Tarantino is back with Django Unchained. Just as Inglourious Basterds started out as a Dirty Dozen–style mission movie, Tarantino began with the goal of writing a spaghetti Western. Only he set it in the antebellum South, and its protagonist is a slave (Jamie Foxx) who is freed by a bounty hunter–dentist (Waltz) and taught the bounty-hunting trade. Django is on a collision course with a plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has consigned Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), to sexual servitude. The depiction of female slaves forced to engage in sex with their masters and males pitted against one another in brutal to-the-death brawls is sure to raise controversy, but subtlety has never been Tarantino’s favorite technique.
We sent writer Michael Fleming to catch up with the writer-director. Fleming reports: “Quentin, now 49, has certainly matured from the filmmaker who told raucous tales of brawling with cabdrivers and taking ecstasy at the Great Wall of China while filming Kill Bill. We met at his house high in the hills of Los Angeles, a home that sports a great view of the Valley. The first thing I noticed when I drove up was the gaudily painted Pussy Wagon, the bright yellow Chevy Silverado SS that Uma Thurman drives in Kill Bill. Above that is a drive-in movie theater sign, a prop from Grindhouse. His house is filled with movie memorabilia. Posters for unexpected films—Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, for example—hang on one wall, and I think I spotted oversize green Hulk hands. You can tell Tarantino is still single and able to indulge his voracious appetite for all things movies, because no wife would put up with it.”
PLAYBOY: Is that the real Pussy Wagon in the driveway, the one the Bride drives in Kill Bill?
TARANTINO: Oh, yeah.
PLAYBOY: Do you actually drive it?
TARANTINO: I haven’t in a little bit. It was kind of fucked-up because it just sat there for a long time while I was off filming. We just got it looking nice again.
PLAYBOY: It’s probably not the best car for Quentin Tarantino to be driving if discretion is the goal.
TARANTINO: No, but it’s fun to do the opposite sometimes, to cruise with the windows down. You take the big, long Malibu drive and everybody is like, “Hey, it’s Quentin.” That’s fun.
PLAYBOY: You killed Hitler in Inglourious Basterds, with Jewish soldiers scalping Nazis. In Django Unchained you have a liberated slave turned bounty hunter who takes on the slave masters who turned his wife into a prostitute. Hollywood is recycling fairy tales, from Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz. Are you doing a more creative version by crafting revisionist-history fables that allow victims of loathsome events to rise up and have their day?
TARANTINO: It’s in the eye of the beholder to say if it’s more creative or not, but that is what I’m doing, partly because I would just like to see it. You turn on a movie and know how things are going to go in most films. Every once in a while films don’t play by the rules. It’s liberating when you don’t know what’s happening next. Most of the movies that have done that did it accidentally, like they punched into a contraband area they hadn’t quite thought all the way through. But for that moment in the film, it is liberating. I thought, What about telling these kinds of stories my way—rough and tough but gratifying at the end?
PLAYBOY: What movie sparked this idea?
TARANTINO: When it came to Inglourious Basterds, there was a movie done in 1942, Hitler—Dead or Alive. It was just as America had entered the war. A rich guy offers a million-dollar bounty on Hitler’s life. Three gangsters come up with a plan to kill Hitler. They parachute into Berlin and work their way to where Hitler is. It’s a wacky movie that goes from being serious to very funny. The gangsters get Hitler, and when they start beating the fuck out of him, it is just so enjoyable. They shave his mustache off, cut off that lock of hair and take his shit off so he looks like a regular guy. The Nazis show up, and Hitler, who doesn’t look like Hitler anymore, is like, “Hey, it’s me!” And they beat the shit out of him. I thought, Wow, this is fucking hysterical.
PLAYBOY: When viewers get to the end of Inglourious Basterds, the common reaction is, Wait, is Tarantino allowed to change history like this?
TARANTINO: That wasn’t the jumping-off point for the film—it didn’t come to me till just a little bit before I wrote it. I’d written all day and was meditating about what the next day’s work was going to be. I was listening to music, pacing around, and finally I just grabbed a pen, went over to a piece of paper and wrote, “Just fucking kill him.” I put it near my bedside table so I would see it when I woke up the next morning and could decide after a night’s sleep if it was still a good idea. I saw it, paced around awhile and said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” I went out on the balcony and started writing. And I just fucking killed him. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: You’ve also mixed history with fiction in Django Unchained. Did you study films or history to capture pre–Civil War life in the Deep South?
TARANTINO: You could make a case for watching World War II movies, if only to learn the clichés that help storytelling by giving the audience what they’re used to. There are only a handful of real slave movies. To me this is a Western but set in the Deep South. What I was interested in as far as slavery was the business aspect: Humans as chattel—how did that work? How much did they cost? How many slaves did an average person in Mississippi have? How did auction houses work? What were the social strata inside a plantation?
PLAYBOY: What do you mean?
TARANTINO: In the case of Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Calvin Candie, is a plantation owner who has 65 square miles of land. He’s like Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright but in the South, one of a handful of cotton families in Mississippi. Anybody in that position is like a king in their own kingdom. All the poor whites who work for them and all the slaves are their subjects. They own everything as far as they can see, and the plantation is completely self-contained as a moneymaking entity. Candie is born into this, which means he doesn’t have to give a fuck about the business anymore; it takes care of itself. It’s a weird perversion of European aristocracy. That was a fascinating perspective to use with the whole story and with how Candie chooses to spend his time.
PLAYBOY: In the movie, slaves are raped and men fight against each other like pit bulls. When you made Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, you were criticized for liberal use of the N word. There’s plenty of that here. Are you sitting on a powder keg?
TARANTINO: Now I’m picturing myself sitting on a keg of TNT like a Looney Tunes cartoon. It remains to be seen, I guess. If we are, it’s not because I’m trying to be inflammatory. I’m just telling my story the way I’m telling it. I’m putting it in a spaghetti Western framework and highlighting the surreal qualities inherent in the material. I’m highlighting them mythically and operatically, and in terms of violence and gruesomeness, with pitch-black humor. That’s all part of the spaghetti Western genre, but I’m doing it about a section of history that couldn’t be more surreal, bizarre, cruel or perversely comedic when looked at from a certain view. They go hand in hand.
PLAYBOY: But the idea of portraying these slave women as prostitutes—
TARANTINO: Well, they’re not 100 percent prostitutes. The Cleopatra Club in the film is not a brothel. It’s a gentlemen’s club, a bring-your-own-bottle kind of place. There it’s bring your own pony, and you can have dinner with her.
PLAYBOY: Pony is the term for an attractive slave woman?
PLAYBOY: And that really existed?
TARANTINO: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think it’s the cornerstone of slavery, or one of the things that made it work. Aside from the labor force, it was the sex on demand. The minute people own other people, we all know that’s definitely part of it. Did they do that back then? Yes. They do that right now—go to Bangkok. The thing about the Cleopatra Club is, if you like your slave girl you can take her there. You can have dinner. You can socialize. If you are a guy who wants to take your pony and just fuck her for a night on the town, okay, you can do that. But maybe you actually love your girl and she’s kind of your de facto wife. This is a way to take her out and show her a good time.
PLAYBOY: You originally wanted Will Smith to play Django. How close did you come to getting him?
TARANTINO: We spent quite a few hours together over a weekend when he was in New York doing Men in Black 3. We went over the script and talked it out. I had a good time—he’s a smart, cool guy. I think half the process was an excuse for us to hang out and spend time with one another. I had just finished the script. It was cool to talk to someone who wasn’t guarded about what he was saying.
PLAYBOY: What did he have to say?
TARANTINO: That’s private stuff between us, but nothing negative.
PLAYBOY: He has to evaluate material partly based on his status as arguably the world’s biggest star and certainly its biggest African American star.
TARANTINO: Yeah, I know. But he didn’t walk away from it because he was scared of the material.
PLAYBOY: Why then?
TARANTINO: It just wasn’t 100 percent right, and we didn’t have time to try to make it that way. We left with me saying, “Look, I’m going to see other people.” He said, “Let me just see how I feel, and if you don’t find anybody, let’s talk again.” And then I found my guy.
PLAYBOY: Why Jamie Foxx?
TARANTINO: There are a lot of reasons I could say, but the gigantic one is that he was the cowboy. I met six different actors and had extensive meetings with all of them, and I went in-depth on all their work.
TARANTINO: Idris Elba. I got together with Chris Tucker, Terrence Howard, M.K. Williams.
PLAYBOY: Williams, from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire?
TARANTINO: Yes. I talked with Tyrese. They all appreciated the material, and I was going to put them through the paces, make them go off against one another and kind of put up an obstacle course. And then I met Jamie and realized I didn’t need to do that. Jamie understood the material. But mostly he was the cowboy. Forget the fact that he has his own horse—and that is actually his horse in the movie. He’s from Texas; he understands. We sat there talking, and I realized, Wow, if this were the 1960s and I was casting a Django Western TV show and they had black guys as stars of those in the 1960s, I could see Jamie on one of those. And that’s what I was looking for, a Clint Eastwood.
PLAYBOY: When Playboy interviewed Foxx several years ago, he talked about growing up in Texas. Even though he was the football team’s star quarterback, he was regularly called racist names and treated badly. How did that inform his performance?
TARANTINO: He understood what it’s like to be thought of as an “other.” Even though he’s on the football team, one of the stars, when he goes out with the pretty white girl in the school, everyone loses their minds. He understood what it’s like to be hired as a piano player in a big white Texas home. When you’re the black piano player at a cocktail party, you’re furniture. You don’t talk to nobody. No one talks to you. They’re not supposed to even think about you. They should be able to say anything they want to say because you are furniture.
PLAYBOY: So they can say something racist if they want.
TARANTINO: And they did.
PLAYBOY: And you’re invisible.
TARANTINO: That’s exactly it. He told me many stories like that, how the lady of the house is paying him, saying, “Look, I’m sorry about the things that some of the guests and my husband said. They didn’t mean anything by it. Here’s some cash.” He told me that once he showed up and they said, “Whoa, whoa, you need a jacket to come in here.” He said, “Oh, well, I would’ve brought one, but nobody told me.” And they said, “That’s okay. We got an extra jacket up there. I’ll get it for you.” They give him a jacket, he does his thing, and he’s getting ready to leave. “Okay, here’s your jacket.” They’re like, “Whoa, hey, that’s your jacket now, buddy. I don’t want that jacket.” They said that to his face.
PLAYBOY: How are you when actors ask you to change material?
TARANTINO: Well, somebody can actually have a good idea and come up with a neat “Hey, well, what if this happens?” Sometimes it’s “Oh, wow, that’s a good idea. Let me think about it.” People have given me good ideas. But it’s not like I hand in a script and get notes back. I’ll get notes back on the cut of the movie, but if people have a problem with the script, we’re probably not making the movie together. The studios that made Django also did Inglourious Basterds, and they were all happy. It was never an issue with all the subtitles in that film. Nobody said, “Can we try it in English?” They just knew it wasn’t the deal. The way it has worked with me since the beginning is, it’s all in the script. I might change something, but if you read and liked the script, you’ll probably like the movie.
PLAYBOY: When you shoot a slave movie in the Deep South, how does the community react?
TARANTINO: Sociologically one of the most interesting things went down when we were on the Don Johnson character’s plantation, Bennet Manor. He has cotton fields there, and he has cotton pickers—girls, men, children, old people. But he also has ponies, and he’s the one who sells pretty girls. That’s his big stock: He is a plantation pimp, and people come from far and wide to his plantation to buy one of his pretty girls. We had a bunch of extras from the community, St. John the Baptist Parish. It was cool, re-creating this history with black Southern extras whose families have lived there forever. They knew what went on back then. Then there was a social-dividing issue between the extras that mirrored the ones between their slave characters in the movie. The ponies were pretty, and they looked down on the extras playing cotton-picker slaves. They thought they were better than them. And the people playing the house servants looked down on the people playing the cotton pickers. And the cotton pickers thought the people playing the house servants and the ponies were stuck-up bitches. Then there was a fourth breakdown, between the darker skinned and the lighter skinned. Obviously not for everybody, and it wasn’t a gigantic problem, but it was something you noticed. They started mirroring the social situations of their characters, being on this plantation for a few weeks.
PLAYBOY: What about the local whites? Were they resentful?
TARANTINO: Well, frankly, there weren’t that many whites in the area on our set. We had local crew for sure, but there was no reason for whites in the area to be hanging around.
PLAYBOY: Leonardo DiCaprio was initially mentioned for the Hans Landa role that won Christoph Waltz an Academy Award in Inglourious Basterds. DiCaprio’s your new villain now.
TARANTINO: Leo and I never actually got together and talked about Inglourious Basterds. He was curious about playing the role, but I knew I needed somebody with all those linguistic skills. Leo can actually speak good German, but Landa spoke French in the movie more than German. So it was never in the cards. But Leo and I have hung out over the course of 15 years, and he likes my writing and makes sure he gets a copy of scripts I finish to see if there’s anything that might float his boat. He got this one and really liked Calvin Candie.
PLAYBOY: He called you?
PLAYBOY: When you wrote Candie, did you have anyone in mind?
TARANTINO: I did, but I don’t want to say who, simply because when I finished the script I realized they were a little older than I wanted the character to be. That’s a problem I have. I’ll be thinking about somebody and not take into account that I’m thinking of them from 20 years ago. Leo was younger than I had initially written, but I read it again and could see no reason why the character couldn’t be younger. And since I’m hitting hard this notion of the American South re-creating European aristocracy in this amateur make-it-up-as-you-go-along fashion, the notion of him as the boy emperor was cool. His daddy was a cotton man, his daddy’s daddy was a cotton man and so was his father before him. So Candie doesn’t have to do anything. It’s all set up, and he can be the petulant ruler with other interests. His passion is not cotton. It’s Mandingo fighting.
PLAYBOY: Is he a classic Tarantino villain?
TARANTINO: He’s the first villain I’ve ever written that I didn’t like. I hated Candie, and I normally like my villains no matter how bad they are. I see their point of view. I could see his point of view, but I hated it so much. For the first time as a writer, I just fucking hated this guy.
TARANTINO: He is master of the institution of slavery, and my despising that is why I wrote this whole thing. He’s the bedrock of it all. So I thought, Wow, I got Leo, and he doesn’t know that it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors and not as good as some of these other parts. But working with Leo, we ended up making it as good as all those other parts. The whole petulant boy emperor idea solidified as opposed to the older plantation big-daddy fellow. Leo formed a new character, and he was direct about what he wanted to do. Just as I have an agenda about history that I want to get across in this movie, so does he, and he brought all this research into his character. Leo had a nice monologue, talking about being a boy and his father doing this and being surrounded by black faces growing up. How could he ever be anything other than what he is? He was born into this. Is a prince going to deny the throne, his kingdom? I still blame him, but what chance did he have?
PLAYBOY: You write terrific villains. Who set the bar highest for bad guys for you?
TARANTINO: Lee Van Cleef is one of my favorite actors. I love him in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
PLAYBOY: What makes a good bad guy?
TARANTINO: You can point at a movie like Schindler’s List and there’s Ralph Fiennes. And there’s No Country for Old Men and Javier Bardem, and Inglourious Basterds and Christoph Waltz. The last time I watched a regular genre movie and the bad guy showed up and blew me away was Alan Rickman in Die Hard. It was the way he took over the film. It’s definitely fun to write characters like that. But what I’m always trying to do, even in the case of Reservoir Dogs, is get you to kind of like these guys, despite on-screen evidence that you shouldn’t. Despite the things they do and say and despite their agenda. I also like making people laugh at fucked-up shit.
PLAYBOY: The last time you did a Playboy Interview you described being propositioned by women mailing you photos and things. What does the mail look like now?
TARANTINO: If I’m at a film festival, out and about in town or in a bar, I can chat a gal up and it’s still all good. I don’t keep up with mail anymore. When I went to the Venice Film Festival and was the head of the jury, I couldn’t do anything because everyone knew I was there. You go down to the bar, where it was always cool to drink with some of the other jury members, but it was a constant bum’s rush.
PLAYBOY: You took ecstasy at the Great Wall to let off steam while you were making Kill Bill. When you shoot a tense slave drama in the Deep South, how do you let loose?
TARANTINO: This movie was so hard. I thought about it in terms of Kill Bill, and I was like, Okay, I am not partying like I did on that one. We had the weekends off, and sometimes I found myself sleeping all Saturday and maybe every once in a while going out to dinner.
PLAYBOY: You told Howard Stern that Brad Pitt cut you a hunk from a hash brick while you were talking about Inglourious Basterds. What kind of trouble did you get in from Brad, or from Angelina Jolie?
TARANTINO: Oh no, that time I was okay. Brad fucking started it. He mentioned it at a fucking press conference. I’d mentioned it earlier, but he made it official. Maybe he doesn’t realize he’s the one who officially started it, but he did. But it was all good. It got picked up on a zillion sites: “Quentin gets Brad high to say yes to Basterds.” And then 996 related articles. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: Do drugs have a positive impact on your creative process while you’re writing or directing?
TARANTINO: Well, no. I wouldn’t do anything impaired while making a movie. I don’t so much write high, but say you’re thinking about a musical sequence. You smoke a joint, you put on some music, you listen to it and you come up with some good ideas. Or maybe you’re chilling out at the end of the day and you smoke some pot, and all of a sudden you’re spinning a web about what you’ve just done. Maybe you come up with a good idea. Maybe it just seems like a good idea because you’re stoned, but you write it down and look at it the next day. Sometimes it’s fucking awesome. I don’t need pot to write, but it’s kind of cool. Making this movie was really hard. The weekend comes and all I want to do is smoke out to veg. It’s just shutting down. My blowout on Django was always Friday night. In New Orleans, me and the crew would go out to some bar. There were tons of bars, and some of them were pretty wild. We would be out till six or seven in the morning and then just sleep all day, recuperate Sunday, maybe show a movie and be back at it Monday.
PLAYBOY: Do you have a medicinal marijuana prescription, which allows everybody in Hollywood to get pot legally?
TARANTINO: I might be the only guy here who doesn’t have that.
PLAYBOY: You turn 50 next year. Do you think about getting married and having kids?
TARANTINO: We’ll see. I’ve had things that have almost worked out but haven’t, where I thought I’d get married and have kids. I’m not necessarily against it anymore. I was into it, but then I got over it. I had a little baby fever for a while but got over it.
PLAYBOY: Did you spend quality time around a little kid?
TARANTINO: No, no, no. The movie I’m working on is my baby. But I’m in an open time in my life right now, and I’m kind of interested to see what’s going to happen next.
PLAYBOY: Is any of that because you’re about to turn 50?
TARANTINO: I don’t think so, because I don’t think about it like that. I think you’re the first person to keep referring to my turning 50. [laughs] Yeah, I’m still hanging on to my 49. I have a little while yet. All this 50 talk? It’s just mean.
PLAYBOY: It’s pissing you off?
TARANTINO: Yeah. [laughs] I could be open right now to meeting a cool girl, getting along with her, taking it to the next step and, if that’s good, taking it to the next step. And let’s just see what the deal is.
PLAYBOY: You’re going to be one of those 65-year-old guys chasing kids around the house, aren’t you?
TARANTINO: Frankly, I wouldn’t have a problem with that at all. I mean, a little ego in me would like to be younger when I have kids, but fucking kids don’t give a shit. And there is that aspect of being older now and having time with them. You don’t have better shit to do. The kid doesn’t care.
PLAYBOY: What’s the most appealing thing about living a single man’s life?
TARANTINO: I have the freedom to do what I want. I can make the day whatever I want to make it. People with families have responsibilities to their team. I’m sure there are negative aspects to my bohemian lifestyle, to be sure.
PLAYBOY: Like what?
TARANTINO: I don’t know. I’m just talking the most mundane stuff.
PLAYBOY: You can’t think of a single thing, can you?
TARANTINO: Yeah. If I had a wife, I would probably be more polite. She would make me write thank-you notes. When people do something nice for me, she would make me do something back—a note or a phone call—which I won’t do on my own. [laughs] That would be a nice part of the bargain. I wouldn’t be such a caveman. I might be a little less remote. Having said that, though, with the artistic, almost academic way I like to live my life when it comes to the movies I make and the research I do on them, I’ve got it pretty great. If I wanted to live in Paris for a year, what the fuck? I can. I don’t have to arrange anything; I can just do it. If there is an actor or a director I want to get obsessed with and study their films for the next 12 days, I can do that. The perfect person would be a Playmate who would enjoy that.
PLAYBOY: Well, they’re out here.
TARANTINO: I know, and that’s why I say it’s not impossible.
PLAYBOY: We could probably throw a rock from your house here and hit one.
TARANTINO: Well, they have to be legitimately Playmate on that. They have to dig it. They have to be down with a J. Lee Thompson film festival.
PLAYBOY: How do you know if women you meet are into Quentin the guy and not Quentin the filmmaker? Does it matter?
TARANTINO: Well, I’m not Quentin the average guy. Expecting her to like me the way she would like me if I were a plumber or if I worked at Why Not a Burger is not realistic. And why would you want that? Part of me is me and my life, and part of me is me and my artistic journey. That’s all part of it.
PLAYBOY: Does that mean the woman should be a fan?
TARANTINO: No, it just means that if you like my work or respect what I do, it’s conceivable that could be an attractive element if you meet me. And if you like me and I’m charming and sexy or whatever things you could be attracted to, that could be a plus. You can date this girl and that girl, but if you’re going to get together and try to be girlfriend and boyfriend, me and my life and my artistic journey are part of the deal. And part of my life is my artistic journey. At a certain point it becomes overwhelming when you’re doing a film. A girl needs her own life too.
PLAYBOY: But she has to understand your artistic journey comes first.
PLAYBOY: You’ve threatened to retire at 60. Why put a timetable on it?
TARANTINO: Who knows what I’ll do? I just don’t want to be an old-man filmmaker. I want to stop at a certain point.
TARANTINO: Directors don’t get better as they get older. Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end. I am all about my filmography, and one bad film fucks up three good ones. I don’t want that bad out-of-touch comedy in my filmography, the movie that makes people think, Oh man, he still thinks it’s 20 years ago. When directors get out-of-date, it’s not pretty.
PLAYBOY: Stanley Kubrick was viable in his later years. Scorsese and Spielberg have made good movies in their 60s, and Woody Allen made Midnight in Paris in his 70s. Won’t fans want to see what’s on your mind as you continue to develop as a man?
TARANTINO: Maybe. If I have something to say, I’ll do it. I haven’t made any gigantic declarative statements. I just don’t want to be an old filmmaker. I’m on a journey that needs to have an end and not be about me trying to get another job. Even if it’s old and I’m washed up, I’d still want to do it. I want this artistic journey to have a climax. I want to work toward something.
PLAYBOY: When a director jumps the shark, doesn’t it have more to do with him getting fat and happy and losing his edge or not listening?
TARANTINO: Could be, but it’s also age. [laughs] 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 knew him. I thought, Wow, Tony was close to 70?
PLAYBOY: As a director, how will you know when you’re not capable of that anymore?
TARANTINO: Well, I guess that’s what I’m trying to figure out.
PLAYBOY: You don’t turn these things out once a year. How many films do you have left in you?
TARANTINO: You stop when you stop, but in a fanciful world, 10 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 stop at 10, that would be okay as an artistic statement.
PLAYBOY: When we did the interview last time—
TARANTINO: I reread that interview not long ago. Literally the next day I was asked, “Do you want to do another one?” The thing that was cool about that first interview was that you made a big deal about me doing Pulp Fiction and then coming back with Kill Bill. So is he the real deal or not the real deal? And I thought, Well, if Playboy’s coming back, then I guess I passed the real-deal test.
PLAYBOY: You certainly have passed that test. Last time, you said you felt you could become a fine actor if that were your priority. Why did it stop being important to you?
TARANTINO: I just lost the bug. I think I got the bug from a combination of two things. I’d had a good experience doing From Dusk Till Dawn, and I started going out with Mira Sorvino. She’s an actor and so is her father, Paul, and they talk about acting a lot. I got all into that. And there were old dreams and desires from when I was a little boy. Now it’s the opposite. If I write a part for myself, I cut it down to nothing. Actors have said that now that I’m over myself, I can get down to doing good work. But it’s more about the fact that when I did Kill Bill, I was going to play Pai Mei, and it was so hard—
PLAYBOY: Pai Mei is the teacher Daryl Hannah poisons.
TARANTINO: Yes. I was going to play him. I’d trained to do the fights and everything, but it was such a big-deal movie that it needed all my attention directing. When I was done with it, I decided that if I’m going to be on a set, I want it to be my set, with me directing. I don’t want to be an actor in somebody else’s movie. I don’t want people faxing call sheets to my house, and I don’t want to get up in the morning for somebody else’s movie.
PLAYBOY: The tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, where a gunman massacred moviegoers at a Dark Knight Rises midnight screening, led some filmmakers to do some soul-searching about how they depict on-screen violence. Did you?
TARANTINO: No, because I think that guy was a nut. He went in there to kill a bunch of people because he knew there would be a lot of people there and he’d make a tremendous amount of news doing it. That’s no different from a guy going into a McDonald’s and shooting up people at lunchtime because he knows a lot of people will be there.
PLAYBOY: When people point to movies for glorifying violence, what do you say?
TARANTINO: Well, I never get into this argument because no one has this argument with me. [laughs] They know where I’m coming from. I make violent movies. I like violent movies. I’m on record about how I feel there is no correlation between art and life in that way.
PLAYBOY: After Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, you were this raging, rule-breaking outsider who redefined the gangster-movie genre and spawned imitators. How do you see yourself now?
TARANTINO: Bob Dylan going into the 1970s; De Palma, Scorsese, Kubrick and Spielberg going into the 1980s. I would like to be thought of as one of the premier directors of his time, at the height of his powers, with his talents at his fingertips, with something to say, something to prove, just trying to be the best he can be.
PLAYBOY: No longer an outsider?
TARANTINO: Yeah. That’s one thing that’s actually kind of nice. I’m not a Hollywood outsider anymore. I know a lot of people. I like them. They like me. I think I’m a pretty good member of this community, both as a person and as far as my job and contributions are concerned. Back in 1994 I think they were all pretty impressed with me, and that was cool, but I felt like an outsider, a maverick punk, and I was hoping I wouldn’t fuck it up. I still do things my own way, but I didn’t go away either. I still kind of feel like I’m always trying to prove I belong here.
PLAYBOY: When J.D. Salinger died, it was clear what a burden his early success had been. After Pulp Fiction, do you give a big sigh of relief when you make a movie and feel you have risen to the level of your earlier work?
TARANTINO: No. I like people to be excited and think my best work’s in front of me. That means you’re trying to top yourself to one degree or another. I take that seriously. It’s a subjective thing, but you are trying to make a big, bold, vital work that moves your artistic journey forward. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want there to be anticipation. I was actually quite proud when I read that Django is one of the most anticipated movies coming out this year. It’s a black Western. Where’s the anticipation coming from? I guess a lot of it is me. That’s pretty fucking awesome.