Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino press conference report

As Inglourious Basterds finally arrives, we find out what its writer/director, Mr Quentin Tarantino, has to say about it...

Quentin Tarantino is a force unto himself. Whether you are a fan of his work or not, it is hard to deny that he has been a key figure, and recognisable personality, in the cinema landscape for the last 20 years. His latest film, Inglourious Basterds, trains his left field, stylish, post-modern sights on World War II. He was recently in London for the film’s premiere, and, when not being spotted browsing in HMV or gallavanting around Soho, he attended a press conference at the achingly posh Mayfair hotel Claridges.

Slightly at-odds with the grandeur of the French Salon venue, QT strolled in dressed in jeans and a casual shirt, saying excitedly, “Hi, everybody! Thanks for coming!” Settling down, Tarantino motor-mouthed his way through the long genesis period for Inglourious Basterds, his complex line of influences for the film, and his musical choices, as well as his approach to writing a crazy, history-defying war movie that, in his eyes, sticks on the conservative side of indulgence.

Self-deprecating, open, yet still fiercely confident, Tarantino is a veritable film encyclopedia, throwing out plenty of candidates for numerous prospective film marathons. Check out our transcript below, with questions slightly altered, in order to be less sycophantic – and, caution, there be spoilers ahead.

When you’ve had a project going on for 10 years, and have moved it from a novel to a miniseries to a film, what is the ‘eureka!’ moment, when you realise it’s got to be a movie, and it’s going to go, after such a stop-start process?

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That’s an really good question. One of the things about it was, when I decided to chuck the first storyline that I came up with, which was the one which was turning it into this miniseries idea, as opposed to a movie, and I came up with something that I thought would be more of a movie, which is basically the idea of the Frederick Zoller [Daniel Bruhl] film that becomes a premiere, which becomes about blowing the place up.

I was still nervous that I could still make it a movie, so one of the things that I did was, I knew I didn’t want it to be any longer than Pulp Fiction – and it isn’t longer than Pulp Fiction – and the only way I could do that was to make sure that the script wasn’t any longer. And that was something I had really gotten out of the habit of doing, starting from Jackie Brown through Kill Bill, I didn’t censor myself at all when it came to writing – ‘I’m not writing for the fuckin’ production manager! I’m a writer, my shit gets published!’ – you know, cut to Kill Bill Volume One and Two! [laughs]

You know, I wrote a big novel, now I have to adapt it every day to the screen. So what I did was, I just had the script of Pulp Fiction just right next to me, so as I was writing my story, I’d get maybe 20 pages done, then I’d look at the Pulp Fiction script, and I’d ask so, where was I at page 42? OK, I was at this place, alright, now where am I now? And how much more story do I have to tell?

It’s the closest I’ve ever come to policing my work – but it was simply just in an effort so the thing wouldn’t become elephantine. Especially since the fact that I knew I was trying to get done in time for Cannes, I knew I wouldn’t have all the time in the world, I really did not have the luxury to shoot a bunch of shit I wasn’t going to use – even though that happened anyway – but it wasn’t going to happen with impunity.

But literally, it wasn’t until I got into the third act that I realised that, OK, I think this is going to work. It wasn’t like I had another hour in front of me, no, I think I can actually wrap this up in a movie form.

How Machiavellian are you about your career? Do you manage or plan what you’re going to do next, based on your knowledge of other directors? Or do you just follow the stories you want to tell?

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That’s a very insightful question, actually. It really, truly is a kinda mix of the two – which I guess is probably what it should be. You know, whatever turns me on to write the film, write the story, is whatever turns me on to write the story.

I mean, I guess you could say if I was too Machiavellian about it, I wouldn’t have done Grindhouse with Robert. In that case, I just wanted to do it, it seemed like a fun thing to do. We didn’t know it would turn into this year-long thing, and become such a big fuckin’ deal, alright. It was supposed to be this cool little thing we did over the summer – so we kind of got derailed as far as that was concerned, even though I’m a real fan of the movie.

But the thing is, there is an ‘oh, I’m interested in the story, and it excites me, and I want to do it’, I am thinking about my career, and I am thinking about, well – fuck the word ‘career’! – I’m thinking about my filmography. That’s what I’m thinking about, that’s the better use, I believe that a filmmaker lives or dies by their filmography, and if you muck about too much, then you’ve just cheapened your entire artistic standing.

I admire directors that retire at a certain age, so they don’t just cheapen their filmographies with four limp-dick old man movies at the end of it. That was the kinda idea behind, you know, saying [Kill Bill ad slogan] ‘The Fourth Film by Quentin Tarantino’, you can say that was self-aggrandising – and maybe it is to some degree or another – and I’m not counting them that way any more, but it is very realistic to say.

You know, your first movie is your first movie, and there’s something very special about that, and your second movie is your second movie. And the fact that Kill Bill was my first movie in six years was a big fuckin’ deal!

So, I was thinking like that, and I probably will tend to think in terms like that, because I am a student of cinema and I see where directors have gone wrong – at least what I think – where they have gone off the track, or gone off the road – and there isn’t that excitement about their work that happened before, and, frankly, I don’t want that to happen to me.

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What were the films that, while you were making it, inspired Inglourious Basterds?

Yeah, there weren’t any really specific movies themselves that I drew inspiration from. It was more genres and sub-genres, or spirits of films that were inspiring to me.

What was interesting to me, though, was, what was inspiring to me at the beginning became quite passe, and what I took true inspiration from was something I wouldn’t have thought about – not stylistic inspiration, just inspiration. Like, for instance, when I first sat down, to write the film, I was thinking in terms of a bunch of guys on a mission genre, so the touchstones – all the films I talked about before I never even wrote the effin’ thing, Where Eagles Dare, Dirty Dozen, The Devil’s Brigade, Dark Of The Sun, movies like that, and I still love them, especially Dark Of The Sun, and that’s why Rod Taylor’s in the movie…

But! Having said that, what I found so inspirational while I was doing the movie was watching a lot of the movies made in the 40s. People disparagingly call them American Propaganda movies, and I don’t like that term, because I really like those movies – now, most of them are actually done by foreign directors, who are now living in Hollywood because they couldn’t live in their own countries, because the Nazis had occupied them. And in that case you’re talking about Jean Renoir with This Land Is Mine; you’re talking about Fritz Lang with Man Hunt and Hangman Also Die!; you’re talking about Jules Dassin with Nazi Agent and A Reunion In France; you’re talking about Douglas Sirk with Hitler’s Madman; and, one of my favourites, that I discovered, that I honestly hadn’t heard of before, is a Russian director working out of France by the name of Leonide Moguy, who did Action In Arabia and a movie called Paris After Dark about the French Underground – and, uh, also something interesting about these movies is almost all of them star George Sanders.

And the thing that was very interesting to me, was, these are movies made exactly at the time of World War II, when the Nazis weren’t this theoretical, evil boogieman from the past, but was actually a threat, this was actually going on on planet Earth. And not only that, these directors, many of them had personal experience with the Nazis, and I’m sure all of them, now living in exile – I mean, can you imagine a world where Jean Renoir can’t live in France? These directors actually, all of them, had people that they were concerned about back in their home countries.

Yet, these movies are entertaining – they can be thrilling, they’re exciting! Many of them have quite, quite amounts of humour in them. In particular, something like To Be Or Not To Be, by Ernst Lubitsch.

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So, the thing is, they’re so literate, the dialogue in these movies is just so fantastic – and, any movie starring George Sanders is going to have great dialogue, because he’s great. So, these were the movies that I got a tremendous amount of inspiration from – not that I did anything stylistically that was like them, I didn’t shoot it in black and white, I didn’t try to recreate them. I might be inspired by maybe their sense of set design, because that was kinda the way that I was going to go, was build sets. But, there’s nothing stylistically that you could link my movie with theirs, apart from hopefully entertainment value, but those were the ones that I found myself very inspired by.

Now, one other thing I would say in that regard, is, I’ve always been a big fan of German cinema of the 20s, but I ended up going overboard and falling – not overboard, but I fell truly in love with it – and I had the idea of doing a silent chapter, like a Pabst-style thing. Well, I got over that, I thought that was just too reflective, and I shouldn’t do something like that, but I had a fun enough time exploring the idea. [laughs]

That last line of the movie refers to Lt. Aldo Raine’s [Brad Pitt] masterpiece [carving swastikas into Nazis’ foreheads] – would you consider this film to be your masterpiece?

Well, I didn’t have that line until it came time to write that line. So, when I was writing that scene, that was the line that he said. So, yes, it was definitely the last line in the script – it was the last line that I wrote in the script. Not to be coy, it’s not for me to say – it’s not for the chicken to speak of his own soup. And, if I were to have that opinion, then that opinion would not be valid until at least three years from now, when I look back on it. But, I do believe that Aldo does believe, that where all of his engravings are concerned, this may be his finest.

Hitler meets quite a grisly end in the film – when did you decide that you’d kill Hitler?

Literally, it wasn’t until I was pretty much up against it – just heading into the climax of the piece. I had no intention of doing that before.

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This is the way I write: you’re writing a scenario, and as you’re writing a scenario, there are different roads available to you as you’re writing that the characters could go to – they could go that way, they could go this way, they could go that way – and in particular screenwriters would have the habit of putting up roadblocks against some of those roads because, basically, they can’t afford to have their characters go down there, because they think they’re writing a movie, or they’re trying to sell a script or something like that. And I’ve never put that kind of imposition on my characters – wherever they go, I follow.

Now, when it came to writing this movie, naturally, I came across some of those roadblocks. And one of them was history itself. And I was more or less prepared to honour that. Until I came up actually against it. And I go, ‘no, I refuse!’. I’ve never done that before, and now is not the time to start. And what I mean by that is this, I just thought that my characters don’t know they’re part of history – history has not been written yet. They don’t know that there’s things that they can and can’t do. There’s no can and can’t, there’s only action and reaction.

People have asked me questions like, is this movie a fairytale. Well, the first thing I wrote was ‘Chapter One: Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France’. So people have then said, ‘oh, so does that mean it’s a fairytale?’. Well, you know, if you want to look at it that way, then feel free to look at it that way, and I think the movie works quite well in that regard. I personally do not look at it that way. The way I look at it is this – my characters change the course of history. Now, that didn’t happen, because my characters didn’t exist, but if they had have existed, then everything that happens is actually quite plausible.

When did you decide to include a film critic character in your film, and did you take any pleasure in killing him off?

Not at all! One, I don’t have any bone to pick with critics. In fact, if I wasn’t a filmmaker, I’d probably be a critic – in fact, most of my bone is I’d be a better film critic than most of the film critics I read. And talk about there’s never a time to kick a dog when it’s down, I never thought that some of the critics I’d grown up admiring and reading would be going the way of the dodo bird.

I think it’s a very sad time for film criticism, what’s going on for them now.

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No, I love Archie! Archie Hicox [Michael Fassbender] is awesome! He’s terrific, and it’s not just a weird flight of fancy, I vaguely based the idea on Graham Greene, who was a film critic and was also a commando in World War II. And, you know, it just makes sense – he would be somebody, as an expert on German cinema in the 20s – he could go to a Third Reich film shindig and be able to mix it up with the hoi polloi. I actually thought it was quite a clever way of doing the mission.

Which parts of the film are you most proud of, having thought about and lived with these ideas for so long?

I’ll boil it down to the two match-heads. That would be the opening sequence, the opening chapter, that was everything I could have ever hoped it would be. And that’s a three-way collaboration, because, yeah I definitely did my job when I wrote it but, it never would have been what it is without Christoph Waltz and Denis Menochet, they were just, it’s impeccable.

The other moment in the movie that I’m probably the most cinematically satisfied, where it’s exactly the way it was in my head, and I almost can’t believe that it got nailed to such a degree was the sequence in the projection booth, between Shosanna [Melanie Laurent] and Frederick, the music, the slow motion, the effect of the camera coming up and seeing this almost twisted Romeo And Juliet tableau on the floor, as the film reel continues to go on and they manage to still be alive, even though we see they’re dead and they live on in film, I… – I’m sorry, I don’t mean to get enraptured in my own fucking work, but [laughs]… That is the moment that I go ‘Oh my god!’.

After working on it for so long, was it hard to stop, and say when it was finished?

Well, that was the problem earlier on, when I was writing it. I had the opposite of writer’s block – I couldn’t stop writing, I couldn’t shut my brain off, I couldn’t just get on with it, I kept coming up with new things and news things, and that’s why I had to put it aside.

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When I went to back to it, so I wouldn’t have a situation that happened Kill Bill – I love Kill Bill, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t want it to be Basterds 1, and Basterds 2. So I forced myself to use a discipline that I haven’t imposed on myself in a long time. So I’m writing big long scenes, like the La Louisiane scene, but I was very focused, I was working towards the end – I was a train and I was trying to get into the station.

Regarding the soundtrack, how early did the song choices come to you, and how do you choose what you use in your films?

Well, music is very very important in my movies, and it kind of happens in a three way stage.

In some ways, the most important stage, whether it ends up being in the movie or not, one of the most important stages is just when I come up with the idea itself – before I’ve even started writing – I go into my record room, I have a big vinyl collection, and I have a room set up like a used records store, and I just dive into my music, whether it be rock music, or lyric music, or my soundtrack collection. And I’m looking for the spirit of the movie, I’m looking for the beat that the movie will play with. And part of that is, I’m trying to immediately jump to the screening process, in a way, because when I find the right piece of music, with the right cinematic set piece – and it’s usually big shit, the big stuff, like the opening credits or some set piece – I can actually just visualise myself sitting in a movie theatre, and watching it on a screen. And the images are provided by my imagination, and the music is right there, and I’m cranking it.

And all through the writing process, I’m always going back there to reinvigorate myself, or to remind myself what it is I’m doing, and keep remembering that it’s not just words on the page, because I’m a very precious writer, I can get a little caught up in that – remind myself that I am making a movie. And that process continues to go on during the shooting – and that’s the second wave.

And the third wave is when I’m editing, and sometimes there’s a big moment or something that I’ve had in my mind forever. Well now it’s just – ehh! – it’s just not right when you put it up against the images. And so you find something else, ‘oh my god that’s so wonderful, I can’t believe I was ever in love with that other thing!’.

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But what’s interesting about doing it in the editing process, is it’s less about the big moments, and now I’m thinking more minutiae, now it’s more the smaller moments that need a little musical accompaniment, and that becomes really fun, is looking for these little small moments, and these small cues from some obscure soundtrack.

Inglourious Basterds is released August 21st. Our review is here.