When PLAYBOY interviewed Quentin Tarantino in 2003, it had been six years since the release of Jackie Brown, and as he prepared for the release of Kill Bill, the question loomed: Could Tarantino, who had broken all the rules, changed the crime genre with Reservoir Dogs and the Oscar-winning Pulp Fiction and spawned a legion of imitators, keep it up?
By the time Uma Thurman sliced and diced her way to vengeance for the massacre at her wedding, the clear answer was yes. Nine years later, nobody questions Tarantino’s staying power anymore. His patented formula: reinventing established genres, mining his encyclopedic knowledge of film, writing dialogue that attracts big stars and injecting his unique sensibility and skewed worldview into otherwise predictable events. The result is an original blend that, along with his outsize personality, has transformed him into one of the few directors whose name means something at the box office. With a deal that gives him final cut, a large percentage of gross and the kind of autonomy most directors can only dream of, Tarantino writes his own rules. With the exception of Grindhouse—the B-movie homage he made with his From Dusk Till Dawn collaborator Robert Rodriguez—Tarantino’s movies have all made money.
After Kill Bill, Tarantino even rewrote history, killing Hitler and his Third Reich cronies in Inglourious Basterds, a violent wish-fulfillment fantasy. The film garnered eight Oscar nominations (and a best supporting actor trophy for Christoph Waltz) and became Tarantino’s most financially successful film to date, with $321 million in worldwide ticket sales. Now Tarantino is back with Django Unchained. Just as Inglourious Basterds started out as a Dirty Dozen–style mission movie, Tarantino began with the goal of writing a spaghetti Western. Only he set it in the antebellum South, and its protagonist is a slave (Jamie Foxx) who is freed by a bounty hunter–dentist (Waltz) and taught the bounty-hunting trade. Django is on a collision course with a plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has consigned Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), to sexual servitude. The depiction of female slaves forced to engage in sex with their masters and males pitted against one another in brutal to-the-death brawls is sure to raise controversy, but subtlety has never been Tarantino’s favorite technique.
We sent writer Michael Fleming (who conducted our recent Tom Cruise interview as well as the interview with Tarantino in 2003) to catch up with the writer-director. Fleming reports: “Quentin, now 49, has certainly matured from the filmmaker who told raucous tales of brawling with cabdrivers and taking ecstasy at the Great Wall of China while filming Kill Bill. We met at his house high in the hills of Los Angeles, a home that sports a great view of the Valley. The first thing I noticed when I drove up was the gaudily painted Pussy Wagon, the bright yellow Chevy Silverado SS that Uma Thurman drives in Kill Bill. Above that is a drive-in movie theater sign, a prop from Grindhouse.
“His house is filled with movie memorabilia. Posters for unexpected films—Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, for example—hang on one wall, and I think I spotted oversize green Hulk hands. You can tell Tarantino is still single and able to indulge his voracious appetite for all things movies, because no wife would put up with it.”
PLAYBOY: Is that the real Pussy Wagon in the driveway, the one the Bride drives in Kill Bill?
TARANTINO: Oh, yeah.
PLAYBOY: Do you actually drive it?
TARANTINO: I haven’t in a little bit. It was kind of fucked-up because it just sat there for a long time while I was off filming. We just got it looking nice again.
PLAYBOY: It’s probably not the best car for Quentin Tarantino to be driving if discretion is the goal.
TARANTINO: No, but it’s fun to do the opposite sometimes, to cruise with the windows down. You take the big, long Malibu drive and everybody is like, “Hey, it’s Quentin.” That’s fun.
PLAYBOY: You killed Hitler in Inglourious Basterds, with Jewish soldiers scalping Nazis. In Django Unchained you have a liberated slave turned bounty hunter who takes on the slave masters who turned his wife into a prostitute. Hollywood is recycling fairy tales, from Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz. Are you doing a more creative version by crafting revisionist-history fables that allow victims of loathsome events to rise up and have their day?
TARANTINO: It’s in the eye of the beholder to say if it’s more creative or not, but that is what I’m doing, partly because I would just like to see it. You turn on a movie and know how things are going to go in most films. Every once in a while films don’t play by the rules. It’s liberating when you don’t know what’s happening next. Most of the movies that have done that did it accidentally, like they punched into a contraband area they hadn’t quite thought all the way through. But for that moment in the film, it is liberating. I thought, What about telling these kinds of stories my way—rough and tough but gratifying at the end?
PLAYBOY: What movie sparked this idea?
TARANTINO: When it came to Inglourious Basterds, there was a movie done in 1942, Hitler—Dead or Alive. It was just as America had entered the war. A rich guy offers a million-dollar bounty on Hitler’s life. Three gangsters come up with a plan to kill Hitler. They parachute into Berlin and work their way to where Hitler is. It’s a wacky movie that goes from being serious to very funny. The gangsters get Hitler, and when they start beating the fuck out of him, it is just so enjoyable. They shave his mustache off, cut off that lock of hair and take his shit off so he looks like a regular guy. The Nazis show up, and Hitler, who doesn’t look like Hitler anymore, is like, “Hey, it’s me!” And they beat the shit out of him. I thought, Wow, this is fucking hysterical.
PLAYBOY: When viewers get to the end of Inglourious Basterds, the common reaction is, Wait, is Tarantino allowed to change history like this?
TARANTINO: That wasn’t the jumping-off point for the film—it didn’t come to me till just a little bit before I wrote it. I’d written all day and was meditating about what the next day’s work was going to be. I was listening to music, pacing around, and finally I just grabbed a pen, went over to a piece of paper and wrote, “Just fucking kill him.” I put it near my bedside table so I would see it when I woke up the next morning and could decide after a night’s sleep if it was still a good idea. I saw it, paced around awhile and said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” I went out on the balcony and started writing. And I just fucking killed him. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: You’ve also mixed history with fiction in Django Unchained. Did you study films or history to capture pre–Civil War life in the Deep South?
TARANTINO: You could make a case for watching World War II movies, if only to learn the clichés that help storytelling by giving the audience what they’re used to. There are only a handful of real slave movies. To me this is a Western but set in the Deep South. What I was interested in as far as slavery was the business aspect: Humans as chattel—how did that work? How much did they cost? How many slaves did an average person in Mississippi have? How did auction houses work? What were the social strata inside a plantation?
PLAYBOY: What do you mean?
TARANTINO: In the case of Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Calvin Candie, is a plantation owner who has 65 square miles of land. He’s like Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright but in the South, one of a handful of cotton families in Mississippi. Anybody in that position is like a king in their own kingdom. All the poor whites who work for them and all the slaves are their subjects. They own everything as far as they can see, and the plantation is completely self-contained as a moneymaking entity. Candie is born into this, which means he doesn’t have to give a fuck about the business anymore; it takes care of itself. It’s a weird perversion of European aristocracy. That was a fascinating perspective to use with the whole story and with how Candie chooses to spend his time.