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Wed January 2, 2013
Quentin Tarantino, 'Unchained' And Unruly
Originally published on Wed February 20, 2013 10:46 am
Quentin Tarantino's film Django Unchained is a spaghetti western-inspired revenge film set in the antebellum South; it's about a former slave who teams up with a bounty hunter to target the plantation owner who owns his wife.
The cinematic violence that has come to characterize Tarantino's work as a screenwriter and director — from Reservoir Dogs at the start of his career in 1992 to 2009's Inglourious Basterds -- is front and center again in Django. And he's making no apologies.
"What happened during slavery times is a thousand times worse than [what] I show," he says. "So if I were to show it a thousand times worse, to me, that wouldn't be exploitative, that would just be how it is. If you can't take it, you can't take it.
"Now, I wasn't trying to do a Schindler's List you-are-there-under-the-barbed-wire-of-Auschwitz. I wanted the film to be more entertaining than that. ... But there's two types of violence in this film: There's the brutal reality that slaves lived under for ... 245 years, and then there's the violence of Django's retribution. And that's movie violence, and that's fun and that's cool, and that's really enjoyable and kind of what you're waiting for."
That said, Tarantino is clear about what — for him — is acceptable violence in a movie and what crosses a line.
"The only thing that I've ever watched in a movie that I wished I'd never seen is real-life animal death or real-life insect death in a movie. That's absolutely, positively where I draw the line. And a lot of European and Asian movies do that, and we even did that in America for a little bit of time. ... I don't like seeing animals murdered on screen. Movies are about make-believe. ... I don't think there's any place in a movie for real death."
In the case of Django, Tarantino tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross that he was much more uncomfortable with the prospect of writing the language of white supremacists and directing African-Americans in scenes depicting slavery on American soil than he was about any physical violence being portrayed. His anxiety about directing the slavery scenes was so great, in fact, that he considered shooting abroad.
"I actually went out after I finished the script ... with Sidney Poitier for dinner," he says. "And was telling him about my story, and then telling him about my trepidation and my little plan of how I was going to get past it, and he said, ... 'Quentin, I don't think you should do that. ... What you're just telling me is you're a little afraid of your own movie, and you just need to get over that. If you're going to tell this story, you need to not be afraid of it. You need to do it. Everyone gets it. Everyone knows what's going on. We're making a movie. They get it.'"
On the catchphrase 'The D is silent'
"I thought everyone would know how to say the name 'Django.' Even if it wasn't from the spaghetti westerns, at least from Django Reinhardt you would know how to say it. And people would read the script [and say], 'Oh! D-jango Unchained. OK!" And people would say it all the time. Frankly, I considered it an intelligence test. If you say D-jango you're definitely going down in my book."
On conventional slave narratives on screen
"There haven't been that many slave narratives in the last 40 years of cinema, and usually when there are, they're usually done on television, and for the most part ... they're historical movies, like history with a capital H. Basically, 'This happened, then this happened, then that happened, then this happened.' And that can be fine, well enough, but for the most part they keep you at arm's length dramatically. Because also there is this kind of level of good taste that they're trying to deal with ... and frankly oftentimes they just feel like dusty textbooks just barely dramatized."
On giving an enslaved character a heroic journey
"I like the idea of telling these stories and taking stories that oftentimes — if played out in the way that they're normally played out — just end up becoming soul-deadening, because you're just watching victimization all the time. And now you get a chance to put a spin on it and actually take a slave character and give him a heroic journey, make him heroic, make him give his payback, and actually show this epic journey and give it the kind of folkloric tale that it deserves — the kind of grand-opera stage it deserves."
On how Westerns from different decades reflect the concerns of their times
"One of the things that's interesting about Westerns in particular is [that] there's no other genre that reflects the decade that they were made or the morals and the feelings of Americans during that decade [more] than Westerns. Westerns are always a magnifying glass as far as that's concerned.
"The Westerns of the '50s definitely have an Eisenhower, birth of suburbia and plentiful times aspect to them. America started little by little catching up with its racist past by the '50s, at the very, very beginning of [that decade], and that started being reflected in Westerns. Consequently, the late '60s have a very Vietnam vibe to the Westerns, leading into the '70s. And by the mid-'70s, you know, most of the Westerns literally could be called 'Watergate Westerns,' because it was about disillusionment and tearing down the myths that we have spent so much time building up."
On his early introductions to African-American culture
"[My mother's] boyfriends would come over, and they'd ... take me to blaxploitation movies, trying to, you know, get me to like them and buy me footballs and stuff, and ... my mom and her friends would take me to cool bars and stuff, where they'd be playing cool, live rhythm-and-blues music ... and I'd be drinking ... Shirley Temples — I think I called them James Bond because I didn't like the name Shirley Temples — and eat Mexican food ... while Jimmy Soul and a cool band would be, you know, playing in some lava lounge-y kind of '70s cocktail lounge. It was really cool. It made me grow up in a real big way. When I would hang around with kids I'd think they were really childish. I used to hang around with really groovy adults."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Quentin Tarantino, whose new film "Django Unchained" opened Christmas Day. Tarantino is famous for writing and directing films that borrow from genres that he loves - crime, martial arts, Westerns, war films - and turning them into what has almost become a genre you can call Tarantino.
He wrote and directed "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown" and "Inglourious Basterds." "Django Unchained" pays tribute to spaghetti Westerns. It's set in the South, just a couple of years before the Civil War. Christoph Waltz, who played the Nazi known as The Jew Hunter in "Inglourious Basterds," plays King Schultz, a dentist turned bounty hunter, who frees a slave who can help him identify two white men he's tracking down. That slave, Django, is played by Jamie Foxx.
Schultz and Django eventually go in search of Django's wife, who was sold to another plantation after she and Django had tried to escape. They soon figure out that she's now a slave on the plantation owned by Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. To get access to the plantation, Django and Schultz pretend they want to purchase Candie's top Mandingo fighters. Mandingos are slaves who battle each other to the death, for the entertainment of white people. This is the scene where Schultz and Django first meet Candie. Candie speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DJANGO UNCHAINED")
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Calvin Candie) What's your name, boy?
CHRISTOPH WALTZ: (As Dr. King Schultz) His name is Django Freeman.
DECAPRIO: (As Candie) Where'd you dig him up?
WALTZ: (As Schultz) A fortuitous turn of events brought Django and myself together.
DECAPRIO: (As Candie) I've heard tell about you. I heard you been telling everybody them Mandingos ain't no damn good, ain't nothing nobody is selling is worth buying. I'm curious. What makes you such a Mandingo expert?
JAMIE FOXX: (As Django) I'm curious what makes you so curious.
JAMES REMAR: (As Butch) What did you say, boy?
DECAPRIO: (As Candie) Calm down, Butch. No offense given, none taken.
WALTZ: (As Schultz) Monsieur Candie, I'd appreciate if you could direct your line of inquiry toward me.
DECAPRIO: (As Candie) You do not have anything to drink. Can I get you a tasty refreshment?
WALTZ: (As Schultz) Yes, I'll have a beer.
DECAPRIO: (As Candie) Wunderbar. Roscoe, a beer for the man with a beard, and I will have a Polynesian Pearl Diver; do not spare the rum.
GROSS: Quentin Tarantino, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So...
QUENTIN TARANTINO: Good to be here.
GROSS: It's great to have you. So the film is called "Django Unchained," and Jamie Foxx plays Django. And the name Django comes from a series of spaghetti Westerns in which the main character, I suppose, is called Django.
TARANTINO: Well, kind of an interesting history about those movies is after the "Dollars" trilogies came out and kind of created this entire new genre in Italy...
GROSS: This is for "A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More," the Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone...
TARANTINO: And "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
GROSS: "Good, Bad and the Ugly," the Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood movies.
TARANTINO: Exactly. After that, made a cottage industry out of Rome and Almeria, Spain. Sergio Corbucci did his film "Django," starring Franco Nero, in 1966. And it became a smash all throughout Europe and in particular, Asia and Latin America; and not - it didn't play that well - it didn't play that much in America; and was actually banned until the '90s in England, because it's so violent.
In fact, it's actually kind of an interesting story. You couldn't see "Django" ever in England. The closest you could ever come to see "Django" in England was in the movie "The Harder They Come," with Jimmy Cliff. When Jimmy Cliff's on the run, he actually goes to a theater and watches "Django."
GROSS: Really? I saw that film so long ago, I never would have remembered that. Wow.
TARANTINO: Yeah, the couple of scenes that you see of "Django" in "The Harder They Come," is the closest that "Django" ever got to playing in England. But the thing is, the movie, you know, it kicked up the violence and the surrealism and the brutality of the spaghetti Westerns, to a new level. And it became so popular that there really only was one kind of genuine official sequel - that had Terence Hill playing the character. And Franco Rossetti, one of the screenwriters, wrote that script. And you could tell it's obviously supposed to be the same guy except maybe a little earlier. But all the other "Django" - which is, there's about 40 of them, it's not the same character. They just called him Django just because the name became so popular.
And sometimes, there's not even a character named Django in the movie. They just threw "Django" in the title because the word Django meant so much. So I'm proud to say that we are part - we are in the long line of - healthy tradition of unrelated "Django" ripoffs.
GROSS: (LAUGHTER) Well, you know, in my attempt to understand more about "Django," I watched the beginning of two "Django" knockoffs because Shout Factory Records has just reissued four "Django" films, none of them the original - Corbucci one. So I watched the first few minutes of "Django Kills Silently" and "Django's Cut-Price Corpses." And I'll tell you, the first few minutes of each of those are really bad. One of them is kind of like Hercules meets the Three Stooges.
GROSS: And, like, you can see, like, none of the punches are connecting, and the sound effects are really awful, and the dialogue's really - there's like fight after fight after fight before you know who any of the characters are.
TARANTINO: Well, you know, one thing that was actually funny is Franco Nero, from that point in time after "Django" through the '60s, and all through the '70s - him and Alain Delon were like, the two most popular leading men in Europe at that time. But the thing that was so funny was in particular, in Germany, the "Django" movie was so popular that any movie that Franco Nero did was retitled "Django Something - in Germany." He did a whole series of cop movies directed by Enzo G. Castellari, the guy who directed the original "Inglourious Basterds"; including one called "High Crime," which was sort of their "French Connection" and started a whole line of what they call polizia movies, in Italy. Well, but in Germany, it was called "Django the Cop."
GROSS: So in your Django movie, "Django Unchained," Jamie Foxx is a slave who is freed during the course of the movie, and his name is Django. And the kind of catchphrase, the trademark phrase from the movie is, somebody asks him his name, and he says Django; the D is silent.
GROSS: That's great. So can you talk a little bit about coming up with that line? I doubt that line is in the original "Django."
TARANTINO: No, it's not. It was actually - simply the fact that it seems like I thought everyone would know how to say the name Django, even if it wasn't from the spaghetti Westerns, at least from Django Reinhardt you would know how to say it. And people would read the script: Oh, "D-jango Unchained," OK.
TARANTINO: And people would say it all the time. Frankly, I considered it an intelligence test. If you say D-jango, you're definitely going down in my book. Where that actually came from was, I came up with a cool bit because actually Franco Nero is in the movie, and it's a sequence where we actually had the two Djangos in the same frame - both Jamie Foxx and Franco Nero.
And so I have Franco look at him, look him up and down, ask him his name. Jamie says Django. Can you spell it? And then he spells the whole thing, and then after he gets through spelling it, I go - I had him say, "the D is silent." And then Nero looks at him and says, "I know."
TARANTINO: A little - meta movie moment.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Quentin Tarantino, and we're talking about his new movie "Django Unchained." "Django Unchained" is a revenge fantasy from the point of view of a freed slave. And so you're taking on slavery as an issue while paying homage to the spaghetti Westerns, the Django spaghetti Western.
And it's - I don't know, it's two types of movies that may or may not work very easily together. So what were the parts of those two genres - you know, like bounty hunter meets slavery - that you had trouble fitting together? And what worked, that was easy to fit together?
TARANTINO: I don't think I had - you know, for me, at least as far as I was concerned, I didn't have any trouble fitting them together. I mean, there's kind of two points in that, I think. One, I wanted to tell a Western story, and then two, I wanted to deal with America in the antebellum South during slavery times, and show you America at that time and give a kind of unblinking look at it.
But, you know, when - there hasn't been that many slave narratives in the last, you know, 40 years of cinema. And usually, when there are, they're usually done on television. And for the most part, most of these TV movies or specials that come out are kind of what I call - they're historical movies; like, history with a capital H. Basically, this happened, then this happened, then that happened, then this happened.
And that can be fine, well enough, but for the most part I think - they hold - they keep you at arm's length dramatically because also there is this kind of level of good taste that they're trying to deal with about the history of the subject. And frankly oftentimes they just feel like dusty textbooks just barely dramatized.
Then there's other kinds of movies that have dealt with slavery in America, something like "Goodbye Uncle Tom" or "Mandingo" or "Drum." Now actually, I actually think those movies get far, far closer to the truth. Having said that, the sensationalistic aspect and the almost exploitationistic aspect of the films can't be ignored, even though like I said I think they actually cut closer to the truth and cut closer to the bone.
So what I wanted to do is I didn't want to go in either one of those directions. I wanted to tell the story as a genre movie, as an exciting adventure. And in this case, I wanted to do an exciting Western tale, an almost odyssey voyage that Django goes on, a journey to free his wife from the clutches of an evil empire but use antebellum South slavery as a backdrop for that adventure.
And the whole idea of bringing up the bounty hunting thing, actually, I thought ended up working kind of brilliantly for what I was trying to tell because I can't believe no one ever brought it up before. But Schultz brings it up. You know, in slavery you have people selling human lives for cash. In the bounty hunting laws of the day, you have people selling corpses for cash.
GROSS: Is it a coincidence, is it any coincidence that after taking on World War II and the Nazis in "Inglourious Basterds," you set your new movie in the time of American slavery? So you've taken two absolutely horrible chapters in history whereas, you know, your other films are contemporary; you know, set it contemporary times. So what made you want to take on just like, two just abhorrent chapters of history?
TARANTINO: Because I actually thought they would be really good stories. I've had both stories in my head for a while. It just took them a while to sit in the incubator until they were ready. And "Inglourious Basterds" popped out first, and then it really set the stage for "Django." But I like the idea of telling these stories and taking stories that oftentimes, if played out in the way that they're normally played out, just end up becoming soul-deadening because you're just watching victimization all the time. And now, you get a chance to put a spin on it and actually take a slave character, give him an heroic journey, make him heroic, make him give his payback, and actually show this epic journey; and give it the kind of folkloric tale that it deserves, the kind of, you know, grand opera stage it deserves.
GROSS: So there's a lot of violence in your movie. Slaves are being whipped and tortured, slaves forced to fight to the death like gladiators, lots of shooting and splatter. So what are your - how do I put this exactly? What are your limits for, like - what's your sensibility for how much splatter, how much violence, how much sadism feels like right, like it's part of the genre, like there's a certain, like, style to it that you're trying to express? And what's going to the point of, like, past where you want to go, to the point of, like, revulsion and exploitation to, you know, to a degree that's just - I don't want to use the word immoral but just, you know, bad?
TARANTINO: Well frankly, I mean, you know, what happened during slavery times is a thousand times worse than I show. So if I were to show it a thousand times worse, to me that wouldn't be exploitative; that would just be how it is. If you can't take it, you can't take it.
Now I didn't want - I wasn't trying to do a "Schindler's List" you-are-there-under-the-barbed-wire-of-Auschwitz kind of movie. I wanted the film to be more entertaining than that. Like I said, I wanted it to be an exciting adventure movie.
But there's two types of violences in this film: There's the brutal reality of the violence that slaves lived under, under the slavery laws, 245 years. And then there's the violence of Django's retribution. And that's movie violence, and that's fun, and that's cool, and that's really enjoyable. It's kind of what you're waiting for.
And you're - it's actually paying back the pain that you had to watch to get there. And so there are two different types of aesthetics going on. And I wanted the painful violence of the slavery sections to hurt and to be painful. Now here's the deal: I could handle a lot more than I put in this movie. I have a tolerance for viscera more than the average person. So I could have actually handled it a lot more.
And in - like as I was cutting the movie, earlier versions of it had more in there. But when I started watching it with - finally when I started showing it in front of audiences, I have a lot of different emotions I want you to kind of get to in the course of this movie. And one of the emotions I wanted you to get to at the end is cheering Django. I want you to cheer his triumphs at the end and, you know, be rooting for him and actually cheer.
And if you don't cheer at the end, I haven't done the job, I haven't pulled off the movie I was trying to pull off. I mean, it's very easy for me if I've failed or succeeded. If the audience cheers at the end, I've succeeded. If they don't cheer, or if it's a qualified cheer, maybe I haven't failed, but it was a qualified response, and this house didn't go with it as much as I thought they should have, as much as they were supposed to. So it's very clear choice of, you know, did I do it, did I not do it.
And when I watched with, you know, those rougher scenes, like the Mandingo scene or the dog scene or the castration scene, when they were rougher, I saw - I traumatized the audience too much. They were too traumatized, so their responses in all the other sections of the film were qualified by that trauma. So I pulled it back a little bit.
GROSS: Well, I think when you're watching the film, the audience isn't thinking like you're thinking because you're thinking, like, there's the reality violence, and then there's the fun genre violence.
TARANTINO: Oh, I think they are. I think they are. I totally think they are, yeah. Yeah, I totally think they are. One, there's the violence that's hard to watch, and there's the violence that's fun to watch. I think they're totally thinking that.
GROSS: So what was it like for you to be in the position of having people dress as slaves and then making them act like they were fighting to the death like a dog fight and dressing other people as slaves and having them get whipped? You know, it's - was that, say, a little awkward?
TARANTINO: Well, it wasn't awkward so much as it was, you know, it was painful. It was a little painful. I mean, when we actually started doing it, it was kind of - it was fine because we knew what we were doing, and everyone knew what we were doing. We're making a movie. Everyone knows what's going on.
You know, put a bunch of black folks dressed as slaves in a cotton field, they're picking cotton, then there's a break, OK cut, and then, you know, you give them coconut water or something, or they're eating power bars. You know, so it's like you're making a movie. You know what time it is.
But after I wrote the script, thinking about it, it was something that I was - frankly had trepidation about doing. You know, it's one thing to write on a piece of paper 100 slaves are marched through the mud wearing metal collars and in chains and with metal masks like mad dogs, being moved around by white people on horses and with shotguns.
And it's another thing to actually have 100 black folks get dressed in, you know, in these clothes and marched through the mud that way, in this slave auction town that you've built or putting them in the background, planting a cotton field and putting them in the field and having them work under a broiling sun. And I had a little trepidation about it and was actually trying to think of some way that maybe I could escape the pain of asking Americans to do that.
And, you know, I thought at one point of maybe I could shoot it in the West Indies, those sections, or maybe shoot it in Brazil or something because, you know, they have their own - they have their own history, but it wouldn't be an American history. So there would be this once-removed quality to it.
And then it was funny,, I actually went out, after I finished the script, I went out with Sidney Poitier for dinner and was telling him about my story and then telling him about my trepidation and my little plan of how I was going to get past it. And he said, he goes: Quentin, I don't think you should do that. I think basically - what you're just telling me is you're a little afraid of your own movie, and you just need to get over that.
If you're going to tell this story, you need to not be afraid of it. You need to do it. Everyone gets it. Everyone knows what's going on. We're making a movie. They get it. Just treat everybody with the right kind of compassion, as I know you will, and you have nothing to be worried about.
GROSS: Quentin Tarantino will be back in the second half of the show. His new film is "Django Unchained." Here's one of the songs from the soundtrack that actually comes from the original 1966 movie "Django." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
I'm back with Quentin Tarantino, who wrote and directed the films "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown" and "Inglourious Basterds." His new film, "Django Unchained," is a revenge movie inspired by spaghetti Westerns. It's set in the South a couple of years before the Civil War.
Christoph Waltz plays a bounty hunter who frees a slave named Django, played by Jamie Foxx, and makes him his partner. Eventually, they go in search of the Django's wife, who was recently sold to a notoriously brutal plantation owner. We recorded our interview December 21st, right before we began our series of holiday programs.
There's a part of the Western genre, in the Spaghetti Western genre that is about sadism, you know, where...
GROSS: ...and a line from your film that I'm thinking of and is like: No, don't shoot them, it's too simple for these men. So...
GROSS: ... implication is nah, shooting them is an easy death. You got to torture.
TARANTINO: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: And I grew up on so many Westerns where that was just like a part of it. And, of course, two things happened. First, there's the opportunity for some torture and in a lot of Westerns that's very lightweight, like not allowing them to drink in the desert or something. And others it's much more rotten stuff. But then there's also the opportunity for escape because you're not killing them, so...
TARANTINO: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: That gives them time to get free.
TARANTINO: Well, there actually is this, you know, there actually is this thing in Spaghetti Westerns. It's almost a trial by, it's almost a ritual trial by fire that usually happens to the Spaghetti Western's hero. At some point he's captured by the villains.
TARANTINO: And he's given a Passion of Christ beating at the hands of the bad guys. And then he, you know, and then he gets away and rains down vengeance on them. It's kind of part and parcel to the Spaghetti Western. There's even, you know, you even call it a Spaghetti Western beating.
GROSS: And what do you like about that?
TARANTINO: What do I like about it?
TARANTINO: It's fun.
GROSS: So I just have to ask you, is it any less fun after like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, like, do you ever go through a period where you lose your taste for movie violence? And movie violence is not real violence, I understand the difference. But still, are there times when it just is not a fun movie experience for you - either to be making it that way or to be in the audience for something like that?
TARANTINO: Not for me.
GROSS: So it's so completely separate, that the reality of violence doesn't affect at all your feelings about making or viewing very violent or sadistic...
TARANTINO: Sadistic? I don't know. I do know what, I don't know. I think, you know, you're putting a judgment on it.
GROSS: No, no, no...
TARANTINO: You're putting a judgment on it.
GROSS: The characters are sadistic. The characters are sadistic. I'm not talking about, you know, the filmmaker. I'm talking about the characters. I mean, the characters are undeniably sadistic.
TARANTINO: Mm-hmm. When you say after the tragedy, what do you mean by that exactly?
GROSS: Well, like...
TARANTINO: Do you mean like on that day would I watch "The Wild Bunch?" Maybe not on that day.
GROSS: Or in the next few days, like while it's still - while it's still really fresh in your - while the reality - yeah.
TARANTINO: Would I watch a kung fu movie three days after the Sandy Hook massacre? Would I watch a kung fu movie? Maybe, 'cause they have nothing to do with each other.
GROSS: You sound annoyed that I'm...
TARANTINO: Yeah, I am.
GROSS: I know you've been asked this a lot.
TARANTINO: Yeah, I'm really annoyed. I think it's disrespectful. I think it's disrespectful to their memory, actually.
GROSS: With whose memory?
TARANTINO: The memory of the people who died to talk about movies. I think it's totally disrespectful to their memory. Obviously, the issue is gun control and mental health.
GROSS: Just one other related question. Did you ever - because I know you really enjoy, have always enjoyed really violent movies. Have you ever been exposed to a movie image - even like when you were a child or as an adult that you wished you hadn't seen because it was so troubling and scary and you had nightmares about it and hunted you?
TARANTINO: Well, you make that that's not supposed to happen, like that would be a bad thing.
GROSS: Not passing value judgment, just asking.
TARANTINO: Well, let me just, you know, let me just say this, it's...
GROSS: I mean, well, some of my favorite movies from childhood like terrified me but...
TARANTINO: Yeah, I know exactly. Yeah, I mean here's this kind of where I'm coming from, is I've been asked this question for 20 years. And my an...
GROSS: Which question?
TARANTINO: About the effects of violence in movies relating to violence in real life. And my answer is the same 20 years ago. It hasn't changed one iota.
GROSS: And it's the answer you just gave?
TARANTINO: Well, I don't know what I just said but...
TARANTINO: ...obviously, I don't - obviously I don't think one has to do with the other.
GROSS: Right. So this question is kind of separate from all of that, the question about images that wanted you to. So let's define this is a different chapter. But I'll give you a for instance. When I was growing up in New York, the first time the Charles Laughton's version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" came on Million Dollar Movie I was absolutely terrified. I forced my family to change the channel and put on "Texas Rangers"...
GROSS: ...because just the sight of Charles Laughton's face was so horrifying to me because he has a very, you know, disfigured face in the film. And it's set in like, you know, medieval times and the whole thing just terrified me. And then I couldn't, I had to turn the movie, it's the Million Dollar Movie so it was repeated like several times every day for a week.
GROSS: And I found that I had to keep putting on the TV and every day I'd watch more of it, and to this day it is one of my favorite movies. I mean I think it is just an absolutely beautiful film in every way. But it started off as being terrifying for me and filled with images that scared me. So I'm just wondering about the correlation in your mind between images that you found frightening in movies you ended up liking or images that maybe you wished you'd never seen.
TARANTINO: The only thing that I've ever watched in a movie that I wished I've never seen is the real-life animal death, a real-life insect death in a movie. That's absolutely positively where I draw the line. And a lot of European and Asian movies do that, and we even did that in America for a little bit of time. I don't like seeing horses being yanked on cables from running Ws. I don't like seeing animals murdered on screen. I don't.
Movies are about make believe. It's about imagination. Part of the thing is we're trying to create a realistic experience, but we are faking it. And the faking it is the art. The faking it is the art of it, it's the make-believe of it all. I don't think that there's any place in a movie for a real death. And you can say, oh, Peckinpah shot the heads off the chickens in "Pat Garrett And Billy the Kid," but it's OK because they ate the chickens afterwards. And actually, maybe those chickens got three more days of life because they were taken out of a slaughterhouse and everything. Well, you can justify it that way because people eat chicken, and I eat chicken. So, all good.
I don't want to see real death, though; that's the problem. It's the watching of the real chicken get his real head blown off. I didn't - I don't pay money, or I don't want to sit down and watch real death, when I watch a movie. I don't even want to see an animal terrified. I've seen movies where they've terrified an animal to get a response from him, and I don't want to see that. It's...
GROSS: You want to see artifice. You don't want to see genuine pain.
TARANTINO: Yes, it's make-believe.
GROSS: Or torture or death.
TARANTINO: Exactly. It's make-believe.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Quentin Tarantino. We're talking about the new film that he wrote and directed called "Django Unchained." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Quentin Tarantino. We're talking about the new movie that he wrote and directed, "Django Unchained."
So let's just talk Westerns for a minute.
GROSS: What are some of your favorite all-time American Westerns?
TARANTINO: Mmm. Some of my favorite American Westerns, you know, I'm, you know, I like every era of Westerns in America. One of the things that's interesting about Westerns in particularly is there's no other genre that reflects the decade that they were made and the morals and the feelings of Americans during that decade than Westerns. Westerns are always a magnifying glass as far as that's concerned. You know, so, you know, the Westerns of the '50s definitely have an Eisenhower birth of suburbia and plentiful times aspect to them. America started little by little catching up with its racist past by the '50s at the very, very, very beginning of it and that started being reflected in Westerns. Consequently, the late '60s has a very Vietnam vibe to the Westerns leading into the '70s, and by the mid-70s, you know, most of the Westerns literally could be called Watergate Westerns because it was about a disillusionment and tearing down the myths that we have spent so much time building up.
So some of my favorite Westerns kind of off the top of my head - American Westerns - I love Anthony Mann's Westerns, but in particularly "Winchester '73," that's one of my favorite...
GROSS: With Jimmy Stewart?
TARANTINO: Yeah, Jimmy Stewart. And especially the episodic structure, the way you follow the rifle...
TARANTINO: ...you know, from owner to owner and owner, the fact that it's all kind of episodic and vignettey is really terrific. I love Robert Aldrich's "Vera Cruz." I'm a big, big fan of Don Siegel's Western "Flaming Star" with Elvis Presley, which I actually think is maybe the most violent Western made in the '50s, very similar to a '70s Western in that regards. And I love Marlon Brando's "One-Eyed Jacks." And I love a ton of Westerns from the '70s. I love "Little Big Man." I actually think "Little Big Man" actually, there has a bit of a symbiotic relationship to "Django Unchained" to some degree.
GROSS: Now, I read in a couple of places you saying that you think you might retire from moviemaking when you hit 60, in part because you want to, you know, have more of a life then you can have when you are obsessed with making movies, but also you don't want to make those kind of old man interview career movies that aren't very good and, you know.
GROSS: And that bothered me a little bit because here's why. I think that part of what I interpreted you as saying is that you didn't want to make movies that would be older, that would reflect being older. And I think like I want to know who the older Quentin Taran - when you hit 60 I want to know who you are and what you're interested in. I want to see...
TARANTINO: Well, I'll be...
GROSS: ...if your sensibility has changed and if it has, what's it changed into? I want you to feel free...
GROSS: ...to get older and to experience any change that that may or may not bring in your sensibility, and to go with it.
TARANTINO: Well, you will. I just won't be making movies. I'll be writing.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
TARANTINO: I'll be writing novels. I'll be writing novels. I'll be writing film criticism and everything, you know, books on cinema. So my artistic life won't stop, it'll just change. I'll become a man of letters.
TARANTINO: You'll probably get far more into my psyche than you get right now because that's all I have to do.
GROSS: So here's something I was wondering, I know there's so much like, you know, African-American popular culture that you really love. And I was wondering when you were growing up if you grew up in an integrated neighborhood, if you went to an integrated school, if you had African-American friends or if your contact with black people was largely through popular culture.
TARANTINO: No, no. I went to a mostly black school. You know, it wasn't all-black because I was there, but it was mostly black.
TARANTINO: And the different points of my life I was raised by black people, raised in black homes - between my mom's best friend that I lived a lot of times with her and her family and just the kind of United Nations aspect that my mom's house was in the early '70s, right at the explosion of black culture. So black culture is my culture growing up.
GROSS: Your mother had a United Nations kind of home?
TARANTINO: Yeah. Well, it was almost like a sitcom, actually the way we lived in the '70s because she was in her 20s, she was hot, all right, she was a hot white girl. Her best friend was named Jackie. She was a hot black girl. And her other best friend was Lillian and she was a hot Mexican girl. And they lived in this like swinging singles apartment with me.
GROSS: What impact did that have on you?
TARANTINO: Yeah, well, it was just yeah, it was just, you know, it was the '70s so it was, you know, I lived with these three hip ladies all going out on dates all the time and dating football players and basketball players and, you know, my mother...
GROSS: Professionals ones or...
TARANTINO: Yeah. Yeah. My mom dated Wilt Chamberlain. She's one of the thousand.
GROSS: Did that - this is getting too personal, but did that affect your sense of sexuality when you were growing up?
TARANTINO: In what way?
GROSS: Well, because most people can't imagine their - so many people can't imagine their parents having sex. And when you're growing up with like your mother and two other women who are obviously engaging, you know, it makes you think of your own...
TARANTINO: Oh yeah. No, it was...
TARANTINO: You know, she was a woman. She was a, you know, she was living the life. She was having a good time and everything, you know? She was taking care of me, too, so everything was fine. It was hip. It was just cool. You know the boyfriends would come over and they'd take me out. They'd take me blacksploitation movies trying to, you know, get me to like them.
And buy me footballs and stuff. And we'd go to, like, cool, you know, my mama and her friends would take me to cool bars and stuff where they'd be playing cool live rhythm and blues music. And I'd be drinking whatchamacallit, Shirley Temples, I think. I called them James Bond because, yeah, I didn't like the name Shirley Temple.
TARANTINO: I drank Shirley Temples and, you know, eat Mexican food or whatever. While, like some, you know, Jimmy Soul and a cool band would be playing in some lava lounge-y kind of a '70s cocktail lounge. It was really cool. It made me grow up in a real big way. When I would hang around with kids I'd think they were really childish. I always used to hang around with, like, really groovy adults.
GROSS: Well, I feel like I know you just a little bit better now.
TARANTINO: Yeah. No, no. You know, Saturday - every time Saturday would roll around, it would become 1 o'clock, everyone in the house (technical difficulties)
GROSS: Great. OK. So one last question because I know you have to go. I know you bought a movie theater in L.A. What's your dream movie theater? Like, if you could design a movie theater from scratch what would it be?
TARANTINO: Oh, gosh. You know, I don't know if I'd really want to spend the money to build something from scratch.
GROSS: You don't have to spend the money. It's a dream movie theater. Don't worry about it.
TARANTINO: Yeah. But I would be more inclined to actually just take over some cool, more historical theater or something like that. I mean, I guess a dream movie theater for me would be if I owned The Castro.
TARANTINO: In San Francisco. That would be awesome. Yeah. To own the Castro would be cool.
GROSS: There's a great organ in there and - yeah.
TARANTINO: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that would be awesome.
TARANTINO: That would be cool, to own the Castro. That would be my dream movie theater.
GROSS: Right. Yeah. Great. Great. OK.
TARANTINO: You know, I mean, I guess maybe the Cinerama Dome too, all right? If we're going to really dream.
GROSS: And what's your own movie theater like?
TARANTINO: Oh, it's a little shoebox.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
TARANTINO: I'd like to do so much stuff there but I can't because it's just so small. All right. But it's lovely in its tackiness. But, you know, it's genuine. It's a cool little single house movie theater that is really nice and cute and modest. And always shows 35 millimeter. Except right now, oddly enough. Because they're playing "Django," the original "Django" and they only have a digital thing.
And they actually had to ask my permission to show something digital there.
GROSS: And you gave it?
TARANTINO: And I broke down. I broke down and gave it on this one instance.
GROSS: You compromised.
TARANTINO: This one instance alone. This one instance and this one instance alone.
GROSS: Well, Quentin Tarantino, it was great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
TARANTINO: My pleasure, Terry.
GROSS: Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed the new film "Django Unchained." You can see clips from the film on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, an interview from our archive with Harry Carey, Jr. who died last week. He appeared with John Wayne in several classic John Ford Westerns. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.