Y’know,” says Quentin Tarantino, “all my movies are surrounded by some sort of stupid controversy that is really only of the moment. Then, cut to eight years later, you’re watching it on TNT. All right, so how fucking controversial is it?”
His latest, The Hateful Eight, a savage winter Western that opens in the US on Christmas Day, is no exception, but this time the controversy isn’t just on screen.
True, the film — and it is a film, shot on celluloid in exquisite Ultra Panavision 70 — is as bloody as his reputation suggests, being a baroque whodunnit set in a trading post in Wyoming shortly after the Civil War. The director doesn’t want to give too much away, but his cast and crew are happy to oblige. Says producer Stacey Sher, “It’s a true Western: Western scoundrels, as seen through the eyes of Quentin, with the elements closing in on them. I guess it’s Reservoir Dogs if there was a giant blizzard coming and nobody could ever leave the room.” Cast member Walton Goggins adds, “It’s as if Quentin Tarantino were to have invented the game of Clue [Cluedo to Brits] — a violent game of Clue where the stakes are very high.”
This time, though, the controversy has spilled out into the director’s private life: since attending an anti-police-brutality protest rally in October, Tarantino has been on the receiving end of a very blunt counterattack, with threats of police boycotts and even cryptic threats of arrest. The topic he was protesting against — white-on-black violence fuelled by racial supremacy — is a big theme in The Hateful Eight, but the furore was still very much in the future when we met on the film’s snowy mountain set in Telluride, Colorado at the start of this year.
“I was in a real kind of funky area when I wrote the script,” he muses, somewhat prophetically. “I kind of had a lot of anger in me, and so it all came out in the script. And that was good. That was a good place to put it. But, y’know, one of the things that I’ve always really liked about Westerns in particular is the fact that Westerns oftentimes, better than modern-day movies, reflect the decade they were made in. More than any other genre or sub-genre you can imagine.”
But though it may be the director’s most political movie to date — picking harder at history’s open sores than either Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained, his two previous period dramas — Tarantino’s eighth film provoked its first media storm before the last full stop was even put to the page, when in January 2014 gossip website Gawker published a link to a draft of the script.
“It was very much a work in progress,” recalls Sher. “Normally when Quentin finishes a script, he’ll have a big publication day and invite friends over. But he was still working on it. Then . . . Boom! The next thing we knew, people were saying they’d read the script, and suddenly it was on the internet.”
So few people had seen the script at that point (“It was one of six,” Tarantino insists) that speculation about the identity of the culprit was intense, and suspicion fell on Tarantino regular Michael Madsen. “Somebody put a picture of me on the internet,” Madsen laughs. “They’d photoshopped a picture of me and Edward Snowden; I’m giving him the script. It was really an uncomfortable time.”
“I was devastated,” says Tarantino. “Devastated. Because it wasn’t a work to be seen. The ending wasn’t really the ending, it was just an ending. I’d never released something that was in such an embryonic state.”
“I absolutely thought it was not going to happen,” Sher recalls. “I thought he was just going to publish it and not make the movie.”
In April 2014, however, Tarantino made a surprise announcement: a live script reading at The Theatre at Ace Hotel, Los Angeles. Invited by film critic Elvis Mitchell, Tarantino put together an impressive cast including Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Goggins and Madsen. “The energy in that theatre was so big,” says Madsen. “It was just big. And afterwards Quentin said, ‘Wow, that really went well. I didn’t think it would go that well.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, it did, man.’ It seems to me like that’s when he made the decision to make the movie. But he told the whole audience, ‘Y’know what? I rewrote the middle and I rewrote the ending. So what you guys just saw ain’t gonna happen. And you won’t know what is gonna happen till you see the movie, ’cause I rewrote it.’ ”
“The live read was just really encouraging,” Tarantino says, “and it was really good to see some of the actors that I’d written the parts for do them and be fantastic. And to see 1,200 people being gripped, spellbound, in a big long reading. And then out of the blue, we got these really great reviews. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve never got great reviews before I started a movie.’ That was kind of good.”
What finally changed his mind was a trip to the Cannes Film Festival for a 20th-anniversary screening of Pulp Fiction. “I have calmed down,” he said at the time. “A bit. The knife-in-the-back wound has started to scab. I’ve calmed down on it. Exactly what I’m going to do? I don’t know . . . Maybe I’ll shoot it, maybe I’ll publish it. Maybe I’ll do it on the stage. Maybe I’ll do all three. We’ll find out.”
It didn’t take long. In early June, Tarantino called Sher and the project was back on. Roll on another six months and we are in Telluride, in the huge wooden set where the second half of the movie takes place: Minnie’s Haberdashery. Watching Tarantino block the next scene with cinematographer Robert Richardson, it seems more like a stage production than a movie.
“Yeah,” Tarantino enthuses. “It has a very Eugene O’Neill kinda quality to it, but with these crazy, nefarious characters. There is definitely an Iceman Cometh vibe that I was thinking about as I was writing. I was like, ‘Oh, this is turning into a play . . . ’ ”
Would he consider doing it as a play? “I might, you know. I don’t wanna speculate, but I might very well do that. I mean, if I’m not sick of this piece by the time I’m all done with it, I would like the idea of turning it around and doing it on theatre with a different cast.”
Does that fuel speculation that Tarantino, now 52, will soon quit film directing? “Nah,” he snorts. “People make too much of that. That’s just me foolishly speculating on an artist’s life in public.”
Indeed, now that the film has had its UK premiere, talk of retirement does seem premature. It is arguably Tarantino’s most ambitious work yet and certainly one of his best, a layered, superbly choreographed mystery that builds to a macabre climax. Which is what we’ll think about when the film pops up on TV in eight years’ time, not some long-settled feud with the policeman’s union, or the snitch who leaked the script.
‘The Hateful Eight’ is released in the US on December 25 and in the UK on January 8
Photographs: Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company; LMK