A very large man, in a very low chair, Quentin Tarantino proved a rollicking guest at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Friday night, earnestly discussing what makes a “Tarantino” movie, how he casts his films, and how many more he plans to make, but also peppering his conversation with plenty of anecdote, revelation and humor.
He came bouncing out for an on-stage interview ahead of a special screening of “Pulp Fiction,” and wished us all “Shabbat shalom.” An hour later, he thanked us for “making me feel so welcome in your lovely country.”
Here are some highlights of what the Tennessee-born writer-director told us in-between, in an inimitable style that was simultaneously erudite, articulate and coarse.
1. He seldom imitates other directors, despite what some film critics would have us believe.
“I rarely take shots from other movies,” said Tarantino. He referred to a scene (lined up for you in the clip below) in “Pulp Fiction,” “when Marsellus (Ving Rhames) walks in front of the car,” as being similar to a shot in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” but “I think that may be the only shot that I’ve taken from another movie exactly.”
Sometimes, he complained, he gets accused of replicating shots “from movies I haven’t even seen… I didn’t take it from that,” he protested, all indignant. “I came up with it myself.”
2. He really does intend to retire after two more movies (probably).
Tarantino, 53, has said since late 2014 that he’ll quit when he’s made 10 films. By most counts, he’s already made nine, but he considers the two “Kill Bill” movies to constitute one (and who are we to argue?), so that would leave him with two to go. On Friday night, he sounded adamant about retiring. “I’m planning on stopping at 10. It’ll be two more,” he declared.
A little later, he did allow that “at 75,” he could decide “I have another story to tell.” But that wouldn’t really count, he insisted lightly. It would have to be kept on a separate shelf, and considered as his “geriatric” movie.
3. He tries to take “genre” movies beyond their previous limits.
Asked what makes a “Tarantino” film, he spoke of a real love for the genres he explores — from martial arts in Kill Bill, to spaghetti Westerns, to Blaxpoitation, to “the ‘bunch of guys on a mission’ movies, you know, from World War II.”
“I’m a student of that genre so I want to deliver the pleasures of that genre,” he said, and that includes elements that haven’t been seen before. “I want to do it my way. I want to break out of whatever mold has kept that genre in bondage.” The aim, he said, is to “transcend” the genre. “I’m hoping mine is, if not better, at least artistically more profound than the average film of that genre.”
4. He doesn’t know why his characters are liars.
The dishonesty of so many of his protagonists is so widespread across so many of his movies that it would seem to be deliberate, Tarantino acknowledged, but it really isn’t, he professed.
In most every movie, he accepted, there are characters who are either lying about something “and trying to sell their lie, or they’re just out and out saying they’re somebody they’re not, pretending to be somebody they’re not, and masquerading as somebody they’re not.” The good liars tend to survive, and the others tend to, well, die, he further admitted.
“I don’t know why that is,” he claimed, sounding helpless and garnering plenty of laughter. “I don’t know why I keep doing that. I don’t know why my characters keeping doing it.”
5. His goal is to make actors “fly.”
Discussing the mechanics of direction, Tarantino said he’s on set, next to the camera, close to the actors, all the time, and that when a take is done, “you know, they look at me: What do I think?” When there’s something he wants to say, “I’m very sensitive to them. We have a lot of private talks… I don’t scream it across the fucking set… or scream it from another room… It’s not about everybody hearing it.”
His one rule, he said, suddenly sounding forbidding and more than a little intimidating, is that his actors “have to know my dialogue backwards and forwards. When you show up on the set, you need to know my dialogue as if it was your fourth week of a Broadway run after a six-week Boston try out. Anything else, you are ripping me off. I could fire you and just start all over again, because you’re just disrespecting me.”
Crucially, he said, actors can’t do the kind of work he looks for if they don’t know the lines “beyond the beyond.” He said there’s a moment actors speak of “when all of a sudden they just kick into the character. And at that moment, they can’t do it wrong because they are the person… I’m looking for that moment… When that happens to them, it’s like flying.” But you can’t fly unless you know the dialogue “beyond the beyond,” he repeated; “if you have to reach for a line, you’ll crash.”
‘When you show up on the set, you need to know my dialogue as if it was your fourth week of a Broadway run after a six-week Boston try out’
In one of the evening’s more passionate moments, giving a hint of how formidable he might be to work for, Tarantino then reemphasized the point, with the help of sweeping hand gestures and jabbing fingers: “They know I am paying them to say my dialogue,” he said, speaking slowly, firmly, deliberately, even menacingly. “That. Is. Their. Job.
“I like them,” he said of his actors. But “I love my characters… And I love my dialogue. And it is their fucking job to say my dialogue!”
6. He was a week away from scrapping “Inglourious Basterds.”
When he was writing the script for 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” as with his writing in general, Tarantino said, he was not thinking of which actors might play the roles. That film’s SS Colonel Hans Landa, he said, turned out to be the best character he feels he’s written to date, and maybe the best he’ll ever write. But finding the actor to play Landa turned out to be a nightmare.
“When I wrote the scene in the opening, in the farmhouse, I didn’t know yet that Colonel Landa was a linguistic genius, but during the course of writing the script, he became a linguistic genius,” said Tarantino. “No matter what character came in the room, he could kick it to them in their language and speak it really well. He’s not shown doing it, but he’s probably one of the only Nazis in cinema history who could speak Yiddish, perfectly,” he joked. (The audience laughed.) “If Filipinos walked in the room, he’d be kicking it in Tagolog with them and not missing a click.” (Much more laughter.)
“The character was so vivid on the page. You bought everything he did on the page,” he said. But “if you had to wait for an actor to learn (the) stuff, he would never be the Landa that was on the page. There’d be a hesitancy on the screen.” He knew, Tarantino said, that only a linguistic genius could play Landa. A linguistic genius, who could also act.
‘So bye bye Max von Sydow. No thank you, Rutger Hauer. I wanted Germans, playing Germans, speaking German’
Complicating the search for the right actor, Tarantino went on, was that he had decided that the Germans in the movie would have to be actual Germans. World War II movies, from the 60s and through even into the 90s, he said, “seem really corny and hokey” in part because “everybody speaking English but with German accents and French accents is just so 1963 that it’s just ridiculous.”
For this film, “I didn’t want a Dutch guy playing the German Nazis. I didn’t want the Swedish guy playing the German Nazis. So bye bye Max von Sydow. No thank you, Rutger Hauer. I wanted Germans, playing Germans, speaking German… I wanted every country to represent their own team, more or less.”
But Landa had to speak not only authentic German. He has lots of lines in English, jokes to sell in English, dialogue in English that Tarantino feels had “a poetic quality.”
Linguistic genius actor came there none.
“I was getting to be kinda worried,” he said, “And unless I found the perfect Landa, I didn’t want to make the movie.” In fact, he was about to scrap it. “I mean World War II isn’t going anywhere,” he quipped. “I could put it on the shelf, take it down four years from now…”
Tarantino gave himself one last week to find his Landa, and was “literally emotionally preparing myself to pull the plug” when Christoph Waltz walked in. An actor unknown to Tarantino, Waltz had been starring in German mini-series and hadn’t made international films. “And it was just obvious he was the guy. He could do everything we wanted. He was just amazing…. We were ecstatic when he finished. We were just vomiting all over him: ‘Oh my god, you were amazing, you were fantastic. Oh my god. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ I’ve never given a man a blow job, but at that moment, at that time, if anyone deserved it, it was him.” (Loudest laughter of the night.)
Tarantino hurried on to say, unnecessarily but amusingly and accurately, that, perfect though Waltz was for the role, “I don’t mean he’s an anti-Semitic Nazi. His son lives in Israel. And he’s a rabbi.”
7. “Pulp Fiction” had quite the American premiere
Asked what has been the most unusual reaction to the movie we were about to see, Tarantino recalled the New York premiere — a black tie, gala affair, with all the hoi polloi in attendance.
Everything was going swimmingly, until the scene with the adrenaline shot.
A little bit after the excitement of that extraordinary scene, the director recalled, “all of a sudden there’s this scream in the audience: “Stop the movie. Stop the movie! A man is dying here. Stop the movie.” (Remember, Tarantino is an actor, too, and he delivered this tale with glorious gusto.)
It turned out that a “diabetic guy had this visceral reaction that threw him into a seizure watching the adrenaline shot scene.” They took him outside, gave him some orange juice, and he was just fine, Tarantino wrapped up. (This being Israel, a lady in the audience piped up soon after to declare that she was at that screening, and it all went down exactly as Tarantino had described it.)
But there was this moment, the director joked, where he thought, “Oh my god. This movie may be too intense for human beings!” More honestly, he concluded, “That’s when I knew the movie worked.”