Making a living from exploitation

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Quentin Tarantino is in high spirits. Death Proof, the second half of Grindhouse, the director’s loving tribute with Robert Rodriguez to 1970s exploitation films, has just been accepted into competition at the Cannes Film Festival, which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Tarantino is elated to be adding footage to his segment for the screening at Cannes. In the US Grindhouse plays as a double-feature (with a running time of 192 minutes), but most countries will show it in two instalments, with Tarantino’s Death Proof and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror as two distinct movies.

But there is another reason for his giddiness. When we meet, Tarantino is preparing to show a double bill of two of his favourite films at his newly launched Grindhouse Fest, an annual celebration of cinema. “One of my favourite sexploitation movies is by the British director Derek Ford, The Girl from Starship Venus, which will be playing with a Spanish picture, The Legend of the Wolf Woman,” he says. “Any plans tonight? You can come and see my favourite prints at the New Beverly [an arthouse revival moviehouse in LA].”

The film reel in the projection room is important to Tarantino. He owns a substantial library of 16mm and 35mm prints, including the classic Howard Hawks-John Wayne Western Rio Bravo (“Man, I just got my own 35mm print, which I can’t believe I own”), films he watched as a clerk at Manhattan Beach’s video store and schlocky fare he admires.

“I’m limited in my programming [at Grindhouse Fest],” Tarantino says, “because I wanted to use only my prints. I didn’t want to borrow anything, I wanted it to have my complete personal touch.” Every year the festival will be devoted to a different decade: “This year I made it exclusively the 1970s, but next year I could do 1960s stuff, or 1980s, my library is big enough.”

Cannes, queen of international festivals, has always occupied a special place in Tarantino’s heart. In 1994, Pulp Fiction won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, which Tarantino considers the happiest moment of his life. “I remember reading about Cannes when I was a little boy,” he says, “and I always imagined going there. Reservoir Dogs was not in competition, but I got to see my very first movie in the Grand Lumière and it was fantastic.”

When Clint Eastwood, who was jury president in 1994, announced Pulp Fiction as the winner, Tarantino “jumped up and screamed like it was a football game. That’s my favourite memory of Cannes. It’s my favourite of all accolades I’ve received. The Palme d’Or was more important than the Oscar [for Original Screenplay], more than anything.”

In 2004, Tarantino was himself asked to preside over the Cannes jury. The award of the Palme d’Or to Michael Moore’s provocative documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 caused quite a stir, especially as Tarantino is generally considered an apolitical filmmaker.

Tarantino, however, claims he is “extremely influenced by what happens in the world” but that that doesn’t affect the way he deals with violence or drama as a filmmaker. “Nothing has changed much, but that doesn’t mean that my movies aren’t connected to life,” he adds. “I don’t think the reasons you’re here is just because I’ve directed a bunch of sensationalistic violent movies. Part of the reason you’re here is because of my characters, and the human hearts that are in those characters. I am very connected to Planet Earth and to the human heart when it comes to characters and dialogue.”

Tarantino has applied this interest to genres that are underdogs as far as mainstream critics are concerned. Reservoir Dogs was his response to Hollywood’s heist movies; Jackie Brown was made to honour exploitation actress Pam Grier (star of Foxy Brown); Kill Bill: Volume 1 paid tribute to Hong Kong kung fu and Kill Bill: Volume 2 was prompted by Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns.

Death Proof is Tarantino’s take on the “slasher” and “road” genres of the 1970s. He considers his films to be personal genre movies, with themes and motifs filtered through his own idiosyncratic sensibility.

By now, he is used to charges of excessive violence, which began with the torture of a policeman in Reservoir Dogs. Indeed, Tarantino has never been apologetic about this aspect of his movies. He says: “I don’t think either sex or violence are harmful, except when it comes to children. But that’s not my business. That’s up to the parents to expose them, or not.”

Still, the question remains, what if children get hold of violent content on their own? “That’s part of childhood,” Tarantino says. “Part of being a kid is looking at what you’re not supposed to look at, have the excitement of seeing the forbidden fruit.” End of discussion.

Since the male-dominated Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s oeuvre has increasingly centred on women. Jackie Brown was written with Grier in mind, Kill Bill for Uma Thurman, his muse at the time.

Death Proof is also full of female characters. There are eight parts for women, and only one for a man (Kurt Russell, as the serial killer.) Tarantino maintains that while his women are strong, he doesn’t endow them with male attributes: “The characters of Kim and of Zoe are stuntwomen, but that’s not really a male trait; there’s a whole history of stuntwomen.”

He goes on: “I think it would be cheating, if I really gave them male attributes. I mean they’re bad-assed, but that’s not necessarily a masculine trait. My women stand up for themselves, but again, I don’t consider that a male trait; it’s a human trait. I am proud of my female characters, because they’re feminine and they talk like real women. It’s not like I am J.D. Salinger, sitting in my house trying to remember how people talked in college back then.”

Death Proof is the first movie in which Tarantino served as his own director of photography. He says that while he had a “really good time”, he doesn’t consider himself a cinematographer. “A director who acts as his own photographer is just taking responsibility for the photo-graphy, because what a cinematographer considers good images and what a director considers
are not necessarily the same thing.”

Unlike his collaborator Rodriguez, Tarantino is not a prolific filmmaker, having made seven pictures in 15 years. Part of the reason for his being “slow” is his interest in acting; he recently starred on Broadway in a revival of Wait Until Dark, alongside Marisa Tomei.

When I ask why he doesn’t make more pictures, he says: “It’s only been three years since I made Kill Bill 2. That’s about my rate.” I push further and he elaborates: “Okay, I don’t mean to be stuttering, here’s the deal, there are two reasons. One, I do want to live life in between time. I have to be able to live life so I can give something back to it. But the real, real reason is because I’m a writer and I always have to start with the blank page and that’s hard.”

Hollywood is an easy place to lose control. “If you take a lot of directors 15 years into their career, they all started off as writer-directors and then they started having a bit more success and little by little they stopped writing – all of a sudden they’re collaborating on scripts and all of a sudden they’re not even writing at all anymore. You know why they do that? Because it’s fucking hard to write.” (If memory serves, this is the first Tarantino interview I have conducted over the past 15 years in which it has taken him a whole half-hour to use the f-word.)

So what does Tarantino do for recreation? “I don’t have a family and kids,” he says, “but every film is an adventure, at the end of which the air starts getting less rarefied, you realise you’ve put your friends on hold for a year, the opposite sex, and it’s appealing just sitting on your couch and watching TV, or trying to go to bed at night.”

At the same time, he relishes the opportunities to travel that his profession affords. “One of the best things cinema has given me is a passport to the world, because I am going to all these countries, and I’ve got friends in this place, and that place.” That is just as well, because Tarantino will be travelling extensively in the next six months to promote Death Proof. But right now he is anxious to see the film’s “new” version at Cannes. “It will be the first time anyone, including me, sees it on the big screen with a live audience,” he says. “I can’t wait.”

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