There has never been a western quite like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Although the hero’s name is borrowed from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 cult classic starring Franco Nero (who makes a cameo here), the two films have little in common.
Django Unchained is more of an exercise in revisionist history, like Inglourious Basterds, except played on a much more intimate scale. Jamie Foxx stars as a slave freed by a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who goes on a mission to free his wife, a slave of the sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Filled with long scenes of conversation, unexpected humor and bursts of incredible violence, Django Unchained delivers the fix Tarantino fans long for. But the movie also seems more serious and less jokey than his previous work, respectful of the importance of its subject matter. We talked to Tarantino about his motivation to make the film, his controversial use of the n-word and how a hilarious interlude involving the Ku Klux Klan came about.
Q: ‘Django Unchained’ was rumored to be your take on the western genre, but there’s a lot more to the movie than that.
A: Technically it’s a southern, done in the style of the western. The way we think of westerns, the characters go on a western odyssey. We start with our characters in Texas, to give everybody a sense of the familiar. And then we start moving toward where the cotton is. It still plays out in a cowboy picture kind of mode but with a different background behind it.
Q: The movie is akin to ‘Inglourious Basterds’ in that it’s a kind of historical fantasy, only rooted in more reality. The graphic depiction of slavery is astonishing, like the scene in which Calvin Candie forces two men to fight to the death for his amusement.
A: I was always aware those things existed. Mandingo fighting, which is what we call it, was part of the underbelly of slavery. It would be a perfect vice for Candie to indulge in, watching two men are fighting to death like dogs. Part of the idea behind Candie was he owns one of the biggest cotton plantations in the South, but he’s a fourth-generation Candie. He doesn’t care about the agriculture and the cotton anymore. The plantation runs itself by this point. So he’s this petulant boy emperor, this southern-fried Caligula. He finds hobbies and vices and pleasures to indulge in to keep him entertained.
Q: There’s a scene in the film involving an early version of the Ku Klux Klan that may be the funniest thing you’ve ever written. The Klansmen have trouble seeing through their hoods. It’s like this sudden comedic detour in the middle of this dead-serious story. What made you think of it?
A: I wrote an indictment piece on the making of The Birth of a Nation a long time ago that maybe I’ll put in a book or something . I was trying to put myself in the place of D. W. Griffith and what it was like to be on the set of that movie every day. [Director] John Ford is one of the Klansmen on the horses, riding to black subjugation. So I started speculating that you can’t say John Ford didn’t know what he was doing. Everyone at that time had seen or heard a production of the Klan. The movie was based on one of the most popular plays of the day. So that meant Ford was down with it, no matter what he said. Not only was he down with it, he put on a Klan uniform and had to ride 24 miles an hour on a horse! I started thinking about the hood moving around on his face and how he could see. So when it came time to write that scene, I touched on that a little bit. I had to make a reference to it. Later I was reading the scene to a friend of mine, and when I got to that part, my friend bust out laughing so much, I realized I had really something there, and I needed to expand it.
Q: Music always plays an integral part in your films. You use snippets of classic western scores, but this is the first time you’ve used original songs in a movie.
A: One of the things that’s most fascinating about the western is that there is no other film genre that reflects the decade it was made better than the western. The westerns of the 1950s reflect the ’50s. The weird cultural transition that happened in the 1960s are reflected in the westerns, like The Wild Bunch. In the 1970s, you got post-Vietnam Watergate westerns, where the whole idea was to de-mythize everything. That’s part and parcel to making a western in the 21st century. It is made for a 21st century viewer. Frankly, it’s what I’ve always done. I’ve been using Ennio Morricone scores in my movies since Kill Bill. In this one I use him more than ever before. But in terms of the hip-hop in the film: When I’m working on a score, I can use whatever I want. It’s up to me to pull it off and not make it seem anachronistic and pull you out of the movie. I wouldn’t have Jamie and Christoph walk into a bar, and Rick Ross is up on the stage there rapping. That probably wouldn’t work.
Q: There has been a lot of discussion about your use of the n-word in the movie. Variety even counted them and said you use it 109 times.
A: You just have to realize that at that time in history, black folk were human cattle, and that’s what the owners called their stock. If you’re going to come out and claim that in my scenario I use it more excessively than it was used in 1858, I would beg to differ. And that’s what people like Matt Drudge are saying. To me, that means I should lie and not go there. And my reason for doing this movie is to go there, to take the 21st century viewer and put them in the middle of the antebellum South during that era and take a look at America. There you go. This is us. Most countries have been forced to deal with the atrocities of their past. And America has conveniently chosen to avoid dealing with it, this subject, because it’s uncomfortable and people would rather avert their eyes. I’m here to put you in that place and say, ‘This is America. This is us. This is how this country was founded.’ If you want to know why things are the way they are today, look at this.
Q: Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson are the two standouts in this large cast. What is it about them that makes them handle your dialogue so well?
A They are definitely two of my biggest muses. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum, so I get a lot of range out of them. I fancy that my dialogue, while not officially poetry, is something akin to poetry. The way Sam and Christoph say it, the way it springs out of them, is with that poetic sound that I always fancy it should have. It’s going to be hard for me now not to write for Christoph Waltz. I was thinking about this story for a long time, and there was never a German bounty hunter in it. And when I sat down to write, there he was.
Q: Watching ‘Django Unchained,’ it struck me that the movie has a black cowboy as the hero. I’ve seen lots of westerns with black cowboys in the cast, of course. But never as the lead protagonist.
A: In the 1970s there were a few. Sidney Poitier directed one, Buck and the Preacher. He played Buck and Harry Belafonte played the preacher. It was Poitier’s first film as a director, and it dealt with slaves too. Jim Brown starred in a few westerns: 100 Rifles, with Raquel Welch and El Condor with Lee Van Cleef. Max Julien, who was the star of The Mack, made one called Thomasine & Bushrod, which was a kind of Bonnie & Clyde. Having said that, there haven’t been many. Outside of the 1970s, forget about it. [laughs]
Q: Did you have to convince Foxx to take this role? Because Django is a subservient, humiliated man at the start of the film, and famous actors often don’t like to play such characters.
A: Not at all. He read the script and really responded to it. He loved the arc of the character. He loved the fact that the way he started on page one was completely different than the way he was on page 170. He loved the love story in the movie. He embraced it in a big way.
But when we started rehearsals, though, I did have to talk to him a little bit. I told him he had to be completely stripped down at the beginning. This is a hero’s journey. The guy can’t start out as a hero. He has to get there. So we had to work on that a little bit. My way of saying it was ‘You can’t be Jim Brown too soon. You have to grow into Jim Brown.’ And he got it right away. He was my cowboy.
Q: I loved the little dance his horse performs near the end of the film.
A: [Laughs] That was something I had in mind from the beginning. My whole feeling toward this movie is that we had to shoot our way to that sequence. We had to earn that triumph. And we did not make it easy for him.