Quentin Tarantino: interview

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Never one to come quietly, Quentin Tarantino rolled into town last month for the British premiere of his new film, 'Inglourious Basterds'. Tom Huddleston tried to get a word in edgeways as the manic director gave him a masterclass on making films about World War II and why, in his film, 'Jews are going native and taking the roles of American Indians'

Inglourious Basterds’ marks a number of firsts for 46-year-old Quentin Tarantino: his first war movie, his first film shot in Europe and his first attempt to grapple with actual historical reality, however loosely. It’s been part of the Tarantino mythology for a long time: the director first voiced his desire to make a rugged World War II ‘men on a mission’ movie more than a decade ago. But the finished film may surprise many: it’s long, chaotic, comical, extremely violent and far more interested in dialogue than action. The film represents a major gamble for the director, as evidenced by its hotly debated reception at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The morning before the film’s London premiere, the ever-enthusiastic, cine-literate Tarantino seized the chance to explain himself to Time Out.

Inglourious Basterds’ was first going to be a straightforward war movie. What happened?
‘What makes me sit down to start writing is a genre that I’m interested in tackling. But once I start, I explode the borders of that genre. So even though it is a movie about guys on a mission, it’s a lot more. But that’s my process. The film has multiple storylines, a mosaic of characters, some who meet each other, some who never meet. So to me it’s closer to something like “Ragtime”, in which fictional characters meet historical characters.’

Why don’t you include any battle scenes in the film?
‘I never had any intention of doing a battle scene or including a single tank. That shit bores me. Cannons and climbing rocks and dynamite, that bores me. I would be bored to tears shooting that, getting the tanks to roll. I’m much more interested in the humanity, the suspense. A critic at the time of “Pulp Fiction” said, “Quentin Tarantino will never be a master of suspense, because he’s too fond of minutiae.” I thought that was a very fair comment then. But on this movie I wanted to engage with suspense, but on my terms. For example, the French tavern scene is long, but I think that’s what’s suspenseful about it. I wanted to make the scene as long as I could, but still stretch the rubber band of suspense. If I go too far and the rubber band has snapped, then I’ve ruined it. But the longer that suspense can be stretched, the better.’

Do you trust dialogue over images to make a scene suspenseful?
‘It’s not only dialogue, it’s also mood, situation and mise en scene. But I have no problem relying on dialogue. It’s one of the reasons I can direct my material better than anyone else, because I have a confidence in my material that no one else would.’

But were you concerned about humour puncturing the suspense?
‘That’s what I do. I’m never afraid of a joke or a humorous moment. I don’t think it ever derails the train, it just makes the train ride a little more fun. I pride myself, when it comes to tone, on being able to turn on a dime. I can create a suspenseful thing, then break it with a joke. Then one more line and you’re back on a suspense tip.’

Were you making a point with this film about how cinema usually treats World War II?
‘A point could be made, though that’s not necessarily what I was trying to get across to everyone in the multiplex. On the one hand I’m making a revisionist history of the war, but I’m also dealing with characters who deal with revisionist histories of the war. I’m also looking at the tragedy of genocide. I’m dealing with the Jewish genocide in Europe, but my Jews are going native and taking the roles of American Indians – another genocide. Then there’s a “King Kong” metaphor about the slave trade, that’s another genocide. And Germany wasn’t always the bad guy.’

The film’s opening line is ‘Once upon a time in occupied France’. Are you suggesting that all movies are fairy tales, no matter how serious the subject?

‘I think it’s the same for all novels, all literature, all history books. History was written by whoever was around to write it. Winston Churchill was asked if he thought history would be kind to him, and he said, “I know it will be, I intend to write it.” That point is made throughout the movie. We have a character who does something phenomenal that helps bring down the Third Reich. But everyone who knows what that character did, dies. He’s lost to history, no one will ever know what happened. And that character stands for all the characters in real life who did tremendous feats but there was no historian around to jot it down.’

Which movies inspired the writing?

‘I ended up looking at a different type of war film than those I’d watched before: the propaganda movies made in the ’40s, mostly directed by foreign directors living in Hollywood because the Nazis had occupied their home countries. I’m talking about Jean Renoir’s “This Land Is Mine”, or Jules Dassin’s “Nazi Agent” or “Reunion in France”, Douglas Sirk with “Hitler’s Hangman”, a wonderful Russian director Leonide Moguy with “Action in Arabia” and “Paris after Dark”, and of course Fritz Lang with “Manhunt” and “Hangmen Also Die”. I was really taken with those movies.

‘What’s really interesting about them is that World War II was going on, the Nazis were an actual threat, not a theoretical threat, not just movie bad guys. Those directors, in most cases, had personal experience of the Nazis, and they were worried about their loved ones back home. And yet those films are entertaining, they’re thrilling adventure stories, and there’s a lot of humour in them, too.

‘And this goes against all the ponderous, anti-war, violin-music diatribes that we’ve seen in war movies since the ’80s. I’m not trying to be pissy about the movies of the past 30 years. It’s just that there’s been a one-note concentration on victimisation.’

Read our review of the film from Cannes here

Author: Interview: Tom Huddleston



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