It’s been over a decade in the making, but the Inglourious Basterds are finally here. We catch up with Quentin Tarantino, to see what it takes to rewrite history.
You’ve been working on Inglourious Basterds for years; now it’s finally here, was it worth the wait?
Most definitely. It wasn’t like I was constantly writing on it for 10 years, I worked on it for two years and kind of put it away. I didn’t work on it after that, but I would take out the pages and go through it and just kind of think about stuff. There was this time after Kill Bill that I was thinking, ‘You know what, maybe I’m not going to do this at all. Maybe that was a time and that time has passed’. Then I realized, ‘No, I have to finish it. Even if I don’t like it I have to finish it. Even if I write it and put it in a drawer and never make it, I have to get it out of me. I won’t be able to write the next script until I get this one out. I have to climb this mountain to see the other mountains on the other side’. But I love the movie and am very gratified.
Seeing as you’ve worked on the Basterds screenplay for so long, has it changed at all since you first started and it what ways?
The big way that it changed was when I was writing it before I came up with most of the characters that are in there now, and I came up with the first two chapters. I totally had [Sergio] Leone-itis. I couldn’t come up with a character without giving him a 20-minute introduction. After I had nine characters like that I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I have to start the mission. Ooh, it’s already three hours!’ I did have a story but the story was just too wide, too all encompassing. It would have been like 12 hour mini-series, which actually now wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but in 1996 that seemed daunting.
So then I did Kill Bill: Volumes One and Two. And when I came back to [Basterds], I realized that it was this story that was just too all encompassing. So I took those characters and this structure and I came up with a new story. The new story that I came up with that I thought that I could do as a movie was the whole idea of [the character of] Fredrick Zoller, a German Eddie Murphy who comes out and they make this movie about him. Then the basterds would try to blow up the premiere.
Although it’s not a traditional war movie, there are some recognisable genre moments such as Brad Pitt’s stirring leader speech. How did you decide what aspects of these movies you were going to leave out, and which you were going to use?
Very good question! Basically the answer to that question is that I got rid of the stuff that I didn’t want to deal with, that I was never really attracted to in war movies, and then kept the stuff that I liked. So, no tanks. They’re gone. No battle scenes. It wasn’t about that. I was always much more drawn to more of the cloak and dagger kind of stuff with people hiding in Nazi occupied countries and pulling stuff behind the scenes. Not only that, but I was always excited when a moment would happen in a world war two movie that was more of a human drama.
You can make a whole movie about a guy getting from one end of a mine field to another. I didn’t do that [although] I thought about it! But that was the kind of stuff, like, ‘Hey, let me do this and let me make a big 20-minute scene about this. Lets not bum-rush this’. Because in real life it would probably feel like forever if you were trying to get across a mine field. That was the kind of human dramas that I was kind of going for, [and] my version of the mine field scene is the French tavern scene.
There are a lot of faces in the film that will be unfamiliar to American and English audiences; do you enjoy introducing and working with new actors?
Well, in Germany it’s an all star cast! There was a real fun aspect about the film since there were so many German characters and French characters and I didn’t have a clue of who I wanted [to play them] so when I wrote them there was no thinking about an actor or anything. So Landa could speak all these different languages because he really was just a character on the page! All these characters could just become who they are without thinking about an actor’s limitations or any guidelines like that. So once I was finished with them they were all right there.
Then it became, like, ‘OK, now I’m not looking for this big star’. I didn’t care about how famous anyone was in Germany. I was literally trying to find the perfect people to play these different roles. So it was completely character first.
There is a scene in the movie where Adolf Hitler is watching a film and laughing at the violence. You’re known for violence in movies; has your approach to it changed at all?
At the end of the day, I think that I still have the same response when I’m an audience member and I watch violence. If it’s meant to be gross it probably just grosses me out but at the same time if it’s too gross then I’m really thinking about the prosthetic FX that are going into the making of it and everything. Basically, the violence that I really like usually makes me laugh, a particularly savage fight in a movie and a guy takes another guy you don’t like and he bashes his head five times into a table, that totally cracks me up.
Brad Pitt is clearly the biggest name in the cast, although he perhaps wouldn’t be many peoples’ first choice to play a Nazi-killing redneck! How did you envision the character?
Aldo Raine was the first character that I came up with when I came up with the idea and the whole idea was supposed to be that this hillbilly, he’s against the code of what you think of as a redneck because he’s truly and completely against fascism, to the degree that I think part of his back story was that he was fighting [against] the Klan in the ’30’s before he went into the war and he’s going to continue fighting if he survives the war.
The idea was that he would get Jewish American soldiers because they would be more committed to what he was trying to do, and [that] would be an Apache resistance against the Nazis. [And] they’re going to be really motivated to really do intense payback. He’s coming from the place of like, ‘Hey, look, these Gentiles, they have the luxury of being soldiers. You have to be warriors. You’re fighting a holy war against an enemy that wants to wipe your race off the face of this earth. So here we go’. So that’s why. He’s really trying to conjure up a holy war atmosphere with these dudes.
Inglourious Basterds is obviously a reimagining of World War II, but did you undertake any research?
I did a lot of research when I first started. For a while it kind of stymied me a little bit, because I just found all this information that I just kept trying to squeeze into the script. I wanted to teach the world what I had learned and I had to get over that! But as far as this story was concerned, all I needed was to really understand the whys and the wherefore’s of what life was like under the occupation, particularly in France. Also, I already knew a lot about German cinema and the Nazi propaganda film industry but I learned a lot more. I read Goebbels diaries and stuff.
But once I got going as far as the writing was concerned I didn’t want to go back and do any more research. I didn’t want to stop my process. If you’re reading my script you’re buying my imagination. Every time I’d get to a thing that I didn’t quite know what the answer was, what the reality would be, I just made it up and I moved on. Then when I was finished I looked back and looked up some of those things and three quarters of the time my guess was right about what happened!
Diane Kruger is sublime as Bridget von Hammersmark; did you see her qualities straight away?
She did bring a genuine German movie star quality. You can buy that she starred in a whole bunch of German movies and was a movie star. That’s a big, big deal because you don’t just find people on the street that look like old time movie stars. So she had that, [and] also she has a wonderful duality with the character. A lot of that is born out of the situation that she’s put in but the fact that she gets to do so much of the movie in German and also so much in English. They are almost two different performances. When she’s speaking German she’s very, very elegant and very, very charming, but her English is very hard and you can tell that she would be the loudest person in the room even if she wasn’t having someone squeeze her bullet hole!