Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Interview with Tarantino (January 2016)

Renowned for making films with excessive violence and hyperbolic gore, and a motor-mouthed fondness for having unexpected actors spout the N-word, Quentin Tarantino has for many years suffered under the misconception that he’s little more than a cineliterate provocateur.

Look deeper, however, and listen carefully to how his characters portray themselves, and the director’s actual preoccupations become much clearer.

In New Zealand for the first time ever, promoting his eighth film (of a promised ten) with Kiwi stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoe Bell (who began her tenure as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill and is now a Tarantino actress in her own right), the legendary director of Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained offered revealing insights into how he creates his dramatis personae – and where their often perceptive verbal observations come from.

“I never try to judge them,” Tarantino says of his villains, mindful that he has created some of the most memorable bad-asses in recent cinema. Of Hans Landa (the Jew Hunter in Inglourious Basterds, played by Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz), he explains “I always looked at him with an even eye – he had his reasons… it’s not my job to judge him, it’s my job to present him”.

It’s an important rule of thumb for a writer, and one that probably speaks to why audiences have an abiding affection for Tarantino’s various gangsters, bounty hunters and assassins – despite the heroin-shooting, scalp-taking and point-blank killing, they draw us in with pop-cultural references and revealing vulnerabilities about whether it’s appropriate to dance with the boss’s wife.

Tarantino follows a similar bent with the eight miscreants who appear in his latest chamber piece, The Hateful Eight. A tale of merciless lawmen and hopeless reprobates, if any wholly good characters enter the frame, they are disposed of pretty quickly.

What surprised him, however, when he was writing The Hateful Eight, was how organically his principal characters (two of the film’s strongest performances, played by Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins) traversed into territory the writer had not anticipated.

“I have always hated the idea of the Confederacy; I’ve always felt it was the American version of the Nazi Party, and I’ve always felt that the rebel flag was our swastika.” With his own entrenched view, what surprised the filmmaker was when writing his white supremacist Sheriff’s dialogue “he actually pulled out a rather sober defence, for his dad and why they did what they did. And that is not what I, Quentin, feel – but it’s what he feels… and [once the characters had finished talking] nothing made me happier than writing that piece, because that meant I’d really gotten inside of his tissue”.

Tarantino likens the resulting dialogue between the black army major and the white lawman to an MSNBC/Fox News political debate where, as he describes it, the Red-state, Blue-state aspect of the western (“the line that America seems to be drawn on, and nobody will cross”) presented itself unconsciously. Indeed, these characters then go on to riff not about cheeseburgers in Belgium or the meaning of pop songs, but about White America’s attitude towards Blacks – and of course, what makes the social commentary interesting is that their musings apply equally today as they did in frontier Wyoming just after the Civil War.

There’s a parallel between the writer-director’s evident respect and fairness towards his characters and how he creates his movies. With the same crew members turning up on set for each new adventure, his regular collaborations with actors Jackson, Roth and Thurman speak to a filmmaker for whom a family atmosphere is part of the process.

Bell, reuniting with Tarantino for the sixth time, concurs: “It feels like home for me when I walk onto a Quentin set, for the fact I know so many faces, the mood and how a Quentin set feels… [it’s like] family.” In recent years, the director has written acting parts for Bell, and goes so far in Eight as to have her Six-Horse Judy speak in her native Kiwi accent and discuss her hometown of Auckland with a surly Michael Madsen. Tarantino’s warmth for Bell is evident when he describes how even when he didn’t have an acting part for her, Bell turned up to the set of Basterds to perform as stunt double for two of the leading ladies. It’s clear they work comfortably and naturally together, with a mutual appreciation of one another’s talents.

Could the Bell-connection lead Tarantino to making a movie here in Aotearoa? He praises New Zealand cinema (our actual films, not LOTR), noting Roger Donaldson as one of our finest directors and describing Utu as “a magnificent film”. But rather than simply exploiting our world-class scenery or relatively cheap production to create something generic, he would love to work here with an appropriate story – not necessarily a New Zealand story “although frankly, that’d be the reason to do it” – but he says that with our landscapes, our crews and our actors: “If I just had the right story, I’d be here in a second.”

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