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Quentin Tarantino Tackles the Western In Classic Roadshow Fashion

Ever since “Reservoir Dogs” premiered at Sundance in 1992, providing the indie revolution with a populist shot in the arm much in the way “Bonnie & Clyde” foreshadowed the New American Cinema of the ’70s, the Quentin Tarantino brand has endured. Mostly populated by misfits and renegades, guided by classic movie tropes and sparked by snappy repartee, Tarantino’s oeuvre exists in its own universe, where the tension between humor and violence is ever-present, loyalties are tested, revenge extracted and chances are a character with whom the audience has become invested will meet a sudden and gruesome end. Oh, and there will be blood — lots of it.

His latest opus, “The Hateful Eight,” shot in 70 mm Ultra Panavision and opening on Christmas Day at 100 theaters in classic roadshow fashion — replete with opening overture and an intermission — might be his most ambitious yet. It’s the third in a historical trilogy of sorts, but without the revisionist overtones of “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” which turned the tables on the Holocaust and American slavery, respectively. “The Hateful Eight” takes place in the snowbound wilderness of Wyoming (the exteriors were actually shot in Colorado) during a vaguely post-Civil War time frame. There are no good guys and bad guys, only bad and badder.

POST APOCALYPSE: Tarantino says, “The Hateful Eight” “deals with the Civil War and, in particular, its aftermath.”
Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

“It’s not like ‘Django,’ but they can’t help but be connected,” says Tarantino, who is being honored Dec. 21 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “This movie deals with the Civil War and, in particular, its aftermath. All the characters are to one degree or another survivors of the war and survivors of the way their society had crumbled. The film almost plays like a post-apocalyptic movie to some degree, but instead of the Australian Outback (referring to the “Mad Max” movies), it all takes place in this icy, snow-covered wasteland. And the survivors of the apocalypse are all from societies that don’t exist anymore. And they’re all blaming each other for the apocalypse.”

“The Hateful Eight” contains all the elements one might associate with the Western, whether of the John Ford or Sergio Leone variety, at least externally: grizzled bounty hunters, a new sheriff rolling into town, the hanging judge who coldly dispenses frontier justice, the colorful array of duds that define each character, that big skillet of stew warming over the fire. But the film is also a mashup, and nothing is what it seems.

“I very much write like a novelist writes. At a certain point I let the characters dictate what’s going to happen.”
Quentin Tarantino

“This movie’s very tense and like a lot of my movies it has a few different genres inside of it,” Tarantino says. “It is on the surface a western but there is a horror film element, there’s a comedic element and then there’s absolutely a mystery element that comes into it, like an Agatha Christie piece, at some point in the film. But there is a tense horror thriller element going on, too. So much so that in the editing room, and I never do this, losing some jokes that actually worked [helped] to keep the suspense up. And I never lose my jokes.”

When he’s firing on all cylinders, Tarantino’s zeal can be infectious. In his review of “Pulp Fiction,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and earned a screenplay Oscar for the filmmaker and his then-writing partner Roger Avary, the late Roger Ebert hinted at how Tarantino’s process is both conspicuous and immersive. “Tarantino is too gifted a filmmaker to make a boring movie,” wrote Ebert, “he’s in love with every shot — intoxicated with the very act of making a movie. It’s that very lack of caution and introspection that makes ‘Pulp Fiction’ crackle like an ozone generator: Here’s a director who’s been let loose inside the toy store, and wants to play all night.”

To be sure, that slo-mo walk by the gang in “Reservoir Dogs” is endlessly emulated, while the filmmaker’s uneasy mix of murderous mayhem and black comedy is deeply embedded in the current TV landscape.

REVISIONIST HISTORY: “Django Unchained” turned the tables on slavery in the mid-1800s.
Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

The chewiness of Tarantino’s dialogue can also be an actor’s dream, and his writing approach going in involves surrendering what might’ve been a grander design to the place where his characters take him. “I can do a pretty good job of more or less laying out what’s going to happen in the story and the characters at least until the midway point,” he says. “I very much write like a novelist writes. At a certain point I let the characters dictate what’s going to happen. It’s in the writing of it that they take charge and start having their own destinies and start telling me where they want to go.”

But his method is not so insular that he’s not open to suggestions. Stacey Sher — whose association with Tarantino dates back to “Pulp Fiction,” on which she served as an executive producer, and subsequently produced “Django” and “Hateful Eight” — says Tarantino likes to bring confidants into the process to gauge what works and what doesn’t.

“Sometimes he’ll call you up and read scenes aloud,” Sher says. “Or he’ll say, ‘Come over, I have 20 pages that I just typed up that I want you to read.’ Sometimes it’s just the process of him hearing where I laugh or what my reaction is to certain things. He’ll come in and watch me read sometimes, which can be unnerving.

Tarantino at the Box Office
$2.8m Reservoir Dogs (1992, Miramax) *Domestic B.O.
$214m Pulp Fiction (1994, Miramax) *Worldwide B.O.
$39.6m Jackie Brown (1997, Miramax *Domestic B.O.
$181m Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003, Miramax) *Worldwide B.O.
$152m Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004, Miramax) *Worldwide B.O.
$25.4m Grindhouse/Death Proof (2007, Weinstein/Dimension) *Domestic B.O.
$321.4m Inglourious Basterds (2009, Weinstein Co.) *Worldwide B.O.
$425m Django Unchained (2012, Weinstein) *Worldwide B.O.

“Once he’s finished the writing he looks at the (filming) process as sort of an adaptation; that directing is almost like adapting his screenplay to the screen.”

As much as Tarantino is revered by many critics as a kind of postmodern stylist with his own voice, the entertainment aspect of his work is paramount. The company he formed in 1991 with Laurence Bender, A Band Apart, might have been named after the Jean-Luc Godard classic of 1964, but Tarantino’s appreciation of the French New Wave is much closer to the film noir gangster dramas of Jean-Pierre Melville than the radical chic of Godard or the metaphysical musings of Claude Chabrol.

Unlike Godard, who deconstructed B movies with a heavy dose of irony, Tarantino reverently views crime sagas, Westerns and martial arts pics as building blocks for his cinematic vocabulary. While promoting “Inglourious Basterds,” actress Diane Kruger referred to Tarantino as “a living movie library,” and on “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” Samuel L. Jackson, who has played a role in seven of the writer-director’s movies, said, “Quentin will come in and describe a scene to you in terms of six different films.”

“He’s always keeping the experience for people in his head. He’s the only person I’ve worked with who is both audience and auteur.”
Stacy Sher

Tarantino says he’s “always dealing in genres. But I’m hoping to expand the genre. I’m hoping for them to exist a few notches above genre, but I don’t want them to be art-film meditations on genre. I want them to deliver.”

Adds Sher: “He’s always keeping the experience for people in his head. He’s really the only person I’ve ever worked with who is simultaneously both audience and auteur.”

As Tarantino’s canon has deepened, the production values have become more rich and accomplished. He recruited Italy’s greatest living movie maestro, Ennio Morricone, to create the first full-fledged original score in his movie canon for “The Hateful Eight.” And Tarantino admits that his collaboration with the d.p. Robert Richardson, which began with the “Kill Bill” films, upped his game.

KICK-ASS HEROINE: Uma Thurman takes direction from Tarantino during “Kill Bill Vol II” filming.
Courtes of The Weinstein Co.

“As much as I love the movies I did in the ’90s, I think (Richardson and I) have kept elevating that craft with each new project we’ve done together, leading to shooting a big movie in crazy weather conditions in 70 millimeter. Because of that level of craft, I’ve gotten even better.”

As in all his work, there’s a level of nostalgia in the way “The Hateful Eight” was conceived, since Tarantino pines for the days when the primacy of film was unquestioned, and roadshow presentations gave moviegoing an epic scope that television couldn’t possibly match. This nostalgia might even extend to his casting, since he’s known for having resurrected the careers of several actors who were either assumed retired or experiencing career doldrums, from Lawrence Tierney in “Reservoir Dogs” to John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction” to Pam Grier and Robert Forster in “Jackie Brown” to David Carradine and Michael Parks in the “Kill Bill” movies,” and the list goes on.

“It’s about matching the right actor with the right character. And that’s why actors score so well with my stuff.”
Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino’s use of these veterans is, in its own way, combating Hollywood ageism, and the industry’s tendency to go younger and prettier. But Tarantino insists there’s no political agenda at work.

“It’s not like there’s an index card of actors — both actors that deserve a good break in a good film and big stars — where I’m like, ‘okay now it’s time to work with Tom Hanks,’” he says. “Would I like to work with Tom Hanks? Yeah, I absolutely would. But I have to have the right character for him. And that’s why I think my collaborations are so meaningful. It’s about matching the right actor with the right character. And that’s why actors score so well when it comes to my stuff because they’re very meticulously cast.”

He views “The Hateful Eight” as the culmination of all his experience to date, and he’s still shooting for the stars.

“Let me put it like this, in the case of ‘The Hateful Eight’: I think it’s my best script. And I think it’s my best directing of my own material. Does that make it my best movie? Well that’s up for the people who like my movies to decide. I think I got everything I wanted to get out of it in a really classy way.”

SELF-DIRECTED: Tarantino played Mr. Brown in his much-celebrated debut, “Reservoir Dogs.”
Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

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