With his sixth film, Quentin Tarantino has fashioned the ultimate in pulp fiction, a Second World War epic set in Nazi-occupied France that sees two parallel assassination plots vying to kill off the Big Four: Adolf Hitler, Martin Borman, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler. Far from a weighty WWII drama, Inglourious Basterds is full of outstanding, dry-comedic turns – notably from Brad Pitt as the Tennessee-born Lieutenant Aldo Raine – and an effervescent black humour.
But while it dares square up to history, in ways that will surprise and possibly shock, Tarantino’s latest is not irreverent and empty: it is a revenge drama in the most extreme sense possible, with a smart and unsettling climactic showdown that forces us to confront the very idea of movie violence as entertainment.
Debuting in Cannes in May 2009, where it screened in a slightly different form, Inglourious Basterds is yet another experiment in style and genre from a master of pastiche – in the true, artistic sense of the word – but this time with a ferocious intelligence we perhaps haven’t seen before. Sitting down exclusively with Rotten Tomatoes, the director discusses his wartime adventure, over ten years in the making…
Quentin Tarantino: I literally started in January of last year, and I wrote January through to July. The first two chapters in the movie are made up of older material. I did a little rewrite on them, but it’s older material. Everything from chapter three to the end I wrote in that big go.
QT: Not really, because I felt the same way about it too! If I couldn’t make it as good as thought it should be then I would have just not done it. But I knew I had to write it, I knew I had to finish, even if it I ended up not doing it, just to get it out of my system. Just to move it out to the side so I could find the next thing. I had to climb that mountain before I could see where any other mountain was. Because I had thought about maybe not doing it. And in a weird way it was kinda liberating. Just letting go of the idea of doing it kinda steered me back to it.
QT: [laughs] I’ve never thought about that before, but I guess that’s right. I guess it just always worked out that way. To me, the title is always very organic: it’s not just about, “Oh, that would look good on the poster.” If for some reason I couldn’t have used the title Inglourious Basterds, I probably would have called the movie Once Upon A Time in Nazi-Occupied France.
QT: To me, it’s a lot like Pulp Fiction, it’s a lot like True Romance and it’s a lot like Reservoir Dogs. The La Louisiane scene is like a reduced Reservoir Dogs, but with Nazis and in German. It’s a 23-minute scene, and instead of that warehouse they’re in a little basement bar. But to me, there’s this aspect that’s like Pulp Fiction, where you have all these different stories that are going in one direction. In this, it’s more so. The stories are even more diverse, but it actually is telling one big story, as opposed to being a big mosaic. But it also kind reminds me of True Romance a lot, because there’s always a new character that comes in and takes the movie — someone who just takes the movie and runs with it. Every 20 minutes it’s like, “What the fuck movie is this?”
Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds
QT: Well, y’know, it was the Dirty Dozen idea that set me down to start writing in the first place. But that’s how it always is with me: the thing that sets me down to start writing is usually not what I end up doing. Because, as much as I love genre, and I try to deliver the goods, I go off from it. I go do my own thing. When I sat down to write Reservoir Dogs, I sat down to write a heist film. Well, I did. [laughs] But you didn’t see the heist!
QT: That’s not where it started. That’s definitely not where it started. I had no idea that was going to happen. When you start writing, you have your characters on a metaphorical paved road, and as they go down it, all these other roads become available that they can go down. And a lot of writers have roadblocks in front of those roads: they won’t allow their characters to go down those roads. For whatever reason – usually movie conventions. Well, I’ve never put any roadblocks on any of these paths. My characters can go wherever they would naturally go, and I’ll follow them.
QT: Well, on this movie there’s one real big roadblock, and that’s history itself. And I expected to honour that roadblock. But then at some point, deep, deep, deep into writing it, it hit me. I thought, Wait a minute: my characters don’t know they’re part of history. They’re in the immediate, they’re in the here, they’re in the now, this is happening. Any minute, they’re dead. And you know what? What happens in this movie didn’t happen in real life because my characters didn’t exist. But if they had, this could have happened in real life. And from that point on, it simply had to be plausible, and I had to be able to pull it off.
Continue on as Tarantino expands on his theory that his characters might have changed the course of the war had they actually existed, discusses breaking with war-movie cliches and working with Brad Pitt.
QT: My characters change the course of history. And when I say that, I’m not just talking about Shosanna, or Aldo and the Basterds. I’m talking about Fredrick Zoller. If a German soldier had done what he did at that point in time in the war, I’m here to tell you that Joseph Goebbels would have made a movie about him. Just like Hollywood made To Hell and Back, with Audie Murphy. And if that soldier had looked like Daniel Bruhl, he would have been the star too. But not only that, Goebbels did make a similar movie, called Kolberg, which was basically saying, “OK, so we’re not going to win any more battles – but we can make this big, epic production that will be a propaganda victory as if we’d won a battle.” So I believe Goebbels would have done that, and they would have had a gala premiere, and a lot of people would have been there… And so on and so on. So it’s just the idea that my characters changed the course of the war.
QT: Leone is a huge influence on me, all right. He’s probably my favourite director. He is my favourite director, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is my favourite film. His aesthetic and mine are kind of intertwined, ’cause I’m really influenced by him, but I’ve tried to go my own way. I’ve never done a spaghetti western. I couldn’t do a spaghetti western. [laughs] I’m not that Italian! And the minute you shoot one of those movies with synch-sound it makes it a completely different movie anyway. But taking a style that he developed, and then applying it to other genres, does make it quite different. So he’s a big influence.
QT: I wanted to stay away from all the silly war-movie clichés that I never bought into. You know, those scenes where a bunch of guys have to take out a guard, so they very lightly strangle him and that takes care of that. [laughs] They kill a German soldier and all of a sudden, not only is there no blood on his uniform, or even a bullethole, but it miraculously fits them when they put it on! All that kind of stuff. That was a big thing in mind that I had, but as the movie started heading towards a climax… You know, I’ve never really done anything like this before. It truly is a plot-driven movie at a certain point. The plot takes its time getting there, but it is about a big event. It is, in some ways, more of a genre film than I’ve ever done before, because the end does play by the rules. There is a mission at the end, and they go on it. Now, I monkey around with the expectations of that mission, but, ultimately, it is that.
QT: Well, Brad was a blast. He was a blast in this role. As I was writing the script, it went from “Oh, Brad could be good in this,” to, “Brad would be damn good in this,” to, “Brad would be fuckin’ awesome in this,” to, “OK, now, I need to fuckin’ get Brad, because if I don’t, what am I going to do?” [laughs] But one of the things that was so cool was, a lot of his character is about rhythm – the way he speaks – and he loved that character so much, he would stay in character for the most part during the day. It wasn’t some method-y, psychotic kind of thing, or some unnerving kind of thing. He could always respond as Brad, but there was always a little Aldo in there. And I loved the character of Aldo, so to be able to hang out with him all day long was a joy!
QT: I remember a critic actually saying, sometime after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, that I was too much a lover of minutia to ever become a master of suspense. So the technique I was trying to employ in this movie was this: the suspense is like a rubber band that’s being stretched throughout the scene, getting tighter and tighter and tighter. And if I’m pulling that off, if I am successful in that, then the idea isn’t to make the scene shorter. The idea is to see how long I can stretch the rubber band out. The scene should be as long as it can be, as long as the rubber band will hold. It should take it to its finest, finest point. And then – snap! And when it snaps, it’s over in a second.
QT: Oh yeah. I thought it could be more horrifyingly realistic if you didn’t see the blood. if you just saw the sawdust. Anyone can just – POW! POW! POW! – show that stuff. But both in that sequence in the La Louisiane sequence I was experimenting with modes of suspense, in a way that I’ve never really done before.
Continue on as Tarantino talks about the pressure of readying the film for Cannes, Maggie Cheung’s deleted scenes and the power of cinema.
QT: There was definitely pressure! It’s up to you to say, but I don’t feel there was any quality loss in there, and there’s nothing ragtag about what we did. Me and Sally, my editor, we can work fast. [laughs] I don’t know if I really want to work this fast ever again, on this big a film, but we’ve always worked best under some sort of a deadline. This is not new to us. It was new to us in terms of how big the movie was and how little time we had, but we had a complete rush job to get Reservoir Dogs ready in time for Sundance, and we had a complete rush job to get Pulp Fiction done in time for Cannes, and we had a big rush job to get Jackie Brown ready in time for our Christmas release date. So we’ve always lived there. And we like there. We like not second-guessing things. You can fuck around with a movie too much. We like rushing the judgement. It’s like, “We’re going this way, and that’s it.” Bam!
QT: And, by the way, they published that before anyone had seen the movie! [laughs] That’s BS. They also had the running time completely wrong. Everyone just assumed the movie would be 2hrs 40. Including me, alright! [laughs] Because we were rushing to make Cannes, there was only step that me and my editor Sally Menke hadn’t done. and that was to watch the movie with an audience. And that’s usually the last step: we watch the movie outside of California with people we don’t know, and just gauge the audience. It’s just a case of listening to them. Like, “OK, there’s a laugh in that scene but we didn’t realise it and we cut the scene too short.” Or, “We extended that scene to get a laugh, but we didn’t get it, so maybe we should think twice.” I don’t do cards, or talk to the audience about it, it’s just about feeling. And then after we do that, we go back to the editing room, using little things that we felt after seeing the film in a giant room full of people. I wasn’t going to use the Cannes audience for that. I can’t judge it from that. I have to judge it from a normal, multiplex-y kind of theatre. And that’s the last step. It’s just a little bit of pruning. Like you’d prune a bush.
QT: Maggie was fantastic. She was terrific in the movie — she’s one of the best actresses on the planet and she doesn’t need me to defend her. But it was literally a situation where we did the scene, and she was wonderful in the scene, but when we were cutting the movie together we realised we didn’t need the scene. Not only wasn’t it essential to chronicle Shosanna’s first years in Paris before we see her again, it was kinda the opposite of what I would normally do. To describe how Shosanna survived is a movie unto itself. So I’d rather leave that to the viewer, for them to make that movie in their head. I’ve given you a little signpost, to how she could have done what she did, but I’d like to leave it open to your imagination. ‘Cause you’re either going to tell it or you’re not going to tell it. Now, in the writing of the script I did feel it was necessary, in order for you follow the scenario on the page. But in the making of the movie it wasn’t necessary. I’ve talked to Maggie, I’m going to show her the scene, and if she allows me to, I’ll put it as a deleted scene on the DVD.
Christoph Waltz as Col Hans Landa, proud of his nickname, “The Jew Hunter.”
QT: The metaphor is not lost, you know, in that, via these film prints and via her cinema, Shosanna is intending to put the Nazis in an oven and create her own final solution. I must say, that’s an aspect that most people don’t talk about with regard to The Dirty Dozen, and to me it’s one of the strongest aspects of that film. I don’t know how much people contemplated that when the film came out. But now that we’re so knowledgeable about the Holocaust, when you see that film now, you can’t not see it: they create their own oven for the Nazis. And not just the Nazis: their wives, their girlfriends, all the collaborating-with-the-enemy bitches that are hanging out with them. They pile up those grenades and they douse them with gasoline, creating their own napalm, and they just burn ’em. [laughs] I mean, it’s pretty fucked up!
QT: Well, yeah. One of the things that’s actually very interesting to me about that is that, one, nitrate stock can do that, so it’s just a neat, cool, practical aspect. But I like the idea that it’s the power of cinema that fights the Nazis. But not even as a metaphor – as a literal reality.
Inglourious Basterds is released in the UK on 19th August, in Australia on 20th August and in the US on 21st August.