Tarantino’s 'Biggest Hit' Ever

In his first U.S. interview about his new war film, Inglourious Basterds, provocateur Quentin Tarantino opens up about directing Brad Pitt and that "God" comment at Cannes.

“It would be wonderful to get nice reviews,” veteran French critic Pierre Rissient, a longtime adviser to the Cannes Film Festival, told Quentin Tarantino as the reaction to Inglourious Basterds started posting. “But you’re a provocateur. Nice is not always best. You need to shake it up, say ‘fuck you.’”

The 46-year-old American auteur took some comfort in Rissient’s words as he found himself the victim of the inevitable: Cannes backlash. No film could have lived up to the hype surrounding his homage to Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and World War II movies, Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino’s fifth Cannes entry after Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (which won the Palme d’Or), Kill Bill: Volume II, and Death Proof was doomed to fall short of overloaded expectations.

Critics described Inglourious Basterds—starring Brad Pitt as the leader of a renegade Nazi-hunting brigade in German-occupied France—as “an obese, pampered adolescent” (The Guardian), “a distinctive piece of American pop art with a Euro flavor” (Variety), “blithely neglectful of basic storytelling tropes in order to indulge his auteurist peccadillos” (Time Out New York), and “a fairytale of unusual and thoughtful daring, a return at last by Tarantino to his combustible and operatic best” (The London Times).

“This is nothing new for me,” Tarantino says, remembering some of the bad reviews he got on 1994’s Pulp Fiction, especially. But the Cannes reviews were “frustrating,” he admits, because he has always relied on character and dialogue. “Who says a playwright has too much dialogue?” he asks. “The one time I eschewed dialogue with Kill Bill: Vol. I, all the critics complained.”

And Tarantino says he has always given his movies more novelistic than cinematic structures: “Separate film chapters tell our story. I create mosaics, following this story and that story, and eventually they all converge—unless you’re dealing with Reservoir Dogs or Death Proof, which have straightforward storytelling.”

View Our Gallery of Red Carpet Moments at Cannes

It’s been a whirlwind year for the director, who has long believed in making films slowly to stand the test of time. That is, until Death Proof, which did not benefit, he says, from too much overfiddling. So he put Inglourious Basterds on a tight schedule with a Cannes deadline.

After finishing last July the 165-page script he had been writing on and off since 1999, Tarantino obtained backing for a $70 million picture from loyal patron Harvey Weinstein and Universal Pictures, landed his most megawatt star ever, Brad Pitt, almost canceled the October shoot before he finally found the multilingual Christoph Waltz to star in a pivotal role, and stayed on schedule during 10 weeks of shooting on location in Germany. And after three months of editing, he delivered a dripping-wet print to Cannes—a place he considers “Cinema Nirvana,” where “cinema matters, it’s important”—at a running time of two hours, 27 minutes: 13 minutes less than Pulp Fiction and 19 minutes less than he needed to retain final cut.

Now the director can go back to America and give the movie a proper preview outside California—which was always the plan—and tweak the timing with “an audience pruning cut.” (The movie opens August 21.) He may even add one of several scenes left on the cutting-room floor. While Maggie Cheung as Madame Mimieux will not be restored, Tarantino will see how an additional scene plays that features sexy Irish actor Michael Fassbender as a British film-critic soldier trying to pass muster as a German officer.

Inglourious Basterds is broken into five chapters; much like Kill Bill, each is influenced by a different movie genre. The opening sequence, a two-hander between Jew hunter Colonel Landa (Waltz) and a French farmer (Denis Menochet) seeking to protect his three lovely daughters, was inspired by Leone westerns as well as the opening sequence of Heaven's Gate. (Tarantino thinks his writing in this scene tops his personal best: the Sicilian speech in True Romance.)

The second chapter, which introduces the Basterds, led by hillbilly Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt), is a “Western with World War II iconography,” Tarantino says. The third, introducing French actress Melanie Laurent as a Jew hiding at a Paris cinema, is shot in lustrous black-and-white in French New Wave style. “From Chapter Four on, it becomes like ‘60s World War II guys on a mission, like The Guns of Navarone.”

The trick to keeping Tarantino’s movies modern so that they play well going forward, he says, is to play it risky, not safe. “One thing that makes a World War II movie quaint and old-fashioned is not doing the correct languages,” he says. So four languages are spoken in the course of the movie, much of which is subtitled.

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And the women in the movie are as active, fearless and competent as the men, from Laurent’s Jewish French resistance fighter to Diane Kruger’s glam German movie-star spy, modeled on Hildegard Knef. Thanks to Tarantino, says Laurent, "women can be independent in a period film."

Nor does the director care if his reflexive use of titles, musical cues from Ennio Morricone, an unidentified narrator (Samuel L. Jackson), and multiple film references are distracting for audiences. There’s no knowing what he’s going to do, from charming us with heroic, charismatic Germans like Daniel Brühl to killing off the characters we like. “I want to do a movie that pushes you in, and pulls you out,” he says.

Tarantino didn’t set out to produce a love letter to European cinema, he says: “I go where the character and scenario takes me.” With Kill Bill, “I started to write a female martial-arts revenge movie, but that’s not what came out,” he says. “With Reservoir Dogs I wanted to write the best heist film ever and you never saw the heist. With Inglourious Basterds, I enjoy the war-mission subgenre but I want to forward it, make it bigger, broader, more artistic. I don’t want to do an art film meditation either, but when it comes to the last two reels, I have to deliver the good stuff. I got to write a war film and a love letter to cinema. I’m a slave to passions. But I never called it an action movie, ever ever.”

While the movie boasts plenty of violent killing of Jews and Nazis, including closeups of head-scalping and baseball-bat bashing by Hostel writer-director Eli Roth (who calls it “kosher porn”), Tarantino saves his big action set piece for last (spoiler alert) as the world is saved by a cataclysm of flame. In this alternate reality, Tarantino says, "the power of cinema brings down the Third Reich.”

Needless to say, modesty is not Tarantino’s calling card. While he was referring to his power over his characters when he told the Cannes press conference, “I am God,” he insists that Inglourious Basterds is a mainstream movie: “I think the popular response will bear that out. I think it will be the biggest hit I have ever done.”

Xtra Insight: Gallery: Classic Cannes

Xtra Insight: The Eight Sexiest Films at Cannes

Anne Thompson launched the daily ThompsononHollywood blog in March 2007, when she joined Variety as a columnist. Previously, she was deputy film editor of The Hollywood Reporter, where she wrote the weekly syndicated column "Risky Business" and the Riskybizblog. She has also served as West Coast editor of Premiere and Film Comment, and senior writer at Entertainment Weekly.