Maverick filmmaker Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction," "Inglourious Basterds") is no stranger to violent and controversial subject matter, and his latest work is no exception. The director proudly courts trouble in his new film "Django Unchained," a movie that is one part Spaghetti Western homage (think "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" on steroids) and another part brutal revenge epic set in the slavery-happy pre-Civil War American south.
The film stars Jamie Foxx as the titular freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter, a man on the hunt for vengeance and his lost wife (Kerry Washington). Joining Foxx is Tarantino's "Basterds" collaborator Christoph Waltz, as Dr. King Schultz, a frontier-dentist-turned-gunslinger who mentors Django in the ways of the wild west. On Thursday, "Django Unchained" was nominated for five Golden Globes, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for Tarantino, and Best Supporting Actor nods for co-stars Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Tarantino derived the film's title and name of its protagonist from the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film "Django," a wildly popular Spaghetti Western starring Franco Nero (who makes a cameo appearance in the Tarantino film) that spawned countless unofficial sequels and rip-offs. During a recent trip to Toronto to promote his new film, Tarantino revealed that instead of creating a remake of the Corbucci original, he tried to evoke the wild west that the Italian director had consistently depicted in his films.
"As opposed to all the 'Django' movies and 'Django' rip-offs and knock-offs, which I'm proud to say I am now one of," Tarantino said, chuckling.
"All the really terrific Western directors all presented their own version of the West," the filmmaker continued. "I think of all the 'Wests' that have been depicted in cinema, consistently [Corbucci's] was the most brutal, his was the most violent, his villains were the most depraved, and his heroes were in some ways the most unheroic. They could be bad guys in another movie, but by virtue of the fact that his villains are so loathsome, they're the good guys by process of elimination because they don't like the bad guys."
In writing the screenplay for the film, Tarantino said he tried to think about what sort of story he could use "Corbucci's West" to illustrate. "What could be a place that would be so brutal, and the land and the people so pitiless?" he mused. "And I thought being a slave in the antebellum South would be the perfect American representation of a Corbucci West."
Once the "Reservoir Dogs" writer-director completed his "Django" script, he got to work finding actors to fill out his shockingly cruel -- but sadly "true to life" -- vision of the American South. While the director eventually cast Jamie Foxx in the role of Django and Leonardo DiCaprio as the aristocratic plantation owner Calvin Candie, Tarantino admitted that the actors weren't necessarily who he'd had in mind when writing the screenplay for the film. Though he considered other actors first, Tarantino said that as soon as he met with Foxx he knew he'd found his Django.
"You're going to know the right person when they walk in," the director said of the casting process. "You don't have to be convinced. You don't have to be talked into it. You're just waiting to fall in love and then you fall in love."
Thinking back, Tarantino said that he now can't imagine anyone but Foxx possibly playing Django. "There was this cowboy quality to him," the director recalled. "He's from Texas, we're more or less around the same age, and he knows what it's like to be a kid in the '70s and actually experience racism."
According to Tarantino, Foxx shared some of those experiences with him as they discussed the screenplay. "He liked what it said, he liked Django's journey, he liked the fact that this movie would exist and what that could do." He added that he thinks the movie could become a touchstone for young African Americans because of its subject matter. "There are a whole lot of black kids yet to be born and I think 'Django Unchained' might be a seminal movie for them as they grow up."
Tarantino also called the rumours that he'd written the role of Django specifically for Will Smith "a little blown out of proportion."
"We talked it out for a while, but it just didn't seem the right fit — and we both agreed that there might be one down the line but maybe this isn't it," said the director. "It's got to fit like a glove, especially if you're going to be the lead character."
As for the important role of the film's villain, plantation owner Calvin Candie, Tarantino admitted that his initial vision of the character was quite different from Leonardo DiCaprio.
"I didn't really have anybody particularly in mind per se, but I did imagine Candie as an older character," Tarantino revealed. "So when Leonardo said he was interested in playing the guy and wanted to get together and talk with me about it, it was exciting."
The director recalled the fun he had rethinking the Candie character following his early discussions with DiCaprio. "What would that do? Would that change anything? Is there anything negative happening here? Is there anything positive that's coming from them?"
After much thought, Tarantino concluded that with the 38-year-old DiCaprio in the role the pros far outweighed the cons. "As opposed to Candie being the soiled, old, brutal king of the plantation, he'd be the petulant boy emperor — more of a Caligula-like character or a Louis XIV in Southern drag."
To add to the film's slavery-era character, Tarantino shot parts of "Django Unchained" at an actual cotton plantation where real slaves had lived and died.
"It was heavy there," Tarantino said, frowning. "On the one hand, a lot of ugly stuff happened in those places, but then there's the weird dichotomy of how beautiful these places are."
Tarantino cited the example of a scene in the film in which Django's wife Broomhilda is mercilessly whipped. The production shot the scene in question in a place where real slaves had been punished and tortured just 150 years ago. "You could feel the blood in the grass. You can feel the bits of flesh in the trees," Tarantino said. "And you also felt the spirits of the people that came before us kind of watching this story that we were telling."
However, "Django Unchained" isn't all doom and gloom, and Tarantino hopes the suffering his characters endure will make their eventual revenge all the more sweet for audiences. Tarantino has high hopes for the film, not just as his next movie but also as a Western.
"The last couple of Westerns that came out did pretty good," Tarantino said. "'3:10 to Yuma' did pretty good, 'True Grit' did pretty good, and I think we're going to do pretty good." The director believes that the time when Westerns were considered "box office poison" or were considered uninteresting by the younger audiences may finally be behind Hollywood. Rather than emulate the more "pastoral" Westerns of recent years — the ones filled with "beauty shots" and John Ford homage, as Tarantino put it — the director wanted to take the genre back to its roots with "Django Unchained."
"Westerns in the '50s and '60s, they were the action movies!" he shouted. "They weren't the 'artistic' movies; they were the action movies that people went to go see like people go see cop movies or serial killer movies now."
The writer-director was determined not to get hung up on the tropes of the Western genre, and in true Tarantino fashion, he puts the over-the-top violence and snappy dialogue front and centre.
"I have pretty imagery in it, but I can't fall in love with it and it can't just be a movie about pretty pictures."
Believe us: Tarantino's latest ain't just about pretty pictures.
"Django Unchained" shoots into theatres on Dec. 25.