Tarantino Bites Back

Film still for Tarantino Bites Back

Quentin Tarantino tackles Nick James about the negative comments Death Proof received in Sight & Sound

Nick James: So how's it going?

Quentin Tarantino: I was feeling a little slighted by Sight & Sound because I realised that I hadn't done an interview. But then you guys came out with this stuff [the Grindhouse cover story, June 2007] really, really early.

We used to reach you through your PR agency and that ended. So I think we lost our contact.

That makes sense, but now it's re-established.


I've done an interview with S&S for every one of my movies, all the way through Kill Bill I at least.

And they've always been good.

Yeah. I love the magazine

Thank you. Did I tell you about this pub [our interview venue, The Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place, London]? It has a big literary reputation

Someone told me Dylan Thomas used to write here

Dylan Thomas, Patrick Hamilton, George Orwell - all these people used to drink here in the 30s. This area is Fitzrovia. They all used to hang out here.

I must make an appointment to write a chapter of Inglorious Bastards here, just for history's sake.

How is 'Inglorious Bastards' going?

I've got tons of material and a lot of stuff written but now I've figured out what to do, I gotta start from page one, square one. I started just before I came on this trip and brought the stuff with me but I haven't had a chance to continue yet. But maybe on the flight back home I'll come back into it. I love writing in other countries. It's a lot of fun

So let's take it back to the point where, you are coming up with the idea [for 'Death Proof']. I'm interested in your reflections as to how it's turned out - originally it was part of the Grindhouse package and then it was divided from it - and how you feel about that. And maybe take me back to the moment when you first conceived it?

I'd done Kill Bill and I wanted a little bit more time before I climbed my next Mount Everest. I ended up doing the CSI episode, shot in about 14 days but that doesn't mean it wasn't really hard work. It almost counted to me like I had made another movie. I was just preparing to start thinking about Inglorious Bastards. And Robert Rodriguez came over to my house, and he saw I had an old AIP double feature poster of the Roger Corman movie Rock All Night and the film Dragstrip Girl. And he goes: "You see that double feature poster you have on the wall there? I always wanted to do a double feature movie." And he was thinking about doing both of them himself. And I go, "Hey! That would be cool." And he says, "Well the let's do it. You do the one, and I'll do the other."

He had a zombie movie he had already written 30 pages of around the time of The Faculty. We envisioned this being a franchise. It would be fun to keep going back to it - another one could be a spaghetti western or sexploitation or whatever. But we decided it would be better if they were two horror films. I had just got through reinvestigating the slasher films, so they were fresh in my mind. And it was supposed to be an easy project, to do his film in Austin and then I wouldn't even have to crew up. I'd be working in Robert's studio, and Robert's like, "My studio is your studio; my crew is your crew." So then I started thinking about what I could do. And the first idea was a bunch of young college history students that were going through a tour of the plantations of the old South. And there's a ghost of an old slave that is part of negro folklore. Jody the Grinder actually went down and bested the devil, by fucking him. And so the devil put him on earth for all eternity to fuck white women. And that was the devil's punishment.

The opening scene would take place in the classroom, with the professor telling the story of Jody the Grinder in a big four-page monologue. I would probably have had Sam Jackson playing that part. And it was really good. But then I didn't have anywhere to go with it, because if you have a story about a killer slave with supermacho powers done in the style of a slasher films, then even if he's doing it today, and even if the white girls are innocent, how can you not be on the slave's side?

And then it hit me - and actually this was one of the things that was really funny in the Sight & Sound review - "Death Proof in no way resembles the kind of genre movie that used to be projected until it fell to pieces in the fleapits of America" (S&S, October 2007). In answer to that - and this is something I said to myself when I was coming up with the story - I never do proper genre movies. It's like using the fact that Reservoir Dogs isn't a proper heist film even though it fits in the genre, as a slag against it. And what is so good about slasher films is they are all the same. This is why they are so much fun to write subtextual film criticism about, because all your arguments really work for a vast majority of films. And if you try to monkey about just a little too much with it then now you're not even really making a slasher film.

But if you are intentionally setting out to make something that - let's put quotes around it - is "trashy or bad"

I don't think slasher films are trashy or bad

But you know what I mean?

I know what you mean. But I don't think I agree.

Because you reference films of the past, where you're deliberately doing slightly hokey things

I disagree with that!

Well, maybe I'm wrong

I'm not saying you are wrong. But I'm disagreeing with the way you keep wording it because if I'm trying to do a remembrance of the films of the past, the slasher film is a legitimate subgenre in horror film. Well that sounds a lot different to making a reference to films of the past.

But there was a feeling about Grindhouse that it was nostalgic and when you look back at, say, Russ Meyer's films, there is a slight hokiness to them

Let me address that 100 per cent because I don't think there was any hokeyness in Death Proof when I wrote it. If you are thinking that some moment is cheesy or some moment is hokey, I didn't mean it to be that way. But here's my point though. What you are referring to isn't any of the material inside of the movie or anything that happens inside the movie, it's just the print. That's all it is. It's a Godardian thing. We can argue that slasher films aren't a proper genre.

No, I just meant hokey in conventional terms of what is or isn't regarded as good acting.

Well, if anyone thinks what I put in there was bad acting, I didn't mean to.

I was just interested in the process of your thinking about making a Grindhouse double bill. Did you never think, well, I gotta make it slightly more clumsy here to make it more authentic?

Most of the clumsiness was done in the editing room. But we did have this fun mantra that we could say on the set that anytime something didn't quite work or we didn't film just the right kind of transition, or there was a piece of equipment in the shot, "Hey! That's Grindhouse."

And all that was accidental?

That's accidental and it just added to the thing. Then I remembered a time when I told somebody I was thinking about getting a safer car. I was thinking about a Volvo and he says, "Oh, Quentin, if you want a safer car all you have to do is buy any car and give it to a stunt team plus $10,000 and they'll make it death proof. And for two seconds I actually thought about doing that. He actually used the words "death proof" but I forgot about it - this was 11 years ago. So now I'm thinking about this tale, and I thought, what if he uses a car? And what if his thing is to follow girls who travel in a posse? His car wipes the girls out and he gets to live, because it is death proof. To me he was a sex act, so what he was doing was a rape murder, his act of sex. He does it in such a way that it looks like an accident so he gets away with it. Then we wait until he recovers and, like a serial killer, he goes to another state and does it again. All that made me work out how he got to be Stuntman Mike.

Have you always wanted to do a car chase film?

I don't know if I wanted to do a car chase film. I have always wanted to do a film that had a car chase. I've always really considered stuff like the big, one-against-100 martial arts fight like car chases. These are classic set pieces in the cinema.

Where does your girl dialogue come from?

This is gonna sound like a smartass answer, but I have to say, it's obvious, but it so needs to be said. I'm a good writer. It's what I'm supposed to be able to do. It needs to be said. It's not like I overheard some friends. It's my job to be interested in other people's humanity and not just write about myself. Having said that, there was something that added to the authenticity of these ladies. For the last five years I've had a lot of different posses of female friends. You know, these three black girls over here, these four Korean girls over here, these waitresses over here, these more posh club owners over there... I have male friends but up until recently they were more one on one. I didn't roll with a crew. But with women I did. And in most cases, it wasn't like they were my crew, I was part of their posse. It wasn't like Quentin and his bitches, even though it looks like that when we walk into a club. I just realised as I finished the script that, wow, they're here! This is almost my love letter to them. I got the chance so say all their funniest lines, and a couple of the girls are based on girls in particular, and a couple of them aren't but were informed by my knowledge of femininity. What I'm particularly proud about is that the fact that the women sound like girls today, not me remembering what it was like with the girls in the tavern in college. I'm always having them say antiquated phrases because that's my dialogue, they are all going to be wordsmiths. But they sound like women generally today, and one of my biggest pleasures about the movie is girls watch the movie and they say: you know, that is exactly like me and my friends talking last fucking night.

You string together those long riffs, though, that are strong, Quentin-type lines.

Well, do you want me to write now like David Hare? They are my characters. They're gonna talk, they are gonna jockey for position in their group, and they are all gonna be very confident in the way they express themselves.

By the way, somebody asked me if I had read this [he indicates the Grindhouse issue] and said, "You know, in Sight & Sound, the guy writing [Nick James] says that the girl talk sounded like what a boy wishes girl talk would sound like. What do you think about that Quentin?" And I said, "Obviously I don't agree. That guy needs to spend more time hanging out with young girls." But then I read the article and it was very funny because in brackets afterwards it says, "I look forward to fielding re-educational letters from women who disagree." I thought that was good on you.

One thing that's interesting me quite a lot at the moment is the breakdown of the conventional story, both in Hollywood and the wider media. You've been integral to taking straightforward narratives apart and putting them back together in a different order. Do you think you are part of that rejection of story, in the way that your films are so taken up with atmosphere and mise-en-scène and your love of a comparatively slow pace?

One of the things I'm proud of as far as my writing is concerned is that, even though I monkey around with the structure, I'm not monkeying around with the story itself. If I was a novelist nobody would bring that up because novelists can tell a story in any order they want. I'm a very very very good storyteller. This breakdown of the story is not a new problem. I've noticed it for pretty much most of the 90s. When you go to the movies now it is rare that you are told a good story. We [in the US] used to be the best storytellers in cinema. You could say this about Europe, that about Japan, but you can't beat our stories. But a story isn't having everything laid out for you in the first 10 to 15 minutes. It is a constantly unfolding. In a real story movie, if you see the end of the movie, but didn't see the first two reels and then you go back and watch the first reel, you should go like, "Wow, how did they get to there from here."

When my parents used to take me to the movies, you'd just go in whenever and stay to see the beginning of the next programme and say, "OK, this is where we came in." The problem is that most films are basically versions of situation comedies. You set up a situation for the characters to deal with, and then the rest of the movie is living up to that situation. That's the only game in town for the most part. I'm really proud of my film when it comes to that. You do not know all there is to know for the first half hour. And if you watch Pulp Fiction for an hour and ten minutes and then walked out, you can't say you saw that movie, because you don't know what the fuck they're talking about.

You have reminded me of something that's nagged me for years. I was sent this brilliant article about 'Pulp Fiction' years ago and I felt it was a bit too whacky for 'Sight & Sound', but now I regret it. His idea was that you'd structured your popular culture references as an alphabet beginning with A for Amsterdam, and ending with Z for "Zed's dead baby," the last line of dialogue.

Oh wow!

He had one concept for each letter going through the film sequentially.

Wow. If you had that in your files

I've lost it. It's so annoying.

One thing that shows that I'm a film professor or student is that you are not gonna find many other filmmakers looking at this kind of thing. I love subtextual film criticism, especially when it's fun, when a guy knows how to write in a readable, charming way. What I love the most about it is that it doesn't have a fucking thing to do with what the writer or the actor or the filmmakers intended. It just has to work. And if you can make your case with as few exceptions as possible, then that's great.

In a weird way this goes back to Death Proof, because one of the biggest inspirations for the film, especially the first half of the movie - the more slasher-oriented section - was Carol Clover's book Men, Women and Chainsaws. I really truly think that her chapter on the 'final girl', the role that gender plays in the slasher film, pins down the best piece of film criticism I've ever read. It gave me a new love for slasher films and one of the things that I was doing when I was watching that movie was applying her lessons.

Everything about the film suggests that the character Butterfly played by Vanessa Ferlito is the final girl. And she has all the qualities. She's the odd girl out with her friends. She's not a virgin, but she is the only one that doesn't get any kind of action in the movie. She does seem a little bit more reserved or at least she pretends to be more reserved. When she does make out with the guys, she won't let anybody else know about it. Her other friends are more open, they talk more body and about sex. She is the female character with the investigator gaze, the one that smells something rotten, she notices the car, and that something is not quite right. It's never so bad that she has to bring it up. She doesn't want to be embarrassed.

And you're suggesting the film sets her up to survive?

Yeah, and even when he throws the photos away it ended up being part of the thing. He throws the photos in a big wide shot. One of them lands face up, two face down, and Butterfly is face up. I didn't have to duplicate what just happened when he threw the photos out, it was perfect. It suggests that she will survive.

You do want her to survive?

Yes, and I gotta say, as shocking to audiences as the crash itself is, there's even more when she gets it, because they weren't prepared for her to get it. I've been giving subconscious hints that she's gonna be ok, which to me makes it all the more exciting. When later you see Zoë on that hood, I know you know that now I'm not to be trusted.

I saw the Grindhouse version of 'Death Proof' first, so I'm interested in what you cut out for that package. How were those choices made?

It was very rough. Robert and I made three movies. I made Death Proof, he made Planet Terror and together we made Grindhouse. I can't imagine this could ever happen again, but with Grindhouse, we made a movie in which my movie wasn't the most important thing. Planet Terror also wasn't the most important thing. In Grindhouse the most important thing is that we were truly trying to duplicate an experience. It was more a programme than a movie. Almost like a ride. And the most important thing was the Grindhouse experience. Anything that fucked up, anything that lessened the Grindhouse experience, had to go. So I demolished strategies that I worked really hard to put into the piece - not because they didn't work but because we just didn't have time. We had to move on. There was a fatigue factor I had to deal with.

Especially if your film screens second...

Exactly. And I always knew that I had that chase at the end, and that it was the proper way to close the evening. So we had to cut our movie to the bone - we actually had to cut it past the bone - in order to make it work. I never would have been able to do that if I didn't know that Death Proof would be coming out later.


Most of planet earth separately. But even if it was coming out in a double feature here [the UK], maybe Japan, maybe Australia and New Zealand, Death Proof was always supposed to be going out by itself every place else. And that gave me the freedom to slash my baby so bad because it would not be coming out by itself on DVD, so I knew it wasn't going anywhere.

That's the way I enjoyed it most. But it's probably because it's the first way I saw it.

What we did was very successful and the audiences that saw it that way thought so too. But Death Proof is what I wrote. Death Proof is my baby, if anyone asks me to send them a print, it'll be the full-length Death Proof I'll send.

Do you hang out with stuntmen a lot?

Oh yeah. I'm actually more knowledgeable than most about the history of stunt players. It was the death proof car and the situation that the killer might be a stunt man. So I had a whole world of information to go on. With special characters like him the audience only needs to know what it needs to know, but you need to know everything about him. I knew his whole career. He was a full born character. The other thing that's interesting about Kurt is that he's been in this business a long time. He's not a psycho-killer, but he's the same breed of man as Stunt Man Mike, the same breed of actor that comes from that same thing, you know. He's done about two episodes of The Virginian and he knew the stunt man that he'd based Stunt Man Mike on. The first couple of years every stunt man dresses the way Kurt does in the second half of the movie: the black t-shirt, the black jeans and the bad jewellery, you know, that's all there. They don't have a great career but they have done a few things, enough to say that they are a stunt person.

You said something in the 'Times' on the web about how the older the director gets the more out of touch they become. How do you fight against that?

I don't intend to be making movies deep into my old age. There are exceptions to rules and we all know them but I don't really want to be a geriatric filmmaker. I'm not only thinking about myself, I'm thinking about my filmography. I'm thinking also about fans that are not even born, when they are like me when I was 14 and I discovered Howard Hawks. When you find a director like that you wanna seek out every movie they've ever made, but there's also some anxiety he might let you down.

People talk about the death of cinema but all you really see is the death of their particular generation's cinema. Everything you see between the age of 18 and 25 is hugely important.

I remember 25 years ago reading critics slugging on Lucas, on De Palma, on Spielberg saying these guys are so talented but they've dedicated their lives to recreating the junk of their childhood. I guess the same people could say that about me and Robert Rodriguez.

Supposing you get towards the end of your career and you have to make a film in Britain. What would you make?

I might very well make one or two movies in Britain before that time

Good, but what would it be?

It could be a crime film, which I would have a very good attitude to do. Or it could be a hangout movie: a group of lads or girls of their time. Hopefully, it would have a very comedic extent, or it might be more spook-oriented.

You mean a ghost story.

No, spies.

I'd like to see a spy movie from you.

I'd like to make a spy movie. I can't ever imagine that I'm doing it though because, as much as I'm attracted to it, it ultimately would be just pictures of people talking to each other. One of the books that I'm reading right now is Len Deighton's Berlin Game, part of the 'Game, Set and Match' trilogy. So I'm reading Berlin Game. I actually read it before years ago and I didn't properly get into Mexico Set, and now I have to read them all over again.

I know that feeling

To properly set up for Mexico Set, then London Match, I'm doing a lot of editing on it because I'm thinking 'I wouldn't want to trim this in the three movies'. Have you ever read the book before?


It has a great twist at the end of one that sends the stories into a tailspin. So if I were to do it - which I'm doing as an exercise here - I would see if I could boil it down to the fat of the characters, and ignore all this Maquis double agent stuff. It would be interesting if I could reduce the three novels to an hour each and make a three hour movie that would have a big kind of impact, just by responding to the characters, and the wonderful chance of casting actors in it, and the nice environment of the drawing room and the cottages in this part of East Berlin, with the Wall still there and everything.

People make dull films about that.

It's like, does that interest me enough to spend over a year of my life, if not more doing it? That would be a very difficult trip to adapt. Probably not, but it would be fun. I mean, it'd be a movie.

I don't know how much rehearsal you do and whether you storyboard

I never use storyboards because I can't draw. What I use instead is shot lists so I can write and describe things.

Do you rehearse?

I usually rehearse but things have got mucked about because of the way we did Death Proof and Kill Bill was long. What I'd done through Jackie Brown was a solid two-week rehearsal period before we shot the movie. The first week was in the rehearsal space. Sitting around the table, mucking about, having a good time, everyone getting to know each other. The second week was as much as we could do on locations.

What's your shot ratio like?

Well, I got no worries if it's nine, ten or eleven. I do what I need to do. Normally it's more like 1 to 5, 1 to 6. But if I can get it perfect in one I move on. If I get it in 2 or 3 it's the same.

There's something else you've said in interviews about 'Jackie Brown'. You said that the fault with 'Jackie Brown' was that it was somebody else's material [from Elmore Leonard's novel] and that since then you've enjoyed the fact that it comes more from you. Does it all have to come from you?

Yeah, it does. One of the things that is fun about reading books is it puts you in a complete different environment. If you read one of Ian Rankin's books and you think you got a good excuse to go to Edinburgh and shoot this big Scottish thing that could be really fun. But I lost my stamina in the last quarter of the last lap of Jackie Brown and part of the reason was I wasn't taking something I created from scratch from a blank piece of paper and turning it into a full project. When I finished the edit and got my cut the way I wanted, I was emotionally done. I believe people could say it's my best movie, but there's a slight once-removed quality, located somewhere in my balls where that doesn't live.

Can you imagine making a film without violence?

I can't imagine telling a story that has rules, "You can't do this, you can't do that."

There's a different way of phrasing this. Are there any stories you would do that might not have violent cataclysmic moments?

I don't think Jackie Brown has violent cataclysmic moments.

That's true, it doesn't.

People get killed but it is all essentially part of it. It is not an extravaganza.

But you've said apt things about why violence is such an important part of cinema.

So could I make a movie where that was a part of what I was trying to do as a filmmaker, a showman, and the guy trying to give you your money's worth and a good time while showing off a little bit. For sure I did that with Jackie Brown.

That's true.

But to say violence can't enter any world that I'm writing about would be wrong.

I didn't mean as a set of rules. That's ridiculous.

I know you didn't but I don't mind my answer to that.

Can you imagine yourself making a film like 'Sin City'?

I would have thought not. I'm not a fan of digital. And I sound like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth when it comes to Robert. When Robert does it, it's great. That's where Robert is coming from. He just wants to do everything himself and digital allows him to do that. Why would you hire a cinematographer? If you're doing a digital movie it doesn't make any sense whatsoever. All you need to do is look to the screen to see if you like it. Gaffer do this, do that... you could be your own cinematographer. No cinematographer should be promoting digital. It makes them as obsolete as a dodo bird. But in the case of Sin City, and probably 300, you know you could never have made those movies on film.

I thought it might have intrigued you to make those films.

To me 97 per cent of the use of digital is laziness. They are trying to make it easier on themselves, and it shows. If you don't care enough about your movie to shoot it yourself, I don't care enough about it enough to see it. But in those cases where they are creating a whole new cinematic landscape, I can't be churlish about that. I've got to give it up. It adds another possibility in which to tell stories, and create pictures. But normally, even with, say, what David Fincher used in Zodiac, I think what the fuck is that about? I found it more interesting in my brain than I did watching it. I thought Apocalypto was a masterpiece. Then I found out he did it in digital and it lessened the effort for me. Using this Mount Everest analogy again, the mountain got smaller and the achievement was a little less.

I can see that. I think that's it. I'm done with my questions.

Well let me bring up something that has happened recently. I had a really fantastic time during this regional tour. This is the first time I've done it since Reservoir Dogs. In this last week I've seen my movie four times. I saw it at the Ritzy in Brixton, at the Glasgow Film Theatre, at the FACT Theatre in Liverpool, and in Dublin. One of the things that I wanted to get back to is something you asked earlier on: how do you feel about your movie? I was depressed when Grindhouse didn't do well. I felt rejected. That Friday night that it opened I saw it at the Grauman's Chinese. Robert was there, different members of the cast where there. Simon Pegg was there and Edgar Wright. And it was one of the most magnificent screenings of my film I've ever had, as great, and maybe even a little more exciting than Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction. It was everything we could have hoped the experience would be. Then I had the box office and I was surprised, I was surprised for a while, but then, the show got over. I started working on Death Proof and the first screening we had of it was in Cannes. That ended up being a lot of fun and to really actually watch the chase scene in the Le Palais was something.

All I saw was the press screening.

In the official screening in the Palais with the women in their fine gowns and the men in their tuxedos they were flipping the armrests and then pounding on them and the girls were shouting, "get him, get him, get him." It was like a football game.

The Palais is great

Thierry [Fremaux, Cannes' chief programmer] wanted that. He had never shown a film like this in competition. And to see the response be so good was so much fun. We've been slowly bringing it out, so I've been to a few countries and I've ended up seeing my movie probably more than I had done since Reservoir Dogs, when I went through the whole film festival circuit for a year, and then an entire year long release. I was writing Pulp Fiction during that time. With these screenings I fall in love with my movie again.

And you reconnect with those who love your stuff.

I'm liking it more the more I see it. It has undeniable audience signal moments that make it really fun to watch with somebody you are close to who hasn't seen it yet. You're watching through their eyes. For me it's like reacquainting myself with my adoration of my child again And the two best audiences were Dublin and Manila. They were off the chain. We all just had a great cinematic experience. It was everybody - the people, the environment, the building - everything!

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012