Illustration by Justin Crutchley
Quentin Tarantino has been Googling himself, and it's starting to become a problem. The filmmaker, whose eighth feature, Django Unchained, opened 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" to the point where it will be impossible for him to shoot on celluloid will be the day he retires.
"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, and 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; some will have suggested 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 anything anyone's saying online about Django is almost certainly speculative. Aside from Tarantino's collaborators and confidants, no one has actually seen the movie — me included.
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." And, 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.
But the unveiling of Django at the Directors Guild 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 famously resisted joining for the first two decades of his career.
"I'm not a Hollywood outsider anymore," Tarantino recently told Playboy. "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 DGA'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."
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 as 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.'"
He saw the character of Django as an "über-masculine black male figure of folklore," kind of a 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." The film is a superhero origin story, explaining how a chain-gang slave 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, or is economically enriched by the institution of slavery.