Undiminished by his critics, Quentin Tarantino is back in controversial form with his bombastic wartime romp, Inglourious Basterds - already the biggest commercial success of his career. The writer, director and provocateur talks to Peter Howell about the pressures of expectation and why he has just 14 year left as a film-maker. Quentin Tarantino is comparing himself to Muhammad Ali. Work with him on this. He's talking about the mixed reaction his new film Inglourious Basterds received since its premiere at the Cannes film festival. Everybody wanted him to put on a show. Some, mostly cranky movie critics, also wanted him to fall on his face. "There was this kind of 'Ali, boombaye!' ['Ali, kill him!'] quality to me being there that literally was going to be a reaction to me," Tarantino says of his experience at Cannes. "The town was reacting in anticipation for the movie, like a sporting event almost. There was a little bit of, 'Eff this guy, we'll show him! Walks in like he's Ali - get outta here!'"
Never one for false modesty, it's not surprising that Tarantino would compare himself to the greatest boxer who ever lived. But his reference to the "Ali, boombaye!" chant is revealing: it's an African exhortation that first became popular in the 1970s, when Ali was in comeback mode in Zaire, struggling to prove that he was still the GOAT: Greatest Of All Time. Tarantino can identify with that feeling, even if he's reluctant to admit it. It has been 15 years since Pulp Fiction, the audacious crime saga that married art with B-movie brio, defining and inspiring cinema in the 1990s. Since that time, he has struggled to maintain his freshness, his audacity and, crucially, his box-office appeal.
Jackie Brown (1997) received more brickbats than bouquets for its "blaxpoitation" theme and muted romance (love is a rarely splendoured thing in a Tarantino film). Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 (2003-04) literally split itself in two seeking kung-fu credibility in the midst of a score-settling melodrama. Death Proof (2007), salvaged from the failed Grindhouse double bill, was an out-and-out failure: a surprisingly straight genre mash-up (the car chase and the serial killer) that suffered from lack of inspiration.
Tarantino has come roaring back with Inglourious Basterds, a film he's been working on intermittently for more than a decade. (The title is deliberately misspelt for two reasons: it's artistic whimsy by Tarantino and an attempt to distinguish it from the 1978 Italian war movie Inglorious Bastards that inspired him with its title, although not with its dissimilar content.)
It stars Brad Pitt as the leader of a band of Jewish-American soldiers in the Second World War who are parachuted into Nazi-occupied France to reign terror on the Germans. Inspired by Apache Indians - Pitt's character is known as Lt Aldo "The Apache" Raine - they razor scalps and smash skulls with a ferocity born of righteous vengeance. Tarantino is more pleased with this film than he's been for a long time and he's aware expectations are high. Not just artistically, but also commercially - the fortunes of The Weinstein Co, owned by Tarantino mentors Harvey and Bob Weinstein, are said to be riding on how well Inglourious Basterds does.
So far so good. While the film doesn't open in the UAE until September 17, it went straight to Number one at the box office on its opening weekend in North America, taking US$36.1 million (Dh133m) and providing him with the biggest commercial hit of his career. He professes not to sweat over any of this. "I'm not worried about the expectations part," he says. "I think my movies live on expectations."
"I want people to have to expect a lot from me... I want it to be a big deal. I want to count down the days until it opens. I want you to be fighting for seats at that first screening and all that stuff." Grammatically challenged, factually unhinged and too long for its own good, the film is pure wish-fulfilment fantasy ("Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France?") in which Hitler and his stooges stand to get what's coming to them, in a way that makes cinema itself seem like the grand liberator.
The film's strength paradoxically lies not in its transgressions but in its many digressions, and it takes a second viewing to really appreciate this. Tarantino quickly tires of the main plot of his films. His better movies (Pulp Fiction is still the gold standard) find humour and drama in subplots and sideshows that fully animate the frame like a Mad magazine comic. Tarantino still gets excited by filmmaking. He still dresses like the rock'n'roll director he considers himself to be. For this interview he's all in black, his sneakers too, topped with a T-shirt with the image of a kung-fu artist shouting "You Basterds!"
At Cannes, a place he's loved since winning the Palme d'Or there for Pulp Fiction in 1994, he bragged of being more than just an American filmmaker, declaring: "I make films for Planet Earth and Cannes is the place that represents that." But he's clearly tiring, and not just from the exhaustion he's feeling travelling the globe to promote Inglorious Basterds. At 46, he says he can now see the day when he'll lay down his blood-splattered camera and begin a new career as a novelist. That day will be March 27, 2023, his 60th birthday. "I don't know what the work's going to end up being, but I would like to end sometime around 60," he says. "I'd like to stop making movies."
He's done the maths. At his current pace of a film every two to three years, he has maybe seven movies left in him, tops, and perhaps as few as four or five. "Around 60, I'll have that body of work, it'll all be strong and then, from that point on, I'll write novels. Novels, cinema books, stuff like that." Even the "all right!" he always uses to punctuate his thoughts sounds tired. It's days like these that make him think film-making really is a young person's game. He doesn't want to go into his sunset years making movies looking back on his life.
"I don't really want to make 'old men' movies," he says. "I don't want to be worried about making my day and getting up and going through all the stuff to make movies. This is my time to get into it now. When I'm 60, that will be my time to be a man of letters. I would like to write novels, but you can't do that and make movies, too, not with the same passion." Nobody would call Inglourious Basterds an "old man" movie. This Dirty Dozen-style ensemble war saga has been called a lot of things since Tarantino fired it like a cannonball into the Cannes circus. After a decade of talking about it, he finally made it in a furious burst last year.
His pal Eli Roth, a fellow director and also one of the film's "Basterds", says the film fulfills the dream of many Jews to see Hitler and his crew feel the same kind of terror and violence they pursued against Jews. The film has also been referred to as Tarantino's bid for mainstream acceptance, because it stars Brad Pitt. He didn't start writing the picture with Pitt in mind, but once the idea came to him, he could see no other person as Aldo Raine. "That's the idea. I bring my fans to him; he brings his fans to me."
Tarantino can still summon attention no matter what he does, but there's a downside. He's been making movies for 17 years now, since the brainy and bloody Reservoir Dogs launched his career and that of a hundred imitators, and he's entitled to call himself a film master, a term usually given to, er, old guys. He's already taken some stick for Basterds (major criticisms being its 2hr 32min running time and multiple plotlines), but you'll never find him running from critics.
"I've never had a Heaven's Gate kind of thing. I'm always used to divided reviews, where these people are my champions and these people are my detractors. Let them fight it out. Critics help make me who I am. I want to read the reviews; I want to hear what people are saying about the movie." The heat is not always going to be there, and Tarantino is becoming increasingly aware of the passage of time.
The recent death of David Carradine, his friend and the star of Kill Bill, really brought that home. "It's sad for all of us. I remember I hadn't seen him in over a year; he was in Germany for almost that long. It just reminds you that there's not always mañana. "We were editing [Inglourious Basterds] when it happened... I was just thinking that sometime in the next week I'd give David a call and see if he wanted to come on down and watch the film. And it never happened.
"It does remind you that there's not always tomorrow. If you want to call somebody, pick up the phone." Inglourious Basterds opens on September 17.