Welcome back to History 101 with Professor Quentin Tarantino. Please take a seat.
Three years after he rewrote the third act of WWII with Inglourious Basterds (and a full two decades after he first two-hand blasted his way into Hollywood with Reservoir Dogs) Tarantino is back with another film that splices actual history and cinematic history into one outlandish adventure. This time around it’s a mission for love, not country: Django Unchained, in theaters Dec. 25, follows the story of a liberated slave (Jamie Foxx) — aided by a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) — on a quest to save his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a cruel plantation owner, played by first-time villain Leonardo DiCaprio.
As a hyper-violent spaghetti Western homage set against the backdrop of American slavery, it’s certainly an oddly shaped Christmas gift. Tarantino says that while he did plenty of research for the script, he wasn’t as obsessed with exactitude as, say, the makers of Lincoln. (For example, at no point in Spielberg’s film does the 16th President walk in slow motion to the sound of a Rick Ross rap verse.) “There’s historical with a capital H, this almost arm’s-length, dusty record of things,” the director says. “But I wanted it to be vital. I wanted it to work as a Western, and I wanted it to work as an adventure film that would be thrilling and exciting—where you’re not being exploitative, but you’re also not pulling any punches about the sexuality and the brutality that was happening at that time.” So few films have ever dealt with the issue of slavery, let alone in the context of a rollicking Tarantino-style enterprise, that it appears the film may have some dynamite in its saddlebags. “There is no setup for Django, for what we’re trying to do,” he says, acknowledging the film’s potential for controversy. “Truthfully, some people are going to respond badly to the film, and maybe they’ll blame me, and I guess that’s fair enough.”
Star Jamie Foxx wasn’t coming to this whole cowboy thing cold. Tarantino says one of the reasons he cast the Oscar-winning actor as his taciturn gunslinger was because he actually lived the part. Foxx owns his own horse, Cheetah, which got to act alongside him in the film, and as a youth in small-town Texas, he used to spin little plastic revolvers and pretend he was in the Wild West. “All that heroic cowboy stuff that you get to watch as a kid,” Foxx says. “I got to do that.”
Like all of the filmmaker’s work, Django Unchained is filtered through Tarantino’s celluloid-stuffed mind. The idea for the film came to him while writing a book of criticism on Sergio Corbucci, spaghetti Western auteur and director of the original 1966 Django. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I really like the description of this type of West, of this type of brutal pitiless landscape,’” says Tarantino. “ ‘And frankly I don’t know if Corbucci was thinking this, but I know I’m thinking it. I’m thinking it right now, and I can do it.’” As usual, while Tarantino is more than happy to enumerate his long list of cinematic inspirations, there’s no mistaking Django Unchained’s world as coming from anyone’s head but his own.
For more on Django Unchained, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands December 14th.