On December 2, Quentin Tarantino's new movie, The Hateful Eight, was shown to an audience of critics and movie industry insiders at the Crest cinema in Los Angeles, a gorgeous old theatre with stars twinkling in the ceiling and Hollywood landmarks in relief on the walls, equipped with the new-old technology to project 70mm film. It was a disaster.
From the opening credits to the intermission, a spot in the centre of the screen kept drifting in and out of focus. It was never explained or fixed. After the break, a member of staff announced that for the second half, the cinema would switch from film to digital projection. "If Quentin Tarantino had been at the Crest on Wednesday night," wrote critic Drew McWeeny, "he would have burned the place to the goddamn ground."
If this sounds like hyperbole, consider that Tarantino has often said that he would rather burn the negatives than allow a studio to release a film with his name on that he wasn't happy with. He has invested so much in shooting and showing his movies on celluloid that what might seem like a minor technical mishap to most people is an affront to the love of his life.
Quentin Tarantino on the snowy set of The Hateful Eight.
Tarantino and his director of photography, Robert Richardson, shot The Hateful Eight on Ultra Panavision 70, a format that was last used in 1966, and back then on only a handful of films, including Mutiny on the Bounty and The Battle of the Bulge. Panavision got 15 anamorphic lenses out of storage, adapted them to fit modern cameras, and built magazines capable of holding 2000 feet of film.
Paul Thomas Anderson shot Inherent Vice and The Master on an alternative 70mm format. Christopher Nolan shot Interstellar on 70mm, too. The next instalment in the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One, is being filmed on Ultra Panavision. So it's not as if Tarantino is alone. But even in this group of film aficionados, his commitment to and love of making movies the old-fashioned way is unrivalled.
Only a dozen 70mm prints of The Master were struck, and only 16 of Interstellar. Miramax is making a hundred copies of The Hateful Eight, even though it costs upwards of $US60,000 to equip a cinema to show them.
Tarantino owns the New Beverly cinema, just south of Hollywood. A year ago, he took over as its program director, mostly showing prints from his private collection, always in double bills. He hopes it can be to a new generation of enthusiasts what the Carson Twin Cinema in Scottsdale was to him in his youth, presenting martial arts and blaxploitation flicks, thrillers, comedies and horror movies; Five Fingers of Death and Enter the Dragon, to a live soundtrack of hooting and yelling and kung fu fighting in the aisles.
Thankfully, by the time I see The Hateful Eight at the Crest on December 4, the problem has been fixed. The projectionist's body has been disposed of. Blood has been scrubbed from the carpet. And when legendary screen composer Ennio Morricone's overture is finished, and the screen fades from red to snow white, the whirring of the projector is the only sound. The Colorado wilderness, presented in an extra wide aspect ratio of 2.76 to 1, flickering at 24 frames a second, looks absolutely magnificent.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a fugitive in The Hateful Eight.
The Hateful Eight is set shortly after the end of the US Civil War. Bounty hunter John "the Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is bringing fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to face justice in the town of Red Rock. They encounter Union officer-turned-bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Confederate soldier Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). A blizzard forces them to take shelter at Minnie's Haberdashery, an inn in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where they are greeted by four strangers with bad intentions.
We've got into a polarised, lines-drawn camp that we haven't experienced since the Civil War.
"I think of this movie as a western Reservoir Dogs," Tarantino tells me, when we meet at the Four Seasons hotel the day after the screening. "A bunch of characters in one space. No one can really trust anybody else. The paranoia is so thick that it bounces off the walls until it has nowhere to go but the fourth wall into the audience."
How has he changed as a director in the two decades since Reservoir Dogs? "I think, um …" There's a long pause. Tarantino's words generally tumble out in flurries, forming sentences that break down and veer off on tangents, as if he's constantly trying to express two related thoughts at once. "I think my methods are the same. You can ask Tim Roth and Michael Madsen about that and they'll tell you. Hopefully I'm a lot better. That was my very first movie. I was kind of a boy when I did that."
Well, I tell him, I watched Reservoir Dogs for the first time in 10 years yesterday and was knocked out by it, but you can see when the titles come up that it was made on a budget. "Yeah, exactly. I guess the difference is if I did Reservoir Dogs now it would be three hours long." He laughs – a throwaway line, for sure, but not one that holds up. The lean, propulsive script, in which events unfold in real time, is one of the main reasons it's such a great film.
"A friend of mine had a really profound take on [The Hateful Eight]," Tarantino continues. "He said 'I feel like this could be your first post-apocalyptic movie'. As opposed to the Australian outback in the Mad Max movies, it's this brutal winter wasteland, and the survivors of the apocalypse have found shelter. They're sitting there arguing about who caused the apocalypse, and the apocalypse is the Civil War."
In Django Unchained (2012), with its brutal depictions of slaves torn apart by dogs and forced to fight to the death for the amusement of white plantation owners, Tarantino obliged movie-goers to confront the horrors of slavery. His new film is a sequel, of sorts, set in a country recovering from an unprecedentedly brutal war, in which more than 600,000 men perished and atrocities were committed by both sides.
He has a theory that westerns, more than any other genre, reflect the values and conflicts of the American decade in which they were made – he cites the "noir" westerns made after World War II, the self-confident, morally certain films produced under Eisenhower in the 1950s and the counter-cultural mythic westerns of the '70s as evidence – and says that, although it wasn't his intention, The Hateful Eight fits the pattern.
"I didn't know that it was going to be such a serious meditation on the post-Civil War era," he says. "And I had no idea that events in the news would be corresponding with the themes we were dealing with … You've got institutional racism running rampant in this country. We've got into a polarised, lines-drawn camp that we haven't experienced since the Civil War."
Bounty hunters Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson face off in The Hateful Eight.
In November, he marched through New York to draw attention to police violence against unarmed African-American men, telling demonstrators: "I have to call the murdered the murdered and I have to call the murderers the murderers." Police unions responded with a threat to boycott his movies.
Django Unchained was heavily criticised for its unrestrained use of the word "nigger" – a charge fellow director Spike Lee has levelled at Tarantino since 1997's Jackie Brown – and The Hateful Eight doubles down on this. The southern characters use the word with real spite, savouring the hatred of its original meaning.
"If I was doing a romantic comedy, maybe they don't use the N-word so much," says Tarantino, with a forced, rather nervous laugh, like the host of a dinner party trying to prevent an argument. "I'm not making a romantic comedy; I'm dealing with post-Civil War times, black and white struggle, ripped apart and laid bare. I think dealing with racial issues in America is something I have to offer the western."
Samuel L. Jackson, Tarantino's leading man and greatest defender, tells me "I always feel like the characters are speaking honestly. I never feel like he's just throwing it in people's faces." Django also won the blessing of several prominent African-American intellectuals, including Henry Louis Gates, Harvard professor and founder of The Root news site.
Watching The Hateful Eight, though, I felt that the criticism had brought out the little boy in Tarantino, stubbornly refusing to do as he's told. He's not buying this. "It is my job as an artist to ignore social critics," he says. "I can't let them in the rooms in my head. I believe 100 per cent in what I'm doing and I'm doing it with all my passion and I'm coming from a wonderful tradition of provocateurs in cinema."
The film is Tarantino's first western, or fourth. There's Django, set in the antebellum South. He has often described Inglourious Basterds (2009) as a western taking place during World War II. Kill Bill (2003) is studded with references to Once Upon a Time in the West, The Searchers, Navajo Joe and Death Rides a Horse. He showed Uma Thurman The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and suggested she model the Bride on Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name.
Once a week on set, Tarantino hosts a movie night, to show the cast and crew films that have inspired him. For The Hateful Eight, he had them watch The Thing, John Carpenter's 1982 shocker about a dozen men trapped on an Antarctic research station with an alien organism, not knowing which of them has been infected.
In the five years he spent behind the counter at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, before his breakthrough with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino watched literally thousands of movies. He studied the old masters and the French new wave, and devoured the good, the bad, and the indifferent, with the same hunger to improve his own art that led William Burroughs to pencil GETS – Good Enough To Steal – in the margins of the books he read.
When asked if he did much research into World War II before writing Inglourious Basterds, he replied that he studied propaganda films by Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang. The biblical verse that Samuel L. Jackson's hitman declaims in Pulp Fiction, Ezekiel 25:17, is something remembered not from Sunday school, but from a Sonny Chiba martial arts movie.
All directors have a mental library of images and sequences to draw on. Tarantino is just more willing to cop to his influences, and artful enough to get away with it, employing genre conventions in a fresh context and turning his films into a game to be played by his most cine-literate fans. In Kill Bill, the Bride fights her way through the history of exploitation cinema, with each character on her death list representing a different genre – the climax is an homage to Shogun Assassin, with a dash of Ichi the Killer.
Tarantino didn't attend the screening at the Crest because he was at the New Beverly that night, watching Carwash, in a double bill with Thank God It's Friday. "I hadn't seen it since I was a kid," he says. "And it was wonderful in the theatre. Everyone was laughing … Not to get too sappy about it, but it brings me a lot of joy. There are regulars and fans coming out, and a whole lot of young people and film students, and they're making the pilgrimage again and again and again."
The opening credits of The Hateful Eight announce that it is "the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino". He says that once he's made 10, he'll retire, to write novels and film criticism and run the cinema. And although artists often say they'll stop, and rarely do, there's reason to believe him. He has never been a director for hire, and it seems as if he really would be happy to spend the rest of his life watching films, and talking about films, and writing about films, and sitting in the back row, waiting for the lights to go down.
The Hateful Eight opens on January 14. Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell will attend the Australian premiere at Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney on January 13. A Q&A screening will be held at the Rivoli Cinema, Camberwell, on January 17.