There is a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, in which Oscar-winning actor and Emmy-winning musician Jamie Foxx is hanging upside down, stark naked, with – how shall I put it? – his less shiny gongs on display.
This could only happen in a Tarantino film: the best want to work for him, even if it means full-frontal nude scenes that have their blood rushing to all the wrong parts. Foxx, mercifully dressed in dapper green velvet cowboy duds when I first meet him on set at a preserved 19th-century plantation near New Orleans, is not the only shiny-starred sheriff of Hollywood in the posse. Leonardo DiCaprio, alongside Tarantino veterans Christoph Waltz and Samuel L Jackson, make up a cast who clearly aren’t here for the money.
Foxx is on a horse, filming a scene in which he’s walking some slaves through the plantation. Tarantino is surveying proceedings from his director’s chair.
He may have a titanic reputation, but the 49-year-old filmmaker’s appearance doesn’t scream superstar. He is as you’d expect: large forehead and prominent chin, goofy hi-top trainers and a huge, boyish grin with enthusiasm to match. In short, he looks like Quentin Tarantino. During a break in the action, I ask him why the stars are lining up, even dangling, to work for him.
“I think it’s a combination,” he says. “They like my scripts. These guys read a lot of scripts and most scripts are kind of blueprinty. My scripts are like pieces of literature on their own, like a piece of art on their own. I could just publish them and that would be it. I don’t, I make them, but nevertheless I could, so they respond to that. And, if you’ve seen my movies then you know that I know how to work with actors, I can talk well with actors, I can bring the best out of them, hopefully. So they feel like they’re in good hands, they can trust me.”
It’s not just actors that trust Tarantino; it’s the cinema-loving public, too. His is a popularity that can be measured by the weight of his name. He’s in a very select group of directors whose name goes above not just those of the actors, but also that of the film. Django Unchained isn’t the next Foxx or DiCaprio film; it’s not the next big-budget western; it’s the next Tarantino film.
BLOOD IN THE SOIL
“When we finish shooting, we’ll go hang out somewhere and he’s like a rock’n’roll star,” says Foxx, describing his director’s enduring star power. “When he gets out of the car and walks up to the restaurant, the cameras are on him, and he knows it. He uses it as fuel. And then when he gets behind the camera, he’s a genius. He doesn’t let the rock’n’roll stuff get in the way, he really cares about it. You’re not bigger than the director. This dude, he don’t need you. He could cast someone from yesteryear.”
Indeed he could. But it wouldn’t matter to audiences. Tell people that Tarantino’s got a film out and they will go to see it, whether they know anything about it or not. In fact, there’s almost no point in me telling you anything about Django Unchained. But I will. It’d be rude not to.
It’s the story of Django (Foxx), a slave who’s been separated from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). He’s liberated, in a very Tarantino-esque manner, by Dr King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter played by Waltz. The two form a mutually beneficial partnership that allows Waltz to earn money and Django to track down Broomhilda, who’s currently in the ownership of DiCaprio’s egomaniac plantation-owner, Calvin Candie.
Lurking on the Louisiana set, we’re a good nine months ahead of the film’s release. But I know all this – and more – because, as is his wont, Tarantino’s sent the script over to ShortList and anyone else who wants to read it. In a world of near-paranoid secrecy from filmmakers and studios, it’s a blunt, unabashed gesture that oozes confidence. Which, coincidentally, are adjectives you could apply to his handling of the subject matter. Tarantino is addressing race and the too-often ignored slice of American history that is slavery, and he’s doing it in none-too-subtle a way.
It’s an approach that has already caused controversy. There is no hidden message in this film. Even the location, which still has its slave huts, is powerful.
“You know that slaves were whipped there and there is blood in that soil and there is blood on those trees,” he says. “And we could feel their spirits in the air. It was painful, but we also felt they were happy about what we were doing, honouring their suffering by illustrating it to the world.”
What still surprises and impresses is Tarantino’s honesty, boldness and abandon in his approach. He liberally – and controversially – sprinkles his dialogue with the N-word (I lost count of the number of times, but it’s comfortably in three figures) when the mere thought of uttering it would make most of us nervous.
“When I’m writing, it’s the characters talking,” he says, by way of explanation. “My only obligation is to present them as truthfully as possible. Each one of my characters has a truth, and I’m not gonna water down their truth because it might make some audience members uneasy. It’s a movie. If it makes some people uneasy, they don’t have to watch it. There are other movies for them to watch. I don’t worry about the reaction. Yeah, it’s a little controversial right now, but movies aren’t about right now, movies are about forever.”
Despite the weighty subject matter, there is humour, too. Of course there’s humour; it’s Quentin Tarantino. This is a man who made audiences laugh with an anal rape scene in Pulp Fiction. The funniest bits of Django Unchained revolve around racism and its idiocy. One scene, involving Klan-style hoods, has a distinct whiff of Blazing Saddles about it. Then there’s Jackson, who plays DiCaprio’s ‘house n*gger’ Stephen – a black man who finds black men repulsive and explodes with racist vitriol that, as it’s coming from a black man, it seems OK to laugh at. But is it?
“That’s a special laugh,” says Tarantino. “It’s not easy to get that laugh, so I consider it a point of pride that people are laughing, and then they’re questioning, ‘Is it even OK to laugh at this?’ I like orchestrating the audience, and the majority of my orchestrating usually works to laugh, laugh, laugh, stop laughing. Stop laughing, stop laughing, [clicks fingers] laugh.”
KING OF COOL
Eight months later I meet Tarantino again, this time in London. It’s the day after I watched Django Unchained for the first time, at a Bafta screening, where Tarantino and the film received a rapturous reception. It’s not surprising; it’s as good a western as you’ll ever see, and authentic to the point that you almost forget it’s a Tarantino film. But any doubts were put to rest as he walked through the audience at the Empire cinema, beaming. However, his smile was more for the crowd reaction than the film.
“I’m happy with the movie, but you can’t really ask me [about it] right now,” he says. “I mean, I was very happy watching it at the screening you were at, seeing the response, but I literally just finished it, so it’s kind of brand new to me. I need to see the film with an audience during its commercial release. I need to see it with people who could do anything in the world that they wanted to do that day, but they decided to go see my movie and pay money to go see it. At the very least I need like a year and a half to actually really judge where it falls in my filmography.”
Another reason actors love working for Tarantino is that he will always make them look good. The dialogue, the costumes, the soundtrack; everything is cool. Nobody’s career has ever been damaged by doing a Tarantino film. In fact, more than one has been brought out of the professional equivalent of a coma. John Travolta owes him an enormous debt of gratitude for Pulp Fiction, and you could even say the same about Bruce Willis. He’s also cast the likes of Daryl Hannah, the late David Carradine and Pam Grier in major, career-jolting roles. In Django Unchained, it’s the turn of Don Johnson, who still gets to wear a white suit, only this time he plays a plantation owner. And wears socks. So why does Tarantino do this? Is it pity, altruism, nostalgia or something else?
“The reason is, I’ve always liked these actors,” he explains. ”I’ve been a fan of theirs for a long time. In the case of Don Johnson, I was a fan of his way before Miami Vice, from A Boy And His Dog, and from Return To Macon County and all the TV movies he did. I thought Don Johnson should have been a star a lot sooner, before Miami Vice. As far as I’m concerned, Don Johnson should be a star right now. In this case, he was perfect for that character. So that’s where it always comes from. I don’t want to stick to the list of who’s hot right now.”
It’s not just stars he borrows from the past; Tarantino is famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of films, and for being open about their influences on his work. Many of these are cult films from directors regularly namechecked by true movie aficionados. He does, however, love one genre of cinema that couldn’t be described as cult, cool or even remotely acceptable. In fact, it’s so surprising, that he feels the need to find a scientific justification.
“I have to say, when I’m on an airplane, not in a movie theatre, I want to watch romantic comedies,” he confesses. “I want to watch the new Katherine Heigl movie, I want to watch the new Kate Hudson movie. I think it’s something to do with the altitude; I cry and I guffaw, and I have the best time. I don’t want to see them at the theatres, I don’t wanna watch them on HBO, but on an airplane, that’s what I want to see. As far as I’m concerned, Kate Hudson is the queen of the skies.”
Tarantino has earned a guilty pleasure or two. He may have learned from studying the films of others, but 20 years after he cut his teeth (and the odd ear) on Reservoir Dogs, he’s now well and truly part of cinematic history. A go-to section of the archives for new directors that contains a body of work sizeable and good enough for him to put his feet up and enjoy his place in the pantheon. But, of course, that’s not enough. Tarantino’s only looking to the future.
“I want to take a little bit of time off,” he says. “I’ve been working on some film literature, so I just want to continue on that a little bit. Django 2? I could see myself doing a prequel to Inglourious Basterds before I’d do a sequel to Django Unchained. Frankly because I have some of it written already – it’s the stuff I took out of Inglourious Basterds in order to tame it a little more. There’s still a whole other story there that I never got a chance to tell. So the fact that that’s half written goes a long way.”
It’d be another opportunity for the best to work with the man they all want to. But, would that man want to work for himself? He laughs. “Oh, I would love working for me.”
Django Unchained is at cinemas nationwide from 18 January
(Photography: Levon Biss)
(Images: All Star)