QT&A: Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained: ‘I Cut Their Heads Off. They Grew Another Head, But They Were a Little Traumatized’

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With Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s gone back-to-back on the “messy, brilliant revenge-fantasies where the operative word is ‘fantasy’” projects. Both times out, Tarantino has explained, he was reacting to a monolith of dusty historical-fiction flicks presenting only the victimization of the oppressed peoples in question. But instead of plucking anything from any number of well-documented tales of defiance and revolt, QT went ahead and made up his revenge whole-cloth. The results are way more entertaining, and way trickier to parse.

In 2010, The Jewish Journal tagged along as Tarantino screened Basterds for a room full of Holocaust survivors. And while the rabbi moderating the event was pleased as punch, the rest of the audience couldn’t quite get over the irreverence. “What does this do to the victims of the Holocaust?,” The Jewish Journal wrote, asking the Big Question. “Does this deny their suffering? Does this indeed substitute a myth of power for a reality of suffering?” And I heard what they said, and I couldn’t be bothered to engage. Because never mind the rest of the movie: Seeing Jews ice out Nazis was a singular delight, and the only complaint we had walking out of the theater was that there wasn’t even more of that kind of soul-soothing brutality. To think that one movie could undo a half-century of grim reportage was preposterous. Let’s just enjoy this one small touch of spirit-stirring anti-history and move on.

And then a couple of years later — halfway through Django, actually — a little scrap of moral quibble with Basterds did pop into my head.

A while back my parents took a trip that all Jews, I assume, at least ponder at some point or another: They went to Eastern European and they drove from concentration camp site to concentration camp site. And when they got back it wasn’t the horror that left my dad numb. It was the lack of infrastructure. He just couldn’t get over that, in some camps, on some levels, the mass killings wouldn’t have worked without compliance.

It wasn’t a novel thought. Back in 1993, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote, “The unique feature of the extermination camps is not that the Germans exterminated millions of people — that this is possible has been accepted in our picture of man, though not for centuries has it happened on that scale, and perhaps never with such callousness. What was new, unique, terrifying, was that millions, like lemmings, marched themselves to their own death. That is what is incredible; this we must come to understand.”

And it wasn’t a newly rejected thought, either. In Reading the Holocaust, the historian Inga Clendinnen calls Bettelheim “perhaps only the most famously fatuous of the many who take this cruel and silly question seriously.” And then she goes on, for a bit, to take it seriously. As she should, as (just the definition of the word Sonderkommando would suggest) it’s an intensely complicated question. As Clendinnen writes: “At Treblinka, a camp whose only function was the production of death, the work was done by a thousand Jews of various nationalities under the direction of eighty Ukrainian guards and forty SS, of whom only twenty were on duty at any one time.”

It’s clear why Tarantino’s second revenge fantasy would make me recall his first. But this time I was feeling something else. This time, the Big Question: Is Tarantino substituting a myth of power for a conversation about shame?

Tarantino rejects the suggestion, for a couple of reasons. First: Shame, and survivor’s guilt, and whatever else you wanna toss in there, is of course a complicated, multilayered psychological condition, but it’s one — as Quentin makes clear in the interview below — that he believes the historical records do not support.

And second — which he didn’t make as explicit, but which I think he was getting at — is he’s not here to replace or substitute anything. If someone wants to make a movie exploring the discussion around shame, or a movie documenting the motivations of any number of tragically doomed uprisings, go right ahead. “A historical real-life slave revolt [movie] would be fine!,” Tarantino told me. “Someone wants to make that movie, I’d be happy to see it. [But] I don’t see that many other people trying to tell slave narratives.”

I think Quentin’s being sincere here. I think what he’s saying is that how it works is, first, he burns down a whole history of staid, respectful, and emotionally dead movies. He blows this shit the fuck up. And then everyone else can make their own little path through the ashes. Our conversation from last weekend follows.

You’re making revenge fantasies. So what do you make of the flip side — the idea some Holocaust scholars discuss, of victims feeling shame for allowing what happened to happen to them?

Well, you know, that kind of shame that you’re talking about oftentimes makes a lot of sense when you’re watching some of these movies that deal with these subjects. It gets you so mad: “Why doesn’t this happen, why doesn’t that happen … ” But the reality, especially in terms of these two issues, doesn’t bear that out. I mean, to me the best scene in Schindler’s List is when they first come to the concentration camp and the female engineer, the Jewish female engineer, is saying, “Look, you’re building this place all wrong, the sewage is gonna go in the drinking water, this idiot doesn’t understand, da da da da da — BOOM, they shoot her in the head. And the guy says, “Do what she said, she was right.” Their whole thing is woah woah woah — anybody that’s gonna do that, that’s a leader, and leaders need to be killed. And you know, slavery wasn’t any different. That’s why we have to have that scene where Django is almost castrated. Cause that was the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. Either they cut something off, or they cut his tongue out, or they cut his balls off. You could go only so far. There was a reason why slaves didn’t punch out the overseers and take the whips and whip them to death. ‘Cause that was it for them.

Say there is a viewer dealing with that idea of shame, though. How do you think Basterds or Django helps them work through that?

The reason why it became a drag watching the plethora of Holocaust TV movies that happened again and again and again was it always kind of seemed like the same story. It was always so frustrating and so soul-killing, all of the victimization, and frankly that’s kind of how you felt about most of the movies that dealt with slavery. Not that there’s that many of them. But the TV movies that deal with slavery were history with a capital H. What I wanted to do was flip the script on that, and not show a historical, real-life slave revolt, another history with a capital H … which would be fine! Someone wants to make that movie, I’d be happy to see it. But I wanted to tell an exciting adventure story that could take a 21st-century modern viewer and stick them in America at that time — Mississippi in the antebellum South — and then create a great thrilling Western adventure, where this character can actually go on a romantic quest, and save his princess who’s in exile in the the kingdom of the evil tyrant, and have the catharsis of painting the walls with their blood.

Are you thinking about how black audiences vs. white audiences vs. international audiences might react to the movie?

Yeah, I kind of am, actually. I’m curious to see it happen. But right now I have a pretty good idea about black audiences and white audiences as far as America is concerned. One place I think we’ve actually gotten to in this country is, Django’s triumph is all of our triumph. I can’t imagine in most places in America audiences will watch this movie and identify with the white people. So I’m expecting white and black audiences — in a slightly different pitch, a different key — cheering wildly at the end.

You sat down with Sidney Poitier before production, to make sure the movie didn’t offend —

No, that’s not what I talked to him about at all. I didn’t hand my script to any black folks and ask for a passing grade.

Oh, I’m sorry. I guess that’s how it was portrayed in —

[Laughs] Yeah, no no no — it was one thing in particular. I had a little trepidation of actually directing the big crowd scenes with slaves in bondage. I was thinking about different ways that I could do it, that maybe would be less painful for me. And Sidney basically said to man up and not be afraid of my own movie.

Have you gotten any particularly extreme reactions, one way or the other, from people who have seen the movie so far?

There really hasn’t been any lashing out so far. Frankly, I expected the reaction to be a little more divided, and it actually seems like it’s firing on all cylinders. Having said that, it’s a rough movie and it can be too rough for some, no doubt about it. And I have noticed that in particular, older black women have had more of a problem with the movie. They get too traumatized to go to some of the other emotions that I’m trying to set them off on. I’ve had a few older black women come to me and say, “That movie was too disturbing, being put in that world, that time period, was too disturbing.” Once that happened they couldn’t move from there.

There’s a lot of brutality in this movie, but the truth is you could have gone even further, and you would have been justified in doing so by the historical record. So how did you figure out where to draw the line?

It had to be modulated, and it was something that was done through editing. There’s a painful section in the movie: It’s almost like, Django and Schultz going to the gates of hell. When they enter Greenville and pretty much until they get to Candyland, those are the three rings of hell they have to pass through. Initially the sequence with the mandingo fight was even stronger than it is now, and the scene with the dogs was even tougher. There’s a bunch of different emotions that I’m trying in this movie: comedy, action, suspense, and ultimately a big triumph. And when I watched it with an audience I realized that I had traumatized them too much to go where I needed them to go. It’s like I cut their heads off. They grew another head, but they were still a little too traumatized to cheer with the vigor and gusto that I wanted them to. I had to modulate the sequences back.

It feels like there’s one clear point where the movie could have ended early. But you kept it going in order to make sure that SPOILER ALERT Django achieves his victory entirely on his own. How important is that to what you’re trying to do, to have Django win without the help of Schultz?

Oh, that has to happen, or frankly the movie would be a fraud. Django needs to be the hero, and Christoph’s character Dr. Schultz is his mentor. There was some talk when the script got out — “Oh, white savior, he’s the ones setting up Django.” Well, no no no — it’s a standard Western motif, that the old, experienced gunfighter takes the young-pup gunfighter and teaches him how to kill, teaches him the way, teaches him his bona fides, and sends him on his quest. Whether it be Brian Keith teaching Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith or, frankly, Lee Van Cleef in most of his spaghetti Westerns.

In the first part of the movie, Django actually is Schultz’s sidekick, no two, three, four ways about it. But the movie is about how Django becomes a hero. Frankly, if their plan had gone off without a hitch, then Schultz would have been the star of the movie. What we’ve done is we’ve set up a situation where Schultz’s plans always work. And this one doesn’t. And now it’s truly Django who has to go save himself and save [his wife] Broomhilda.

There’s a sense that no other director would have the inclination or the chutzpah to make this movie. And I think that’s true, and I think that’s great, because through the irreverence, you’re offering people a different way to engage with this almost unbearable history.

Frankly, that’s one of those things that’s not for me to say. But I don’t see that many other people trying to tell slave narratives. Even the fact that I wanted to do it, actually, makes it kind of unique right now. But you know, while other people could have done their own version of it, I think this version is so distinctly me [laughs]. No one else would have baked the cake quite this way.

Do you ever get people coming up to you asking for a revenge fantasy for their own histories?

[Laughs.] Um, no, that itself hasn’t happened, but everyone is actually saying — “OK, there’s gonna be three of these, right?”

Filed Under: Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino

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Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad