America's most notorious director talks about his most incendiary movie yet
Quentin Tarantino has Westerns in his blood. His mother named him, in part, after Quint Asper, Burt Reynolds’ character in Gunsmoke, and he grew up consuming Hollywood’s Wild West — the good, the bad, and the ugly. With 2012’s Django Unchained, he infused the genre with his provocative brand of cinematic vim. In The Hateful Eight, which opened limited on Dec. 25 and expanded nationwide on Dec. 30, Tarantino rides again.
Set a few years after the Civil War, this bloody, brain-splattered whodunit strands a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) and his captive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a desolate mountain stopover in the middle of a blizzard. Trapped with them are a Union major (Samuel L. Jackson), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), and a motley melange of suspicious dudes, including Tarantino regulars Tim Roth and Michael Madsen. Paranoia — and racial rancor — run high.
Those themes were magnified in real life when Tarantino drew fire for his comments at an October anti-police-brutality rally. Police unions threatened to boycott his films, casting the director as a black hat. But Tarantino’s not hiding out from the posse. If anything, he’s scrapping for a fight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m going to steal my first question from Tom McCarthy, who once mentioned that when he’s with other directors talking about each others’ films, he always asks, “What was your biggest gamble on this picture? What were you most nervous about? What didn’t you know was a sure thing?”
QUENTIN TARANTINO: That’s a good question. I think if you go through the majority of interviews with me, rarely do I talk about technical stuff. I usually talk about the material or cinema in general. I’m never the guy who gives an in-depth interview in American Cinematographer. Just let [cinematographer Bob Richardson] do those and I’ll give them a few sound bites. But in this one, the thing that wasn’t a sure thing wasn’t the idea of shooting it in 70mm. That, we figured would be okay. Other people have done it before. Using the lenses that we used — those Ultra Panavision lenses from the late ’50s, early ’60s — that was the thing that wasn’t a sure thing. We did tests on them and everything. So we knew they worked. We wouldn’t be mounting this entire production with one foot on a banana peel and the other on a roller skate. But the fact that we would be in the freezing cold was an issue. I just had to assume that there would be times that the lenses would freeze, or that the big camera would freeze. We’re dealing with a really tricky technical process and we’re doing it in a very untricky way, being open to the elements the way we were. And I’d already had a bad experience with that to some degree or another at least on one important day on Django when we were shooting in the snow. Even the guns didn’t work. And that happened to be the day we were doing Django’s fast draw. So literally in between takes, you got a hair dryer on the lenses and a hair dryer on the guns to make sure that they were warm enough. But literally, Gregor Tavenner, our first AC [on Hateful Eight], just did all the leg work that he needed to do in order to make sure that we were never down because of camera. And we were never down because of camera. That stuff never happened.
The other dangling participle was just the weather itself. As you can see, we got all the weather we needed. But it was never easy. We were at the whims of the weather and you could never trust a weather report that was any more than three days in advance. So depending on what the weather was, we’re either doing this or we’re doing that. There was no, “Oh, okay, we’re going to start a scene and then work it to its emotional integrity until we’re done with it. And then we’ll do some other scene and work it to its emotional integrity.” No. It was: drop and pick up, drop and pick up, drop and pick up pretty much the entire time we were in Colorado. Which is not my normal way of working, or my preferred way of working. Having said that, there can be energizing things about doing things outside of your comfort zone and rising to the occasion for a purpose. And our purpose was we wanted to capture that weather. So it was a good trade, and it was actually kind of neat to be a bit of an old dog, having to deal with new tricks.
After Django, there were critics and members of the African-American community who weren’t happy. The film touched certain third-rails — slavery, race in America, violence on screen. And as I watched Hateful Eight, I was like, “He’s doubling-down.” I think some artists are very sensitive to any type of criticism, and just the fact that it’s a hassle can deter an artist from swimming in the same shallows again.
That’s actually well said. That would be one of the reasons an artist would censor themselves — not because they feel they’re being censored by this totalitarian regime. But it’s a hassle. It’s a pain in the ass. Maybe I can take a break on it for this next one. Brian DePalma used to talk about that all the time, about all the s–t he had to deal with, at every single junket. Roman Polanski was one of the best makers of horror films that really got under your skin. But at a certain point, he got sick of it, because he just got sick of being put on the hot plate about it so much. But where I’m coming from is, social critics don’t mean anything to me. It is my job to ignore them, because their critiques are about right now: 2015. My movie is not a carton of milk that has an expiration date. It’s going to be available 20 years, 30 years, hopefully 100 years from now. Those critics will come and go, but the movie will be the movie. My revenge is I’m going to win their kids and grandkids over. They’re going to be stuck, an old man at Thanksgiving, having their granddaughter talk about how she’s taking a Tarantino class in college, and it’s the most stimulating class that she’s taking. They’re going to fry an egg on their bald pate while their grandkids exalt my virtues.
So you said you had no problem ignoring the social critics. But does it work the other way… where you almost wanted to — not antagonize them — but do you feel emboldened—
Am I just trying to be a provocateur?
Well, not just, but I mean, after Django, was there a feeling of, “Know what…? F— them. I have this other story that’s going to make their heads spin.”
To put things in there just to stick a weed up the social critic’s ass ultimately is the exact same starting point as censoring yourself — to appease them and give them a break. People can say that there’s a provocateur aspect going on in my work from the very, very beginning and that might very well be the case. But the reason it’s the case is because, I don’t give a f— about it. Not because, “Oh no, I give a f— and I’m going to teach you a lesson. I’m going to show you.” [My dialogue is] literally the things that the character said in that hot-house environment that I trapped them in. If nobody had written that stuff, that would’ve been what they said. If everybody wrote that stuff, that’s still what they said. I hope that’s where I’m coming from.
The Hateful Eight is set a few years after the Civil War—
Actually, I made it ambiguous, as is almost everything about this script. It’s kind of up for you to decide about almost every important aspect in the piece that reveals itself. But in the script, I actually wrote that it takes place six, eight, or 10 years after the Civil War.
Yet there’s so much in there about race that resonates true in 2015. The line where Walton Goggins says white folks are safest when blacks are scared. Then, Samuel L. Jackson turns it around, and says it’s only safe for blacks when whites are disarmed. Is all that stuff intentional or does that just sprinkle in during the whole evolution of the writing?
Literally, it’s sprinkled in just during the hot-house environment of writing this piece. I felt that by throwing a black cavalry officer in the middle of this mix and knowing that I was going to have a Southern general and, like, the son of Quantrill in this mix, that I’d be kicking a can that deals with these issues. How much that can would be kicked and how much would spill out, that I didn’t know. And that was just the surface, the process of writing the material. The film that I ended up making ends up being a really serious examination of both the Civil War and the post Civil War survivors. But I really was coming more from a mystery angle, creating a little Agatha Christie thing. That was what got me putting pen to paper. Obviously, I knew I was going to deal with the Civil War. But I didn’t know it would end up being so serious when it came to that issue. I was realizing when I was watching it about [seven] weeks ago that this could almost be a post-apocalyptic movie, to some degree or another. It’s like this frozen wasteland, and the apocalypse has destroyed every semblance of their society and their way of life, and these survivors are huddled together in this pitiless wasteland shelter. And suddenly they’re all blaming each other for the apocalypse, but the apocalypse is the Civil War. But that wasn’t what I was necessarily thinking about on page 72 in my bedroom when I was writing it.
During the movie, I think I scribbled down that Major Marquis Warren is half-Shaft, half-Obama…
We didn’t call him Shaft, we called him Hercule Negro.
Did Samuel L. Jackson say anything specific about his big monologue when he read the script the first time?
He was like, “This is my Iceman Cometh and that’s my Hickey monologue.”
Race is a recurring theme in your films. Are you working through your own experiences with race via film?
No, I think me dealing with race in America is one of the things I have to offer to cinema. That is one part of my interest in American society, and so the fact that it bleeds into my work makes perfect sense. In particular, it’s what I have to offer the Western genre, because it’s really not been dealt with [there] in any meaningful way.
Mel Brooks once said when he was doing a Blazing Saddles, whenever he felt like he was in trouble with the N-word, he would just kind of rely on Richard Pryor, who was the co-writer, who would say, “Oh, that’s fine here,” or “No, not there.” Do you have—
I would never ever give anybody that kind of expertise on my work. I am the expert on my work. Absa-bloody-lutely.
At the Rise Up October rally, you became the story after referring to some police officers as murderers. Did you say exactly what you intended to say? Or, looking back, do you think, “I should’ve been more careful with my words”
No, I stand by that. I mean, I was completely misrepresented. I didn’t say all cops were murderers, or every single police shooting was a murder. We were talking about very specific instances. Chicago just got caught with their pants down in a way that can’t be denied. But I completely and utterly reject the “few bad apples argument.” Yeah, the guy who shot [Laquan McDonald] is a bad apple. But so are the other eight or nine cops that were there, that said nothing, did nothing, let a lie stand for an entire year. And the chief of police, is he a bad apple? I think he is. Is [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel a bad apple? I think he is. They’re all bad apples. That just shows that that’s a bulls— argument. It’s about institutional racism. It’s about institutional cover-ups that are about protecting the force as opposed to the citizens.
When the police unions threatened a boycott, they also promised that they had a “surprise” waiting for you…
The cops’ response to it has made my point for me in so many ways. Civil servants, even rhetorically, shouldn’t be threatening private citizens. They sounded like bad guys in an ‘80s action movie. It was like Jim Glickenhaus wrote their dialogue for them. That’s a reference. [Laughs]
A, did you anticipate this, and B, have you encountered any type of—
No, no, no. I haven’t encountered anything like that. I actually don’t believe the police is some sinister Black Hand organization that’s going to target me and screw me in in any way. The only question that I had going in was just natural human trepidation because I knew a lot of fans that were police officers, and I did have a little apprehension about the fact that a lot of them could misread what I was saying and a lot of them might jump to conclusions and not take in the nuance of what I might say or mean. All of a sudden, some regular on-the-street patrolman who would now be like, “Oh, look Tarantino. F— that guy. F—in’ doesn’t know s–t.” Did I feel bad that they’re not going to kiss me for this? Yeah, a little bit. But not as bad as I feel sitting on the couch watching literally people being gunned down and then the cops just facing some Mickey Mouse cop tribunal and just being put on desk duty.
A boycott could effect the box office of your movie, though. You’ve worked with studio head Harvey Weinstein from the beginning of your career, and he’s releasing Hateful. What was his phone call to you about this like?
If he was Rupert Murdoch, I’m sure the conversation would’ve gone a slightly different way. Harvey’s a known liberal. He called me up to tell me he was proud, because he’s never seen me take a political stand about anything publicly before. At the same time, I’m sure it was a gigantic pain in the ass that he didn’t need. And it did have an effect on the film: we had some really interesting commercial tie-ins that went away because of the cop boycott.
What kind of stuff are we talking about — not fast-food restaurants?
Well, one of them was a fast-food restaurant that were going to do little Happy Meal kind of things, with character cups of the different eight and everything. And that would’ve been really fun and really cool; we would’ve been breaking new ground for such a tough movie, to have those kind of tie-ins. But [those companies] got scared, and I understand why they got scared.
That really sucks because—
Yeah, that f—ing sucks! [Laughs] It really sucks!
I didn’t mean to be flippant, but what really sucks — on top of the obvious impact on your film — is that the Weinsteins and other studios are aware that [these opportunities] went away and why. And they might be more cautious in the future for another film or filmmaker that’s slightly controversial.
Uh-huh. Look, I’m involved in a big commercial endeavor. It would not be right for me to be completely flippant about the fact that I’ve put an undue burden on this big commercial endeavor that I have partners with. And I don’t think we’re going to pay a price later, but we’ve paid a price now, as far as that’s concerned. But at the same time, what made me want to talk about it is I do feel that this type of police brutality and this type of abusive power, and this institutional disease that has infected the police forces in America has to stop.
NEXT: Jennifer Lawrence, Ennio Morricone, and Tarantino’s next movie[pagebreak]
Why are you and Harvey Weinstein so good together? Not everyone has a great experience with Harvey.
Yeah, I know. One answer to that would be — and this is a good thing and a bad thing — is we kind of love each other. We’re literally like family members. I’m some weird version of his little brother and his son, and he’s a weird version of a big brother and my father, to some degree, especially as far as this industry is concerned. We have genuine affection for each other. Now, that can be a good thing and a bad thing because we take things way too serious, and we’ll take things way too personal. Some of our fights are the fights you have with family members where things get way out of hand way too quickly, because you’re talking about everything else other than what the argument is really about. But there is also the idea that I’m not just working with somebody who got this job at a given studio and they will be there for a certain amount of time depending upon how good their slate does. This is Harvey’s studio, and the buck stops with him, and he still works from a gut. He has that old mogul aspect about him that is romantic because you are dealing with somebody. It’s a double-edged sword, you know. He can get the wrong thing in his mind and just be on the wrong road, and it takes a Herculean effort to get him on the right road. But in its own way, over a course of a long period of time, that is preferable to somebody just trying to keep their job and is trying to back up anything they’re saying with statistics and market research about this or that or the other. Harvey’s not really coming from things like that; he’s coming from his own tastes and his own experience. He doesn’t need market research to back up his own perceptions of things.
One of the common themes of your characters is how they are often pretending — they are hiding something. This goes back to Reservoir Dogs, and this film is full of these types.
It must be an obsession of mine to some degree or another. In movie after movie, characters go undercover as somebody they’re not. But it wasn’t necessarily the intention. I wrote most of these characters for these actors — I called them the Tarantino Superstars. They can handle my material. They can handle my dialogue. It sounds good coming out of their mouths. They understand the rhythms, but also — and this is probably the most important part — they get the jokes. They know when, even when it’s not officially a joke, they know there is a laugh there. But that’s not for everybody. Not every actor is born from that kind of theatricality that is required in my pieces.
Not yet. I’ve heard it’s terrific.
It’s terrific, and it’s the perfect bookend to what she does in your film. She’s the sweet, kind of meek-voiced character in that animated film. And in your film, she’s a Valkyrie. Why did you cast her?
Well, there’s a really cool aspect about writing a character for an actor you like because you’re writing for what you think they can do really well. You know maybe some of their limitations. You know some of their pluses, and so you write to their strengths, and you have a good sense. When you close your eyes you can kind of see them doing it. When you read the dialogue, you can kind of hear them doing it, to some degree of another. But if you’ve done that for a lot of characters in a piece, then you start getting completely enamored and fetishistic with the one character that you’re not writing for an actor. And that character, I’m not worrying about an actor’s limitations or their pluses — it only is the character. That character can really go and find itself any way it can, and hopefully, it completely exists on the page. Now you have to find somebody that can take it from the page and take it even further. And if they’re not right, then what was special about them on the page will only stay on the page.
A super example of that would be Christoph Waltz’s character in Inglourious Basterds, in so far as I didn’t know Col. Landa was a linguistic genius until writing him. He just ended up being able to speak every language that he was encountered with. I didn’t know that at the start, writing that farmhouse scene, but it just kept revealing itself. Now, if I was literally writing it for somebody else that I knew, I wouldn’t have been able to go in that direction, because they wouldn’t have been able to pull it off to that degree. In this situation, I just let Landa be — and literally, if Filipinos had walked in to the middle of Inglourious Basterds, he would have been kicking it in Tagalog because he can talk any language he wants. But consequently, I needed to find an actor who was a linguistic genius, or else that aspect — which was a very important aspect of Landa — would always just remain on the page, and there would’ve just been an actor trying to do it.
So that’s a little look into when you’re not writing the character for an actor. Now in the case of Daisy Domergue, it was almost an impossible role to cast in a conventional way — i.e., an actress coming in the room and knocking our socks off, and us saying, “Oh wow, that’s Daisy.” Because if you’ve seen the movie, you know that the way she is in the last chapter is not necessarily the way she is in the chapters building up to it. So, with that in mind, I wasn’t necessarily looking for someone to nail her speech in that final chapter. I ended up looking at a few different actresses that all were more or less from the ‘90s, what you would think of as young actresses that were kicking ass and doing a really great job particularly in the ‘90s. That’s the era that most of my actors made their bones, and that’s the era when I made my bones. There was a throwback to Reservoir Dogs quality to this whole [movie] so there was this kind of full circle quality going on. So I was like, the actress should be from that same boat as the [other] actors, and there were about three actresses from that period that really kind of made an indelible mark on me. I started going on little film festivals of the three, and frankly, it was the Jennifer Jason Leigh film festival that I enjoyed the most.
Single White Female?
Single White Male was definitely one. I watched that one on my laser disc. But it was more kind of the combination of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Georgia and Miami Blues and The Hitcher. I watched Heart of Midnight. I watched The Men’s Club. I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Another big one that helped was a Paul Verhoeven movie she did, Flesh+Blood, with Rutger Hauer. She’s terrific in it. So I literally was just having a ball with this Jennifer Jason Leigh film festival. It was a nice little reminder that in the ‘90s, she was like a female Sean Penn. You didn’t just cast her in girlfriend roles; you cast her in movies where the whole movie was about her performance. So it got me very, very excited about seeing a performance-dominated Jennifer Jason-Leigh movie.
She doesn’t fit into this category of three actresses, but there were reports that there was a brief flirtation with Jennifer Lawrence.
Well, I’m a huge Jennifer Lawrence fan. I think I’ve been on record of saying that her and David O. Russell’s relationship is very William Wyler-Bette Davis like, and that’s a good thing to be like. And I can see her doing a good job with this role, so we went to talk about it and everything. She was just doing me a courtesy to see me, I think. She was doing Joy. She had to do all this publicity on the Hunger Games movies. There was just no f—ing way in the world that she was available. Having said that, I’m glad I didn’t cast somebody that young. I think I absolutely positively made the right choice, as far as the ages of the characters.
There’s a lot of s–t to worry about in the world, so I know this isn’t high on anybody’s list, but it always bugs me at the Academy Awards when studios try to shoe-horn a lead performance into the Supporting category. Going back to Pulp Fiction, Sam was in the Supporting category. To me, he was a lead or at least co-lead in that film. Do you care about such things? Is Sam a lead actor this year?
Oh, yeah, he absolutely is the lead actor this year. [I care] only when it’s absolutely positively completely egregious, and I don’t think Sam in Pulp Fiction qualifies. I mean, he can qualify as a lead, but I don’t think it qualifies as a egregious or a travesty, because frankly in the casting of it, no one was talking about Jules being one of the leads. They were talking about Vincent being the lead, and everybody else was supporting — even Butch was supporting. We offered it to an actor before Sam, and his people talked him out of it because [they said], “You need to be doing the lead now.” So now the fact that everyone talks about Jules as the lead, that’s not what everyone was saying earlier on. But where it actually is a thing maybe is Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation — she’s obviously the co-lead. Actually, he’s co to her lead, in many ways. You see the movie through both of their eyes, so she’s not a supporting. That was obviously an attempt to get her nominated and I think it actually backfired. At the same time, like you said… with all the things to worry about in the world, they were just trying to get her a nomination so ultimately who f—ing cares?
I have to ask you about the music in The Hateful Eight from the legendary Ennio Morricone. It’s very different in the first half and the second half.
Well, I play around with it a little bit. In the first half of the movie, you never hear movie music when you’re in Minnie’s Haberdashery — until the music kicks in during [Sam’s] speech. I get rid of that idea in the second half, but in the first half, I wanted to play by Reservoir Dogs rules, which was it was the dialogue that was carrying it. It was the tension that was carrying it. It was the threat of violence that was carrying it.
I feel like Morricone did something completely different too. You’ve done homages to his classic Western themes, but no one’s going to listen to this and be like, “Oh yeah, vintage Morricone.” It actually reminded me of Bernard Herrmann in Psycho, with the pounding strings.
I didn’t expect a soundtrack similar to the The Five Man Army or Two Mules for Sister Sara. I expected something very, very different, and I got it. He gave me pretty much a horror film soundtrack, with that kind of music box theme that kicks in from time to time that’s really creepy and spooky. Well, that is my movie. That’s what he was responding to. He was responding to the claustrophobia and the paranoia of the characters trapped in this situation together. He even told me, he goes, “I just had this idea in my head when I read the script for a theme… It would suggest two things: it would suggest the stagecoach — moving forward and moving forward and moving forward — yet it would also suggest the violence that would come later.”
You’ve talked about not wanting to be an “old” director. You’ve said you’ll retire after your 10th film. Hateful Eight is No. 8. Is that still your plan?
Almost to the man, most directors actually think they have more time than they do. They all talk about five or six movies that they want to make in the future at some point in time. Because when it comes to stories in the proverbial incubator, maybe I have four that are in that incubator, waiting to see how they come out. But it’s a lie. What do you want to do [right now]? I think there’s something really vital and exciting about thinking: I only have two movies left. What do you want your last two statements to be? How do you want to wrap up your persona for future generations? I think that’s a really creative way to look at it, and I do like the idea of there being an umbilical cord from Reservoir Dogs to the last movie?
I’m going to ask a personal question, but let me explain why. Do you want to have kids? And the reason is because kids change who you are, everything. And there’s part of me that would want to see a Quentin Tarantino Dad movie — I’m not talking about Mrs. Doubtfire.
Yeah, I know what you mean.
I’m talking about who you would be as a father and how would that impact your filmmaking. Do you think about having kids?
I did. There was a time about 13 years ago that I had a baby fever, that I really thought about having kids. Usually, it’s a situation like that where somebody very close to you has a kid, and you kind of experience vicariously though them the joy of a child, and the joy of the love of a child. And I was thinking about it a lot. And I was getting a lot of encouragement in thinking about it, in so far as people telling me what I great father I would be. And that was very moving. But that fever has passed. I had baby fever, and the fever broke. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to have kids, but right now, perfectly thinking, I want to do the 10 movies — without distractions.
Do you know what your next movie will be? Everyone keeps whispering about a third Western.
There are a lot of people writing about that one right now. But it’s the loophole that doesn’t count as one of the 10 because I would do it as a miniseries, so I wouldn’t count that as one of the 10.
I was always interested in the World War II movie about black soldiers rampaging across Europe, Killer Crow.
Yeah, that’s definitely in the old incubator. That definitely is one of the ones that I could do. And the fact that I have about half of that written goes a long way towards hearing the microwave ding.