Q & A: Quentin Tarantino

People are always eating and drinking in Quentin Tarantino's films, and he always makes sure to give them cool places to do it. The 44-year-old filmmaker loves colorful banter, and restaurants and bars are the ideal setting. Over the course of his career, he's given us the diner at the beginning of "Reservoir Dogs," Jack Rabbit Slim's and Big Kahuna Burger in "Pulp Fiction" and the glamorously serene House of Blue Leaves in "Kill Bill, Volume 1." He gives us two more hip establishments in his new movie, "Death Proof": a Tex-Mex joint named Guero's and a dumpy roadhouse bar called the Texas Chili Parlor. So frankly, it's a little disappointing when Tarantino asks a NEWSWEEK reporter to meet him for an interview at his local Starbucks. It's just down the street from his apartment in New York's West Village, but still. Fortunately, when Tarantino shows up, he's exactly the guy fans have come to expect: a manic, mile-a-minute talker in blue jeans and a vintage T shirt. For his latest project, "Grindhouse," opening on Friday, he teamed up with longtime pal Robert Rodriguez to deliver a double feature of horror flicks. Rodriguez's zombie movie "Planet Terror" leads the way, then "Death Proof," a sly twist on the classic slasher movie, follows right after it. Tarantino spoke with NEWSWEEK's Devin Gordon.

NEWSWEEK: Why was a 1970s-style exploitation flick about a guy with a killer car the movie that absolutely you had to make next?
Quentin Tarantino:
I always feel like I'm going for my professorship in cinema, and the day I die is the day I graduate. So when Robert and I had this idea, I had just gotten done watching all the slasher films from the late 1970s to mid-1980s. But I realized that if I did my own slasher film, it'd just be too self-reflective. So I decided that I should do it the way I did "Reservoir Dogs," which was my weird version of a heist film. So this is my weird version of a slasher film.

And where did the specific idea for "Death Proof" come from?
About 10 years ago, I was talking to a friend about getting a car. And I wanted to get a Volvo because I wanted a really safe car. I remember thinking that I didn't want to die in some auto accident like the one in "Pulp Fiction."

You don't strike me as a Volvo guy.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I know. But it really was all about the safety. So I was talking to my friend about this, and he said, "Well, you could take any car and give it to a stunt team, and for $10,000 or $15,000, they can death-proof it for you." Well, that phrase "death proof" kinda stuck in my head.


It seems like "Grindhouse" is arriving at an ideal time—horror movies are doing incredible business, and there's no sign of it slowing down. What do you think is driving this trend?
It hasn't happened in a while, but every now and then, there's a wave of them. This one has really been brewing for about six years now, and it started with ultragory movies that were coming out of Japan, by guys like Takeshi Miike, movies like "Battle Royale." What's changed this time is that the mainstream audience is absolutely loving it. There was a time when that kind of extreme violence was the thing that would stop a movie from being mainstream. If you did that kind of gore, you were putting your movie in a little box. Now it's totally different. Back when Robert and I did "From Dusk Till Dawn," the studio would've sent us to our rooms without dinner if we even uttered the word "horror." They wanted to say "thriller" or "roller coaster." Their notion was that "thriller" or "science fiction" was commercial. Horror wasn't. But now? It's horror, horror, horror. A little $6 million horror film beats some $150 million studio blockbuster on opening weekend.

To me, one of the charms of "Grindhouse" is that it's an unusual theatrical experience. People are still going to movies in droves, but the thrill is diminished-we go more out of habit now than out of raw excitement. A double feature like "Grindhouse" seems to offer a new way of doing things, even though it's actually a throwback to an old way.
I hate being the old guy who's always saying how everything was better 10 or 20 years ago, but in the past two decades, there's definitely been a cheapening of the theatrical experience. Back in the late 1970s when these movies were at their peak, every theater wasn't a multiplex. There were gigantic, 20-foot murals in the lobby, movie posters everywhere, candy all over the place, there were wild trailers, maybe some cartoons in the middle. It was a f----n' night. So for us, there is an aspect of "Grindhouse" that's trying to back that ballyhoo about going to the movies.

Both movies run over 80 minutes, which means the experience, though unique, is a long one. All together, "Grindhouse" runs over three hours. I know you and Robert can watch movies all night, but was there any concern that the audience might prefer something shorter?
To me, if you're gonna make an omelette, you've gotta break some eggs. It is a double feature. It's not "Twilight Zone: The Movie."

Some critics seem to wish you'd leave behind the genre movies and do something more serious. They often say, "When is Quentin going to grow up?" How do you feel about that notion—that there's something insubstantial or adolescent about the movies you're making now?
To me, if I were to announce after "Grindhouse" that my next movie would be some biopic, that would be the worst thing I could do. That would be me selling out. That would be me getting flaccid. That would be me turning into an old man.

So we should stop expecting you to go serious on us, especially since you're having fun?
Well, look, I'm not just having fun. I'm an artist, all right? I'll put my dialogue up against Preston Sturges's. I'll put my dialogue up against Mark Twain. I'm still writing. I'm still doing my thing. I'm just doing it in the genres I'm feeling.

"Grindhouse" attempts to do an A-list version of B-movies. But is it tricky to do a "good" version of genre defined by its crumminess? How do you decide where to go for quality and where to go for kitsch?
I know what you mean, but it's hard to define how we went about it. I'm really proud of the conversations among the women in "Death Proof." I think it's the best dialogue I've ever written. And we had six weeks to shoot our car chases as opposed to six days. But the genre also let us be a little more punk rock than usual. Things that would ordinarily be a bad thing on another movie, we embraced for this one. Like, you're moving in on a zoom and the focus puller doesn't quite land it right away—the shot is out of focus for half a second—but then you get shit together for the end of the shot. For this movie, that's cool, you know? It fits. [Laughs.] We'd just say to each other, "Hey, it's grindhouse!" That actually became a catch phrase on the set.

When I was on the set with Robert, he talked about the next "Grindhouse," so it was clear he already plans to do it again. And you?
It wouldn't necessarily have to be me and Robert every time. We'd just be the caretakers of the label. Maybe next time it'll be Eli Roth and some other filmmaker we like. We could be like little Roger Cormans. We're hoping this will be successful enough that we do it every few years.

A couple weeks back, there were some gossip items about the gore in "Grindhouse." They suggested that people around the movie were worried about how much you'd have to trim in order to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating.
All untrue. When that "Page Six" thing came out, we hadn't even screened the movie for the MPAA yet. We didn't have any problems with them at all. They totally got it. I've actually never had a problem with the MPAA in my whole career.

It's interesting that you say that, because when I read the "Page Six" item, it felt to me like a plant—that someone was spilling a few of the gory bits from the movie to entice hardcore horror fans. It wasn't about the MPAA at all. It was guerilla marketing.
I think you might be right. But it wasn't planted by us. The studios still get very nervous about that stuff. They're not convinced that sort of thing works.

Isn't it a bit weird that you didn't have any trouble with the MPAA? Much of the gore in "Death Proof" is sexuality expressed through violence. But if you had filmed the sexual themes as actual sex, instead of as violence, you would've gotten an NC-17 in a heartbeat.
That's true. But then again, the movie would also have to be called "The Rapist." [Laughs] And it would be pretty grueling to watch.

I love Kurt Russell in the film, especially the scenes where he [SPOILER ALERT] turns into a frightened coward. Did you push him to ham it up in those moments? Because it's absolutely hilarious.
No, as a matter of fact, he took that ball and ran with it. He actually asked me early on, "Does this guy turn into a coward?" And I go, "Well, yeah, kinda sorta." He ended up being really proud of that part of the movie. There's a scene at the end where the girls are pulling him out of the car and he's screaming bloody murder. We shot the first take, and I went over to him, and I said, "Kurt, do you think you could take it down just a little bit?" And Kurt goes, "Yes! I did it! I never thought I'd hear you say 'take it down a bit,' and I finally did it!" He took it as a badge of pride that he got me to say, "OK, maybe a little less." But it ended up being the shot I used.