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Tarantino On 'Django,' Violence And Catharsis

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a slave owner, holds Django's wife captive. (The Weinstein Company)

In Quentin Tarantino's new film, Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx plays the title character, a freed slave turned bounty hunter searching for his wife and their plantation tormentors.

As is the case with all of Tarantino's films, Django Unchained is incredibly violent. We spoke to the director before the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., and before critics had taken him to task for the film's brutality. The film also is being debated for the way it brings humor to the story of slavery.

Yet Tarantino insisted then — as he does now — that his new film has a good heart. It's a love story, he says. And, as with his previous film Inglourious Basterds, it's also a brand of revisionist history he hopes Americans will find cathartic.

Tarantino speaks with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish about the touchy topics of the film and what he hopes the audience will bring away from it.


Interview Highlights

On making a traditionally somber topic the subject of an action movie

"I do think it's a cultural catharsis, and it's a cinematic catharsis. Even — it can even be good for the soul, actually. I mean, not to sound like a brute, but one of the things though that I actually think can be a drag for a whole lot of people about watching a movie about, either dealing with slavery or dealing with the Holocaust, is just, it's just going to be pain, pain and more pain. And at some point, all those Holocaust TV movies — it's like, 'God, I just can't watch another one of these.' But to actually take an action story and put it in that kind of backdrop where slavery or the pain of World War II is the backdrop of an exciting adventure story — that can be something else. And then in my adventure story, I can have the people who are historically portrayed as the victims be the victors and the avengers."

On walking the line between entertainment and exploitation

"I'm not coming from an exploitive place. If you shoot sex like an artist, it's an artistic representation. If you shoot sex like a pornographer, then it looks like pornography. I want you to see America in 1858 in Chickasaw County [Miss.], and I think we need to see that. You know, it might be one of those things. At the very end of the day, who knows? We'll find out — court of public opinion will say. But it might be one of those things where, God, you know, maybe it is actually too rough, too painful for a lot of black folks of this generation. But there's the next generation coming out, and they're going to live in a world where Django Unchained already exists."

On why he thinks Hollywood is afraid to approach the subject matter the way he does

"You know, there's not this big demand for, you know, movies that deal with the darkest part of America's history, and the part that we're still paying for to this day. They're scared of how white audiences are going to feel about it; they're scared about how black audiences are going to feel about it. And if you tell the story and ... you mess it up, you've really messed it up.

"To tell you the truth, a couple of white Southern actors were offended by it. No black actors that I know of were offended. And I never heard any black actors say an unequivocal 'No.' "

On the idea that white audience members will have a hard time connecting with the subject

"If you have a white audience member sitting there watching the movie, and they're sitting there and they're thinking, 'Well, I didn't do this. My family didn't make money off of this, so I have nothing to do with this, nor does anybody in my family have anything to do with this,' that's actually a completely fair statement, you know. People don't have to feel personally guilty about stuff that happened a hundred years ago, but what I expect those people to do is go and see the movie and completely identify with Django 100 percent. And his triumph is their triumph. And they're going to be cheering him along all the way, and maybe even sometimes, every once in a while, even a little louder."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. And we end this hour with Quentin Tarantino's controversial new take on slavery in the Antebellum South: "Django Unchained."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DJANGO UNCHAINED")

JAMIE FOXX: (as Django) I recall the man who had me kill another man in front of his son, and he didn't bat an eye. You remember that?

CHRISTOPH WALTZ: (as Dr. King Schultz) Of course, I remember.

FOXX: (as Django) What you said was, was that this is my world, and in my world you've got to get dirty. So that's what I'm doing. I'm getting dirty.

CORNISH: That's Jamie Foxx playing Django, a freed slave turned bounty hunter who's searching for his wife and their plantation tormentors. As is the case with all of Tarantino's films, "Django Unchained" is incredibly violent. We recorded an interview with Quentin Tarantino before the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, which drew a new level of scrutiny to the film just as it was coming out. Still, Tarantino insisted then, as he does now, that "Django Unchained" has a good heart. It's a love story, he says. And as with his previous film "Inglourious Basterds," it's also a brand of revisionist history that he hopes Americans will find cathartic.

QUENTIN TARANTINO: I do think it's a cultural catharsis, and it's a cinematic catharsis. Even...

(LAUGHTER)

TARANTINO: It can even be good for the soul, actually. I mean not to sound like a brute, but one of the things, though, that I actually think can be a drag for a whole lot of people about watching a movie about either dealing with slavery or dealing with the Holocaust is just - it's just going to be pain, pain and more pain. And at some point, all those Holocaust TV movies, it's like, God, I can't watch another one of these. But to actually take an action story and put it in that kind of backdrop where slavery or the pain of World War II is the backdrop of an exciting adventure story, that can be something else.

And then in my adventure story, I can have the people who are historically portrayed as the victims be the victors and the avengers. And it's just - it's kind of a charge. It's kind of fun. What - how did you think about it, though?

CORNISH: Well, I had to say it was difficult. I'm African-American, and it was, you know, there were some moments there and...

TARANTINO: Oh, no, definitely for sure.

CORNISH: And I want to ask you about this because you've long been criticized for being racially insensitive, you know, with the use of the word nigger in your films, and that's true to the period about every other sentence here. You're depicting whippings and torture. And what made you think that you're the right person to tackle this?

TARANTINO: Is there such a thing as a right person or a wrong person?

CORNISH: Well, it seems like you're diving headlong - all the critics who might have said, Tarantino, what's going on with him and race, it seems like you're sort of saying to them, well...

TARANTINO: And I guess I've given them an answer.

CORNISH: Yeah. Now, was there a moment with any of your actors when they turned to you and said, I think this is too far today?

TARANTINO: Oh, no. No, not at all. Yeah, no, no, not at all. I mean that was one of the things that was just actually so cool about this piece is we were just all completely on the same page, either everyone came aboard because of the script, everyone knew what we were doing, and everyone was completely on board.

CORNISH: So how did you want to walk the line between making this entertainment because it has some silly entertaining moments and, you know, exploitation, making the kind of film that people really would despise about slavery?

TARANTINO: Well, you know, it's like - well, I'm not coming from an exploitive place. If you shoot sex like an artist, it's an artistic representation. If you shoot sex like a pornographer, then it looks like pornography. I want you to see America in 1858, in Chickasaw County, and I think we need to see that. And, you know, it's like - yeah, and it might be one of those, you know, it might be one of those things. At the very end of the day, who knows? We'll find out - court of public opinion will say.

But it might be one of those things where, God, you know, maybe it is actually too rough, too painful for a lot of black folks of this generation. But there's the next generation coming out, and they're going to live in a world where "Django Unchained" already exists.

CORNISH: You know, it's interesting, your movie poster will probably be hanging in theaters alongside Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln"...

TARANTINO: Yeah, I know.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...and a film about the abolition of slavery where there are not really any leading black characters. Do you see this as a corrective to films like that?

TARANTINO: I wouldn't say a corrective. I would - not at all, actually. I mean - and I'm not just saying this to be a nice guy. There's really no filmmaker that I respect more than Steven Spielberg. I haven't seen that film yet, but I haven't seen anything. I kind of only finished the movie the last two weeks. But I wouldn't call it a corrective, but I would say it's a nice alternative. To me, it sounds like a historical biopic, where mine is a genre movie. It's an adventure.

CORNISH: Why do you think that Hollywood is afraid to approach this subject matter in this way?

(LAUGHTER)

TARANTINO: Probably because nobody is asking for it.

(LAUGHTER)

TARANTINO: You know, there's not this big demand for, you know, movies that deal with the darkest part of America's history and the part that we're still paying for to this day. They're scared of how white audiences are going to feel about it. They're scared how black audiences are going to feel about it. And if you tell the story and you mess it up, you've really messed it up.

CORNISH: Did anyone say to you, no, Quentin, we're not doing your crazy slave movie? Like did you have...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ... kind of naysayers when you popped up with this script?

TARANTINO: You know, frankly and to tell you the truth, a couple of white Southern actors were offended by it. No black actors that I know of were offended, and I never heard any black actors say an unequivocal no.

CORNISH: And what was their argument to you then?

TARANTINO: They were just - they either just refused to come in, and one guy was just really belligerent. I'm like I wonder why he even bothered to come in, you know, because he was very disdainful of the whole piece and said, you know, the portrayals of the white Southerners is just cliche and monstrous.

CORNISH: Did you worry about your portrayal of the white actors being...

(LAUGHTER)

TARANTINO: Not at all.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...over the top or...

TARANTINO: No. I wasn't worried. Oh, I'm not going to let them be bad. They're going to be terrific. And I'm going to stop them from being over the top, unless that's appropriate.

CORNISH: But let me ask something because in reading Vibe magazine, Leonardo DiCaprio said something to the effect of that as he tried to understand his character, you know, at first, he had to overcome the fact that he couldn't connect with the character in any way and that - it was just not something he could understand, that way of thinking. And at the same time, both Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx in the same article talked about a kind of connection...

TARANTINO: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...and it seemed to reflect something I think in the audience, which is that maybe there are great many in the white audience who would say, I've got nothing to do with this.

TARANTINO: I mean, if you have a white audience member sitting in there watching the movie and they're sitting there and they're thinking, well, I didn't do this. My family didn't make money off of this, so I have nothing to do with this, nor does anybody in my family have anything to do with this. That's actually a completely fair statement, you know? People don't have to feel personally guilty about stuff that happened 100 years ago. But what I expect those people to do is go and see the movie and completely identify with Django 100 percent, and his triumph is their triumph. And they're going to be cheering him along all the way and maybe even sometimes every once in a while even a little louder.

CORNISH: Quentin Tarantino, thank you for being so open with us in this conversation. I really enjoyed it.

TARANTINO: I appreciate it. Thanks a lot.

CORNISH: Writer-director Quentin Tarantino, his new film is called "Django Unchained."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM")

ANTHONY HAMILTON: (Singing) Well, I'm looking for freedom. I'm looking for freedom. And to find it may take everything I have.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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