Quentin Tarantino lives in the sort of house you buy in Los Angeles the first time you make it big. It’s just off Mulholland Drive, atop the Hollywood Hills, a Spanish fantasy with turrets and porticoes. Like the car parked in the driveway, a beat-up Volvo, it’s modest by local standards — comfortable, but not so lavish that you’d have to sell it and move out if you never make it again in Hollywood. Which has, of course, been the big question with Tarantino since his breakout with Pulp Fiction in the mid-Nineties.
He answers his door one evening a little before ten for the interview his publicists have put off a dozen times in recent weeks, suggestive of the post-production chaos surrounding Kill Bill Vol. I, the first new Tarantino film in six years. This kung-fu revenge epic stars Uma Thurman as a righteously pissed-off sword-fighting assassin who travels to Tokyo to battle it out with an underworld boss played by Lucy Liu. It was, by most accounts, a motherfucker to edit and turn into a releasable picture. After seven months of shooting in China and California, Tarantino was forced to chop what had been one Kill Bill film into two.
If there has been trouble with the project, Tarantino displays no hint of the stress when he greets me with a casual handshake and an invitation to join him in his private movie theater. Dressed in a brown velour tracksuit and slippers, Tarantino stands more than six feet tall, with broad shoulders and that prominent chin jutting out like the end of a two-by-four. But his hyperactive mannerisms — the rapid-fire speech and pretzel-twisting arm gesticulations — make him seem smaller than he is and vulnerable, like the class spaz who fends off the bullies through the sheer strength of his utter weirdness.
After his first flush of fame, Tarantino enjoyed a type of celebrity that was more rock star than director. But his out-of-control antics — a fistfight at a Hollywood lunch spot, talk among his friends of Tarantino’s heavy dope smoking, even his more recent boasts of zooming on Chinese Ecstasy while in Beijing shooting Kill Bill — could not mask the fact that he was, at his core, the ultimate film dweeb, a one-time video-store clerk who could spend hours on some geeked-out rant about the relative virtues of chop-socky movie tracks and their influences on spaghetti westerns.
Now forty and graying at the temples, he admits to never having played a video game. He didn’t really pay much attention to the war in Iraq — though he did like it when he heard that when U.S. soldiers took Saddam’s palace, they found a copy of Pulp Fiction there. Tarantino, however, is intensely aware of what the Kill Bills represent to his career. They are an ambitious effort to reconnect with audiences after 1997’s unenthusiastically received Jackie Brown and his disastrous run shortly thereafter, acting in the Broadway play Wait Until Dark.
“This is a really groovy theater,” he says, as we settle into opposite ends of an overstuffed couch. Our talk lasts about three hours. The whole time, Tarantino practically appears to be swimming. His arms and legs flail in opposite directions, knocking over the stacks of DVDs piled up everywhere. He climbs up the back of the couch, perches there for a while, then climbs back down to the floor. When he actually brings himself to sit in one place, he’s often rocking back and forth. “My imagination built this theater,” he blurts at one point. “I took my imagination, I grabbed a piece of paper, and that’s where it all came from; that’s where it all started. Me dreaming up stories bought all this.”
It’s been six years since you came out with a movie. The pressure must be on.
Well, it’s like when people say “pressure,” it usually has some kind of negative connotation. If there’s pressure, it’s the pressure I put on myself to top myself. I wanted to make a better movie than Pulp Fiction. Kill Bill is an audience movie. It’s meant to blow the audience away. I meant it to be like a concert, to get the whole house rocking.
Uma Thurman really carries the movie. How closely did you work with her on this?
We had a total partnership on this movie. I wrote the script by myself, but we talked about it all the time. I pretty much moved to New York to be close to her. I’d go up to her place in Woodstock and hang out there and write. We were talking a while ago, and she was like, “I don’t understand why I am different in your movies. I guess the other directors I work with don’t know me as well as you do, or …” She didn’t use the word know. She used the word understand: “You understand me.”
There’s a story going around — probably totally unfounded — that you’re having an affair with Uma [she’s currently separated from her husband, Ethan Hawke], but since you mentioned her being your muse and inspiration and all that, I have to ask, is this true?
Really? No. There is nothing to that.
That rumor is probably just a tribute to how well you captured her. There are some moments — where you go in close on her face — she just looks totally in heat.
I’m always looking for that little flash in the eye, that tremble in the throat. Part of my job as a director is to know good acting when I see it. I take it really seriously with all the actors. I edit Michael Madsen like he’s a woman I’m in love with. By the time you see the movie, all those mannerisms in my actors have been not only approved by me but cherished by me.
In Kill Bill there’s a point when Uma is talking about not being able to move her legs, and she says they had “entropy.” Wasn’t she supposed to say they’d “atrophied”? Was that a mistake?
I thought of changing it, but, you know, Uma pronounces words in her own way. That’s how she said it. I decided to keep it.
Now we know you’re having an affair with her.
You grew up in Los Angeles, the South Bay area, but none of your movies have any traditional California feel — like surfing or skate-boarding. How did you end up missing those influences?
I avoided that stuff, because I didn’t really grow up in the beach areas of South Bay. I grew up in the inland ghettoish parts. I hung out more with black kids and Mexican kids than white kids. In the Seventies, when I was in elementary school and going into junior high, white kids defined themselves by surfing and skate-boarding and all that. And I lived not to be associated with that group. I didn’t wear OPs. I didn’t wear puka shells. I never learned how to skateboard. While the little white boys were listening to Kiss, I was listening to Parliament.
Your movies are known for the way you use music. Was music important to you as a child?
When I was a little kid, I was mostly involved in Top Forty stuff. The first record I bought was the Partridge Family. I still listen to their records. I actually think David Cassidy is one of the most underrated vocal performers in the history of rock & roll. Because I was growing up right at the same time when soul music was really coming completely into its own, I was hearing that all around the house all the time. But the music that made me make a left turn, after being Mr. Soul Boy for a long time, was when I got together with my first real love-of-my-life girlfriend. And she was a big Bob Dylan fan. Then all of a sudden I thought, “I want to be to film what Bob Dylan was to music.” Bob Dylan kind of became my hero to emulate — just in a different medium. That’s what I’m after. I don’t know if I’m going to do it. I don’t know if I’m going to get there with it, but that’s the goal.
How has movie culture changed since Pulp Fiction?
You know, I can’t really tell you how it changed, other than in one aspect. The violence that was in Reservoir Dogs and True Romance was considered at the time to be the thing that kept the movies from having mainstream appeal. Now, I love violent movies. I have no more problem saying that than somebody else saying, “I love musicals.” But the violence was considered the thing that kept Reservoir Dogs in its own little box. By the time Pulp Fiction came out, my audience had caught up with me in terms of the violence and my sense of humor. But initially I got all kinds of shit about the violence in Pulp Fiction, but I don’t really remember David Fincher, the next year, going through what I went through when he made Seven. And I think part of the reason is, he was walking down a trail I blazed.
What do you not like about movies today?
There have been all these bloodless battle action sequences in movies of the last six years. Both of the two Star Wars movies had big battles, but they were always fighting a robot, so it’s safe, it’s OK. Even the Lord of the Rings movies, which I really like, had you all set up for this giant battle at the end of The Two Towers. The lead-up to it was great, but the battle wasn’t that special. It was these flesh-and-blood characters fighting skeletons with glowing eyes and robes. Same thing with Pirates of the Caribbean. Same thing with the Matrix movies. Ultimately, they’re just a bunch of computer people fighting computer chips.
In Kill Bill, much of the heat comes from watching your women characters beat the crap out of each other. There’s something so wrong about it, but it’s really exciting.
Yeah. Watching Uma fight Vivica A. Fox’s character, that’s hot. When you see two beautiful women, and they’re hurting each other — punching each other in the face, bashing each other’s head against walls, slicing each other’s hands — that hurts, more than with two guys. There’s just a naughty aspect to seeing women fight.
You mean naughty-good?
Having what you think is the wrong response to what you’re seeing is very sexy and exciting — in music, comedy, literature or films. Hands down. You know, there’s a special charge.
Do you ever have moments after you’ve written especially twisted material where you’re alone in the dark thinking, “Oh, my God, if people see this stuff, they’re going to think something is horribly wrong with me”?
I have moments of fear because I think what I do is too revealing about myself. My subjects are very, very personal. There’s no Tarantino figure running around in my movies, but I have to write from a place of personal experience in one degree or another. Part of my job as a writer is to just tell the truth as I perceive it, to tell my secrets without letting you know that I’m telling them.
What is it in this ass-kicking female kung-fu film that’s deeply personal?
There’s a subtext that has to do with me and where I was when I wrote it, and what I had to get out of my system or get into my system. But I don’t really want people to be following that scorecard.
Is there anything that sticks out in the Tarantino legend as just bullshit?
No, I’m impressed by the legend, because it is the truth. I mean, when it happened with Pulp Fiction, my friends were like, “Jesus! Get the fuck out of here! This is like the American fucking dream.” It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about Hollywood. It’s the only truly gigantic business that is still kind of run like the Yukon. No one cares if you’re poor or where you came from. That’s pretty terrific. And that’s America.
There must have been a real reversal between dating women when you went from Quentin Tarantino the video-store clerk to Tarantino, director of Pulp Fiction.
Yeah, I don’t really think of any woman right now who’s unattainable. When you first become really successful, there is always going to be a little bit, whether you were a nerd or not, of Revenge of the Nerds — where you’re just like, “Yeah, baby!”
Right. So after Pulp Fiction, you just went crazy, after being snubbed or whatever during all your loser days working at the video store. That must have felt great.
It wasn’t so much like revenge for girls who had snubbed me. It was more just like how some of my friends could be totally living vicariously through me. I’d think, “Wow! I wish this guy and this guy and this guy could see me right now. That would be really fuckin’ cool.”
How much can you get away with because of money and fame?
I really try to live in the real world. But I’m lucky enough, because I can kind of create my world inside the real world. Go by my own set of rules. Basically, I don’t have to do shit I don’t want to do. But even before, when I was in school and I had no power at all, I was going to do what I was going to do. And if the authority and the powers that be were not going to be flexible, then I’d just check out: “Fuck you. All right? I don’t want to play your way.” Now that I’m a successful director and I have power, it’s still the same way.
A lot of guys I knew who grew up breaking all the rules wound up busing trays for a living or reporting to their probation officers. When you were living in South Bay working those minimum-wage jobs, did you ever think you might end up just being a loser?
The answer is yes and no. I legitimately lived most of my twenties without having a nickel to my fucking name. But at the same time, I believed I was an artist, so it was really only a matter of time. When I was flat on my ass, I started trying to write a novel. I spent about six months on it. And at a certain point I go, “You know, I don’t want to finish this. If I finish this, it would be a good book. But then I wouldn’t be a filmmaker. I’d be a novelist trying to be a filmmaker.” Now, at that time, I was working at a video store making $10,000 a year. Wouldn’t being a novelist be a hell of a lot better than working at day jobs? Fuck, yeah! But I didn’t want to break my focus.
Was there any part of that life — being that unknown guy at the video store — that was better than your life today?
No. It was a very important part of my life. I had a group of friends, and we did all of our shit together, we went out to movies together, one of my girlfriends came from the store. It was like all the shit you do when you’re in college with your college buddies, only if you’re poor and you can’t go to college. That experience and time was absolutely, positively wonderful. Would I want to go back to it? No, because I’m an artist and I wasn’t really fulfilled.
Was there a moment when you knew you were breaking out of it?
It was kind of like on my twenty-fifth birthday or something, I just had one of these weird little Tarantino detests-fests where I gave myself no credit for anything I’d done in my life so far, which happens every two years or so. I made all these resolutions. And one of them was getting the fuck out of the South Bay and getting to Hollywood. It was surprising how relatively quickly it happened. If people were finding my early work explosive to one degree or another, I think that’s one of the reasons it was explosive. Because I’d had to wait so long, when I finally got a chance to make movies, it just went snap!
What made your spring snap with Kill Bill? Was it the six-year wait?
This was my first action movie. And I’ve always adored action filmmakers. And those are actually what I consider the real cinematic directors. And so if I’m going to throw my hat in that ring, I want to be one of the best that ever lived. I don’t want to do an OK job. I want to rock everybody’s fucking world. I kept watching the Apocalypse Now “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence. And I go, “I want my fight sequences to be as good as that.” And it has to be that way. And if it’s not [pounding the table], I’m not as good as I think I am. All right? And so there was a gigantic challenge to myself. It was like, “Am I the director that I want to be?” Or do you just do what you’ve done before, because that was just fine? “You write really good dialogue. Stick with that, buddy. But stay out of those guys’ park, because ultimately you can’t cut it.” So there was an aspect of actually … I have an expression that I call “hitting your head on the ceiling of your talent” [punching his fist into his palm]. I wanted to find out where that ceiling was for me. I actually wanted to risk failing.
Have you ever been on Prozac or drugs like Ritalin?
They wanted to put me on something when I was a kid, whatever version of Ritalin they had. My first-grade teacher said to my mom something to the effect of, “Quentin’s just too much to handle.” My mom said, “I believe Quentin can be a handful, but if Quentin has hyperactive problems, that’s a problem he’s going to have for the rest of his life. He’s going to have to learn to deal with it.”
Aside from sheer violence, is there any one quality you see as vital to your movies?
I equate movies, in a visceral kind of way, to either sex or drugs. You’re getting high. Or you’re being turned on. I’m not really a guy who’s especially trying to get one big idea across. I’m not Oliver Stone. I’m not a big-idea kind of guy. I mean, I love some of his movies, but it’s just like he’s always banging on one fucking idea. If a million people see it, a million people come out with that one idea. I’m the exact opposite.
I love how Oliver Stone in interviews will just say anything that comes into his mind. He doesn’t seem to give a fuck what people think of him.
I’ve been to these big Hollywood parties and he was, like, all fucked up. And it’s just like, “Good for him, man.” It’s good to see a big old Hollywood fucking guy just kind of let it all hang out. I sat with him. I was trying to catch up. And he’s not just doing this in some sleazy bar with a bunch of rock & roll fucks, man. He’s at the New Line Christmas party, and he’s, like, gettin’ sloppy [laughs]. That’s fuckin’ cool!
I always like it when I hear about some movie star going out of control, getting caught with his pants down or whatever. That’s how Hollywood should be.
I concur. I’m all into getting sloppy and getting blow jobs.
But outside of a few renegades, do you think creative risk-taking is missing in Hollywood?
Risk in one form or another is all a part and parcel of art. You’ve got to risk something. I actually think that’s what robs the vitality of a lot of the major auteur directors. I’ve watched the movie brats of the Seventies go gray and get lethargic.
You know who they are. They make one film every year or year and a half. And, like, usually you watch those audiences get smaller and smaller and smaller.
Which directors do you think have avoided that trap?
Almost none, as far as I’m concerned. One of them was Stanley Kubrick. And I’m not even the hugest Kubrick fan. But his shit didn’t get old. And I think the reason he was so vital was because he didn’t make a movie every two years. He made them when they mattered to him. That’s the problem I see with directors from the Seventies. You have those first twenty years that are pretty fuckin’ rock & roll. And then you have the second twenty years, when they’re making excuses, making a lot of apologies for a lot of their work. And I never want that. I want the movies I do at the end of my life to be as good as the movies I did at the beginning of my life.
Has 9/11 or the war on terror had any impact on you personally or creatively?
9/11 didn’t affect me, because there’s, like, a Hong Kong movie that came out called Purple Storm and it’s fantastic, a great action movie. And they work in a whole big thing in the plot that they blow up a giant skyscraper. It was done before 9/11, but the shot almost is a semi-duplicate shot of 9/11. I actually enjoyed inviting people over to watch the movie and not telling them about it. I shocked the shit out of them. But, again, I was almost thrilled by that naughty aspect of it. It made it all the more exciting.
But on some level you must have been caught up in the reality of 9/11.
I was scared, like everybody else. “OK, what is this new world we’re going to be living in? Is it going to be fucking Belfast here? And I didn’t want to fucking fly nowhere. I remember thinking at the time — this was when they were shooting the Matrix sequels in Australia — “What if everything, all this shit, breaks out, man? And all that’s left in Hollywood are the Matrix people? That would be a fuckin’ drag” [laughs].
Are there any movies recently that just knocked you out?
For the last five years, the two American movies that I like the most were the first Matrix and Fight Club. And the more I think about Fight Club, the more I like it. I think it has the best dialogue I’ve heard. I really loved Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. I thought it was one of the coolest, most interesting experiments in the history of the cinema. Also, a movie that I really love is M. Night Shamalamadingdong, whatever his fuckin’ name is: Unbreakable. It’s one of the best comic-book movies ever made. I really like his success. And I know enough not to follow everything the critics say, but actually the critics talked me out of seeing it originally.
So how do you feel about, say, Adaptation? That’s a movie the critics love.
I actually thought the movie worked perfectly until the whole thriller aspect came into it. I’ve never been so into a movie and so immediately checked out. I like Charlie Kaufman. But I wasn’t that really into the John Malkovich movie, either. It’s one of those things where it’s smart and it’s funny, but it’s not that smart and it’s not that funny. It’s clever. But clever only gets you so far. Smart only gets you so far.
Twenty years from now, if you’re looking back on Quentin Tarantino’s role in cinema, where do you see you see yourself?
I hope twenty years from now people will think I’m one of the greatest directors who ever lived.