Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds comes out on dvd in December. To celebrate, here’s my unabrigded interview with the director earlier this fall. Two 20 minute sesssions, along with two different Swedish journalists. This is session one. Read the original story here and my interview with Col. Landa actor Christoph Waltz here (both in Norwegian).
Read part 2 here.
How long have you wanted to do scene from a French Café?
QT: That’s a good question. The thing is, it’s only natural when we do a World War II movie, especially taking place in Nazi-occupied France, to do a scene in a French café, because I have a tendency to have scenes take place in restaurants all the time. The first scene for the first movie I ever wrote from beginning to end was Reservoir Dogs, and that took place in a restaurant. I’m a big fan of writing scenes that takes place in restaurants, so a French café is absolutely natural for me in the context of the story.
You have put a lot of attention to languages in the movie, which is not alway the case in WWII movies, where the Germans speak English with a German accent.
QT: The languages was definitely always in the script, it was always my intention. Some people are speculating, will that limit the movie’s potential, because of all the different languages? I think it’s the exact opposite. The stuff where the Germans speak like The Royal Shakespearan Company out of The Old Vic, I think that’s what makes those movies old-fashioned. That was like your father’s WWII movies. It was a contrivance you accepted then, but I don’t think people accept that anymore. Literally, that was makes them seem old-fashioned.
That’s one way of looking at it, just from an aesthetic way, but the other way is actually practical as far as the movie is concerned. Your ability with languages, either to understand them or to speak them, was the difference between life and death. Language itself is one of the most important aspects of this movie, as well it would be, in Europe. It wouldn’t even be the same thing if you were trying to deal with WWII as far as Asia was concerned. The movie could take place in China, and you wouldn’t have to speak anything other than Mandarin.
In the case of Europe, all the time you see movies like Where Eagles Dare. In it, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood are supposed to be able to speak German so magnificently well that they could put on officer uniforms and walk into a tavern and just kick it in German, and they just know two-three-four ways about it. No worries whatsoever! For the contrivance of the movie, you more or less buy it.
But if Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood were speaking German, that would be a senseful element that would be brought into the movie. And because there would be German speakers out there, it would either be completely phony or it would be exciting. But then again, at the same time, it’s like the way a second generation person speaks German, that they learned in either Canada or they learned in America, is not necessarily the way a person who lives in Frankfurt is going to speak it. That’s just a whole aspect of excitement and suspense that I tried to take full advantage of, because it really hadn’t been explored to the depth that I was exploring it before.
Also, you have all these wonderful German actors, and what often happens in international productions. You’ll have American and British actors, speaking in their own language, maybe feign a Spanish accent, but maybe not. Jeremy Irons doesn’t do that, but then Antonio Banderas walks in, and he truly has a Spanish accent, but where the fuck does he come from? So he actually throws the film off by being authentic. With all these wonderful German actors in there, they all had to be speaking the right thing. That was also the reason that I didn’t cast Dutch or Swedish actors as, I wanted them to be German.
How will the movie be dubbed in Europe?
QT: I actually worked on the dubbing myself, especially when it comes to France, Italy and German. I ended up with a story that couldn’t be dubbed, because it wouldn’t make sense if everybody in the movie spoke the same language. What happened, in the case of Italy and France. German is German, but English will be dubbed. In the case of Germany, French becomes French.
There have been made a lot of WWII movies from historical sources. Was it important for you to make up your own story? To keep distance to History?
QT: You described it pretty well, that’s pretty much the same. I did a tremendous amount of research when I started to write the story a long time ago. I found that I was held back by the research, I got enamored with it. Six months doing research, and spent six months of trying to fit the research into my story. I wanted to show off all this knowledge that I gained, I wanted to give a history lesson.
But I had to get over that. When it comes to stuff like German cinema under The Third Reich, I already had a lot of information on that, so I didn’t need to do a lot of research as far as that was concerned. When I picked up the pen to start writing the story again, I already had done research about the occupation in France, so I had a lot of stuff back here.
I just wrote my story, I didn’t look up anything, and anything that I came to that I didn’t know exactly the historical right and wrongs of it, we’re talking about things like when was curfew during the occupation, I just made it up. I made it up so I wouldn’t have to go backwards. So I could just keep telling my story, I got the freedom to tell my the sory the way I would normally tell them. When I got to the end of it, I looked up the facts. And sometime I liked my way better.
This is the way I normally write, by not trying to make it any different. In a script you have tunnels that your characters can get into, and screenwriters put roadblocks in front of some tunnels, because they can’t afford to have their characters go that road if they want to sell it as a movie. I never had these roadblocks, but this time history itself was a roadblock. I was more or less prepared to respect these roadblocks, but when I got to them, I realised “fuck it”: My characters are gonna do what my characters are gonna do.
My characters don’t know that this is history, my characters don’t know that they can’t go down this road. History hasn’t happened yet, they can do it. If one wants to look at my story as a fairytale, then you’re more than welcome to look at it that way. I don’t look at it like that way. I look at like: My characters changed the outcome of the war. Now that didn’t happen, because my characters didn’t exist. But if they had existed, all that happened in this movie is very plausible.
It seems that Inglourious Basterds treats History like a Western movie treats the history of the American West. It’s more like World War II told as a western, populated with characters and myths.
QT: You guys are really good, I would agree with that. I did actually approach this movie as a way that you would approach a western. In westerns, there is reality and myth, and what survives is what survives.
How did you get to work with Brad Pitt?
QT: We always wanted to work together, but we’ve waited for the right character. While I wrote Aldo, it all came together. One of the things that make Brad so iconic for the role is… Brad’s in a great place as far his career and his superstar persona is concerned. He’s been around for a while, done a lot of movies and worked with some of the most talented directors. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s not a boy anymore. He’s grown out of his boyish good looks, and now they’ve become handsome manly good looks.
There is this special thing about working with Brad at this time, at this time in his career, this is one of the most exciting times to work with him. Both as part of his popularity is concerned, and as far his iconic stature and persona is concerned. He gets thrilling when you set up a shot and look through the viewfinder at him. I can imagine this is the same kinda thrill that Sydney Pollack felt when he was shooting Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford. He looked through the viewfinder, and thought he was at the movie theatre.
Cinema plays a big part in this movie, but do you think you could ever make a movie from a time where there was no movies?
QT: You mean before the 20th century? Yeah, I could do that. If I did a swashbuckler it wouldn’t be about the love of cinema, or maybe it would? A western maybe, how would that end up working out? I did not think that years ago, when I came up with the idea of Inglourious Basterds, that at the end of the day that the movie would end being this wild love letter to cinema.
I never thought of that when I came up with the idea of doing a WWII movie. But at some point, when I was writing the first scene between Shoshanna and Fredrick Zoller, it ended up as a conversation about Max Linder. Man, I’ll do a WWII movie and it becomes a movie about cinema. I guess that’s who I am.
You must have enjoyed shooting the movie at the legendary Studio Babelsberg?
QT: That was so exciting! I’m a lot like Archie Hickox in the movie, and I have a fetishist love of German cinema of the 1920’s and those directors. Actually we were not only shooting in the studio, but at the same sound stages where Josef von Sternberg shot Der Blaue Engel. The place where we built the theatre, that was the stage Marlene Dietrich sang «Falling in Love Again». And to actually walk the streets where G.W. Pabst walked, our productions offices were on Papst Strasse.
To make the movies where Papst made his movies, the fact that the studio logo was the False Mariah from Metropolis. It was more exciting than working at 2oth Century Fox. The history was lovely there, it goes all the way, our production manager’s office was actually Joseph Goebbel’s old office.
You picked your German actors from the very best of the crop?
QT: I was thinking about the international audience, and I didn’t want a famous person playing Hitler. If it’s Alec Guiness or Anthony Hopkins as Hitler you think “oh that’s Anthony Hopkins doing Hitler”. But if I watch a minor WWII movie and Hitler shows up, looking more or less like Hitler, I’ll go «okay, that’s Hitler». I don’t really question it.
Martin Wuttke, who plays Hitler is very well known in Germany, where he had done one of the best Hitler performances ever, in a Brecht play where Hitler turns into a dog. He actually said no several times, so we had to talk him into it. In the case of Sylvester Groth, who played Goebbels, he played him before in Mein Führer, which was a black comedy. He’s an amazing actor, just look at the way he brings comedy into his Goebbels portrayal, especially at the scene that takes place at their little Hollywood luncheon. That’s the sequence that’s closest to Ernest Lubisch’s To Be or not To Be. I love the idea of dealing with Goebbels, not as this architect of evil, but as his job as a studio head. Dealing with him in this practical job, that he considered his number one job, and was the production of all these movies. He’s not like Louis DeMille, he’s not a businessman, he’s an artist at heart, much closer to David Zelnick.
And doing a WWII movie got you an opportunity to portray nazis, which you can say are very stylish villains, fashionwise.
QT: Well, whatever you want to say about the Nazis, you really can’t complain about their fashion sense, ha ha. They definitely had a very striking look, even their architecture was something to behold. It was a lot of fun, going through the uniforms and learning about them. Even the two guards outside Hitler’s opera box, those were special uniforms done for Hitler’s guard, and they have never actually been captured on film before. That was eye-opening and interesting.
What do you think of Stockholm? (obligatory question from Swedish journalist)
QT: This is my seventh visit to Stockholm, and it’s a very nice town, with a couple of bars I like. Also, you have one of the most amazing records stores in the world, Pet Sounds. Whenever you bring the name up to a vinyl collector, you think of the highest quality when you hear the name.
Part two of this interview will be published tomorrow.