'Django Unchained:' Wild, Wild Western
Quentin Tarantino knows the secret of yuletide gift giving: Get them something they wouldn’t get themselves. After all, who but Tarantino, the man who machine-gunned Hitler’s face off in his WWII remix Inglourious Basterds, would think of laying a hyper-violent all-star slave-revenge-Western fairy tale like Django Unchained (rated R) under the tree on Dec. 25?
Like so many other presents, Django was wrapped just in time. After seven months of production, additional reshoots, weather complications, a revolving-door cast list, a sudden death, and a sprint to the finish in the editing room, Tarantino has managed to deliver the film for its festive release date. With that long, dusty trail now behind him, the filmmaker slumps beneath a foreign-language Pulp Fiction poster in a corner of Do Hwa, the Korean restaurant he co-owns in Manhattan’s West Village, and admits he’s tired. ”It’s been a long journey, man.”
Keep in mind: An exhausted Quentin Tarantino, even at 49 and a long way from his wunderkind years, is still as energetic as a regular person would be after two strong coffees. And he’s characteristically enthusiastic about his new film: a spaghetti Western transposed to the antebellum South that follows a slave (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of noxious plantation owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in his first truly villainous role. It’s a Tarantino experiment through and through, and comes three years after Basterds earned eight Oscar nominations and more than $320 million worldwide, cementing his place as one of the few filmmakers whose name alone is a box office draw. But while his previous film’s cavalier historical revisionism lifted a few eyebrows, Django‘s up-front depiction of the brutal horrors of slavery is likely to raise some serious hackles.
With rare exceptions like ABC’s landmark 1977 miniseries Roots, Hollywood has seldom dealt with America’s original sin head-on. So Tarantino knows that his film — which features liberal, if era-appropriate, use of the N-word — is all but guaranteed to spark controversy. After one of Django‘s first screenings in New York City earlier this month, an African-American woman stood up and, visibly distraught, told Tarantino she was horrified by what she had just seen. A few others voiced their agreement with her, although most in the audience remained silent. To a degree, Tarantino understands the response. ”There is no setup for Django, for what we’re trying to do. Truthfully, some people are going to respond badly to the film, and maybe they’ll blame me, and I guess that’s fair enough,” he says, looking genuinely pained. ”No one likes to be misunderstood. It’s a drag.”
Still, others will love it for its refusal to wear kid gloves, and for the way Foxx’s Django becomes the hero of his own story. ”Look, there will be people who are glad at the way the film shines a light on what it does, and the fact that it doesn’t hold back about slavery,” says Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Stephen, Candie’s head slave, a character the actor predicts will become ”the most hated Negro in cinematic history” for his rabid defense of the hierarchical status quo. ”And there will be people who will be upset that every other word that comes out of our mouths is n—–. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Isn’t the problem that we haven’t been talking about this stuff?”
Django is Tarantino’s first Western, but only technically. His love of the genre has infused his previous films with Mexican standoffs, Sergio Leone-style close-ups, and climactic showdowns. The idea to do a ”Southern” came to him post-Basterds, while he was writing a book on Sergio Corbucci, the Italian filmmaker who directed the original 1966 Western Django. Tarantino started churning out a script and soon was inviting Waltz — who won an Oscar for his slithery turn as SS officer Hans Landa in Basterds — to his home to read it as he finished, 20 pages at a time. ”I’d sit down at his kitchen table, he’d pour me a drink, and then put the still-warm, just-printed pages in front of me,” recalls Waltz, who grew a thick salt-and-pepper beard for the role. ”And I’d sit there reading while he was eyeing me.”
While Tarantino wrote Schultz expressly for Waltz, he had no one actor in mind for his unshackled protagonist. ”Django was Django,” he says. ”That’s always a pretty exciting place to be as a writer. You’re not gilding it towards this actor’s strength or that actor’s strength, it’s just the character. Then it’s ‘Let me find somebody to fill this role.”’ At one point he met with Will Smith, news of which spread like a prairie brushfire, but that collaboration ultimately failed to come to fruition. Other prominent actors also vied for the role. ”Terrence Howard is a fantastic actor, and he had some really interesting insight into the character,” he says. ”And Chris Tucker really got the movie. But when Jamie came over to my house and we talked, he was just the guy. His voice, the fact that he’s from Texas, the fact that he could already ride, that he has a horse … he was the cowboy.”
As Django, Foxx charts a full arc from chain-gang slave to fearless gunslinger. He’s taciturn — a rare trait for a Tarantino character but not for the genre, where Clint Eastwood could communicate monologues with merely a grimace and a chomp on his cheroot. Foxx fell for the role immediately. The actor has a history of reaching into his own past for his work, whether it’s his time as a high school quarterback for Any Given Sunday or his classical-piano training for Ray. Django was no different. The horse Foxx rides in the film is his own, Cheetah, whom he bought about five years ago. Growing up in small-town Texas, the star says he used to spin little plastic revolvers and dream of playing the cowboy. ”All that heroic cowboy stuff that you get to watch as a kid, I got to do that,” he says. Not everyone on Foxx’s team was so confident about the role. Jackson says he received a call from the actor’s reps early in the process. ”Jamie’s people called me one day to see what I thought about the script,” he says. ”They said they were worried about his brand, and I said, ‘In what way? Because he’s playing a slave? He’s the hero of the movie!”’
Like Tarantino’s last film, Django isn’t entirely historically accurate. ”There’s historical with a capital H, this almost arm’s-length, dusty record of things,” says Tarantino. ”But I wanted it to be vital. I wanted it to work as a Western, and I wanted it to work as an adventure film that would be thrilling and exciting — where you’re not being exploitative, but you’re also not pulling any punches about the sexuality and the brutality that was happening at that time.”
Some of those punches land hard. Tarantino admits that shooting on location at Louisiana’s historic Evergreen Plantation raised the emotional stakes. ”It’s one thing to write a cotton field full of slaves in the background as Schultz and Don Johnson’s character have lemonade,” he says. ”It’s another thing to plant the cotton where it didn’t exist before, and then put 100 black people in the hot sun dressed as slaves picking it, and putting white people on horses yelling at them to do it.”
Making the film on land anointed by the blood, sweat, and tears of actual slaves had an effect on the actors as well. ”There was something very haunting and profound about shooting those scenes on sacred ground,” says Kerry Washington, whose character, Broomhilda, is bullwhipped and imprisoned in a metal hotbox. Despite her Valkyrian namesake, she’s much more of a damsel in distress than Tarantino’s earlier heroines — Uma Thurman’s The Bride in Kill Bill, say — but Washington believes Broomhilda isn’t a passive victim. ”It was special to me to be part of a story that allowed for the black female character in the context of slavery to be the princess, because that just wasn’t a fairy tale that black women were afforded.”
The dragon in this tale is DiCaprio’s evil, petulant plantation owner, who rules over a cotton kingdom and finds diversion in ”Mandingo fighting,” a blood sport that pits slave against slave in gladiatorial combat to the death. ”He was one of the most deplorable, indulgent, horrendous characters I’ve ever read in my life,” says DiCaprio, who had been wanting to work with Tarantino for ages. This is the star’s first nonleading role in nearly 15 years (although he was originally in the mix to play Basterds‘ Landa before the role went to Waltz), and he’s now generating awards buzz for his performance, as are castmates Foxx and Waltz. ”Once I stepped on set, it was a different me. I had to have a different relationship with everybody,” DiCaprio says.
Django‘s road to completion appeared bumpy. Names continued to attach themselves to the project before detaching again. Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell were both in talks for a part that would eventually be folded into Billy Crash, one of Candie’s stooges played by Justified‘s Walton Goggins. Jonah Hill and Sacha Baron Cohen were each slated to appear in the film, before dropping out; in the end, Hill has a small bit as a member of an early, bumbling version of the Ku Klux Klan. (Tarantino even cast himself in a key small role after Anthony LaPaglia bowed out because of a scheduling conflict.) The filmmaker was rewriting the script during production, including major changes to its third act. Shooting in snowy Wyoming and rainy Louisiana added some weather headaches — a rite of passage for any Western. Then, with one month left on the shoot, Oscar-nominated production designer J. Michael Riva suddenly died of a stroke.
Riva’s wasn’t the only death that cast a pall over the project. Django marks Tarantino’s first major feature without Sally Menke, his editor and collaborator of nearly two decades, who died on a hiking trip in 2010, before Tarantino had even finished the script. (Menke’s duties were taken over by Fred Raskin, an assistant editor on Kill Bill.) ”When I went into the process of editing it, yeah, it was sad,” says Tarantino, pausing and turning unusually serious. ”I missed her terribly.”
During the editing process, Tarantino and executive producer Harvey Weinstein also pondered splitting the film into two parts, as they had done with their last collaboration, Kill Bill. ”That always comes up, especially when you’re running out of time,” says Weinstein, noting that they would have made the cut at the point where DiCaprio enters. ”Trust me, we could have. But you really need both halves of the whole for it to work.” In the end they managed to trim the story to two hours and 45 minutes, finishing the final cut only two days before the first screening.
Back at Do Hwa, the rollicking kick start of Stealers Wheel’s ”Stuck in the Middle With You” rumbles over the speakers. Even Tarantino laughs, acknowledging the song that scored the gruesome ear-ectomy in Reservoir Dogs. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Tarantino’s debut film, a Sundance phenom that launched his career. (If you want to get circular about it, you might note that Reservoir Dogs‘ iconic amateur-surgery scene was inspired by a similarly brutal ear slicing in Corbucci’s original Django.)
With his eighth film in the can, the director claims he wants to retire before his consistency suffers. ”I don’t want to be doing a Topaz or a Buddy Buddy,” he says, referring to the subpar later output of Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, respectively. Tarantino is fiercely protective of his legacy. He says he makes movies not for the black-tie audiences at gala premieres but for ”the kid 10, 20 years from now who watches the TNT version of Django Unchained on TV” — a kid not unlike the young Tarantino, who famously worked at a video-rental store. Weinstein, on the other hand, is more focused on the here and now, particularly Django‘s release on Christmas, which may seem an odd day to launch such a violent, genre-busting film. But the pinch between awards-season eligibility and the film’s long production schedule narrowed his options. ”What date could we have?” Weinstein asks.
Regardless of the reception for Django this year, Tarantino believes that films shed their contemporary context over time. For him, the true test of a movie’s worth comes decades later, when some boy or girl stumbles upon Django and utters what Tarantino believes to be the greatest thing any filmgoer can say after a movie is over: ”Wow, who the hell did that?”
The Films behind the Film
One of Django Unchained‘s biggest inspirations was the 1966 original, Django. Star Franco Nero has an extended cameo, and a scene with a proto-KKK gang echoes one of the earlier film’s plot threads.
2. Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic is one of Tarantino’s favorite films, and Christoph Waltz’s Schultz has an apparatus up his sleeve that pops a gun into his hand much like the one used by Travis Bickle. ”Yeah, that’s in Taxi Driver,” says Tarantino. ”But it’s also in this Lee Van Cleef Western called Sabata.”
Michael Landon’s character on the 1959-73 TV Western Bonanza inspired one of Django’s costumes. ”That ‘Little Joe’ green jacket is a cool, sexy, all-purpose jacket,” Tarantino says. ”So we took the idea of it and fitted it to Jamie [Foxx]. And it looked pretty cool.”
4. Son of a Gunfighter
As a clever one-off joke, Tarantino cast Russ Tamblyn as ”Son of a Gunfighter” because he starred in a 1966 Western of the same name. Then he cast the actor’s real-life daughter Amber Tamblyn (127 Hours) as ”Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.”
5. The Empire Strikes Back
Tarantino drew on many sources for the dynamic between his protagonists. ”Schultz is a bit like Yoda to Django’s Luke,” he says. ”But I was also looking at [1966’s] Nevada Smith and the relationship between Steve McQueen and Brian Keith.”
Would Django pass a History Test?
Fact In the film, DiCaprio’s plantation owner trains slaves to fight each other until one is left standing — and so-called battles royal really did occur. Ralph Ellison famously documents one in his 1952 novel Invisible Man.
Fiction The term Mandingo fighting is a Tarantino invention, a nod to the 1975 exploitation film Mandingo, which depicts a similar gladiatorial system.
Fact The sunglasses that Jamie Foxx sports may look ultramodern, but their round spectacles and hooked temple arms are close to the earliest versions of tinted eyewear designed in the mid-1700s by James Ayscough.
Fiction Of course, sunglasses were originally meant to correct bad eyesight, not protect against the sun’s glare. And definitely not just to look badass.
Fact Christoph Waltz’s Schultz is modeled on men who helped tame the Wild West by hunting down criminals across jurisdictions.
Fiction Schultz calls himself a servant of the court, but that didn’t become official until an 1872 Supreme Court ruling. And there were certainly no black bounty hunters in the region then.