Film and TV

Quentin Tarantino on the making of Django Unchained

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Originally a film critic himself, Corbucci directed a number of spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s, most notably the ultra-violent Django (1966), starring Franco Nero as the titular drifter seeking to avenge the death of his wife.

In Japan, under "the whole influence of playing the music and having been writing my Corbucci book," Tarantino says, he wrote the first scene of Django Unchained. Two white slave traders are dragging a chain gang of five slaves through Texas woods on a frigid night. Out of the darkness appears Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter billing himself as a dentist. He announces his intention to acquire one of the bonded men, Django (Jamie Foxx). There is conversation, gunfire, blood and, ultimately, liberation. Essentially, it's the movie in microcosm.

Because Tarantino tends to write his scripts in a linear fashion, starting at the beginning of the film and finishing with the end, opening scenes are an important part of the process. "I usually want my first scenes to be pretty good, if for no reason other than to keep people excited when they read the script," he says. "And to keep me excited — 'Oh, hey, this is a good idea.' "

He saw the character of Django as an "uber-masculine black male figure of folklore," kind of a black Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, whose adventures would have been disseminated (and exaggerated) through "spoken history passed down by slaves, about this one guy, throughout the course of time." The film is a superhero origin story, explaining how a chain-gang slave becomes a free man legally employed to "kill white people and get paid for it," grows into the "fastest gun in the South," rescues his wife from bondage, and ultimately evolves into a kind of angel of vengeance, wiping out anyone and everyone — white, black, male, female — who endorses, enforces, enables and/or is economically enriched by the institution of slavery.

Tarantino says his initial impulse was to get that transformation out of the way at the beginning of the film, and then "cut to years later, like, way after the Civil War." But he liked Django's origin story — and he also liked the idea of breaking from the "mosaic" storytelling style he's associated with, thanks to the out-of-order chapter structures of movies like Pulp Fiction and Basterds.

"I've done that," Tarantino says.

With Django, he became excited about "investing in a through-line character, who actually goes through one situation from beginning to end, and follow it and not do my normal tricks of having a separate chapter that takes you somewhere else entirely. I didn't want that in this one. It's really Django's story, from beginning to end."

Armed with that first scene, and the bounty of spaghetti Western soundtracks he bought in Japan, Tarantino returned to Los Angeles. He used to write in restaurants, bars, Amsterdam coffeehouses — always in public, and anywhere but home. "As time goes on," he says, his process has become more "professional." Django was mostly written on the balcony off the bedroom of his Hollywood Hills mansion.

"I have a little speaker out there, so I can make tapes and play them. So I get up, around 10 or 11 I mosey out there, and I start writing the next scene." He puts in a full workday — six, eight hours. Then, at night, "I'll get in the pool and I'll swim around and think about what I've done. If I know I'm really not done with a scene, I think, 'Okay, what do I want to do, how can I make it better?' If I am done with it, then I'm in the pool doing the same thing: 'What next? What happens next?'

"And I've got to tell you, it's as close to bliss as I've ever achieved, in that space, doing that."

Tarantino was in that space, doing that, until April 26, 2011 — the precise date the script was finished. Shooting began the last week of November 2011 and wrapped July 24, 2012. (That these dates are all included in the film's official press notes suggests that the breakneck schedule is being posited as something of a selling point.)

Was Django's schedule unusually compressed? "It was, for sure," Tarantino acknowledges. "[But] I've been heading here for a long time. My post [production] schedules just keep getting shorter and shorter and shorter and shorter, because there's always something I'm making it for, some event. Like for Inglourious Basterds, it was finishing it in time for the Cannes Film Festival.... It just kept going in that direction, and we kept rising to the occasion. In this case, it wasn't supposed to be this short; I just went really long on shooting. Went a little over."

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Karina Longworth