“Django Unchained” was among the last of the award season films out of the starting gate. When new Directors Guild member Quentin Tarantino finally unveiled the two hour and 45-minute film at the DGA on Sunset, it played to raucous applause. Taylor Hackford, who directed Jamie Foxx in his Oscar-winning turn in the musical biopic “Ray,” conducted the Q & A, below.
Another interview worth checking out is historian Henry Louis Gates’ probing The Root podcast with Tarantino, which digs into what’s real and what’s exaggerated, the use of violence, the n-word, and Foxx’s discomfort with playing a slave. Tarantino also expresses his hatred for western master John Ford, partly because he was willing to play a klansman in “Birth of a Nation.” Here’s the podcast and the transcript: parts one, two and three. THR’s Tim Appelo rounds up the suspects for a behind-the-scenes production feature. And here are my Comic-Con report and video interviews with Foxx, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz and Walton Goggins, who came into the 18-week production late after both Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell had dropped out. And here’s Karina Longworth.
Taylor Hackford: I think of Budd Boetticher and the original ‘Django’ and spaghetti westerns, but what’s your inspiration for this?
Quentin Tarantino: When you actually shoot up in the Alabama Hills where those magnificent rocks are there’s no way you can frame a shot and not think about “Ride Lonesome” or “The Tall T.” Where it started out was not necessarily where it ended. At first the idea was I wanted to do a western, spaghetti westerns are my favorites, I did want to do my version of a spaghetti western, but you can’t do a true spaghetti western any more than you can do a true film noir movie, they were a thing of their time: I’d shoot in Almeria Spain in German and Spanish and all kinds of people would be in it and we’d dub it all later, that would be a real spaghetti western. But thematically you can do things.
Sergio Corbucci, his was the most pitiless west that a character could walk through. They’re cruel movies, their characters are capable of cruel actions, they were comments on Fascism left over from World War II. And exciting stories can happen inside of that landscape. I was trying to find an equivalent of Sergio Corbucci no-man’s land, where life is cheap and people are pitiless. Being a slave in the antebellum south, that would be life is a dime. I aways wanted to tell that story anyway and from that moment on everything fell into place.
TH: “Burn” by Pontecorvo is a wonderful film about slavery. Your film turns a mirror on America, on our heritage. (applause)
QT: I can understand people being uncomfortable with slave narratives, it’s the ugliest time of this country, and we haven’t gotten over it yet. Nevertheless, everyone talks about: there’s no stories, there’s nothing left to tell, especially westerns, I’ve seen every type of western. There’s all kinds of stories that could be told in a slave narrative that has never ever been touched. Let this be the first rock through the window.
TH: Your star is a very good friend, he’s a man of pride. I know this must have been difficult for him to do.
QT: I couldn’t have made this movie with a Django who didn’t see eye to eye with me, who didn’t understand the story we wanted to tell, why we were doing what we were doing. We had humor, how to nail the humor. And Jamie in this movie he was a true lead, and a lead actor leads by example. That’s what he did, for the whole cast and the crew, he was just wonderful. But he had that extra little ingredient: he trusted me. There were moments, like, ‘wow do we need to do this?’ and I’d say ‘well, it really is the trick,’ and we’d talk about it. And, ‘OK we’ll do it.’
TH: The directorial nuances in this, some of them are stylistic and behavioral, like the scene in the bar when they scrape the beer. He’s buying this slave a beer.
QT: We talked about that: ‘You realize this is the first beer you’ve ever had.’ ‘I know this is the first beer I’ve ever had! And this beer is fuckin’ good!’
TH: Then you go out into the street for a daylight shot. He’s now facing off against the marshall and the marshall’s shadow in the street. Classic western.
QT: I got Bob Richardson to shoot direct light, that’s really hard to do.
TH: This film is meticulous and it has these wonderful bits of style throughout. The nuances of the silhouette are all through this film. Right at the end you see Jamie and Kerry kissing in silhouette.
QT: That’s one of those happy accidents. We set up the shadow for when the door first opens and Django’s figure hits the wall, it was on Kerry, and when she ran out of the shot their silhouettes fit perfectly on the kiss. We thought it through except for the last part.
TH: Nuances of casting and multiple cameos. Who plays the sheriff?
QT: Don Stroud, “Coogan’s Bluff.”
TH: He walks in and looks so mean, he’s clearly a killer.
QT: I did really like the idea, these are the faces I think of when it comes to westerns, like Bruce Dern, he’s the only name actor to kill John Wayne in a movie. Russ Tamblyn was in there, he starred in his own spaghetti western. Those familiar faces give you authenticity, let you enjoy the atmosphere. Michael Parks. The idea with the marshall was to set up these two guys, and they’re getting ready to go on this big adventure, you’re all prepared for it. Schultz seems like an eccentric but reasonable guy, and then he shoots the sheriff! There’s no way out of that, he’s a fucking lunatic, he just shot the sheriff, Django is with a suicidal killer.
TH: You have defined a bravura style and taken it and made it epic. Particularly spaghetti westerns, these films are scored well. You have Morricone.
QT: I’ve been using spaghetti western music in the last five movies, so it’s about time I put them in quasi-spaghetti westerns. Two of my heroes when it comes to Italian movie composition are Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov. The Django theme is throughout the movie, not just this one song. We got an original song [“The Braying Mule”] from Morricone, I was so proud of it I put it in the opening credits. As opposed to second-hand Morricone, I actually have original Morricone this time.
TH: The Django theme?
QT: If you like spaghetti westerns, one of the reasons you like them is because the music so awesome. And the fact you don’t just have cool operatic music, you also have really groovy catchy songs, that show up, some will be mock Frankie Laine style, trying to be like the Americans and kind of failing at it but that’s what’s charming about it, like the “Django” theme. Or “His Name is King” is a very poppy 60s style number. I love that they tell these little stories inside of that.
TH: When they, in the flashback, flee across the field, is that a quote from ‘Burn’?
QT: We were playing around with lanterns, how you’re running around at night on horses and had to have some way to see, the brothers at the beginning had those things hooked up. We didn’t want to do an action scene, not super melodramatic, we just wanted a couple of snapshots that could work inside a crosscutting situation. Just the idea of that open field with nothing but lanterns coming at them, you can’t make out the horses yet, we thought that it would be sad and exhilarating and poetic all at the same time.
TH: It was. In a single shot. Where did that Django Blue Boy outfit come from?
QT: I wrote that scene in the script, and Jamie said Django should choose that outfit. “I want that fly shit.” That should be Django’s choice. “Sounds like a good idea.”
TH: Then you turn that around and the slave girl says “you’re free and you have to wear that?” You write and direct. How much writing do you do on the set?
QT: Normally it’s just a situation of massaging. You write a scene in your bedroom six months earlier, then getting ready to do it on the day, you realize things have changed. On an epic movie like this, yeah, you have the script, you’ve done the first half, you know what you have, what you need, what you don’t need to spend time on anymore, so it’s adjusting and massaging like that. I try not to come up with too many pseudofabulous ideas in rehearsal, that we all think are great, and I end up shooting, but they never make the movie. I love all those fun times exploring it but it never makes the movie. Every once in a while they do.
In this case, a couple of actors brought up things that were interesting. I felt I owed it to them to explore it on paper and see what came out of it, shoot it, if works it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Leonardo DiCaprio came up with the idea that he wanted Calvin Candie to be a student of phrenology, a pseudoscience they had back at that time, that gave the white class a scientific proof and reason to be as racist as they were. He gave me some phrenology books, this shit writes itself, it was so fucking crazy, what they’re saying, they keep making animal analogies, but I did that in “Basterds.”
TH: Leo is an unapologetic racist, he’s smart, he’s thought it through.
QT: I had thought of the character as an older guy, 65 or 60. Leo wanted to talk to me about it. I looked at it, excited about the idea, looking at something in a way that I haven’t before, even if I reject it, I like walking that road, it’s interesting to test your material that way. A good role is a good role, any types of people can play it. The idea of him playing the role, the pretext we’re selling is this southern aristocratic society, what they consider is European aristocracy. They took what they liked and what they didn’t like they threw out, and they made it up.They lived a life of barons and burgermeisters. Candy has 65 miles of land, not uncommon in an industrial plantation with an army of slaves. They were your subjects, and you had a whole army of poor white workers who were paid slave wages to keep the slaves in line. You were a king, what you say goes. Calvin Candie would be the perpetual boy emperor, his daddy’s daddy was a cotton man, he’s sick of it, the farm goes on for so long it takes care of itself, he’s the bored and petulant emperor, he comes up with hobbies to keep himself interested, like Mandingos.
TH: You see the blood going across the cotton, the cash crop of the south. You see the horse galloping, you think he missed the shot, “I’m not good enough,” the body falls off, the camera pans up to blood on a white horse. This is called directing. And the KKK scene.
QT: In the script they had the whole bag scene before the charge. I had a trepidation about doing the bag scene. I thought it was one of the funniest scenes in the script, but it played so funny on the page that I was positive I’d fuck it up, it was too funny. I did it, felt ok about it, was scared about editing it. “Lets do the charge first, get our feet wet.” So we did the charge, so fun to shoot, it was my “fuck you” to D.W. Griifith. So I did that, and they’re actually scary, if I show that they’re fucking idiots right at the beginning, I’m going to kick the whole sequence in the shins, right now. So I thought I’d get away by going back in time, and you’d figure it out. I wasn’t sure if it worked, we had a research screening, and we showed it. “Are we going to keep it in?” And everyone laughed more than they did throughout the film, and it’s everyone’s favorite scene. I guess we’re going to keep it in.
TH: Was it because you had Christoph cast that you dealt with the Brunhilde and Siegfried myth?
QT: The first half of the script was done, with Don Johnson and Bennett Manor. Christoph knew I was writing the script, he’d come into town, read what we had so far, then we’d go out to dinner. They were having this big wonderful production of The Ring in LA, he wanted to take me to it, I wasn’t able to go the first one. Before we went to the second opera, he took me out to dinner and told me the story of the first opera. I’d seen the Fritz Lang “Die Niebelungen.” I was fairly familiar with the legend, but there was nothing like Christoph telling you the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde, he was born to do that, he was terrific, there’s no way the opera will be as good. While I was watching the second opera, I realized the stories were parallel. She’s already named Broomhilda, a coincidence. As I was watching the story I’m realizing how similar it was actually, when I was breaking it down to the story told in the movie. The daughter of Wotan is the daughter of all the gods, that’s Bruce Dern, the mountain is Candyland, Candie is the dragon, the circle of hellfire is around her and Django is Siegfreid. It would be wonderful to see Christoph telling the story. I like bringing a fairytale aspect to the story anyway.