Quentin Tarantino Isn't Telling You What to Think

With his new film, Quentin Tarantino pivots away from his sprawling epics — but it's no less political.
With his new film, Quentin Tarantino pivots away from his sprawling epics — but it's no less political.
Photo by Kevin Scanlon

Here's a true story about a St. Louis murder that changed America.

In 1837, a black freeman named Francis McIntosh stepped off a Mississippi riverboat and blundered into two white cops chasing a drunk sailor who'd called them names. They ordered McIntosh to stop the perp; when he refused, they arrested him for breaching the peace. En route to the judge, McIntosh asked how long he'd be in jail for literally doing nothing. Five years. So then McIntosh did do something: He stabbed both officers, killing one.

Within hours, a white mob had burned McIntosh alive. The state investigated the McIntosh lynching, but the grand jury declined to indict anyone.

Nearby, young newspaper publisher Elijah Lovejoy was horrified. A moral man, Lovejoy decried McIntosh's false arrest and furious punishment as "awful murder and savage barbarity." The locals chased Lovejoy across the Mississippi River. But Lovejoy kept speaking out.

"As long as I am an American citizen, and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write and to publish whatever I please on any subject," Lovejoy wrote.

Then the mob came for him. They torched Lovejoy's printing presses and shot him five times. He was buried on his 35th birthday.

You've probably heard about what happened next. Lovejoy's death radicalized white abolitionist John Brown, who later raised a small army that in 1859 overtook Harper's Ferry in a failed slave revolt. It was Brown's execution — the third death in the domino chain — that politicized the country and triggered the Civil War.

Historians call John Brown "America's first domestic terrorist." Abraham Lincoln called him "insane."

Quentin Tarantino calls him "my favorite American."

"His idea was the minute white blood is shed the way black blood is shed, that's when shit will start changing," Tarantino says over iced coffees on a brisk afternoon in his Hollywood Hills backyard. "And like all great Americans, he was hanged for treason."

A decade ago, Tarantino thought about eventually filming John Brown's biopic — maybe when he neared 60 and could play the white-bearded rebel himself. Today, at 52, he's changed his mind. Biographies are too creatively limiting, even for a guy who happily rewrote history by machine-gunning Hitler.

Besides, Tarantino adds, "I'm dealing with a lot of the things that I wanted to deal with." His recent movies have explored what drew him to John Brown's story: When does violence deserve violence? Inglourious Basterds screwed with our code of ethics. Murder Hitler, sure, go ahead. But what about when Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine has his men bash an unarmed Nazi to death with a baseball bat?

Django Unchained, set the year before Brown's Harper's Ferry raid, scales down the Civil War to one freed slave avenging himself on his masters. Yet the bitter twist is that in Django's hunt for justice, he allows innocent slaves to be torn apart by dogs and literally makes money off other men's dead bodies. The larger good demands the unpardonably bad. Says Tarantino: "In my own little imagining of a series of paperbacks, The Further Adventures of Django, at some point he would join John Brown's army."

Tarantino's new film pivots away from his sprawling epics, but it's no less political. The Hateful Eight is a pared-down thriller about murderess Daisy Domergue, a bounty hunter, a black Union soldier, two white supremacists, one cowboy, one hangman, one innkeeper and one stagecoach driver, all trapped in a rural outpost called Minnie's Haberdashery during a Wyoming blizzard. Count up the characters and you'll notice that the hateful eight are really nine — Tarantino's first clue not to trust anything you hear. The Haberdashery isn't even a haberdashery, and, as the tensions on this cold night get icier indoors, these killers' claims get harder and harder to prove. We're not even sure how to pronounce "Domergue." Is it dough-min-gray or dommer-goo?

"Nothing is for sure in this movie," Tarantino says. "That literally is the goal." While writing his murder mystery, he'd ask friends what "facts" about these violent characters were true. Any statement people trusted, he'd sabotage. Tarantino laughs. "If they're going to be that gullible, then I must torture them!"

The Hateful Eight is a fun puzzle box, a palate cleanser after Tarantino's pair of ambitious sagas. But he still has plenty to say about race, cruelty and justice. Legally, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) could shoot the murderess (an animalistic Jennifer Jason Leigh) and trade her corpse for cash. He'd rather see her get a fair trial before she hangs, and professional hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) agrees.

"The good part about frontier justice is it's very thirst quenching," Mobray says. "The bad part is, it's apt to be wrong as right." The ghosts of Francis McIntosh and Elijah Lovejoy would nod in agreement. Yet Tarantino never makes his morality plays simple: Ruth's ethics are upstanding, but the man himself is a bully, a woman beater and a jerk.

The Hateful Eight is set six to 10 years after the Civil War, soon enough that everyone remembers what side everyone else was on and what crimes they committed in order to defend it. Even Samuel L. Jackson's Union officer, Major Warren, is guilty of atrocities. "Their lives to one degree or another have been ripped apart," Tarantino says. "They're sheltering together, these survivors of an apocalypse. But the apocalypse is the Civil War.

"I didn't set out to make it this way, but this is a blue-state, red-state Western."

Kurt Russell, left, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern in The Hateful Eight
Kurt Russell, left, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern in The Hateful Eight
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Right now, America feels as polarized as it has in a century and a half, and you see today's battle lines drawn when Jackson stares down Bruce Dern and Walton Goggins' Rebel fighters. In the wake of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, you shudder when Goggins' Chris Mannix, the town's flagrantly racist new sheriff, nods, "When niggers are scared, white folks are safe."

"The political discussions that happen in the movie just come out of the characters," Tarantino says. "The script hits a lot of hot-button topics, but I'm on record as having written it almost two years ago" — when The Hateful Eight's first draft was leaked, and before Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray.

"Events have caught up with it," Tarantino says. "It just means that I'm doing what a writer is supposed to be doing. I'm connected to the zeitgeist."

In his second and third drafts, he sharpened some jabs and softened others, such as when Goggins is asked if the people in his home state of South Carolina feel safe. "Because of the murders at Emanuel [AME Church in Charleston], I took it out," Tarantino says. "It was too on the money." However, he kept Ruth's disgust for "losers gone loco wrappin' themselves in the Rebel flag as an excuse for killin'," an insult made more relevant when, a month after the film wrapped, activist Bree Newsome braved South Carolina's state capitol and took down the Confederate flag.

In the months since, Tarantino has become an activist himself. The label caught him off-guard.

"I've never really been one in my public life to take a big political stand," he says. Until October, that is, when he joined a RiseUp rally in New York and spoke out against police brutality, declaring, "When I see murder I cannot stand by. And I have to call the murdered the murdered and I have to call the murderers the murderers."

The police reaction was swift. Both the National Association of Police Organizations and the Fraternal Order of Police, together representing roughly 571,000 officers (or just more than half of the cops in America), vowed to boycott The Hateful Eight. Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, cautioned Tarantino in The Hollywood Reporter: "Something is in the works, but the element of surprise is the most important element. And a lot of it is going to be driven by Tarantino, who is nothing if not predictable."

"I don't like being painted as a cop hater, and I don't like the idea that maybe some man or woman wearing a blue uniform on the street, who once liked me, might think they don't like me now because I'm against them," Tarantino says. "It's not about that. It's an institutional thing going on, and I'm highlighting it — as are a lot of other people."

He's made peace with the media frenzy. Bashing him kept police brutality in the news.

Since he started giving interviews in 1992, Tarantino has been open about his run-ins with cops. At 15, he was arrested for shoplifting Elmore Leonard's novel The Switch at Kmart. Over the next five years, he was arrested three more times, stemming from $7,000 in unpaid parking tickets on his silver Honda Civic. It was a hefty sum for a VHS clerk earning $200 a week, and it culminated in what he says was an eight-day stint in the fall of 1989 at the L.A. County Jail — where he claimed he overheard dialogue that made it into Reservoir Dogs.

In the fallout from Tarantino's current public squabble with police, the New York Post interviewed Los Angeles Captain Christopher Reed, who told the paper that "a check of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department jail records revealed no evidence that Mr. Tarantino was ever incarcerated in our jail system." The Post's headline gloated, "Watch cop-hating Quentin Tarantino lie about being a tough guy in jail." (Nicole Nishida, a Sheriff's Department spokeswoman, stated in an email to L.A. Weekly: "The Sheriff's Department is unable to either corroborate or refute Mr. Tarantino's statements that he spent time in our jail system.")

If Tarantino did lie, it's unclear what he hoped to gain from exaggerating his punishment for unpaid parking fines. (He declined to respond to a request for a follow-up interview.)

Despite Tarantino's late-'90s streak of punching producers and cabdrivers, when it comes to confronting America's racial politics, he's not violent John Brown. He's Elijah Lovejoy, another big, brave mouth who got in trouble for saying the word "murder."

In 1837, a big mouth got your printing presses smashed and got you shot. Today, the mob just boycotts your films.

Part of what makes Tarantino a bold voice is that he's still excited that people want to hear him talk. He remembers being 6-year-old alphabetically challenged Quentin Zastoupil, a kid who "was always at the end of the roll call, of anybody getting anything special." (His mother, Connie, was briefly married to musician Curtis Zastoupil.)

Today, when film obsessives debate the best auteur of this generation, Tarantino is the first name on the list. He has been for two decades. Yet he still seems so overjoyed by his success that aspiring filmmakers embrace him as a fellow geek.

The Tarantino mythology — the video store, the job at a porn theater, the go-nowhere acting classes, the half-destroyed 16mm first film — is the story of a lot of Hollywood hopefuls with big dreams and big egos. They've also worked crap gigs like PA on a Dolph Lundgren exercise video. ("My first job — my only job — in the entertainment industry before I did Reservoir Dogs. I remember he yelled at me once because I was supposed to get him to set.") And anyone can empathize with Tarantino's struggle to be taken seriously as an actor, his first and possibly deepest love. As Uma Thurman told Vanity Fair in 2003, "If somebody asked him to act in something while he was prepping Kill Bill, he would've dropped everything to go and act."

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Before he was famous, the only acting gig Tarantino landed was as one of 10 Elvis impersonators on an episode of The Golden Girls, the one where Sophia gets married. Find the clip online to spot his 70 seconds of glory. Tarantino's hidden in the back row, but his commitment stands out. Every other Elvis is in a rhinestone jumpsuit and cartoon bouffant. Tarantino is the oddball in a plain white jacket (his own) with a simple swoop of black hair (also his own). While the rest of the Elvii play to the camera, Tarantino closes his eyes and sings to himself. He's sincere.

It was during this period that Tarantino indulged in what he called Detest Fests, late nights when he'd eviscerate himself for his stalled career.

"They were about, 'You're falling asleep in this video store, you need to get out of the South Bay, you need to get out to Hollywood. Screenwriting is what you've got to be doing ­— that's when you'll make some money is when you sell a screenplay.' "

Finally, he sold one — True Romance — and used that money plus every connection he had to direct Reservoir Dogs, which finally came together when Harvey Keitel fell in love with the script.

"I ended up lucking out in that when I first started making my movies, it happened to coincide with the whole rise of American independent cinema in the '90s," Tarantino says. "That's like being a Seattle band at the time of grunge."

He says he's no longer the guy who made Reservoir Dogs. "I'm related to that guy, but I'm not that guy anymore. And one of the things I love about Reservoir Dogs is I like that guy who made that. And I really appreciate what he did. When I made Reservoir Dogs, I didn't know if I was ever going to make movies again, and I'd wanted to make movies my entire life." Tarantino smiles and points to his chest. "This guy gets to make movies because that guy did a good job. If it had just gone to video, that would have been it. Nothing would have happened."

Instead, everything happened and then some.

Quentin Tarantino: "The more popular I was on my own, I wouldn't need an actor to get a movie made. I would be enough."
Quentin Tarantino: "The more popular I was on my own, I wouldn't need an actor to get a movie made. I would be enough."
Photo by Kevin Scanlon

Tarantino became the rare director who is a celebrity himself. "I actually dealt myself into that game for the simple fact that, the more popular I was on my own, I wouldn't need an actor to get a movie made," he says. "I would be enough."

In 1995, the year after Pulp Fiction was released, Tarantino took a date to Paris' Rodin Gardens. Everyone stopped staring at the sculptures to stare at him. He'd officially lost his anonymity. A famous actor friend advised him to go incognito in glasses and a hat. "I just look like me in glasses and a hat," Tarantino groans. "I actually think I'm not that famous, I'm just that recognizable."

By 1996, he was inescapable. Suddenly, the wannabe actor had racked up cameos in 11 movies, including one in Spike Lee's Girl 6 as a creepy, backward-baseball-cap–wearing version of himself. In an early scene, Tarantino — or "QT" as his character is called — claims to be casting "the greatest romantic African-American film ever made. Directed by me, of course." Then he asks a black actress to show him her tits.

Lee's characterization was pointed and, at least when it comes to his eventual view of Tarantino's career, prescient. Tarantino was still more than a decade away from making Django Unchained, in which a great African-African romantic hero battles the entire South to rescue his beloved Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Back then, however, Tarantino had only just started on Jackie Brown, which Lee would decry for its "ignorant" use of the N-word.

"Black artists think they are the only ones allowed to use the word," countered Jackie Brown co-star Samuel L. Jackson. "This is a good film. And Spike hasn't made one of those in a few years." Incensed, Lee told the Washington Post that Jackson was a "house Negro defending massa." (In a sly coincidence, Jackson played a house Negro defending massa in Django Unchained.)

In the 18 years since the dustup, Lee and Jackson have made peace. Just this winter, Jackson gives phenomenal performances in both The Hateful Eight and Lee's hilarious polemic Chi-Raq. While shooting The Hateful Eight, Jackson would cut out on weekends to shoot Capital One commercials with Lee. Tarantino jokes that he'd send Jackson off by saying, "Tell my buddy Spike I love him!"

Of course, Lee absolutely had a point. In Tarantino's early films, he used the N-word for blunt shocks, as when his Pulp Fiction character Jimmie whines that his house doesn't have a sign reading, "Dead nigger storage." In Jackie Brown, it's a noun flung about like any other. In both movies, you could swap it for "man" or just delete it and lose nothing except a startled, shameful laugh.

Since then, Tarantino's use of the N-word has evolved. In Django and The Hateful Eight, Tarantino wields the word deliberately — it's a weapon that's meant to hurt.

"My exploration of the West is dealing with race in America and racial aspects that had been ignored by the great Western directors," Tarantino says. One could argue that a period piece about the Civil War where Confederates didn't use the N-word would, problematically, makes racism sound more politically correct.

In 2012, Lee swore he'd never watch Django, so it makes sense if hasn't taken note of the change in Tarantino's work. Has he seen Django now? "I have no idea," Tarantino says.

"I haven't seen a Spike Lee movie since Clockers." Timewise, that would include his own cameo in Girl 6.

However, he's considering watching Chi-Raq, Lee's update of Aristophanes' sex comedy Lysistrata. "Before I found out what it was about, the answer would have been no," Tarantino says. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually saw him give an interview on it, and then I read something else on it, and I go, 'I think I might be intrigued to see this movie.' "

So maybe there's hope that cinema's fiercest warriors will call a truce. After all, they're practically fighting on the same side.

"I like the idea that some black critic who has been paid to write three different think pieces about me and always looked at me with a jaundiced eye will be sitting at Thanksgiving when he's a grandfather and his grandkids are studying my films in school and it's their favorite class," Tarantino says. "That's my revenge."

Tarantino has drained his iced coffee. I have, too. It's sunset. He turns on the porch lights and goes in to make us another. The cabinets of his kitchen are crowded with glasses decorated with comic book characters. "I didn't just randomly give you Josie and the Pussycats — I chose Josie and the Pussycats for you," he says, handing me my refilled cup. "I just had a sense."

On the mantel is a row of handmade Hateful Eight action figures, garbed by the film's costume designer, Courtney Hoffman, a radiant brunette who is also Tarantino's girlfriend. Over a doorway, he's hung a vintage Budweiser lamp with a stagecoach that looks identical to the one in the film.

Tarantino's backyard has a fruitful orange tree ("They make wonderful screwdrivers") and one massive decoration: a statue of the Lawgiver from Planet of the Apes, who casts judgment upon the pool.

"Don't call him a monkey!" Tarantino laughs. "That's the M-word for them."

Tarantino is an expert in taboos. He's braved most of them: gore, indulgent pop culture references, indulgent genre references, racist slang, anti-Semitism, slavery. But The Hateful Eight defies a taboo that some critics are struggling to reconcile: violence against women.

For Tarantino, this isn't exactly new. Uma Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill was shot, hospitalized and raped. Broomhilda in Django Unchained was strung up and lashed. But in those movies, we knew that Thurman and Washington were heroes and their abusers were villains. On the day Tarantino filmed Washington's whipping scene, he cried.

In The Hateful Eight, however, right and wrong are deliberately muddled. Leigh's accused murderer, Domergue, is slapped, chained, pistol-whipped, dragged, punched and battered so savagely that her front teeth end up broken. At the start of the film, Leigh has a black eye that's so cartoonishly perfect it could have been painted on Wile E. Coyote. Then she calls Jackson's major an "N-word," and Kurt Russell cold-cocks her in the face.

Both times I've seen the film, the audience gasped. A few chuckled uncertainly. It's hard to watch.

"Oh, I know! And it's meant to have that effect," Tarantino says. "She's saying some hateful shit, but you weren't quite prepared for that!" In the script, he describes the blow as "sickening." In the film, Domergue glares mutely at the camera as a stream of blood runs down her face. "It's timed perfect as it trickles, and you're like, 'Holy shit, whoa, this guy's a motherfucker. We don't even like this girl, but damn!'"

Right away, The Hateful Eight elbows you to take sides: Will you empathize with the racist murderer, or the abuser who beats her? Or, more murkily, will you be OK watching a movie without any heroes at all?

Tarantino won't answer that for you. But don't assume he thinks any of The Hateful Eight's protagonists are heroes. "That's just a complete lack of imagination as an audience member," he says.

"I'm taking these weasels — and I'm referring to them lovingly as weasels — and throwing them in a burlap bag and tying the bag and seeing what happens," he says. "There is no moral center. You see everybody's side."

The first draft of The Hateful Eight was brutal to Domergue. The third draft, the one he filmed, is too.

But in between them, Tarantino wrote a second draft — Daisy's draft — for himself.

"I almost felt I didn't know her enough for such righteous indignation," Tarantino explains. "That whole draft was just to see where Daisy was coming from and look at that story from another point of view. And when that draft was finished, I did know her, and then I could do to her what I needed to do in the third draft. She doesn't deserve what happens to her without me knowing her through and through."

The trick of the film is that by the time Domergue really gets punished, the audience has gone from gasps and nervous giggles to, in my theater, quiet glee. Blame her, blame Tarantino. But if you can admit to feeling a furtive thrill watching Domergue get hers, then Tarantino has achieved his goal of scrambling our scruples.

"The audience is there to be manipulated, they are there to be corrupted, they are there to cheer and laugh and appreciate things that they would never feel OK about in real life under normal circumstances," Tarantino says. "Giving yourself over and actually feeling different emotions, that's the freedom of movies."

Tarantino has found the freedom to say whatever he wants, even when, as in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, there are certain words we don't like to hear. That's not exactly the freedom he's fighting for with The Hateful Eight.

This film is fighting for the audience's intellectual freedom to go to the movies and think for themselves.

"All through the story, there's things that are really left open for you to decide," Tarantino says. Whose bluffs do you believe? "Whatever decision you make slightly modifies the movie you're seeing." The characters and the dialogue don't change. But our empathy is up for grabs.

"You can be on Major Warren's side from the beginning to the end and think that everything that he did was ultimately justified, and that's legitimate," Tarantino says. "You can be on Domergue's side from beginning to end and actually explain away everything that happens, and that can be completely legitimate as well."

That kind of moral complexity used to happen in the cynical '70s movies that Tarantino grew up on. "The goal was just to get rid of all the stuff from the '50s that was just a fairy tale, the white hats and the black hats and all that crap."

In the Reagan years, the hats went back on. Today, the hats have become superhero capes. When we sit down in the theater, we already know whom to root for. Even our political movies, from gay-rights family dramedies to militaristic Clint Eastwood shoot-'em-ups, reinforce beliefs their audiences already hold. Viewers who suspect they'll be challenged or made to feel uncomfortable simply stay away. As America experiences a frightening surge of divisiveness — red state versus blue state, social justice warriors versus Gamergate, Donald Trump's existence — we've retreated into our preexisting opinions like security blankets. And when someone says something we don't like, we attack.

"You almost have to spell everything out for fear — or, not for fear but for the fact — that people will add four different meanings to what you have to say," Tarantino says. "Think pieces used to be liberating!"

He's referring to the outcry following his suggestion that Selma, a movie he hadn't seen, perhaps didn't deserve a Best Director Oscar nomination. It's fine for people who love Selma to tell Tarantino he's wrong. But most dissenters went further, calling him a racist and misogynist and, in the all-caps verbiage of the Internet, demanding he go fuck himself and die in a fire.

He wants to soak in all those different opinions, especially the ones to come about The Hateful Eight. "I would love to hear all that shit," he says. He dreams of hiding out in the lobby during the film's intermission as people "get their popcorn and their Coke and they're talking about, 'What the fuck was that?!' " Alas, that hat-and-sunglasses trick won't work.

Tarantino allows that "Americans can get certain things that other people don't." We watch The Hateful Eight and think about today's resurgence in racial tension, about police continuing to arrest innocent black men and women 178 years after doomed Francis McIntosh, and about a country steered by activists-turned-murderers like John Brown, who'd fit right in with the fiends in Minnie's Haberdashery if the U.S. government hadn't hanged him a decade before.

He continues: "But then also, other countries get things that go over the Americans' heads."

That was true back in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs. "People at first in America tried to put it into a Scorsese Goodfellas box," Tarantino says, "but the French recognized the debt I owed to Jean-Pierre Grumbach, the Chinese saw the Hong Kong triad aspect of it, the Japanese saw the yakuza Takakura Ken aspect of it, and even the British really went for the film because it reminded them of '70s British gangster films like Villain."

The different reactions from different cultures may be even more pronounced today.

"There was no controversy about Django in England at all," Tarantino says. "They were responding to the moxie of the film, that it was so audacious and confident in its button-pushing. But they were really hard on Inglourious Basterds."

So bring on the controversy. Bring on the think pieces.

"America is just a place on the planet," Tarantino says. "I'm definitely making movies for the world."

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