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.