He made his name in the 90s with the breathtaking Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But as Quentin Tarantino's chaotic Second World War epic opens, Sean O'Hagan finds the director's genius in danger of going Awol
Quentin Tarantino is perched on the edge of a sofa in a room in London's Soho Hotel. He is talking nineteen-to-the-dozen as if trying to keep up with the speed of his thoughts. My first question elicits a typically Tarantinoesque discourse on the uniqueness of Brad Pitt, the star of his new film, Inglourious Basterds.
"What's really cool about Brad right now," he says, "is that the pretty boy is gone. He's a man now. He can bear the weight. He's like... he's like..." he pauses for a few seconds, grimacing in concentration, "he's like Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson." While I am still wondering if this is entirely a good thing, Tarantino spells it out for me. "Brad," he says, without irony, "is at the zee-nith of his iconicness."
This may be why Brad feels he can ham it up to the max in Inglourious Basterds, a film that gleefully pastiches the Second World War action film to such a degree that it sacrifices any sense of verisimilitude. It is the loudest, brashest, and perhaps emptiest film Tarantino has ever made, which is saying something. It may be that it is a mirror of his soul, or, at least, his mind, which on today's evidence is fraying.
It is difficult to fully capture Tarantino's presence in print. He is taller than I remember him, and bulkier. He doesn't look like an eternally adolescent nerd any more, but a hyperactive middle-aged man who, with his western-style shirt and lounge-lizard shoes, could be an ageing rock singer.
He has turned up late from a long lunch and comes across like someone who has overdone it on the post-prandial espressos. When he gets really excited about something, which is often, he waves his arms about and his eyes take on a wild look. It's entertaining but oddly unsettling. (A few days later, there are reports in the tabloids that, the day after we met, Tarantino went on an all-day bender and was spotted talking loudly to himself in a Soho bar. He claimed that he was writing a script and trying out dialogue.)
Tarantino is in town for the premiere of Inglourious Basterds. The title of his long-awaited, much-hyped war epic is misspelt to differentiate it from Enzo Castellari's 1978 Italian war film of the same name, which Tarantino rates highly, while insisting he has not done anything as obvious as a remake. Inglourious Basterds has been 10 years in gestation and was originally planned as the follow-up to 1997's Jackie Brown, which is now generally regarded as the last truly great Tarantino movie.
"Back then, I had all the same characters but a different story," Tarantino says. "I followed the story and it just grew and grew. I guess I was a little precious about it because it was my first original script since Pulp Fiction. Then, it just got bigger and bigger in my head. It became about the words on the page rather than the film."
So, he didn't have writer's block so much as writer's overload? "Yeah! If anything, I was, like, too inspired, right?" He laughs a frantic chuckle. "I couldn't turn my brain off. I couldn't stop coming up with new avenues, new ideas. Suddenly it was like, what the fuck? Am I too big for movies now? Are movies too small for me? I mean, what's that about?"
If this sort of thing ever happens again, he says, he will simply make a mini-series. In the event, Inglourious Basterds was put on hold, while he wrote and made Kill Bill, a film that also grew too big and had to be released in two separate parts. Since then, he has made Death Proof (2007), a mediocre homage to the semi-pornographic Grindhouse sub-genre that the perpetual adolescent in him loves so much, but it bombed at the box office. I ask him if he takes any notice of negative reviews: "It depends; if they just don't get it or there's a rejection of the aesthetic in general, then it doesn't really mean much. I may not like it, but it doesn't pierce." Does he think the critics might have a point? "Sometimes, yeah. If they ring a bell that makes sense to me, I'll hear that bell and I'll think about it. It'll become food for thought."
Given Tarantino's recent uneven form, and his seemingly undimmed self-belief, it is perhaps unsurprising that Inglourious Basterds is such an epic mess of a movie. It sprawls to over two and a half hours and is propelled - though that is perhaps too strong a word - by two implausible plots. One concerns a young Jewish beauty, Shosanna, played by the relatively unknown but wonderful French actress Mélanie Laurent, who runs a small cinema in Paris while she waits for a chance to avenge the deaths of her family, who have been wiped out by the Nazis. The other features the Basterds of the title, a gang of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lieutenant Aldo Reine (Pitt) who are parachuted into occupied France to wage a bloody guerrilla war against the Nazis. This mainly consists of ambushing them and torturing them to death. Never one to miss a trick when it comes to scenes of gratuitous violence, Tarantino has made a war film that replaces the dreadful horror of actual warfare with the cheap thrills of the Grindhouse genre. In one scene, we witness a kneeling German soldier whose head is almost taken off by a baseball bat wielded by an American psycho. There are several scenes where German soldiers are scalped and two long scenes in which Reine carves a swastika into an SS officer's forehead. This plotline is the Dirty Dozen remade as torture porn flick with a nod, I kid you not, to those old-fashioned, stiff upper-lip British war films of the 60s. "I sat down to write a bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movie," says Tarantino, "and that happens, but it's closer to, say, the film of EL Doctorow's Ragtime than it is to The Devil's Brigade."
Well, perhaps. Both films unfold slowly but one is nuanced and politically powerful while the other is bombastic and exists entirely within its own cinematic universe. The fast-paced dialogue that has always been Tarantino's supreme calling card as a screenwriter has been sacrificed here in convoluted set-pieces that undercut the intended tension. The movie does have its great moments - the long, perfectly pitched opening scene is a masterclass in suspense - and there's some great acting: Austrian star Christoph Waltz's SS officer, Colonel Landa, is one of contemporary cinema's great baddies.
Interestingly, Tarantino thinks it would be impossible to make The Dirty Dozen now. "We just don't have those kind of actors any more. Ernest Borgnine. Charles Bronson. Those guys were real men. They were a different breed. Many of them had been to war. Today's young actors are soft."
Til Schweiger as Sgt Hugo Stiglitz does his best Bronson act in Inglourious Basterds but by the time the caricature Brit enters the fray in the shape of Michael Fassbender's Lt Archie Hicox, a terminally posh film critic turned commando, it feels like several different films - not all of them Tarantino's - have somehow been edited together. The great genre magpie nods to the old-fashioned action flick, the revenge thriller, the spaghetti western, the spy spoof and the historical fantasy. It begins with the words "Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France..." and ends with the destruction of Hitler and most of the Third Reich.
"One of the qualities that puts me in a different category to other screenwriters is that I don't want to lead the story," says Tarantino, pinpointing the very thing that initially made his scripts so iconoclastic but now makes them so indulgent. "I let the characters lead and I follow. But, when you're heading down some scenario highway, there are certain roadblocks you come up against when you follow your characters, and, in this instance, one of the big roadblocks was history itself. At first I was prepared to honour that roadblock, then I said, 'Why?' It's just not what I do.'"
Does he accept that the plot tends in places towards the implausible? "No. I've set it up as a kind of fairytale, but that's not where I'm coming from. Where I'm coming from is that my characters changed the course of history. Now, the characters didn't exist so that didn't happen. But, if they had existed, what happens in the movie is plausible."
The problem here, though, is not so much the sliver of plausibility that the plot rests on, but the whole tone of the movie. It never seems to have entered Tarantino's mind that the notion of a bunch of psychopathic American Jews who set out to maim, mutilate and kill German soldiers might, in itself, be offensive, not least to Jewish-American soldiers and the entire French Resistance.
"Well, if people are offended by it, I don't care," he snaps. "I'm going to do what I do." The implication being that this is a Quentin Tarantino film, it's going to have violence, be tasteless and offensive. What the hell do you expect? Like Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2, Inglourious Basterds may indeed deliver enough gore, ultra-stylised violence and clever pop culture references to satisfy his hardcore fan base, but for the rest of us, it is further evidence that the former enfant terrible of American cinema has waylaid his mojo.
The last time I interviewed Tarantino was in 1994, when he had just made Pulp Fiction. Back then, he, too, was at the zenith of his iconicness. The film geek who had worked behind the counter in the Manhattan Beach Video Archives store in suburban California was living his dream of becoming a great director. His first movie, the relentlessly violent heist caper Reservoir Dogs, released in 1992, had made him the hottest name in Hollywood. Pulp Fiction was just about to catapult him to global fame, rekindling the careers of John Travolta and Bruce Willis in the process and making Samuel L Jackson a household name.
With those two films, he reinvented cinema for the internet generation, littering his scripts with references to other films, reigniting genres like the heist movie and the gangster film, and writing dialogue that was knowing, funny and filled with pop-cultural trivia. His films were loud, fast and funny, propelled by scenes of visceral suspense - a syringe full of adrenalin plunged straight into the heart of a beautiful overdose victim in Pulp Fiction - and stomach-churning violence, such as the infamous ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs.
"I've never played by the rules," he says, "but I also don't break the rules just to break the rules. I'm a conscientious writer. I don't do things for cheesy effect. I've got to be able to back it up. And, I think I can."
Back then, Tarantino made for great company. He was - and remains - a total film geek, name-dropping obscure titles and directors, effortlessly showing off his encyclopaedic knowledge of high and low film culture, while making it clear he did not accept the critically imposed boundaries that distinguished one from the other. (He has, he tells me at one point, outgrown Godard and discovered Joseph L Mankiewicz, who wrote the screen version of Guys and Dolls, produced The Philadelphia Story, and won two consecutive Oscars for both screenplay and direction, for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. "He could have held the script for All About Eve up against every play ever written for the American stage and said, 'Suck my dick!' It's that good.") He has also, surprisingly, given up acting. "I just lost the bug. Kill Bill was so hard to make, I just thought, if I'm going to get up early and be on set all day, it's going to be my movie. I just don't have the patience to be on somebody else's dumb movie."
I remember thinking, even as I marvelled at Pulp Fiction's incandescent emptiness, that Tarantino was a breath of fresh air, a slap in the face of cinematic convention. His third film, Jackie Brown, just about kept up the creative momentum that had propelled him on to the Hollywood A-list. Then came that six-year silence - an eternity in Hollywood terms. His absence - broken only by acting roles in the Adam Sandler film Little Nicky and a couple of guest appearances on the TV assassin show Alias - was attended by rumours in Hollywood that Tarantino had the fear, was suffering from a protracted bout of writer's block, and could not handle the tidal wave that was contemporary celebrity. Some of those rumours appear to have been true. Nothing Tarantino has done since, with the possible exception of Kill Bill Vol 1, has come close to the stylistic brilliance of those first three films. And, as Inglourious Basterds illustrates, what once was fast, furious and surprising has become slow, laborious and oddly formulaic.
When I ask Tarantino if his life had spiralled out of his control at that time, he pauses. "Well, there was a point just after I made Jackie Brown when it was difficult. It got to the point that when I walked down the street I couldn't look anybody in the eye. That still exists to some degree today, but back then it was as if everybody on the street was like a homeless person. It's like, if you look them in the eye, you're inviting them to come over. That's how it was back then. Every day. Everywhere." In Tokyo, he says, he couldn't go out of his hotel. In Beijing, film students mobbed him on the street. "In fucking China!" he says, shaking his head and emitting a kind of desperate chuckle. "I mean, my films don't even get released in China. It really started to feel like there was no escape."
At the height of his fame, unable to handle its voraciousness, he even called up Robert De Niro for advice. De Niro advised him to go out in disguise. "That might work for Bobby," Tarantino says ruefully, "but it doesn't work for me. I put on a hat and a pair of glasses and I look like Quentin Tarantino wearing a hat and a pair of glasses."
If you go on to YouTube and type in "Tarantino", you will get a glimpse of what he had to face from the paparazzi at that time. It is called celebrity stalking. It is not pleasant to watch. You wonder why there isn't a law against it. On YouTube there is also footage of Tarantino losing it a few times. In one jerky segment, he tackles a guy who trains a camera on him as he exits a coffee bar, and then just about holds it together as his tormentor tries to goad him into violence. Another clip shows him totally losing his cool on the red carpet at a film premiere and spitting at a reporter. His then-squeeze, the actor Mira Sorvino, looks bemused. Tarantino looks insane.
"I had to withdraw for a while," he says. "I needed a rest from films and my life was slightly out of control. I remember sitting down and thinking that I was about 30% too famous. I needed to be able to walk down the street."
Given that there are a gaggle of fans standing vigilantly outside this very hotel as we speak, and that his appearance at the following evening's premiere elicits the kind of hysteria usually caused by the male star of his new movie, it would seem that Tarantino's fame, despite his absence and his uneven track record of late, is still of the voracious kind. And, more worryingly, as his relentless promotional schedule suggests, he seems to have both a need for it and an aversion to it. The big question is, where does he go from here?
"For me," he says, suddenly quiet and focused, "it's all about the filmography. That's what you live and die by. The problem with most directors is that they don't get out when it's time to get out. I don't want to do those old man movies."
When I ask him, in conclusion, what he is working on right now, he laughs and says: "I never know what I'm going to do next, but I can tell you one thing, I don't intend to be away for a long time any more, especially when I'm thinking that I want to stop making movies when I reach 60. But I'm not ever going to make a film a year either, like Woody Allen does. And I'm not going to adapt anything ever again. I like the idea that it's all by me, that it starts with me and a blank piece of paper, and it ends with me and a movie. It didn't exist before me and it's all created by me, and it's all completely a product of my imagination."
Then, for the first time today, he seems uncertain. "I'm starting to feel slightly trepidatious about how I'm coming over here," he says, finally, "but I'm not talking about ego, I'm talking about integrity. What I do is not easy; it's hard to do. You start from scratch every single solitary time. Everything you've done before means nothing."
Only time will tell if Quentin Tarantino will surprise us with his undoubted brilliance once again, if he can ever mean as much as he once did. Or, more pertinently, if he can mature into the truly great director he once seemed certain to become. I, for one, hope so. For all his excesses, he remains a true maverick... and the most informed, obsessive and entertaining motormouth on the block.