Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino interview
A couple of basterds
It was a marriage made in movie heaven: the hardcore film geekosity of Quentin Tarantino combined with the A-list magic of Brad Pitt. Miles Fielder talks to the director about their film Inglourious Basterds
The sixth film by Quentin Tarantino has been a long time coming. Tarantino began writing his World War II men-on-a-mission adventure Inglourious Basterds more than a decade ago. Unable to finish it, he put the script aside and instead made the two-part revenge thriller Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 and then the exploitation movie homage double feature Grindhouse, conceived with Robert Rodriguez. Having continued to tinker with Basterds on and off during the making of those films, once Tarantino found himself freed up following the release of Grindhouse he made a concerted effort to complete the script. Happily, he did just that – and then cast and shot the film in record time, readying it for its world premiere at Cannes this May. But, as Tarantino says of the long-gestating project, it wasn’t a writer’s block that was the cause of the delay.
‘I had the opposite of writer’s block,’ the director says. ‘I couldn’t stop writing. I kept coming up with new things, and that’s why I had to put it aside. When I went back to it I knew I didn’t want it to be longer than Pulp Fiction, and the only way I could do that was make sure the script wasn’t any longer. I’d really gotten out of the habit of doing this. I didn’t censor myself at all, thus Kill Bill 1 and 2. Well, I didn’t want Basterds 1 and Basterds 2. So I forced a discipline upon myself. This is the closest I’ve ever come to policing my work.’
Tarantino’s efforts have paid off. Clocking in at just shy of two-and-a-half hours and showcasing a series of extended set-pieces, Inglourious Basterds nevertheless feels tightly packed. Intertwining three storylines knotted together by a plot to assassinate high command of the Third Reich at the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film at a cinema in occupied Paris, Tarantino’s latest has none of the indulgent longeurs that occasionally deflated Bills 1 and 2, nor does it suffer from the (admittedly purposely) uneven pacing that virtually ground his half of Grindhouse to a halt. In terms of style, tone and the punch it packs, Inglourious Basterds is closer to Tarantino’s more cohesive earlier films, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, which is doubly surprising given its prolonged scrappy development. And the reason for that, it turns out, lies in what ultimately inspired the film.
‘What was inspiring at the beginning became passé,’ Tarantino says, ‘and what I took true inspiration from was something I wouldn’t have thought about. Initially, I was thinking of the men-on-a-mission movies, Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, Darker than the Sun, etc, but then it was a lot of the movies made in the 40s, which people disparagingly call propaganda movies. I really like those movies. Most of them were made by foreign directors living in America because they couldn’t live in their own countries because the Nazis had occupied them: Jean Renoir with This Land is Mine, Fritz Lang with Manhunt, Jules Dassin with Nazi Agent, Douglas Sirk with Hitler’s Henchmen, and a Russian director working out of France I’d never heard of, Léonide Moguy, who did a movie about the French underground, Paris After Dark. Incidentally,’ Tarantino contniues, ‘almost all of these movies starred George Sanders. These were movies made at exactly the time of World War II, when the Nazis weren’t just bogeymen from the past but were actually a threat. Many of the directors had personal experience with the Nazis. Yet these movies are entertaining, thrilling, exciting, humorous even, particularly, say, To Be or Not to Be by Ernest Lubitsch. And they were so literate. The dialogue was fantastic. Which played to George Sanders’ strength, of course. These were the movies I got inspiration from, not stylistically but in terms of their entertaining spirit.’
True to those films, Inglourious Basterds mixes dazzling dialogue with bursts of action and flips from serious to comic and back. And like those wartime morale boosters, Basterds also plays fast and loose with history. Without giving the plot away, there’s one eye-opening scene late on in the film in particular that will have historians popping their sockets. ‘As you’re writing a scenario different roads become available to you,’ Tarantino explains. ‘Screenwriters have a habit of putting roadblocks up, maybe because they can’t afford to have their characters go down that road, keeping the budget down. I’ve never put that kind of imposition on my characters: where they go, I follow. Now, when I wrote Inglourious Basterds I came across a roadblock: history itself. I was prepared to honour that, until I actually came up against it and then I refused. I’d never done that before and now wasn’t the time to start. My characters didn’t know they were part of history; history had not been written yet. They didn’t know there were things they couldn’t do. There was only action and reaction. Now, is my movie a fairytale? Feel free to look at it that way, but the way I look at it is: my characters change the course of history. Not really, of course, because they don’t actually exist. But if they had, everything that happens in the movie is quite plausible …’
It feels like it was only a matter of time before Tarantino made a movie with Brad Pitt. Pitt’s collaborations with the Coen Brothers felt like they were framing him up to carry something like Inglourious Basterds for Tarantino. On the red carpet at the Cannes premiere, the pair gushed about each other like a couple of giddy school kids. Of Tarantino, Pitt said, ‘He’s one of the greatest directors in the world. He’s one of our auteurs; he’s got a very specific voice. There’s no one like him. He’s changed the game a few degrees, and continues to do so.’
A game Pitt is well versed in, dancing between blockbusters and smaller pet projects, and a film with Tarantino falls squarely between the two. Tarantino was equally effusive about Pitt’s ability and place in the cinematic world.
‘Brad has become a man, and with it reached the peak of his career,’ he said, adding: ‘What’s really cool about Brad right now is that the pretty boy is gone. He’s a man now. He can bear the weight. Brad is at the zenith of his iconicness.’
In Cannes, the Basterds received a mixed reception. At its press screening in London, the reaction was generally ecstatic. Given each film he makes inevitably becomes a highly anticipated event, does Tarantino give due consideration to his career? ‘If I was too Machiavellian about my career I wouldn’t have done Grindhouse,’ he says with a laugh. ‘In that case I just thought it would be fun to do. I didn’t think it was going to become such a big fucking deal. I’m a real fan of the movie, but our original idea got derailed. So, yeah, if a story turns me on, I want to do it. But I am thinking about my career. Well, fuck the word career, I’m thinking about my filmography. I believe a filmmaker lives or dies by their filmography and if you muck about too much you cheapen your entire artistic standing. So thinking about my filmography was one of the ideas behind saying of Kill Bill: “the fourth film by Quentin Tarantino”. Maybe it’s self-aggrandising, but I think there’s something good about saying this is my first movie and this is my second movie and so on. I don’t want to stop being excited about my work.’
And is Tarantino pleased with his Basterds? ‘You don’t ask the chicken to comment on his soup,’ he shoots back. ‘But I will say the opening chapter is everything I could ever have hoped it would be.’
Inglourious Basterds is out on general release from Wed 19 Aug.
From Brad to worse
Thelma & Louise the torso, the cowboy hat (HIGH)
Johnny Suede the hair, the Elvis-iszms (HIGH)
True Romance the hair, the accent, the munchies (HIGH)
Interview with the Vampire the decent performance in a truly corny film (MID)
Se7en the incredibly short fuse, the wife’s head in a box (HIGH)
Twelve Monkeys the madness! (HIGH)
Meet Joe Black the tedium, the tedium (LOW)
Fight Club the sex, the violence (HIGH)
Snatch the impenetrable accent, the hobo dress code (MID)
Troy the skirt, the testosterone (LOW)
Mr & Mrs Smith the sexual tension, the firearm fetishism (LOW)
Babel the earnest handwringing, the ‘Message’ (MID)
The Assassination of Jesse James … the gunslinging, the moody staring (HIGH)
Burn After Reading the wackiness, the not-as-funny-as-it-should-have-been-ness (LOW)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the mawkish sentimentality, the Yoda makeover (LOW)
Inglourious Basterds the moustache, the derring-do (HIGH)