Quentin Tarantino’s latest flick, the World War II movie Inglourious Basterds, is almost upon us. Recently, the cast were in London for the premiere of the film, and cast members Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark) and Christoph Waltz (Colonel Hans ‘The Jew Hunter’ Landa) conducted a press conference with producer and long-time Tarantino collaborator Lawrence Bender.
The trio fielded questions from the assembled journos that ranged from the usual queries about the protracted production period, to the German actors’ individual takes on the WW2-set film. Bender and Kruger, both charismatic and broadly charming, were nonetheless slightly overshadowed by Cannes Best Actor Award-winner Waltz, whose dry, dark, yet modest, sensibility made him an interesting, unconventional press conference attendee. Read on for the full transcript, but be warned, there are a few (not major) spoilers ahead.Christoph, it has been said by Tarantino that the role of Hans Landa is the most important in the film, and there was some desperation that, if he couldn’t find a suitable actor, he’d cancel the project. What do you think made you right for the role?
CW: Well, every casting process ends with the part being cast. But, desperation? I don’t know. When Lawrence tells me, or Quentin tells me, I’m deeply honoured, but I didn’t feel any desperation. I found these very polite and civilised and accommodating gentlemen.
LB: Can I just say, because this guy is so humble, when we flew out to Berlin, our first day of casting, I think, went really well. Our first day, we cast Daniel Bruhl, we cast Til Schwiger, so I was like ‘wow, day one, we cast two great actors’, and I was really happy. But Quentin was kinda off… and in the morning, at whatever it was, 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, he called myself and the others down, and said, and he was really serious, he said ‘look, I might have written a role that can’t be cast, that can’t be played. I’m really worried, I’m seriously thinking that I might have to just publish the screenplay, and we should shut everything down’. Because, not only do we have to find a great actor, but we have to find a linguistic genius, just like the character in the movie.
I looked at him, and took a breath, and said ‘well, here’s what we’re going to do. If we spend one more week casting, which will cost us x amount of money’ – because at this point Quentin was cash-rolling the movie, because everything was happening at the same time, everything was happening so fast that for the first month and a half, Quentin had to cash-flow the movie, and then the deal all came together. So at that point, he was feeling like, okay, I’m spending my own money, I can pull the plug – I’m not spending the studio’s money. So, I said, look, here’s how much money you would spend if we wanted another, and what we’ll do, is we’ll just concentrate on just one role, one character. If at the end of the week we can’t find him, we’ll just pull up sticks and go home. And that kind of gave some breathing room. And literally, I’m not joking, it was hours later, Sunday, mid-morning, in walks this guy [indicates Christoph Waltz].
And, the audition started – most of the auditions, it was mainly Quentin reading with the actor, and sometimes he has me doing some of the smaller roles, so Christoph starts in French, and then in English, and then in German, and then in some Italian, and Quentin and I are looking at each other. Our jaws were down to our knees! And Quentin goes ‘thank you so much,’ and Christoph was like ‘thank you, Mister Tarantino, it was such a pleasure for me to read for you’, thank you to me, and he walks out, and Quentin and I just jumped up and were high-fiving! [laughs] I mean, seriously, you saved the movie. The truth is, I said, ‘Quentin, should we just give it to him now?’, and he goes ‘no, no, we gave ourselves a week, let’s spend the week’. And at the end of the week, there was no question, and we cast Christoph. And that was a monumental moment, I tell you, because we were this close to going home.
Diane, when you received the script, at what point did you realise that this was not what it first seemed to be, and it was a more fictitious approach to history?
DK: Oh, I think it’s pretty clear from the opening page, from ‘Once Upon a Time…’. I never expected to see a World War II movie done by Quentin Tarantino that was going to be a classic, sob movie. And, the truth is, being German, as you can possibly imagine, I get offered a World War II movie once a week, which I’ve never wanted to do, because I never wanted to be associated, just because I was German, with that part of my country’s history. And then this came along, and one of the very rare times where you read a script and go ‘oh my god, he actually wrote this for me!’, only it wasn’t true at all. He probably didn’t even know I existed at this point. But I really felt like I’d been born to play this part, and I knew it deep in my heart, that if I got the opportunity to meet with him – which took a long time and a lot of convincing – that, he couldn’t hire someone else. I made sure, I just really felt like I could bring something to this character.
In the course of a very short amount of screen-time, you are maimed in a shoot-out, tortured by Brad Pitt, and then throttled by a demented Christoph, so could you tell us about being put more through the physical mill than you have been before.
DK: Ah, just another day at work [laughs] Well, I loved it. It’s for once, you get a director that loves women for what they can do. All the parts, especially in America, that I’ve been getting, have been queens or this object that’s been put on a pedestal. And, Quentin loves women, they’re fierce, they’re a lot smarter than anyone else in the movie, quite frankly, and love treating the Basterds like they’re complete morons. And so, I didn’t find I was being tortured by Brad, I felt like I was taking it like a man, you know. And then the scene with Christoph, was completely terrifying, because he sits here and he looks all nice and sweet, but he has a terrifying look in his eyes at times, and it really threw me off. And a little known fact is, when I actually get strangled, it’s actually Quentin, so I guess he wanted to tell me something there! I asked him if I could tell this story, because I wasn’t sure if he wanted to, it just says a lot about who he is as a director, I think. [laughs]
LB: That he likes torture, or…? [laughs]
DK: No! He’s so into it, he’s just, he’s on set, and he lives every character. He is Landa, and he is Bridget von Hammersmark, and he is Shosanna.
CW: Well, he wrote them.
DK: Yes! More than other directors I’ve worked with, he’s right there, you know.
LB: That’s how it is when he’s writing, he’ll call you up. He never gives you pages of course, but he’ll ask if you want to hear some of the script, so you go over to his house, and it’s like Tarantino theatre, and you sit, and he’ll read you a scene or two or three, and he plays all the different parts. And it’s quite wonderful, because he is all the parts.
DK: Yeah, and when I auditioned he played Brad, with the accent and everything.
Christoph, often actors prefer to play villains by latching onto a small redeeming quality in the character. Is that true with your approach to Landa? How could you play such a hideous man?
CW: Well, it’s what you say, it’s not what I say – because I can’t play hideous, how do you play that? I leave my moral judgement in the cloakroom, and I look at it apart from my ethical preoccupations. If you’d asked Heinrich Himmler if he considered himself an evil person, I’m 100 percent certain that he would have not understood the question. Yes, coming from your point of view, I can understand what you’re saying. But, from my point of view, I see it differently.
Could you see anything in him that you could respect?
CW: Yes, of course. Apart from this very first thing, and apart from destroying beauty, there is not much that hints at any vicious, violent – he follows a different agenda, and that’s part of why this movie and this part is so great, that you’re being called upon to employ your moral faculties.
Lawrence, it’s very refreshing to see European actors acting in their own language. Was that something in the script from the start? Was it a cause of anxiety for the production? Were you ever tempted to just do it in English with accents?
LB: I can tell you 100 percent, there was never a thought of doing it in English with accents. If you think about Kill Bill, actually, the first scene we shot in Kill Bill was in Japanese. And it’s funny, he wrote it, and it’s not like he speaks German, but it’s something in the way that he understands his dialogue, and he can understand, if you’re speaking German, you’re speaking his dialogue, he will be able to direct you in that language. It was pretty extraordinary, because none of us could quite do it… But the thing about Quentin, one of his main attributes is authenticity, in terms of authenticity of the character. If you go all the way to Reservoir Dogs, there was a code amongst those guys, and they were 100 percent stuck to it. I think in all of his characters they have an authenticity, so the idea of a German speaking person speaking English just doesn’t make sense. Obviously, on top of that, you know, the language comes into play in the plot of the movie, so no, that was 100 percent how we thought of that from the beginning of the movie.
In Quentin’s earlier films, he often wrote parts for himself. Did he ever think about writing himself into Inglourious Basterds?
LB: He was never thinking about putting himself in this movie, as far as I know, anyway.
CW: But in a way he writes everything for himself.
How does Quentin compare as a director to other directors you’ve worked with?
CW: He doesn’t infringe upon your choice. He manages to actually direct in the true sense of the word. He directs you making the right choice. He creates this flow, and that’s why the casting was already part of the process. The reading, the actual opening the envelope to take out the script was already the initial point of departure for the flow, and that flow hasn’t stopped to this day. And he manages to keep that flow going, and all you need to do is trust. It sounds a bit cliché and even a bit esoteric. But it isn’t. It’s actually very hands-on. He clears away everything, you know. Michelangelo once said, sculpting is easy, everything that’s not the sculpture, you chip away from the block. And that’s in a way what Quentin does, and you end up finding yourself being part of the sculpture, without actually knowing how it happens. He directs, he leads, and you only have to follow, and that’s the beauty of the process.
DK: Well, I think one of the major differences is that I’ve never worked with a director who is basically a movie library. So he bombards you with movie references, and characters that he was inspired by, and then lets you make it his own. I must have seen 20 films that he wanted me to see. Women that he was inspired by. And then, you know, he loves to percolate. I actually would say that he was also the most precise director I’ve worked with, in terms of he’s very attached to his writing, especially in English. He makes sure you say every word. Which is new for me, a lot of directors let you go on and, you know, approximate what’s written.
His writing is a challenge, especially in English, because it’s very nuanced and very much between the lines. Every time you read it, you discover something else. And he doesn’t let you get away with anything. He’s a director that sits next to cameras, no monitor, there’s nobody on set that doesn’t need to be on set, there’s no video village, there’s no safety net. He sits and stares at you, which is very unsettling at first, to me anyway, and he sits over his little headsets. And sometimes we had to break scenes because he was laughing too loud, and he takes such joy from hearing and seeing his characters come to life, that if he sees that you’re there, and you’re going his way, and you’re that character that he wanted to create, he gives you wings, you can go so much further than you think you could.
One of the pleasures for Quentin in making the film, was filming at Babelsberg Studios [famous German film studios]. What was it like for you, as a German actor?
CW: Yeah, the history is interesting, and the history is present at Babelsberg. But not just this exotic and interesting, and somewhat decorative aspect of this era, but also that it was this 40 years of horrible East German propaganda, boring grey stuff that they did there. Some of the films that came out of there were fantastic, by all means, so there’s more history attached to this location than just that inglorious era. Apart from having the thrill of knowing where Goebbels’ office was – you know, what am I doing with that on the set? Nothing.
Lawrence, you’ve worked with Tarantino from the beginning, and this project has taken a long time to get going. Did you ever despair that it wouldn’t get made?
LB: I must say, when he called me on July 3rd, I actually had no idea he was going to be finished with the script. Over the years, he was writing it, and when I saw him on his birthday in Las Vegas, at 5 o’ clock in the morning after a couple of drinks, and we were all in this big suite, he was telling me that he was writing it, I was like, ‘great!’, just like all the other times. So, when he called me, this was one of the only times I’ve ever saved a message from anybody in my life, but it was like ‘hey Lawrence, it’s Quentin, I’ve finished a script and I want to send it to you’. It was thrilling, and I was quite surprised, and we took off very quickly after that.
Inglourious Basterds is released on August 21st. Our review is here.