Like the rest of the entries in Quentin Tarantino's eclectic filmography, Inglourious Basterds is a pastiche of different influences combined in some kind of cinematic bouillebaise, and somehow made original in that unholy union. Appropriately, the film also came together in disparate parts over several years, which is why Basterds is as much a deconstruction of genre conventions as it is a rousing tale right out of the same war-torn landscape as classics past and present. According to Tarantino, however, making the film wasn't merely an assembly of ideas, but a bit of movie mountain-climbing that was essential for him to see what's on the other side.
Cinematical recently sat down with Tarantino for a roundtable interview at the film's press day, where he discussed the process of giving birth to Basterds. In addition to discussing the general dynamics of his creative process, Tarantino talked about what war movie moments he did and didn't want in the film, and examined the way in which even doing interviews allows him to look at his own work differently. Cinematical's questions are noted.
Was this movie worth the wait for you, taking the time over so many years to develop it into what it became?
Quentin Tarantino: Oh, yeah. Most definitely. There was a moment, or well it wasn't like I was constantly writing on it for ten years. I worked on it for two years and kind of put it away. I didn't work on it after that, but I would take out the pages and kind of go through it again and just kind of think about stuff. There was this time after Kill Bill that I was thinking, you know what, maybe I'm not going to do this at all. Maybe that was a time and that time has passed, or something like that. Then I realized, no, I have to finish it. Even if I don't like it I have to finish it. Even if I write it and put it in a drawer and never make it because I have to get it out of me. I won't be able to write the next script until I get this one out. I have to climb this mountain to see the other mountains on the other side. I didn't feel that way when I finished writing it, I loved it. But, no, I love the movie, and I am very gratified.
It's a war movie but leaves out the iconic battle scenes and things like that, but has the sort of Brad Pitt leader speech, the Patton speech; how did you decide what aspects of those movies you were going to leave out and what you were going to have?
Tarantino: Very good question. That definitely has that kind of John Milius-sounding Patton speech to the troops, to rally the boys. Basically the answer to that question is that I got rid of the stuff that I didn't want to deal with, that I was never really attracted to in war movies and then kept the stuff that I liked. So, no tanks. They're gone. No battle scenes. It wasn't about that. I was always much more drawn in situations, oddly enough I was much more drawn to more of the cloak and dagger kind of stuff with people hiding in Nazi occupied countries and pulling stuff behind the scenes. Not only that, but I was always excited when a moment would happen in a World War Two movie that was more of a human drama, like – I don't know, I'll just make up something right now – an American soldier and a German soldier are fighting and they end up in a cave and then something happens to the cave, there's a cave in and now they need to work together to get out of the cave. That show Combat, because they didn't do big battle scenes would always focus on some weird drama. You can make a whole movie about a guy getting from one end of a mine field to another. That was the kind of stuff - I didn't do that, I thought about it - but that was the kind of stuff, like, 'hey, let me do this and let me make a big twenty minute scene about this. Lets not bum-rush this, because in real life it would probably feel like forever if you were trying to get across a mine field. So that was the kind of human dramas that I was kind of going for. So my version of the minefield scene is the French tavern scene.
Cinematical: The film is also about a sort of mythmaking, from Landa's big speech at the beginning about how he got his nickname to each character's back story and origin - who they were and how they got there and earned that persona. How much of that was a conscious effort?
Tarantino: Well, the reality is, truthfully, if the subtext is really, really going to work it's just got to be inherent in the material. It's nothing that I'm writing. It's no brick, no series of bricks that I'm putting into place. It's just there, just there, and I deal with the text. I work on the text and I count on that to take care of itself. Part of the fun of this stage of the game right now is, as opposed to being so damn practical, now I get to be analytical about my work, and I get to even discover things myself. I was just even thinking about something the other day, there's a lot of dualities going through it where there's one thing on this surface and then a similar thing underneath here. The movie is about propaganda filmmaking, but you can even make a case that maybe my movie is a propaganda movie. They're rewriting history, I'm rewriting history (laughs). So they all go hand in hand, but if I've got the right idea, the subtext will take care of itself. I don't need to write it and I'm almost afraid to - because then it becomes too on the money.
This film really discovers some new people. Can you talk about finding actors that the world doesn't really know about yet and working with them?
Tarantino: Well, from the American perspective, but in Germany it's an all star cast (laughs). There was a real fun aspect about the film since there were so many German characters and French characters and I didn't have a clue of who I wanted so that when I wrote them there was no thinking about an actor or anything. It was literally just the character was the character. So Landa could speak all these different languages because he really was just a character on the page. All these characters could just become who they are without thinking about an actor's limitations or any guidelines like that. So once I was finished with them, they were all right there, so then it became, like, okay, now I'm not looking for this big star. I didn't care about how famous anyone was in Germany. I was literally trying to find the perfect people to play these different roles. So it was literally just completely character first. Now my casting is always character first, but here it could really be that way. I didn't care who was famous and who wasn't. You had to just come into the room and knock it out of the park.
I was struck with the scene where Hitler is watching the movie within the movie and is laughing at the violence. How has your relationship with violence in cinema evolved over your career?
Tarantino: At the end of the day, I think that I still have the same response when I'm an audience member and I watch violence. If it's meant to be gross, it probably just grosses me out, but at the same time if it's too gross then I'm really thinking about the prosthetic effects that are going into the making of it and everything. Basically, the violence that I really like usually makes me laugh; in a particularly savage fight in a movie and a guy takes another guy you don't like and he bashes his head five times into a table, that totally cracks me up (laughs).
Why do you think that is?
Tarantino: It's funny. If I was watching Michelle Pfeiffer playing this sensitive woman in a movie and they grabbed her head and smashed it three times I probably wouldn't think it was so funny, but if we're watching a character that I don't like and Steven Segal has had enough and he gives him a compound fracture in the arm and bashes his head into the wall nine times, I'm busting a gut.
Where was the light bulb when you were like, ass-kicking, Nazi-killing redneck but pretty smart. Brad Pitt! Where did those two things converge in your head?
Tarantino: Aldo Raine was like the first character that I came up with when I came up with this idea, and the whole idea was supposed to be that this hillbilly is against the code of what you think of as a redneck - because he's truly and completely against fascism, to the degree that I think part of his back story was that he was fighting [against] the Klan in the '30's before he went into the war, and he's going to continue fighting if he survives the war. So the Nazi's, the Kluxter's, it's all the damn same to him.
Is that where the scars on his neck came from?
Tarantino: I can't tell you where that happened. That's up for you to decide. I'll let you tell me. But the thing was, the idea was that he would get Jewish American soldiers because they would be more committed to what he was trying to do and what he was trying to do would be an Apache resistance against the Nazis. Aldo would be a war expert. He's read about the battle plans of this guy and that guy and Geronimo. He knows that. He knows it backwards and forwards. So he can take those methods and apply them. Where he's coming from, as far as why he'd want Jewish soldiers, one it's also a good psychological thing against the Germans. They're going to be really motivated to really do intense payback. He's coming from the place of like, "hey, look, these Gentiles, they have the luxury of being soldiers. You have to be warriors. You're fighting a holy war against an enemy that wants to wipe your race off the face of this earth. So here we go." So that's why. He's really trying to conjure up a holy-war atmosphere with these dudes.
How much research did you do on the war, or since it's revisionist history do you do none at all?
Tarantino: Well, I did a lot of research way back when, when I first started. For a while it kind of stymied me a little bit, because I just found all this information that I just kept trying to squeeze into the script. I wanted to teach the world what I had learned, and I had to get over that. But as far as this story was concerned, the bottom line of research or all I needed was to really understand the whys and the wherefores of what life was like under the occupation, in particularly in France. That's what I really needed to know, the do's and don'ts and the structure of what daily life was like and how it changed over the course from '41 to '44. Also, I already knew a lot about German cinema and the Nazi propaganda film industry but I learned a lot more. I read Goebbels diaries and stuff. I just learned a lot about that so that I could talk with complete knowledge about it. But basically, once I got going as far as the writing was concerned, I didn't want to go back and do any more research. I didn't want to stop my process. If you're reading my script, you're buying my imagination. That's what I wanted to do and not just change my way of doing it because I was doing a period movie. So what happened is that every time I'd get to a thing that I didn't quite know what the answer was, what the reality would be, I just made it up and I moved on. Then when I was finished, I went back and looked up some of those things and three quarters of the time my guess was right about what happened. When I'm talking about that, I mean what curfew was like in occupied Paris or just something like that.
Every time you point a camera at a woman's foot at this point you know people are going to talk...
Tarantino: I know. I can't win. It's just called good direction. Sofia Coppola and Jane Campion shoot women's feet just as much as I do if not more (laughs).
Cinematical: When you were writing this story how did you find your focus? I think a lot of people going into the movie may expect them to be the nemesis, but are almost incidental or supporting players in the unveiling of the story?
Tarantino: Well, the group of the Basterds, the eight guys, that is true that they're peripheral. Not the Bear Jew, but most of the other guys you see hanging around. It's even structured this way, but to me the movie has three leads just in order of appearance more or less: It would be Landa, Aldo and Shoshanna. The first three chapters really do introduce our three leads, and kind of setup their situations. Then, in chapters Four through Five is the adventure story. Now you see them do what they're going to do and they overlap and this happens, and even the way that chapter four is introduced Hicox would be our fourth lead. He's given all the pomp and circumstance of a true lead, as well he should've been. That was the idea. But the thing is that it was setup in this chapter structure to introduce these leads and just see what happens to them. But that's also my way. I come up with the idea - hey, let me do a bunch of guys on a mission movie – and that can be makes me want to sit down and write it. Now that is in this movie. There is a bunch of guys and there is a mission and it actually does offer a lot of the pleasures of that genre. But I want to expand it. I want to go beyond it. I want to redefine it. Not structurally, but I guess in a bigger sense it's close to E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime. It's this big group of characters with some historical figures of the time mixing it up with my characters.
Can you hypothesize on how the amount of time to write this script and the re-visitations and tweaking made it right? It sounds like it would've been different had you powered through it in one sitting many years ago.
Tarantino: You might be right about that. The big way that it changed was when I was writing it before I came up with most of the characters that are in there now and I came up with the first two chapters. I totally had [Sergio] Leone-it is - I couldn't come up with a character without giving him a twenty minute introduction. After I had nine characters like that I was like, okay, I guess I have to start the mission. Ooh, it's already three hours. I did have a story but the story was just too wide, too all encompassing. It would've been like twelve hour mini-series, which actually now wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but in '96 that seemed daunting. I even had to go through this whole thing of like, so, what? Movies are too small for me? I'm too big for movies? I'm an artist and I just can't deal with that puny canvas as a three hour movie. I'm much bigger than that. So I had to get over myself. So then I did Kill Bill Volume One and Two (laughs). So when I came back to it I realized that it was this story that was just too all encompassing. So I took those characters and this structure and I came up with a new story. The new story that I came up with that I thought that I could do as a movie was the whole idea of a Fredrick Zoller, a German Audie Murphy who comes out and they make this movie about him. Then the Basterds would try to blow up the premiere. But let me go even further on something about that. When I was thinking about going back to it after Kill Bill I considered the idea of doing it as a mini-series, and I still think that could be a good idea if I come up with another story along the way because I don't that any writer/director, any true auteur has actually taken that format and done what could be done with it. Especially the way that it is now, the way that TV is cut up with stuff now and the way that you can get those DVD box sets, it's like you can truly do a film novel now in every way, but a writer/director hasn't taken advantage of that.
So I was thinking that maybe that would be the way to go. I even got it structurally worked out, like a twelve hour scenario and this episode would start here and end there, which is a very interesting exercise to do by the way, and so then I ended up going out to dinner with Luc Besson and his producing partner. So, Luc was like, "so, what are you doing?" I tell him my big mini-series idea, almost everything I just said right now, like, no auteur has really taken advantage of that and it'd be really cool – and his partner was like, "ah, Luc, it sound fantastic. I love that idea." Luc goes, "eh, I don't know. I go, what? He goes, "eh, I don't know. I mean, it is a good idea but you are one of the few filmmakers that makes me want to go to the cinema and see a film, and now you say I have to wait five fucking years? I can't help it. I am disappointed." (laughs) And that son of a bitch; sometimes people say things and once you hear them you can't un-hear them. I could just never get it out of my head what he said. So there was a thing of looking at this whole thing before I start to do the hard work of writing a mini-series where I was like, you know what, let me take one more crack at trying to make this a movie.
What about tweaking another period of history? What period of history would you be interested in doing if so?
Tarantino: Well, in particular, I keep trying to make a western with almost everything I do and so I think that would probably be, in the period sweepstakes, I think the next genre. Maybe, you know, the '30's, a gangster melodrama. I don't know, something like that maybe.
Cinematical: People have been waiting for Kill Bill and Grindhouse on Blu-ray. Now that you've finished this is that something that'll be up next?
Tarantino: Yeah. It'll be coming very soon. We've just been lazy to getting around to coming out with Grindhouse, the full edition. One of the things that has been cool about that actually though is the Grindhouse cut has actually been playing all over the world. It's becoming this thing where theaters that have revival houses or have midnight shows, like in Australia or Ireland or Scotland, they don't want Death Proof, they don't want Planet Terror. They want Grindhouse. It's one of those things that like every two months it's showing again in whatever their local Friday, Saturday midnight screening is at some place. When I get through with this I can actually finish the final Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. I need to do one thing with it though. I'm not going to monkey around with the movie itself, but we've actually done a whole new section for the anime. It was the last thing. I wrote a much longer script for the anime section for O-Ren's revenge chapter. Remember the guy with the long hair that kills her father, people are like, what happened to that dude? Well, I wrote a huge thing, it was the biggest, most elaborate thing that I wrote, her taking him down. But this was back when I thought that Kill Bill was going to be one movie. So already I thought that a twenty minute anime scene might not be the wisest move. We didn't have them do it and they were relieved that we didn't have them do it because it was going to be so big. So I actually showed it to Harvey Weinstein. I had the whole script written out, shot for shot, what it would be. This literally would make it complete. This is everything that I came up with and wrote when I wrote it. So Production IG just did it. Now I just need to work with them on it a little bit and go over it with them and I'll do that once this is officially behind me.
Any other future projects on the horizon?
Tarantino: I never know what I'm going to do until really this stuff gets in the past.