Only Quentin Tarantino could create ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ wherein Brad Pitt plays a redneck leading a band of tough Jews bent on going, well, medieval on Nazis. And that’s just one part of his new movie. Alex Pappademas follows the most ambitious director of his generation from Berlin to Cannes to Los Angeles as he struggles to finish what he hopes will be his new masterpiece
By Alex Pappademas; Photograph by Mark Seliger
quentin tarantino is at the hamburger hamlet on Sunset Boulevard. Back-corner booth, in the shadows of the Tap Room. His wallet's on the table. You know it's his wallet because it says bad motherfucker on it. (Seriously. It does.) He's wearing a half-zipped Nike warm-up jacket, no shirt. He's talking to Lay Lay.
A minute ago, Lay Lay came up to our booth and asked if she could buy Quentin a drink, "for all the years of wonderfulness." Lay Lay's got nice arms. Lay Lay's gushy/apologetic under a fringe of blond bangs. Quentin was chewing the second slider from a plate of four when she walked up, so he held his napkin over his face like a silent-movie bank robber. Quentin said, "Sure!"
Now she's back, proffering a fresh mint julep with a shot of hassle on the side: "Will you please get back to work for me?" she asks. "I'm missing you." Tarantino's expression doesn't change, but you can tell there's a mint leaf of annoyance garnishing his response: "August," he says. "My new movie comes out in August." (It's called Inglourious Basterds, and Brad Pitt's in it, kicking ass and collecting Nazi scalps, and it's only the movie Tarantino's been talking about making for, like, a hundred years, Lay Lay!)
He laughs so she knows it's okay. Lay Lay remembers now, about the new movie. She says listen—her band is playing down the street at the Roxy tonight. "It's three of us ladies," she says. "I play drums." Hence the arms. "So if you're looking for fun," she says, "come see us!" Quentin thanks her for the invite. He thanks her for the drink.
I've been warned that he's tired. He spent six hours at a photo shoot today. And he's still in shock over David Carradine, found dead in a Bangkok hotel yesterday morning. Last night, Quentin went on Larry King Live, looking like a traumatized superfan. He showed Larry his Kung Fu lunchbox, complete with thermos.
Then there's the movie. Basterds screened at Cannes in May. Variety said it was "never less than enjoyable." The Hollywood Reporter found it lacking in "those things we think of as being Tarantino-esque." The Guardian called it "an armor-plated turkey." This in turn has fed rumors that the Weinstein Company is nervous about the movie's two-and-a-half-hour running time, about the long stretches of dialogue in subtitled French and German. A few days after we meet in L.A., a few Hollywood gossip sites float the rumor that Quentin has been asked to cut forty minutes out of the movie.
Tarantino says he's not worried about the way Basterds was received at Cannes. The "bona fide literary film critics"—the ones he respects, as opposed to Internet mole people and "celebrity journalists"—mostly dug the movie. And when the studio screened it this week in L.A., it went over huge. If not for Carradine's death, he says, "I'd be happy as a fucking clam."
He seems less happy than a clam tonight, though. He seems tense. He's sweating despite the air-conditioning. Banging those tasty beverages. There's a defensive edge to his trademark know-it-all answers.
"I respect criticism," he says. (He's been working on a movie-review book, on and off, for a few years.) "But I know more about film than most of the people writing about me. Not only that, I'm a better writer than most of the people writing about me. And I can write film criticism better than most of the people writing about me.
"Look," Tarantino says, "if you're a nice-guy artist, all you have to worry about is becoming boring at some point. But I'm not a nice-guy artist. When my movies come out, they draw a line in the sand."
Back in January, Tarantino was at Studio Babelsberg, eighteen or so glum gray miles outside Berlin. He was in his element. Shooting on the soundstage where Fritz Lang made Metropolis, where Josef von Sternberg directed Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, and where Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels played movie mogul after the Nazis took over—which is funny, because Goebbels's quest to be the David O. Selznick of the Third Reich is a major plot point in Basterds. Tarantino was grooving on the meta-movieness of it all. He was racing, too—come hell or high water, they were going to have this movie done in time for Cannes. But he was in a good mood. "Compared to Kill Bill, this is a spa," he said, grinning. "It's a facial. A salt rub. A Thai massage!"
He was on an elaborate movie-theater set, under opera boxes draped with Nazi flags. The theater was full of German extras, done up for the premiere of a fictional Goebbels movie called Nation's Pride—silk gowns, opera gloves, S.S. dress uniforms.
Quentin fed them their motivation. "You guys are filled with the pride of a victorious Reich at this moment," he said, and then an AD relayed this to them in German.
Eli Roth, horror-movie auteur and Tarantino confrere, shot the Nation's Pride footage we see in Basterds. Roth was in Germany anyway; he plays Donny Donowitz, a bat-wielding soldier known to terrified Germans as "the Bear Jew." He was on-set today, in a tux and white gloves, ready to mingle with the crème de la crème of Nazi society."Quentin got the Jewish director to do the Nazi propaganda film," he says, grinning. "I thought I'd never do anything more disgusting than Hostel II!"
Quentin took a break around ten thirty that night. We sat next to each other in the back of his fake movie house, talked about the script. He was supposedly working on it, or not working on it, during the six-year gap between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. Myths accrued. It was a 600-page screenplay. It was his magnum opus. He wanted Stallone and Willis and Eddie Murphy for the leads. He wanted Tim Roth and Michael Madsen. He wanted Adam Sandler. He was staying up all night, smoking more dope than Widespread Panic's road crew and watching D-grade flicks Joe Bob Briggs wouldn't use to prop up a wobbly table. He'd become a pure pop-cultural swamp thing, freed by success to sleep and root in the primordial muck that birthed him. In Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Biskind's 2004 book about the House of Weinstein and the rocky interfaith marriage between art-house and multiplex that Tarantino's success helped Bob and Harvey engineer, Tarantino is last glimpsed circa 2000, "lost in his labyrinthine World War II script."
Quentin told me that all that fog-of-war-movie stuff was exaggerated. He wasn't lost. He just couldn't stop writing. He'd produced more story than a movie could hold. He thought about turning it into a novel. He came close to writing it up as a twelve-episode mini-series—his own gonzo Band of Brothers. He says director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita) talked him out of that. "You're one of the only guys whose movies make me want to go out to a theater," Besson told him one night over drinks. This stuck with Quentin. In January 2008, he took one more shot at chopping his monster down to movie size.
He cut one major plotline—a story about a group of AWOL black soldiers making their way across occupied France, which he might turn into a Basterds sequel if this one does well. He focused in on the Basterds, a unit of Jewish American commandos using terrorist tactics against the Third Reich, and Shosanna Dreyfus, a French farm girl who flees to Paris and becomes the proprietress of a movie house after the Nazis murder her family. He wrote a new third act, bringing these two stories together, to bloody and historically inaccurate effect, at the gala premiere of ein film von Joseph Goebbels. He'd write all day; at night he'd listen to records or float in his pool, ruminating. He feels that the movie was really written between January and July of last year. "I've never written such a big thing so fast before," he says. "It just came tumbling out of me."
He finished the script on July 2 and sent it to his longtime producing partner, Lawrence Bender, the next day, telling him he wanted to shoot it in time for Cannes. "I was like, ‘Wow—really? You finished it? Shit!' " Bender says. "That was a wild moment." Tarantino flew to France to persuade Brad Pitt to play Lieutenant Aldo Raine, the leader of the Basterds. ("We talked about movies into the wee hours of the night," Pitt told reporters in May. "When I got up the next morning, I saw five empty bottles of wine lying on the floor—five!—and something that resembled a smoking apparatus.… And apparently I'd agreed to do the movie." When I ask Tarantino who supplied this apparatus, he says, "That was Brad. He did the fabrication. He can take a Coke can and make it—functional.")
When I ask Harvey Weinstein why Tarantino decided to make the movie on this scramble-the-fighters timetable, he brings up Grindhouse, the double-feature slasher-film tribute Tarantino co-directed with Robert Rodriguez in 2007. Weinstein doesn't believe that Grindhouse's poor box-office performance had anything to do with Quentin's decision to get moving on Basterds but believes Tarantino "wanted to get back in the saddle. He did his B movie, and I think it was time for him to go back and make his Quentin Tarantino movie."
Tarantino has a simpler explanation.
"I just like Cannes," Tarantino told me. "It's like the whole planet is checking your movie out—boom!—at one time, and—bam!—it either works or it doesn't. And especially when I'm there—it's the closest thing to Muhammad Ali having a championship fight. It's just—bam! You're throwing it down."
Tarantino became the Cassius Clay of the Croisette back in 1994, when Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or. Clint Eastwood read the good news. He'd gone to France as a Sundance wunderkind; he came back as the biggest auteur-celebrity since Orson Welles.
They still love him in France. When he hits Cannes—boom!—in May, with Basterds, autograph hounds waving Tarantino posters in protective plastic sheeting jockey for position at the barricades with tuxedoed paparazzi. On the red carpet, he boogies to Dick Dale's "Misirlou," the opening-credits song from Pulp Fiction. He grabs Mélanie Laurent, who plays Shosanna in Basterds. She's all in white, he's all in black. They cut that red rug. They do the swim. They do the sailor's hornpipe. They do the twist, just like John Travolta and Uma Thurman. Quentin air-guitars down the red carpet—ten feet, twenty feet—and back up. It goes over huge. Everybody screams louder a couple of minutes later when Brad rolls up with Angelina. But next to Quentin's display of irrational exuberance, Brad and Angelina look like a couple of s.
The movie plays. When it's over, Tarantino gets a standing ovation. It lasts eleven minutes. A cameraman finds Quentin in the crowd, puts his face up on that big Palais des Festivals screen. He's hugging Mélanie. He's holding Brad's fist in the air, like the ref in a prizefight. He's smiling a cryptic smile.
"I felt like that ovation was a review," Harvey Weinstein tells me later, when I ask him about the post-Cannes reviews. "I think they would have stayed and cheered longer."Weinstein also denies that Quentin's been asked to trim the movie.
"Those stories are all untrue. There's no fucking way. Here, read my lips: That is nuts. Please don't even write that, it's insanity. There's not even a question of that. Whatever you're reading, it's like some insane blogger. He's not gonna cut. What he's doing is just reorganizing some scenes. I mean, the guy had six weeks to cut his movie [for Cannes]; most guys take six months. Most guys take a year. When I worked with Martin [Scorsese], we'd do eighteen months in postproduction. Quentin Tarantino cuts a movie in six weeks? Come on! There's shit on that cutting-room floor that'll blow your brains out. I was telling Quentin the opposite—‘You should put that shit back in the movie'—'cause it's un-fucking-believably great."