makes perfect sense that Tarantino would want an honor all his own.
"How much do you care about Oscars?" I ask.
Without missing a beat, he answers, "It would be really nice."
The Weinstein Company has roped off just two rows of the 600-seat DGA theater for VIP guests, and the room is full; the rest of us waited in line for hours to ensure a seat at the first-come, first-served first screening of Django Unchained. Moments before the movie begins, Ennio Morricone's score for Once Upon a Time in the West starts to play over the PA, and the anxious audience quiets. The crowd at a typical L.A. industry screening is, shall we say, rather blasé. But here, the feeling in the room is that everyone is fucking psyched that they got in.
Django begins in 1858; an on-screen title reminds us that this is two years before the start of the Civil War. As it charts Django's journey from slave to superhero, his introduction to empowerment and his efforts to reunite with lost love, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the movie presents the American South as a land without pity, where white men are all but expected to invent identities for themselves, and women and blacks are violently encouraged to conform to the identities to which they have been assigned. The past it references is also present: Django himself is like white, ultra-conservative America's worst nightmare of the Angry Black Man, a cartoon symbol of the brown people they've treated like chattel rising up in revenge.
As an anatomy of how a society evolves by following the lead of heroes who murder in the name of the greater good, defending the value of human life by exterminating those who treat it most cheaply, the film works as both a fun-house analogue to Lincoln and a kind of prequel to Inglourious Basterds.
For some, Django might bear too many similarities to Tarantino's last movie. Like Basterds, it's a revenge epic informed by identity politics, and it hero-worships con men who, under deep cover, exploit a moral license to kill. Like Basterds, it climaxes with highly symbolic, pyrotechnic destruction.
But those similarities aside, what's most striking about Django are all the ways in which Tarantino either sidesteps or messes with his patented "tricks" — for better and for worse. For a female lead in a Quentin Tarantino movie, Kerry Washington has incredibly little to do. Broomhilda is squarely a damsel in distress who watches the action scenes from afar rather than chip in. The plot is a MacGuffin built on familiar beats; there are long stretches of almost unbearable suspense but ultimately no real surprises. As ever in a Tarantino script, conversation is used as a delay tactic, and thus as a kind of weapon, but here there is no such thing as even seemingly tangential conversation. When Django and Schultz kick it by the campfire, they don't have time to chatter over the 1858 equivalent of the Royale with Cheese; almost every line in the movie is direct or veiled exposition.
And there's no equivalent of the scene set to David Bowie's "Cat People" from Basterds, in which Mélanie Laurent mentally and physically prepares for her movie-house kamikaze mission — a pause in storytelling for an indulgence in aesthetic pleasure, which enriches the story without actually extending it.
The closest thing to a classically Tarantinean aside is the film's funniest scene, a kind of micro-flashback to the moments just before a gang of proto-Klan thugs rides over a hill to attack our heroes' camp, with the racist morons bickering amongst themselves over the subpar quality of their disguises.
Oscar voter standards aside, Tarantino doesn't hold back the gore entirely — in the first scene, a slave shoots his owner, and a red fountain of guts splashes up from the corpse — but he does suggest more than show. When a slave is eaten alive by a pack of dogs, the horror is mostly relayed on the faces of the bystanders. (At the end of the scene, Leonardo DiCaprio's Candie suggests to Django that his partner Schultz "looks a little green." Django responds, "I'm just a little more used to Americans than he is.")
The flashiest sequence, a massive shoot-out inside Candie's house, is arhythmic and visually chaotic, with a lack of flow that draws attention to itself. A hip-hop song starts about halfway through and then abruptly stops; the action becomes abstracted by the red mist of spraying blood. In its staging around the staircase of an absurdly opulent home and its bloody totality, the scene seems to reference Scarface, directed by one of Tarantino's idols, Brian De Palma. The choice of music apparently reflects the way De Palma's film, a flop on its release, was reclaimed as a cult object by hip-hop culture. You could read this as an act of fandom — a wishful, YouTube mashup–style homage born out of Tarantino's obsessive study of prints in his home theater and his sessions of writing to a soundtrack of mixtapes out on the balcony of his mansion.
You also could read it as an act of radical film criticism, and on the whole, Tarantino seems to be aiming for the latter. In recent years, his own written criticism, which has never been published, has functioned as a prelude to his screenwriting. "I do my film writing until I come up with a story," he tells me. "[Criticism] keeps me going, keeps me investing in things, and keeps me thinking in an artistic way, and in a critical way, too."
He told The New York Times in September, "As I was working on an essay about how Corbucci's archetypes worked, I started thinking, I don't really know if Corbucci was thinking any of these things when he was making these movies. But I know I'm thinking them now. And if I did a Western, I could put them into practice."
Django also allowed Tarantino to "put into practice" the ideas that went into another private project he banged out after Basterds. It is, he says, a novella-length critical analysis of Don Siegel's and Robert Aldrich's films of the 1970s, some of them revisionist Westerns made within the New Hollywood era.
"I've always loved that [spaghetti Western] vocabulary, but just as much, [Django] is very much a '70s American Western," Tarantino tells me. "It's really violent, it's really rough. It's crazy comedic, in this gallows humor, vaguely fucked-up way, where, 'Is it OK to laugh at this?' I'm not even sure."
That kind of humor is ultimately what edges Django into greatness. This is probably Tarantino's funniest movie, but it's also unsparing in depicting the grotesque surreality of slavery. The two extremes often intertwine. Some of the funniest lines come out of the mouths of the most reprehensible characters; you laugh at a racist's joke, and then immediately recoil in guilt and horror. As the "repellent gentleman" Calvin Candie, DiCaprio is so charismatic and compelling, pushing the ironic potential of "Southern hospitality" as the gloss on murderous capitalism to the hilt, that the movie actually dies a bit when he's no longer on-screen.
At the DGA screening, when the film ends, Taylor Hackford takes the stage and introduces Tarantino. Husband of Helen Mirren and director of Jamie Foxx in Ray, he's also president of the Directors Guild. "Thanks a lot," Tarantino says to the crowd, which has risen in standing ovation. "Shucks."
Hackford sets the tone of the conversation early when he credits Tarantino as the first filmmaker "to turn the mirror on America, and how we started." Tarantino is the first to note that this crowd is not his toughest lay. After the fifth or sixth time Hackford recaps something "fantastic" that happened in the movie instead of actually posing a question, Tarantino cracks, "I've gotta say, coming here and listening to you describe my cool shots is pretty great!" Who needs Cannes? Who needs Google?
How Django will play in different rooms is still an open question, but I've now seen it twice, and while it lacks a certain aesthetic panache (to borrow a word from Waltz's character), the script and the performances place it among Tarantino's richest works. On one level, there's a lot riding on its performance: It cost more than $80 million, making it the priciest movie Tarantino has ever made. On the other hand, because Basterds was such a massive success, he's got nothing to prove.
"I made a lot of money on Inglourious Basterds — I don't need to make that much money again," he says. "I'm really happy and comfortable. And part of the reason to have success is so you can do that. So you can make the movie you want to make, and not have to be concerned about those kinds of monetary concerns."
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