Quentin Tarantino interview: Killer touch
'THIS ain't your daddy's World War Two movie," Quentin Tarantino says as he stands on a street corner that has been scrubbed of 21st-century signposts to become the set of Inglourious Basterds, his new film about a band of Jewish-American soldiers on a scalp-hunting revenge quest against the Nazis.
Although it was mostly shot at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, Germany, the film's subtitle is "Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied France." So on a three-day sojourn in Paris, Tarantino and his bi-continental filmmaking coalition commandeered a 1904 bistro with peeling paint, Art Deco stained glass and a wall of windows overlooking an intersection of identifiably Parisian streets in the 18th Arrondissement.
"We had to have a scene to sell the audience that we're in France," Tarantino says. "This is it."
Inglourious Basterds, which is to have its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, is Tarantino's first film since Death Proof, half of Grindhouse, a double feature and box-office flop he directed with Robert Rodriguez, and his first solo feature since Kill Bill Vol 2 in 2004.
Tarantino calls Inglourious Basterds his "bunch of guys on a mission movie". Judging by the script, it should have the crackling dialogue, irreverent humour and stylised violence that are all hallmarks of his work.
"You've got to make a movie about something, and I'm a film guy, so I think in terms of genres," he says. "So you get a good idea, and it just moves forward and then usually by the time you're finished, it doesn't resemble anything of what might have been the inspiration. It's simply the spark that starts the fire."
The spark that led to Inglourious Basterds, starring Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Mike Myers, Eli Roth and a large international cast, can be traced to Tarantino's storied days as a video-store clerk in Manhattan Beach, California. (The inspiration for Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and other Tarantino films can also be traced to that time.)
"The guys at Video Archives were like, 'Quentin, maybe one of these days you'll make your Inglorious Bastards,'" Tarantino recalls, referring to the (conventionally spelled) 1978 Enzo G Castellari film. "But they hadn't even seen the movie – all right, it was just a great title. I love the movie, don't get me wrong, but it's not a remake," he says of his version.
"It will be in the original category at the Oscars," he quips optimistically.
Lawrence Bender, who has produced all but one Tarantino film, says he was surprised when Tarantino called last summer to announce he had finalised the long-gestating Basterds script and wanted to finish the film in time for Cannes. Tarantino won the top prize there, the Palme d'Or, in 1994 for Pulp Fiction.
"He's read me all kinds of stuff over the years," Bender says, "but I always assumed it was something he was going to have and never do." Tarantino is known for taking plenty of detours on the way from one film to the next. He has directed episodes of television shows, including CSI, acted in and produced other people's films, and has been a guest judge and "mentor" on American Idol.
A six-month research period for Basterds several years ago "paralysed my writing for a while" Tarantino admits. He thought of making a World War Two documentary or teaching a college course and even plotted out a 12-hour mini-series. Then in January 2008, he decided to "take one more crack at seeing if I could make this a movie. I wasn't out to teach a history lesson. You can turn on the History Channel – which might as well be called the Hitler Channel. I just wanted to tell my story and have the same freedom I would have telling any story. I want the act of writing to be so fulfilling that I have to question do I want to even make the movie."
Tarantino's unedited script was circulating online within days after he completed it. "This was so personal to me, misspellings and all," he says, mentioning that he had typed it with one finger on the same 1987 Smith Corona word processor that he used to produce Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
Not that the circulation forced the perfectionist in him to make any changes. "Basterds should be spelled with an e," he says. "It sounds like it has an e." He shouts: "Basterds! Basterds!" The Basterds are the film's Jewish soldiers, given their nickname by the Nazis. As for the spelling of Inglourious, Tarantino says: "I can't tell you stuff like that. It's a movie thing."
A man with a walkie-talkie tugs on Tarantino's arm. "Sorry, I'm getting the vaudeville hook," he says, and heads inside the bistro to shoot a scene in which Shosanna (the French actress Mlanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman in hiding and running a Paris cinema, sits across a caf table from an unsuspecting Nazi soldier and matinee idol (the German actor Daniel Brhl) trying to win her affections. Tarantino watches the actors like a patron spying on a couple across the room, barely glancing at the nearby monitor. "I'm looking through the viewfinder when I set up a shot," he says between takes, "but I watch the performance and listen to it. Otherwise the monitor is directing the movie."
Like 70 per cent of Inglourious Basterds, this scene was being performed in French and German, which is just one of the reasons this isn't your daddy's World War Two movie. "When you see the Germans speaking English with a German accent or sounding like British thespians, it just seems very quaint," Tarantino says. "That's one thing I don't want this film to have. If Spielberg hadn't made Schindler's List yet, I joke, I like to think that after our movie he'd be shamed into doing it in German."
Executives at the Weinstein Company have gone on record saying that the heavy use of subtitles did not give them pause, going so far in their backing of the auteur as to say: "Tarantino is a universal language."
Brhl, the star of 2003 indie hit Good Bye Lenin!, said it was the director's non-sacred approach to Germany's painful history that attracted him to the role. "I'm curious to see how it's going to be received in Germany," 30-year-old Brhl says, placing the film in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin's Great Dictator. "If a comedy is intelligent and has depth, it's a very legitimate way to talk about Fascism in Nazi Germany, which was also a big show – and if you think about it, very ridiculous."
The screenplay is loaded with film references and jokes, and intrigues involving actors and film premieres. Hitler's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, is portrayed as a typical studio chief. ("People write about the horrible anti-Semitic films," Tarantino says, "but most of the 800 movies he made were comedies and musicals.") And it is safe to say, without spoiling the history-bending penultimate scene, that cinema saves the world.
Late in the day, bottles of champagne appear on the sidewalk, and Tarantino calls for a toast to honour the 800th roll of film. He circulates, clinking plastic glasses as evening falls over the city, with a word and a smile for everyone.
"The Basterds don't have the luxury of being soldiers," he says. "They have the duty to be warriors because they're fighting an enemy that's trying to wipe them off the face of the earth."
Tarantino, who was born in Tennessee, says his childhood revenge fantasies centred more on the Ku Klux Klan. "But it's all the same," he says. "Once the Basterds get through with Europe, they could go to the South and do it to the Kluxers in the 50s. That's another story you could tell."
Not to mention a shelved sub-plot about African-American soldiers stuck behind enemy lines. "I have a half-written prequel ready to go if this movie's a smash," says Tarantino.
• Inglourious Basterds receives its world premiere at Cannes on Wednesday, and is released 21 August, www.inglouriousbasterds-movie.com
QUENTIN'S CHOICE CUTS
RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)
The colour-coded team of professional heist men came blistering into cinemas, introducing Tarantino's violent and chauvinistic style with wit but no apologies, as the men in black sniff out the 'rat in the pack' following a bungled job. Few of us could listen to Stuck In The Middle With You again without their ears wincing.
PULP FICTION (1994)
Ran away with the Palme d'Or at Cannes thanks to Uma Thurman, John Travolta, Samuel L Jackson and Bruce Willis taking the leads. The former video store clerk's obsession with classic film and literary thriller scenarios pulled together four disparate tales, making the combined effort a cult classic filled with wit and pop culture.
JACKIE BROWN (1997)
Tarantino threw a curveball here, by pushing warmth and a woman to the fore in his tribute to blaxploitation flicks, with Pam Grier as the air hostess brought in by the law to take down a drug-dealing Samuel L Jackson. The Seventies vibe smouldered from a choice soundtrack once again.
KILL BILL: VOL 1 (2003)/ KILL BILL: VOL II (2004)
Tarantino originally filed a four-hour feature, crammed with B-movie, western and Japanese iconography. Trimmed down to two separate films, Uma Thurman traversed Texas and Tokyo and took her samurai sword through all comers as she wreaked revenge for the death of her baby.
DEATH PROOF (2007)
The indie wunderkind falls from grace with this schlocky box-office blunder. A posse of women hunt a misogynist stunt driver (Kurt Russell), but the car is the star.
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