Two noted films about Slavery and the end of it are in this year’s Oscar race. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Two different approaches to the time but in many ways great companion pieces. Tarantino talks about the dirty little American secret of slave owners, calling it “sex on demand” in his latest Playboy interview. Countless African Americans alive today are descendants from slave owners raping or having long term affairs with their slaves. Thomas Jefferson fathered many children, and none of whom can claim the historical lineage. It is one of the more reprehensible details in American history. In Lincoln, it isn’t directly addressed because that isn’t the film’s focus. Naturally this won’t keep people from whining and complaining, something they won’t do for Django Unchained, though I’m sure there will be something else to criticize.
PLAYBOY: You killed Hitler in Inglourious Basterds, with Jewish soldiers scalping Nazis. In Django Unchained you have a liberated slave turned bounty hunter who takes on the slave masters who turned his wife into a prostitute. Hollywood is recycling fairy tales, from Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz. Are you doing a more creative version by crafting revisionist-history fables that allow victims of loathsome events to rise up and have their day?
TARANTINO: It’s in the eye of the beholder to say if it’s more creative or not, but that is what I’m doing, partly because I would just like to see it. You turn on a movie and know how things are going to go in most films. Every once in a while films don’t play by the rules. It’s liberating when you don’t know what’s happening next. Most of the movies that have done that did it accidentally, like they punched into a contraband area they hadn’t quite thought all the way through. But for that moment in the film, it is liberating. I thought, What about telling these kinds of stories my way—rough and tough but gratifying at the end?
PLAYBOY: What movie sparked this idea?
TARANTINO: When it came to Inglourious Basterds, there was a movie done in 1942, Hitler—Dead or Alive. It was just as America had entered the war. A rich guy offers a million-dollar bounty on Hitler’s life. Three gangsters come up with a plan to kill Hitler. They parachute into Berlin and work their way to where Hitler is. It’s a wacky movie that goes from being serious to very funny. The gangsters get Hitler, and when they start beating the fuck out of him, it is just so enjoyable. They shave his mustache off, cut off that lock of hair and take his shit off so he looks like a regular guy. The Nazis show up, and Hitler, who doesn’t look like Hitler anymore, is like, “Hey, it’s me!” And they beat the shit out of him. I thought, Wow, this is fucking hysterical.
PLAYBOY: When viewers get to the end of Inglourious Basterds, the common reaction is, Wait, is Tarantino allowed to change history like this?
TARANTINO: That wasn’t the jumping-off point for the film—it didn’t come to me till just a little bit before I wrote it. I’d written all day and was meditating about what the next day’s work was going to be. I was listening to music, pacing around, and finally I just grabbed a pen, went over to a piece of paper and wrote, “Just fucking kill him.” I put it near my bedside table so I would see it when I woke up the next morning and could decide after a night’s sleep if it was still a good idea. I saw it, paced around awhile and said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” I went out on the balcony and started writing. And I just fucking killed him. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: You’ve also mixed history with fiction in Django Unchained. Did you study films or history to capture pre–Civil War life in the Deep South?
TARANTINO: You could make a case for watching World War II movies, if only to learn the clichés that help storytelling by giving the audience what they’re used to. There are only a handful of real slave movies. To me this is a Western but set in the Deep South. What I was interested in as far as slavery was the business aspect: Humans as chattel—how did that work? How much did they cost? How many slaves did an average person in Mississippi have? How did auction houses work? What were the social strata inside a plantation?
PLAYBOY: What do you mean?
TARANTINO: In the case of Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Calvin Candie, is a plantation owner who has 65 square miles of land. He’s like Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright but in the South, one of a handful of cotton families in Mississippi. Anybody in that position is like a king in their own kingdom. All the poor whites who work for them and all the slaves are their subjects. They own everything as far as they can see, and the plantation is completely self-contained as a moneymaking entity. Candie is born into this, which means he doesn’t have to give a fuck about the business anymore; it takes care of itself. It’s a weird perversion of European aristocracy. That was a fascinating perspective to use with the whole story and with how Candie chooses to spend his time.