Every time Quentin Tarantino makes another idiosyncratic movie, I think, “this time, it will just be for the cinephile crowd.” And each time I have been wrong–except for his contribution to the 2007 double header “Grindhouse,” “Death Proof,” starring Kurt Russell.
When the Weinstein Co. took Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” to the San Diego convention in 2012, Tarantino wowed the Con with footage and did so again this year with his new western “The Hateful Eight,” with a specially edited 7-minute piece of celluloid projected on the huge Hall H screen in glorious 70 mm.
Tarantino started with a Weinstein promo reel narrated by Hall H no-show Samuel L. Jackson designed to sell the virtues of 70 mm and the road show format that was once widely used by the Hollywood studios to take an anticipated new film from city to city with extras before it went broader. (In this case the movie will be projected digitally in 70 mm for two weeks starting Christmas Day before it goes wide in a digital format.)
He also revealed that the movie is not only shot on 65 mm for 70 mm projection, but uses a set of vintage Ultra-Panavision lenses not used since the 1966 Charlton Heston spectacle “Khartoum.” “I was looking for cool scope,” he told the room. “This is 276, the biggest, normal scope is 235.” The very same lenses–the only ones that were made– were used on “Ben-Hur,” “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “The Battle of the Bulge,” and “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
The biggest issue was keeping them warm in frigid cold environments, he said. Cinematographer Robert Richardson did tests and figured out how to keep the camera from freezing. The most welcome news of the day: for the first time Tarantino has actually hired his fave composer, Italian Ennio Morricone, who composed the great spaghetti western scores for Sergio Leone, to write a new score, which he will be “recording in Prague in a few weeks,” Tarantino said. “It’s his first western score in 40 years.”
It is not news that Tarantino, who books only 16 and 35 mm films at his L.A. theatre The New Beverly, is not a fan of digital projection. “By losing film projection we’ve already ceded too much ground to the barbarians,” he said. Tarantino wants to make ten films and hopes they can be on celluloid, where his 20 years of experience can be brought to bear. If that becomes impossible he will go straight to HBO, he figures, cutting out the middleman. He has always written long (see “Kill Bill” Parts 1 and 2–Uma Thurman is game to do a third), so it might be fun to let loose with a long series format. “If that’s what movies become I can move to TV,” he said. “Maybe I have three miniseries in my future. I can write the stories as long as they are and shoot them for TV.”
And Tarantino doesn’t consider himself a western director until he has directed three–which he plans to do.
The footage starts off with a stagecoach being pulled by horses through a raging blizzard. Inside is John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter who won’t settle for killing his quarry, explains Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren. He wants to collect the bounty for watching them hang. This time he’s captured foul-mouthed Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who he punches in a the face en route to finding shelter from the storm. She is “doing everything she can to survive,” said Leigh on the panel. “She’s a bit feral. Crazy like a fox. She’s pretty smart.”
The coach comes upon a stranger on the road, mild-mannered Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who joins the party. They arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where Ruth tries to establish the identity of everyone in the room. There’s the Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), who spouts racist epithets (how timely could this be?), British dandy Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), imposing Bob the Mexican (“Machete Kills” star Demian Bichir, recommended by Robert Rodriguez to Tarantino after he changed him from a Frenchman), and sullen Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). The movie has the powder keg feel of a high-stakes “Petrified Forest” situation where a lot of dangerous characters are holed up in one room waiting to see who winds up dead.
“Why not Christoph Waltz?” asked one young Hall H interlocutor. Tarantino explained how he changed “Bob” from Frenchman to Mexican. “Demian is an amazing actor,” said Tarantino. “Of all the characters, from what’s on the page, what Demian delivered was ‘how the fuck did he get there from here?’ He moved on and did his own thing and we’re all the better for it.” Russell added that after four months of rehearsals no one knew who Bichir was when he got off the plane to shoot the movie.
“It’s very clear from what’s on the page what you need to do,” said Roth. “No improvisation necessary. My main concern was ‘am I doing too much over the top?'”
“No, oh no, give me more,” replied Tarantino, who borrowed from a gallery of great British character actors from the past: “Give me a little Terry Thomas!” (This falls in the tradition of Michael Fassbender’s prissy Brit in “Inglourious Basterds.”)
Madsen said he and Tarantino “picked up where we left off” on “Reservoir Dogs.” “We went one step farther,” he added. “We’re smarter, a little bit older.” Uh-oh!
While all the actors raved about how great Tarantino was, Dern went a tad further: “He has the greatest attention to detail on a set as any director who ever lived, his only rival would be Luchino Visconti. He creates an atmosphere for all of us not to do our greatest work necessarily, but to get better. He does that for everyone, not just the actors. We might have a chance to do something that’s never been done, that’s Tarantino.”