Quentin Tarantino‘s Death Proof hits DVD shelves this week as a stand-alone from Grindhouse, his two-for-the-price-of-one collaboration with Robert Rodriguez. The tale of a group of young women terrorized by an aging stuntman in a killer automobile, Death Proof is an homage to 1970s road movies like Vanishing Point, as well as Tarantino’s twisted take on the slasher genre.
By itself, Death Proof fared pretty well with the critics, notching a 71 percent on the Tomatometer (check out RT’s take here); still, it’s a cut below Grindhouse‘s 82 percent. At a press conference at Cannes, the Death Proof gang, which included Tarantino, stars Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan, Tracie Thoms, and Zoë Bell, as well as executive producer Harvey Weinstein, talked about the differences between the stand-alone version and the Grindhouse cut, as well as Tarantino’s influences, his ability to write for female characters, and what’s going on with his World War II flick, Inglorious Bastards.
The cinema of the 1970s is something of an artistic inspiration for you. You’ve done blaxploitation, action movies, and martial arts. What was your inspiration this time around?
Quentin Tarantino: Two things. My starting off point was that I wanted to do a slasher film. I thought that fit in really well with the whole idea, but when I started thinking about the slasher film, that genre is so rigid. I thought if I did that, it’d be too self-reflective and [the audience] would be too outside of the experience. But I still kind of liked that genre, so I tried to do a completely different thing and use the structure of a slasher. People are asking me, “Is this a revenge film?” or “Is this a feminist film? Because the film empowers women and that’s not like the exploitation movies you took this from.” And I say, “That’s not 100 percent correct.” Actually, exploitation movies dealt with female empowerment in violent genres in ways that Hollywood never did. You just brought up blaxsploitaiton and there was no A-list, white, Hollywood equivalent of Pam Grier in the 1970s. She stood alone. There was [an equivalent] in Japan, there was in Hong Kong, and there was in the last act of every slasher film. There’s always a final girl that stands up and has the moral fortitude to beat the boogeyman. That’s always been the staple of that genre and here there isn’t one final girl, its three, and they all play it chipperly but it still follows the basic rules of the genre.
About the girls: I had no idea they talk that way when they were among themselves, and especially not in a man’s presence. How did you girls work your dialogue and what made you allow him in?
Tracie Thoms: He listens to women. I can’t figure out how he knows how we talk to each other when men aren’t around.
Rose McGowan: We’re not quite as precious as most people.
TT: We’re not and he just listens. He observes people. I read the script and thought, “I have this conversation a lot. How’d he know!?” And we rehearsed the conversation a lot.
Rosario Dawson: Quentin definitely prides himself at being the lone guy when his girlfriends go out.
TT: No one else could write Quentin’s dialogue.
RD: So you just work on it.
QT: Inglorious Bastards — I never said it was going to star Bruce Willis, Schwarzenegger and Stallone. I don’t know who’s going to be in it at this point. I have to write it first. It always starts with me and the characters. Whenever I cast an actor and try to write the character around it I always end up regretting it, so I always try to write the character and cast the actor to fit the character. Whenever I’ve written the character like in the case of Zoë [Bell] or Vanessa [Ferlito], where I know they’re who I want to play, I write it about them. Vanessa is Vanessa and Zoë is Zoë. It’s not like I thought, “I like Kurt Russell for Mike, he’d be very good.” No, I wrote Zoë. And if I couldn’t get Zoë, I’d have to throw the script away because I couldn’t do it. Same with Uma [Thurman], but she said she could do it [Kill Bill] so we did.
What about the “missing scene” in the American version?
QT: For the American version, I wanted this perverse pleasure: I enjoyed the idea of building up to this scene and not giving it to you. (Laughs) I looked forward to hearing the audience go, “Awww!” and curse my name in unison. But one of the biggest things I put [back in] was the black and white reel in the second half of the movie where Kurt’s character spies his next victims. I put that in. Most of the stuff I put back in was stuff I took out of Grindhouse for the simple fact that – we made three movies. When we made Death Proof and Planet Terror we made Grindhouse; they are three separate movies. Death Proof and Planet Terror were meant to stand alone, but when we put them together for Grindhouse we had to make them work together as one evening experience. In the case of Death Proof, in the opening scene, you meet all the girls and they all talk and everything and you have to remember in the opening scene, that’s just five minutes into the movie and we can take time and let the dialogue play out. In the case of Grindhouse, that’s not five minutes into the movie, that’s 95 minutes into the movie, and you don’t have the patience to let the jokes play. Those were the biggest cuts I made, especially shortening dialogue.
In the first cut when Stuntman Mike doesn’t get his lap dance, you kind of feel sorry for him. But in the second cut when he does get his lap dance, he kind of comes off as a sonofab—-. Did you intend any of that or was that an accidental result of the editing?
QT: That was intended. I really enjoy the fact that if you count the minutes [runtime] actually hasn’t changed that much but it has changed things 180 degrees emotionally because something as simple as showing that Stuntman Mike is stalking the girls outside the restaurant — you actually see the pictures of the girls and you know he’s the villain, you know he’s stalking them and you know he’s been there and you still don’t believe…that’s what I love. The way the tone changes is the greatest difference between the two movies (Death Proof alone and as part of Grindhouse] and I’m very proud of what I was able to do that while changing very little.
How do you feel about that, Kurt?
Kurt Russell: I haven’t seen this version, so I can’t tell you —
QT: When I knew it was going to play Cannes, I didn’t want to let the actors see it before they see it [here] so they’ve all been verboten from seeing it.
KR: I’m disappointed for any audience who walks into Grindhouse this April. There will be no movie made in the next five years for the Grindhouse audience like this one. They [audiences] will be able to see Death Proof or Planet Terror as separate films but my prediction is that 20 years from now you will want “the Grindhouse experience,” You won’t watch the films separately. You will see them separately now and hopefully you’ll enjoy them but in the end of the day, if you want to have the full effect, the full experience is something bizarre. In that regard, I like the short version, I like how it is and I’m interested to see the film in its long version [and compare] to see how it stands on its own.
QT: Most grindhouse movies have risen to the top as cult films in the last 10 years because they’ve had an audience on DVD. I feel that part of my job is to be like the symphony conductor and the audience is the orchestra. And my job is to get them to “ooh” and “ahh” and scream and clap when I want them to. That is part of the almost revival tent, religious show experience I was trying to create in the audience. It can be experienced in a lot of different ways but a bunch of strangers who have this thing in front of them that can get them to respond audibly, is the reason I worked on this and the goal I had in the editing room every single day.
Harvey Weinstein might not want to put the film out together —
Harvey Weinstein: I had a great time talking with the British press about this, who thought it was a sacrilege I release these films separately. When you see the new Planet Terror and the new Death Proof, you’re seeing Robert Rodriguez making a Robert Rodriguez movie and Quentin Tarantino making a Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s pure. The things these guys took out of their movie to save time and keep these movies together took out some of the essence of their films. Quentin talks about the scenes where Mike is introduced as a character; it’s a completely different scene in a completely different movie. It’s like cutting Kill Bill and Sin City to 70 minute versions — you’re taking some of the essence out of it. Yes, we had a fun time doing a Grindhouse for European audiences, and yes, they’ll have a great time seeing Grindhouse the way it was intended —
QT: I see what you’re saying, and I love them [the trailers] all, but it’d be wrong to try to put them in Death Proof or Planet Terror and Grindhouse isn’t going anywhere. You’ll be able to see it on DVD for the rest of your life. It would be cheapening them and prostituting them to some degree if I were to attach the trailers to the single films. It’s what makes Grindhouse special.
Your films have had such an influence. How do you define your style?
QT: I don’t define my style. I think that’s for you to do: Add the adjectives and tell me what I’ve done. I’m very proud of the influence I’ve had on filmmakers. I’m very proud when young filmmakers come up to me and say, “I know you’ve heard this a million times, but you’re the reason I’m in filmmaking.” I can’t hear that enough, and I know what I responded to before I was making movies. I actually thought to myself, “I want to make movies that when people like me see them, will make them want to make movies.” I didn’t know how I was going to do that or how I would be able to do that, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to direct a film but that it’s worked out that way is one of the things I’m the proudest of. I wanted to find a style. As a young man watching movies, I knew what I responded to and if I saw a film I really liked: Jim McBride‘s Breathless, Jonathan Demme‘s Something Wild, John Carpenter‘s The Thing. Once I saw that, I couldn’t see another movie, it was like I couldn’t live another day until I saw that movie again. And usually, especially in my early 20s, I had to see it four times before I could say, “Okay, I can see another movie. Okay, I can move on with my life.” It was like sticking my finger in a light socket and getting all that electricity. I can only hope I can do that for other people.
RD: I think it’s safe to say you do. When I was 16, I was in this film called Kids and after that I told my dad, “I’d like to get into acting.” And the first film my dad handed me was Reservoir Dogs and I watched it seven times. If you wanna talk about his style… he [Tarantino] put his actors in a room in all the same clothes, and put it on his actors to get something going and it gets you really sucked in. I mean he doesn’t use tricks. Zoë Bell is really on the hood of that car. The movie magic he’s doing is not made of tricks; he’s making you feel something about his characters. [To Tarantino] So you did do what you set out to. I had to see your movie again and again and again. And when I had to be in your film I auditioned again and again and again. I was like, “Damn, there’s eight chicks in this movie, I gotta get at least one of them!”
What kind of expectations do you have for the audience? Do you think you have to be a die-hard grindhouse fan to enjoy the film?
QT: No, not at all. If you had to be a die-hard grindhouse fan to enjoy it then the movie is probably pretty limited. I feel that way about any kind of cinema. If you grew up with these movies and you have a sense of history with them then you’ll enjoy the film one way. But if you don’t know about those kinds of movies. I’m not saying my movie is better than those movies, but I am trying to transcend it. I do have a definite agenda. As much as I love those films, if you do love those films then hopefully everything will seem brand new to you and you’ll appreciate those films more. I have my own agenda that I’m trying to get across with the film and that agenda is different than the agenda of most drive-in movies.