Django Unchained: Interview with Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino seems to be in high spirits, or at least relieved. His new movie, “Django Unchained,” an ultra-violent revenge Western, has just received its first press screening and the initial reaction is very positive.

Over the past year, he has been working around the clock to finish his picture for a 2012 release. In fact, “Django Unchained” is one of the last films to be released—on Christmas Day—in order to qualify for Oscar considerations.

Three years after he rewrote his pulpy WWII movie, “Inglourious Basterds,” which is his most successful work to date, even more popular than “pulp Fiction,” the movie that put him on the map, in 1994.

Set two years before the beginning of the Civil War, “Django Unchained” deals with the issue of slavery, albeit in a fictionalized way. As with “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino does not care much about matters of accuracy and authenticity. “Django Unchained” plays loose with facts, splicing together actual history and cinematic history into one outlandish adventure.

The tale centers a liberated slave (played by Jamie Foxx), who is assisted by a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) on a quest to save his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a cruel plantation owner, played by first-time villain Leonardo DiCaprio.

A hyper-violent, foul-mouthed, ruanchy action-adventure. “Django Unchained” pays homage to the Spaghetti Westerns of the like of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucchi.

Tarantino is prepared for all kinds of criticisms. He says that he conducted a lot of research for his scenario, but admits, “I am not obsessed with exactitude.” “There’s historical with a capital H, this almost arm’s-length, dusty record of things,” the director says. “But I wanted it to be vital and energetic. I wanted it to work as a Western, and I wanted it to work as an adventure film that would be thrilling and exciting to audiences.”

He elaborates: “I wanted to make a fun movie that while is not being exploitative, it’s also not pulling any punches about the sexuality and the brutality that was happening at that time.” “There is no setup for ‘Django,’ for what we’re trying to do,” he says, acknowledging the film’s potential for controversy. “Some people are going to respond badly to the film, and maybe they’ll blame me, and I guess that’s fair enough.”

Like all of the director’s work, beginning with his stunning debut, “Reservoir Dogs,” exactly two decades ago, “ “Django Unchained” is filtered through Tarantino’s unique sensibility and style. The idea for the film came to him while writing a book of criticism on Sergio Corbucci, spaghetti Western auteur and director of the original “Django,” made in 1966.

“I remember thinking, ‘I really like the description of this type of West, of this type of brutal pitiless landscape,’” says Tarantino. “Frankly I don’t know if Corbucci was thinking this, but I know I’m thinking it right now, and I can do it.’”
“Django Unchained”’s journey to the big screen began over ten years ago, when writer-director Quentin Tarantino first thought of the film’s main character, Django. “The initial germ of the whole idea was a slave who becomes a bounty hunter and then goes after overseers that are hiding out on plantations,” Tarantino recalls. “I just started writing, and Django presented himself to me. At the beginning he just was who he was – the sixth slave from the seventh on a chain gang line. But he just kept revealing himself to me more and more as I wrote.”

Although “Django Unchained” takes place in the Antebellum South, Tarantino found that Django’s story might best be represented as a Western. “I’ve always wanted to do a Western. I like all kinds of Westerns, but since Spaghetti Westerns have always been my favorite, I thought that the day I do one, it would be in that Sergio Corbucci universe,” Tarantino says.

For Tarantino, Westerns represented grand, masterful depictions of good and evil. He found that the genre’s scope and structure were fitting for this particular story of one man’s struggle to infiltrate a notorious plantation in order to rescue his wife. “It can’t be more nightmarish than it was in real life. It can’t be more surrealistic than it was in real life. It can’t be more outrageous than it was in real life,” Tarantino explains. “It’s unimaginable to think of the pain and the suffering that went on in this country, making it perfect for a Spaghetti Western interpretation. The reality fits into the biggest canvas that you could think of for this story.”

Shortly following the release of “Ïnglourious,” Tarantino worked feverishly on the screenplay for ”Django Unchained.” Christoph Waltz, an Academy Award-winner for “Ïnglourious” was present for much of the creative process. “I read the script as it was in the making,” Waltz, who plays Dr. King Schultz, remembers. “It unfolded in front of me, more or less. I went up to Quentin’s house and he sat me at his table and put the pages in front of me and then watched me read it. It was a wonderful ritual. I was very touched that he would actually let me participate not in the genesis of the script, but in his train of thought.”

The name “Django” is familiar to fans of Spaghetti Westerns: Franco Nero first portrayed the character in 1966 in “Django.” Nero joined the production to make a cameo appearance in “Django Unchained.” “For us in Austria, ‘Django’ was a household name. Not necessarily Franco Nero, but ‘Django.’” Waltz says. “Every Spaghetti Western that came out, even the obscurest ones, in the German version had ‘Django’ in their titles, even though there was no Django in the plot or in the story. They just put ‘Django’ in because Django really was the distilled key word, so to say, to name the genre. If it had ‘Django’ in it, you knew it was a Spaghetti Western.”

“I like evoking the Django title for what it means to Spaghetti Westerns and that mythology,” Tarantino says. “At the same time, there’s a 40-film series of nonrelated “Django” rip-off sequels that are their own spot of Spaghetti Western history. I’m proud to say that we are a new edition to the unrelated “Django”” rip-off sequels.”

The original “Django” was so popular that other films borrowed the name as a marketing tool. The more imaginative titles include “Django, Kill,” “Django the Avenger,” “Viva! Django,” and “Ballad of Django,” to name a few.

Tarantino completed his script on April 26, 2011 and began sharing it with friends and colleagues. As “publishing day” approached, the producers began gearing up for production. “As you hear Quentin typing in his house, you’re a couple months out, you start calling all the players. You call Stunt Coordinator Jeff Dashnaw, and you call Sound Mixer Mark Ulano, and you call Makeup Department Head Heba Thorisdottir, You call everybody and you say he’s getting close. You try and keep everybody available because we’re a family, we’ve all done so many movies together, and we love working together,” producer Pilar Savone says.

With the script in place, Tarantino set out to find the right actors for the ensemble. Jamie Foxx, an Oscar Award winner for “Ray,” won the role of Django. Tarantino says that one reason why he cast the Oscar-winning Jamie Foxx as a “badass hero and taciturn gunslinger,” was because he actually lived the part. Foxx owns his own horse, Cheetah, which got to act alongside him in the film, and as a youngster in small-town Texas, he used to spin little plastic revolvers and pretend he was in the Wild West. “ “I got to do all the heroic cowboy stuff that you get to watch as a kid,” Foxx says with a big grin on his face

“We got together and he was just terrific,” Tarantino recalls. “He understood the story, the context of the story and the historical importance of the film. He got it 100%. He’s a terrific actor and he looks perfect for the character, but there’s a cowboy quality to him. When I met him, I was imagining that if they cast black guys in the 60s to be the stars of Western TV shows, I could imagine Jamie having his own TV show. He looks good on a horse, and good in the outfit.”

Foxx responded to the script’s honest portrayal of the brutality of slavery. “It was the most incredible script I’ve read in all of my life,” Foxx says. “I thought, ‘Who has the guts, and the knowledge to tell it like it really is?’ I thought that the way he’s telling the story — as true and as honest — if it rips your flesh off, so be it. That’s what was exciting about the process.”

“The reason that we tighten up because it was a bad place,” Foxx continues. “It was a dangerous time, and we sometimes feel that it does hold us in captivity without the chains, metaphorically.”

Leonardo DiCaprio took on his first truly villainous role in playing Calvin Candie, Candyland’s owner and namesake. “He has a level of commitment and seriousness about his work that I don’t think people recognize because he’s very quiet, and he’s very humble, and he keeps to himself. He is the person who learned as a young man from Robert DeNiro in “This Boy’s Life.” He’s the person who cares about the filmmakers that he works with, and he brings his intelligence, and his commitment, and his desire to get you closer and closer to the truth,” Tarantino says of DiCaprio.

“He let me know he was interested in it,” Tarantino says of DiCaprio. “I tried not to be that specific with the character in the script, and I tried not to describe him too much, so it could be open for interpretation. But I was thinking, possibly, of an older actor. And then Leo read the script and liked it and we got together and started talking.”

DiCaprio made an impact, and Tarantino’s concept of the character shifted. “I just started imagining how much easier it would be to reconfigure the guy as a Caligula; a boy emperor,” Tarantino says. “His daddy’s daddy’s daddy started a cotton business and his daddy’s daddy continued it and made it profitable, and his daddy made it even more profitable. Now, he’s the fourth Candie in line to take over the cotton business and he’s bored with it. He doesn’t care about cotton: that’s why he’s into the Mandingo fighters. But he’s the petulant boy prince. He’s Louis XIV in Versailles. So I wanted to really play with that idea, of King Louis XIV, but in the South. Candyland is a completely enclosed community, about 65 miles long. That’s a fiefdom. He has the power of a king; he can execute people, or do whatever he wants.”

“One of the most vile aspects of my character is that he’s just got this charm, and yet he doesn’t really think he’s doing anything wrong,” DiCaprio says of Candie’s rationale. “He’s this guy that’s got too much money, too much power, too much time on his hands, and he can run people’s lives. He’s a Caligula. He’s quite mad, but he justifies all of it. People aren’t gonna like him. But they’ll respect his work. I mean I’m watching it and I’m very drawn in. He is very precise. He pays a great deal of attention to detail.”

“I make these scripts that are almost novels,” Tarantino said. “Ïf I had to do this whole thing over again I would have published this as a novel and done this after the fact.” Tarantino confirmed there’s a longer cut of the film he may roll out at some point. “I could do what Kevin Costner did with the expanded edition of “Dances with Wolves,” and I could very well do that. Because if I put some of that in, I have to change the story. But I want this version to be the story for a while.”

Tarantino also spoke about avoiding his “usual narrative tricks” with “Django,” saying a chronological approach was essential. “It had to be an odyssey. At one point Harvey Weinstein (co-president who releases the film) was talking about splitting it up [into two films]. And I said, ‘No, it won’t work here.’ You have to follow Django’s journey to the end.”