Quentin Tarantino's Unchained Malady

The legendary director emerges from a chaotic couple of years with his most ambitious film to date, 'Django Unchained'

"I'd been thinking about spaghetti Westerns anyway," Tarantino says today, "because between movies, I've been working on a book about Sergio Corbucci." Tarantino has long written what he calls "subtextual film criticism" between making films, as both a hobby and a kind of DIY film tutorial.

Originally a film critic himself, Corbucci directed a number of spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s, most notably the ultra-violent Django (1966), starring Franco Nero as the titular drifter seeking to avenge the death of his wife.

In Japan, under "the whole influence of playing the music and having been writing my Corbucci book," Tarantino says, he wrote the first scene of Django Unchained. Two white slave traders are dragging a chain gang of five slaves through the Texas woods on a frigid night. Out of the darkness appears Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter billing himself as a dentist. He announces his intention to acquire one of the bonded men, Django (Jamie Foxx). There is conversation, gunfire, blood and, ultimately, liberation. Essentially, it's the movie in microcosm.

courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Kevin Scanlon

Because Tarantino tends to write his scripts linearly, starting at the beginning of the film and finishing with the end, opening scenes are an important part of the process. "I usually want my first scenes to be pretty good, if for no reason other than to keep people excited when they read the script," he says. "And to keep me excited—'Oh, hey, this is a good idea.'"

In 2006, when Tarantino sat down to write the script for Death Proof, his contribution to Grindhouse, the first scene he came up with revolved around the tale of Jody the Grinder, a character from black folklore with, as Tarantino put it, "the biggest dick." Jody, so the story goes, was perhaps a bit too generous with his anatomical endowment. When his master finally caught Jody in bed with both the master's wife and his daughter, that was it for Jody.

Post-hanging, Jody ended up in hell. "He met the devil, fucked the devil, and the devil sent him back to Earth, with a curse to walk the Earth for eternity, fucking white women," Tarantino says today, laughing.

He ultimately couldn't fit the tale of Jody the Grinder into Death Proof, but his interest in that kind of "über-masculine, black, male figure of folklore" carried over into the character of Django. Tarantino saw him as a kind of black Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, whose adventures would have been disseminated (and exaggerated) through "spoken history passed down by slaves, about this one guy, throughout the course of time."

So Django Unchained became a superhero origin story, explaining how "the sixth slave from the seventh on a chain-gang line" becomes a free man legally employed to "kill white people and get paid for it," grows into the "fastest gun in the South," rescues his wife from bondage, and ultimately evolves into a kind of angel of vengeance, wiping out anyone and everyone—white, black, male, female—who endorses, enforces, enables and/or is economically enriched by the institution of slavery.

Tarantino says his initial impulse was to get that transformation out of the way at the film's beginning, and then "cut to years later, like, way after the Civil War, and he'd be older now, and I'd have an older actor playing him."

But he liked Django's origin story—and he also liked the idea of breaking from the "mosaic" storytelling style he's associated with, thanks to the out-of-order chapter structures of movies such as Pulp Fiction and Basterds.

"I've done that," he says.

With Django, Tarantino became excited about "investing in a through character, who actually goes through one situation from beginning to end, and follow it and not do my normal tricks of having a separate chapter that takes you somewhere else entirely. I didn't want that in this one. It's really Django's story, from beginning to end."

Armed with that first scene, as well as the bounty of spaghetti Western soundtracks he bought in Japan, Tarantino returned to Los Angeles. He used to write in restaurants, bars, Amsterdam coffeehouses—always in public, anywhere but home. "As time goes on," he says, his process has become more "professional." Django was mostly written on the balcony off the bedroom of his Hollywood Hills mansion.

"I have a little speaker out there, so I can make tapes and play them. I get up; around 10 or 11, I mosey out there; and I start writing the next scene."

Tarantino puts in a full workday—six, eight hours—and as he's wrapping up, he follows "a trick I learned from Hemingway: Don't finish your thought, have a little left over for the next day." Then, at night, "I'll get in the pool, and I'll swim around and think about what I've done. If I know I'm really not done with a scene, I think, 'Okay, what do I want to do, how can I make it better?' If I am done with it, then I'm in the pool doing the same thing: 'What next? What happens next?'

"And I've got to tell you, it's as close to bliss as I've ever achieved—in that space, doing that."

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