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Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino interview

Quentin Tarantino directs Inglourious Basterds

Interview by Rob Carnevale

QUENTIN Tarantino talks to us about the painstaking process of writing and directing Inglourious Basterds, and why he decided to deviate from history.

He also talks about the films that inspired him, why he’s always completing projects with one eye on his filmography and how he goes about selecting the right music for each movie…

Q. Given how long this film has taken to write, what was moment you realised you had a movie?
Quentin Tarantino: One of the things about it was when I decided to chuck the first storyline that I came up with, which was the one that was turning it into this mini-series idea as opposed to a movie, and I came up with something I thought would be more of a movie. I was still nervous that I could still make it a movie. But I knew I didn’t want the movie to be any longer than Pulp Fiction and the only way I could do that was to make sure the script wasn’t any longer. That was something I had really got out of the habit of doing, starting from Jackie Brown through Kill Bill. I didn’t censor myself at all when it came to writing. I just thought: “I’m a writer, I’m gonna write, my s**t gets published!” Cut to Kill Bill Volume One and Two.

So, what I did every day was I had the script of Pulp Fiction just always right next to me. So, when I was writing my story I would get maybe 20 pages done and then I would look at the Pulp Fiction script and say: “OK, where was I at page 42 on Pulp Fiction? Okay I was at this place. Where am I now and how much more story do I have to tell?” It’s the closest I have come to policing my work but it was simply in an effort so the thing didn’t become elephantine, especially due to the fact I was trying to get it done for Cannes [2009]. I knew I wouldn’t have all the time in the world. I really didn’t have the luxury of shooting a bunch of s**t I wasn’t going to use, even though that happened anyway… but it wasn’t going to happen with impunity. But literally the thing was it wasn’t until I got into the third act that I realised that I think this is going to work. It wasn’t like I had another hour in front of me, no, I think I can actually wrap this up in a movie form.

Q. Were there films that inspired you for this?
Quentin Tarantino: There weren’t any really specific movies themselves that I drew inspiration from, it was more genres and sub genres or spirits of films that were inspiring to me. For instance, when I first sat down to write I was thinking of a bunch of guys on a mission movie and so the touchstones, the films I had talked about before I even wrote the thing were Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, Devil’s Brigade and Dark of the Sun. And I still love those movies. But having said that, what I found so inspirational when I was doing the movie was watching a lot of the movies made in the ’40s, that people disparagingly called American propaganda movies.

I don’t like that term because I really like those movies and a lot of them were done by foreign directors who were now living in Hollywood because they couldn’t live in their home countries because the Nazis had occupied them. In that case, you’re talking about Jean Renoir with This Land Is Mine, you’re talking about Fritz Lang with Man Hunt and Hangmen Also Die, you’re talking about Jules Dassin with Nazi Agent and Reunion in France, and you’re talking about Douglas Sirk with Hitler’s Hangman.

Q. What about them interests you?
Quentin Tarantino: The thing that was very interesting to me was these were movies made exactly at the time of World War Two when the Nazis weren’t this theoretical evil boogie man from the past but were actually a threat. This was actually taking place on the Planet Earth. Not only that, these directors, many of them actually had personal experience of the Nazis. Can you imagine a world where Jean Renoir can’t live in France? And obviously all of these directors had people that they were concerned about back in their home countries, yet these movies are entertaining. They can be thrilling. And yet they are so literate. The dialogue in these movies is so fantastic.

So, these were the movies that I got a tremendous amount of inspiration from. Not that I did anything stylistically that was like them. I didn’t shoot them in black and white and I didn’t try to recreate them. I might be inspired maybe by their sense of set design because that was the way I was going to go, was to build sets. But there is nothing stylistically that you can link my movie with theirs other than, hopefully, entertainment value. But those were there ones that I found myself very inspired by.

Q. Given the last line in the movie, would you consider this to be your masterpiece as one of the characters suggests?
Quentin Tarantino: I didn’t have that line until it came time to writing that line. When I was writing that scene that was the line that he said. So, yes, it was definitely in the script. Not to be coy, it’s not for me to say as it’s not for the chicken to speak of his own soup. And if I were to have that opinion that opinion wouldn’t be valid for at least three years from now, when I look back on it. But I do believe that Aldo does believe that as far as all of his engravings are concerned this might be his finest.

Q. When did you decide how Hitler would die?
Quentin Tarantino: I was pretty much up against it, heading into the climax of the piece. I had no intention of doing that before. One of the things when you write, well the way I write, is that you are writing your scenario and there are different roads that become available that the characters could go down. Screenwriters will have a habit of putting road blocks up against some of those roads because basically they can’t afford to have their characters go down there because they think they are writing a movie or trying to sell a script or something like that. I have never put that kind of imposition on my characters. Wherever they go I follow.

But when it came to writing this movie naturally I cam across some of those road blocks and one of them in particular was history itself. And I was more or less prepared to honour that until I actually came up against it and I said: “No, I refuse! I have never done that before and now is not the time to start.” And what I mean by that is this. My characters don’t know they are part of history. History has not been written yet. They don’t know that there are things they can and can’t do. There is no can and can’t, there is only action and reaction… The way I look at it is this – my characters change the course of history. That didn’t happen because my characters didn’t exist, but if they had existed everything that happens is actually quite plausible.

Q. When did you decide to have one of your characters be a film critic? And did you have a bone to pick with critics?
Quentin Tarantino: I don’t have any bone to pick with critics [laughs]. In fact, if I wasn’t a filmmaker I would probably be a film critic. Most of my bone is I would be a better film critic than most of the film critics I read. And talk about there is never a time to kick a dog while it is down. I mean I never thought that some of the critics that I have grown up and admired reading would be going the way of the Dodo bird. I think it is a very sad time in film criticism given what is going on with them now. No, I love Archie. Archie Hicox is awesome. He’s terrific and it’s not just a weird flight of fancy.

I mean I vaguely based the idea on Graham Green who was a film critic and wjo was also a commando in World War Two. Also, again it makes sense. He would be somebody who was an expert on German cinema in the ’20s. He could go to a Third Reich film shindig and be able to mix it up with the hoi polloi and get it across. So, I actually thought it was a very clever way of doing the mission.

Q. Can you talk to us a little about how you choose your music for each film?
Quentin Tarantino: Music is very, very important in my movies. It happens in kind of a three-way stage. In some ways the most important stage, whether it ends up being in the movie or not, is just when I come up with the idea itself before I have actually sat down and started writing. I go into my record room… I have a big vinyl collection and I have a room kind of set up like a used record store and I just dive into my music, whether it be rock music, or lyric music, or my soundtrack collection. What I’m looking for is the spirit of the movie, the beat that the movie will play with. And part of that is, I have nearly jumped to the screening process in a way because when I find the right piece of music with the right cinematic set piece, and it is usually big s**t, big stuff, like the opening credits or some set piece, I can actually visualise myself sitting in a movie theatre and watching it on screen.

The images are provided by my imagination but the music is right there and I am cranking it and all through the writing process I am always going back there to reinvigorate myself or remind myself of what it is I am doing and keep remembering that it is not just words on the page, because I am a very precious writer. I can get a little caught up in that, to remind myself that I’m making a movie and that process continues to go on during the shooting. And that is the second way.

The third way is when I’m editing and sometimes there’s a big moment or something I have had in my mind forever and it’s not quite right when you put it up against the images, so you find something else. But what is interesting about doing it in the editing process is that it’s less about the big moments and now I’m thinking more minutia. Now it’s more the smaller moments that need a little musical accompaniment and what becomes really fun is looking for these really small moments, these really small cues from some obscure soundtrack.

Q. Do you think about what you do in what stage of your career or do you just have these stories and you have to write them?
Quentin Tarantino: It truly is kind of a mix of the two, which I guess is probably what it should be. I mean I guess you could say if I was too Machiavellian about it I wouldn’t have done Grindhouse with Robert [Rodriguez]. In that case I just wanted to do it because it seemed like a fun thing to do. We didn’t know it was going to turn into this year long thing and become such a big f*****g deal. It was supposed to be this cool little fun thing that we did over the summer. We kind of got derailed as far as our initial idea was concerned, even though I’m a real fan of the movie.

So there is an element of: “I am interested in this story, it excites me and I want to do it.” But I am thinking about my career… well, f**k the word career, I am thinking about my filmography. I believe a filmmaker lives or dies by their filmography and if you muck about too much then you have just cheapened your entire artistic standing. I admire directors that retire at a certain age so they don’t just cheapen their filmography with four limp dick old man movies at the end of it.

That was one of the ideas behind the idea of saying something like “the fourth film by Quentin Tarantino”. You can say that is self-aggrandising and maybe it is to some degree but the thing is, and I am not counting them that way anymore, but I think it is realistic to say your first movie is your first movie because there’s something very special about that and your second movie is your second movie and so on. And the fact that Kill Bill was my first movie in six years was a big f*****g deal. So, I was thinking in terms like that and I probably will tend to think in terms like that because I’m a student of cinema and I see where directors have gone wrong… or at least where I think they have gone off track, or there is not that excitement about their work that happened before. I frankly don’t want that to happen [to me].

Q. Having lived with the film for ten years and now seeing it on screen, what are the moments you are most proud of?
Quentin Tarantino: I will boil it down to the two matchheads. Firstly, the opening sequence. That is everything I ever hoped it could be, and that is a three-way collaboration because I definitely did my job when I wrote but it never would have been what it is without Christoph Waltz and Denis Menochet. It’s impeccable.

The other moment in the movie that I’m probably the most cinematically satisfied with… where it was exactly the way it was in my head and I almost can’t believe it got nailed to such a degree, is the sequence in the projection booth with Shosanna and Frederick Zoller. The music, the slow motion, the effect of the camera coming up and seeing this almost twisted Romeo and Juliet type of tableau on the floor as the film reel continues to go on and they manage to still be alive even though we see that they are dead, they live on in film. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to get enraptured in my own f*****g work. But that is the moment that I go: “Oh my God!”

Read our review of Inglourious Basterd