Talking The Hateful Eight… and More.

Kim Morgan talks to Quentin Tarantino

In early December 2015, I sat down with Quentin Tarantino (for the February 2016 cover story of Sight & Sound Magazine), digging into his then newest movie, The Hateful Eight. The conversation flowed into multiple topics, including the beauty of 70mm, the politics of the western, his multi-faceted inspirations, and his theater, the New Beverly, among many, many other areas of discussion. What follows are excerpts and abridgements from that lengthy interview – a ten-page discussion that also covers Ralph Meeker, Aldo Ray, Brian Keith (among other actors he would have loved to worked with, including Bette Davis), snowbound westerns, watching Deliverance as a kid (!), movie violence, music and extra details about The Hateful Eight and its characters … and, as stated, various other topics. (Order the past print issue online if you’d like to check out the entire discussion) For now, read on, watch the movies and television talked about here, and if you go to the New Beverly this December 25th, have yourself a Hateful Eight Christmas …

 

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Kim Morgan: The Hateful Eight: This is another western and, in many ways, like Django [2012] a political one. You’ve said that you originally didn’t think of it politically in terms of current times and, yet, the movie has become that. The western genre is often an effective way to explore psychological, political and cultural themes, and through the history of cinema… would you agree?

Quentin Tarantino: I’ve always felt that actually. I’ve always felt, and, especially if you read any of the really interesting subtextual criticism on westerns, especially leading into the late 60s and into the 70s, westerns have always done a pretty good job reflecting the decade in which they were made without seemingly trying to. When westerns were probably at their most popular, during the 50s, they definitely put forth an Eisenhower-esque America. And it was also an America and an American west that was flush with American exceptionalism – having just won World War II and the advent of the suburbs. That was very important to westerns back then… And even, in an interesting way, while they weren’t bold enough in the 50s to deal with the race problem in America … they actually tried to somewhat deal with black and white issues via Indian and white issues…like [Delmer Daves’s] Broken Arrow [1950] … [That] followed suit with the first half of the 60s, which was basically the 50s part II. But in 1966 on, things started changing and spaghetti westerns went a long way toward doing that: the stylization, the use of music, but also the counterculture. So, by ’68, ’69, ’70 and ’71, you had the hippie westerns, the counterculture westerns, whether they be Kid Blue [1973] or The Hired Hand [1971] or Zachariah [1971], things like that. The 70s, particularly in America, was one of the best times for the western. And the changes went further into the 70s; it increased as the decade went on, [in terms of] the true “anti-western.” Because so many of the different westerns at that time dealt with the Vietnam War, in one way or another.

KM: Like Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid [1972]…

QT: Yes. Ulzana’s Raid is the perfect example. Most of the Vietnam metaphor movies don’t work quite as well any more because you’re thinking, “Well, why didn’t you just make a movie about Vietnam?” Ulzana’s Raid actually still completely works as a Vietnam metaphor, because that was underneath it, and what was on top of it was a war movie about the American Indian wars, about the cavalry fighting a nomad army, about how warfare like that is done. So, it was legitimately a war movie about those times and taken seriously as a war movie in a way that most movies dealing with that subject didn’t do. But you had a situation during that era, of, ‘We can’t trust our government for getting us into this war, they said it was this; it wasn’t, we don’t trust them …’ all the different hypocrisies that kept rearing their ugly heads leading to Watergate. And so one of the things that was so interesting about that new Hollywood time period, and particularly reflected from 69-74, not only did the happy ending go away, it was the vogue to have the cynical ending – the cynical, hypocritical, tragic ending. We were cynical about America and these movies just confirmed our cynicism about the subjects. And because we were cynical about America, you see movies that rip down the statues that we had built. So, you see Frank Perry’s Doc [1971], which skewers the Wyatt Earp legend. And then, after everyone from Roy Rogers to almost everybody else playing Jesse James, you have Robert Duvall playing Jesse James in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) where he’s a homicidal maniac; it’s completely horrifying. And then Michael J. Pollard in Dirty Little Billy [1971]…

KM: “Billy was a punk…”

QT: [Laughs] Exactly, right. And literally, Michael J. Pollard looking like that one famous photos of William H. Bonny, more than Robert Taylor ever did. [Laughs]. The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid is miles away from the Tyrone Power Jesse James movie. And leading to the most overt Watergate Western, Posse [1975], directed by Kirk Douglas, starring Douglas and Bruce Dern; written by William Roberts, who wrote the screenplay for The Magnificent Seven [1970]. That, literally, is just a Watergate western.

KM: Going back to themes in The Hateful Eight, it’s interesting that you take these two disenfranchised characters, in the beginning, Daisy and Major Warren, a woman and an African American man, and they, ultimately, wind up as the leads of the film…

QT: Had I set out to do all of that, if I had set out to deal with these sort of issues, I could be looked at like I was patting myself on the back. And I guess I did set it up just a little bit. But when I first starting putting pen to paper it wasn’t “Oh my god, this is going to be my most political film ever.” I didn’t know where I was going with any of it. I was writing my way through it, the way the characters are on their journey, so each new person that joins the stagecoach ups the stakes a little bit and the dynamics change… I actually consider the Confederacy the equivalent of the Nazi party and I’ve felt that way for a very long time, and America is finally catching up with how I have always felt about the rebel flag. Having said that, Chris Mannix makes a very sober defense for his dad who was a Quantrill Raider type guy. And I was shocked when I wrote it, because that’s not how I feel. But I was just doing what a writer does: I was being the character and that came out of Chris. This isn’t my philosophy, of course, but that is Chris’s philosophy [but] I didn’t judge Chris.

KM: But he also grows into something of a comrade with Jackson’s Warren. If a Confederate racist and a Union African-American man could maybe come together, put them in a room of murderous double-crossing scumbags…

QT: Well that goes a long way. I did realize that it could have ended up where Warren and Daisy find themselves on a similar page by the very end. But I was very happy by the way it turned out. By the time you get to the bloody finish of the movie they’ve earned their camaraderie…. The way the movie ends now, in the first draft, it just it seemed too cruel for Daisy to go there. In the first draft, I didn’t want to make her the villain quite that easily. And I think, if I’m not mistaken, in the first draft she gets killed rather arbitrarily leading towards the climax. And that was so not what I expected to do. I kind of broke my own dramatic structure a little bit. Well, that can be good…. I sat with the material, which I don’t normally do. And then I wrote a second draft completely from Daisy’s perspective. Not that I completely re-wrote it or completely restructured it, but, me, the writer, was looking at it through Daisy’s eyes. And that was my attempt to get to know her more, get to understand her more. Now I knew Daisy enough. She didn’t earn it enough, at first, because I didn’t know her enough. I needed to know her fully. Then I could hang her.

KM: Getting into the shooting of the film. I think it’s interesting that you used Ultra Panavision 70 and yet there’s a lot of close-ups which I appreciated, because while you have beautiful, vast shots of vistas in the snow, you’ve got this chamber piece with people and faces. And I always think there’s as much terrain on a human face for that format. Why forgo the close-up, even with that scope?

QT: Oh, I absolutely agree. There was a whole lot of speculation from some people about this whole 70mm thing, as in, that’s really great, but it’s just this set-bound parlor piece, so isn’t it just a big old fucking waste of time and money? And, I think that’s a shallow view of how 70mm can be employed. It’s not just to shoot the Seven Wonders of the World, the Sahara Desert and mountain ranges. You can do more than just shoot weather…. I’ve shot a lot of movies with Sam Jackson, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten the close-ups of him that I’ve got in this. You drink in the chocolate of his skin, you swim in those eyes that he has. And also, it becomes about the dialogue. You enjoy him saying the dialogue both audibly but you enjoy watching him say it at the exact same time. There’s an aspect to the movie that’s supposed to be claustrophobic, that’s part of how the tension works. It wouldn’t be the same if everything took place in the open barn where something could possibly escape. There’s a hothouse atmosphere here. All of these weasels are in one bag. But there’s claustrophobic in a good way, a way that helps the tension, and then there’s claustrophobic in an uninspired, uninteresting way, because you’ve seen it all. And one of the things that I thought this format ended up doing, especially when I started watching the movie: If you’re sitting from the middle to the back, you’re having one viewing experience. You’re watching the framing of it all, you’re watching the artistry of it, a little bit more presentational version of it. Five rows towards the front, you are in the movie, you are in Minnie’s Haberdashery. You are not watching it, you are in it. And that is something about this format that is really special.

KM: I brought up some other westerns I thought might have inspired you, like André De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw [1959] or William Wellman’s Track of the Cat [1954], these snowbound westerns, but you’ve talked about how you were inspired by television westerns like Bonanza [1959-73] and The Virginian [1962-71], particularly because there would be these fantastic guest stars on those shows, those who would play the villains, like Lee Van Cleef or Charles Bronson…

QT: Yes, that’s it. And Robert Culp too. And, when those shows had a big-name guest star like them, they were the star of the story. Michael Landon or Doug McClure are just helping them out, or it’s a guessing game: are they the protagonist like me or are they the antagonist? And just the idea that, in these guest stars, they always had a past that is revealed at some point, and the truth or the untruth of that past literally becomes the story point going forward…

KM: One thing I find interesting about the old western shows and that time in television in general, was that it was this period in television during which some seasoned, interesting directors like Joseph H. Lewis, were directing episodes of The Rifleman while newer guys coming in, like Robert Altman, was directing Bonanza.

QT: Yep. Bonanza, Combat

KM: And then you had John Cassavetes starring in Johnny Staccato [1959-60] and Ben Gazzara in Run For Your Life [1965-68] and then an old movie star like Barbara Stanwyck leading The Big Valley [1965-69]. And, on top of that, you’d see all these unique, particular talents with guest stars like Warren Oates, Warren Oates doing all kinds of things…

QT: Him and Bruce Dern were sidekicks in Stoney Burke [1962-63] the Jack Lord rodeo show.

KM: Yes. A show with great cold openings! And then The Virginian [1962-71]…

QT: I’m a huge fan of, in particular the William Whitney episodes of The Virginian. His episodes are really terrific because he actually had the budget that he didn’t quite have while at Republic. They were like 90-minute movies and were actually released as movies overseas. But. Sam Fuller did a magnificent episode of The Virginian [“It Tolls For Thee,” 1962], which he wrote and directed. It’s a Sam Fuller episode in every way. It stars Lee Marvin as the bad guy who kidnaps Lee J. Cobb and the episode is all about that kidnapping. Marvin and Fuller wouldn’t work together again until The Big Red One. It’s Sam Fuller dialogue from beginning to end. And, I have to say; I took one line from it for The Hateful Eight. I won’t say the line in my movie but I’ll say the line from The Virginian: Lee Marvin runs an outlaw gang and then another guy in the gang, a guy named Sharkey, starts talking to the gang to try to get them to forget about Lee Marvin and Lee Marvin just shoots him in the back. Lee Marvin says, “One measly bullet and there goes the problem of Sharkey.” [Laughs]

KM: … You’ve kept the New Beverly alive. It’s wonderful that all movies are showing in 35 mm [and 16]. Because I would often scroll through what’s playing and see DCP presentation … I saw M projected once [in another theater] and the Criterion menu came up on the screen. What a buzzkill.

QT: I’m glad you said that because that was becoming my dilemma. And, you know, fuck that shit. I have a print. I could have lent you my print. I could go and screen my print. I was making a statement by making it all 35 or 16 at the New Beverly. That is what we’re working towards. If we can find a film print, we’ll show it. There is no consolation prize. But after that statement it was a statement to the audience. If you come to the New Beverly, it will be on film. You don’t have to guess, you don’t have to do any homework, there is no internet search you need to do, the prints will be as good as we can make them, that’s not always a bad thing…

KM: Some of them have their own beauty, faded …

QT: Some of them do! And, God, if those prints could talk. The stories they could tell you about their lives. Where they’ve been, what they’ve shown, how they’ve shown it. I mean, if they can’t get through the projector, that’s a different story. If it’s completely red, that’s a different story. And sometimes that happens but everyone’s rooting for us. If one of the projectors ends up breaking and we have to show it one reel at a time, then the audience gets it. And they root for us; they’re down there and they’re with it. And it’s a lovely experience as opposed to just going another theater and they just hit play.

KM: There’s a retro and timeless qualities to your movies, even this one, which is firmly planted in the past. But the use of music is interesting to help present this, from having the great Ennio Morricone score it, to the songs you choose. A White Stripes song, for Daisy, which is newer. The Roy Orbison song, such a beautiful song…

QT: From The Fastest Guitar Alive!

KM: But Hateful Eight, it’s not [entirely] timeless, but because there’s a sometimes-modern subtext to the characters, and timeless issues we’re contending with today, it doesn’t feel simply rooted in the past. Looking at people from the past, they often are more radical looking than we think, in terms of appearance, especially people in the west…

QT: There definitely is that. There is a spaghetti western-ish patina to the characters, for lack of a better adjective. Most of the really interesting characters in the Spaghetti Western have a comic book feel, as if they were drawn. And the costumes themselves have this comic book artist kind of fetishistic quality to them. Then you think of all of Leone’s films and most of Sergio Corbucci westerns were all done by Carol Sini, who was the costume designer and the production designer, and he did the props. I mean, can you imagine the guy who came up with the Django costume and Angel Eyes’ costume and the Man with No Name costume he, also, like, found the circular graveyard in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [1966] or that fucking rope bridge over the quicksand or the fucking muddy town in Django [1966]? I mean, what a genius! That level of work is almost unfathomable. I did show Courtney Hoffman, my costume designer, a bunch of Carlo Sini movies and she got it. The character’s costumes have to pop before the characters. With Sam Jackson that’s easy because he comes with a big personality on his own. He fills out that batwing, yellow underlining just perfect.

KM: [And] Jackson looks like Lee Van Cleef here … you did this on purpose, right?

QT: Oh yeah, yeah. Sam Jackson definitely looks like Lee Van Cleef. Short of casting Snoop Dogg in the movie, because Snoop Dogg and Lee Van Cleef look exactly alike, I did everything I could to make Sam Jackson look like Lee Van Cleef…

KM: [Thinking of] stylization and what is considered realism, in both the filmmaking and with actors. And what does realism mean exactly anyway? This unyielding idea that there’s one way to express realism…

QT: To hit that point, I actually think that talon grip on realism has loosened in the last ten or fifteen years. One of the things that made me a fan of Kurt Russell was that he would do an Eastwood impersonation through the first half of Escape from New York [1981] and then he turns into Snake Plissken.

KM: He does something of a John Wayne in The Hateful Eight.

QT: He does a big John Wayne in Big Troublein Little China [1986]. He does a little John Wayne in Hateful Eight. He did it a lot in the script reading. We went back on that…

It comes out from time to time, but it comes out honestly. He was doing it a little too much in the script reading. But that was fine. That was him finding his own rhythm and that rhythm worked great for that character. That was really fantastic, him doing a bit of an Eastwood voice as Snake Plissken because acting shouldn’t always just be an artistic representation of realism. There is a child at play quality, that’s why they’re called players. I remember asking Kurt, “So what made you choose doing an Eastwood-esque voice for Snake Plissken?” You are going to love his answer. He said, “Well, I’m doing scenes with Lee Van Cleef. And so I knew that worked. There was a dynamic between the two of them that worked. I know Van Cleef’s gonna work, so if I don’t look at myself that way, Lee Van Cleef’s gonna eat me alive. So if my young ass can fulfill that aspect of it, then I can keep my side of the see-saw up.” That’s a great answer. That’s a fucking great answer.

KM: And in this movie, you don’t shy away from having more stylized dialogue…

QT: It’s absolutely theatrical. I contemplated doing it on stage at one point after I finished the script reading. And I might very well do it on stage after this whole thing is over with … We’ll see, but it could happen. But, if I was going to do it as a play, it would never leave Minnie’s Haberdashery. I would start it with Chapter Five. So, the play version would start with the mystery reveal.

KM: When I saw the live read, I thought about old confinement movies, like Felix Feist’s The Threat [1949] – the live read and the movie have also been compared to Ten Little Indians [1965] or The Petrified Forest [1936] which was originally a play, did those influence any of this?

QT: I didn’t watch The Petrified Forest again and I didn’t rewatch Key Largo [1948]. But, frankly, to tell you the truth, I did watch some B movies that could be considered plays. I watched Shack Out on 101 [1955], which plays like twisted Eugene O’ Neil.

KM: These would make great stage plays. Why not remake some of these pictures as plays? Like Detour [1945] on stage?

QT: Absolutely. They would make great stage plays. I watched a lot of the movies that would be terrific plays. For instance, one spaghetti western could be done on stage. It takes place at a weird middle ground between a place like Minnie’s Haberdashery and the place where they hang out at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West [1968]. It’s called Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead [1971] with Klaus Kinski. It definitely has that interesting stage quality to it. Or something like The Outcasts of Poker Flat. But then also, as we discussed, it was very much influenced by 60s TV westerns… I also watched a lot of the TV westerns that had a home invasion kind of vibe. There’s a Virginian episode where Darren McGavin and David Carradine take over the Shiloh Ranch and hold everybody hostage. And they did that once a season because they only had so many plots and they were on for 15 years so they had to keep recycling them. There was one line in that episode that was so fucking good. And there was no way I could have made [that line] work, but I wanted to. Darren McGavin shows up at the ranch, he ends up shooting a couple of people just to make his point, but one of them is the cook. And then he makes Betsy, Roberta Shore, make him some dinner. So, he’s at Lee J. Cobb’s table and he’s eating his food and he’s talking shit, and then he finishes and he goes, “Wow. That meal was really unmemorable. Always remember: Don’t shoot the cook.” [Laughs] That’s a great line.

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