Three years ago, Quentin Tarantino was in Japan, finishing the world press tour for his World War II extravaganza Inglourious Basterds, and on his day off, he went to a record store to buy soundtracks from movies by Sergio Corbucci, the Italian director known for spaghetti Westerns. It was a perfect day: Since he was a child growing up in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, Tarantino has lived and breathed every detail of the cinematic world. From the career histories of directors to the capricious nature of the studios to the small nuances of little seen gems, he has studied the movies as if that were the path to enlightenment. As he listened to the Corbucci soundtracks in his hotel room in Tokyo, he had an epiphany: What would happen if a slave became a bounty hunter? He started writing, and that idea blossomed into Django Unchained, an antebellum Western and, perhaps, his most ambitious movie to date.
“They call spaghetti Westerns ‘macaroni Westerns’ in Japan,” Tarantino explained last December as night fell outside his Manhattan apartment. He was dressed in black pants and a matching long-sleeve button-down shirt and sitting in a large overstuffed khaki armchair in a living room full of personal artifacts: a framed vintage movie poster for Rio Bravo, one of his favorite films, leaned against a wall; the bookshelves were crammed with retro keepsakes, like an Elvis Presley Zippo lighter in its original box and a circa-1970 copy of the teen magazine Tiger Beat with David Cassidy on the cover. A photographic shrine of sorts to Pam Grier, the star of Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s 1997 ode to the blaxploitation sex bomb icon, dominated one corner. Rumpled clothes and sneakers were scattered around the room, and a duffel-like suitcase lay half-open on the floor. Tarantino, who will turn 50 in March, is an intriguing mix of teenage boy and cultural sophisticate. His brain, like his work, is constantly mixing and matching ideas and genres: He is fueled by what he sees and what he dreams of seeing. That’s how his movies are born.
“I was between movies, and I was interested in writing subtextual film criticism about Corbucci and his macaroni Westerns,” Tarantino continued. “What’s fun about writing subtextual criticisms is it doesn’t matter what the director was actually thinking—you just have to make your case from the finished work. Corbucci’s work is brutal. Where Sergio Leone [who directed spaghetti Westerns starring Clint Eastwood] created a mythic West, Corbucci took the form to a more surreal, violent, and pitiless place. In Corbucci’s Navajo Joe, the scalp hunters are as savage as the Manson family. In his Il Grande Silenzio, Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the hero: a mute who gets killed. In Corbucci’s films, the bad guys often win.”
Tarantino looked enthralled and explained that Corbucci has a huge following in Japan. “Japanese film critics will tell you that they’ve visited Corbucci’s grave! I started listening to the soundtracks, and, having indoctrinated myself in that world, I wrote the opening scene of Django Unchained. I knew I was stuck, because I wanted to see how it ended.”