In Hollywood history, how many writers or directors have attracted as many people to their movies as their stars? How many writers or directors have known as much about movies as any working film critic, professor, or historian? And how many writers or directors have truly loved movies as much as — if not more than — any other movie buff or fan out there? The answer to all of these questions is not many, and perhaps only one who is still in the prime of his career: Quentin Tarantino.
His story is famous the world over: an impoverished kid escapes into the movies; watches so many that he becomes an expert; and, while working at a video store, begins envisioning films that he will ultimately write and/or direct and/or produce; will make him millions of dollars; and will help to usher in the indie film movement that has produced most of the finest American films of the past 20 years. I’m talking about “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), “True Romance” (1993), “Natural Born Killers” (1994), “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “From Dusk Till Dawn” (1996), “Jackie Brown” (1997), “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” (2003), “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004), “Grindhouse” (2007), “Death Proof” (2007), and — this year — “Inglourious Basterds” (2009).
Last week, the Harvey Weinstein-distributed “Basterds” received eight Oscar nominations: best picture (Lawrence Bender), best director (Tarantino), best supporting actor (Christoph Waltz), best original screenplay (Tarantino), best cinematography (Robert Richardson), best film editing (Sally Menke), best sound editing (Wylie Stateman), and best sound mixing (Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti and Mark Ulano). Tarantino’s director and screenplay nods were the second of each that he has received; he was previously nominated in both categories 15 years ago for “Pulp Fiction,” losing the latter to Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”) but winning the former.
This week, Tarantino was at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival to appear on a panel of top directors and also to thank the festival and film legend Kirk Douglas for the 2009 Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film by moderating a special Q&A with Douglas — or, as he called it, a “Q&K.” Afterwards, he was kind enough to take a few moments to answer my questions about his films, thoughts, and incredible journey from high school dropout to beloved filmmaker. Following are several excerpts.
- Tarantino recalls discovering his love for movies “…From, I guess, 15 on, I saw everything; there was nothing I didn’t see. That was my weekends — I went to the movies on the weekends, and I saw a bunch of stuff. I went on Saturday and I went on Sunday — usually double-features. When I went to the few multiplexes that they had back then, I usually didn’t leave until I’d seen three movies. I knew how to sneak into every place; I had it all down — I carried the correct color ticket stub for each different theater so that I could always show the right ticket stub…”
- Tarantino reflects on the five years he spent at Video Archives “…I quit school in the 9th grade. So Video Archives was basically my college experience — not in so far as higher-learning, even though it kind of was higher-learning for what I ended up doing. But what I mean by ‘college experience’ is… even if you don’t go to college, you find yourself having that college experience… you’re working with a bunch of kids your age; you’re all kind of in the same boat as far as the money you’re making; you date amongst them; you hang out with them all… that’s one of the big things about the college experience, is being with other people your age, doing things together, dating together, going out together, eating pizza together. You know, they’re your family. And I had that for five years at Video Archives…”
- Tarantino explains how his life changed around the time of “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) “…After I left Video Archives, I worked for a video company called Imperial Entertainment… I started getting to know people who did low-budget horror films, and they would ask for copies of script samples… and then, eventually, the makeup effects company that I still work with to this day, K&B Effects, had a treatment for a movie called ‘From Dusk Till Dawn,’ and they hired me to write a script, and they paid me $1,200 to write the script, and if the movie ever got made I’d get $10,000. That was the first time anyone had ever paid me to write. And I took it — I jumped at it… and I quit my office job to do this, and I vowed I would never have a day job again… and everything else that came after that — being able to direct ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ making ‘Pulp Fiction’ — everything was small compared to that first leap…”
- Tarantino on whether or not he feels “Pulp Fiction” (1994) is his best film “…I go up and down… for years I said ‘Reservoir Dogs’ was my best film, then I said that ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 2’ was my best film. I won’t really, truly be able to rank my work until after I retire… talk to me three years after that and I’ll be able to give them to you in complete order…”
- Tarantino analyzes his overall filmography “…If a kid stumbles across one of my movies, and they really dig it, and they feel that there’s an author there, and they want to see more by me, I want them to be able to dig into my filmography and everything will give them that sort of taste…”
- Tarantino dissects how he’s managed to stay so cool for so long “…Not to sound too highfalutin, but for good or bad or for better or worse, I’ve stayed true to myself and my voice. I don’t do other people’s scripts; I don’t develop stuff; I’m not looking for other people’s material. Everything I do, it’s me. Now, by the way, novelists do that all the time. Elmore Leonard worked for 30 years, and every Elmore Leonard Book — now, there’s some you like more than others, but that juice, that special thing that makes Elmore Leonard Elmore Leonard? That was there in ’3:10 to Yuma,’ and it was there in ‘City Primeval,’ and it’s there in his new book. And that’s an old fucking man! But he don’t write like it. Pauline Kael was fuckin’ old as Methuselah and she was the hippest chick on the block when you read her shit…”
- Tarantino elaborates about his plans to retire at age 60 and do other things “…Around 60, that’s the time to start hanging it up. And then I’ll become a man of letters, as they say. You know, that’ll be my time to write novels; that’ll be my time to write cinema literature, you know, books about other directors, on genres, you know, film stuff… and I’ll still have the New Beverly at that time, unless an earthquake wipes it out, and I might even have a few more revival houses playing stuff… the truth of the matter is — when you look at the history of film — the hippest, coolest guys have made some of the most out-of-touch movies of their time when they got old. It’s easy for a director to stay too long at the party, and I don’t want to make that corny-ass shit… but I feel my best work is still in front of me, hands-down…”
- Tarantino on the opening scene of “Inglourious Basterds,” which he believes is the best he’s ever written “…It ain’t hay to write a scene that’s, you know, 15 to 25 pages long that’s just two people sitting at a table talking to each other… I put it under a harsh microscope, and I read it again and again, and I’m like, ‘No, this holds. This holds if I get the right actors to do this.’ And, again, that ain’t hay either. That’s a gigantic measure of the equation. Without the right actors, it would just explode… When you actually see a scene that’s that long, compelled simply by dialogue, and it actually does have a finish that made that whole long fuse worth 20 minutes of sizzle — you know, you don’t just see that every day…”
- Tarantino on ‘the auteur theory’ “…I completely buy into ‘the auteur theory.’ There’s a lot of people that make a film, but there’s only one vision, at least on my movies. It’s my job to hire incredibly talented people, sometimes more talented than I am; it’s my job to hire incredibly competent people, a lot of times more competent than I am. But it is their job to realize my vision. I hire people better than myself to achieve my vision. It’s not their vision; it’s my vision. They’re working for my vision, and they make magnificent contributions, and they make my vision richer and fuller than it ever could be on my own or even than it is in my head. But, still, we’re all working towards one goal, and that goal is my vision…”
Photo: Quentin Tarantino on the set of “Inglourious Basterds.” Credit: The Weinstein Company. Special Thanks: Paula Woods, Lisa Taback, and Sara Serlen.