LOS ANGELES — Most writers, musicians and filmmakers are delighted to talk about the biggest influences on their work. After all, for artists, the influences from their youth are usually the subconscious fuel that drives their imagination.
And when it comes to cinematic influence peddling, no American filmmaker has spent more time yakking about the movies that made him fall in love with movies than Quentin Tarantino, whose Oscar-nominated “Inglourious Basterds” is crammed with hundreds of references to obscure old films of every shape, stripe and size.
So when I decided to start an informal series of interviews with Oscar-nominated talent about the varied influences on their work, it seemed like a no-brainer that Tarantino should get the first turn in the spotlight, since no filmmaker since Jean-Luc Godard has worn their influences more on their sleeve. Since he made his debut with “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino has populated his work with borrowings and homages to everything from film noir and martial arts films to Japanese animation and spaghetti westerns, not to mention a long-forgotten 1939 B movie that actually kills off Hitler that Tarantino discovered in an old videotape rack at Safeway.
But as it turns out, after all these years of happily giving it up for his favorite filmmakers, Tarantino has become deeply conflicted about discussing the sources of his influences, in large part because Tarantino’s honesty has often been used against him by critics and bloggers when they want to belittle his films or blame the filmmaker’s endless parade of movie references for the swarm of mindless Harry Knowles-style fanboys who now dominate the online movie scene. In the course of a long conversation the other day, Tarantino managed to go — in a matter of minutes — from saying he “loved having influences” to saying that he was “unbelievably annoyed” with critics who used his reliance on influences as a way of trashing his movies.
After checking out some of the critical feedback to Tarantino’s films, I began to feel his pain. In the course of an otherwise admiring review of “Basterds,” Roger Ebert argued that judging from the way Tarantino photographed Melanie Laurent near the end of the film, focusing on her shoes, lips, dress and facial veil, “you can’t tell me (that) he hasn’t seen the work of the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano.” (Cackling with laughter, Tarantino’s response was a resounding: “No.”)
But the critic that really got under his skin was Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, who in the course of reviewing “Kill Bill” said the movie felt as if Tarantino “were holding us captive on a moldy postgraduate couch somewhere, subjecting us to 90 minutes worth of his favorite movie clips strung together, accompanied by an exhausting running commentary along the lines of ‘Isn’t this great?’”
To say that Tarantino finds this aggravating is an understatement. “Here’s my problem with this whole influence thing,” he told me. “Instead of critics reviewing my movies, now what they’re really doing is trying to match wits with me. Every time they review my movies, it’s like they want to play chess with the mastermind and show off every reference they can find, even when half of it is all of their own making. It feels like the critics are IMDB-ing everything I do. It just rubs me the wrong way because they end up using it as a stick to beat me down with.”
Once he got that off his chest, however, Tarantino was happy to share, in great detail, some of the key influences on “Inglourious Basterds.”
“I love having influences because I want people to get excited when they see something in the film or hear me talking about it and then actually go see the movie that inspired me in the first place,” he says. “For example, the whole opening scene in ‘Basterds’ is completely and utterly taken from the first appearance of Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’ That’s why it has that whole spaghetti western vibe.
“So I was really using the whole feeling and mood from a scene in another movie, but what happens is that it becomes my scene with my actors and my way of telling the story and I feel like I somehow make it my own.”
To hear Tarantino tell it, it was the time he spent watching old World War II movies that gave him the confidence to embark on “Inglourious Basterds.” “It wasn’t that I needed permission,” he explains. “But what really struck me was that these were films made by directors who’d had to flee their country because of Hitler, and yet the movies they made weren’t all terror or horror. In fact, while they definitely showed the Nazis and their cruelty, they were adventure films, whether you’re talking about ‘Hangmen Also Die’ or ‘Reunion in France’ or ‘To Be or Not to Be’ or ‘O.S.S.,’ an Alan Ladd film that’s like a prequel to ‘The Good Shepherd.’
“They were fun and thrilling and exciting and, most amazingly, they had a lot of comedy in them, which really made an impact on me. I mean, for every movie with a sadistic Nazi, there’s one with a Nazi who’s more of a buffoon or a figure of ridicule.”
Tarantino says he loved listening to the dialogue — what he calls the “great ‘40s turns of phrases” — that permeated the films. “The slang is really cool,” he says. “People were always calling each other ‘killer dillers,’ which I kept trying to work into ‘Basterds,’ though I never found a place for it. But that’s why you watch the movie from a period — you want to hear how people really talked.”
Tarantino essentially set up a screening series of relevant films for most of his actors. For Laurent, who plays Shosanna Dreyfus, Tarantino says: “I wanted her to pretty much watch every movie about people fighting behind enemy lines. The first movie I always had in mind was ‘Operation Amsterdam’ with Peter Finch and Eva Bartok, even though Shosanna became a very different sort of character in our film.”
Tarantino had Mike Myers, who plays Ed Fenech, watch a lot of old ‘40s films with Alan Napier, who often played opposite George Sanders (and ended up being immortalized as Alfred in the “Batman” TV series). “Mike would watch the movies and then ask me, ‘You want me to do that?’ — meaning Alan Napier — and I’d say, ‘Yeah, do that.’”
Tarantino envisioned Michael Fassbender, who plays Archie Hicox, as a Sanders type of smoothie. “So I had him watch all the old ‘The Saint’ movies with Sanders, just to soak up his highly articulated speech and his woody manner.”
For Diane Kruger, who plays Bridget Von Hammersmark, a sultry double agent, Tarantino steeped her in the career of Ilona Massey, a now-forgotten Hungarian singer who was brought to Hollywood when the studios were raiding Hungary and Poland for Marlena Dietrich knockoffs. Tarantino had Kruger watch Massey’s “International Lady,” a ‘40s-era spy film, where it turned out that Massey wore pretty much the same outfit Tarantino’s costume designer had made up for Kruger.
“That’s an example of where I didn’t want Diane to just be Dietrich. But with my characters, I really need to know their history, so I had to figure out Bridget’s whole filmography. So in my mind, I decided that Universal had come to Bridget — the way the studios had done to Massey — and offered her a contract, but she was savvy enough to know that if she went to Universal and she didn’t hit right away, she’d be stuck doing Frankenstein movies, which is exactly like Ilona Massey’s real career!”
It begins to feel a little bit like a hall of mirrors, but this is how Tarantino’s imagination really works, feeding off his fantasies inspired by his favorite old movies. One day, on the “Basterds” set, he was stymied by how to shoot part of the film’s pivotal basement tavern scene.
“I thought what we’d done was kinda boring, so at the end of the day, I said, ‘Let’s do the scene like Josef von Sternberg would’ve done it.’”
It turns out Tarantino had only recently fallen in love with Von Sternberg, in part because Tarantino had never been a Dietrich fan. But after he saw one Von Sternberg film, he couldn’t stop. The director’s seductive style began to permeate Tarantino’s imagination.
“So there I was on the set, doing this tracking shot, sweeping past all the bottles on the bar, as my characters came in to sit down and everything started popping again,” Tarantino says, his voice crackling with enthusiasm.
“It was great. ... I figured, if I’m gonna shoot actresses in an exquisite ‘40s style, who better to look to for inspiration?”