Quentin Tarantino knows the secret of yuletide gift giving: Get them something they wouldn’t get themselves. After all, who but Tarantino, the man who machine-gunned Hitler’s face off in his WWII remix Inglourious Basterds, would think of laying a hyper-violent all-star slave-revenge-Western fairy tale like Django Unchained (rated R) under the tree on Dec. 25?
Like so many other presents, Django was wrapped just in time. After seven months of production, additional reshoots, weather complications, a revolving-door cast list, a sudden death, and a sprint to the finish in the editing room, Tarantino has managed to deliver the film for its festive release date. With that long, dusty trail now behind him, the filmmaker slumps beneath a foreign-language Pulp Fiction poster in a corner of Do Hwa, the Korean restaurant he co-owns in Manhattan’s West Village, and admits he’s tired. ”It’s been a long journey, man.”
Keep in mind: An exhausted Quentin Tarantino, even at 49 and a long way from his wunderkind years, is still as energetic as a regular person would be after two strong coffees. And he’s characteristically enthusiastic about his new film: a spaghetti Western transposed to the antebellum South that follows a slave (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of noxious plantation owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in his first truly villainous role. It’s a Tarantino experiment through and through, and comes three years after Basterds earned eight Oscar nominations and more than $320 million worldwide, cementing his place as one of the few filmmakers whose name alone is a box office draw. But while his previous film’s cavalier historical revisionism lifted a few eyebrows, Django’s up-front depiction of the brutal horrors of slavery is likely to raise some serious hackles.
With rare exceptions like ABC’s landmark 1977 miniseries Roots, Hollywood has seldom dealt with America’s original sin head-on. So Tarantino knows that his film — which features liberal, if era-appropriate, use of the N-word — is all but guaranteed to spark controversy. After one of Django’s first screenings in New York City earlier this month, an African-American woman stood up and, visibly distraught, told Tarantino she was horrified by what she had just seen. A few others voiced their agreement with her, although most in the audience remained silent. To a degree, Tarantino understands the response. ”There is no setup for Django, for what we’re trying to do. Truthfully, some people are going to respond badly to the film, and maybe they’ll blame me, and I guess that’s fair enough,” he says, looking genuinely pained. ”No one likes to be misunderstood. It’s a drag.”
Still, others will love it for its refusal to wear kid gloves, and for the way Foxx’s Django becomes the hero of his own story. ”Look, there will be people who are glad at the way the film shines a light on what it does, and the fact that it doesn’t hold back about slavery,” says Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Stephen, Candie’s head slave, a character the actor predicts will become ”the most hated Negro in cinematic history” for his rabid defense of the hierarchical status quo. ”And there will be people who will be upset that every other word that comes out of our mouths is n—–. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Isn’t the problem that we haven’t been talking about this stuff?”
Django is Tarantino’s first Western, but only technically. His love of the genre has infused his previous films with Mexican standoffs, Sergio Leone-style close-ups, and climactic showdowns. The idea to do a ”Southern” came to him post-Basterds, while he was writing a book on Sergio Corbucci, the Italian filmmaker who directed the original 1966 Western Django. Tarantino started churning out a script and soon was inviting Waltz — who won an Oscar for his slithery turn as SS officer Hans Landa in Basterds — to his home to read it as he finished, 20 pages at a time. ”I’d sit down at his kitchen table, he’d pour me a drink, and then put the still-warm, just-printed pages in front of me,” recalls Waltz, who grew a thick salt-and-pepper beard for the role. ”And I’d sit there reading while he was eyeing me.”