“I read this in a book about Bette Davis: she said that anybody who does an interview drinking alcohol is a damned fool. When I read that, I thought ‘Oh my god. She’s right! What the fuck have I been doing my whole career?’” Quentin Tarantino offers me a glass of red wine from a recently opened bottle that’s about half full when I arrive to the backyard of his house way up in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the darkening green-ridged canyons at dusk on a hot August evening. “I hope you’re a damned fool too!” he exclaims, pulling out a chair for me. Seated at a table by the pool outside of the large and rambling house he bought in 1997 when he was in pre-production on Jackie Brown, Tarantino is in baggy jeans and a brown hoodie, and because he is the ultimate auteur movie geek—I’ve never met anyone with such an encyclopedic knowledge of film, as well as being a celebrity who refreshingly shares his likes and dislikes—we are soon talking about our mutual affection for the movie critic Pauline Kael, a huge influence on Tarantino in terms of her championing a kind of hi-low trash-art aesthetic that was inclusive to both foreign auteurs like Max Ophuls and Satyajit Ray and Jean-Luc Godard as well as 70s mavericks like Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma, while disdaining the polite, better-behaved American cinema of that era, and Tarantino and I are noting that she was so much more vital and interesting in the 1970s, citing her three seminal collections (Deeper Into Movies, Reeling, When the Lights Go Down), than anything she published in the 1980s. “The movies just weren’t up to snuff—she was better than the movies,” Tarantino says, hunching forward, swirling the wine in his glass, a believer that the 1980s and the 1950s represented the worst decades for American film. “What the fuck is she going to say about Switching Channels?” (She liked it.) “But one of the weird things looking back at the 1970s reviews is that you can’t believe how mean she was to all of these magnificent 70s movies. She’s so mean to Don Siegel for making Charley Varrick. She’s rough on the Lina Wertmuller movies, and I think Lina Wertmuller is amazing.” Now you might not think Charley Varrick is “magnificent” (though it kind of is with 40 years of hindsight and you can see its influence on Tarantino in just about every frame) or the faddish and popular Giancarlo Giannini movies Wertmuller made in Italy that decade are “amazing” but the fact that Tarantino is so enthusiastic in his adolescent passion moves you closer to thinking: did I miss something? “If we’re comparing cinema now to the era of the New Hollywood film from 1967-75—basically to the opening of Jaws—we don’t have anything that can even touch that culture now. It’s an era unto itself.”
Tarantino hasn’t been to many new movies in the last year while working on his opus The Hateful Eight, but he offers, along with the wine, snapshot reactions about one or two recent films and a few auteurs. The last current movie he saw was Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E: “The first half was really funny and terrific but in the whole second half I’m like ‘Oh wait a minute, we were supposed to care about the bomb? What the fuck is going on here? I was supposed to pay attention to the stupid story?’ Henry Cavill was fantastic but I didn’t like the girl at all.” (He notes fairly that he hasn’t seen Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina where a very different actress is on display.) Pixar’s Inside Out? “Haven’t seen it yet but Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece and was my favorite movie of that year.” David Fincher? “I’m excited to go see every movie David Fincher does. Even when I don’t like them I walk around thinking about them for a week or so.” Wes Anderson? “I loved Bottle Rocket but I never thought Rushmore was as funny as everybody else did because I didn’t like Max. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not really the thing I would think I’d love but I kind of loved it. The fact that I wasn’t a diehard Anderson fan before made me even more happy that I could finally embrace him.” Judd Apatow? “His audience is getting smaller and smaller but I think he’s getting better and better.” On Godard now: “He gave me rock-star excitement and he took me to so many places I needed to go but I feel I’ve outgrown him drastically. I’ve outgrown everything I thought was so sexy about his work.” On Hitchcock: “I’m not the biggest Hitchcock fan and I actually don’t like Vertigo and his 1950s movies—they have the stink of the 50s which is similar to the stink of the 80s. People discover North by Northwest at 22 and think it’s wonderful when actually it’s a very mediocre movie. I’ve always felt that Hitchcock’s acolytes took his cinematic and story ideas further. I love Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock movies. I love Richard Franklin’s and Curtis Hanson’s Hitchcock meditations. I prefer those to actual Hitchcock.” And Tarantino also prefers—passionately defends—Gus Van Sant’s meta art-manque shot-by-shot remake of Psycho over the original Hitchcock film.
Tarantino has been submerged in post on The Hateful Eight, which opens in December on Christmas Day in a few select cities in 70mm as a roadshow presentation on film complete with an intermission before opening wide in digital theaters in January. In-fact Tarantino is so obsessed with the idea of 70mm that he has arranged for fifty theaters worldwide to be retrofitted with anamorphic-equipped 70 mm film projectors so the film can be displayed as he intended. This was present in the first draft of the script where an opening description reads: “A breathtaking 70mm filmed (as is the whole movie) snow covered mountain range.” “I’ve been very on-edge the last three weeks,” he says affably relaxed, pouring another glass of wine, the sky darkening, the canyons receding into blackness behind him. “We’d be sitting pretty if it wasn’t for the 70mm. It’s just that it takes the lab work twice as long. And because of the 70 mm aspect I didn’t want to get used to watching it on an Avid. So we go to the Director’s Guild every Wednesday and screen footage of what we’ve done so far there. It’s awesome.” The Hateful Eight stars Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern and Jennifer Jason Leigh and its genesis had to do with the idea of fusing two genres: the parlor-room mystery with the wide-screen large-scale western.
“I wanted to do a Western that was a little less like the classic Western movie and more like the classic Western episode of TV shows: The Virginian, Bonanza, The Big Valley. There was always at least twice a season an episode where bandits take over the Ponderosa or Shiloh Ranch and they’d all be played by guest stars—Vic Morrow and Charles Bronson and Claude Akins and James Coburn—and I wasn’t really trying to take the idea from Reservoir Dogs but it couldn’t help lend itself to a situation like Reservoir Dogs: trap them all in a room and let me get rid of all the hero characters. Let me get rid of all the Little Joe’s and the Trampus’s so there’s no moral center. These are all questionable people and they’re all pretty fucking hateful. So: trap these guys in a room during a blizzard, and let’s just see what happens, and also play with the mystery idea. But I’m also dealing with this taking place eight or nine years after the Civil War and the country is still torn apart by it and so angry about it and their lives have been turned upside down. So the movie ended up dealing with the raw racial problem that’s going on right now even though I wasn’t thinking about that when I sat down to write it. It was just this cool, neat, genre scenario.”
We talk about the differences between TV and movies, and how TV relies on a kind of relentless storytelling whose main job is to constantly dispense information, while movies depend much more on visual mood and atmosphere—TV is a writers medium and movies are a directors medium. The notion of a Golden Age of Television being extolled as art is now considered something of a media-made joke that is finally being publicly deconstructed by critics, journalists and showrunners alike. The intelligentsia drifted away from movies as an art form and started concentrating on TV, and began prizing information and exposition over visual art where the movie medium uses the camera as a character, and where the best movies look very different from the best TV, because they have the money and the time to create visual mood and atmosphere. Even the best TV shows have sets that look a little ragged and threadbare because of the reality of TV economics—and to Tarantino this matters. The bigness of Tarantino’s recent movies—Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained and now The Hateful Eight—feel like a rebuke to the smallness of TV and its increasing relevance to audiences, a fight against watching a series of medium shots and close-ups where exposition is exchanged (there are no Tarantino-like digressions anywhere in TV) on your computer, your iPad, your iPhone and is the preferred norm. The belief in visual spectacle is part of Tarantino’s message in the era of YouTube, Instagram and Netflix.
“I think we spent 60-something million on Hateful Eight—which is actually more than I wanted to spend but we had weather problems and—“ he shrugs, laughing “—I wanted to make it good. I like the idea that I can write one of my scripts that ends up being a four hour movie, as opposed to cutting it down and trying to make it work in two hours and forty-five minutes. Now if I do a five-hour movie for television, I would be very lucky to have 66 million dollars and five months to shoot it. I’m not going to have to bum rush my fucking way through my material. I can make it organically and I can make it the way I want. Just getting through material is what a lot of television is. They’re getting through pages. Now, they’re getting through it a lot better than they used to do on Jake and the Fat Man or Hunter, but it’s still very far away from what I do on Hateful Eight which took five months to shoot.” Unlike many filmmakers exhausted by the dwindling financial resources to make movies and who have drifted over to television, the reason Tarantino hasn’t is because, well, he doesn’t have to. His last two movies were global blockbusters as well as being heavily nominated for Academy Awards, critical hits that also made hundreds of millions of dollars—why would Tarantino possibly want to move toward the long-form confines of digital TV and away from the grandeur of what the creamy grain of film can offer on a massive 70mm screen away from your home in the dark?
Tarantino’s first two movies are small-scale LA-set crime dramas and they represent one of the purest expressions of an ironic Gen-X sensibility that exist in American movie culture. When it opened, Reservoir Dogs was much talked-about but little seen, yet it paved the way for a new kind of movie, exploding into the malevolent glee of Pulp Fiction and the audience was ready for it, in the way that the audience was ready for Nirvana—transcending a genre by inventing new tropes. All of Tarantino’s movies are resolutely Gen-X movies: the dialogue is theatrical and profane, there are no heroes, the criminal is at the center as the guiding moral authority, pitch-black humor and gleeful nihilism, endless pop-culture references, an exquisite taste in pop music from earlier era’s, extreme and nasty violence, nonlinear storytelling and ambiguity. Violence for Tarantino is a flourish, an upending of our expectations for representations of movie violence to be moral, when in-fact violent sequences for Tarantino are as essential to the American movie as the musical number and the car chase; they are about the dramatic and comedic and visual possibilities of violence—the sadism is played both straight and for laughs, staged with an unflinching punk bravado. (“It’s not blood, it’s red,” Godard once murmured when someone complained about the violence in one of his films.) As hugely influential as these movies were (there seemed to be thousands of terrible rip-offs throughout the 90s and into the 2000s) it’s impossible now to think of an earnest 28 year-old millennial dreaming up something as bloody and perverse and lurid as Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs or anything else he’s made—these are not sensitive, aspirational social-issue movies, urging inclusivity and reveling in victimization. In an era where a generation is obsessed with triggering and micro-aggressions and the policing of language, the Tarantino oeuvre is relentlessly un-PC: his movies are impolite, rude, irresponsible and somewhat cold. And the further Tarantino goes, especially with his racially explosive comedy-western Django Unchained, the larger the audience has become, which suggests that there is a big disconnect in the PC culture the media likes to extoll versus the reality hunger of audiences who seem to reject certain “positive” representations of identity politics when it comes to their movies.
And the long dialogue-driven scenes, rambling and digressive, are often played out in real time (there are two remarkable examples of this in Inglourious Basterds), free of exposition and embedded within the strange, leisurely and byzantine plots Tarantino constructs which are nothing like what a screenwriter was taught by screenwriting gurus Syd Field or Robert McKee—the idea of the well-structured, three-act picture with the inciting incident on page 15 along with properly motivated characters seems idiotic and fake in Tarantino’s world. These handbook ideas are shattered and then rearranged once again in Tarantino’s masterpiece Inglourious Basterds, a rollicking, harrowing WW II comic-pastiche as well as a brilliant meditation on movies themselves. It’s one of the great movies of the past decade: playful, erudite, funny, talky, suspenseful, madcap, meta, and it both loves and laughs at the conventions of WW II movies while reimagining and updating them. It’s much more sweeping, outrageous and formally inventive than Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, the other war movie that came out the summer of 2009, which is a serious, straightforward, humanist-realist character study that makes earnest liberal audiences feel both guilty and self-congratulatory, and because of this, Inglourious Basterds, of course, lost to The Hurt Locker at the 2010 Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay.
“It bugged the shit out of me that Marc Boal won for Best Screenplay—it really, really pissed me off,” Tarantino now admits. “The Kathryn Bigelow thing—I got it. Look, it was exciting that a woman had made such a good war film, and it was the first movie about the Iraq War that said something. The fact that she was a woman and the fact that she had been around a long time—and I was the hugest fan of Near Dark and I had been following her a long time and I’m not saying she won something because she was a woman—there was this wonderful Obama-like thing with her coming home with the Oscar and I couldn’t begrudge that. It was a good movie. It wasn’t like I lost to something dreadful. It’s not like E.T. losing to Gandhi. There was never any doubt that it wasn’t going to happen. That year, of course The Hurt Locker was going to win.”
We touch on this years Oscar’s and the supposed snubbing of Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King movie Selma when it was mostly ignored by the Academy and which caused a kind of national sentimental-narrative outrage, compounded by the events in Ferguson, that branded the Academy voters as old and out-of-it racists, despite the fact that 12 Years A Slave had won Best Picture the year before. Tarantino shrugs diplomatically: “She did a really good job on Selma but Selma deserved an Emmy.” Django Unchained with its depictions of antebellum era institutionalized racism and mandingo fights and black self-hatred is actually a much more shocking, modern and forward-thinking movie than the pieties of Selma, and audiences turned it into the biggest hit of Tarantino’s career. But in the new identity politics era so redolent in social media, Django Unchained was attacked, among other things, for being written and directed by a white man. This controversy is not new to Tarantino—it has been tagging him ever since Pulp Fiction.
“The black intelligentsia make up their mind really early on whether they like you or not—and for the next twenty years that is their position,” Tarantino says. “If you’ve made money being a critic in black culture in the last twenty years you have to deal with me. You must deal with me. You must have an opinion on me. You must deal with my work and deal with what I’m saying and deal with the consequences.” He pauses, considers. “Overall, if you go through it, you’ll see it’s pretty evenly divided between pros and cons. But when the black critics came out with savage, savage think pieces about Django I could have cared less about social critics. If people don’t like my movies they don’t like my movies and if you don’t get it, it doesn’t matter. The bad taste that was left in my mouth had to do with: it’s been a long time since the subject of a writer’s skin was mentioned as often as mine. You wouldn’t think the color of a writer’s skin should have any effect on the words themselves. In a lot of the more ugly pieces my motives were really brought to bear in the most negative way. It’s like I’m some super villain coming up with this stuff.”
Tarantino says this is not necessarily new—marginalized groups attacking movies, of all things—but the problem with “socially conscious” filmmakers is that their work can suffer when they resist genre, which Tarantino prizes, and give into something more earnest and PSA-like. Jonathan Demme, for example, makes the noble AIDS drama about a dying gay lawyer, Philadelphia, after the success of his ghoulish Oscar-winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs, which was—hard to remember—boycotted by gay-rights groups in its depiction of Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who isn’t transsexual but believes himself to be. Tarantino sympathizes with what Demme’s intentions might have been in making Philadelphia after the complaints of The Silence of the Lambs. “Look, it would be a drag if my movie won Best Picture and all these gay people were outside protesting the movie—that would be a big drag,” Tarantino says. “Well, it would probably be a bigger drag for Jodie Foster, but it would be a drag. And they were wrong when it came to The Silence of the Lambs, and part of being an artist and putting out your work is that sometimes people you would like to be on your side don’t get it. But you have to stand your ground and say ‘I wish I were on your side in this issue but I’m not and I think you’re wrong and I think it will be perceived as silliness as years go on.’” Tarantino doesn’t go negative on this—his optimism about the future of movies always surges forward full-force: “This is the best time to push buttons. This is the best time to get out there because now there actually is a genuine platform. And in this world where everybody lives with identity politics, you’re going to piss off a whole lot of people, and now your film has fervor. Now it’s being talked about.”
Ask him if the Marvel universe is ruining American film Tarantino scoffs and becomes, for the first time this evening, a little irritated. While promoting Birdman its director Alejandro Inarritu said “There’s nothing wrong with being fixated on superheroes” (and by extension super-hero movies) “when you are 7 years old, but I think there’s a disease in not growing up” and that superhero movies are “very right wing” and a “poison” and a “cultural genocide” and that they have effectively blocked the mid-level movie about adults from being made ever again by the studios. Tarantino argues: “What I find fraudulent about comments like that is it’s as if they’re talking about now as opposed to any other time in the history of Hollywood. It’s different bottles and different wines but this has always been the case. I actually don’t believe that there are four other worthwhile movies that Disney would be making instead of Ironman 3 or Thor 2.” Tarantino pours the rest of the wine into his glass, speaking, as always, effusively. “It’s not that I’m a terminal optimist—I just have a really good memory and I remember hearing that kind of bitching in the 70s and 80s. You could take the entire argument about superhero movies and make it about disaster movies. Frankly, Iron Man is better than Airport ‘75 or The Towering Inferno, which I watched again recently—and it’s shocking how awful that movie is and it got nominated for Best Picture!”
Filmmakers have been complaining about the loss of film and the move to digital for many years now, with James Gray, who likens making a film with actually painting a movie, lamenting the fact that he doesn’t have access when shooting digitally to paint with, for example, a cadmium red anymore, and others like Noah Baumbach (who Tarantino calls “our Paul Mazursky”) have accepted not being able to shoot on film but also appreciates the freedom to shoot as much as he wants to digitally, and others who say that with apps and technology there will soon be a time when you will be able to shoot something that looks like it was shot on film in 1974. Bringing this subject up is the only time tonight that Tarantino becomes slightly hushed—preserving film has been an obsessive mission of his as a cinephile. “People don’t realize how close we came to losing film last summer,” he says, suddenly still. “It was all going to go away. Kodak almost closed the only plant making 35-millimeter. They were going to close the plant, make a big order and stash it for the next three years before it goes bad and then whatever you make in those three years is what you’ve got. Christopher Nolan is a true, true hero. He corralled everybody. He talked to the studios. He talked to the directors. We got a stay of execution. We got a reprieve. I think it’s all going to work out fine. The idea is that at least it’s able to end up being a boutique option.” He pauses. “Believe me, Kodak wants filmmakers to buy film from them. They’re not coy about the film they want to sell.”
An assistant interrupts and reminds Tarantino that it’s after nine and that the movie Tarantino wants to see starts in twenty minutes, and so we get into Tarantino’s yellow 2006 Mustang GT, and while listening to a selection of Tarantino’s mixtapes, head down through the winding empty canyons, to the flatlands of Hollywood to the New Beverly Cinema, a revival theater Tarantino bought in 2007 and last fall became its programming director, often using prints from his private collection as well as prints from various studio libraries—and where he only screens double features on 35 mm. He parks in a space in back and we walk around the corner to a darkened and deserted stretch of Beverly Boulevard. Outside the theater there are clusters of hipster kids milling about under the marquee, smoking, looking at their phones, some of them glancing up as Tarantino approaches. Modern Times and an obscure Chaplin movie that I had never seen much less heard about called The Circus is tonight’s double feature. Tarantino bounds through the lobby, down one aisle and then up another to the four seats that have been reserved for him in the fifth row of the house which seats about 250 and is more than half-full tonight—a surprisingly good turnout for a Monday night, Tarantino notes settling into the aisle seat. As someone who hadn’t been to the New Beverly since I had haunted it throughout my adolescence and into my twenties I’m surprised both by how refurbished it is: new seats and a new screen, and isn’t: the men’s bathroom is still the closet it always was and the lobby is so tiny that the line for the concession stand can snake into the aisles of the theater itself. Tonight there are previews of two Wertmuller and Giancarlo Giannini collaborations from the 70s—Love and Anarchy and Swept Away and then The Circus turns out to be a delight even though the print is scratchy and roughed-up and missing frames. The young audience laughs loudly throughout the movie—and it is genuinely funny Chaplin—and there are cheers once the picture ends. Afterwards Tarantino and I stand outside beneath the marquee, still a little buzzed from the red wine and the delights of the Chaplin movie, until the kids milling about start gathering up the nerve to approach him and after one does, a line forms. Tarantino talks to everyone, his grin never faltering, sustaining an infectious enthusiasm as fan after fan professes their thanks and gratitude—for his movies, the theater, for just talking to them tonight on an empty stretch of Beverly Boulevard on a Monday near the end of summer—he’s eminently approachable but, interestingly enough, no pictures are allowed. It seems that Tarantino could keep this up all night but a friend reminds him that they should get a bite to eat before a nearby restaurant closes.
When I mention how remarkably bracing the communal experience of watching a movie on a screen with a large and willing audience is—and with an actual print—after watching so much television alone or renting movies on Apple, Tarantino nods and agrees, continuing his rally against the digitizing of the movie-going experience: “If Buzzy the kid who does the popcorn and hits play on the menu then we’re just there watching HBO in public and I don’t need to watch HBO with a bunch of strangers. Seeing a print of something is different. When they have revivals and they’re showing a digital restoration of Breathless, I’ve got my own print of Breathless and I’m sure it’s just as good as their shit.” He pauses. “Now, a new print of Breathless is a different story.”