By Iain Blair
For Quentin Tarantino fans it’s been three long years since the colorful writer/director/producer and sometime actor blasted and cursed his way across the screen with Django Unchained. Now he’s back with The Weinstein Company’s The Hateful Eight, an even more deliriously over-the-top, ultra-violent western — set in the same era — that makes Django look almost sweet and gentle by comparison.
It’s also a mash-up of horror and mystery genres, with enough fake blood and red herrings to keep every Tarantino fan in the world happy. With a large ensemble cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Channing Tatum, it tells a seemingly simple story: eight strangers get stranded in a mountainside stopover as a monster storm bears down on them. But nothing is quite what it seems.
All this is lovingly presented in the long-dormant Ultra Panavision 70mm format and shot by Tarantino’s long-time DP Robert Richardson, the three-time Oscar-winner who also shot Django, Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill: Vol 1 and 2 for the director. It was edited by Fred Raskin, another frequent collaborator.
I spoke with Tarantino about making the film, just as the first screenings rolled out.
This isn’t just a western, so what film did you set out to make?
That’s a great question, because it’s always interesting, especially after you’ve gotten to this point and you’re finally showing it for the first time — thinking back to what actually made you sit down with a pen and blank paper and start writing. And on this, more than with most of my scripts, I didn’t really know where I was going 100 percent; I just needed to get the ball rolling.
The starting point was the idea of taking eight characters that you cannot trust at all — you cannot take anything they say at face value. Whatever they say they are, you can’t trust that. Who they even think they are, or present themselves to be, you can’t trust that.Then during the course of the movie, everyone — to one degree or another — has something about their past revealed, but you can’t even trust that!
So there’s no hero?
Exactly. There’s no moral center. There’s no Django or Little Joe Cartwright. There’s no one you can gravitate towards, or anyone you know is really who they say they are. All these characters are trapped together in a chamber-room situation because of the storm.
The blizzard almost seems like some kind of monster.
Yeah, from a monster movie, and that’s waiting to devour them if they ever leave. So everyone’s trapped, and it all develops from that premise. So it’s also a mystery drama.
There was also a lot of drama and mystery a while back when the script was leaked and you got mad and pulled the plug on the whole movie.
That didn’t actually change the film I set out to make that much. I didn’t suddenly radically change direction because of the leak. The reason I reacted so much was that I had planned to do this film in a different way than I’d ever done before. I’m used to writing one big long piece, and when I get to the end, that’s the end. But in this instance — and I’d never written a script like this before — I wanted to spend time with the material and not just get to the end, but write it three different times.
In the course of telling the story in three different drafts, I wanted to see where it took me, since I spent a long time on it. So I wrote the end of the first draft — not “the end,” but just “an end” — and then the first draft got leaked. I felt very violated and I did get mad, and said, “That’s it, it’s never getting made now!” I was going to punish the world, I was so mad (laughs). But eventually I got over it and I calmed down, and then pressed on with it.
How tough was the shoot?
It wasn’t that bad. We shot all the location stuff in Telluride, Colorado, in the real snow, and then we did all the stage work at Red Studios in LA.
How long was post, and where did you do it?
It was about seven months. We just rented a house in LA near where I live and converted it into an editing facility.
Do you like the post part of the process?
I love post. People say, “Shooting’s the most important part,” and you can make that case, because if you didn’t get the coverage you don’t have a film. You could write a terrific script and then bum-rush it because you either don’t have the talent or ability or time to do it correctly. I feel that editing and writing are mirror images of each other. It’s a similar discipline, and I’ve always felt that the final script draft is the first cut of the movie, and the final cut of the movie is the last draft of the script… or at least the story.
When I’m writing, I love it, and am very invigorated, but by the time I’m ready to finish it I’m done with that process and ready to move on to the next one. Then I’m shooting and digging that, but then again I hit a point and I’m done. Life just stops while I’m making a film, and I get it back again after post.
The thing about post is that your gas tank is getting closer and closer to empty as you go, but what I’ve always loved about post is that after the whole hysterical carnival party atmosphere of the shoot is over, you’re suddenly all alone with your editor in a room and it’s all very serene, and what works works and what doesn’t doesn’t. Post is very much like the start of the whole process when you’re writing the script. It’s not hysterical then, it’s just very creative. What’s also interesting about post is that just about the time I’m getting sick of the whole process, you finish and you move on to the next one, and start the whole process all over again.
This is your third film with editor Fred Raskin. How does that relationship work?
He visited the set now and again — he does an assembly while we shoot, but I’m not necessarily going to watch it that much. It’s him getting familiar with the material and experimenting with stuff on his own. When I finish shooting, it’s not like I sit down and work through the assembly as a movie.
I feel the real editing only starts when I get in the room. I need to do all my homework — watching all the takes — and do that alone at home. I make notes and figure out where I want to go and how I can get there. Then armed with those notes, I come in and we start cutting together. At that point I’ll say, “Let me see what you did with the scene,” and we’ll compare versions. And on this there was a lot of great stuff he did that maybe I liked better than my ideas, so it’s back and forth like that.
There seem to be relatively few visual effects shots in this film.
Right, not that many. The most VFX shots come into play once the storm and night hits, so we have all the storm effects outside, but even all that wasn’t just CGI. We ended up using movie effects snow blowing outside the window, and we then augmented it as needed. John Dykstra, our VFX designer, filmed more versions of that snow so we could add onto what we already had. Method Studios did all the VFX work, but we used a lot of practical stuff wherever we could, like squibs for the bullet wounds and so on.
How important is sound and music in your films?
It’s huge, and I actually figure out a lot of the music before I start writing, let alone shooting. They’re arrows that point me in the right direction, when I get cool bits of music. I’ll play stuff while I write and think, “That might be perfect for this scene.” Music’s a big part of the hook and inspiration for me when I’m writing. When I take a writing break, I’ll go upstairs and listen to the songs and I can actually see the movie in my head. I’m sitting in a theatre, with people watching the movie and hearing it, and I love it. It’s me projecting myself into the future and the finished film. There’s the White Stripes song I used, “Apple Blossom,” and I think it’s very effective. I can’t wait to see it with an audience.
Musically, this is the first original score you’ve used, and it’s the first western score in decades by the legendary Ennio Morricone. It seems like a perfect fit with your film.
He’s the maestro and a wonderful artist; it was a privilege to work with him. I had wanted to for a long time, but I felt this was the right movie for him. I don’t think the others were. I had this little voice whispering in my ear on this, saying, ‘It needs an original score.’ I never had that voice before.
It’s also like a stage play and an Agatha Christie mystery.
Yes, I definitely think you’re right there. The second half introduces the mystery element, and I’d never done that before. That was a lot of fun for me, and hopefully I pulled it off.
Where did you mix?
At the Cary Grant theater, on the lot at Sony. I have this great team — supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman and mixers Chris and Mike Minkler — and I’m very hands-on, but those guys know much more about sound than I do. I think they’re the best in the business, so I give them a lot of latitude to do what they want, and then we watch it and I give notes if needed. I also remember the sound on the day, so that factors in too. [Editor’s Note: Keep an eye out for our upcoming interview with Stateman.]
I assume the DI had nothing to do with the film print?
Right. We only did a DI for the DCP, so there would be like a film element that the DCP had to deal with as opposed to taking it straight off the negative. I usually do a DI but this was the first time I didn’t do one for the film print. I went the Chris Nolan way.
Where do you keep your Oscars?
I used to keep them in my writing room, but last year I changed that. I have a big video room with old videocassettes, and I keep them on the top shelf in the drama section.
You’ve only directed eight films, including your 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs. Why so few?
The real answer is, I’m not a director for hire. I’m not combing through novels and reading piles of scripts so I can make more movies. I make a movie, I give it my all, and when it’s over I need some time by myself to figure out what’s next. When I do figure it out, I have to write it, and that takes almost a year. So it’s basically a three-year process on each film.
There’ve been a lot of rumors that you might retire soon. Say it ain’t so!
Well, at least from directing. The business has changed a lot since I began, and that doesn’t help. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a thing. And if shooting on film ever stopped being an option, I wouldn’t reach 10. I’d write novels or plays and direct those, since that’s where I’m coming from. I want all my movies to be made with a deep sense of passion for what I’m doing. I don’t want to just continue doing it because it’s all I know how to do. There is an umbilical cord from Reservoir Dogs to this, and I do like the idea of leaving you wanting just a little bit more.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.