PLAYBOY: In the movie, slaves are raped and men fight against each other like pit bulls. When you made Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, you were criticized for liberal use of the N word. There’s plenty of that here. Are you sitting on a powder keg?
TARANTINO: Now I’m picturing myself sitting on a keg of TNT like a Looney Tunes cartoon. It remains to be seen, I guess. If we are, it’s not because I’m trying to be inflammatory. I’m just telling my story the way I’m telling it. I’m putting it in a spaghetti Western framework and highlighting the surreal qualities inherent in the material. I’m highlighting them mythically and operatically, and in terms of violence and gruesomeness, with pitch-black humor. That’s all part of the spaghetti Western genre, but I’m doing it about a section of history that couldn’t be more surreal, bizarre, cruel or perversely comedic when looked at from a certain view. They go hand in hand.
PLAYBOY: But the idea of portraying these slave women as prostitutes—
TARANTINO: Well, they’re not 100 percent prostitutes. The Cleopatra Club in the film is not a brothel. It’s a gentlemen’s club, a bring-your-own-bottle kind of place. There it’s bring your own pony, and you can have dinner with her.
PLAYBOY: Pony is the term for an attractive slave woman?
PLAYBOY: And that really existed?
TARANTINO: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think it’s the cornerstone of slavery, or one of the things that made it work. Aside from the labor force, it was the sex on demand. The minute people own other people, we all know that’s definitely part of it. Did they do that back then? Yes. They do that right now—go to Bangkok. The thing about the Cleopatra Club is, if you like your slave girl you can take her there. You can have dinner. You can socialize. If you are a guy who wants to take your pony and just fuck her for a night on the town, okay, you can do that. But maybe you actually love your girl and she’s kind of your de facto wife. This is a way to take her out and show her a good time.
PLAYBOY: You originally wanted Will Smith to play Django. How close did you come to getting him?
TARANTINO: We spent quite a few hours together over a weekend when he was in New York doing Men in Black 3. We went over the script and talked it out. I had a good time—he’s a smart, cool guy. I think half the process was an excuse for us to hang out and spend time with one another. I had just finished the script. It was cool to talk to someone who wasn’t guarded about what he was saying.
PLAYBOY: What did he have to say?
TARANTINO: That’s private stuff between us, but nothing negative.
PLAYBOY: He has to evaluate material partly based on his status as arguably the world’s biggest star and certainly its biggest African American star.
TARANTINO: Yeah, I know. But he didn’t walk away from it because he was scared of the material.
PLAYBOY: Why then?
TARANTINO: It just wasn’t 100 percent right, and we didn’t have time to try to make it that way. We left with me saying, “Look, I’m going to see other people.” He said, “Let me just see how I feel, and if you don’t find anybody, let’s talk again.” And then I found my guy.
PLAYBOY: Why Jamie Foxx?
TARANTINO: There are a lot of reasons I could say, but the gigantic one is that he was the cowboy. I met six different actors and had extensive meetings with all of them, and I went in-depth on all their work.
TARANTINO: Idris Elba. I got together with Chris Tucker, Terrence Howard, M.K. Williams.
PLAYBOY: Williams, from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire?
TARANTINO: Yes. I talked with Tyrese. They all appreciated the material, and I was going to put them through the paces, make them go off against one another and kind of put up an obstacle course. And then I met Jamie and realized I didn’t need to do that. Jamie understood the material. But mostly he was the cowboy. Forget the fact that he has his own horse—and that is actually his horse in the movie. He’s from Texas; he understands. We sat there talking, and I realized, Wow, if this were the 1960s and I was casting a Django Western TV show and they had black guys as stars of those in the 1960s, I could see Jamie on one of those. And that’s what I was looking for, a Clint Eastwood.
PLAYBOY: When Playboy interviewed Foxx several years ago, he talked about growing up in Texas. Even though he was the football team’s star quarterback, he was regularly called racist names and treated badly. How did that inform his performance?
TARANTINO: He understood what it’s like to be thought of as an “other.” Even though he’s on the football team, one of the stars, when he goes out with the pretty white girl in the school, everyone loses their minds. He understood what it’s like to be hired as a piano player in a big white Texas home. When you’re the black piano player at a cocktail party, you’re furniture. You don’t talk to nobody. No one talks to you. They’re not supposed to even think about you. They should be able to say anything they want to say because you are furniture.
PLAYBOY: So they can say something racist if they want.
TARANTINO: And they did.
PLAYBOY: And you’re invisible.
TARANTINO: That’s exactly it. He told me many stories like that, how the lady of the house is paying him, saying, “Look, I’m sorry about the things that some of the guests and my husband said. They didn’t mean anything by it. Here’s some cash.” He told me that once he showed up and they said, “Whoa, whoa, you need a jacket to come in here.” He said, “Oh, well, I would’ve brought one, but nobody told me.” And they said, “That’s okay. We got an extra jacket up there. I’ll get it for you.” They give him a jacket, he does his thing, and he’s getting ready to leave. “Okay, here’s your jacket.” They’re like, “Whoa, hey, that’s your jacket now, buddy. I don’t want that jacket.” They said that to his face.
PLAYBOY: How are you when actors ask you to change material?
TARANTINO: Well, somebody can actually have a good idea and come up with a neat “Hey, well, what if this happens?” Sometimes it’s “Oh, wow, that’s a good idea. Let me think about it.” People have given me good ideas. But it’s not like I hand in a script and get notes back. I’ll get notes back on the cut of the movie, but if people have a problem with the script, we’re probably not making the movie together. The studios that made Django also did Inglourious Basterds, and they were all happy. It was never an issue with all the subtitles in that film. Nobody said, “Can we try it in English?” They just knew it wasn’t the deal. The way it has worked with me since the beginning is, it’s all in the script. I might change something, but if you read and liked the script, you’ll probably like the movie.
PLAYBOY: When you shoot a slave movie in the Deep South, how does the community react?
TARANTINO: Sociologically one of the most interesting things went down when we were on the Don Johnson character’s plantation, Bennet Manor. He has cotton fields there, and he has cotton pickers—girls, men, children, old people. But he also has ponies, and he’s the one who sells pretty girls. That’s his big stock: He is a plantation pimp, and people come from far and wide to his plantation to buy one of his pretty girls. We had a bunch of extras from the community, St. John the Baptist Parish. It was cool, re-creating this history with black Southern extras whose families have lived there forever. They knew what went on back then. Then there was a social-dividing issue between the extras that mirrored the ones between their slave characters in the movie. The ponies were pretty, and they looked down on the extras playing cotton-picker slaves. They thought they were better than them. And the people playing the house servants looked down on the people playing the cotton pickers. And the cotton pickers thought the people playing the house servants and the ponies were stuck-up bitches. Then there was a fourth breakdown, between the darker skinned and the lighter skinned. Obviously not for everybody, and it wasn’t a gigantic problem, but it was something you noticed. They started mirroring the social situations of their characters, being on this plantation for a few weeks.
PLAYBOY: What about the local whites? Were they resentful?
TARANTINO: Well, frankly, there weren’t that many whites in the area on our set. We had local crew for sure, but there was no reason for whites in the area to be hanging around.
PLAYBOY: Leonardo DiCaprio was initially mentioned for the Hans Landa role that won Christoph Waltz an Academy Award in Inglourious Basterds. DiCaprio’s your new villain now.
TARANTINO: Leo and I never actually got together and talked about Inglourious Basterds. He was curious about playing the role, but I knew I needed somebody with all those linguistic skills. Leo can actually speak good German, but Landa spoke French in the movie more than German. So it was never in the cards. But Leo and I have hung out over the course of 15 years, and he likes my writing and makes sure he gets a copy of scripts I finish to see if there’s anything that might float his boat. He got this one and really liked Calvin Candie.
PLAYBOY: He called you?
PLAYBOY: When you wrote Candie, did you have anyone in mind?
TARANTINO: I did, but I don’t want to say who, simply because when I finished the script I realized they were a little older than I wanted the character to be. That’s a problem I have. I’ll be thinking about somebody and not take into account that I’m thinking of them from 20 years ago. Leo was younger than I had initially written, but I read it again and could see no reason why the character couldn’t be younger. And since I’m hitting hard this notion of the American South re-creating European aristocracy in this amateur make-it-up-as-you-go-along fashion, the notion of him as the boy emperor was cool. His daddy was a cotton man, his daddy’s daddy was a cotton man and so was his father before him. So Candie doesn’t have to do anything. It’s all set up, and he can be the petulant ruler with other interests. His passion is not cotton. It’s Mandingo fighting.
PLAYBOY: Is he a classic Tarantino villain?
TARANTINO: He’s the first villain I’ve ever written that I didn’t like. I hated Candie, and I normally like my villains no matter how bad they are. I see their point of view. I could see his point of view, but I hated it so much. For the first time as a writer, I just fucking hated this guy.