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Basterds, Sam Fuller and Snoopy: Talking to Tarantino

09/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Inglourious Basterds is a gorgeous, violent, beautifully acted, gut-punching, genre-blending jolt that doesn't make you want to scalp Nahtzies (as Brad Pitt's hillbilly Aldo Raine so memorably intones), it makes you want to watch a lot of movies. Or rather, live in a world of movies. Escape into a world of movies. Envelop yourself in your most demented revenge, cinematic, conversational, and yes, sexual fantasies on screen. Tarantino wants you to get your rocks off. Some will hate this. That's their prerogative. But I will not only love this, I will wrap my arms (and to be complete, my legs) around such complicated pulp with hearty approval. If all of this sounds pornographic, fine. Send me the prequel in a brown paper bag.


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But I'm not talking soley about the those scalp-hunting, Nazi-hating basterds. Contrary to advertising, to certain enraged critics and to all of those "opinion shapers," Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is not just about the basterds. It's about, of course, Nazis, but the German film industry, and under Goebbels in particular, and the insane, grand pageantry of the Nazi party which really, mirrors the fantastical elements of the picture. And then there's the movies within movies. History as seen through the eyes of a person who isn't pretending to have felt such things -- but felt them through cinema.  And, in its most soulful, touching moments, it's about the women, one an escaped French Jewish woman who must survive, while running a movie theater. Naturally.


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So, again, like all of Tarantino's pictures, it's a movie about movies. Seeped in cinema lore and love, Tarantino has created a revisionist fantasy filled with beauty, horror, humor and heart. And talking with him, it's not a surprise he knows the cinema of what he speaks and sees. From Sam Fuller to Robert Aldrich to Aldo Ray to UFA to even, Snoopy, we had a mutual love fest for motion pictures (you'll read a lot of "I love" in this interview, apologies...well no apologies, actually). For a film about nasty Nazis and nasty basterds, the resulting discussion was very, very nice


KM: There's much talk about the revenge fantasy of the basterds in this movie, but to me, in a good way, they really are side characters. Fun, violent, at times compelling ones, but one part of the movie. And too many critics simply fixate on their actions. What I really admire here is that you bring up UFA (Universum Film AG) and Goebbels. I don't think I've ever seen a movie that really goes into that territory, especially in a comical, satirical way, but also somewhat seriously. It's quite true what you're showing - that with the Nazi party, it was this grand pageant to them. Goebbels and Hitler were like studio bosses. Goebbels was a movie mogul, essentially.


QT: That's exactly what he was. Actually when I came up with the idea to deal with the filmmaking end of the Third Reich and the German film industry, I thought, "Wow that's never really been done before." So I got really excited by it. And I loved the idea of not just portraying Goebbels as the minister of evil or the architect of evil but truly as his job as studio head of over 800 movies. He had control and power and sign off ability on every single movie that was made in Germany. And really just playing up his role as studio boss, with his protégé.


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KM: What do you think of those UFA films and some of the stars who stayed or left? Marlene Dietrich left and never forgave Emil Jannings for staying.


QT: It's funny because there's a lot of bad books written about the filmmaking end of that era that tend to just completely focus on Jud Süß and The Eternal Jew and stuff like that and you just think that's all that's made, even when you read books about it. But they were actually quite different from that. The majority of the movies they made were like comedies and musicals. He wanted to keep the people entertained, get their mind off the war. Other than the earlier days, when they were trying to get in the war, OK we're going to invade Poland so we're going to make a movie that vilifies the Poles and show them raping German women so that explains what we're doing.  That was really only the first few years of them. What was interesting was when they actually did try to deal with the war; they did it as parables and subtext, alright. They would do movies of great men of German past that usually had parallel with something that could be done in modern times.


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Like for instance, in real life that Goebbels did, that wasn't Nation's Pride, but was his last ditch effort saying, "We're not gonna win anymore battles on the battlefields, but we're gonna win one in the cinemas." That was a movie called Kolberg that told the story of a Prussian village that repelled Napoleon's Army. Now you don't have to be a genius to figure out when you've got the Americans on Normandy and the Russian's banging at the gate, who they're referring to in their little parable of strong Germans holding the fort. So it's not just as blanketed as, "Oh all they did was anti-Semitic movies." Oddly enough, any movie made where Goebbels is the head on it is going to be political by its very nature, alright. Whether by what they say or what they don't say - what they don't allow being said. I have to say that there is one movie that I really like, the one that they refer to, Lucky Kids, also known as Glückskinder, it's very funny. It's a very funny screwball comedy. And they re-created New York in the movie. And it's one of those things, just like in American movies, you'll watch The Shop Around the Corner and it's supposed to be in Budapest, but obviously they're all speaking English. Well this is supposed to be taking place in New York and they're all speaking German, and that's just kind of cute.


KM: Lucky Kids is like It Happened One Night...


QT: Yes, it's actually Goebbels' version of It Happened One Night.


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KM: Speaking of UFA stars and actors to inspire your cast. Christoph Waltz (who was brilliant) said to me that when you asked if he wanted to be informed of actors to work from, he said no. I love this because his character is like something you've seen and then, something you've never seen. He reminded me of someone like Conrad Veidt, he just resonates this very clever, witty, frightening and incredibly intriguing bad guy.


QT: Yes, I think of Conrad Veidt too.


KM: But then you also talked to Michael Fassbender, which I can't help but pronounce like Fas-bind-er...


QT: Yeah, yeah, yeah, like Rainier Werner (laughs). You can say FAS-bend-er.


KM: Well he informed me that he studied George Sanders. And, I was most impressed that he even read Sander's suicide note, which is one of the greatest kiss-offs ever.


QT: Yes! And it's perfectly George Sanders too. Of course he wanted to go out in a witty suicide note... That was a situation where, I was thinking of anybody when I was writing Landa. Landa was Landa. I wouldn't have suggested to draft in another actor. But in the case of George Sanders, one of the things that was really interesting was, I watched a whole lot of movies that were made during the war. American propaganda movies. Usually made by directors who were living in exile in Hollywood because their countries were overtaken by Germans. Whether it be Jules Dassin out of Greece, or Fritz Lang out of Germany, or Douglas Sirk out of Austria, you know, all the way down the line. Anyway, the funny thing is, George Sanders is in almost every single one of them. And I ended up getting a crush on the guy. He's just so cool. And also this aspect, that you can't imagine that anyone was writing dialogue for him because all of his lines sound like what George Sanders would say.


KM: "You're too short for that gesture."


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QT: Yes. He opens his mouth and these erudite things come tripping out. And so I was definitely patterning him on George Sanders and so, I said you've got to see this guy. And so we saw a couple of George Sanders movies and [Fassbender] was like, (boldly) "If that's what you want me to do, that's what I'm gonna do."  (Laughs)


KM: I also love how classic this film looks too. The opening scene is absolutely beautiful. It's a wonderful cross between a Spaghetti Western, and then a John Ford Searchers moment too with obviously, the open doorway. And then later, there's the French New Wave aspect with Mélanie Laurent's Shosanna, who, when you first see her, looks like she stepped out of Jules and Jim.


QT: Yeah, right. Exactly. I'm really happy in that third chapter when that French stuff takes over. It really plays like a little French movie. And not trying to be, but just plays like it.


KM: And the set up with Daniel Brühl's Frederick Zoller, as he's trying to seduce her, as dark as it is, there's a playful quality to it. And, in that pivotal moment, she doesn't want to shoot him. She doesn't want to kill him. But not that she has full sympathy for him, and there's not a thing with them, but there's something between them, some kind of odd chemistry ...


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QT: Yes. It's not a thing. She can't ever forget her situation and who he is. I might have more sympathy for Zoller than most American audiences do. I've heard people applaud when Zoller gets shot, not in any screenings I've been too, but other screenings I've been told of. And I was like, "Hmm...I don't like that." You know because, Audie Murphy is a hero, Frederick Zoller is a hero.


KM: And the film in the movie, Nation's Pride recalls Audie Murphy...


QT: It very much does. It was kind of meant to. And there is this aspect that all these people were trying to kill Zoller, he's just the one who won. And everything he's doing he's doing with the best intentions. He's screwing her up so bad it's not even funny, but he doesn't know that. And to me, at the end, there's an almost Romeo and Juliet quality to their end. And in a different time, things could have been different.


KM: Again, with Shosanna, I've written quite a lot about how you portray women in film, and I have always admired that you don't make them simply cutesy a la Charlie's Angels. You've been influenced by so many filmmakers, obviously, but I think of Fuller, who created great female characters...


QT: Oh man, you better believe it.  Legs in China Gate with Angie Dickinson, she's terrific in it. And then the Naked Kiss gal.


KM: Yes. How many movies start with a bald woman, furiously beating the shit out a trick and who then becomes the heroine of the movie? And Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns or The Crimson Kimono where the woman falls in love with an Asian cop. And even Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street, a tough, touching role that could have easily been played by a man...


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QT: Yes. He's a very strong female writer.


KM: And another filmmaker, who doesn't get mentioned enough is Robert Aldrich, who makes great action films but then goes back and makes these wonderful female pictures like Autumn Leaves...


QT: I'm a huge fan of his lesbian drama -- The Killing of Sister George is terrific. It would be really bizarre today if someone was doing the true macho movies, and then turned around and did The Legend of Lila Claire, they almost kind of checker-boarded them.


KM: And then, you named your character Aldo Raine - in honor of Aldo Ray, who I love. He had that raspy yet delicate voice...


QT: Yes, exactly. It's endearing and yet razor-blade-y. I love Aldo Ray


KM: So you would have to agree he was under-utilized on screen.


QT: Oh completely. Unfortunately, his life got very, very, very sad into the '70s and '80s. He became such a drunk, that the only work he could get was on non-union movies and real exploitation movies. He is kind of like the patron saint of the fallen star. How far they could go and still get work. And it literally had to be a thing, even on the cheapest low budget movie, that they could only hire him for a couple of days, but that's about as much as they could count on him without falling back on the bottle.


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KM: And he was a World War II veteran. He was a Frogman.


QT: Yeah. I did know that. I did know that. And especially in the '50s, he is the quintessential American Sergeant, with the buzz cut. And in that movie Men in War, he is awesome.


KM: I love that movie, that's one of my favorites of his. And I love him in Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall...


QT: I love Nightfall. I would think that during his time, during his Aldo Ray time, his two most iconic roles in the '50s would have been Nightfall and Men in War.


KM: And at the end of Nightfall, I always think of you, because of the banter, especially near the end between the killers Brian Keith and Rudy Bond.


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QT: Yes. There is really cool dialogue to it that has a modern sting to it. It even has that not just normal noir dialogue, like when he's talking with Anne Bancroft, it has a bit of neo-noir, like a reflection on noir, but it actually is noir. It's that David Goodis dialogue. One of reasons I cast Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction is to me, Bruce Willis was the only star out and around at the time that looked like he could be a star of the '50s. To me he has an Aldo Ray, Ralph Meeker quality.


KM: Oh, yes, Ralph Meeker. I'm always going on about my love for Ralph Meeker...


QT: You're a girl after my own heart. You like all the dudes I like!


KM: Have you seen Something Wild with Meeker and Carroll Baker?


QT: I love that movie. That's his [Meeker's] Stanley Kowalski. You know he actually replaced Brando on Broadway and the rest of the cast stayed? He's the man. And he went through the same shit as Aldo Ray. He didn't go down as bad as Aldo Ray, alright, but you know, he was appearing in the cheapest, low budget exploitation movies in the 1970's as well.


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KM: I think this is great: that you told Eli Roth, and this is what he said, that you told him to channel both Timothy Carrey from The Killing and Tony Curtis for his Bear Jew character...


QT: (Laughs) Yeah. Eli does have that quality. If Tony hadn't changed his name and was still Bernie Schwartz, alright, that's Eli's role in the film. I actually heard a cool story that Tony Curtis said that he would refer to himself as either Bernie Schwartz or Tony Curtis. And the idea was, when he's a pussy movie star, that's Tony Curtis. But [Tarantino says with proclamation] when the shit hits the fan, that's when Bernie comes in! Tony Curtis would melt, but Bernie Schwartz is the guy who's gonna get shit done!


KM: I think this movie is going to be a lot more challenging for viewers. There's a lot of people who say they're cinephiles, but they haven't really seen anything before Star Wars...which is more fan boy than voracious film lover.


QT: Right. (Laughs).


KM: I mean, I wonder if viewers are going to know who Emil Jannings even is. It doesn't matter that they know to make the movie great, but...


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QT: You know, here's the thing. I actually believe that when it comes to stuff like that, you should aim over the audience's head and let them reach out for it. If they have any interest in it, maybe they will now know who G.W. Pabst is now and maybe they'll investigate it. Actually, when I was a kid, they did that in children's art all the time, just to give you an example. Maybe at this age, I would know who Baron Von Richthofen was. [But] I knew who he was when I was five because they put him on Snoopy. Because Snoopy fought him all the time.  And they weren't thinking, "Hey little kids aren't going to know who Baron Von Richthofen is. Nope, we're gonna teach them."


Teach the cine-kids Mr. Tarantino...

Read more Kim Morgan at her main site Sunset Gun and her photo and video page, Pretty Poison.