Born in Knoxville, Tenn. on March 27, 1963, to an Italian father and a mother of Irish and Cherokee extraction, Quentin Jerome Tarantino took a most unorthodox approach to showbiz. He dropped out of high school at 15 to pursue moviemaking but it would take some time to realize that dream.
The closest he got to Hollywood for years was a minimum-wage gig as a clerk at a video rental store in L.A. where he became known for making recommendations to appreciative customers.
He finally began his meteoric rise in 1992 with the release of "Reservoir Dogs," following up that impressive directorial debut a couple of years later with "Pulp Fiction," the seven-time Academy Award-nominee for which he won an Oscar in the Best Original Screenplay category.
Since then, his storybook career has included such critically-acclaimed films as "Jackie Brown," "Kill Bill" 1 & 2, and a couple of collaborations with Robert Rodriguez, "Sin City" and "Grindhouse."
Here, Quentin talks about his new film, "Inglourious Basterds," which is based upon a screenplay he started writing over a decade ago. The World War II action flick stars Brad Pitt as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army who leads a squad of Jewish soldiers on a mission behind enemy lines in France to go hunting for Nazis.
Kam Williams: Hi Quentin, thanks for the time. I really appreciate it.
Quentin Tarantino: Oh, it's my pleasure, I was psyched to do this especially after I read some of the comments you made after reading the script. It was a real phantasmagorical collection of references.
KW: That was an interesting experience. This is my first time reading a script instead of seeing the movie before conducting an interview.
QT: Oh, that's cool.
KW: How does it feel to have finished "Inglourious Basterds," finally, given that you've been working on it for over a decade?
QT: It's a little surreal, to tell you the truth, after having the project in my mind for such a long time. I had scenes written for it but for years it was always just kind of out there. And at one point I even considered putting it aside, thinking maybe I'd grown out of it or moved past it. But then I realized that I'd invested too much into it, and that even if I never made the movie, I at least had to finish writing it just so I could get this mountain out of the way.
One thing that's different though is that opposed to thinking about it as this long-gestating piece that was written over years and years, the truth is I only came up with a lot of the characters and the first two chapters of the final script way back when. Otherwise, it has a whole different storyline. What kept preventing me from making the movie earlier was that it was just too big and too involved, almost like a mini-series. And just before I turned it into a mini-series, I decided to take one more crack at trying to make it as a movie.
That's when I came up with a new storyline about the premiere of a German propaganda film which I completed about a year ago in just seven months. As a matter of fact, on the cover page of your copy of the original script you can see that I literally put the pen down on July 2, 2008. So, the final draft was a weird combination of this long-gestating project and something I had never worked at with more intense momentum.
KW: Since Brad Pitt's character, Aldo, is from Tennessee and part-Cherokee, like yourself, I was wondering whether he was modeled on you?
QT: He's definitely modeled after me. I probably would've wanted to play the character, if I had finished writing the script way back when, in the Nineties. But now, I don't want to act at all.
KW: While reading the script, some of the films it reminded me of in different spots included "The Train," "Von Ryan's Express," "The Guns of Navarone," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Black Book," "Zabriskie Point," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Big Lebowski" and "Defiance."
QT: That's a neat collection, although I never saw "Defiance." I'd be interested in hearing how you connect the dots.
KW: "Defiance" is included because of the theme of Jews fighting back. Why did you decide to have this all-Jewish unit led by a gentile from the South?
QT: That's an interesting question. Basically, Aldo's this character I've had in my mind for a very, very long time. So, in a way he came before "The Basterds." Furthermore, it's kind of a two-way proposition, because Aldo had been fighting racism in the South before the war. And if he survives the war, he's going to continue fighting the Klan in the Fifties, with his own version of "The Basterds" in the Tennessee Hills. Also, the fact that he's part Native American is significant, because what he's doing against the Nazi's is similar to the Apache resistance, the ambushing of soldiers, desecrating their bodies and leaving them there for other Germans to find.
Aldo's idea is to find Jewish soldiers because he should be able to motivate them more easily because they are essentially warriors in a holy war against an enemy that's trying to wipe their race off the face of the Earth.
KW: You have a Black character named Marcel [played by Jacky Ido] who works as the projectionist in a movie theater. I'd have guessed that all the Blacks in occupied France had been carted off to concentration camps by the Nazis.
QT: No they weren't. The relationship between Black people and Nazi Germany was very interesting. Part of the reason is that there were so few Blacks in Europe that there wasn't a "Black Problem" per se, the way there was a "Jewish Problem." So, Black people weren't rounded up in Nazi occupied France. You'd have to keep a low profile, to be sure, but having said that, you'd still enjoy more freedoms there than on the streets of Chicago at the same time period. And far more freedoms than in a state like Alabama. For instance, you could walk into a restaurant in Paris and sit down and order something.
The odd irony in all this is that while there's no mistaking where Hitler was coming from as far as Blacks were concerned, after all, he made that very clear in "Mein Kampf," the average German soldier did not feel the same way about Black people. In fact, they were absolutely appalled whenever they witnessed the racism exhibited by White American soldiers towards their fellow Black soldiers. They couldn't fathom it, because they believed the hype about America being the land of the free and the home of the brave. It's equally unfathomable that we went to Europe to fight racial oppression with a segregated army. A wonderful paper could be written about all this, and maybe I'll do that one of these days.
KW: Do you make a cameo appearance in this film, like you have in a lot of your movies?
QT: Not really. I think you can hear my voice a little bit in one of the propaganda movies. [Chuckles]
KW: Why did you spell "Basterds" with an "E" in the title?
QT: I wasn't trying to be coy or anything, but it was just an artistic stroke.
KW: How did you feel when the picture was so well received at Cannes, where you got an 11-minute ovation?
QT: Yeah, we got the standing ovation of the Festival. That was really exciting and a lot of fun kind of dropping it on the world there. And I felt a sense of satisfaction because we had worked hard to get the picture finished in time for Cannes.
KW: Laz Lyles is curious about why you chose a lot of relatively unknown actors for this picture?
QT: Since I was casting country-appropriate, every actor had to be from the place they were representing, and they had to be able to speak the appropriate language as well. In other words, it wasn't enough that you could speak German, you had to be German. Oddly enough, in Germany, this is considered an all-star cast.
KW: Laz also asks, how did director Eli Roth get involved with the project as an actor?
QT: Eli's a really good friend of mine, and I've always known that he's a really fun performer on screen. Plus, he looks like his character, the Bear Jew, and he does an impeccable Boston accent.
KW: Nick Antoine says you're already one of the greatest directors of all time, so where do you go from here? What's the next mountain for you to climb?
QT: Oh, that's a really good question. I don't really know. Usually, when I finish making a movie, I have to pause to contemplate life a little, and then I see where to go. It's not like I'm shopping for scripts. I generally have to start from scratch every time. However, I could go with "Kill BiIl 3." Or I could do a prequel to this movie, because I have half of it written. It's actually a story about "The Basterds" with a bunch of Black troops. The truth is that I don't really know what's next, but I really like being in that square one position.
KW: How about making another homage to either martial arts or Blaxploitation flicks?
QT: Well, I gotta say that I do hear a bit of a calling to do another crime picture. Maybe one set in the Seventies. All these other people are doing it, and to me, they never get it right. Like "American Gangster." Were there any Black people at all involved making that movie?
KW: Nick also asks, what is your opinion of the direction the film industry seems to be headed?
QT: I don't want to sound like one of those guys who's always bemoaning the business today and thinking about how much better it was before. But as my movie gets ready to go out into the marketplace, I feel very lucky that I'm still a commercial director and that my movies still play mainstream and open in 3,000 theaters, because my movies always seem so different from everything else playing in the multiplexes. As long as there's a place for people like me and Michael Mann to exhibit our work, then I'm all for it.
KW: Finally, Nick asks, how would you say the Internet has influenced film?
QT: What the Internet has done is destroy film criticism. I would never have guessed 10 years ago that the profession of film criticism would be going the way of the dodo bird.
KW: Who's your favorite film critic? Let me guess: the late Pauline Kael.
QT: For sure. She's just about my favorite writer.
KW: And who's your favorite director, Howard Hawks?
QT: I love Howard Hawks, but I would probably go with Sergio Leone.
KW: Keith Kremer asks, if you met someone unfamiliar with your work who wanted to watch just one of your movies, which one would you suggest?
QT: That's an interesting question… Umm… I would probably cater to that person's personality. So, if they seemed like more of a "Kill Bill" person, I'd show them, "Kill Bill." If I wanted someone to get to know me though, I would have to start with "Reservoir Dogs."
KW: Bi-continental attorney Bernadette Beekman told me that she was in Cannes for the release of "Reservoir Dogs," and she was wondering, what was the best time you ever had at the festival?
QT: Well, I've had a lot of good times in Cannes, but when I won the Palme d'Or for "Pulp Fiction" would have to be the best.
KW: Director Hisani Dubose wanted to know what you shoot on now. She points out that you shot part of "Pulp Fiction" on High 8. She's curious about whether you're still using film or if you've gone to High Definition video
QT: I've never used High Definition video, never, ever, ever, ever, ever. And I never will. I can't stand that crap.
KW: Larry Greenberg says you started out at 15 and have been immersed in the industry, in one way or another, your whole life. He asks, do you think a person coming to the industry later in life still has a chance for success at acting or directing?
QT: It can be difficult to get into directing at a later age. However, look at Courtney Hunt, the woman who won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year for "Frozen River" [at the age of 43]. So, if you can raise the money on your own, you can direct a movie at any age. As far as acting is concerned, it's advisable to get started when you're younger, but there are plenty of actors who started their careers in their late thirties or early forties.
KW: Jackie Schatz asks, how do you think of Hitler?
QT: In a word, despicable!
KW: Marcia Evans asks, will you ever settle down and have a family?
QT: I've thought about that. Look, I went through baby fever, for sure, about five or six years ago, but I kind of got over it. Up until now, I've wanted my movies to be the most important thing in my life. I haven't wanted to let anything distract me from that. And I think I still feel the same way right now.
KW: Marcia may be a bit presumptuous here, but she says she knows you have a foot fetish. And she asks if there's another part of the anatomy that you have a fetish about?
QT: I appreciate the female foot, but I've never said that I have a foot fetish. But I am a lower track guy. I like legs… I like booties… [Laughs] Let's just say, I have a Black male sexuality.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
QT: No, there isn't one that's just been hanging out there, that I say to myself, why don't they ask this?
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
QT: [Hesitates] Very rarely would I use the word "afraid." I feel trepidation. I get nervous, particularly when I'm about to shoot a big cinematic sequence that absolutely has got to work or else why bother. Going into those scenes, I have trepidation, because it's mine to mess up.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
QT: Oh, I'm very happy.
KW: Teri Emerson would like to know, when was the last time you had a good laugh?
QT: Oh, I laugh all the time. I'm an easy laugher. You can find me on any set, because I'm always laughing.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
QT: I'm a cinemaphile, so I read a lot of cinema books. The last one I read was a biography abut the director Dorothy Arzner.
KW: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome?
QT: Poverty, to a great degree. I was very poor at the age of 16 and 17.
KW: Working in the video store.
QT: No, those were the good days. But even then, while working at the video store for five years, I was a high school dropout making minimum wage. And that's what I existed on for what seemed like forever. We would dream about one day getting a raise to the wonderful world of $8 an hour. So, to overcome that minimum-wage kid White underclass to actually be responsible for millions of dollars when it comes to making a movie was a very big deal.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
QT: If you want to be a filmmaker, you have to love it. If you love cinema as much as I do, and not many people do, and if you are focused and actually have something to offer, you will get somewhere with it. And when it comes to being a writer, just write. Writing is actually the easiest thing to get started at. But don't write what you think people want to read. Find your voice and write about what's in your heart.
KW: What's your favorite dish to cook?
QT: That's a good question, actually. I'd have to say barbecuing a steak. It's one dish I do really well, and it's very satisfying. I can make other things, but I don't like to cook just for myself. Barbecuing a steak is always good.
KW: Well, thanks again for the interview Quentin. Best of luck with "Inglourious Basterds" and I look forward to speaking with you again down the line.
QT: Hey, I look forward to it Kam. This was a really great conversation.