A version of this story originally appeared in the Nominations/SAG/Golden Globes issue of TheWrap’s magazine.
Even before it was released, Quentin Tarantino‘s “The Hateful Eight” was enmeshed in a few controversies. An early draft of the script was leaked online, causing the writer-director to vow that he would no longer make the movie.
The vow lasted until a live reading of the script in downtown Los Angeles, which was so successful that Tarantino decided to go ahead and make the Western about an octet of shady figures trapped in a remote outpost called “Minnie’s Haberdashery” during a Wyoming blizzard shortly after the Civil War.
The film has also stirred up talk for its typically generous use of the N-word, most of the time directed at Samuel L. Jackson‘s bounty-hunter character, and also for its three-hour-plus running time (including intermission), its widescreen format and its director’s insistence on presenting it in limited, old-fashioned “roadshow” engagements for a week before it opens in theaters that can’t show 70mm.
And, of course, Tarantino drew the wrath of police unions around the country when he appeared at an anti-police-brutality rally in the fall and called some police “murderers.”
In the midst of all this is another bloody, perverse and often brutally funny Tarantino extravaganza and twisted genre exercise, his third consecutive film (after “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained”) to end in a bloodbath.
What made you return to the Western genre for a second movie after “Django Unchained?”
I really like Westerns. I always have. In the case of “Django,” I kind of learned how to do a Western, how to deal with the horses and the wranglers and all that kind of stuff. And I really enjoyed making “Django” — but it was also really painful, too, creating that antebellum South and living in it for a year. It was hard on the soul and the psyche.
When that movie was over, the sadness and the sorrow of the ghosts that I was evoking came to rest on me. And it actually put me in a bit of a depression that I had to get out of. At the same time, that’s not the worst thing to be depressed about, you know?
So there was this aspect of, now that I know how to make a Western, I’d like to do another one. I think I have something to say in Westerns. The fact that I deal with the subject of white and black in America at that time has not been a subject that any of the great Western directors have chosen as a theme. But it is something that I have chosen as a theme, and I think I actually have something to offer as far as that’s concerned.
But as much as I’m dealing with things that are relevant to now, I also am not dealing with the entire issue of slavery, which I was in “Django.” Here, I could just tell a genre story, and I didn’t have to deal with the seriousness of that issue in a way that hung over everything. It was nice to just be able to be a little bit more
So what was the seed of “Hateful Eight,” the idea that started this?
It started off because I knew I didn’t want to do a movie sequel to “Django.” But I did like the idea that Django the character had become so iconic that there could be different paperback books with other adventures of his. A publishing house was really into that idea, so they sent me a synopsis and wanted to hire other writers to do different stories. But I couldn’t quite let somebody else write my character, so I thought I’d give it a try, writing my own paperback adventure of Django.
It was called “Django in White Hell,” and I wrote the first chapter, and maybe a bit into the second chapter. It was basically just the stagecoach stuff at the beginning of “Hateful Eight.”
I decided that it was really good material, and it should be my next movie. The only thing wrong with it was Django. Django needed to go, because the movie shouldn’t have a hero. There shouldn’t be a moral center, somebody that you have a rooting interest in. And you shouldn’t have as much knowledge about anybody in the place the way you would have knowledge about Django.
Basically, nobody trapped in Minnie’s Haberdashery should be heroic. Maybe they’re not a bad guy, but maybe they are. And you shouldn’t be able to take anybody’s word for anything.
But for much of the audience, just the sight of Samuel L. Jackson spouting your dialogue is so delicious that they’ll automatically rally behind his character.
I know. I realized that, especially when I did the live read. It doesn’t matter what I say about Major Warren — short of showing him Gatling-gunning a dozen Indians in a flashback, they’re going to be on his side no matter what. But that’s OK.
I was just drawn to the idea of taking these nefarious characters that you can’t trust, and putting them in a landscape so brutal that they literally can’t leave or they will perish. Trap them together in this room, turn up the pressure cooker and see what happens.
And if you want to root for a character, go ahead, but the movie’s not going to give you any signposts that say, “This is the good guy.” Everything is open to conjecture, and so many things are never clarified. Chris Mannix [Walton Goggins‘ character] says he’s the sheriff of Red Rock. Is he, or is he not? I’m not going to make that decision for you.
Do you know the answer to that question yourself?
Yes, I do. However, when I was dealing with Walt Goggins, he asked me, and I said, “Here’s the deal: I want you to answer that question for yourself, but I do not want you to tell me the answer. Because I never want to work in any scene from that spot of reality.”
Honestly, in the writing process I tried a scene where it was revealed that he was the sheriff, and it was disappointing. And then I tried a version where it was revealed that he wasn’t the sheriff, and that was disappointing.
There’s something perverse about saying, “I’m making a Western,” which has often been a widescreen genre, “and I’m setting most of the movie in one room.”
Yeah, exactly. 70mm is basically made to do travelogues. It’s made to shoot scenery, it’s made to shoot mountain ranges, it’s made to shoot the Saraha Desert and vast landscapes. But I think that’s just a shallow view of what 70 can do, and I think the closeups in my movie bear that out. I actually think there’s an intimacy that’s gained by the 70 when you get close to the actors.
I mean, I’ve shot lots of closeups of Sam Jackson before, but I’ve never had closeups of him like the ones in this movie.
When an early version of the script leaked on the Internet, you said that you were no longer going to make the movie. Were you serious?
I was pretty serious, at least for a little while. I wanted to do this movie different from my other films, insofar as not just work on a big literary tome for a long period of time, and then release it to the world when I felt it was done. I wanted to do a first draft, then do a second draft, then do a third draft, and let it evolve organically.
And I didn’t feel the need, because I didn’t think anybody but a couple of friends would read the first draft, to deal with certain things. Like for instance the Lincoln letter, which becomes a big thing in the film, was only brought up one time in the first draft.
So when it was leaked, it seemed to ruin that idea. That made me despondent, and I wanted to punish people for fucking up my plans, basically. But I kept working on the second draft. Basically, I just got over it.
Look, I don’t know if I overreacted. I think I had a natural reaction to what happened. But taking my blocks and going home, and saying I’m going to punish the world by denying them my genius, might not have been the smartest thing to do.
Earlier, you mentioned dealing with issues that are relevant to now. When you write a line like, “The only time black folks are safe is when white folks are disarmed,” are you thinking of the contemporary resonance?
At the time I put pen to paper, I wasn’t. I mean, it was not lost on me that a blue state/red state dilemma that’s going on in this country was manifesting itself in this piece. But that was just the argument that was going on in the scene, and the mindset of those characters in that stagecoach.
However, during the last year and a half that we were in preproduction and production and postproduction on the film, the events in the news have conspired to make the movie more relevant than it was even when I was writing it. And actually, one of the interesting things about that first draft getting out there is that I’m on record as having written about this before the shit hit the fan in the last year and a half on these issues.
The shit also hit the fan when you appeared at the anti-police-brutality rally. Does the backlash concern you?
What concerns me more than anything else is the fact that I know I had a lot of policemen who are fans of my work. And I like to think that they won’t follow the boycott, they won’t just take the word of the mouthpieces for the police unions who have slandered me by saying I hate cops.
They might think I’m an out-of-touch celebrity who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about, but I’m not coming from a place of hatred. And I think I am dealing with a reality that’s on the ground, and a reality that I would hope that they would agree with: that this stuff is sickening and it needs to stop. And if they’re part of the police force, they need to be part of the people who are stopping it.