Unchained memories

DiCaprio and Tarantino explain their motivations for Django Unchained, a portrait of shackled skeletons in the American closet.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Django Unchained's Christoph Waltz, Walton Goggins, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Johnson, Samuel L Jackson and Jonah Hill
Django Unchained's Christoph Waltz, Walton Goggins, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Johnson, Samuel L Jackson and Jonah Hill Photo: Getty Images for The Weinstein Company

Django Unchained director/screenwriter Quentin Tarantino and one of the stars of his film Leonardo DiCaprio - who plays brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie - talk about mixing genres, leaving your tricks behind, pushing far with a character you hate, getting good advice and finishing with a cheer.

On a foggy December morning at Central Park South in New York City, I asked the director/screenwriter and the head of Candyland how they went about mirroring evil. (See Django Djunket: Part One, in which DiCaprio and Tarantino talk about phrenology and illustrations in the bible)

Quentin Tarantino: I've always wanted to do a movie that deals with America's horrific past with slavery. But the way I wanted to deal with it, as opposed to doing a straight historical movie with a capital H, I actually thought it would be better wrapped up in genre. So many westerns that actually take place during slavery times bend over backwards to avoid it, as is America's way. Most other countries have been forced to deal with the atrocities that they committed.

It's kind of everybody's fault here in America. Nobody wants to really deal with it. Nobody wants to stare at it. In the story of all the different types of slave narratives that could have existed in the 245 years, there's a million stories that could be told. We're living in a world where everybody says, "There are no new stories" - there's a whole bunch of them, and they're all American stories - I wanted to be one of the first ones at the gate with it.

Leonardo DiCaprio on Calvin Candie: He was like the young Louis XIV, sort of a prince who wanted to hold on to his position and privilege at all cost
Leonardo DiCaprio on Calvin Candie: He was like the young Louis XIV, sort of a prince who wanted to hold on to his position and privilege at all cost

Leonardo DiCaprio: My character, as Quentin put it, represented everything that was wrong with the South. He was like the young Louis XIV, sort of a prince who wanted to hold on to his position and privilege at all cost. He was integrated his whole life among black people, he was brought up by a black man. He had to find the moral justification to treat people this way. He had a plantation to run. There was absolutely nothing about this man that I can identify with. I hated him and it was one of the most narcissistic, self-indulgent, racist horrible characters I've ever read in my entire life.

QT: One of the things that needs to be taken into account is that we know, we have the historical perspective that slavery is on its way out, two years before the start of the Civil War. They don't know that. They have to think that for at least the next 150 years, at least, this is the way it is. There is no end in sight.

LD: I dealt with and have seen racism in my surroundings and my life growing up but the degree that I had to treat other people in this film was incredibly disturbing - disturbing for actors on both sides of the spectrum. It was a very uncomfortable situation. Like we were talking about before, one of the pivotal moments for me in this character and going to the places that I had to go to, as far as the treatment of other people, was at the initial read-through, and what Sam (Samuel L Jackson) and Jamie (Foxx) told me. I brought up the point: Do we need to go this far at times? Do we need to push this far? Does it need to be this violent? Do I need to be this atrocious to other people?

DiCaprio's Calvin Candie, the bored, rich, self-satisfied heir to one of the worst cotton plantations in Mississippi, lays bare a cruelty without bounds. His chilling ability to compartmentalise human beings and his intricate system of emotional responses makes him the most convincing villain of the year.

DiCaprio went on to explain: And Sam and Jamie said, "Hey, look man, if you sugar-coat this, people are going to resent the hell out of you. You've got to push this guy to the utter extreme." This is not only historically accurate but it went even farther than that, with worse atrocities. By holding the character back, you're doing an injustice, and people are going to feel you are not telling the truth. That was the thing that ignited me into going where I did with the character.

Quentin Tarantino: There are so many emotions in this movie...
Quentin Tarantino: There are so many emotions in this movie... Photo: Getty Images for The Weinstein Company

QT: I made sure, if anything was uncomfortable, we talked about it. Way beforehand, I mean before I hired them. There was only one thing that I felt uncomfortable about. Not during shooting, but early upon finishing the script. It's one thing to write "Exterior Greenville", where the slave auction town was, "a hundred slaves walk through deep shit mud in chains, wearing masks and metal collars". And it's this whole town that's almost like a Black Auschwitz. It's one thing to write that. It's another thing to get 100 black folks, put them in chains, and march them through the mud… same thing with "picking cotton in the background". I started to question – could I do it? I don’t think I've ever thought that about anything in my work before – can I be the reason that that's even happening? I came up with an idea of just shooting those scenes alone in the West Indies or shooting it in Brazil, where they have their own issues with slavery. There would be a once-removed quality. Frankly, my problem was having Americans do that. I was almost trying to escape it.

Tarantino looked for advice from a seasoned ground-breaking professional who knew the business of dealing with racism as a subject matter in contemporary society since he challenged perceptions with his role in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967.

QT: I went out to dinner with Sidney Poitier and had just finished the script and he is kind of like a father figure to me. I was explaining my little harebrained scheme of escaping and he listened to me and he basically told me that I had to man up. He goes, "Quentin, for whatever reason I think you were born to tell this story. You need to not be afraid of your own movie. You just need to do it. Everybody knows what's happening, we are all professionals. Just treat them with love and respect, treat them like actors, not atmosphere, what we're doing and what we're trying to get across. By the way, you're going to be doing this in the South. Those people need money, they need jobs." And then there were a lot of guys saying, "Hey man I was a slave in 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter…"

LD: Once I did even more research, started to watch documentaries, read about the sugar plantations - yes, we're just scratching the surface of what happened in our country. It's a sore subject matter that should be looked at more often and not shied away from. I commend Quentin for making a film that combines so many different genres and daring to make the subject matter entertaining for an audience.

QT: It was a conscious decision from day one to not do my usual narrative tricks… This had to be Django's journey from beginning to end. It had to be an odyssey. As Django (Foxx) and Schultz (Christoph Waltz) cross all over America to get to Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), that journey was so important. A couple of times, Harvey (Weinstein) was saying, "Like Kill Bill, could we do a volume one and volume two?" And I said, "No, it won't work here, it worked in Kill Bill because it was very episodic." Here it would be completely unsatisfying. You need to see Django start his journey and complete it in one scenario… There are so many emotions in this movie - there's the exciting western adventure aspect of it, the gallows' humor comedy that runs through it, there's the pain of the story, there's the catharsis, there's the suspense, and hopefully, at the very end there's the cheering. If the audience isn't cheering, then I haven't quite done my job.

In Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino pushes into uncharted territory and we get to witness the birth of a new genre and are confronted with a violent American history that Hollywood fictions have previously not dared to tackle.

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