NEW YORK — Once upon a time, Quentin Tarantino made hip, crackling-dialogue crime capers, pulpy character dramas, and martial arts revenge films. In the past half decade, he’s gotten serious. Well, at least as serious as this blood-and-guts-obsessed filmmaker may ever become.
In his Oscar-nominated 2009 hit, “Inglourious Basterds,” and his latest cinematic provocation, “Django Unchained,” Tarantino dared to tackle two of the most painful chapters in recent history, the Holocaust and American slavery, by creating genre-blending revenge stories filtered through his cinema-soaked mind.
Ever the iconoclast, Tarantino inverted the paradigm of the Holocaust film, turning “Basterds” into a feverish World War II fantasy epic in which a group of mostly American Jewish GIs embark on a scalp-hunting quest against their would-be Nazi exterminators. With “Django Unchained,” which opens Christmas Day, Tarantino also had a revenge story in mind — a chain-gang slave liberated from bondage, who sets off on a mission to rescue his ladylove from a notorious plantation and, in the process, exacts vengeance against his would-be white oppressors.
But whereas “Inglourious Basterds” was a revisionist fable that takes place in an alt-universe of Tarantino’s own demented design, he saw “Django” as existing in a truthful historical context — albeit one infused with his signature rococo verbal theatrics, outlandish humor, and flair for both embracing and subverting genre conventions.
“I wanted to make a film about slavery that wouldn’t take place on an alternative planet, but that would actually take place in the real world, but use genre as a way to tell this story, as a way to flip the script,” says Tarantino, 49, perched on a sofa inside a darkened hotel suite overlooking Central Park on a recent dreary afternoon. “By creating and evoking that world in a realistic way, which I think I do, I don’t think this film plays like an alternate history. The history I’m using is very right on. In fact, if anything, I’m actually holding back somewhat from some of the more extreme stuff.”
The bad-boy outsider auteur of such seminal films as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” has long been annoyed at the sanctimonious, somber depictions of the Holocaust and American slavery in many TV movies and documentaries. Alex Haley’s book, “Roots,” which was turned into a landmark 1977 miniseries, elicits particular disdain for what Tarantino sees as oversimplification and for turning away from the harshest truths.
“It’s just the constant victimization again and again,” he says. “It just seems like it’s the textbooks dramatized — barely.”
As should be expected, Tarantino’s inspiration for “Django Unchained” came from an eclectic range of sometimes schlocky sources. He sought to imbue the film with the same cathartic outlaw spirit evoked by 1972 blaxploitation western “The Legend of [Black] Charley,” about a trio of fugitive slaves seeking their freedom on the Western frontier as they’re doggedly pursued by a sadistic slaveowner and his white gang.
“It’s a cheap, even vaguely tawdry movie. But it’s satisfying! It actually is empowering when you see [star] Fred Williamson kill the overseers and lead a group of slaves, and they take over this town and fight these bad guys. It’s empowering,” Tarantino says. “You wish it were a little better. But it really scratches the itch. And so I knew I could expand on that. I could do a better version of that as a mock epic.”
“Django Unchained” begins in Texas, when the charismatic, silver-tongued German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), frees the chain gang slave Django (Jamie Foxx), then asks for his help in finding the murderous Brittle brothers. Before long, the unorthodox Schultz has taken Django under his wing and turned him into a fleet-fingered gunslinger and trusted cohort. In return, he’s agreed to help Django rescue his long-lost love Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from an infamous plantation owned by the sadistic, pseudo-intellectual cotton king Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Tarantino’s idea was to take his story and set it in the antebellum South just two years before the start of the Civil War, using the western as his jumping-off genre motif. “Westerns all the time bend over backwards not to deal with slavery,” he says. “So I wanted to take slavery and not ignore it, but also tell an exciting adventure story around it.”
Indeed, “Django” unsparingly depicts the brutality, degradation, and surreal grotesqueness of slavery. There are scenes of attack dogs ripping a slave to pieces and slaves being forced to wrestle each other to the death.
“The real challenge, the trick, was to take a 21st-century audience that maybe has become more cosmopolitan and stick them in the middle of the antebellum South, in Mississippi, in the worst of it, and say, ‘Look — this is America. And this is what happened. Deal with this.’ ”
Specifically, Tarantino wanted to tell Django’s story through his own take on the spaghetti western — a key inspiration being the often brutal, blood-soaked films of Sergio Corbucci, who directed the original “Django” in 1966, considered at the time one of the most violent films ever made. Starring Franco Nero in the eponymous role, “Django” spawned a cottage industry of unrelated “sequels,” homages, and low-budget rip-offs that sought to capitalize on Django’s cool, antihero persona.
Tarantino has observed that the heroes in Corbucci’s films became much darker and morally compromised over time — and would probably be viewed as bad guys in different films. But he fully intended for Django to be the hero of his story, even likening the first section of the film to a superhero origin tale in a comic book.
“The movie is about the building of a hero, and the first hour tells the origin story of how [Django] came to be,” Tarantino says. “I thought it was very important, particularly for black audiences, that he be a hero; that he be triumphant; and that his quest to save Broomhilda is given operatic dimensions. A tale of an ex-black slave who goes out to save his woman in the worst plantation imaginable, that deserves to be presented as high drama, as a big opera, as a folkloric tale worthy of Sir Galahad and worthy of Siegfried. It deserved to be treated with those big of emotions.”
With an expressive, cartoon-character face, famously prominent chin, and a voice that whines and clanks like a cast iron radiator, Tarantino is an engaging, lively presence. Though known for a sometimes hyperactive and temperamental disposition, he proves to be relatively sedate. Still, when he gets on a roll, the words dart from his mouth in a tornado of swirling intensity. Dressed casually in a fleece pullover and wearing a backward Kangol cap, he seems to relish any chance to talk about the movies. (Indeed, in his 20s, before he became a famous director, Tarantino toiled for years as a video store clerk, and in 2010 he helped save LA’s classic New Beverly Cinema from closure by purchasing the building.)
“He’s sort of the incarnation of movies. It’s in his every fiber,” says the debonair Waltz, who captured an Oscar for playing the sadistic Nazi Hans Landa in “Basterds.” “His knowledge and understanding of movies is encyclopedic but also deep. He understands the medium, and he can play on it like an organ. He plays all the registers that he wants, and he can play with any form and any genre.”
On the heels of the elementary school massacre in Connecticut, Tarantino has spent a lot of time fielding questions about the glorification of violence in Hollywood films and its potential desensitizing effects, and the Weinstein Company decided to cancel the LA premiere. He’s also been excoriated for what some see as the overindulgent use of a certain racial epithet, which is uttered dozens of times in “Django” by both racist whites and blacks. (Spike Lee criticized the same thing in Tarantino’s 1997 film “Jackie Brown,” sparking a feud between the two.)
“I keep waiting for somebody to actually say that I use [the epithet] more excessively than it would have been used in 1858 in Mississippi. And I don’t really hear anybody saying that. Because they can’t say that,” he responds. “It’s actually used exactly how it would have been used back then. So thus, their whole point of view is that I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should not be presenting it as the truth.
“If you’re going to tell the story of slavery, you’re going to show things that people don’t want to see, you’re going to say things that people don’t want to hear, that are ugly. But that’s the process of taking a 21st-century viewer and showing them America at that time. You have to deal with it.”
Is there a danger that the moral questions that are raised could be diminished or obscured by the giddy violence, irreverent humor, and extravagant stylistics that are hallmarks of a genre-obsessed cinephile like Tarantino?
“I don’t understand filmmakers who say, ‘Oh, this is too somber of a subject for me to use my cinematic skills.’ Well, what the hell are you there for then? Now, you can’t make a blanket rule about that. But no matter what Max Ophüls made a film about, I want him to do it using those big, long crane shots. No matter what subject Josef von Sternberg does, I want it to be all about the art direction. Ultimately, making it less cinematic is, to me, not the way to go.”