Quentin Tarantino on ‘Inglourious Basterds’: A 16-hour miniseries?
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When Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ premiered at Cannes last spring, there was a surprising outburst of critical sniping, with Time’s Richard Corliss calling the film ‘a misfire’ and my own colleague, Kenny Turan, dismissing it as ‘a self-indulgent piece of violent alternative history.’
Which just goes to show that moviegoers at Cannes must be really a tough crowd: If people can boo the Coen brothers -- as they did one year -- then anything can happen.
But having now seen the film. I’m here to say: Nuts to those guys! The film is a pure delight. In fact, it’s Tarantino’s best film in years, interweaving his obvious infatuation with World War II movies with his undying love for cinema. The film’s multilayered narrative isn’t especially easy to summarize. So let’s just say that it offers a distinctly idiosyncratic re-imagining of Hitler’s demise.
The film follows two parallel storylines: A headstrong young Jewess, who having seen the rest of her family executed by an oily Nazi SS colonel, heads for Paris, where she re-emerges as the owner of a movie house, while a battalion of Jewish-American Nazi hunters -- led by an Ozark Mountain-accented Brad Pitt -- join forces with a German actress-turned-undercover agent to bring down the Third Reich.
The film is an almost perfect expression of Tarantino’s signature style of storytelling, punctuated with long, undulating conversations that always take us to surprising places, where nearly everyone has a hidden agenda and no one is who they first appear to be. Anyone fascinated by language will get a particular kick out of the film, which is crammed with events that revolve around linguistic twists and turns, from the German SS officer who is fascinated by American slang to the British undercover operative who has learned to speak German because he’s a film critic who studied German cinema.
I got on the phone with Tarantino the other day to hear him talk -- and talk (Quentin is quite the talker) -- about the film’s origins, how he ended up casting Brad Pitt and how he finally found a German actor willing to play Hitler. Once Tarantino gets going, it’s hard to get him to stop, so we’ll have to give him a few days to explain everything. But here’s today’s chapter: How ‘Inglourious Basterds’ nearly ended up as a 16-hour miniseries. Just keep reading:
On why the film took a decade to come to life:
‘When I started writing this in 1998, I had a lot of the same characters who are in the movie now, but I had an entirely different storyline, and it just made the movie too big. I had this whole plot where the Basterds had hooked up with a team of black soldiers who’d been court-martialed and they were going after the Nazis together. My real problem was that I couldn’t stop writing. The whole project turned into a behemoth. I finally said to myself -- is this a movie or a novel?
‘So I put it away for a while and then thought about doing it as a 16-hour miniseries. I mapped the whole thing out -- with this scene going here, this scene going there -- and I’d still like to do that someday. But what really kicked me in the shins was when I went out and had dinner with Luc Besson. I started talking about how it could be a miniseries and Luc finally said, ‘Quentin, that’s OK, but you’re one of the few filmmakers who makes me want to go to the movies and now you’re telling me I’m going to have wait five years for you to do the miniseries?’
‘That made me rethink everything. So I took one more shot at making it a movie and I came up with a whole new story, the part that deals with cinema under the Third Reich and the big movie premiere, and I thought, ‘That might work -- we’ve never seen that before in a movie.’ ‘
On casting German actor Martin Wuttke to play Adolf Hitler:
‘I knew I didn’t want anyone famous, because the last thing you want is to be thinking ‘Oh, there’s this famous guy who’s playing Hitler.’ I met Martin in a casting session and it turned out that he’d done Hitler on stage, in a Brecht play, which many people consider the greatest Hitler performance they’ve seen. But still, it was only on stage. And I can’t say he was enthusiastic. When we met, his first words to me were, ‘I’d love to be in your movie, but I’d rather play a schnitzel than play Hitler.’
‘So he turned me down. I didn’t see him again until his friends convinced him to meet with me one more time. And I’m really thankful for that, because no one else could have done the part as well. Martin was always very conscious of not being too over-the-top, which he wasn’t. But he had this great energy. He came at Hitler, right out of the box, on the first day of shooting, being just overwhelming. You know, when I direct actors, I don’t call them by their real names, but by their character names. So when I was directing Brad Pitt, I’d call him Aldo, not Brad. So we’d be in the room with this totally terrifying character, and I’d always say, ‘OK, mein Fuhrer, here’s what I’m going for in this scene.’ There was no way I was going to call him Martin.’
Photo of Quentin Tarantino by Akira Suemori / Associated Press