I recently spent time with Quentin Tarantino as we did the December Playboy Interview for his latest film, Django Unchained. This was my second Playboy Q&A with Quentin. The first time happened before the release of Kill Bill, and it became clear to me during that interview that my subject was determined to make it as good as it could possibly be. He told me he’d grown up without a father, and at around 10 years old, his mother gave him a Playboy subscription to help make him a man. What he did was memorize the interviews with great actors and directors, and he made sure his Q&A stacked up. I came with questions, but felt like my biggest contribution was putting fresh batteries in the tape recorder.
So here we were at it again, years later when the former outsider and rule breaker had proven he was no flash in the pan, and who has grown into acceptance as a respected member of Hollywood’s film making elite. You can read our entire Playboy interview by clicking this link, and find out everything there is to know about how he put together Django Unchained, and the actors he considered before choosing Jamie Foxx to play the title character. And how one of the perks of being Quentin is the ability to cruise around Hollywood in the “Pussy Wagon,” the neon yellow Chevy Silverado SS that Uma Thurman drove in Kill Bill, which sits in his driveway. But there were also some things that didn’t make the interview that I found intriguing that I can share.
One was how much he mourned the shocking death of Tony Scott, who’d turned Tarantino’s True Romance script into a mini masterpiece. It was Scott, his brother Ridley, and a couple of others who gives Tarantino second thoughts about following through on his notion to stop directing around the age of 60. Tarantino is determined not to overstay his welcome, but found Tony Scott an exception to his observation that the later films of great directors are usually the weakest.
TARANTINO: The directorial histories don’t lie, for the most part. But I’ll concentrate on a unique example. I hadn’t thought about how old Tony Scott was until he checked out. And I know him and hadn’t thought about how old he was when he checked out. I go, wow, Tony was in his 70s?
PLAYBOY: Scott, who directed your script True Romance, was well into his 60s when he made Man on Fire, meaning that not all filmmakers lose their edge as they age.
TARANTINO: The rule I apply to older directors is one test. Is their best work in front of them? Tony passed that test, but the answer is usually no. I want my best work to always be in front of me. That’s who I am, the artist I want to be. When you’re going to buy a ticket to see one of my films, it might not be my best work. But there’s still that possibility it will be the one and not a nostalgic trip and not treading water. That is exciting. If it’s not there, I’d rather do other things. Tony’s best movie could’ve been his next one and that always made his movies cool. It’s one of the reasons there was such excitement when his brother Ridley made Prometheus. That could’ve been his best movie. It wasn’t, but it was still an interesting movie. But the fact that it could’ve been a masterpiece was what made it exciting.
PLAYBOY: You don’t turn these things out one a year. How many films do you have left in you?
TARANTINO: You stop when you stop, but in a fanciful world, ten movies in my filmography would be nice. I’ve made seven. If I have a change of heart, if I come up with a new story, I could come back. But if I stopped at ten, that would be okay as an artistic statement.
PLAYBOY: How else was Tony Scott a big influence on you?
TARANTINO: He was probably the first Hollywood heavyweight be nice to me and to actually show an interest in my work. From meeting me and thinking I was cool, and asking to read my work. This was before everything. My friends gave him my scripts Reservoir Dogs and True Romance, and he read them on the plane and was like, “I want to do them. Great, let’s do Reservoir Dogs.” And my friend says, “Well, no, maybe not that one. He’s actually got that one going as a director.” “Okay, well, I’ll do the other one.” [laughs] It was as simple as that. They had an exploitation director assigned to do it. So I said, well, just let them know that you want to do it and I’m sure they’ll be agreeable. And they were. But what I can’t get over about Tony is the thing we were talking about, how directors become lesser as they get older. That never happened with Tony. I’ve been watching his films a lot lately. He was mid-60s when he made Man on Fire, and that started a whole new string for him, and his expertise? I don’t know how to make a movie look like Man on Fire and Domino and stuff. I don’t know how to do that. Tony learned how to do that from doing his commercials. I just watched Unstoppable and The Taking of Pelham 123, and the tension, and just the mastery of mayhem. They are like the Rio Bravo and El Dorado of his career. And I remember calling him after Grindhouse didn’t do well.
PLAYBOY: What did he say?
TARANTINO: I was feeling kind of blue on that Monday and gave him a call. And he was like, “oh, your film didn’t do well? Oh.” And he was so good at looking on the bright side. “Ah, hey, look. I worked hard on Domino and we really took it in the shorts. It happens. This can get you down. This can get you blue. Nevertheless, just be thankful for the position you have. Be thankful that you’re able to make the movies you want to make, make them the way you want to make them. And sometimes they are going to show up, sometimes they won’t. But you get to live the life of being the artist you want to be. And that is very fortunate.
PLAYBOY: So his message was to not lose your nerve. That does not seem to be a problem for you.
TARANTINO: My confidence was rocked a little. It’s like in a breakup, when she’s the one does the leaving, and you’re shaken. And I called Tony and Steven Spielberg. They said a lot of the same things, how fortunate I was to do what I do, and that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. One of the things Spielberg said that was cool was, he goes, “Well, Quentin, you’ve been pretty lucky. You’ve had a success, to one degree or another, every time out. It’s almost like playing the game and not paying for it. All right? Today you paid for it. And it can make you a more well-rounded person, having done that. But the other thing though is the next time you have a success it’s going to be even much more sweeter because you learned what it’s like to have the cards fall the other way.” My confidence was rocked, but in this way: instead of taking a job, or writing something new, I went back to Inglourious Basterds, old material that I knew was good. I said, let me solve it now, quit fucking around, and just solve it.
PLAYBOY: You could have taken the easier way out and jumped on a big project, maybe a superhero movie. You must have been offered a few of them.
TARANTINO: They did get in touch with me in the very early, early, early, early stages of Green Lantern, and a couple of other things. They’ve learned. I actually got things unmade because I showed a little interest in them, but never quite go all the way, and they don’t want to move on. I did that with The Man From UNCLE every time somebody new got the rights. They’ve probably learned not to call me, they know I write my own shit. But after Grindhouse flopped, I actually started getting like aggressive offers for some big Hollywood hot project movies. And I felt like, I see where they’re coming from. They’re thinking I’m a little insecure right now and that I’m going to want to get back on the horse right away, in a solid situation. And I was a little insecure, but I didn’t quite bite. That Friday before Inglourious Basterds opened, I remember being so glad I had stuck to my guns.