SBIFF Programming Director Michael Albright with Quentin Tarantino
Michael Albright: Quentin, you are like the patron saint of film history, not only in the way you worked with restoration and the New Beverly Cinema and your work with classic films, but also the way you pay homage to classic directors, genres and ways of making films. I feel like as much as this is a film about history of slavery it’s also a film about the history of filmmaking in a lot of ways. Could you maybe elaborate on some of the influences of spaghetti westerns?
Quentin Tarantino: Well, I know where you’re coming from, but is everybody who ever lived, who did a Western, are they making a movie about movies? It’s just a Western. The short of Edwin S. Porter doing The Great Train Robbery, it’s a genre. People say that I’m always making movies about movies; I’m just making genre movies like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher are doing westerns or Robert Aldrich doing this or John Sturges doing that.
Albright: Well, you are taking the genre in new directions. This is 2 years before the Civil War, most Westerns take place after 1860, this is before, and I think that is a new addition which is—.
Tarantino: I definitely am. Well this isn’t even really a Western, it’s a Southern. It’s done in the style of a Western and the storytelling of a Western. I’m just bristly about people saying I make movies about movies; I get really annoyed with that. It’s like I’m supposed to forget the art form I’m working in.
Albright: Well, apologies. With this film in particular, I loved the use of these locations. I know these locations are movie locations and they’re also locations where plantations actually existed. In choosing some of these places with big pine and working in Wyoming as well, what energies were in those places that made you want to shoot there?
Tarantino: Well, for instance, it was really neat because one of my favorite Western directors is William Witney, who did a lot of movies for Republic Pictures, and a lot of other people that went through Republic went out of business, and did about 22 Roy Rogers movies with Trigger. He even wrote a book about it called “Trigger Remembered” and he was the king of the serials. He wrote a book about his years working in the serials in the 30’s, it was called “In through a door, into a fight, out through a window, into a chase”, which pretty much describes the serials. He directed a lot of movies at Lone Pine, where those rocks are at the very beginning of the movie, that’s Lone Pine. Not only were tons of Westerns done there, space age movies were done there, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was shot there. It was also Hollywood’s go-to for India, as well;¬ Gunga Din was shot there, The Lives of the Bengal Lancers was shot there. I think you can see Russell Crowe riding through those hills in Gladiator. But one of the things was he shot the original, and I think you guys can watch it on YouTube, it’s really good. He shot the original Lone Ranger serial, and it’s actually done in an interesting way because you don’t know who the Lone Ranger is in the whole serial until the last chapter. It’s one of six guys but you don’t know which one it is, which is a really interesting way to tell the story. Anyway, the first time they had ever done a dramatization of the famous scene, in almost all Lone Ranger stories when the Ranger’s being ambushed by Butch Cavendish and his gang, was in this one canyon and from this day forward that canyon has always been called “Ambush Canyon”. Well because I’m such a big William Witney fan, when Schultz and Django have that first talk about Broomhilda, you know, drinking coffee in the morning, well that sequence was done in Ambush Canyon. They actually have a film museum in Lone Pine called the Lone Pine Film Museum that has all kinds of props and costumes and they actually even had a little William Witney section. One of the things they had was this old wooden slate from the Lone Ranger serial, and they let us borrow the slate, so for about 3 days while we were shooting up in the hills we were actually clapping with that slate; it was pretty cool.
Albright: Yeah, I’ve been to the museum. I’m from Reno so I go 395…
Tarantino: Yeah it’s cool. Now they have Schultz’s wagon too. We’re part of Lone Pine’s history. You can find Schultz’s wagon with the molar on top if you visit it.
Albright: What about shooting in the South, shooting in New Orleans and being on all those plantations, what was that like?
Tarantino: That was a big deal. It was authentic, it was terrific; but it was moving. We actually felt a responsibility to tell the story right because we could feel the ancestors who had been there. We felt their ghosts in and around the sequence when Broomhilda is whipped; we set that sequence in Shack Row, which was the area where the slaves lived in their living quarters, which are still there to this day. It was a heavy day; but, like I said, we felt an obligation and we actually felt the spirits were happy that we were telling their story.
Albright: I love the way that you actually do portray history, both in Inglorious Basterds and in this film too. It’s not as though you’re trying to make it exactly how things were; you stylize it and you add your own signature mark to the way you portray it. And yet at the same time, I feel like it’s more powerful that way. The audience doesn’t feel like you’re saying “This is 1860”. You’re removing it in some ways, but at the same time you’re thrusting us into this world that’s totally a Tarantino world—
Tarantino: Well, it’s funny because most of the historical stuff in the movie is pretty much right on, especially the handling of the slaves and the business of the slave trade itself. The historical stuff that is important to be right on is right on. But, one of the other things though, is the fact that I was doing this spaghetti Western so I wanted to have a bit of a folkloric tale. I wanted it to have a bit of surrealism going on in the piece, and there were certain things that I tweaked the reality just a little bit. For instance, in the spaghetti Western world and as it’s common in America, Death is cheap, you can get rich; life is cheap but death can make you rich. There’s money in death. There’s gold in death. Life can be worth a nickel. Life can be worth a buffalo headed nickel, at best; but if you’re willing to kill, you can make gold. And what I wanted to do was to take both the businesses of the slave trade and parallel them with the bounty hunting laws of the day. And to make that point, a little bit, I made the price of the slaves unnaturally low and I made the price of the bounties unnaturally high, to get to that place. But, at the same time, there is an interesting parallel. In both the slave trade and the bounty hunting trade, if you’re willing to not look at human beings as humans—if you’re willing to just divorce yourself completely from anything that’s individual about them and anything that might possibly be their story and their human heart beat and just take the permission that you’re given, you can make money off this. You can advance yourself, and that’s definitely the case with the slave trade but it’s also the case with the bounty hunting trade. When Django shoots that farmer down there, not knowing exactly his story just taking Schultz’s word for it because he has permission to do it, he’s actually crossed the line. Now he’s willing to do it; he’s doing it for a reason, and everyone has their reasons; but he’s crossed the line.
Albright: In the bounty hunter approach, that fruition, was that the idea started from that character?
Tarantino: It’s like a staple of spaghetti Westerns and Westerns in general. It’s a fantastic mixed metaphor going on with both of them. And the idea that Django would actually have a legal reason to go on plantations to kill outlaws who are hiding out as overseers on plantations was pretty juicy of an idea.
Albright: I’ve heard that when you worked with Christoph Waltz, and this is the second film you’ve worked with him in, I know that he was involved in the screenwriting process a little bit, like he would come over and read some lines and—
Tarantino: He read it.
Albright: But he was involved in the creation of the character from the beginning, or at least an early stage?
Tarantino: Yeah, we talked about stuff. He would just come and visit Los Angeles on his many travels and I got to the point of this typed version of the script so if I had 20 pages done he would come read the 20 pages and we would go out for dinner and talk about it. And then he’d come back again and there would be 45 pages done.
Albright: So that character was always written with him in mind. What about the other characters in the film, did you—
Tarantino: Steven was written for Sam Jackson too.
Albright: Did he have a similar process?
Tarantino: No, I waited until I was done to give it to Sam.
Albright: Working with the same actors again and again, I’d imagine this creates this wonderful kind of family, in a sense that you know these people really well, you know what they’re capable of and yet you’re doing very different things with them each time around. What is that like?
Tarantino: In particular when you’re talking about Christoph and Sam, yeah. That’s definitely the case. I just think that they’ve become my muses pretty much. To me, they take my dialogue and turn it into the poetry it was always supposed to be. To me, it’s like they sing my dialogue.
Albright: And then getting involved with Leo for the first time, this is probably the first role he’s really played like a villainous character, really something evil. How did that all come about?
Tarantino: He had been a fan of mine for a long time. I think he always got my scripts delivered to him as soon as they hit the industry. He read the role, and I had actually written it for an older guy, and he read the role and wanted to talk to me about it so I went down to his house and we BS’d about it for a while and it was really interesting. I thought it could be interesting because when I wrote the script I had actually thought of Calvin Candie as kind of the evil tyrant king of an evil land and an evil palace and Broomhilda is the princess in exile, trapped in the tower with Django as her Sir Galahad going to rescue her and extract her from this evil place, a plague ridden place. After we got through talking, I had to go through the story again in my own mind thinking about Calvin being younger and is there a loss or gain from that. I had to walk through the whole piece imagining a younger Calvin to see if that’s a misstep or not. And I ended up getting more excited by the idea because all of a sudden the evil king became the petulant boy emperor of the fact that he’s the fourth Candie in line as far as taking care of Candieland. And everybody before him, his father, his father’s father and his father’s father’s father, they were all cotton men. But he’s not a cotton man, he’s bored with it and now the plantation or farm pretty much takes care of itself or Steven takes care of it. So, he’s bored with it all and he’s been growing up with this privilege, this affluence, with these slaves around him constantly at his beck and call and so he’s turned to hedonistic vices and hedonistic pleasures and hobbies become like a Southern-fried Caligula or a Chickasaw County King Louis XIV.
Albright: This is also one of the first films you worked without Sally Menke; and a new editor, Fred Raskin, who was involved, and I was just wondering what kind of process was different without Sally. And there’s this great film, The Cutting Edge, and I watched it and you have such poignant things to say about her as a woman editor and someone who nurtures the film and brings it life. I’m just wondering, what changes? Were you more involved in editing this time around?
Tarantino: No, it was like I’ve always done it. I didn’t know how to do it any other way, it was just a little sadder.
Albright: Okay. And your choices with the music, it’s something you can’t really separate from a Tarantino film. There’s scenes in all of your films where it’s almost like you can’t hear the song again without seeing the—
Tarantino: Well that’s the goal. That’s what you hope to achieve.
Albright: And I think this film is no different. There are some fantastic choices; you mix some of my favorite bands in ways that I would never have imagined someone doing so…
Tarantino: Did you have a favorite musical choice in it?
Albright: I loved the Johnny Cash song, personally, so when that came on I got excited. But they’re all great, even the Django the beginning trailer theme. The Django theme was cool. But anyway, you mix them in really fascinating ways and I think that they bring out, I mean, they’re clearly an original signature style but they bring out a wonderful atmospheric quality to it and I was wondering, what’s the process of going about that? Do you write scenes for the music, does the music write itself?
Tarantino: It’s just a process that goes all the way through the film. I guess the only thing that’s different about mine is that when I come up with an idea that I actually think I’m going to sit down and I’m going to write it but I haven’t 100% decided but it’s looking that way. I go into my music room and start going through some records and I’m trying to find pieces of music that I think could be right for a piece like this and could be exciting. And if I find a couple pieces it’s all the more likely that I’ll probably continue, because “Oh, that’s exciting”, it just keeps me excited, it keeps encouraging me and when I think about a sequence played to a piece of music it’s my way of portalling (transporting) myself way into the future where I’m sitting down in a movie theater watching the effect of the film with an audience because when I play the music I can just pace around my bedroom or something and just imagine the movie on screen and an audience reacting to it. It just keeps me encouraged. But that process goes on throughout the whole time, usually right to the very last no-take-back day of the mix. We’re probably putting in some little something in it.
Albright: Did you have a favorite song?
Tarantino: Me? Do I have a favorite song? I guess the Django theme.
Albright: The Django theme, okay. Going back, certainly to the Django theme, the Corbucci film, which I recently saw, is fantastic and of course you cast Franco Nero as a small bit role here too, what was the desire to work with that film specifically? I mean I know you’re working with the genre of spaghetti westerns but why focus on the Corbucci film?
Tarantino: Well, it’s more like that name represents spaghetti westerns more than anything else because Corbucci did his Django, and in the 80s they did a horrible sequel to it that doesn’t even count as a spaghetti western frankly, it’s more like a Rambo movie; but, a couple years after the original Django, the director—it will come to me in a second—they did a genuine sequel called Django, Prepare a Coffin A.K.A. Via Django where Terrence Hill, before the Trinity movies, played Django, and that’s when you can actually tell it’s supposed to be the same guy. He’s got the coffin, he’s got the gun, he’s got the outfit and everything, it looks like it takes place a little earlier though and it’s written by Franco Rosetti, who was one of the writers on the original Django. But the thing is, Django was so popular that they started throwing “Django” in the title of all these different spaghetti westerns because it just was synonymous with a violent, tough, surreal spaghetti western. That name, “Django”, it just became the way—Ringo did the same thing—but Django ended up eclipsing that. And movies that have no characters with Django in them are called “Django” or sometimes a movie was made and it was all done and then they just changed the name in the post to Django just so they could call the movie “Django”. Not only that, Django was so popular in Germany, for years, whenever Franco Nero had a movie—because he was popular all throughout the 70s in Europe and Japan—whenever he did a movie and it was released in Germany, they always changed the name to “Django.” He did this movie with Enzo Castellari, the director of the original The Inglorious Bastards, called High Crime, which was sort of their Dirty Harry/French Connection, where they created a whole series of police movies in the 70s. Well in Germany it was called “Django the Cop”. He did another movie with Enzo Castellari, where he’s fighting a shark and he’s a fisherman and this “Old Man and the Sea” kind of thing, and it’s called “Django and the Shark”. There’s about 40 unrelated rip-off sequels to Django and I am very proud to say we are in the long line tradition of unrelated rip-off sequels to Django.
Albright: I wanted to turn a little bit to the cinematography, which I loved, and I love Bob Richardson’s work and this is what, your fourth film working with him? Fifth film?
Tarantino: Well, Kill Bill, Basterds, and this. Yeah.
Albright: And working with Bob, what kind of choices were involved with some color? I mean, I know there’s some symbolism with the color and I think it sort of develops and changes throughout the film in almost two parts. But I was wondering, what kind of choices were you working with, with Bob?
Tarantino: Well, we didn’t really get that super tricky with it, in so far as it, opposed to being an interior movie like most of my movies are. We actually had nice vistas and stuff that we could actually film. I didn’t want the movie to get pastoral. It seems like a lot of directors wanted to make a western for so long and when they finally get the chance, the movie’s become glacial because it all becomes about pretty imagery, and pretty sunsets and pretty mountain vistas all the time; and they go for the visual poetry of America and it just slogs the movie down a little bit. I wanted to make sure we didn’t fall into that trick. The thing is though; this was a chance for me to do something different because I’ve never dealt with the outdoors that much in my movies. I’ve almost bum-rushed that a little bit and kept my big epics or my big set pieces inside. I built big wild sets and had everything happen inside of them. Well, this was a different story. It required a different kind of discipline, to shoot in a uniform way where the sun is your gaffer, which basically means the sun is dictating where you shoot. You start the day and the sun’s over there behind the actors, so you do everything you need to do this way; and when the sun’s straight up, then you can do everything you need to do this way; but over here, you have to wait until the end of the day for when the sun’s over here and then you do everything you have this way. It doesn’t matter emotionally what you want to do or organically it would be better, no, the sun is telling you what you got to do.
Albright: Going back to the screenplay, you created, I think, and interesting dynamic between Django and Dr. Schultz and then Steven and Candie. I was wondering, it’s almost like this parallel universe that sort of mirrors each other as opposites, in a way, the symmetry of the two relationships. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.
Tarantino: Yeah, they kind of become almost a negative image pairing of the two as far as the team is concerned. The fact is, one of the things I’m taking from westerns is that whole idea of there’s the older aged gunfighter who is teaching the younger one, who has a mission to do and giving this knowledge and preparing him for his usually vengeful journey. It could be Kirk Douglas is the older gunfighter teaching William Campbell in Man Without a Star. It could be Brian Keith teaching Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith how to sow his oats or Lee Van Cleef from pretty much any of his spaghetti westerns, in particular, Death Rides a Horse, where he teaches John Philip Law or Day of Anger, where he teaches Giuliano Gemma. Not to mention Yoda teaching Luke Skywalker and every kung-fu movie you’ve ever seen, or Liam Neeson teaching Batman what he has to do in the first Batman movie. So that’s this interesting archetype. What’s interesting though, is that when they get to Candieland, there is almost a duality between Calvin Candie and Steven in that regards where Steven is the older mentor teaching the younger Candie. There is a negative imagery of the two pairs, the way they match up with each other. And the crazy irony is, of the four men, as far as love is concerned, Steven loves Calvin more than anybody else cares about anybody else. And it’s because he raised him. Calvin is his son, for all intents and purposes, he raised him from a little boy and he has his fiefdom, he has his situation there. And you have to understand, none of the characters in this movie think slavery is on its way out. They have to assume that it’s going to be going on for the next hundred years and that’s just the way it is. It’s actually also interesting; Calvin talks his shit and everything but it’s obvious how much he actually respects Steven and the relationship they have once the doors are closed and the inquiring ears are gone. It’s also very interesting, Calvin only mentions his real father once, in the whole movie. And when he mentions him, he speculates murdering him, so Calvin is his father as far as he’s concerned how he feels. I mean, Steven is Calvin’s father as far as he feels.
Albright: This is your seventh feature film, and I’m sure it’s interesting to maybe look back and see where it’s progressed and some of the changes and evolution of your style. I’m wondering if you think you have a signature mark that sort of works within your body of work that exists.
Tarantino: I try not to have those sub-textual thoughts, especially when I’m working on a piece. I mean, maybe when I get through going all around the world talking about it, I might have actually a little more to say about something like that. But, the one thing that actually does jump out is not something that everybody talks about. My lead characters tend to be good actors and there is a situation in almost every story where they have to go undercover, they have to pretend to be somebody else, or they have to hide who they truly are and put up a false front. They either have to act or they have to lie or they have to adopt a personality different from their own in order to get what they want or accomplish what it is they’re trying to accomplish. And they talk about it in acting terms. They say let’s get into character. You can’t break character. They talk about it like actors. And oftentimes when one is teaching another how to do it, it actually plays like an acting lesson. When Randy Brooks, who plays the black undercover cop who is teaching Tim Roth how to be an undercover cop and how to tell stories to the other criminals that will be convincing, he sounds like he’s giving Hamlet’s speech to the players, just in street terms vernacular.
Albright: We just have time for one more question, but I’m just curious what keeps you excited as a director? What keeps you excited about making films and approaching new projects?
Tarantino: Gosh, that’s a pretty good question. Maybe actually the better question is what keeps you excited right when you’re in the middle of a movie; because that’s when you need to be excited by it. I mean that’s really the trick. We’re trying to do an epic here, I mean, it’s a mock epic, it’s sincere but there’s—to me like a sister movie to this could be something like Little Big Man, that has a folklore tall tale quality to it while also being very realistic and also making 21st century points with a historical tale that’s true, the way they made Vietnam points or Watergatian points, although the movie was made before Watergate. The thing about it was, the trick in this kind of filmmaking is remembering why you wanted to do it in the first place once you get in the middle of it and you’ve dealt with extreme cold and you’ve dealt with extreme heat and, you know, you’re doing difficult things and you’re moving in this state and you’re shooting in this state and you’ve got this army moving around, an army of extras and you have to just remember why it is you wanted to do this movie in the first place and make sure you’re still making that same movie. As far as what it is that probably excites me the most, let’s say at the first half of the project, it’s always coming up with the story. It’s not like I have three projects lined up and now it’s the time to do the next one. Right now, I don’t know what the next movie I’ll do is. I’m working on a book right now so I want to kind of finish that and I’ve got some film writing that I want to put together as a film book so I’d like to finish that, that’s what I’d like to—but that was what I wanted to do at the end of Basterds, but my film writing led to this. I just kind of jumped the track that led to me writing my next scenario, in a cool way too because I was dealing with film, I was dealing with the analysis of film, my love of film and being critical about it and at the same time writing all the time. So when it just came to my next scenario I was already kind of looped up, kind of ready to go. I didn’t have to start from scratch as far as getting my wrist working. So the idea of me finishing the book would be fun. One of the reasons it would be fun is when I’m done with it, I’m done. The idea of finishing writing and being done seems really like a juicy idea but we’ll see what happens. But literally though, the fact that I don’t know what the next thing I’m going to do is really exciting, especially when I figure it out. When I figure out the next story that I want to spend the next year and a half of my life and I want to take it and write it and create a new world that doesn’t exist before I—because, you know, I don’t write on a computer. I write with a pen and a piece of paper and I’m real proud of the fact that the movie you guys watched today, a year and a half ago it was just a blank piece of paper and my scribbles on it. The fact that that’s always the origin and this is always the final destination, a 35mm film print is really cool. So it’s exciting to figure out what that next story is going to be, that I’m going to do and want to take all the way to the end and then go all around the world selling it and fight amongst all the other movies for film history laurels. That’s pretty exciting, I’m looking forward to that day.
Albright: Thanks for getting us excited.