Three years ago, when Quentin Tarantino was in Japan promoting his revisionist World War II epic Inglourious Basterds, the spaghetti westerns of the 60s were enjoying a resurgence. On his only day off, Tarantino stumbled into a record store and came out with the inspiration for his irreverent western Django Unchained.
"I'd been wanting to write a spaghetti western that dealt with a former slave and bounty hunter for about 10 years," Tarantino says, sitting in a New York hotel and talking a mile a minute.
"I was looking around the record store and hit the mother lode because I loaded up on a whole bunch of really great old scores that I'd never been able to find before on CD. I was back in my hotel room blasting the scores and having a good time and then the story just came to me."
He sat down to write the opening scene. "I didn't have my normal notepads with me, so I literally just wrote it out on hotel stationery," he says.
Tarantino, who is 49 and has nine features to his name, is well past his years as the new kid on the Hollywood block, but he seems determined to feed his anti-establishment reputation. He arrives at the plush hotel suite with dishevelled hair, scuffed sneakers and a blue and grey hoodie with "Wu Wear 95" emblazoned across its front, a nod to the New York-based Wu-Tang Clan rap group from the mid 90s. It is testament to Tarantino's "cool" factor that when he is photographed in the same vintage hoodie a few days later at a public screening, the group's name begins trending on Twitter.
The director has made something of a habit of reviving retro phenomena. John Travolta owes his comeback to Tarantino's 1994 hit, Pulp Fiction, and in 1997, he pulled 70s blaxploitation actor Pam Grier from obscurity to star in Jackie Brown. Even Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who wrote the scores for Sergio Leone's 1960s westerns, came back into vogue after allowing Tarantino to use his tracks in Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill Vol 2 and Grindhouse: Death Proof.
Tarantino recruited Morricone to write an original song for Django Unchained. "He showed up in Rome for the premiere of Inglourious Basterds and said he really liked the film," Tarantino says. "He says because I used some of his scores, they got renewed popularity and now when he performs he gets asked all the time for stuff from Navajo Joe or Two Mules for Sister Sara."
Tarantino's new film is a nod not only to the original 1966 spaghetti western Django, directed by the late Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero (who has a small cameo in Django Unchained), but to the genre itself.
"I'm happy to tip my hat to Sergio, but since there have been about 40 Django ripoffs, it's also an archetype," he says. "Even though we were making this big epic, I was proud to be in the grand tradition of unrelated Django ripoffs of the spaghetti western canon."
Set in 1858 in America's south, Django Unchained takes place two years before the Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave, rescued from his owners by a German-born bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, the Austrian theatre actor who won an Oscar for Inglourious Basterds). Schultz is on the trail of a murderous gang and recruits Django to help. In return, he promises to free Django and help save his wife (Kerry Washington) from a brutal plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Tarantino nominates The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as his favourite movie and names several of Corbucci's violent spaghetti westerns as sources of inspiration, including Navajo Joe and Hellbenders.
He is pickier about the genre's more recent offerings.
"Most westerns since the 80s have been boring because they have all fallen in love with these beauty shots," he says.
"It's not about the hills in the distance and the cloud passing over the horses as the sun breaks out. We've got shit to do and people to kill ... [Django Unchained] is very much a mud-and-blood western."
Tarantino's encyclopaedic film knowledge is well documented. He has so many facts at his fingertips that it is somewhat daunting to sit in a room with him, trying to keep up. Even when he is between films, he writes about them in unpublished criticisms. In September, he told The New York Times about an essay he had written about Corbucci's archetypes. "I started thinking, I don't really know if Corbucci was thinking any of these things when he was making these movies," he said. "But I know I'm thinking them now and if I did a western, I could put them into practice."
Django Unchained, nominated for a best picture Oscar, is pure Tarantino in its almost cartoonish depiction of blood and violence and gallows humour. But in the United States, it's a risky proposition to mix comedy with a film about slavery that uses the word "nigger" close to a hundred times.
It earned the ire of African-American film-maker Spike Lee, who called it "an insult to our ancestors", even though he hadn't seen it and said he didn't plan to.
But Jamie Foxx, who plays the title role, stands by his director.
"I've never been on a set where it's that much fun," he says.
"[After] every hundred rolls of film ... we'd do shots; either tequila or, on the last few, we did Mint Juleps. We were dealing with a difficult subject matter but it was great to see how gracious [Tarantino] was. When we were on the chain gang, freezing and locked in chains, he went to every guy on that chain gang, whether he had a line or was an extra in the background, and made sure they were OK."
Tarantino learnt to be sceptical about genres long before he made a name as a director. When he worked in a video store, he had to sort films into categories. "You had to put everything in the drama section or the comedy section," he says. "[Then] something like Prizzi's Honor would come in and you'd have to make a choice. Where I'm coming from, basically, I make dramas yet I pride myself on the fact that some of the funny moments in it are as funny as any comedy that's playing at theatres."
Tarantino's rags-to-riches story has become part of pop folklore. Raised by a single mother in California, he dropped out of high school and, after a succession of odd jobs, found his niche as a video clerk at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, where for five years he acquired his own version of a film school education. It was there he met future producing partner Roger Avary, with whom he collaborated on several screenplays, including the 1992 drama Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, which earned them an Academy Award for outstanding screenplay.
He has long embraced his indie reputation but there are also signs he is finally growing up. After two decades of refusing to join the Director's Guild of America, this year he became a paying member and chose the guild's Hollywood theatre for the first screening of Django Unchained.
"I'm not a Hollywood outsider any more," he recently told Playboy magazine. "I know a lot of people. I like them. They like me.
"I think I'm a pretty good member of this community, both as a person and as far as my job and contributions are concerned."
He even acknowledges he would like children. "A few years back I ... had baby fever, but the fever broke," he says without a hint of humour.
"That doesn't mean I don't want to have kids; I had a couple of instances in the last three years if things had gone this way as opposed to that way, things would be really different in my life right now but, having said that, I don't really want something in my life that is more important than my movies right now."
Django Unchained opens today.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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