Quentin Tarantino's Unchained Malady

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

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Tarantino was in that space, doing that, until April 26, 2011—the precise date the Django script was finished. Shooting began the last week of November 2011 and wrapped July 24, 2012. (That these dates are all included in the film's official press notes suggests the breakneck schedule is being posited as something of a selling point.) Before the shoot had even wrapped, the Weinstein Co. began the marketing push—screening footage for press in Cannes, tacking a trailer in front of would-be summer blockbusters such as Prometheus, planting the idea of the Christmas Day opening in the brains of Tarantino's wide fan base.

Was Django's schedule unusually compressed? "It was, for sure," Tarantino acknowledges. "[But] I've been heading here for a long time. My post[production] schedules just keep getting shorter and shorter and shorter and shorter because there's always something I'm making it for, some event."

Grindhouse was rushed for an Easter-weekend release; Basterds had to be finished in time for Cannes. "It just kept going in that direction—and we kept rising to the occasion. In this case, it wasn't supposed to be this short, I just went really long on shooting. Went a little over."

Ultimately, Tarantino says he had to negotiate with the Weinstein Co. in order to get the three extra weeks he needed to shoot a final sequence. In exchange, Tarantino agreed to forgo a chunk of his profit participation. "If the movie does really well, I'll do really, really, really, really, really well," Tarantino says. But "I don't kick in for a while. I have to pay back the extra money I spent before my thing kicks in."

The four-month postproduction period on Django was further complicated by the fact that, for the first time, Tarantino was finishing a movie without Sally Menke, who had edited each of his previous features. By all accounts, Tarantino and Menke had a symbiotic relationship similar to that of director Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Tarantino has called Menke "my only true, gen-u-ine collaborator," likening her contribution in the editing room to that of a co-writer.

On a sweltering day in September 2010, Menke went on a hike with her dog in Griffith Park and never returned; her body was found the next day at the foot of a Beachwood Canyon ravine. (No official cause of death has been reported.) They say deaths come in threes, and so it goes: On June 1, 2012, J. Michael Riva, Django's 63-year-old production designer and the grandson of one of Tarantino's idols, Marlene Dietrich, suffered a stroke and died in New Orleans, where Django was shooting. Then, in August, Tony Scott, an early mentor of Tarantino's who directed his script for True Romance, committed suicide.

Given all of this loss, Django's completion is all the more remarkable.

"It's sad," Tarantino acknowledges tightly. "I've been really melancholy the past few days because this is usually the time where [Menke] would kind of be running the show, this last little bit. So I'm particularly missing her now."

He has always thought of his last draft of a screenplay as "the first edit of the movie, and the edit is the last draft. I like writing these big, novelistic tomes in screenplay form and working it out as the movie goes on."

Without Menke around to take charge of postproduction, Tarantino notes wryly, "I have to be more responsible for my own movie."

Again, an "event" loomed: In order to be eligible for the 2012 Academy Awards, Django had to be ready for release before the end of this year. "It's part of our strategy, obviously, or else we'd be opening in March," Tarantino says. "I actually think the movie, commercially, would do fucking awesome in March, all right? But the film gets the push of a little Academy attention, it'll do awesome right now."

At some point in the process, "we had to make that decision," Tarantino says. "Do we have an Oscar movie, or do we not? And we all thought we did."

What makes an Oscar movie? "Well, it's just, like, uh, well, a little bit of it, I guess, is the Weinstein people second-guessing how the Academy will react to it, how will the different guilds react to it, because that's all gonna be part of it," Tarantino stammers. "I can say this: For instance, if I wanted to go more explicit with the movie—it's a really violent movie, all right? But if I wanted to go more violent with it, if I wanted to go further and make it more explicit and make sequences even more disturbing than they already are? Then I would have gone in March."

From where you and I sit, Tarantino likely will be remembered as the key American auteur of his generation. But history records the industry's respect via Academy Awards, and Tarantino has only one of those. It's for writing 1994's Pulp Fiction, and it's an honor he shares with his friend from his video-store days, Roger Avary, who had story credit on the movie.

Since patching that script together nearly 20 years ago, Tarantino and Avary have fallen out; also, in 2010, Avary spent eight months in jail after he drunkenly crashed his car, killing a passenger. Avary, his friendship with Tarantino and his contribution to the Pulp Fiction screenplay are not mentioned in the extensive biographical documentary material on the recently released box set Tarantino XX, which Tarantino told me he considers to be "pretty definitive." Given that he has exactly as many Oscars as his ex-con, ex-collaborator, it makes perfect sense Tarantino would want an honor all his own.

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