(WARNING: Quentin Tarantino dropped some fairly big spoilers while talking, and they're in this article...)Having "Misirlou" as your opening credits is just so intense it just says "you are watching an epic, you are watching this big old movie. Just sit back". It's so loud and blaring at you, a gauntlet is thrown down that the movie has to live up to; it's like saying "We're big!" -Q.T. (From The Tarantino Connection CD, 1996)
Only two films into his career, in the interview from which this quote is excerpted, Tarantino more or less lays out his directorial mission. His films have always played like a stick of dynamite exploding exuberant bouts of style, packaged in mind-bending narrative structures. He knows how to start a film big, in a way that announces itself with a swaggering grandeur that prepares the viewer for greatness. His mission is to start the bar sky high and own up to his promise. How well he does or doesn't do that can depend on many factors for his audience. Are they genre fans? Do they enjoy black comedy? Are they sensitive to the trashy images of the exploitation movies Tarantino was raised on?... and so forth.
Love him or hate him, QT is legit. Often when it comes to naysayers, it can be as simple as the fact that they often don't love the same types of movies he loves, resulting in an alienating lack of context. Whatever your personal journey has been with his work, eight films in, you have to admire his ability to stay big!
In an era when the death of film could realistically occur on the current studio-heads' watch, Tarantino offers one of the last film events around. It's hard to say when it came to this, but so determined is he to sustain the theatrical experience, as film was intended, that Tarantino has found a way to make 70mm borderline mandatory... unless, of course, you've chosen to snooze on the hoopla. There's nothing especially wrong with snoozing on the roadshow edition, but you will miss out on some of its filmic charms, not to mention an additional hateful eight minutes of running time. Sure, four of those minutes belong to Ennio Morricone's overture, but it's also one of the experience's highlights. Combined with the fun of an intermission that really makes you feel like you went to see a goddamn movie, The Hateful Eight roadshow, like Tarantino himself, makes a vocal case for the importance of film as spectacle and not passive entertainment.
Given that Tarantino only produces a spectacle every three or four years, I found some pretty solid excuses to find myself at, not one, but two press conferences for The Hateful Eight. The first occurred in L.A. with Quentin Tarantino and the eight hateful individuals in question: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Channing Tatum, and old timer, Bruce Dern. Sam Jackson stole this particular show with his bombastic wit slaying the media with knee-slappers. This is not to say everyone else didn't also have their moments, particularity Goggins, who offered a tickling on set anecdote. We were prohibited from recording the event, but the good Weinstein's did provide video coverage, attached below. It's a good watch.
The second conference occurred in New York with the mostly the same faces, minus Jackson and Tatum. With Sam L gone, though his humour was missed, Tarantino was given more opportunity to speak for his film and offer a deeper sense of context.
The conference had its share of clunkers - headline journalists insisting on Tarantino rehashing the tired police drama - but mostly, it was chock full of good. I've offered my highlights below, including QT addressing my own question when a smaller impromptu conference broke out with a few of us huddled around him. But to get the ball rolling, here's how Bruce Dern responded to being asked whether he had any expectations concerning Tarantino's pastime of resurrecting careers.
Bruce Dern: I've been very lucky in my career, but this guy, he does a couple things the others I've worked with don't do. He has the greatest attention to detail that I've ever seen. Burt Lancaster once told me the same about Visconti, he'll take a seat right next to Visconti. Trust me. The other thing he does is he gives you an opportunity as an actor, and everybody behind the camera as well, a chance to get better. His material is so good, so original, so unique, if you will, that if you don't get the part ... The big part of it is you're so excited that he chose you, and not Ned Beatty or Jimmy Caan. Then you're excited to go to work every day, and like with Mr. Hitchcock, for a few days ... I had this for every day with Quentin. You're excited to go to work every day, because he just might do something that's never been done.
When Tarantino casts a role, as a result of his hyper-awareness of the careers of most actors, his players come wearing every character they've ever played before on their shoulders. Here's where the idea of alienating context gets him into trouble. When a character drops an N bomb in one of his films or hits a woman, he knows exactly where that character is coming from. That certainly doesn't mean the audience will and often it's the case that the emotional response to images or dialogue that feels wrong, will cause nasty conclusions. Entitlement becomes the issue, though I doubt if a black director brought us Pulp Fiction, or if a female director presented the abuse of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue, they wouldn't be taken to task. Mary Huron certainly was not accused of misogyny for her comedy, American Psycho.
Yet this is where the majority of his detractors are coming from when they accuse the filmmaker of irresponsibility, and worse, on account of his off-colour characters. It's not entirely different from the 70s exploitation era, which planted in Tarantino an appetite for tawdry grit: a cinema of cheap thrills. Whether it was a film like Dolomite perpetuating street brother stereotypes, or Kung Fu
depictions of over the top violence, or the nihilistic westerns of Peckinpah, or films that presented women less than respectfully, as in the work of Jack Hill or as in Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat. The difference is that, while those films certainly got their share of flack from the moral police, Tarantino has been met with a greater uproar based on his sheer popularity - he has successfully brought the detestable exploitation genre to the masses. Those who are offended take issue with the trending of pop-exploitation, rejecting his notion of pop-pulp.
Throughout his eight films, we've seen a lot of the exploitation and its many sub-genres explored. The most unsettling example of a sub-genre would be hardcore Blaxploitation films like The Legend of Nigger Charlie or Boss Nigger. In Django Unchained, Tarantino attempts to find the common ground between the aforementioned N-word boasting titles, with the likes of Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles as well as Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning - four films directed by white directors. Whether such a common ground is possible has since been a question polarizing Django viewers. Intellectually, we understand that mocking the simple racism of the past has therapeutic value. On the other hand, how good do we feel laughing at slave characters when sandwiched by scenes of unspeakable brutality? It was a confrontational, brave goal that earned Tarantino both hatred and Oscars. Speaking personally, I love the premise of Django, but there is a sense of guilt that keeps me from fully relishing in his slave revenge fantasy. Tarantino himself puts it this way.
Quentin Tarantino: In (Hateful Eight), I kind of learned how to do a western, and I realized I wasn't done with the genre. I wasn't done with what I felt I had to say. One of the things I think I had to say, in this regards, was dealing with race in America, which actually a lot of westerns in America had avoided for such a long time. I think I had more to say. There was also something else about Django too. You were dealing with such a big subject, as far as slavery in America, that as fun as Django was, it was this downer sword of Damocles hanging over the whole thing that you had to deal with, and you had to deal with it in a responsible way. There was actually an aspect of The Hateful Eight, even though I deal with certain similar issues, I could just kind of let her rip, and not just do my western, without having this history with a capital H hanging over the whole piece.
This touches on why The Hateful Eight is so satisfying. The western has never especially thrived as a capital H history genre as much as it used history as a malleable backdrop to stage violence within as a morally bankrupt wasteland, where all semblances of civilization are thrown out the window. By definition, the west is the land before politically correct thinking. With Django, the landscape of bigotry was an accurate bummer that too powerfully counterweighted the humour, but in The Hateful Eight, the audience is finally able to sink its teeth into a real Tarantino true grit western times eight.
Consequently, Hateful Eight feels less like fantasy and more like a well-rounded western. Funnily, as a result of removing the capital H, The Hateful Eight ends up being one of his more racially conscious films. Take Sam Jackson's character. Major Warren, the black man living in a white hell, and maybe the most hateful purely because he himself is the most hated - also making him the biggest underdog - a valuable position in this genre. Major Warren survived an unfriendly civil war and all throughout that period up to and including his visit to Minnie's Haberdashery, even at the height of racial tension, like the downtrodden Daisy, Warren is no victim. In Q.T.'s words:
QT: I think when Sam came out of his mother's womb, even, the doctor said, "Mrs. Jackson, you just gave birth to a two-pound baby actor." I don't know if Sam has become a better actor as time has gone on, because I think he's always been really great, but I think his stature has risen, and his persona has become bigger, and bigger, and bigger. I love him because nobody says my dialogue quite the way Sam Jackson does. He takes the dialogue, it's not poetry, but it's poetic. It's not song, but it's music. He sings it. He gets that across. It's not standard comedy, but it has comedic rhythm, and he nails that fairly well. Also, both me and Sam are huge Lee Van Cleef fans. There definitely is this tip of the bat wings to Lee Van Cleef, and his characterization, and even the way we did the look.
In Hateful Eight, we see the pulp novels of western genre originator, Zane Gray, as directed by Sam Peckinpah - Gray because we're given chapters like "Last Stage To Red Rock", and Peckinpah, because when John Ruth whoops Daisy Domigue in the mouth so to work out a set of signals, "When I hit you it means shut up!", though we gasp watching darling Jen Jason Leigh take a beating, we understand that in this west, any one of the crimes for which Daisy is being apprehended would be enough to make you sick. If the families of her victims were to burst through the door and violently take their revenge, that's what Tim Roth's, the hangman of Red Rock, would call frontier justice. Tarantino fuses elements of his favourites of the western genre and beyond, from the Civil War backdrop of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly to the horrific blizzard isolation of John Carpenter's, The Thing, but interestingly, the seed for The Hateful Eight's bloodshed came from the fairly wholesome TV Westerns of Quentin's youth...
QT: The actual idea was... It was actually kind of funny because both Bruce Dern and Kurt Russell were in a lot of these... (momentarily distracted) I just saw Sweet Dave walk in! ...I've watched a lot of episodic western shows from the '60s like The Virginian, Bonanza, and stuff. I found myself in particular watching the episodes that had really cool guest stars, like James Coburn, or Robert Culp, Vic Morrow, people like that. I noticed that when you watch those episodes, if Robert Culp was a guest star, the story was about him. If he was on The Virginian, the story was about him, not Doug McClure... he knew him, and was helping him. The same thing kept happening. Claude Akins, all of them. Anyone who was a special guest star, they were always strangers, they came into town, you never really knew who they were, and some past about them was revealed at some point in time, and how true that past was, or how not true it was, you had to watch the whole episode to find out. At times, you never knew if they were a good guy or a bad guy until the end of the episode. You didn't know if Doug McClure was going to end up being the friend at the end, or demand a killing at the end.
A little part of me thought, those are really interesting characters. What if I took eight characters like that and trapped them in a room. No Michael Landing, no Little Joe, no Doug McClure, no good guy, no hero, no moral centre that the audience could move towards, and just let those characters hash it out. That actually was the starting point. That's what got me to sit down and put pen to paper.
The Lee Van Cliff-lovin' Sam Jackson was a natural shoo-in for badass underdog, but as good as Jackson always is, he's really 1/8th of the film's charm. The pleasure lies entirely in the squaring off of eight heavyweight characters, and thanks to Tarantino's cross-genre casting, actors with past roles preceding them face off to the quiet joy of cult fans. As Kurt Russell puts it:
Kurt Russell: I think the most extreme example of it, actor to actor, in all honesty, when I am going to walk over and talk to Michael Madsen, and he's Mr. Blonde, and I'm Snake Plissken. There's going to be some fucking problems.
Michael is a fantastic energy. He's a force as a human being. I'm more of just an actor. I'm not a Snake Plissken.
Michael Madsen (budding in): Are you suggesting I am Mr. Blonde?
(The room howls with laughter)
KR: I didn't want to let Mike down, and I certainly didn't want to let Quentin down, but you're going to carry that with everybody. That was challenging for me. That wasn't easy, with my personality, to go over and just be so bombastic, and seriously confident. It was my first experience in a long, long time, to relish working with actors that all I had to do was talk to them. I could just go be my guy. I didn't have to do anything for them. I didn't have to pull for them, as an actor.
QT: You get a three-day rehearsal before we did that script reading and I wrote John Ruth for Kurt, and Joe Gage for Mike, but the first time that they got to that scene, and they read that scene, it was like, "Wow. Snake Plissken is challenging Mr. Blonde. Holy shit!"
When Tarantino writes his screenplays, it tends to be a one draft deal, but on account of the screenplay leak shenanigans, his eighth film proved to be an anomaly in process. Since the leaking of the first draft and the subsequent live reading of it to follow, Tarantino was set on expanding to three drafts in an effort to flesh out the characters.
QT: I'm doing genre movies so I have an idea of where I'm going at the end. At the end of Kill Bill, I thought it was very possible she would kill bill, but how, why, exactly how you feel about it, that was a very open question. That's one of the reasons I think I like genres because I can explore a lot of different things but I still kinda have a road that I'm traveling to some degree or another. This one I wanted to do differently. I wanted to spend time with the material. More time than I normally spend, from the beginning, middle, and end. I wanted to even go through the process of telling the story three different times.
Just to give you an example, in the first draft, the Lincoln letter, which is a motif that plays out through the film, was only dealt with once and it was in the stagecoach. Now, I knew I wanted to do more with it, but I wasn't ready, and I didn't have any obligation to have to do it in the first draft. I could kind of find it on my own. In the second draft, it appeared at the dinner table scene, and the third draft it appears later the way you see it in the movie.
To give you another example, Daisy's end in the third draft, which is what is in the movie, was where I thought I wanted to go in the first draft, but something stopped me from going there with her in that first draft. I almost felt I didn't have the right to do that to her yet because I didn't know her well enough, not by just the first draft. So, the second draft, and not in a tricky way. Almost just from an emotional way, as far as I was concerned, I wrote the whole second draft from Daisy's perspective, just emotionally, not in a tricky prose way, but just in an emotional way, so I could really get to know her. I wanted to be on Daisy's side for an entire draft of the story so I could really feel I knew her, and then after I feel I knew her, I could do what I needed to do to her.
It has struck some viewers as odd to discover that for a film presented on such a large canvass, only one quarter of the film's story takes place outside among the vast white mountains of Wyoming. But whoever said that 70mm was medium only intended for vistas? It does offer Tarantino the occasion to take his generally quite wide screen to next level with Ultra Panavision. As a kid, my introduction to the concept of home video widescreen came from watching my Pulp Fiction letterbox VHS, wondering why the film was only one small third of my 20" cube television screen, but it played like a sliver of wonder.
Twenty years later, the lover of widescreen finally gets to play with his widest screen yet, forcing him to reimagine shot sizes that use every inch to its fullest effect. Considering the screen is about as wide as eight people standing, you're always watching much more than who the camera happens to be focusing on at any given moment. Best of all, the enclosure of the proceedings calls back to the claustrophobic tension of Reservoir Dogs, lending Tarantino's eighth outing a full circle sentiment. 'The Eight', as no one's calling it, actually brings out the mystery aspect of Dogs by lending it's basic premise the Agatha Christie treatment... that is, before Agatha is in turn given the bloody Reservoir Dogs treatment. When asked about his foray into murder mystery territory, QT explains:
QT: I just thought it would be a good idea for the story. I just thought it would be very interesting. At the end of ... One, the story just kind of lends itself to it at a certain point, but also, frankly, it was just I like mysteries, and they haven't done mysteries in a long time. I think they're just very entertaining, so I didn't really know what, exactly, was going to happen, at least in the first draft of the script. As I was going, I just kind of dealt with everything as it went. I'm writing the stage coach part, that's just that. Then we get to Minnie's Haberdashery and there's four people waiting. I didn't even know who those four people were. I wanted to be as in the dark about them as the audience would be, the characters, and the stagecoach would be, and just have them reveal themselves to me, little by little by little.
By introducing that mystery aspect, I just thought that would be a lot of fun. Like I said, especially when you haven't seen a mystery done at the movies in a long time, I think it could really be a very entertaining experience. I remember after I gave Sam Jackson the first draft of the script, I go to him, I go, "What's your favourite part of it?" He goes, "I like when I start figuring shit out, and I turn into Hercule Négrô."
Just like elements of the murder mystery seeped into the story as an organic method to build tension, so too does the film venture into horror territory. Horror and mystery are of course no strangers to one another if you take for example like Scream - a film that was once offered to QT as a for-hire gig, before Studio heads understood that he was not a for-hire director - or almost any other masked killer movie. Horror may not have necessarily been the direction QT had in mind, but the apparent elements were far from lost on the foreign press, nor were they on the film's composer.
QT: Me, and Tim, and Walt, and Kurt just got back from the press and the premiere in London and France, and Mad Movies, which is sort of the French FANGORIA ... They're not the first people to bring up, "Hey, is this your first horror film?" A couple people that have ... There are definitely horrible moments in it, to be sure, but it's surprising how it was a theme in France. Every interviewer came in, "It's a Western, but horrifique," and they really, really kept hitting on this horror film aspect. That actually does, to some degree or another, actually play into it. This one movie ... I don't think this is that influenced by that many other Westerns, but one movie it's definitely influenced by is John Carpenter's version of The Thing, which also had Kurt Russell, and also has a score by Ennio Morricone. That actually makes sense because this movie is very influenced by Reservoir Dogs, and that was influenced by The Thing. There's obviously trappings of it. The characters are trapped in the one room, there's and a lot of paranoia going around, and nobody can trust anybody, and there's a horrible blizzard going on outside.
The snow western is its own little sub-genre, with Andre de Toth's Day Of The Outlaw, or Sergio Corbucci's El Gran Silencio. They're very bleak, pitiless movies, but also with the idea of shooting in 70 millimetre, just I thought mountains, and the blizzard, and the snow, and especially that stage coach moving through it would give it a big, visual look, even outside. When you're inside, the outside is always going on, and to me, the blizzard is like a monster in a monster movie. It's always outside. It's raging, truly raging. It's angry. It's waiting to devour the characters if ever they leave.
The biggest influence when it came to that was the effect that The Thing had on me the very first time I saw it in a movie theatre on opening night. It was the first time I was actually able to break down, in a more critical way, the effect of a film, IE. the paranoia was so strong between those characters that ... It was trapped in such an enclosed space, that the paranoia just started bouncing off the walls until it had nowhere else to go but through the fourth wall and into the audience. So that was the effect I was going for with The Hateful Eight, was to have that kind of feeling.
Though it's mostly coincidental that Ennio was also the maestro behind the score of The Thing, he and QT's new found collaboration also saw an opportunity to merge the two films in more ways than its' story connection and lead actor. Earlier this month at a DGA-hosted event, Tarantino explained what Morricone said to him at the outset:
QT (At LACMA): I wrote a whole orchestra score [for 'The Thing'], and I wrote a whole synthesizer score, because I knew that was what [John Carpenter] was used to, and I gave him everything, and the only thing he used in the entire movie was the synthesizer main title [track].' So basically, if you stay away from the synthesizer main title, all that music that's on the soundtrack album has never been used in a movie ever. So, he goes, 'What I can do, is I'll write the theme...and with the other 'Thing' pieces of music, now you have your original score that's never been used in a movie before.'
As for the score itself, Tarantino got far more than he bargained for when the Italian composer who declined to score Django Unchained, not only agreed to write a piece for the film, but would eventually extend that one piece into a 32 minute suite, purely based off of The Hateful Eight's script. Tarantino wasn't sure exactly what to expect, he explained back at the NY press conference, but he knew not to expect the western sounds that earned Morricone his reputation.
QT: I didn't expect Ennio to give me a western score. He had always said that ... I think a movie with Terrence Hill called Genius in 1973 or '74, was like his last official western score. He always said he didn't want to do westerns anymore. So even though this was a western, I wasn't expecting a score similar to Two Mules for Sister Sara, or anything like that. I was figuring it was going to be dark. That's the way he almost described it. He gave me a horror film score, and sometimes even a Giallo score, but there were elements of a Giallo in this. Giallos are usually mysteries. There's even a black-gloved killer in my movie. I think it's one of those things, when you see a killer with a black glove, it's like, "OK, I can't wait for them to show more of the characters so I can see who has a black glove." And then, "Oh, shit, everybody's wearing a black glove."
Coming into the conference, I had a few questions lined up, should the opportunity present itself. I had one in particular on my mind, but when the conversation ventured into music, I couldn't resist chiming in with something else off my list. Soundtrack has played no small part in the impact he's managed to have on his fans. In the interview sprinkled throughout The Tarantino Connection, Q phrases the effect of music in film like so:
QT (From The Tarantino Connection): That's one of the things about using music in movies that's so cool, is the fact that if you do it right, if you use the right song, in the right scene; really when you take songs and put them in a sequence in a movie right, it's about as cinematic a thing as you can do. You are really doing what movies do better than any other art form; it really works in this visceral, emotional, cinematic way that's just really special.
Tarantino's collaboration with Morricone is not only beautiful for the union it represents in the cinesphere, but also because it brings with it Morricone's best work in years. Thankfully, but not surprisingly, Tarantino uses his nefarious, tension stretching, blizzard score to perfection. What is somewhat interesting is that Tarantino hasn't entirely shied from the song scoring to which he's so adept. The Hateful Eight uses "the right song, in the right scene" three times, but opts not for period-accurate ballads. Instead we have the viscerally placed Kinks-esque pop of yesterday's White Stripes. From Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door" to Neil Young's Dead Man sound track, the soundtrack has always been an emotional point of fascination. The best westerns play like the cowboy ballad Daisy sings in the tense silence of the cold untrusting Haberdashery, foretelling an impending doom.
Back in the press conference aftermath, Tarantino finished his brief discussion of Morricone and a brief silence fell. While we were still on the topic of music, I piped up:
"In terms of your contemporary music choices, I think of Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, both because it's a snow western and that it uses Leonard Cohen. Or how Peckinpah uses Dylan in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Can you talk about your song selection process? How did you arrive at song choices like The White Stripes', "Apple Blossom"?"
QT: Something about that song ... I had another song in mind all through the shooting, but... It's literally a song that somebody gave me on a mix tape back at the time I was doing Kill Bill. All of a sudden it just hit me, and I started playing it, and I really liked it. It's done with the kind of instruments that doesn't make it anachronistic. You could actually ... It doesn't break you out. It's not like Metallica or something like that. It fits in, but I also like the fact that it played like an interior monologue of Daisy. It makes that sequence Daisy's sequence. If you listen to the lyrics in association to where Daisy is thinking in that point in time, about somebody coming to rescue her. Basically, it's the gang talking to her. "Don't worry, honey. It's rough, it's tough, but we're coming to get you, baby. We're coming to get ya!"
Watch the L.A. press conference below: