“The way I write, my dialogue, I always kind of fancy it as poetry and they’re the ones that make it poetry when they say it,” says iconic director Quentin Tarantino about his affinity for pulling from his pool of talented and idiosyncratic actors. The follow up to his 2009 Nazi-hunting epic Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino again rewrites history with the much-anticipated Django Unchained. The cinematically daring film tells the tale of a slave named Django and his quest to free himself and rescue his wife, with the aid of German bounty hunter and the takedown of sociopathic slave owner, Calvin Candie.
As his pictures are wont to be, Django is a grand undertaking of a film—with a script that’s both gut-wrenchingly brutal and highly entertaining, all set in the Deep South, featuring an incredible cast of actors that all embody their characters with devotion and panache. This past Sunday, I had the joy of sitting down to watch Tarantino, joined by the cast of his new heroic odyssey-meets spaghetti Western-meets monumental love story for press conference on the film; the result: a fantastic conversation on the nature of portraying slavery on film, undertaking such intense roles, and telling this story of sacred ground.
Slavery as a film subject:
Quentin Tarantino—I always wanted to do a film that deals with the horrific past of slavery, but the way I wanted to deal with it was, as opposed to doing a straight historical movie, I thought it would be better if it was wrapped up in genre. It seems to me, so many westerns that took place actually during slavery times have just bent over backwards to avoid it—as is America’s way, which is interesting because most other countries have been forced to deal with the atrocities that they’ve committed and the world has made them deal with them. But it’s kind of everybody’s fault here in America—white, black—nobody wants to stare at it. And I think there are different types of slave narratives that could have existed in the 245 years during this time; there’s a zillion stories: dramatic adventurous, heartbreaking triumphant stories that could be told. Living in a world now where people say, there are no new stories, there’s a whole bunch of them and they’re all American stories that could be told. So I wanted to be one of the first ones out of the gate.
First impressions when reading the script and being asked to play slaves:
Jamie Foxx—I actually saw that the movie was going forward and someone else was playing Django. I thought, wow, here’s another project I haven’t heard about. My acting hustle was: I don’t care what it is, it’s Quentin Tarantino, and all these people. I feel that the people here can tackle absolutely any subject matter as far as artistic ability. And reading the script, well I’m from Texas, so being from the south, there’s a racial component. So when I read the script, I didn’t knee-jerk to the word "nigger" like someone from maybe New York or LA would because that was something I experienced. But what I did gravitate towards was the love story between Django and Broomhilda. We never get a chance to see the slave fight back and do for himself.
Kerry Washington—I think a lot of times people in the past may have felt nervous about playing a slave because so many of the narratives told in film and television about slavery are about powerlessness and this is not a film about that. This is a film about a black man who finds his freedom and rescues his wife—he is an agent of his own power, he’s a liberator, he’s a hero. And so there’s nothing shameful about that; it’s really inspiring and hopeful. I was very moved by the love story, especially at a time in our history when black people were not allowed to fall in love and get married because marriage, that kind of connection, got in the way of the selling of human beings. So to have a story between a husband and a wife at a time when black people were not allowed to be husband and wife, was not only educational but again, hopeful. We’ve seen this love story a million times about star-crossed lovers—its just that they don’t come from two different Italian families like Romeo and Juliet, the thing that stands in the way of them being with each other is the institution of slavery. So Django is out to get his woman. I said to Quentin in our first meeting that I want to do this movie for my father because my father grew up in a world where there were no black super heroes and that’s what this movie is.
Jackson on the psychology of his character, Stephen:
Samuel L. Jackson—When Quentin told me about the part of Stephen, I complained about being fifteen years too old to play Django. And when I read the script I called him back and said, “So you want me to be the most despicable negro in cinematic history?” And we both kind of laughed together and said, “Yeah, let’s get on that.” And not only was that a great artistic opportunity to create something that was iconic, but to take something that people know as Uncle Tom and turn it on it’s head in a powerful way. It also gave me the opportunity to do really nasty shit to the person who got the role that I thought I should have—and it was written beautifully that way so I could do that. Stephen is the freest slave in the history of cinema; he has all the powers of the master and is the master during the times that Calvin is off mandingo fighting. Everybody knows him and fears him. We referred to him as the Basil Rathbone of the Antebellum South. But I wanted to play him honestly and wanted everybody to understand that when Django shows up, that’s a negro we’ve never seen.
DiCaprio on being the biggest villain in the film and why he wanted to take on that role:
Leonardo DiCaprio—Well, obviously Mr. Tarantino here was a major factor. There was a sort of buzz about this script for a while, people were talking about the new Tarantino film. And the fact that he tackled this subject matter, like he did with Inglorious Basterds and recreated his own history and something as hardcore as slavery and combined it with the genre of having it be this crazy spaghetti western feel to it with this lead character that obliterates the cankerous rotting south, is completely exciting. He wrote this incredible character and as soon as I read it, I was completely excited. This man, as Quentin put it, he represented everything that was wrong with the South at the time—like a young Louis XIV, sort of a prince that wanted to hold onto his position of privilege at all costs. Even though he was integrated his whole life with black people, brought up by a black man, lived with him his entire life, he had to find a moral justification to treat people this way. And like, the fact that he’s a francophile but he doesn’t speak French, he’s just a walking contradiction. He was brought up by black people and yet he had to regard them as not human. There was absolutely nothing about this man that I could identify with. I hated him and it was one of the most narcissistic, self-indulgent, racist, horrible characters I’ve ever read my entire life. But I had to do it! It was too good a character in that sense. This man writes just incredible characters.
On watching DiCaprio fully immersed in his character:
JF—We were doing the dinner table scene and that whole day people were coming up from the offices, like, “you gotta see Leo do this scene.” He and Sam were just going to work. But what happened was, the shot glass slid over underneath what he was slamming his hand down against and in one take he slammed his hand down and the shot glass goes right through his hand. And now blood is shooting out his hand, and I’m thinking, does everybody else see this? And he just keeps going. But what was amazing was that he was so into his character that when they finally said “cut” he was still this guy. To be honest, I think they almost gave him a standing ovation at that time. So it was amazing to see that and the process from my end of Sam and Leo making it real.
On reuniting with Tarantino:
Christoph Waltz—There was no reunification, there was no working again; that was just another mushroom of the fungus that was grown subcutaneously.
QT—I had the same problem with Sam for over a decade. It’s hard not to write for these guys. They say my dialogue so well and just the way I write, my dialogue, I always kind of fancy it as poetry and they’re the ones that make it poetry when they say it. They come out of my pen. It’s just, I have to, I can’t shut it off. I’ve been wanting to do this story for a long time. They was never some German dentist bounty hunter in the story! And next thing I know, I sat down and wrote that opening scene and he just flew right out of the pen.
Don Johnson—As Quentin told me, “You sing in my key.” I looked at Big Daddy as a character who as everybody has mentioned, this was something that was going to go on forever until these two mother fuckers showed up. They messed up everything. But man, it was a joy to work with him.
SLJ: I remember the first day I got there, I went looking for Quentin, and the slaves were in the field. I was walking down that road through a cotton field and I didn’t realize until I got in the middle of the field that all these extras were out there in their slave gear and they were picking cotton and white dudes were on horses with shot guns. I looked back and Don was on the porch in the big house and I was like, “Oh shit. We’re doing this.” It was almost like a Twilight Zone episode or something. It was crazy. Everything started to help us do this movie.
KW—We were shooting on an actual slave plantation called Evergreen Plantation, so that leant itself to all of us kind of disappearing into the story because you felt like you were making the film on sacred ground. You felt like you were reenacting this behavior where these crimes against humanity were actually committed, so it started to infiltrate everybody’s acting and behavior and choices and relationships.
SLJ—Like when you Kerry got whipped, even the bugs stopped making noise and the birds stopped singing it was kind of like, oh shit is this back?
DJ—My dresser found out that her ancestors were buried in the cemetery on the plantation. That was was a serious day when she came to work and told me that.
KW: And they were German!
Jonah Hill on his role as Bag Head #2:
Jonah Hill—Yeah, I don’t know. I got into this business to work with great filmmakers, so I don’t care if Quentin wants me to be an extra in one of his movies. I don’t even know what the fuck I’m doing up here with these guys. I worked for like two days on the film. It’s kind of an ego stroke that you even want me here. But I think it was the weekend Moneyball had come out and it was like I met with Quentin and he asked me and I was all for it. I was just so excited to do it.
Tarantino on writing the script:
QT—I write these huge scripts that are like novels. They’re not blue prints for a movie, they’re novels. If I had to do this whole thing all over again, I actually would have just published this as a novel and then done an adaptation of that after the fact.
Tarantino and cast on external sources of inspiration:
QT—I think all of these actors can tell you the feeling they have the first time they walk into my office and they see all the 60s western posters up and the blacksploitation posters up and all this viscera that doesn’t exist anymore in movie posters. Now everything just looks like Vanity Fair photo shoot, every single goddamn movie. The idea of drawn posters doesn’t happen anymore, and those were the posters! Those were really cool. But that style of viscera— whether it be a spaghetti western album covers, the blacksploitation album covers, the posters—I’m kind of trying to get at that. When my stuff pops off in the big way that it does or the imagery that I’m trying to evoke—like the costumes we employ in the film that always have a bit of a comic book panache—I’m trying to get those kinds of illustrations in life, in my flicks.
CW—Source is a contradiction in terms and I can only speak for myself, but the source is the script and the script has a source.
DJ—That periods of time is one of my favorite in history because it’s full of deceit and rich in human character or lack there of. So I’ve read a lot on it and there’s a lot of outside material. For me, I like to start with outside information, research, and just start layering it into the ethics of the time, the social graces of the time—did they have indoor toilets? No. How were manners created? So I start from the outside and then slowly start to bring it all inside and emotional. Quentin’s the source and then the character work, for me, I like to know what it’s like on that day, in that time, with that energy running around.
Leo on his career as an actor and his experience working on the film:
LD—I love acting, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do my entire life and I hope to continue this for a long time to come. It’s the greatest job in the world, truly is. We’re all lucky bastards up here, the fact that we get to do what we love for a living every single day. What was great about doing this role was the sense of community and the support mechanism I had every single day. This was my first attempt at playing a character that I had this much distain and this much hatred for. It was an incredibly uncomfortable environment to walk into. I’ve seen racism in my surrounds and in my life growing up but to the degree that I had to treat other people in this film was incredibly disturbing. I think it was disturbing for actors on both ends of the spectrum. Like we were talking about before, one of the pivotal moments for me with this character and going to the places I had to go to, was this initial read through when I brought up the point where like, do we need to go this far at times, do we need to push it this far, does it have to be this violent, do I need to be this atrocious to other human beings? And Sam and Jamie both said, look man if you sugar coat this people are going to resent the hell out of you, you gotta push this guy to the utter extreme because this is not only historically accurate but it went even further than that and by holding the character back you’re going to do an injustice to the film and people are going to feel like you’re not telling the truth.
And honestly, that was the thing that sort of ignited me into going the way I do with the character, and once I did do even more research and once I started to watch the documentaries about the sugar plantations, I saw we were just scratching the surface of what happened in our country. It’s a sore subject matter and it’s a film subject that should be looked at more often and not shied away from. I commend Quentin for making a film that combines so many different genres and as daring as it is to actually make the subject matter entertaining for an audience. It’s a daring concept. At the core of it was to have a group of actors that were all mutually there for one another to support and drive each other further.
KW—I felt like we relied on each other because we’d be in these awful places and Quentin would call cut and we’d all be like, “Everybody okay? You okay? You hurt? Okay, let’s do it again.”
JF—Especially Kerry. You took a beating.
QT—For two days straight. There’s the real way to do it and that’s the Kerry way and anything else is bullshit as far as Kerry’s concerned. And I was like man, she’s the real deal.
Tarantino on the difference between writing the script and shooting it:
QT—It’s one thing to write: Exterior—Greenville, 100 slaves walk through this deep shit mud in chains wearing masks and metal collars, this whole town that’s built over like what’s almost a Black Auschwitz. It’s one thing to write that, it’s another thing to get 100 black folks, put them in chains and march through the mud. And same thing about the cotton and putting an army of black folks in the sun. I started to question: could I do it? I don’t think I’ve ever thought that about anything when it came to my work before. I started thinking, can I be the reason why that’s even happening? And I’d actually came up with an idea of maybe shooting just those sequences alone in like the West Indies or Brazil where they have their own issues of slavery, but because this is an American story there would be a once removed quality of it. My problem was having Americans do that. So I was trying to escape it; how can I do it but get around it so I don’t have to deal with the pain? And I went out to dinner with Sidney Poitier and I just finished the script—he’s kind of like a father figure to me—and I was explaining my little hair-brained scheme of escaping and he listened to me and basically told me I had to man up. He goes, “Quentin, for whatever reason, you were born to tell this story and you need to not be afraid of your own movie. You can’t tell this story if you’re afraid of your own movie. You just need to do it. Everybody knows what time it is, we’re all professionals everyone gets it, just treat them with love and respect and treat them like actors not atmosphere; let them know why they’re there, what they’re doing, and what we’re trying to get across and it will all be good.”
KW—One of the background actors, who was a pastor, one day kind of paused everybody and said, “We have to remember that we are the answer to these people’s prayers. The people who did this work dreamt of a day where you could not be property but own property, where you could read and vote and get married and have a job and get compensated.” And it really, on that sacred ground, forced everybody to shift and man up and own how blessed we are that we get to be here and tell this story and not feel victimized by it, but know that it’s a story of a hero and that’s a profound opportunity.
Tarantino on telling a linear narrative and editing:
QT—It was a conscious decision from page one not to do my normal narrative tricks. This had to be Django’s journey from beginning to end, it had to be an odyssey. You need to see Django start his journey and complete it in one scenario. As far as the film taking shape in editing, there’s so many different emotions in this movie—there’s the exciting western adventure, there’s the gallows humor like comedy, and there’s the pain of the story, there’s the catharsis, there’s the suspense, and hopefully at the end there’s the cheering. If the audiences aren’t cheering at the end, then I haven’t quite done my job. So balancing all those different emotions so I got that cheer at the end was the biggest issue of editing.
Frankly, when it came to the pain, I could have gone forward; I have more of a tolerance. Part of it was I wanted to show how bad it was, but I also don’t want to traumatize the audience so bad that they can’t enjoy the movie and be where I need them to be in the last reel. The whole hope was that if you leave your house and go to a movie theater and pay a ticket to sit with a bunch of strangers to watch this movie, you’re going to have ultimately by the end of it, a great time at the movies. And I think so far, so good.
SLJ—Quentin always writes movies he wants to see. We watch a lot of the same kind of movies and he generally writes a role in there that I’m going to do because I want to see myself in that kind of movie and I think I represent a lot of movie goers and he represents a lot of fans.
KW: The impetus for all the adventure and action and all of it is love and it’s a complete universal theme, this idea. Everybody wants to be loved so badly that they’re prince would slay the dragon.
SLJ—Oh, that’s some girly shit, like some old west rom com bullet ballet.
Photo by Getty Images for The Weinstein Company