Film and TV

Quentin Tarantino on His Most Ambitious Film to Date, Django Unchained

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"I have a little speaker out there, so I can make tapes and play them. I get up, around 10 or 11 I mosey out there, and I start writing the next scene."

Tarantino puts in a full workday — six, eight hours — and as he's wrapping up, he follows "a trick I learned from Hemingway: Don't finish your thought, have a little left over for the next day." 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 Django script was finished. Shooting began during 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.) Before the shoot had even wrapped, The Weinstein Company began the marketing push — screening footage for press in Cannes, tacking a trailer in front of would-be summer blockbusters like Prometheus, planting the idea of the Christmas Day opening in the brains of Tarantino's wide fan base.

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."

Grindhouse was rushed for an Easter weekend release; Basterds had to be finished in time for Cannes. "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."

Ultimately, Tarantino says he had to negotiate with The Weinstein Company in order to get the three extra weeks he needed to shoot a final sequence. In exchange, Tarantino agreed to forgo a chunk of his profit participation. "If the movie does really well, I'll do really, really, really, really, really well," Tarantino says. But "I don't kick in for a while. I have to pay back the extra money I spent before my thing kicks in."

The four-month postproduction period on Django was further complicated by the fact that, for the first time, Tarantino was finishing a movie without Sally Menke, who had edited each of his previous features. By all accounts, Tarantino and Menke had a symbiotic relationship similar to that of director Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Tarantino has called Menke "my only true, gen-u-ine collaborator," likening her contribution in the editing room to that of a co-writer.

On a sweltering day in September 2010, Menke went on a hike with her dog in Griffith Park and never returned; her body was found the next day at the foot of a Beachwood Canyon ravine. (No official cause of death has been reported.) They say deaths come in threes, and so it went: On June 1, 2012, J. Michael Riva, Django's 63-year-old production designer and the grandson of one of Tarantino's idols, Marlene Dietrich, suffered a stroke and died in New Orleans, where Django was shooting. Then, in August, Tony Scott, an early mentor of Tarantino's who directed his script for True Romance, committed suicide.

Given all this loss, Django's completion is all the more remarkable.

"It's sad," Tarantino acknowledges tightly. "I've been really melancholy the last few days, because this is usually the time where [Menke] would kind of be running the show, this last little bit. So I'm particularly missing her now."

He has always thought of his last draft of a screenplay as "the first edit of the movie, and the edit is the last draft. I like writing these big, novelistic tomes in screenplay form, and working it out as the movie goes on."

Without Menke around to take charge of postproduction, Tarantino notes wryly, "I have to be more responsible for my own movie."

Again, an "event" loomed: In order to be eligible for the 2012 Academy Awards, Django had to be ready for release before the end of this year. "It's part of our strategy, obviously, or else we'd be opening in March," Tarantino says. "I actually think the movie, commercially, would do fucking awesome in March, all right? But the film gets the push of a little Academy attention, it'll do awesome right now."

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Karina Longworth