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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of movie, "Reservoir Dogs")

Mr. LAWRENCE TIERNEY (Actor): (As Joe Cabot) Here are your names: Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange and Mr. Pink.

Mr. STEVE BUSCEMI (Actor): (As Mr. Pink) Why am I Mr. Pink?

Mr. TIERNEY: (As Cabot) Because you're a faggot, all right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a scene from "Reservoir Dogs," which was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who also made "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill," "Jackie Brown" and "Inglourious Basterds."

Today, we listen back to our interview with Quentin Tarantino to kick off our holiday week series of memorable interviews from 2009. I spoke with him in August, when "Inglourious Basterds" was released. It's just come out on DVD. Tarantino has just been named the recipient of the London Film Critic Circle's highest award, the Award for Excellence in Cinema.

When I spoke with him, we started by discussing "Inglourious Basterds." The film is set in France during the German occupation in June, 1944. One of the main characters is known as the Jew hunter. He's the Nazi colonel dispatched to hunt down the last remaining Jews hiding in the French countryside. The Austrian actor who plays the part, Christoph Waltz, won the Best Actor Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival and was just voted Best Supporting Actor by the Los Angeles and New York film critics.

The film also follows a team of American soldiers hunting down Nazis. The Germans eventually call this group the Basterds. They're led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt.

(Soundbite of movie, "Inglourious Basterds")

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (As Lieutenant Aldo Raine) My name is Lieutenant Aldo Raine, and I'm putting together a special team, and I need me eight soldiers, eight Jewish-American soldiers. Now, y'all might have heard rumors about the armada happening soon. Well, we'll be leaving a little earlier. We're going to be dropped into France dressed as civilians, and once we're in enemy territory, as a bushwhacking guerrilla army, we're going to be doing one thing and one thing only: killing Nazis. Sound good?

Unidentified Group: (As characters) Yes, sir.

GROSS: Quentin Tarantino, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. QUENTIN TARANTINO (Director, "Inglourious Basterds"): Good to be here.

GROSS: I love the new movie. So the movie starts with "once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France," and that lets you know right away this is going to be, like, a fairytale version, not a historically correct version, of World War II. And it's also probably going to have references to Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," which it most certainly does. And so the film is a kind of hybrid of the spaghetti western and war film. Why did you think of combining those two genres?

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, you know, the thing is, I actually thought that the idea of doing a World War II movie in the guise of a spaghetti western would just be an interesting way to tackle it. Just even the way that the spaghetti westerns tackled the history of the Old West, I thought it could be a neat thing to do that with World War II, but just as opposed to using cowboy iconography, using World War II iconography as kind of the jumping-off point. And, you know, some of the inspirations I had as far as following that story would be, like, say, "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly," the way they use the Civil War in that, or even the idea that - the movie that Leone was going to do before he died was going to be a movie about the battle of Stalingrad.

Now, he never shot any of that, but you have to imagine what that could have possibly have been like. And so that was kind of how I used that to - just kind of as a jumping-off point. And I thought I was going to carry it through the whole movie, but I broke the movie down into a five-chapter structure, and I think that spaghetti western thing really only holds for the first two chapters.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. TARANTINO: Then it starts becoming, like, more of a - especially by chapter four it becomes a bunch of guys on a mission, kind of, you know, a take on, you know, that genre from, like, the '60s.

GROSS: Like "The Dirty Dozen" kind of movie.

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah, "Dirty Dozen," "Devil's Brigade," "Guns of Navarone," that kind of thing. Like, in the beginning of chapter four is a scene with - Mike Myers plays a British general who sends another character on a mission, and it's very much a character like that you'd see Trevor Howard play in a 1966 movie. It has a big room with a big map and he's pointing at it. And in a World War - you know, in a bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movie, that would be the first scene, right - it being a Quentin movie, that's like the middle of the movie.

GROSS: So in this team of Jewish soldiers that the Brad Pitt character, Lieutenant Aldo Raine, puts together, he tells them that he's got a little Injun in him, that he's part Apache, and that their battle plan will be the battle plan of Apaches, that they're going to scare their enemies, that - he says the Germans will be sickened by us, and the Germans will talk about us, and the Germans will fear us. And when the Germans close their eyes at night and their subconscious tortures them for the evil they've done, it will be thoughts of us that it tortures them with. And he explains to these Jewish soldiers that they have to scalp the Nazis when they get them, and he insists that they each bring back 100 scalps each or die trying.

How did you come up with the idea of scalping, of the Jews scalping the Nazis that they hunt down? Again, it's this hybrid of World War II and Westerns, but why that?

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, it hit me that an Apache resistance would be a wonderful -you know, it would be a wonderful metaphor for Jewish-American soldiers to be using behind enemy lines against the Nazis because the Apache Indians were able - from different points of time, between having 200 braves to 22 braves - were able to fight off for decades both the Spaniards and the Mexicans and the U.S. Cavalry for years because of their - they were great guerrilla fighters. They were great resistance fighters. And one of their ways of winning battles was psychological battles.

They never did straight-up fights. It wasn't about, you know, getting killed in the line of fire. It was all ambush, ambush, ambush, and you ambush somebody, and then you take the scalps, and you - even though scalping wasn't created by the American Indians. It was created by the white man against Indians, and they just took it and claimed it.

But they would, you know, scalp them and desecrate the bodies, you know, tie them to cactuses or bury them in anthills or things like that, and you know, cut up the bodies and stuff. And then the other enemy soldiers would come across and find their comrades laying there, ripped apart, and they would be sickened by it and it would scare them. It would psychologically get into their heads, so much so that if you thought you were going to be captured - if you were a U.S. Cavalry guy and you thought you were going to be captured by the Apaches, you might kill yourself. If they were with their wives and they thought they were going to be captured, they would shoot their wives for fear of the Apaches getting them.

GROSS: You're part Cherokee. Did you identify with the Indians when you watched Westerns?

Mr. TARANTINO: Oh, yeah, no, completely. I always did. Yeah, I was always - I remember, like, literally saying - watching some cowboy-and-Indian movie with my mother, and I go, so, if we were back then, we'd be the Indians, right? She goes, yup, that's who we'd be. We wouldn't be those guys in the covered wagons. We'd be the Indians.

But the idea of using the Apache resistance, one, it works effective to actually get German soldiers to think of Jews that way. You know, and they're not just any Jews. They're the American Jews. They're Jews with entitlement. You know, they have the strongest nation in the world behind them. So we're going to inflict pain where our European aunts and uncles had to endure it. And so the fact that you could actually get Nazis scared of a band of Jews, that's - again, that's a gigantic psychological thing.

The other thing is even the Jews in the course - even though metaphorically aligning themselves with Indians, and, you know, you have genocide aligning itself with another genocide.

GROSS: Now, in true Quentin Tarantino style, when Germans are scalped, we see, in some cases, the scalp getting sliced off.

Mr. TARANTINO: Right, yeah.

GROSS: So why did you actually want to show that? That's something we never actually saw in Westerns.

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah, I know, and I always thought it was a B.S. thing that they didn't show it in other Westerns, but especially if you're going to really go with the idea that we're desecrating the bodies, and the idea is to strike fear in the hearts of other German soldiers, then we had to see what they're talking about.

I've always seen in Westerns it described or it's shown very vaguely, but I wanted this - I want us to show what they're doing to them, so you can actually see it. And if you notice in the movie, you know, it goes even beyond just scalping and stuff.

They do little things like they take their boots and their socks off and throw them away. So they're barefoot as they're lying there dead, and it just robs them of even more dignity. There's the desecration, but there's also a robbing of dignity going on.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Quentin Tarantino, and we're talking about his new movie, "Inglourious Basterds."

I've seen your movie twice. When I went the first time, I had no idea what to expect. So I'm sitting down, the movie starts, the credits - there's opening credits, credits start to roll, and this music swells up, and I want to just play the music that's swelling up.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Oh, I had so many different feelings hearing that. First of all, I thought, like, oh, yeah, this is, like, big movie music. And that guitar at the beginning and the accordion, that got me right away, and then the strings swell. And I knew from that, like, you're going for something big.

And I recognized the melody from that tacky Brothers Four hit, "Green Leaves of Summer."

Mr. TARANTINO: Oh, yeah. Uh-huh.

GROSS: But the music is actually Dimitri Tiomkin's music, and it's the theme from the 1960 movie, "The Alamo," which I never saw but had the tag line: They stood fighting until they could no longer stand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I think you broke all the rules here by using, like, another movie's theme as your theme, and it works. Like, why did you do that?

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, it's funny because, "The Green Leaves of Summer" and "The Alamo" theme are the same thing. There's just - the Brothers Four was a different recording of it.

GROSS: Right, exactly, exactly. And it's even on the soundtrack album.

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And oddly enough, I've always - I've never actually seen "The Alamo" itself, actually. So I don't really have the association of "Green Leaves of Summer" as being "The Alamo" theme. Oddly enough, I grew up watching kung fu movies. They would use the theme "Green Leaves of Summer" in a lot of needle drops in kung fu movies a lot. So I was actually more familiar with it in a Bruce Li movie than I was actually from the John Wayne film.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. TARANTINO: But what happened was I came across, I found this really fantastic used record store in Japan, and I bought all these different records and different 45s. And one of the 45s was just, it had the theme, "Green Leaves of Summer," the theme to "The Alamo" on one side, and then on the flip side was a theme to, the theme to "Magnificent Seven."

GROSS: Oh, I love that theme.

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah, I love that theme, too.

GROSS: That's great. And it doesn't bother you that you're using the movie theme from another movie.

Mr. TARANTINO: Oh, yeah. No, I don't think about that at all. It's the - you know, the trick is, if I'm going to use the theme from a different movie, then I'm going to try to use it better than they did.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: I'm going to try to claim it. Now it's mine.

GROSS: Good. Oh, speaking of now it's yours, I mean, you've done that with so much music, I mean, most classically, probably, taking that song - was it Stealers Wheel, "Stuck in the Middle with You"?

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah.

GROSS: And using it for that great scene in "Reservoir Dogs" that a lot of people can't even bring themselves to watch, where Michael Madsen has a cop tied up in a chair, takes out this big razor, does this, like, little dance while he plays "Stuck in the Middle with You," and then slices off the cop's ear.

It is the most improbable use of that song, but this is the kind of thing that you do in movies. Why did you choose that song for that scene?

Mr. TARANTINO: You know, that's a funny question, how I picked "Stuck in the Middle with You." It just seemed like the right one. I don't know how to describe it.

When I went to do my big audition with actors for Mr. Blonde, the thing that was very interesting was the first person to actually do the audition with the song, and they kind of actually acted out the whole scene, they weren't so great. It wasn't that they were magnificent, but the song, it was the first -it was all - been in my head.

It was the first time we actually saw the song played out in the course of the scene. It was like we were watching our movie, in a way, like we were jumping ahead in time and seeing the scene itself. And it was, like, this scene's going to be awesome. This is going to be so cool.

The guy wasn't even so great, but it was just hearing the music and seeing somebody act out that sequence to this music. That was when we knew, wow, this is going to work better than we thought. This is excellent.

GROSS: And you don't know why you chose that song?

Mr. TARANTINO: No, I don't really know. It was a feeling. It wasn't because it was, like, the lyrics were correct for it, or it was - and I don't even like stuff like that. I don't like lyrics being on the money, per se. And, you know, oddly enough, using something that has a second-generational quality to it really goes a long way as far as that's concerned.

(Break)

GROSS: My guest is Quentin Tarantino. His new movie is "Inglourious Basterds."

"Inglourious Basterds" is so much about movies. It's about the genres that you're using. It's about - a movie theater plays a prominent role in it, movies themselves. I don't want to give away a lot, so I'm going to talk in code here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But movies are in some ways the hero of the film, and - but it's also about how Hitler perverted movies and how his propaganda man, Joseph Goebbels, perverted movies by making these propaganda films. And you have a propaganda film that you made within your movie that's shown to an audience of Nazis, of the German elite. And the movie that they're seeing is basically a dramatization of a young soldier who's up in a bell tower shooting hundreds of - is it French soldiers?

Mr. TARANTINO: No, they're Americans.

GROSS: Americans, shooting hundreds of American soldiers beneath him, like, you know, like a hundred a day for several days. And as the Germans watch this movie, everybody, like, applauds and hoots. And so I have a few questions here. Let's start with this one: Did you go and watch German propaganda films while you were making "Inglourious Basterds"?

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah, I watched a few of them. Oddly enough, it's - most of the books written about the subject aren't very good because they just focus in on the more hateful movies that they did very early, early on when they were trying to, you know, get Germany into the war, whether it be anti-Semitic movies like "Jud Suss," or "The Eternal Jew," or movies made against the Polish to help, you know, create sympathy for them to invade Poland - you know, there'd be movies where there would be some German girl living in Poland who's raped by the Polish or something. And then they'd make movies against England, you know, in the same way, to help, you know, feather their nest for what they - their aggressions.

But the truth of the matter is, that was fairly, fairly early on in Goebbels' 800 movies that he made in Germany. The majority of them, especially once the war got going, you hardly saw Nazi officers in it at all. They were mostly musicals and comedies and melodramas and stories of great German men from the past.

You know, if you want to see jackbooting Nazis in movies, you've got to watch American movies made at that time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's funny.

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah, I mean, there were some...

GROSS: Well, what about the Leni Riefenstahl films?

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, yeah, but Goebbels had nothing to do with those. Goebbels - Leni Riefenstahl was the one person Goebbels had no control over in the filmmaking community of Nazi Germany, and they despised each other. But because she was Hitler's favorite, she could do what she wanted. She was the only filmmaker that did not have to cow down to Joseph Goebbels. But even then, you know, that was all before the war, all right?

You know, she was trying to make a movie called "Tiefland," and she was under bad health, and it just kept being stretched out for years and years and years. But, you know, her movies, "Olympia" and "Triumph of the Will," were made before, you know, America even got into the war.

GROSS: There's a screenplay that's been published of "Inglourious Basterds," and I'm finding reading this screenplay really interesting because of your stage directions and your asides. And I want to give an example.

Without giving away anything from the story, because it's fun to watch the story unfold as it happens, there is a strangling in it. One person strangles another. I won't say who. But in your stage directions, you write: Strangling the very life out of somebody with your bare hands is the most violent act a human being can commit. Also, only humans strangle, opposable thumbs being a quite important part of the endeavor.

I think it's so interesting that you wrote that in the stage directions. Tell me why you wrote that and if you often do that kind of thing.

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, you know, it's funny, because with everything I've done from "Jackie Brown" on, I got really into really writing more prose in the - in what you're calling the stage directions, all right. And consequently my scripts have gotten bigger and bigger, and got to "Kill Bill" volume 1 and 2.

But literally, by the time I was doing "Kill Bill," it was so much filled with prose that, you know, I start seeing why people write a screenplay and make it more like a blueprint, because basically I had written - in "Kill Bill," I had basically written a novel, and basically every day I was adapting my novel to the screen on the fly, you know, on my feet.

So I didn't want my script to get too out of control like that. So I actually made it a point not to do stuff like that, to pretty - to keep it more sparse than it's been in the last few years, or the last decade. But that was the one encounter that I couldn't go sparse with it. I had to - I had to write it. I had to describe it. I had to describe it, where the character was coming from, describe the situation, how it happened.

You know, my problem with most screenwriting is it is a blueprint. It's like they're afraid to write the damn thing. And I'm a writer. That's what I do. I want it to be written. I want it to work on the page, first and foremost. So when I'm writing the script, I'm not thinking about the viewer watching the movie. I'm thinking about the reader reading the script.

GROSS: And I have to say, before I read that part of your screenplay, I had never thought about the fact that, like, only humans can strangle because you need thumbs to do it and that's it's, you know, it's the most, like, direct and brutal way of murder, in some ways. What made you think about that, especially about the opposable thumbs?

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, it's just - you know, well, the only other animals that would be in the ballpark to be able to do it would be a gorilla, but it's not going to occur to a gorilla to strangle the life out of somebody. They might rip their head off, all right, but it wouldn't occur to a gorilla to just, I'm going to cut off your air.

So it's like a combination of the opposable thumbs, the combination of the brain and the thought process and the will to do it. I mean, boa constrictors suffocate people, but they don't strangle them. And you know, you can kill somebody with a knife. You can do all these kinds of things that are up close and personal, but you really have to bring your strength, and really - you have to really be committed to actually strangle the life out of somebody, to crush their larynx and just squeeze every drop of life out of them.

GROSS: We'll hear more from Quentin Tarantino in the second half of the show. Our interview was recorded last August, when "Inglourious Basterds" was released. This is the first interview in our holiday week series of memorable interviews from 2009. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of our interview with Quentin Tarantino who wrote and directed "Pulp Fiction," "Reservoir Dogs," "Jackie Brown," "Kill Bill," and "Inglourious Basterds" - which just came out on DVD.

I spoke with him in August when "Inglourious Basterds" was released. This is the kickoff interview in our weeklong series of memorable interviews from 2009.

One of the things that you're famous for is your dialogue and so much of the dialogue in your movies is like the kind of small talk that seems tangential to the story but really says something about the characters and also just kind of breathes life into it as a movie.

Mr. TARANTINO: Oh right.

GROSS: I think the standard example is in "Pulp Fiction," the conversation between the two hit men played by Samuel Jackson and John Travolta, when they're in the car on their way to the first hit in the movie...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and they're talking about what Quarter Pounders are called in France.

Mr. TARANTINO: Right.

GROSS: And there's something kind of similar in "Inglourious Basterds" in the sense that in one of the really tense scenes when you know people are likely to lose their lives there's a game being played in which you have to identify famous films or movie stars and so people are...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...kind of like playing this game. You know, so many screenplays are about explication, particularly like in...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...crime movies where the plot has to be explained and who did what.

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah.

GROSS: And who the murderer was, and so half the dialogue is explanation and explication. You really stay away from that, and so much of your dialogue is that kind of small talk that people make.

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How come?

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, I just...

GROSS: It works, and you're famous for it.

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah. Well I, you know to me that's my way of, I think that's, it's my way of writing, it's my, it's part of you know for lack of a better word, God-given talent that I have that I'm really good at that kind of dialogue.

And I think a lot of that has to do, I think it almost all has to do with coming at writing from an acting perspective, because I didn't, like, study writing. I studied acting. And when I first started writing, it was literally in acting classes. And what would happen is now it's really easy to get scripts and stuff but back then, you know, oftentimes you'd buy the novelization to a movie if you wanted to get an idea of what the scene, you know what happened in the scene.

Because like, you're an actor, you want to do a scene in class. But one of the things I've always had is I've always had a really good memory. So I would go and watch a movie and then I would see a scene in the movie and I go, hey I'd like to do that in class this Wednesday. And so what I would do is I would just remember the scene and I'd go home and I'd write out the scene from memory. And anything I didn't remember I would just fill in the blanks myself and then go and give it to a classmate and then we'd do it.

And then one day I was going to do a scene from "Marty." I had seen the Rod Steiger teleplay of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" on television and I remembered the scene so I wrote it down and I, you know, gave my chicken-scratch version to a guy name Ronnie Coleman who is, later became a roommate of mine for a little bit.

Anyway, I gave it to Ronnie to do the scene. Well, Ronnie actually had a, like a paperback of the original "Marty" play and he goes, Quentin, you rewrote Paddy Chayefsky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: I go, what do you mean? He goes, well, you wrote a whole monologue about a fountain. There's no fountain in his original screenplay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: There's, you wrote a, you added a monologue to it. And I go oh, sorry about that. He goes oh, don't be sorry. It's great. It was the best thing in there. Now look, I'm sure that monologue was not the best thing in Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay. But my point - but the thing that was interesting is it was the first time somebody had ever complimented me on this thing that I didn't take seriously.

I was just writing stuff to do in class and just really filling in the blanks and if I couldn't come up, if I didn't have a scene I wanted to do in class, then I'd come up with something and I'd write it, but it was literally just to do something in class.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned, you know you started writing because you were taking acting classes and you needed audition scenes and demonstration scenes.

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You dropped out of school when you were 15 or 17?

Mr. TARANTINO: Fifteen.

GROSS: To study acting?

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Yeah, I dropped out in middle school. I dropped out in, towards the beginning of the ninth grade. And then I started studying -I started taking acting classes at a, well first I was like in a community theater at that time in Torrance, California, so I finished up like my season with that community theater just acting in, you know, acting in a small part on this play or a big part on that play or a stage manager or assistant stage manager in another play.

And then I started studying with James Best, who played Roscoe Coltrane on "The Dukes of Hazzard." Roscoe P. Coltrane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: And he had a class in Toluca Lake, right off of Riverside Drive, right next to the HoneyBaked Hams.

GROSS: I like the idea of you studying with the guy from "Dukes of Hazzard" or not like Stella Adler or...

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: Oh you know, well see I was a big fan of James Best. Not just from "Dukes of Hazzard," he'd been in a lot of movies.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. TARANTINO: Actually he was in quite a few Audie Murphy movies for that matter.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. TARANTINO: And he worked with Sam Fuller. He was the star of a couple Sam Fuller movies.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. TARANTINO: And so I was a, you know a huge fan of his stuff. So it just so happened that he was on this crazy TV show. But I was always a fan of his as an old character actor.

And so I started studying with him and they taught actually camera technique, which was basically, you know, how to act for the camera. It was in particularly important if you're in Los Angeles and your work is going to be, you know, getting an under-five part on "Stingray" or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: "Dukes of Hazzard" or something you could, you know, that your work is going to be made up of that - episodic television shows. Not that I got many of them, but that was where I, but actually oddly enough though, they were teaching camera terminology at the same time in this acting class so I actually was able to understand what rack focus and whip pan and all that stuff meant.

And at some point in that acting class I just realized that I need to be a director for two reasons. One, directors were already my heroes at this point. I wanted to - when I wanted to be an actor I wanted to work with this director. Not work with this actor, I wanted to work for this director.

And so as the acting class was going on, I just realized I just knew more about cinema than the other people in the class. I cared about cinema and they cared about themselves. But two, was actually at a certain point I just realized that I love movies too much to simply appear in them. I wanted the movies to be my movies.

GROSS: And when you dropped out of school and you were studying acting, were you living with your mother still or were you on your own?

Mr. TARANTINO: At that time, yeah, I was living with my mom. Yeah, or when I dropped out, and her situation was - she doesn't remember it this way, but basically I just, I had ditched school so long at a certain period in the ninth grade that it was like one of those things where you've ditched so long that you're afraid to go back because the minute you go back you're going to get busted. So you just might as well just stay out until they actually just bust you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: ...rather than bring the, you know the guillotine to yourself; just try to push it off for as long as you could.

And so, I got busted and I was in trouble. And so I'm like arguing with my mom and you know, say, well I'm quitting. You know, and she said, no you're not quitting. Well I didn't think that was ever an option. She wasn't going to let me quit. And then like, you know two days later she's putting her makeup on before goes out to work and she's bitching at me about something and she goes, and you know what Quentin? I'm going to let you quit. I'm just going to show you a thing or two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, I didn't think that was in the cards. I mean that was just a bluff on my part. I couldn't quit without her approval, so when she said I could quit I was like, wow I am out of here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: This is great because I hated school. I hate school at that time. Now, little did I know that actually if I had stayed in school I would've actually really liked college. I wasn't aware enough to know that the junior high I was suffering through would be school at its worst.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: I didn't, I was thinking it was just more the same. No, college would not be the same as junior high. I actually would've had a good time in college.

GROSS: I know you love action films. Were you ever the victim of the action in junior high? Were you beaten up?

Mr. TARANTINO: No, no I was, well by that time I was a pretty tough guy so I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were you really?

Mr. TARANTINO: I didn't - I wasn't a predator. I didn't pick on other people all right, but people didn't beat me up.

GROSS: So did...

Mr. TARANTINO: But I got into fights.

GROSS: Did you study martial arts?

Mr. TARANTINO: No, no, no, no. No, just, you know just street fighting. I'm basically like, you know, learned pretty quickly the guy who throws the first punch usually wins, so when people gave me a hard time I just punched them.

GROSS: Interesting.

Mr. TARANTINO: I started the fight.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. TARANTINO: I brought it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Quentin Tarantino. He made the films "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill," and the new film "Inglourious Basterds."

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Quentin Tarantino and his new movie is "Inglourious Basterds."

I want to ask you about another kind of trademark Tarantino thing, and that is sometimes in your movies it's like little bit of almost literary criticism that's dropped in where people are arguing about the interpretation of something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's like...

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...like at the beginning of "Reservoir Dogs," all these, like, you know, gangsters are arguing about what the lyrics to "Like A Virgin" really means.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: Right. Yeah. Right.

GROSS: And then in like one of the great scenes in "Pulp Fiction" it's kind of like your Mexican standoff, you know scene in this.

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It's at the diner at the end and Samuel Jackson, who's a hit man, is in this diner eating when Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer decide to hold up the place. So in this final scene, Samuel Jackson's gotten the gun away from Tim Roth but Amanda Plummer has her gun on Samuel Jackson and John Travolta has his gun pointed on Amanda Plummer, and so while all these guns are pointed at each other, Samuel Jackson says this to Tim Roth.

Mr. SAMUEL JACKSON (Actor): (as Jules) You read the Bible, Ringo?

Mr. TIM ROTH (Actor): (as Pumpkin) Not regularly. No.

Mr. JACKSON: (as Jules) Well, there's this passage I got memorized: Ezekiel 25:17. The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and a finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.

I been sayin' that (bleep) for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded (bleep) to say to a (bleep) before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some (bleep) this mornin' made me think twice. See now I'm thinkin' that maybe it means you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. Nine Millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness.

Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish - and I'd like that. But that (bleep) ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I am the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd.

GROSS: So that's a cleaned-up version of a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...of a classic scene from "Pulp Fiction." My guest is Quentin Tarantino. I love that scene and I just think it's so interesting that, you know you're kind of like stopping for a moment here for Samuel Jackson to like, dramatically read this portion from the Bible and then - first of all, you don't strike me as somebody who's probably read the Bible a lot, so why did you decide to use a Bible scene and why that chapter?

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, one of the things you brought up is, I do like the fact, as long as it can work and it's in character and it doesn't break the mood, I love subtextual criticism.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TARANTINO: You know, I love thinking about things subtextually and I actually - like for instance when I write, I actually, I'm not very analytical about it. I don't ever deal with the subtext because I just know it's there so I don't have to deal with it. I just keep it about the scenario. I keep it on the surface, on my concerns. And one of the fun things is is when I'm done with everything, like now, for instance.

Okay, now you get to be analytical about the process and now I can watch the movie and see all the different connection things and see all the things that are underneath the surface. But I don't want to deal with the underneath while I'm, you know, while I'm making it or when I'm writing it or when I'm making it, because again, I don't want to hit these nails on the head too strongly.

But that's one of the things that I love the most about when I do write film criticism and stuff is getting into the subtextual areas and I like it when text can be explored believably in the course of a piece. I like the fact that, you know, little film comment sight and sound piece that just breaks out of the room. And, you know, I think the, when they play the celebrity game in this movie, the whole dissertation on what is underneath "King Kong."

GROSS: Oh, I love that.

Mr. TARANTINO: I think it has one of those big moments in it. And it's interesting watching it, because I've seen it now in a few different countries, that scene and it's, you know and to me it's very interesting. I mean to me it's very obvious. I mean, of course "King Kong" is a metaphor for the slave trade. I'm not saying the makers of "King Kong" meant it to be that way, but that's what, that's the movie that they made whether they meant to make it or not.

To me "King Kong" is a metaphor for America's fear of the black male and to me that's obvious. All right, so I mean that was one of the first things I said when I was talking to a friend of mine after he saw Peter Jackson's version of "King Kong." And I said, you know, is the racial metaphors in there? Is the racial subtext in there? And he goes no. And I go, well then that's just a story of a big monkey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: What's that about? But I'm still shocked that people - a lot of people don't even look at it as that. So when the character says it in the movie, it's like - there's like - actually I've seen shock and then applause of people realizing it for the very first time that "King Kong" is a metaphor for the slave trade. And I even love the fact that it's a Gestapo major...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. TARANTINO: ...who is actually calling America on its racist past.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So in the scene that we just heard...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...did you read a lot of the Bible to find the passage that you wanted to use? Did you already know that passage?

Mr. TARANTINO: No. I already knew that passage actually.

GROSS: How did you know it?

Mr. TARANTINO: I had actually - okay, I'll reveal my source. That passage was used once in a Sonny Chiba martial arts movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's how Quentin Tarantino learns his Bible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah. I watched a movie called "The Bodyguard," all right.

GROSS: That's funny.

Mr. TARANTINO: And it was, you're right, it was described - it was - it's said just the way Sam Jackson says it earlier - the path of the righteous man, you know, it's just all very badass.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Quentin Tarantino. He made the film "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill" and the new film "Inglourious Basterds." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Quentin Tarantino. And we're talking about his new movie, "Inglourious Basterds." Can I ask you a casting question about "Inglourious Basterds"?

Mr. TARANTINO: Sure.

GROSS: The casting is great. But what's - the person who is just like brand new to me and I think most American viewers and is like super extraordinary in it is Christoph Waltz who plays the quote, "Jew hunter," the person...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...who is sent by the Gestapo to find the last remaining Jews hiding out in the countryside of France. And this is an actor who speaks three languages very well in the movie.

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And he plays this Jew hunter, this Nazi, as somebody who, like a lot of mobsters are portrayed in movies who on the...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...surface is like very polite and gracious and complimentary. And you know he's just like taking your measure so he can totally undo you and probably kill you or...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...whatever it is. And he's very kind of like neat and organized and he -when he's at the farmhouse looking for the Jews who he suspects are hiding, he takes out...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...his papers and he fills his fountain pen very neatly. And everything is done with a little flourish. How did you find this actor, Christoph Waltz, who is so splendid in this? What was your audition like for him? How did you know you had found your man?

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, you know, it was wild because I had seen already like a few different German actors for this part and was not finding my Landa at all. And part of the problem was, well, obviously they could speak German well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: And most, actually, German actors have like some speaking of French. So, the French wasn't the problem. But, I was having a problem with them doing my dialogue in English. And it wasn't a matter of fluency. You know, a lot of them could come in and we could speak for the next nine hours in English and there would be no problem. It was - but it was - English wasn't the language for them to read poetry in. And there is a - there's a poetic quality to my dialogue. I mean, there's an aspect I've always said that is - it's, you know, it's not poetry but it's kind of like it. It's not song lyrics but it's kind of like song lyrics. It's not rap but it's kind of like rap. And it's not stand-up comedy but it is kind of like stand-up comedy. It's all those things together.

And there's wordplay and there's rhythms and you have to be able to get the poetry out of it. You have to be able to sell my jokes. And if you're talking about somebody like Sam Jackson, they do that. Sam Jackson can do that. Sam Jackson can turn it into the spoken word that it was always meant to be and he can sell my jokes. And Christopher Walken can do it and a lot of people can do it, all right. Sam is just probably like the most famous for it. And when it came to a lot of these German actors with the English, they just couldn't do it. They couldn't get the poetry out of it. They couldn't own it and make it their own. And they were struggling with it. And then, Christoph came in and I didn't know who Christoph was. He's a TV actor in Germany. He does like miniseries and stuff. And he came in and I can literally say halfway through the reading of that first scene in the farmhouse, I knew I'd found my Landa.

GROSS: And you've also done such a good job like finding actors who had been famous and whose careers seemed to be behind them and then reviving it and finding great, you know, writing great material for them. I mean John Travolta is a great example of that.

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Pam Grier.

Mr. TARANTINO: Robert Forster in "Jackie Brown."

GROSS: Robert Forster, absolutely, yeah. You really have an - oh, Lawrence Tierney...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's - what a great shout-out to him. I mean you have such a great eye for that. When did you start seeing movies that were movies other than what was playing in the local cineplex?

Mr. TARANTINO: Oh gosh, well, you know, growing up in the '70s being a young boy there, you know, there were still exploitation movies, where, you know, were, you know, still opened up every week and, you know, played - sometimes they would play it at the local, you know, mall theater. And sometimes you'd have to go to the - I lived right on the borderline of a black neighborhood. So I could go into the black area and then there'd be these ghetto theaters that you could actually see the new kung fu movie or the new blaxploitation movie or the new horror film or whatever. And then there was also, if you went just a little further away, there was actually a little art house cinema. So I could actually see, you know, French movies or Italian movies, when they came out.

And I just, you know, I just love movies. And I loved seeing, you know, I guess around the age of like 13 and 14 is when I started venturing out from just like, you know, the standard Hollywood movie to see a lot of these different exploitation movies or art films. You know, I guess like, say, like around '76, where, you know, I guess the standard Hollywood movie would be "A Star Is Born," with Barbra Streisand, okay, that would be that movie. And I saw that and I liked that. But then, you know, also I'd go see the, you know, the -"J.D.'s Revenge," or "Cornbread, Earl and Me," or some kung fu movie - "Lady Kung Fu." And, you know, I loved those movies.

And I, you know, I liked the Hollywood stuff. But I also liked the fact that in both, you know, I guess in the, like, the auteur, the art film auteur at that time was Lina Wertmuller. So, you go see "Swept Away" or you go see a movie she did "Blood Feud" with Sophia Loren and Giancarlo Giannini. And I remember "Wifemistress" was a big movie at that time, really liked it, Laura Antonelli.

And - but the thing that was great about both the art films and the exploitation movies was they really - they colored outside of the lines of the Hollywood movies. And so you could literally see stuff you would never see in a Hollywood movie in an exploitation movie or in an art film, equally. You know, the art films would usually be more, I mean the exploitation movies would usually be more lurid, but not that much more. I mean, actually back in those days that was what foreign films had. They had sex, they were selling Laura Antonelli. They were selling...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. TARANTINO: ...the fact that she's naked in most of the movie. And so I loved the idea of the fact that the way, like I said, they colored outside of the lines. You know, there was rules that they didn't have to follow. And you got -you got - you could get more of a sensational thrill, all right, with some of these exploitation movies or art films, or you could get something you wouldn't see at the normal cineplex.

GROSS: You must have felt like a traveler between different worlds.

Mr. TARANTINO: A bit. Well, you know, one of the things that was interesting about it is the art films, on one hand, would usually stay for a long time - I mean, you know, a few months. They'd be, you know, flying around at the different art theaters. But the exploitation movies would come in but would be gone in a week. You know, they'd come to Los Angeles, maybe get an ad in the newspaper, maybe a couple of TV spots on "Soul Train" and that was it. And then when the week was over, they were gone and they were headed to the next city. They were in San Jose or they were wherever they were, because they only made so many prints, so they just schlepped them around for the year to one cinema after another, you know, usually going through some horrible projector in the process.

But the thing about that though is you'd see them and unless you saw them with somebody, which is usually was not the case with me because I was on my own, it's like there was nobody to ever talk to about the movies with. It was like almost you questioned did you even see them because they literally only existed in my head. I saw them, there was the audience I saw them with, and that was it. There's nobody in school I could talk to them about, there was like no adults I could talk to with them about. I had to grow up and meet other adults like myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: Hey, you remember "The Girl from Starship Venus?" Oh, yeah, that was a funny sex comedy. Hey, do you remember "The Pom Pom Girls?" Yeah, I remember "Pom Pom Girls". That was great. But I had to grow up for that to happen.

GROSS: Gosh, I could talk with you or listen to you talk for hours about movies, but I really regret we're out of time. Thank you so much.

Mr. TARANTINO: Oh, no...

GROSS: I hope we can do it again sometime and...

Mr. TARANTINO: I look forward to this...

GROSS: ...continue the conversation.

Mr. TARANTINO: ...this was so much fun.

GROSS: Thank you so much for coming to FRESH AIR. Really appreciate it.

Mr. TARANTINO: My pleasure.

GROSS: Quentin Tarantino recorded last August when "Inglourious Basterds" was released. It's just come out on DVD. We'll be hearing more of our most memorable interviews of the year through the holiday week. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

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