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Way out westwards 0

by Joe Utichi for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine

It’s his biggest risk yet, Quentin Tarantino says of Django Unchained, his shocking western about slaves. He’s growing up

Quentin Tarantino is standing in the middle of the Louisiana countryside, by the side of a path lined with oak trees that drip with Spanish moss. We are 45 minutes outside New Orleans, at a ­sugar-cane plantation dating back to the ante­bellum period. The scars of this dark chapter of American history still linger: hidden between the trees along the side of the path sit rows of flimsy wooden shacks where slave families would live in one-room squalor. “You can feel the ghosts here,” Tarantino says, perched on his director’s chair, with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat on his head. “There was real blood spilt on this ground.”

It seems an unlikely place to find the former enfant terrible of mainstream ­movie-making, a man whose passion for cheap-and-cheerful cinema spawned a string of smart homages to the B-movies of his younger fandom. With films such as Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, he has made an art of frivolity, elevating the unpretentious entertainment of the genres he loves with smart story­telling and witty dialogue. Yet here he is on the set of Django Unchained, watching as his re-creation of the plantation’s darkest days spills out in front of him: a chain gang of slaves being led to their fate by an immoral master.

Behind the convoy, though, rides the titular hero of this new work, a freed slave turned bounty hunter, dressed like a ­cowboy superhero, and it’s clear: this is still a Quentin Tarantino movie. “I always wanted to do a western,” he says. “It’s nice to do a proper one after disguising them a couple of times in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. Even then, it’s not a proper ­western — it takes place in the South. I’m messing with it a little bit.”

The script for the film was couriered to me a few days before my visit to the set. It was already being swapped freely on the internet, the sort of thing that usually gives studios sleepless nights. Tarantino laughs when I suggest he leaked it himself, but he doesn’t deny it. He’s a man with nothing to hide and has no fear that the script will spoil the surprises of the film. “My scripts are like big novels, and I’m adapting them into movies as I shoot,” he explains. “They aren’t necessarily meant to be a blueprint from which a movie will emerge.”

There are entire sequences, in fact, that he says he never planned to shoot. “It only has to work on the page. I put things in there that sometimes I’m consciously aware, and sometimes I suspect, will never work in the movie, but that look good in the script. It makes the reading experience better, or more profound. They’re meant to work as an artistic statement unto ­themselves.”

Jamie FoxxAnd what a statement. No holds are barred in this Southern western’s treatment of its main theme: the immoralities of the slave trade. Of course, the Tarantino staples are accounted for. Among this film’s larger-than-life characters are Tar­antino’s ­familiar antiheroes and ultra-villains, and that penchant for long exchanges of dialogue is frequently sated. But there’s boldness to his ­treatment of a subject that would seem ill-suited to his usual frivolity. “I was ­definitely doing things I’d never done before and taking risks,” he says. “If I’d just made a western, I’d probably have had a blast, but my blast is kind of undercut by this human suffering I’m staging for the camera the whole time.”

When he made Jackie Brown (1997), his homage to the ­blaxploitation films of the 1970s and early 1980s, Tarantino drew criticism from his fellow director Spike Lee for his use of racial slurs. He had no hesitation about jumping back into a film in which such slurs are ­scattered liberally throughout. “I don’t let anything anybody might possibly say ever stop me from doing anything.” But Django Unchained is not blaxploitation, he insists. “I’m showing how these people were exploited. I’m not exploiting them, I’m bearing witness to it.”

One of the ultra-villains in Django Unchained might be one of Tarantino’s most controversial creations. He describes Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as a “petulant boy-emperor” who rules his plot of land viciously. His favourite pastime is “mandingo fighting”, in which pairs of slaves are made to duel to the death. “I would describe Leo’s performance as electrifying,” Tarantino says. “He took the pretext that these big plantation owners were kings — not burgo­masters, not barons, but absolute kings with absolute power — and underlined it.”

The film’s real soul, though, lies in the character of Django, played by Jamie Foxx. He’s freed by his eventual bounty-hunting mentor, Dr King Schultz (portrayed with gusto by Christoph Waltz), in the first scene of the film, and promises to identify Schultz’s latest targets if he will help him find and free his wife, Broomhilda. Tarantino says the character emerged in the writing of the film. “He was just an idea to begin with — I didn’t know him as a person. Jamie agreed with me 100% that at the start of the film Django shouldn’t be special. He’s just sixth of the seven in the chain gang. He becomes a man in front of our eyes.”

It’s rare for Tarantino to stay so focused, especially in a film of this sort of scale. He’s renowned for plots shaped like pretzels — flashbacks, segues and chapter breaks; but although there are elements like this in the script for Django Un­chained, none of them makes the final cut. “I wanted to try and get out of the storytelling style of the last few movies, of taking things from different directions and having everything merge into a mosaic,” he says. “I have no problem with that approach, but I didn’t think it would actually help this story. I thought it would be much better to follow Django’s journey from beginning to end and never break contact with him. We always stay on his side.”

Nevertheless, during production he arranged the schedule around the story’s three main acts — or, as he puts it, “the first half, the second half and the third half”. That allowed him to adjust and adapt his sprawling tale. “As I get into the second half, I know what I have in the first half and I know what I need, then, to get.”

In the spirit of his beloved spaghetti westerns — which he prefers to their American-made counterparts — he stole the character’s name from Sergio Cor­bucci’s 1966 film Django, whose creation went on to feature in or be referenced by more than 30 entirely unofficial sequels. In the original film, the character is a white drifter, played by Franco Nero — who is given a brief cameo in Django Unchained. Tarantino started with the name and built his hero around it. He says he always identifies with one of the characters in his scripts. “I fell in love with this character. I was Django, in my heart and in my psyche.”

He saw many actors for the role, most notably Will Smith, who would ultimately pass on the project. But in Jamie Foxx he found his cowboy. “When you put the costume on Jamie, it just pops. There’s a cowboy quality to him.” In fact, he rides his own horse in the film. “If they cast black guys in any of those 1960s western TV shows, I could imagine Jamie having his own show.”

Tarantino was writing a book about Corbucci when the idea for Django arrived. He hadn’t planned on making another film immediately after Inglourious Basterds. “I’ve gotten more serious about my film writing in the past few years, and I was planning on finishing this book. But then this all happened by accident.” It started when he was in Japan, flipping through spaghetti-western soundtracks — “They call them macaroni westerns there, and they’re so popular” — and he wrote the first scene while he was there. “It was fairly similar to what exists today. It poured out of me. In fact, I even slowed it down. I got to the ­midpoint and backed off for a couple of weeks to let it marinate.”

I meet Tarantino again a few days after Django Unchained has its first screening. After writing the script in six months and then charging into preproduction and an eight-month shoot, he’s exhausted. He’s rarely anything less than confident, but I get the sense that he surprised himself in the making of the film. It wasn’t an easy production. “Making an epic — even a mock epic like this — is hard work, and there are many dangers. The biggest is remembering why you wanted to make the film in the first place. I won’t know until a couple of years from now whether I passed the test or not. I’m happy with the movie, but to really put it under the microscope I need a couple of years’ distance.”

His plan for now is to go back to film writing. “It’s subtextual criticism on directors’ work and their careers,” he says. “I’d like to publish it eventually, but I’m not in any hurry; I don’t have a book deal or anything. I guess it’s just for me to get it right and eventually present it. I wrote a piece on Don Siegel and Robert Aldrich during the New Hollywood years. I’m working on a piece about George Roy Hill, and one on one of my favourite British directors, J Lee Thompson.”

Reports of an impending retirement, he insists, have been overstated, though. He had said he wouldn’t direct for ever; that he had no plans to become an “old-man film-maker”. He rolls his eyes when I bring it up, and I suspect he was surprised the story became so widely circulated. Then again, he has never been shy of delivering a popular soundbite. Indeed, it has given him a celebrity status afforded to few other directors; Foxx tells me that when he gets out of a car with Tarantino, the cameras are there for the director and not for him.

In fact, he raised the subject of his retirement when I first met him seven years ago, telling me he had his sights set on a quiet dotage as the owner and operator of a small art-house cinema, in which he could screen his extensive archive of film prints for anyone who was interested. In 2007 he bought the New Beverly ­Cinema, to save it from closing and to ­preserve it as one of the last remaining bastions of 35mm film projection as other cinemas went digital. “It’s really fun, I have to say. I’m not really programming the movies, but I have seasons, and if I want this double feature or that double feature, they’ll do it.”

As far as stopping directing goes, he insists there’s still plenty of life in him, even if there are no immediate plans for a follow-up. “I don’t know if I can ­speculate any more about what I’m going to be doing when I’m 70,” he laughs. “I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing five years from now.” Indeed, with Django, he says, he checked off the last of his genre wish list. Much has been made of his speculation about what might follow — a 1930s gangster picture, a swashbuckler, an all-out horror film — but Tarantino’s primary occupation is story. “I’m going to be even more story-oriented — more than I am already, because I always am story-oriented — and I’m just waiting for the next good one.”

With Django’s unflinching handling of a delicate subject, the one certainty seems to be that there’s maturity to Tarantino’s work today that hasn’t necessarily existed in the past. It’s the first film he has made without Sally Menke, his long-standing editor, who died in 2010. He misses her, but agrees when I suggest there’s still plenty of her touch in the new film. “She had a motherly touch, and she took care of me,” he says. “Now I have to take care of myself.”

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