Quentin Tarantino Serves Up Hitler's Head in Inglourious Basterds
Seventeen years ago, when Reservoir Dogs was setting American cinema on fire, Quentin Tarantino drove up to his favorite watering hole, Denny’s at Gower Gulch, in a tiny Geo that I mistook for a rental car. During a scheduled hourlong interview that stretched into nearly three, I chased him all around the houses about the casual violence in his debut film, which in retrospect is a bit like getting on Lewis Carroll’s case about the lack of realism in Alice in Wonderland. Tarantino heard me out, then politely set me straight, positioning violence as one of cinema’s 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 it.” Of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino said happily, “I’m 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 he’s one of world cinema’s premier auteurs. Either way, today a surprising number of his contemporaries — among them Hong Kong director John Woo, his hero from way back when — have 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. The questions remain: Are his films any more than that? Do they need to be?
Back at the same Denny’s 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 lolls patiently for an hour and a half, wearing an air of studied indifference. When he can bear it no longer, the young man jumps up, introduces himself and offers to send his body of work to Tarantino, who graciously responds with his agent’s name and equally graciously 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, which Tarantino optioned, about 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 they’re surely the first to scalp Germans in real time.
Inglourious Basterds, which played to mixed reviews at Cannes this year and which may have diluted Tarantino’s well-known love of film critics, has next to nothing to do with Jews, Nazis or World War II, though Winston Churchill has a funny cameo and Joseph Goebbels a minor, if crucial, role as a twisted auteur of nationalist cinema. It’s a highly entertaining, graphically bloody and woozily romantic romp — another 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 Tarantino’s work as a callow triumph of technique over substance, or who argue that he makes lazy use of chapter headings as a poor stand-in for narrative structure, though they’d have a hard time calling him a hater of women on the basis of the movie’s vengeful Jewish protagonist, Shosanna Dreyfus (played by French actress Mélanie Laurent). And who could call misogyny on a man who, in conversation, drops the tidbit that he’s 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 I’m curious about whether, midway through his 40s, he’s changed his thinking on what he wants his movies to be about. He doesn’t clam up; he does his best to comply; he insists that his movies are “painfully personal.” But no matter where I try to steer Tarantino 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 today — that remains the love of his life.
Frustrating though that can be, hanging with Tarantino is still a terrific time out. At 46, he’s a little paunchier and less hairy than he was when last we met, but that rubber face and bad-boy grin, that rat-a-tat 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 would be a betrayal of the man’s darting intellectual curiosity, his insatiable appetite for debate, his puppyish charm and his Royal Opinionatedness. So here’s our conversation, almost word for word and pretty much as it happened.
L.A. WEEKLY: On behalf of the Jewish people, I want to thank you for dispatching Hitler before his time in Inglourious Basterds.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: You’re welcome.
Before I saw it, I thought, uh-oh, what’s he going to do to the Jews? I don’t 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, “That’s the movie I want to see. Fuck that other story, I wanna see this story.” Even I get revved up, and I’m not Jewish. When I bought the title of Enzo Castellari’s Inglorious Bastards, which has a good story line, I thought I might take something from his story line, but it just never worked out.
You’ve been writing it for years, right?
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 couldn’t 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 box 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 it’s 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, I’m telling them about this miniseries idea, and the producer was right onboard. But Luc was, like, “I’m sorry, you’re 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 couldn’t unhear 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 Nation’s 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, that’s too much like The Bride [in Kill Bill]. 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.
That’s a pretty forceful argument for the power of cinema.
For people of my generation and younger, I didn’t 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 Confessions of a Nazi Spy — movies like that. Almost all these movies, by the way, starred George Sanders. I wasn’t 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, they’re funny, there’s humor in them. They’re not solemn, like Defiance. They’re allowed to be thrilling adventures.
Christoph Waltz, the veteran Austrian television actor who plays the evil SS colonel Landa, walks away with the movie.
He’s one in a million. Landa is one of the best characters I’ve 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 he’ll 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 Pitt’s character, Aldo. Aldo’s 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 unfightable, 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, you’ve become this huge star. There has been criticism, including by me, about violence and juvenilia in your movies. Others think you’re a misogynist. I thought if you saw my review of Sin City, you might not agree to this interview.
That’s Robert’s [Rodriguez] movie. I only did one scene.
Was Death Proof your answer to critics who find your work violent or misogynist?
I don’t think my work is misogynist. I had a lot of female friends in their mid- to late 20s and early 30s. For the last five or six years, they’ve been really important in my life and I hung around with a lot of different girl posses. So I’m 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 I’ve ever done, I’ve always been a gentleman about how I shot women. Not in that movie. I was a leering bastard in that one.
You’re 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, there’s stuff I’ve grown out of.
And what would that be?
Well. I don’t 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 don’t do it off-camera anymore, I get you a bit closer to the scalping. No, back then I was so gaga — “I want to do this, I want to do that, da da da da.” After Jackie Brown, I realized I’d 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 it. 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, they’d say, “That guy’s 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. “Okay, now we’re ready to bring him into the studio system for real. Let’s give him Dick Tracy or the Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie,” something like that. Well, that didn’t happen. I didn’t 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 to the fact that the world is now full of would-be Taranteenies, not all of whom have your gifts.
I’ve 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, it’s dropped off now. I’m 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, that’s how it’s supposed to sound.” Actually, I like some of those movies. I got a big kick out of everything that happened after Pulp Fiction. It’s like, I love Sergio Leone so much and he made spaghetti Westerns — he 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 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, as many have said, your movies might be remembered for the triumph of technique over substance?
I don’t feel that way about my work.
By the time people hit their mid-40s, their parents are growing older, the more tragic side of life seems to come uppermost. Does that affect your work?
My movies are painfully personal, but I’m never trying to let you know how personal they are. It’s my job to make it be personal, and also to disguise it, so only I or the people who know me know how personal it is. Kill Bill is a very personal movie.
But you won’t say why.
It’s not anyone’s business. It’s 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 it’s just straight-up how it is. But it’s buried in genre, so it’s not a “how I grew up to write the novel” kind of piece. Whatever’s going on with me at the time of writing will find its way into the piece. If that doesn’t happen, then what the hell am I doing? So if I’m writing Inglourious Basterds and I’m in love with a girl and we break up, that’s going to find its way into the piece. That pain, the way my aspirations were dashed, that’s going to find its way in there. So I’m not doing a James L. Brooks — I 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 doesn’t 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 don’t even know you’re writing about yourself.
Oh, very much so. Most of it should be subconscious, if the work is coming from a special place. If I’m thinking and maneuvering that pen around, then that’s me doing it. I really should let the characters take it. But the characters are different facets of me, or maybe they’re not me, but they are coming from me. So when they take it, that’s just me letting my subconscious rip.
Have you ever tried to write a novel?
A long time ago, when I was working at Video Archives, I started writing a novel. It took me about five months, and I kept writing these two chapters again and again. It was a very big decision for me actually. I read it and thought, You know, this is pretty good. I was making minimum wage and had no prospects. I thought, I could get this published, but you know what? Then I’ll be a novelist trying to be a filmmaker. I can’t afford to be successful at something that I ultimately don’t want to do.
At what point do you score a movie?
In three stages. I pick a lot of music as I’m writing, some of it even before I write. I have a vinyl room, like a record store in my house; that’s one of the perks of being me. I dive into my record collection, I have a turntable already set up to make tapes, and I’m 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 in — even if it’s not a blaxploitation movie, it will have that energy or vibe. So then I go diving into ’70s soul music. Usually, I’m trying to find that opening-credit sequence, and once I find that, then I’m, like, “Okay, I can do this now,” ’cause that gives me enough to be excited by it. Also, if I get tired of writing, or whenever I just need enthusiasm, I go into that room, play those songs and imagine watching the movie with my friends, and everyone’s oohing and aahing, and that gets me going again. I might even play those on the set. Then I’m always looking for music while I’m doing the movie, and then that last thing is in the editing, I’m diving for more stuff. And Harvey [Weinstein] always wants me to put more music in. I’m, like, “Harvey, the reason it works so good is that there’s not wall-to-wall noise, [so] when it comes on, it’s cool.” 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], it’s good, and if I don’t, I don’t. But I know that if I look hard enough, I’m going to find something.
When we first met, you gave me your top five movies. Would you like to revise that list?
I can tell you now. This got picked up on from that L.A. Weekly piece for the next five years, those top three in particular: Taxi Driver, Blow Out and Rio Bravo. I’ve changed. I know I was cagey about it before, but my favorite movie of all time is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That’s the best movie ever made. I can’t even imagine myself doing better; that’s how much I love it. I would also throw His Girl Friday in there. The fifth will always be however I feel at the moment. So I’ll throw in Carrie, give De Palma a shout-out.
What have you liked recently?
One of the best movies this year is Observe and Report. That’s a real movie. Somebody said it’s Seth Rogen’s Punch-Drunk Love. Well, fuck Punch-Drunk Love, it’s Taxi Driver. That’s fucking Travis Bickle. I find it hard to believe there’s going to be another moment as cathartic as him shooting the flasher. I was a big fan of Jane Campion’s Bright Star, I think it’s her best movie. I got caught up in the seriousness of the poetry, and I don’t mind the chaste stuff.
Your movies are pretty chaste, too.
Moving right along, 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. It’s unfathomable to me. I don’t like reading film criticism on a laptop. I like holding it in my hand.
You’re a geezer, Quentin.
Exactly. It seems to me from reading a lot of the film criticism that came out of Cannes this year, the few print critics who are left writing are so busy combatting these Internet bozos that there’s a new formulism, a new self-seriousness among remaining critics, to prove they’re professionals. Even some of the younger critics who are still writing in print — well, they’re not that young — are coming across like young fogies. There are some good online critics, but then there’s these fanboy types: “Ooh, this sucks balls.” It’s 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, it’s 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 idiosyncratic; they have a special voice and those first two movies are like that. But it’s 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 he’s in a renaissance, except for Melinda and Melinda. I loved Anything Else. But it’s much easier [for a director] to ask, “What scripts are out there?” Either they buy it and rewrite it or they work with a writer. And they get more movies made. That’s all well and good, but cut to 10 years down the pike, and all of a sudden they don’t have that voice anymore. They’re sucking dick for the Man. I’m not interested in just doing a job or working with this actor just to work with them. I learned something after I did Jackie Brown — and don’t get me wrong, I love Jackie Brown. But when it was all over — even when I was making it — the fact that it was just a little bit once removed made me a little bit disconnected from it. That’s why I haven’t done another adaptation. I want to naturally fall into the next thing that’s going to turn me on.
Do you feel pressure to work more often?
No. I mean, I don’t 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 off, doing nothing, and that’s great. But you can live life while you’re writing. It’s a fun life actually, ’cause I’m working and committed and passionate, but I go out and see friends. When I’m making a movie, the world goes away and I’m on Mount Everest. Obama’s president? Who cares? I’m making my movie.
Is it hard to maintain friendships when you work this way?
They understand. But I’m still a younger guy. I haven’t settled down, and these will not necessarily be the friends I have for the next 20 years. I don’t have a family. I’m 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, I’m an academic at heart, and my study is cinema. I’ve been writing a movie-review book over the years, and I’m not in any hurry to finish it. I started writing the book because it wasn’t enough that I was just seeing movies — they were being lost to the atmosphere. It’s like my whole life, I’m studying for a professorship in cinema, and the day I die is the day I graduate.
If we meet again in 17 years’ time, will you have settled down?
We’ll see. There was a time in the early part of this decade that I kind of had baby fever. And it just didn’t work out with a couple of women. And now I don’t have baby fever. Not that I don’t want a baby, but like a writer, I want it to be ... let’s set this up a little bit more.
How do you look back on that 1992 Sundance Film Festival, where Reservoir Dogs 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 who came out of it. 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 Araki’s still around and making movies. And even though he wasn’t at Sundance that year, I still consider him part of that group — Nick Gomez [Laws of Gravity]. He’s the one who 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.
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