In one of the intermittent revealing moments in “QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight,” a documentary about the films of Quentin Tarantino that’s like a familiar but tasty sundae for Quentin fans, we see Tarantino on the set of “Pulp Fiction,” shooting the iconic dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. As John Travolta and Uma Thurman gyrate to “You Never Can Tell,” staring each other down as they do the twist with that two-fingers-across-the-eyes gesture that I first saw Adam West do, in full cowl and costume, on an episode of “Batman,” Tarantino stands next to the camera, a few feet from his actors, and he’s dancing, too. It’s not some big show-offy director thing. He just seems like an overgrown kid (at 30, he still looked like one), a starstruck bystander who couldn’t help but join in.
Directors tend to be stern taskmasters, and Tarantino is famous for tolerating no nonsense on his sets. Yet in “QT8,” watching him in brief clips during the shooting of his films, you get a sense of the diligent passion that permeates a Tarantino set. The actors interviewed in “QT8” all express great love for him, in no small part because he invites them to take the characters they’re playing and run with them. Christoph Waltz recalls how the extraordinary opening monologue Tarantino wrote for Hans Landa, the twinkly Nazi scoundrel of “Inglourious Basterds,” contained endless ways to interpret it, which were up to the actor. And during the shooting of “Reservoir Dogs,” the script for the ear-torture scene said nothing more than “Mr. Blonde does a maniacal dance.” Michael Madsen, who couldn’t dance, made up his psycho shimmy on the spot; he also improvised the bit where he talks into the cop’s severed ear.
As seen in “QT8,” the Quentin sets are hard-working movie parties where the director’s control mingles with an atmosphere of discovery. Tarantino is always next to the camera, with no video playback apparatus, cracking up at the funny bits in his scenes. Cell phones are banned — his way of joining everyone in the same immersion. And the casts become families. During the shooting of “Django Unchained,” Leonardo DiCaprio was feeling uncomfortable about saying the N-word in front of African-American actors he considered his friends. It took Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson to tell him: Don’t worry, we’re not your friends — this is just another Tuesday to us, so let it rip. DiCaprio did, letting his hand, in a dinner scene, smash down on a glass, which set him to bleeding profusely. But DiCaprio knew that the take was on fire, so he didn’t stop; he just kept acting (and bleeding). When it was over, his non-friends gave him a standing ovation.
“QT8” was directed by Tara Wood, whose one other credit is the 2014 documentary “Richard Linklater: 21 Years,” and this movie, like that one, is an eager, middlebrow, film-by-film piece of fan analysis that touches the bases of its subject’s career without necessarily tapping into its greater mysteries. Louis Black, the co-founder of The Austin Chronicle and SXSW, makes eloquent testimonials to the humanity that underlies Tarantino’s pop sensibility. Yet it’s curious that he’s the only thing approaching a critical voice in “QT8,” because with a filmmaker like Tarantino you want to tap the well of his artistry, the way the deep-diving critical chorus of Ric Burns’ “Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film” did. This movie has no such pretensions. It’s a glancing scrapbook of how Tarantino made his movies, and an infectious survey of their appeal, but it’s no more definitive than an old episode of “E! True Hollywood Story.” Yet even those who already know a great deal about Tarantino will groove on the anecdotes and insights.
Like the fact that Quentin, directing his first feature by using the $20,000 in residuals he made as one of a chorus of Elvis impersonators on an episode of “The Golden Girls” (yes, we see a clip), told everyone to show up on the set of “Reservoir Dogs” dressed in black suits and white shirts. “They gave us the ties,” recalls Michael Madsen. “That was about it. But if you watch the movie, Steve Buscemi has black jeans on.” Or the way Tarantino forced Eli Roth to wait four days, lifting weights and killing time, to shoot the scene in “Inglourious Basterds” where the Bear Jew bashes a Nazi with a baseball bat; by the time Roth came out of that cave, he was ready to kill. Or how, during the “Death Proof” shoot, Tarantino sat with Zoë Bell and watched the extraordinary scene in which she’s strapped to the hood of a speeding car. When he asked her what was missing, she didn’t know. It turned out that you couldn’t see her face because she was so used to keeping it hidden as a stuntwoman. So they had to shoot it again.
The film has great photos of Quentin in his video-store-geek phase, as well as a healthy array of clips that reference all the movies he’s lifted from. Yet you’ll learn precious little about Tarantino’s off-camera life, his complicated relationship with Harvey Weinstein, or the sources of his obsessions. There are a couple of cursory Harvey-the-bully stories that feel like the film’s way of brushing past Weinstein’s more horrendous crimes.
That said, one of the strongest elements of “QT8” is the film’s evocation of the indelible female characters Tarantino has given us. Not just women who kick ass, but women who burn with a serious fire, like Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown or Uma Thurman’s yearning moll in “Pulp Fiction” or Thurman’s dynamo of vengeance in the “Kill Bill” films or the take-no-prisoners vixens who, in the first half of “Death Proof,” do nothing but drive and talk, magnetizing us (or, at least, some of us) the whole while.
The producer Stacy Sher says, perceptively, that “Reservoir Dogs” announced a new sensibility that would shake up the world of movies as powerfully as the French New Wave did. Tarantino’s voice was that free, that rule-breaking, that rooted in a movie past it transformed into the movie future. The day after “Reservoir Dogs” showed at Cannes in a special midnight show, Quentin was strolling the Croisette with his producers, and the people he passed would shout out “Tarantino!” On Mario Kassar’s yacht, Oliver Stone, James Cameron, and Paul Verhoeven were all clamoring to meet him. They could sense a revolution was under way, and Quentin was already a legend.
He was, from the start, creating a universe of his own, held together by its own connective minutiae. It wasn’t just about the Big Kahuna Burgers or the Red Apple cigarettes or the Vega brothers. Tim Roth points out that in “The Hateful Eight,” he’s playing the great-great-grandfather of the Michael Fassbender character in “Inglourious Basterds.” Yet all the connections — and panoramic 70mm imagery — couldn’t make “The Hateful Eight” a good movie, and when “QT8” treats it as “a bookend of ‘Reservoir Dogs,'” due to the combination of its enclosed space and its double-cross drama, it’s a sign of the critical limits of the film’s QT boosterism. The movie stops short of “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” the film that has probably put Quentin at the center of the conversation more than any movie since “Pulp Fiction.” And it reminds you that according to his 10-film master plan, he now has only one more movie to go. Each of them can stand as it its own monument, which makes a documentary like “QT8” at once engaging and redundant. For all its fun facts and behind-the-scenes peeks, it builds up and deconstructs a legend we’ve been building up and deconstructing all along.