Writing Inglourious Basterds took Quentin Tarantino to the limits not only of a genre, but of the movie medium itself.
LOS ANGELES—High-school dropout Quentin Tarantino famously used his mid-’80s job at a video store in Hermosa Beach, California, as his film school, watching hundreds of movies (and studying them so intensely that, to many viewers, his homages often look like theft). Almost two decades have passed since he first sat in the director’s chair, for 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, and although few critics would call that period a golden age of cinema, Tarantino believes it’s had its share of good movies. He says someone following in his footsteps would be inspired by the cinema of those years.
Watch the trailer for Inglourious Basterds.
“I actually made it a point to write down my favourite films of the last 17 years, which is when I started directing, and I am happy to say it was hard to break it down to 20,” Tarantino recalls during an interview in a Los Angeles hotel room. “I was delighted to find I wanted to have at least 30. I had to make some tough decisions. I think that shows there are a lot of great filmmakers out there doing terrific work. The one who immediately comes to mind is Paul Thomas Anderson. I feel that I am [Marlon] Brando to his Montgomery Clift. Brando was better because he knew Montgomery Clift was out there, and Clift was better because he knew fucking Brando was always there.
“I remember when I met Brian De Palma, who was always a hero of mine, and he was saying that he had a friendly rivalry with Martin Scorsese. He was shooting Scarface, and on one of his days off he went to see Raging Bull. He said that just seeing that classic opening shot with the rain and the slow motion of Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta dancing, he thought, ”˜There is always Scorsese. No matter how well you do and how good you think you are, there is always Scorsese staring
back at you.’ ”
Tarantino was a fan of unique filmmaking styles before he ever directed a movie himself, and that holds true today. He says that while he may be Brando to Anderson’s Clift, there are several other contemporaries who have made an impression on him. “I really like some of the directors who have come along in the last two decades—people like Paul and Rick Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, and not just because they are friends. I am not friends with David Fincher but I love his work. I think right now the most exciting cinema in the world is coming out of Korea. I think Memories of Murder and The Host by Bong Joon-ho will definitely be on that best-20 films list.”
Tarantino’s latest, Inglourious Basterds (opening Friday [August 21]), sees Brad Pitt playing the leader of a troop of Jewish-American soldiers during World War II. They arrive in Europe before D-Day and set out to kill as many Nazis as possible. Meanwhile, a French-Jewish woman (Mélanie Laurent), seeking vengeance on the SS colonel (Christoph Waltz) who killed her family, takes over a theatre in Paris. She gets help from an unlikely source when a German war hero (Daniel Brí¼hl), who has starred in a film about his exploits, falls for her and asks the Nazi high command to hold the world premiere at the theatre. When the Basterds discover that the leaders of the Third Reich may be gathering there, they devise a plan to assassinate them.
In some of his films, Tarantino has revived acting careers by reaching into his memories of videos past. The list has included Pam Grier, Robert Forster, and John Travolta. In Inglourious Basterds, the cast is younger and, with the exception of Pitt and Mike Myers, who has a small role, relatively unknown. Tarantino says choosing the actors was more difficult than usual.
“It was definitely the toughest casting job. I was very precious about my characters. I wanted to be sure that whomever I cast, they were the perfect person to play the different facets involved in the character. But I needed a certain type of actor. Every now and then I will cast an actor and realize they aren’t my type. You have to have a facility for dialogue if you are going to do my movies. But you have to be hungry for the work. You can’t say, ”˜Oh, man, I have to learn this three-page monologue.’ It’s got to be ”˜Wow, I get three pages of Quentin’s stuff.’ So it’s not like you are trying to climb the mountain. It is more like ”˜I am going to own this mountain.’ You have to be smart to do my stuff. Harvey Keitel used to say, ”˜Quentin, you need smart actors.’ ”
Tarantino’s writing process is complex. As he developed the script for Inglourious Basterds, he recalls, he had almost too much to say about the theme he was pursuing.
“I start writing based on a very thin idea and then everything changes. Reservoir Dogs started out as a heist movie. I always hope that I get beyond that and it becomes its own thing. In this film, I was thinking about a bunch of guys on a mission in a World War II subgenre. The whole idea is to expand it and go my own way with it. So it’s not like it changed into something else. I came up with most of the characters that you see and the first two chapters, but I had a different story, and it was too big. I had the opposite of writer’s block. I couldn’t shut my brain off. I kept coming up with new characters and new wrinkles or turns, and it was like a Sergio Leone film. I couldn’t introduce a new character without giving him a 20-minute scene. I started to think, ”˜I am too big for movies. I am such a great artist that I can’t work with such a puny canvas.’ So I had to get over myself. Then I came back with a new idea for a story, which is the one about a German war hero who gets a movie made about him. The mission would then be to blow up the movie theatre.”
Despite having seen hundreds of B movies on video, Tarantino is a big fan of watching even the most outlandish films in theatres. He says that in his years as a devotee of low-budget horror, several countries have emerged to become big players in the genre. Once ruled by American and Japanese filmmakers, he says, good horror is now coming from unexpected sources.
“I wanted to see that Norwegian Nazi-zombie film Dead Snow, but it went straight to video. For a long time, there was something lost by losing that theatrical experience. Having said that, it’s a little different now. A lot of the films that won’t get released in North America will get released everywhere else, especially the foreign horrors coming out. Who would have thought France would have gotten into the horror genre in a big way, or that there would be Spanish horror films? These are pretty intense movies. Very few of the Japanese horror films played in theatres. You watched them on video or DVD. A lot of these newer movies don’t have that straight-to-video feel. However, I still read Video Watchdog every month to see if there is a cool one that has raised its head. Is Lost Boys 4 a good one? I don’t know, so I keep checking them out.”