Saturday morning Comic-Con's cavernous Hall H was packed with 6000 fans, many of whom stayed up all night to gain a seat, to get a gander at an eight-minute sizzle reel of clips from the first half of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" (slated optimistically for release by Weinstein Co. on December 25).
Clearly, the film's marketers are reaching directly for fans–with an expanded budget from "Inglourious Basterds"'s $70 million demanding more than an art-house audience turnout. With a week of filming still to go, "Django" won't be finished in time to gain the benefit of the fall film festival circuit.
What the footage shown in Cannes and San Diego reveals is that while Tarantino has described the film as a "southern," it's a bang-up western, packed with physical comedy and bloody action and hell-bent revenge. And yes, it looks like a classic widescreen Sergio Leone western, even if the setting is New Orleans and Mississippi two years before the Civil War. (The music ranges from classic Johnny Cash to James Brown. No Ennio Morricone–so far.)
We see a sophisticated German, Dr. King Schultz ("Inglourious Basterds" star Christoph Waltz), approach a chain gang and attempt to buy one of the slaves. When the guards don't go along with this idea, he shoots them both and literally releases Django from his chains. He is now a free man. While Schultz poses as a dentist, with a big molar swaying on top of his horse and buggy, he's actually a bounty hunter. He needs Django to identify some pretty nasty slave drivers he knows only too well, and Django is eager to help him. Don Johnson plays plantation owner Big Daddy; watching Django stalk across the grounds to shoot one of the men who abused him is chilling. He whips another to death. He also wants to find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is owned by another piece of work, plantation owner Candie (a beefy Leonardo Di Caprio, with long greasy hair). (Hall H panel and flip cam videos with Foxx, Washington, Waltz and Goggins are below.)
Schultz, appalled by southern America's racist ways, tries to protect Django, who blooms under his tutelage and turns out to be a pretty good shot. Tarantino is taking the revenge western to a whole new level as the two bounty hunters shoot their way through the unsuspecting South. It looks like the first Leone-esque section of "Inglourious Basterds," and it's about fighting injustice, except that this time it's not Brad Pitt against the Nazis in World War II–it's an angry black man getting his own back from racist white southerners before the Civil War.
As with many of Tarantino's projects, "Django" had been bubbling on the back burner for a while, 13 years, he told Hall H. “I’ve always wanted to do a western. Spaghetti westerns have always been my favorite. The violence, the surrealism, the cool music and all that stuff. The initial germ of the whole idea was a slave who becomes a bounty hunter and then goes after overseers who are hiding out on plantations.”
Tarantino said that adding the long-missing ingredient–slavery–to the familiar western tropes made it fresh, finally. The crowd loved it when Tarantino described the movie as a prequel to "Shaft": "Broomhilda and Django will eventually have a baby and then that baby will have a baby and that baby will have a baby and one of these days, John Shaft will be born. John Shaft started with this lady here. They’re the great great great great grandparents of 'shut your mouth!'”
Tarantino was afraid Foxx wouldn't be able to dig down below his entitled celebrity veneer to feeling like the lowly slave he is at the beginning of the film. "The most important thing was letting everything go because we all have egos," said Foxx. "That was what was unique for me, to actually do homework, to listen to what he says, strip yourself down and start all over again.” Later backstage, while much of the shooting was painful for Foxx, especially watching Washington take the whip (insisting on a real, if nylon, lashing), Foxx admitted he had a blast playing a cowboy–and talked Tarantino into letting him use his own horse.
Waltz got a kick out of the pop culture layers inherent in this project: "I find it sensational that Italian directors forge a new thing, spaghetti westerns, and then an American director takes the new thing and brings it back to America." In a later interview, Waltz said that Tarantino took longer, more deliberate care on this film than "Basterds," with a bigger budget and broader canvas. He was able to ask for that extra take. Clearly, Tarantino made changes on the fly to that 168-page script we all read. My sense: the movie is darker, more serious and less comedic. We'll see what he does in the editing room.
While Sacha Baron Cohen isn't in the film, Jonah Hill is. He had told me back during his promo duties for "Moneyball" that he wanted a role in "Django Unchained," which he just filmed, finally.
After Hall H several of us sat down with Foxx, Waltz, Washington and grateful "Justified" star Walton Goggins (and I am not the only one who wonders if the movie won't get pushed back out of 2012).