Meeting Quentin Tarantino (23/09/07)

Quentin Tarantino cannot stop talking. The world-famous director of films including Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs has been eagerly relating an Uma Thurman-related anecdote for ten minutes now, in minute detail, and he is showing no signs of flagging. The story starts with Tarantino meeting Thurman for the first time for dinner (he didn’t want to go; she didn’t want to go; her agent masterminded it) and ends with an impressed Tarantino offering Thurman the role of Mia Wallace in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.

It’s a lovely anecdote, but not one that this journalist has been allotted enough interview minutes to hear. As Tarantino motormouths on, I stare in horror at my list of questions, check my watch (with a throng of journalists outside the door, time is slipping away), try not to panic and simultaneously try to put an expression on my face that communicates the following: ‘We need to talk about Death Proof, Quentin. Your career. Your executive producer Harvey Weinstein. Your friendship with Bob Dylan. Your plans to retire at 60 and write novels. Your belief that you were possibly Shakespeare in a previous life. What the hell, even that foot fetish that I’ve read about. Anything as long as it’s a new subject.’ I am considering staging a distraction – perhaps slipping off one shoe might do the trick? – when Tarantino finally draws breath.

“You want to shut me down if this gets too long?” he says, looking at me with some compassion.

Well, no, but yes. This is terrible. I cannot believe that I am asking Quentin Tarantino to please, for the love of God, shut up. “I’ll jump right to the end,” Tarantino promises. He resumes rambling. Good grief. This interview will be harder, and odder, than I’d imagined.

That the interview exists in the first place is odd enough. Quentin Tarantino, zeitgeist-defining film-maker, genre-bender, career resurrector, high school drop-out, Palme d’Or winner, savvy self-publicist, raconteur, geek, film obsessive and mentor to the likes of Eli Roth, has come to Dublin to promote his new film Death Proof. Is there anything about this situation that does not seem slightly surreal?

That so many journalists, from print, radio and television, are being granted access to him seems even stranger. Pretty much every reporter being ushered out of the elegant hotel suite overlooking the Liffey where Tarantino is holding court has a faintly dazed look. “I hope I wasn’t too much of a fanboy,” says one journalist, looking pale. Others before the interview barely talk, but study their notes like they’re cramming for an exam. From a tribe renowned for their cynicism, there’s an interesting air of breathlessness here.

But then, of course, it’s difficult to overestimate the importance of Tarantino in the world of pop culture. Ever since the former video shop employee with a spectacular knowledge of films and an ear for brilliant dialogue emerged onto the cinematic landscape with Reservoir Dogs, he has been impossible to ignore and easy to revere. Going to a Tarantino film – whether you’re in Hicksville or Hong Kong – you cannot escape the feeling, as the screen turns black and those words ‘Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino’ flash up, that you have just borne witness to a major event.

In recent years, though, Tarantino has had a more difficult time of things: his film Kill Bill, starring a revenge-seeking, yellow jumpsuit-clad Uma Thurman, took 18 months to write, an exhausting 50 weeks to film and had to be split into two to accommodate the scope of the story. Jackie Brown, meanwhile, starring Pam Grier, despite being an accomplished piece of film-making, performed poorly, at least by Tarantino standards, at the box office.

These problems have been as nothing compared to the trials Tarantino has suffered through this year, with the release of Death Proof, his half of the ambitious Grindhouse project, a double-bill affair, directed by Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, that was intended to evoke 1970s exploitation pictures. While both films contained in Grindhouse looked interesting – Rodriguez’ half, Planet Terror, is a zombie flick starring Rose McGowan with a nifty machine gun for a leg; Tarantino’s
Death Proof combines a car-chase movie concept with a slasher flick – people didn’t enjoy the Grindhouse construct. Cinema-goers, either unsure of what they were seeing or uninterested in it, abandoned the cinema halfway through the films, leaving Tarantino red-faced and Grindhouse executive producer Harvey Weinstein out of pocket.

With Grindhouse having died a death in America, Weinstein saw no reason to continue the concept in Europe. Tarantino’s Grindhouse version of Death Proof was expanded by 27 minutes to 114 minutes and prepared for release on its own, with both Tarantino and Weinstein falling over themselves to explain at conferences that this longer version, selected for inclusion in the Cannes Film Festival, was the better way to see the film. For the Grindhouse version, Tarantino said, “We didn’t cut to the bone, we cut past the bone.” Today, everyone interviewing Tarantino has been told not to discuss Grindhouse, apparently because Tarantino is tired of talking about it.

Right now, the notion that Tarantino might ever be tired of having to talk about anything is amusing. The man, clad in a white shirt with a funky white flower panel, is larger than life in every sense. As he walks towards you to introduce himself, you feel you’re stepping into a cartoon – everything about Tarantino seems like a caricature; he’s all big, blocky features, but with that upturned pointy chin. He’s also friendly and warm, quick to laugh, and although he has a habit of coming out with entirely generic lines that I’ve already read on the press release, with a media schedule as hectic as his, you can hardly blame him. “I’ve been to Dublin a few times,” he says, by way of an introduction. “It’s like my fifth time in Ireland and three of those times were on my own just having a vacation. I walk around, go into a used record store, go into a pub and read for a couple of hours, have a pint.” When I tell him truthfully that I enjoyed the film, he looks pleased.

“I always got a kick out of the genre,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do a ’70s Grindhouse film. I always liked action films. That kind of high octane thing was always a real buzz. They always looked a blast. You couldn’t wait to see them at theatres.” Although Irish audiences won’t have the same familiarity with the background inspiration, most of the time, it doesn’t really matter.

In Death Proof, the action centres around Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, excellent in the role), a sleazy, psychotic stalker who owns a car that acts as a killing machine. Although there are dull episodes in Death Proof – film geeks may rejoice at the sight of a group of hot girls earnestly talking about their love for the 1971 film Vanishing Point, but most will yawn — the pleasures of the film are many.

The dialogue is frequently brilliant and the action, particularly the scenes featuring Zoë Bell strapped to the bonnet of a speeding Dodge Challenger, is breathtakingly scary. When the focus isn’t on the speeding, it’s on the stalking; the film – filled with obscure, but funky flea-bitten 60s songs – lavishes attention on the bodies of actresses Rose McGowan, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd and Rosario Dawson. Feet, in particular, are given loving and detailed attention – an interesting touch from a man who knows the value of a foot massage.

Thurman was once quoted as saying that she believed Tarantino had a foot fetish, but was shy of admitting it. Is there any particular reason, I wonder, why feet feature so prominently in his films? Tarantino laughs. “It’s kind of a joke. When the movie opens up with the feet on the dashboard, that’s a great opening shot for a car movie. But when ‘a film by Quentin Tarantino’ comes up, that’s kind of a joke. If you go through the film, I think ass and legs get pretty much equal time. Let’s just say I’m a lower track man!”

In trademark Tarantino style, the film has also revitalised the career of an overlooked actor – this time round, it’s Kurt Russell. While Tarantino loyally disagrees with the notion that Russell could be described as washed-up, he does accept that he tends to go for unusual choices. “In Hollywood all these casting directors have the same list that they hand out. But I have a great memory and there are all these terrific actors I’d like to work with. When you give them a good role, especially if they haven’t been doing stuff that’s inspiring, man, you get a commitment and a passion from them you could never get from anybody else. It’s like they’re a fish and they’re drinking water for the first time in years.”

Passionate as he is about his actors (and their feet) in this film, Tarantino doesn’t talk about any of them like the way he talks about Uma Thurman. When Ethan Hawke and Thurman were still together, Hawke complained that he had no chance of working with Tarantino because Tarantino was too obsessed with his wife.

Discussing her, Tarantino turns dreamy-eyed. He recalls their first dinner the way most people recall marriage proposals. “We sit down and we make a point of not talking about the script. We started talking to each other. The big thing for Mia Wallace is the whole date, the restaurant date that they have. We proceeded to have that experience in the restaurant. The back and the forth, the uncomfortableness and the getting to like each other. We little by little got more comfortable and then got on like a house on fire. When we finished she insisted on paying. I was ga-ga. Not just about Uma. But about her as Mia. I was Vincent! She was Mia!”

In a way, talking to him, you get the impression that he is more consumed with the ghost of Pulp Fiction, and the worshipping of Uma Thurman, than he necessarily is with the present day reality of Death Proof. Tarantino has achieved so much already in his career – does he still have the passion that he had when he was young and working in a video shop to pay the bills? “The answer is one hundred per cent yes,” he says. Then I had the passion of a vivacious student and now I have the passion of a professor.”

You wonder whether that’s true – and then you remember where we are. Quentin Tarantino is in Dublin. By hook or by crook, he’s going to rescue his film and make sure it gets seen by the masses, in Europe at least, if not in America. The publicist enters the room. My time has ebbed away, and Tarantino has a million microphones to go before he sleeps. I’m not sure about whether or not his Herculean publicity efforts will turn Death Proof into a commercial success. But one thing is for certain: Tarantino won’t stop trying. “I have achieved a lot,” he says, as we finish up. “But I intend to achieve a lot more.”

Death Proof is on general release…

One thought on “Meeting Quentin Tarantino (23/09/07)

  1. Pingback: My Tarantino interview « Tut. Sulk. Tut.

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