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.”
Django Unchained opens with a classic Tarantino ambush: a group of barefoot slaves manacled together trudges through a freezing night, herded by the slave-trading Speck brothers. A black horse approaches, ridden by Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz. Schultz says that he is looking for a slave from the Carrucan plantation, and Django, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, speaks out. When Schultz attempts to pay for Django’s freedom, the Speck brothers respond by drawing their guns. Before the scene is over, one of the brothers is dead, the other is pinned under a horse, and Django is a free man.
Already there are Tarantino flourishes that twist and amplify the Western genre: Schultz’s horse is named Fritz, and he elegantly bows his head when he hears his name; the slaves are instructed to follow the North Star to “make your way to a more enlightened area of the country,” and, most notably, there are pulpy flashbacks to horrible moments from Django’s past. “Spaghetti Western flashbacks are never pretty,” Tarantino noted in a draft of the script. “It’s usually the time in the film when the lead character thinks back to the most painful memory inflicted on him by evil characters.” As the plot unfolds, it quickly becomes clear that Schultz and Django are on parallel missions: The freed slave is looking for his lost wife, and Schultz is hunting down a trio of criminals. They are both out for Tarantino-style justice, and the stage has been set.
Tarantino’s early movies existed in a fabricated pop landscape full of movie archetypes he had reinvented and reshaped. Films like the 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction took stock cinematic characters—the gangster, the thief, the trophy wife—and pushed them beyond their traditional boundaries. Instead of talking manly talk, as they typically would in a gangster film, in Pulp Fiction the thugs discuss the subtleties of foreign fast food and the pleasures of foot massages. But with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino grafted his fictional perspective upon reality for the first time: He set the movie in WWII and had the audacity to rewrite history. In his version, Hitler is assassinated at a film premiere.
That boldness, combined with Tarantino’s gift for violent set pieces matched with quirky, often humorous dialogue, is all the more stunning in Django Unchained. The movie takes place in the slavery-ridden, racially charged South, during the most painful and vivid chapter in American history, and the atrocities are rampant. At one point in the story, Broomhilda, Django’s wife, is whipped and imprisoned in a box. “Am I nervous about Django?” Tarantino asked. “No. But it is a difficult movie. I am putting the audience smack-dab into a very ugly America, and that can be rough and brutal—especially for older black folks—to watch.” He paused. “But I’m not afraid that people will judge me. Is it pleasant to be misunderstood? No. The beginning of the run is the most controversial time. The controversy will go away in six months, and then the movie will be the movie.”
Part of the controversy revolves around the villain, Calvin Candie, played with thrilling virtuosity and gusto by Leonardo DiCaprio. In Corbucci’s work, the heroes are rarely heroic and the central protagonists can be quite dark, but in all of Tarantino’s movies, nearly every character has a mix of contradictory traits—and tends to live by a kind of existential code that tolerates both goodness and extreme evil. It’s hard not to fall under the spell of Tarantino’s villains. Take Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Yes, he hunts and kills Jews, but he is still a fascinating character to watch. With Candie, it’s the same story: He demands that his slaves be whipped, prostituted, humiliated, and killed—and yet you can’t take your eyes off him.
In Django, that complicated, topsy-turvy delight in the bad guy is particularly troubling—even for Tarantino. “There is a thing in my movies where you start rooting for the villains a little bit,” he said. “But with Candie, I had a moral judgment about one of my villains for the first time. Candie is a gargoyle, and I hated him. I had to ask myself the question: Can you blame a Borgia for being a Borgia? In other movies, I’ve been observational on that point. Here, I’m invested. Race in America hits me very hard. So, the answer is yes, you can blame someone for indulging in entitlement and hate.”
At the first screening of Django Unchained in New York, which was held at the Academy Theater at Lighthouse International for an invited audience, an older black woman stood up during the Q&A session and exclaimed, “I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack!” She was clearly very upset. Similarly, Kerry Washington, who plays Broomhilda, said she began to feel unhinged when she performed some of the more extreme scenes. “I knew how important the story was,” she explained. “I knew I would have to go places emotionally that were unimaginable to me. I don’t know how any of my ancestors were able to live through that time. On the day that we shot Broomhilda’s whipping scene, Quentin played gospel music on set. The music reminded us that we were telling a story that honored the people that had come before us, that Django was telling a hero’s story out of all the ugliness. That’s why I had to do the movie.”
In the past, Tarantino has been blithe about the response to his films, especially when critics decried his use of violence. When discussing Django, he seemed more sensitive. “When the woman stood up at the screening, I felt terrible for her.” Tarantino said. “She was shell-shocked by the film—she had put herself in the world of Django, and she was about to cry.” Tarantino paused. “That’s why the movie has a happy ending. Sometimes, film can right the wrongs.”
The night before our chat, Tarantino had been at a Museum of Modern Art gala celebrating his work. As he moved around the room during the cocktail hour, it was as if he were at a reunion. Dressed in an elegant black suit, a white shirt, and a skinny tie, the director looked like the character he played in one of his first films, Reservoir Dogs. He greeted his spiritual father, Harvey Weinstein—who produced his last six movies—and hugged Harvey Keitel. Keitel was the first actor to sign on to Reservoir Dogs, and, in all practical ways, he launched Tarantino’s career. After Keitel agreed to star in the movie, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi also committed to Dogs.
When Reservoir Dogs made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992, it became an immediate sensation: the first action movie for people who thought they were too cool for mainstream fare like Lethal Weapon. They didn’t yet know that Tarantino was not a hipster but a true believer in the power of all films, high and low. He has seen practically every movie ever made and strains to find the good in even the ones he doesn’t particularly admire. And like a biologist out to organize the physical universe, he yearns to create order in the cinematic cosmos. To that end, Tarantino groups films according to his own genres, such as “A Bunch of Guys on a Mission” (Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone), “Teacher I’ll Never Forget” (To Sir With Love and Dead Poets Society), “Two Girls and a Guy” (Jules and Jim, Bande à Part), and so on.
In recent years, Tarantino has deepened his film knowledge, writing treatises on his connect-the-dots categorizations. In a thoroughly entertaining, unpublished essay, Don and Bob in New Hollywood, he compares and contrasts the tough-guy directors Don Siegel (who was responsible for Dirty Harry and much of Eastwood’s ’70s oeuvre) and Robert Aldrich (who directed The Dirty Dozen as well as the horror-kitsch classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). The long essay is knowingly appreciative and has wonderful digressions. In one part, Tarantino waxes effusive on Burt Reynolds in Aldrich’s The Longest Yard as “the true embodiment of a redneck pimp daddy…wearing his chest hair like a suit of armor. The scene where Reynolds slaps his sugar mama to the floor shocked the hell out of me.”
Tarantino wrote the essay in 2010, but already he was unconsciously anticipating the complex and explosive reaction to Django. In Siegel’s gritty cop drama Dirty Harry, the protagonist is terrified by a shift in the America he has known. “It wasn’t the government these people were frightened of,” Tarantino writes. “It was society…the ’70s painted a mosaic of America that was unrecognizable to many citizens.” In the same vein but in a different context, Django depicts an America that most Americans want to erase and forget. Although diametrically opposed in their politics, both movies show, as Tarantino writes, “a world gone wild.”
Tarantino is careful to avoid a subtextual analysis of his own films. “It’s not for me to say what the themes of my movies are,” he said as he escorted Nichole Galicia (photographed here), who plays Sheba, a pampered slave “pony” in Django into the theater at MoMA for a screening of highlights from his films. He was in a celebratory mood, and not interested in controversy. He settled in the third row (his preferred spot for viewing all movies), surrounded by Galicia, Diane Kruger, who starred in Inglourious Basterds, and Lawrence Bender, the coproducer on all but two of Tarantino’s films.
Kruger took the stage and extolled the virtues of Tarantino’s strong female characters, who are never simply arm candy for the male protagonists. As Kruger pointed out, in movies like Kill Bill Volume 1 and Volume 2, the leads were all women, and they were every bit as fierce as any man. Kruger was followed by the director and film scholar Peter Bogdanovich, who spoke about living in Tarantino’s guesthouse in Los Angeles and watching films with him. “Quentin asked me if I saw how much I had influenced him in Jackie Brown,” Bogdanovich said. “And I said, ‘Frankly, no!’ ‘Oh, come on,’ Quentin continued. ‘Didn’t you see how they were all hanging out? I took that from your film They All Laughed.’ ” Bogdanovich paused. “I still didn’t get it. But thank you, Quentin.” After comparing him with the director Samuel Fuller, who worked in many genres and consistently attempted to expose the underbelly of humanity, Bogdanovich brought Tarantino to the stage.
When he speaks in public, Tarantino can often seem like an excited grad student. What is often misconstrued as self-promotion is actually a kind of contagious enthusiasm, not only for his own work but for the movies in general. “I love this theater,” Tarantino said, gesturing toward the screen. “I think of it as the Busby Berkeley theater. Years ago, when I was in New York, I saw that MoMA was having a Busby Berkeley festival—not just the films he choreographed but also the ones he directed. I went to the Busby Berkeley films here for three days straight, and it started to become obvious that there was a group of us staying to see all the movies. We left between films and had a meal together, then we came back to watch more Busby Berkeley.” For Tarantino, that was another perfect day, when instant community formed around the love of film. “I can’t think of anything better than that.”