Quentin Jerome Tarantino, actor, writer and director, born in Knoxville, Tenn., 50 years ago next March, wants to be remembered as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. I know this because he said it to me, in an interview in Toronto earlier this month. "I hope when I hang up the gloves," he said, "I'm considered one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. That's the hope. I hope people think I'm one of the greatest writers of the century. That's what I hope."
Statements don't come much franker, especially in celebrity interviews, where people are more often acting like the person they wish to be perceived than admitting to anything true. But the grand ambition of Tarantino's words was tempered by the way he said it: nervously. All those "hopes," combined with a lot of eye contact and a little high-pitched chuckle, made him sound not egomaniacal, but honest and almost nakedly vulnerable.
Physically, too, he reminded me of a big kid. In formal photographs, he often dresses in a black suit, white shirt and skinny black tie, just like the characters in Reservoir Dogs, the film that catapulted him to pop-culture stardom 20 years ago and introduced his signature fast-talking, in-your-face style. The suit, and his fallback expression (narrow eyes, pursed lips), can make him look cooler than thou. But in person, his anvil skull perches over a body that looks like … You know those adolescents who have a growth spurt, and suddenly they're tall but still unformed, as if their body had been inflated with a bicycle pump? Like that. It's those contradictory impulses that make Tarantino Tarantino.
More than any other director, he has elevated into art the tropes of B-movies (which he famously absorbed as a clerk at the now-shuttered Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, Calif.).
In his most recent work, he's investigating subjects a lot crueller and more real than those in his early, hip gangster flicks – Nazism in his last film, Inglorious Basterds; slavery in his new one, Django Unchained, which opened Christmas Day. But in both films, at the peak emotional moments, he still resorts to his old tricks: inappropriately jaunty songs and schlock-shock violence doused in bladders of blood.
In Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx plays the title character, a former slave who teams up with a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for Inglourious Basterds) to rescue Django's wife from a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).
There's a lot in it that's serious and grounded, with the scope and sweep of an American classic. In the opening scene, in which a chain gang of slaves shuffles barefoot through a forest, Tarantino takes great care to show how iron-cold the ground is, how visible the slaves' breath. When he needed snow scenes, he travelled deep into Wyoming, and worked on snowshoes in thigh-deep drifts.
"And shooting those scenes on real plantations," he says earnestly, "in the real slave quarters they lived in, knowing there's real blood in that ground, and real flesh in those trees, and even feeling the spirits that used to be there watching us tell their story, it was profoundly affecting."
Yet when characters get shot, their heads explode, and Tarantino's liberal use of the N-word is already being hotly debated. But confront him about this, and Tarantino is willing, almost eager, to defend his style.
Most movies that have dealt with slavery, he maintains, have done it one of two ways: on television, "where it's History with a capital H, which I don't think illuminates it a lot more than a textbook, and is really a way to keep the story at arm's length"; or they've been "like Goodbye Uncle Tom or Mandingo or Drum, which in a lot of ways get closer to the actual truth about slavery, yet you can't deny have some exploitation agenda."
What he wanted to do was deliver a straight-up genre western. "But as opposed to ignoring slavery, like 99 per cent of westerns do, I wanted to deal with it – while staying in terms of genre. Rather than make some pious, soapboxy speech about America and slavery, it was more about telling my story, and placing you in America during slavery, and have you deal with it."
Tarantino still shoots in last century's style, on celluloid, without using a monitor; he either operates the camera himself or stands right next to it. "I'm old-school," he says, almost proudly defiant. "I do it the way they did it in the fifties, sixties and seventies. I'm the audience, I'm right there watching. When I say cut, you hear me say cut. When I say cut, you look at me."
His actors love it, he says: "I'm glad I moved to directing and didn't stay an actor. Because it would break my heart to be in the acting profession today and not have the director on the set directing me, but have him in another room watching television."
He certainly attracts stellar talent – Waltz, Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds; DiCaprio, Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained. Watching DiCaprio and Jackson conspire with each other, or Waltz and Don Johnson (who plays another plantation owner) vie to be silkier, provided some of my greatest cinematic pleasures of 2012. (I've always thought Johnson was criminally underrated, and I hope Tarantino will restart his career as he did John Travolta's with Pulp Fiction.)
So good are his actors that, in giving himself a role in Django Unchained, Tarantino risks being the weakest actor in it. When I float that idea, he looks genuinely wounded.
He continues to say things others wouldn't. He admits he's running out of genres. (He'd like to try a 1930s-style gangster film, or a monster movie.) He admits that the scenes he most looks forward to shooting – the big cinematic set pieces such as horse charges and gunfights – also cause him the most trepidation, because "I want them to be fantastic, and they're mine alone to screw up."
The never-married Tarantino admits that his love life comes second to his work, and that while shooting, he'll spend his weekends with his cast and crew – Friday nights, out at a bar, "letting off steam and bonding"; Sunday evenings, screening films for them from his extensive print collection, and maybe ordering a pizza – because "the people I'm making the movie with, they're my family. I want to enjoy it with them." He admits that on Saturdays, he sleeps all day.
He also admits, or almost admits, that with Django Unchained, he may be growing up, at least a little. "I've never written a movie that focused on one character to such a degree, or was about a romantic quest," he says.
"I didn't want to break this up into chapters like Kill Bill; I wanted to stay with Django's journey. I've never written a character who is so different from page 1 to page 170."
So if Tarantino hangs onto his tropes the way a kid clings to his comic-book collection – well, that's his choice. "I don't think piousness or self-seriousness is a good thing for any artist, particularly a filmmaker," he sums up.
"I'm very serious, but self-serious is a different prospect. The films I've made are the laurels I have to rest on. I've been through a cultural trial to decide my worth. Those things you call tropes have made me who I am."
Quentin's five best
A heady combination of deadly serious subject and snappy treatment. Who else but Tarantino would dare to turn Jewish Second World War soldiers into bloodthirsty contract killers, off Adolf Hitler, and literally set a movie screen ablaze?
Some of the interwoven stories go slack in the middle, but the chatter is priceless (Royale with Cheese, anyone?) and several scenes – John Travolta and Uma Thurman's dance number, the adrenalin needle to the heart – deservedly became instant cinema classics.
Underneath the too-gleeful blood spray is one of the most honest American films ever made about slavery. Christoph Waltz's delicately contradictory character – a humanist bounty hunter – is the perfect witness to the combination of slippery civility and crimes against humanity that was the pre-Civil War South.
It kick-started not only Tarantino's career, but also an entire genre of tough-guys-sitting-around-talking scenes in cinema and TV. As much as Tarantino loves crude violence, he loves talk more, and his dialogue always delivers.
He pulls off his most career-death-defying feat here: By finding much to love even in blaxploitation flicks, he makes the case that a movie made for the love of it transcends conventional critical judgment. Tarantino is about nothing if not love of movies.