Quentin Tarantino had wanted to work with Brad Pitt – and vice versa – for years. In the end, it all came down to lucky timing and a pact sealed over a somewhat boozy dinner.
Tarantino was close to finally finishing work on the script for Inglourious Basterds – a project that had been with him, in one form or another for almost ten years. One character, Lt Aldo Raine, was absolutely perfect for Pitt. Tarantino knew it. He just didn’t know whether ‘the biggest star on the planet’ would be available to accept the role at such short notice.
So Tarantino hit the phone with fingers crossed. “Brad and I had met each other very briefly a couple of times and he let it be known – or we let it be known to each other – that we were fans of each other,” recalls the director. “And we were very interested in working together.
“And I’m lucky that his agent is a personal friend of mine. And I rang him up about something else, another project, a while ago and he said, ‘Well, you know what, he won’t be able to do that. And I can’t put you guys together right now because you’re going to fall in love and I don’t want the love affair to happen until it can happen and you’ll just frustrate each other.’ And so I said, ‘Oh, all right.’
“But the thing about it is that for me, it isn’t the actor first; it’s the character first. And that’s the whole situation of when the character is right for the actor, whether that actor is the star or just someone minor, that’s when the collaboration is going to be special.
“So, I was just waiting and I thought ‘we’ll see what happens…’ And then, in this case, the character came along and I thought it would be terrific if Brad could do it.
“And you know, I realised how ridiculously crazy, lucky I was because not only was I going to the most in-demand star on the planet – and I don’t think there’s any argument about that – but I was also saying to his agent, ‘I have to do it now because I don’t have time to wait for him. What’s the chance he will be available?’
“I had no idea if he was doing a movie or had two movies stacked up in advance. I had no idea if his wife was doing a movie, in which case he couldn’t do my movie because they kind of take it in turns and one stays with the kids while the other one is at work. And it turned out he was available. How lucky was that?”
Tarantino was then invited over to dinner at the Pitt household to discuss the final details of the project. They got along famously – and the dinner lasted late into the night.
“I sent the script off to him. He read it and he wanted to meet me. And so we met at his place and we had about five bottles of wine – Brad’s own rose, because he has a vineyard. It’s amazing. That was quite a night,” he laughs.
Pitt joined an ensemble international cast that includes filmmaker Eli Roth as one of Lt. Raine’s ‘basterds’ – a ruthless group of American soldiers sent to operate behind enemy lines to strike fear into the Nazis – Diane Kruger as glamorous German film star Bridget von Hammersmark who is also secretly spying for the Allies, Mike Myers as a British officer, Melanie Laurent as a beautiful young Jewish woman determined to avenge the murder of her family and Christoph Waltz as the urbane, charming and utterly evil SS officer Col. Hans Landa.
As always, there were a host of films that inspired his story but in the end, Inglourious Basterds is uniquely, unmistakably Tarantino – a World War Two western, a fairytale that dares to re-write history in a way that perhaps only this particular filmmaker would dare to do.
“The Dirty Dozen was a huge influence,” he says. “But I thought it might have been more of an influence than it turned out to be. It was the starting off point and then I kind of go off on my own way. When I first sat down to write the movie I thought I was going to write my Dirty Dozen – it didn’t work out that way but that’s what got me to sit down.”
Tarantino spent eight months filming at the famous Babelsberg Studios in Berlin and grew to love the city and in particular, his favourite haunts.
“I had my little apartment and my little route that I walked around, I had restaurants that I liked and bars that I liked, and I had friends that I got to meet,” he recalls. “Germany is mine now and I can visit for the rest of my life and I have friends there and places to go and you know, it’s mine now. That’s one of the great things about location shooting.”
One bar in particular became a favourite for the director and his cast and crew – the appropriately named ‘Tarantino’s Bar’ in the fashionable Mitte district. The bar is a tribute to all things Tarantino and the owner must have had the shock of his life when the man himself turned up unexpectedly for the very first time.
“It was pretty cool,” he smiles. “I’d heard about it a little bit, people had been telling me about it and they had been giving me match books from there. And it was so funny, I was like ‘we have to go down there…’
“So some of us had dinner and we went down to the bar and that place was cool, man, it was so cool. I mean, it looks like a bar I would have started myself in Germany or anywhere. It was so cool.
“The design of it was neat, it has my posters all over the place, they constantly played my movies on the big screen, they played my soundtracks on the sound system and then I walked in.
“The owner just loves my movies and he started that bar about three years ago never knowing if I would ever walk through the door and low and behold I did. And he was real cool, too, he walked over to me and he goes ‘welcome to your place..’ and we had many parties there, we had many drinks there, it was a blast.”
Whilst his cast will tell you that Tarantino on set is a demanding and precise director who knows exactly what he wants, off set the man clearly does his best to make sure that his cast and crew bond as a unit. That, in turn, feeds into the sense of camaraderie on set and means that they are all pulling together to make the best possible film.
Once a week, Tarantino would take over the cinema at Babelsberg to host his very own ‘film nights’ where he would screen movies from his own private collection, complete with hotdogs and popcorn.
“It was really cool because the German production manager was very excited that we were doing stuff like this, so we’d have popcorn. And in Germany you have the salty popcorn and the sweet popcorn and we got beers, lots of Becks and then they started getting a hot dog truck. We’d do that most Thursday nights. It’s fun, man. It’s the movies.”
Cinema plays a huge part in the story of Inglourious Basterds. Shosanna, played by Laurent, survives the murderous attack on her family and ends up running a picture house in Paris, which will host the premier of a Nazi propaganda film. And that venue becomes the centre of a plot by two different groups – Shosanna herself and the Basterds – to assassinate the highest-ranking Nazis who will attend the event.
“What’s interesting to me about that is on the one hand it’s a very juicy metaphor and on the other hand it’s not a metaphor at all, it’s literal,” says Tarantino. “It’s the film itself that is going to bring down the Third Reich. So I love the duality of the fact that it works as a great metaphor but also I love the fact that it’s an actuality, not just a poetic conceit – it’s film itself that is bringing them down.”
Tarantino announced his arrival on the film scene with a spectacular flourish – his dynamic debut, Reservoir Dogs, was initially screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992 and went on to win critical, and public, acclaim all over the world.
Two years later he won the coveted Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with Pulp Fiction, which also earned him the Best Screenplay Oscar, along with co-writer Roger Avary.
His other director’s credits include Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and the Death Proof section of Grindhouse. As a writer, Tarantino’s work includes all of the aforementioned and others including True Romance, Natural Born Killers and From Dusk Till Dawn.
Melanie Laurent as Shosanna has a key part in your film. How did you find her?
Frankly she reminded of Shosanna and Shosanna has been a character that I’ve really cared about for a long time, I’ve had her in my mind for a long time so I was very precious about who played her, it had to be the right fit. When I met with Melanie, Daniel (Bruhl) had already been cast so we auditioned them together and it was like old movie star magic time. I was like ‘God, if this was like a movie in the Forties, Daniel and Melanie would be the ones to play these characters..’ It had almost like a cool old Hollywood glamour about them playing it. Melanie and I went out and had dinner and I realised that it would be a wonderful collaboration between the two of us.
There’s a bar in Berlin called Tarantino’s in your honour and apparently you went there after filming a couple of nights. What was that like?
Well, it was pretty cool. I’d heard about it a little bit, people had been telling me about it and they had been giving me match books from there. And it was so funny; I was like ‘we have to go down there..’ So some of us had dinner and we went down to the bar and that place was cool, man, it was so cool. I mean, it looks like a bar I would have started in Germany or anywhere. It was so cool. The design of it was neat, it has my posters all over the place, they constantly played my movies on the big screen, they played my soundtracks on the sound system and then I walked in. The owner just loves my movies and he started that bar about three years ago never knowing if I would ever walk through the door and low and behold I did. And he was real cool, too, he walked over to me and he goes ‘welcome to your place..’ and we had many parties there, we had many drinks there, it was a blast and really cool.
People now refer to a ‘Tarantino style of directing..’ What do you think about that and how would you describe your style?
Well, I’ve heard the term ‘Tarantino-esque’ thrown around. I don’t know if that’s for me to say exactly what Tarantino-esque is, I think that’s more for people to tell me. I think that’s kind of a hard question because if you are doing what you are doing you are not really that conscious of how it is you do what you do – you just do it.
But what would you say is a reoccurring hallmark of your films?
One of the things is there is a sense of humour in all of my movies that I’m trying to bring out. One of the things that I am trying to do is I’m trying to get you to laugh at things that aren’t funny. When I write my movies I hear laughs. And I’m not saying that I write it as comedy, but there are laughs there. You know, when I’m making the movie I’m imagining laughs, when I’m editing it, I’m editing it knowing that there are going to be laughs there that are going to fill in things. So there is an aspect of when I see the movie with an audience for the first time that’s the completion of it. It’s like a recipe that needs the last ingredient to make the cake rise. And to me that doesn’t happen until I watch it with an audience, that’s the pay off, and to hear their laughs and know that I got that. And only then do I feel the movie is finished. But part of the method of that madness is the idea of getting you to laugh at things that you wouldn’t normally laugh at. You might even be asking the question ‘why am I laughing?’ But you are laughing anyway, so too bad! (laughs).
What was your image of Germany before you made this movie and how did it change when you went there to work on Inglorious Basterds?
Well, you know it’s going to change drastically after you work for eight months in a place and you have lived there. I had my little apartment and my little route that I walked around, I had restaurants that I liked and bars that I liked, and I had friends that I got to meet. Germany is mine now and I can visit for the rest of my life and I have friends there and places to go and you know, it’s mine now. That’s one of the great things about location shooting. The thing that was a surprise, that I hadn’t thought about before, that was a revelation, was the whole – and I have to talk unspecific ally about it – was the whole bringing down of the Third Reich in the way that I do. You know, give that to Jewish American friends of mine and they read it and go ‘yeah, wow! Great! That’s a wonderful fantasy and I’ve thought about that forever..’ Well, it wasn’t until that I started talking to the Germans about it that I realised that it was their fantasy too. For the last three generations at least, they have all had that fantasy and naturally once you think about it, of course. But they responded to that fantasy aspect and that wish fulfilment fantasy aspect as much as anybody if not more so. And one of the things that they said to me that was a big deal was that they loved the script, but they said ‘I don’t know if we can do this in Germany, you are allowed to do it but I don’t know if we can..’ It would even occur to a German to do it and if it did it would be like ‘OK, you had better be God damn careful…’
Cinema is a big metaphor in the movie…
What’s interesting to me about that is that on the one hand it’s a very juicy metaphor and on the other hand it’s not a metaphor at all, it’s literal. It’s the film itself that is going to bring down the Third Reich. So I love the duality of the fact that it works as a great metaphor but also I love the fact that it’s an actuality, not just a poetic conceit – it’s film itself that brings it down. At one point I had Shosanna herself start the fire (in the cinema) and then it was ‘all right, what should she start the fire with? Should she start the fire with a reel of Jud Suss, Goebbels own creation bringing down the Nazis? Or should she start the fire with the first reel of Grand Illusion so then it’s like Papa Jean (Renoir) is raining down on The Third Reich…
Inglourious Basterds was the US title of a film made by Italian director Enzo Castellari. Apart from the title, does he have any influence on your film?
You know, pretty much, apart from the title, no. The only thing I guess you could say is that like (Sam) Peckinpah, Castellari is a master of slow motion. He has really great slow motion sequences in his films which are really cool and I break out a couple of those slow motion sequences in my film. Other than that, it was just the title. But I’m a huge fan of Castellari’s work.
You had no formal training as a filmmaker. Is it possible to learn about cinema and directing just from watching movies?
You know, it’s funny, to me most cinema schools don’t teach you that much aesthetically – you need to come to it with your own aesthetic. And actually part of becoming an artist is discovering your aesthetic. They might teach how to synch soundtrack with pictures, or they might teach you a few different editing tricks or ‘oh you can do this with a camera…’ and they will show you some movies. But part of becoming an artist is discovering your aesthetic – you start off going ‘I like this but I don’t like this…’ But then you start realising the difference between good work and bad work, not just ‘I like this but I don’t like this…’ And then you start to fine-tune your aesthetic. And then it’s just putting it into practice. I can say that the person who influenced me the most especially when it comes to my storytelling in filmmaking – not about technical levels – was the critic Pauline Kael. I didn’t go to film school but I read her reviews and her reviews were better than any film school and better than any professor. She taught me an aesthetic and I appreciated her aesthetic. I’m not saying I agreed with her every time, you know, I disagreed with many of her reviews. But it affected me to this day. And as far as actual filmmaking is concerned in particular, it took me a while to realise – not when I was doing it but before I became a filmmaker – that you don’t need to know everything. I don’t need to know how to take a bunch of light stands and arrange them in a way that creates a certain lighting effect. I have people who do that for me. That’s a good example because I didn’t know that. Like ‘how do I create this lighting?’ Well, the answer is you don’t create that lighting.
So you learn how to delegate and pick the right people to collaborate with?
Yes. In fact, I’ll tell you where I came up with this. Before I did Reservoir Dogs I was at the Sundance Institute and I did a few scenes with one of my resource directors, Terry Gilliam. And so I’m having a nice conversation with him and I had these wonderful images in my head but I was just scared that the day I started shooting there would be no sense of style, there would be no look and it would just be drab and I’ve seen those kinds of movies before. It was ‘how do I get the vision that was in my head on to the screen?’ And so I said to Terry ‘you have a very visual signature, how do you get that on screen?’ And he said ‘well, the deal is Quentin, you don’t have to do this and you don’t have to do that, there are people that you hire to do that for you. What you do is hire great people whose work you admire and then you simply articulate to them what it is you want. You have to be able to tell them what you want and articulate to them in a way that they understand and then they do it.’ And the minute he said that a lot of the mystery went away. It was like ‘well I know what I want, I know I can talk about it, I know I can explain it to you, that’s all I can do..’ And it was like ‘well, that’s all you need..’ (laughs)
You always write very strong female characters. Why is that? Is it something to do with the fact that your mother was a very big influence in your life?
I’m sure that’s definitely one of the reasons. When a single mother raises you and she is a strong woman, then that’s how you think about women – strong women. And from the way my Mom raised me and her being a success I’ve never felt that there was anything that a woman couldn’t do – a woman was only limited by her own inhibitions not the world’s inadequacies. Nothing limited my Mom so I tend to be attracted to and think of women as strong women. So as a writer that’s what you end up writing when you write women.
Was The Dirty Dozen an influence on you when you wrote Inglorious Basterds?
I adore the movie, I love the movie. It was a huge influence. And I thought it might have been more of an influence than it turned out to be. It was the starting off point and then I kind of go off on my own way. When I first sat down to the write the movie I thought I was going to write my Dirty Dozen – it didn’t work out that way but that’s what got me to sit down.