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Quentin Tarantino, the persnickety poet of 'Django Unchained'

At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino reveals why he wants actors to follow the script and why he likes working with Samuel L. Jackson.

February 07, 2013|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed "Django Unchained," a slave revenge spaghetti western that's nominated for best picture. Tarantino is nominated for best director.
Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed "Django Unchained,"… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Here are some things you need to know about Quentin Tarantino.

He pens his screenplays longhand, not on a word processor. "I can't write poetry on a computer, man," he says.

If you're an actor, don't expect to improvise. Ever. "You hire an actor to learn the lines and say them," Tarantino says. Unless you're Samuel L. Jackson, who can wing it.

OSCAR WATCH: 'Django Unchained'

And if you're with the filmmaker and he stumbles upon one of his movies on cable TV, don't expect to go anywhere. "I have to watch it to the end," he says.

The writer-director of "Django Unchained," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Death Proof," to name just his last three films, was honored last week at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. In accepting the festival's American Riviera Award, the 49-year-old filmmaker sat with this reporter to discuss, in front of 2,000 festival guests, his screenwriting career.

Between sips of a constantly replenished margarita, here are edited excerpts of what Tarantino, Oscar-nominated for his "Django" original screenplay, had to say:

FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2013

You come to screenwriting as an actor first, not as a screenwriter.

Tarantino: I never took any writing classes, but I did take acting classes. The actors that I really like are the actors that really invest in their character, invest in the back story, invest in who that person was before the story started, maybe who that person is after the story is over. So it's that idea, that thought process when it comes to characters, that I think I bring to my writing.

When you're writing, are you picturing how that scene is going to look, or are you listening to how it's going to sound?

VIDEO: Key Oscar scenes

Tarantino: It's a mix of both. When I'm writing, the director is not really there. I'm still a writer trying to make a good page. I'm trying to put the words together in a way that's both clever and talented. And it works like literature. The page makes you want to read it. Now, that doesn't mean that I didn't come up with the idea of the red blood splashing the white cotton bolls when I was writing ["Django Unchained"]. I did. I wrote "Insert: red blood splashing white cotton bolls." And I was like, "Wow. I've never seen that before. That will be really cool." But for the most part, during that process the writer is in charge and the director is doing something else.

How do you know when a scene is working? Or do you know when it's not working?

Tarantino: When it's not working, it's pretty easy all right. Because it's just, for lack of a better word, your rucksack going up that hill is a lot heavier. And you're actually really working. And usually that means I should stop that day. If you're in writing mode, it shouldn't be that hard. Writing is some of the funnest times I've ever had. So if it's that difficult, then maybe the mojo ain't with you right now.

OSCARS 2013: Complete nominee list | Reactions | Trivia | Ballot | Snubs & surprises

When you first start writing, is it a character that you hear? Is it a genre that's calling to you?

Tarantino: It's a combination. It's like there's a genre maybe I've always been curious to throw my hat in the ring, but I'm not going to do that until I come up with an interesting enough story to set it apart. And that story is usually connected to a character.

Do you learn from your past?

Tarantino: I can look at, in particular, "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" and think, "Oh, wow." You know, I've learned a little bit more about directing. A little bit more about handling extras. A little bit more about handling the crew itself. And production design. All that kind of stuff. Like, "Oh, maybe I shouldn't have had this." But nevertheless, that's actually what I love about those movies now: They were that Quentin then, and these movies reflect this point in time now. And to some degree or another, it's actually the imperfections of the early movies that I love the most.

FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2013

As a writer, do you start hearing [a particular] actor saying those lines? Let's talk about Jackson.

Tarantino: Sam said my dialogue so well — not for a while. He says my dialogue well today. But for a while there, he said it so perfectly that it was hard not to write for him. I spent about a year and a half writing "Kill Bill." I think for the first six months, even though I didn't want Bill to be black, I was writing for Sam Jackson. I wasn't trying to write it for Sam Jackson. I could not not write for Sam Jackson.

Are you hearing music just like you're hearing dialogue while you're writing?

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