You also stretch out certain scenes...
I like the idea of taking something that would be a quick thing in a normal movie but slowing it down and really playing it out. Something I never ended up writing but I hoped would come up was a scene where a character was stuck on a minefield and playing that out in real time, see what that must feel like. My equivalent of that in Basterds is the tavern scene, where I just really play the scene out and let the suspense do its job. It’s building and building, and the rubber band of suspense is stretching and stretching until it breaks. And when it breaks, you get one of those quick bursts of violence.
And the violence always turns out to be a lot worse than you expected.
(laughs) Oh, yeah. Exactly. You get these huge, long buildups to these quick bursts, but they’re “cataclysmic”.
The first scene in Basterds is a 16-minute conversation between a Nazi and a farmer suspected of hiding Jews in his basement. The scene is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous description of the difference between surprise and suspense. Surprise is having a bomb go off under a table over which two people are talking. Suspense is showing us the bomb before it goes off.
Except you don’t show us the bomb right away. You wait until halfway through the scene to reveal whether the farmer has anything to worry about. And yet the scene is still excruciating.
Yeah. Very much so. The case can be made that when an SS officer walks in your house, you’re going to be nervous whether you’re hiding Jews or not laughs. You can even use a modern analogy of when an IRS guy walks into your home to do an audit, you’re going to be nervous whether or not you’re stashing millions of dollars in your house.
The scene is also a great introduction to the character of the Nazi Col. Landa, who is a great, great villain. There is absolutely nothing likable about him, but ...
No, there isn’t. But oddly enough, he’s disturbingly charismatic.
He’s incredibly magnetic. You’re drawn to him, even though you hate him.
He’s the kind of guy that when he shows up, things happen, and that’s exciting. He’s also a really good detective. You can’t help but admire his prowess. laughs
The movie begins with the words “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France”. Did you know from the outset the movie was going to be a piece of revisionist history, or did you originally intend to stay true to the facts of the war?
I had no idea I was going to change the course of history until I came to that point in the movie. I started thinking “My characters don’t “know” they’re not a part of history. My characters don’t “know” there are things they can’t do. I’ve never had that kind of guiding principle on any of my characters, ever. And now was not the time to start. So there’s a moment toward the end of the movie where history goes one way, and I go another. My take on that is my characters have changed the course of the war. That didn’t actually happen, because my characters didn’t exist. But if they “had” existed, everything that happens in the movie is quite possible.
You once said that when you put a pop song in a movie, you want to use it in a way that will always remind people of your film whenever they hear it, so no other filmmaker can ever use it again. In this movie, though, you use David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, which was written for the 1982 Cat People remake.
I’ve always loved that song, and I was always disappointed by how Paul Schrader used it in the movie. He didn’t really use it; he threw it in over the closing credits. I remember working at the Video Archives at the time and thinking, “If I had a song like that for my movie, I’d build a 20-minute scene around it!” So I guess I did.
There’s a really cool sense of dislocation when that song comes on, which still sounds so modern, yet we’re in World War II France.
When I got the idea to use it, one of the things I liked is that the song was once removed, and you already knew it from something else, as opposed to something that was written for the movie. You’re listening to the lyrics of the song, and you’re watching Shoshanna doing all this stuff, and you sit there thinking “Wow, this song was written for Cat People, but it’s totally appropriate for Shoshanna’s story!” It plays like an interior monologue for her.
What do you think when you read critics who say that you’re squandering your potential by making self-referential B movies like Kill Bill and Death Proof?
Well, “particularly” when it comes to Kill Bill, I think they’re full of it. I’m as proud of that as anything I’ve ever done. That’s one of my “tombstone movies”. I think they just don’t “got” it.
What about Death Proof and the whole Grindhouse experiment?
I get what they’re saying. I really like Death Proof a lot, but it’s not in the same league as Kill Bill. It was an in-between movie. In between two mountains, it was a hill.
I’ve read a couple of recent interviews with you where you say you don’t want to still be directing when you hit 60 and be making “old-man movies”. You’re only 46. Did you recently have a moment of reflection that made you decide this?
No. It didn’t come out of something that happened recently. I was talking to cinematographer Bob Richardson about this on the set of Kill Bill. I just don’t want to go down that route. I want every one of my movies to have some umbilical cord linked to Reservoir Dogs. I don’t need to do the out-of-touch, old-man stuff. Now that I’ve said that a few times, it’s starting to maybe sound a little catty, even to myself. I don’t quite mean it that way. It’s just not the way I want to go. If I was a rock ‘n’ roll performer, I wouldn’t want to be doing an album of old crooning tunes 30 years down the road. I want to keep “rocking”.