For all their originality, Quentin Tarantino’s films have always been rooted in the Hollywood of his youth, pastiching and repurposing his earliest influences. Now, in his first work of non-fiction, Cinema Speculation, Tarantino returns to his influences, exploring the Seventies films that defined his childhood.
A few years ago, in a conversation which presages this new book, Bret Easton Ellis invited him on to The Bret Easton Ellis Show to discuss political correctness, creative mid-life crises, and how they both fell in love with film…
Bret Easton Ellis: Quentin, it seems every week, there’s some kind of negative shit being written about you. What are your feelings about these controversies? How do you process them? And how seriously do you take them?
Quentin Tarantino: Well, it’s hard to take any of them seriously. But it’s actually ended up being kind of sobering. In a weird way, whenever I felt myself getting riled up, I came to realise that I was taking part in the riling up myself.
I never really thought of interviews as being these artistically significant things, but there used to be an artistic significance to the beginning and the end of the interview, and the beginning and the end of the published article. Well, now when they come out, they’re simply like a whale for other journalistic sharks to grab their little chunk of meat and make their big headline.
Now you’ve got 480 articles about me throwing shade on the director of Selma, from everywhere from The Guardian, to The New York Times to Variety and Hollywood Reporter, all the way to the Times of India. And so you look at all that, and just think: “Oh my God, well, I’m never going to do interviews again. This is such a drag.”
Bret: As someone who has been giving interviews for 30 years, I feel there’s something different in the air between the interviews I gave in 1995, compared to the interviews that I give today, where they are automatically dissected in social media, and things are pulled from them, that are taken out of context, like in my New York Times interview with you.
It’s part of an ideology now, and having an ideology is more important than aesthetics. Everyone really wants you to be PC, and if you don’t really toe the groupthink party line, then you are open to attack. It makes you think: why do I do this?
One of the things that was really interesting that didn’t make it into our interview was my reaction to your love of Don Siegel’s 1973 crime drama Charley Varrick, with Walter Matthau. I rewatched it after our conversation, and I was amazed by it: it seemed to inform everything that you’ve done, and it seemed like a huge influence on the Tarantino aesthetic. And yet in the published piece, it seems that I take you to task for thinking this, and they removed my parenthetical about “or perhaps he’s right, it is magnificent”.
So let’s start with Charley Varrick, and why this movie matters to you as much as it does: what does that movie do for you that speaks to you and continues to speak to you?
Quentin: Yeah, well, it’s interesting, because I didn’t see Charley Varrick at the theatres when it came out. I think I saw it in 1973 in Tennessee. And I think one of the reasons I saw it was because Joe Don Baker was in it, because he was the star of Walking Tall, which was a huge movie in Tennessee at that time. I think it was more or less that type of aesthetic. And I think that’s what I probably responded to, even though I don’t know if I was sophisticated enough to call it by name.
Bret: Sometimes I think that passion comes from being exposed to amazing movies when we’re young. And maybe the reason film culture will wane for a generation is because of what they’re being raised on now, compared to what we were being raised on.
Quentin: Hopefully they’re being raised on me and less crap.
Bret: This is true, I would say you are one of the few. But 1975 and 1976 are very different years cinematically for a 12-year-old than today.
Quentin: Imagine learning about cinema from 1969 through 1974. At the age of eight in 1970, I went to the Tiffany Theatre on the Sunset Strip, where old Hollywood gave way and rock ‘n’ roll and the hippies took over. And at eight I saw a double feature of Joe and Where’s Poppa?.
Bret: I remember going to a double feature of Where’s Poppa? at the Sherman Theatre in Sherman Oaks, LA, which turned into a pretty good revival theatre. And I had the same exact thing. I remember being ten, leaving my house, walking by myself to Ventura Boulevard to go into the La Reina Theatre, when school was out in December 1974, buying a ticket to The Phantom of the Paradise and going into the theatre by myself. And I sat there and it spoke to me and I loved it. And I became obsessed with the movie and I became obsessed with De Palma and I wanted to watch everything that followed. It’s very hard for me now to understand a ten-year-old doing that. The options aren’t the same. The ten-year-old now is seeing Frozen.
Quentin: Or Age of Ultron or something like that.
Bret: Or Age of Ultron, and I sometimes think that there actually is a Gen X sensibility different from Millennial sensibility, that there is this thing that we shared.
Quentin: Very much so. Even the whole aspect about the fact that when I was in my 20s, before the Gen X talk started, when we were just busy living it and not writing articles about it, we were always stuck with people who were older than us who lived through the Sixties. And they were always telling us how junky our culture was in the Seventies compared to the Sixties — and usually what they were using as bully-whack to whip us with was how rock music had changed from their time. The Beatles doing their thing or Dylan…
Bret: … And becoming disco or The Eagles or whatever.
Quentin: Yeah, the pop sounds of The Partridge Family, which I still appreciate to this day. I actually think David Cassidy is one of the most underrated vocalists in rock history. But the point being, though, was that our music was junky and theirs was right-on. However, what they didn’t realise was that, okay, well, maybe you’re right when it comes to the music, but you’re not right when it comes to movies at all — you’re dead wrong.
And for that matter, you’re dead wrong when it comes to television, too. There was an aspect that we as children, literally children of the Seventies, invested in TV in a way that the generation before us didn’t. And we held on to TV in a big way.
But the thing is, though, we were invested in TV, and we were also invested in our movies. Even in elementary school we talked about the movies we saw. We talked ad nauseam about things like, not only The Bad News Bears, but even the crappy exploitation rip-off Here Come the Tigers. I remember when some kids saw that and came back the next day talking about it. And going to a pretty much all-black school, the weekend after Mandingo opened, like five students were talking about it or Black Belt Jones or whatever.
Bret: Well, also there was a kind of permissiveness in the Seventies that led us down these paths to movies. My parents weren’t going to take me to Chinatown at ten, but my dad took me to Theater of Blood and a couple of R-rated horror movies with my friends. We were nine; we loved it. They didn’t trigger anything, we weren’t cowering behind the sofa — we snuck The Exorcist on the Z channel that was here in LA. And I just keep thinking of the groovy Seventies, the permissiveness of it, seeing The Omen ten times in the summer of ‘76 because friends’ brothers and sisters took us in. And maybe this permissiveness of the Seventies, when I look at your group of filmmakers, perhaps aided in creating this movie consciousness that is definitely shared with Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson.
And I was thinking, in 2012, someone published your list of your Top 12 movies — which of course I know change at times…
Quentin: Almost always invariably, I pick ten new ones, every six years.
Bret: I just chose a random ten for my Criterion Top Ten. And I know that next week, it would have been a different ten. But it’s Apocalypse Now for you, The Bad News Bears, Carrie, Dazed and Confused, The Great Escape, His Girl Friday, Jaws, Pretty Maids all in a Row — a very strange and interesting choice…
Quentin: I kind of love that movie!
Bret: I do too!
Quentin: I show it quite a bit.
Bret: And then Rolling Thunder, Sorcerer, Taxi Driver, The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly — eight of these movies from the Seventies.
The other big two revelations for me were that you really were not a big Hitchcock fan, and that a lot of Hitchcock left you cold, especially the Fifties movies. And you also look at the Fifties as a very dubious decade for American film, almost up there with the Eighties. And that Vertigo doesn’t really turn you on.
Quentin: Vertigo, not at all. I really don’t get Vertigo. And I don’t really believe anybody who says they love it to that degree.
Bret: Looking over your career, just to be clear, was there a period where you were unhappy? A period, a year or so, where you are like: this is it, I was probably most unhappy during this period.
Quentin: Yeah, when I was 18-22.
Bret: Really, those four years?
Quentin: Yeah. I’m sure I was hideous to women, I felt it. And I was really by myself in the world. I’d quit school a little too early, so I didn’t have any friends. I was really at odds in the world. I had kind of stopped going to my acting classes that brought me some joy at that time. My best friend at that time was a guy in even more, worse doldrums than me. And we literally were very pathetic, and we just kind of kept each other company in our own pathetic-ness.
Oddly enough though, that was actually a really good time for movies. So I just spent all the time going to movies by myself or dragging the sad-sack with me to go see films.
Things changed when I started working at Video Archives. That was basically like I joined college, not because we learned so much about stuff. It was more just that, if you don’t have your college experience, you usually find yourself working at a place where you get your college experience. And maybe you don’t learn as much as you would learn in college, but you have the whole social aspect of it. All of a sudden I had some friends, and I was working in a video store. It’s not really what I wanted to do, but it was connected enough to what I wanted to do that it actually gave me joy.
And my personality really flourished at this video store. I became like the little Andrew Sarris of the video archives and it was my Village Voice. And people came in and I started becoming a bit of a professor. They couldn’t even choose a movie unless I put it in their hands and gave them some little spiel about it.
People would come up with something like Pauline at the Beach, which has a very sexy box. And they would ask: “So how is this? What is this?” And I would explain to them what an Éric Rohmer movie was. So I’m kind of describing it, and I’m saying: “Well, they’re very interesting little stories. Not much happens; they’re usually just a tale of a group of people, some men and some women, and how they negotiate their little peccadilloes together.”
And somebody would say, “Is it a comedy?” “Well, no, it’s not a comedy. But if you watch it enough, give yourself over to it enough, it becomes slightly amusing. If you give yourself over to it enough, when it’s over, you’ll either know, okay, I like this, this was actually kind of an interesting experience. And if you don’t like it, well, then by the time you get to the end, now you know you don’t.”
Well, with a little setup like that, that was all they needed to actually watch the movie with the proper glasses, the proper response to things. And again, you have to remember again, how differently from now, as opposed to a Netflix cue, if I talked them into taking a movie out, they weren’t going to just watch it for ten minutes and turn it off. They actually wanted to watch it. They were invested in this.
Bret: It’s investment.
Quentin: They were invested in actually watching it for a while. If they really didn’t like it after 45 minutes or a half hour, they’d turn it on and off, and they come back pissed. But in the case of Éric Rohmer, with that kind of preamble, all the Éric Rohmer movies ended up renting like 90 times because if you saw Pauline at the Beach, and you liked it, you came back and you saw Claire’s Knee. And if you really liked Claire’s Knee, then you saw Full Moon in Paris.
And I was able to do that. Not only that, but that time at Video Archives, in a weird way, almost became a primer to some degree of what it would later be like to become famous. Because in Manhattan Beach, where the store was, we were famous. The guys at Video Archives were famous. We were the Video Guys. I’d walk down the street and people would drive by: “Hey, Quentin, hey, hey, hey, hey.” Everyone knew me: I was the Video Guy. The Man’s Theatre, that was right by us. We’d walk into the theatre, and then here we hear: “Those are the guys from Video Archives. Those guys from Video Archives.”
Bret: It’s a different time… So have you had a midlife crisis? You’re about my age. I know I definitely had one about five years ago. You’ve escaped that, you did not fall into the mid-40s depression, or “where am I going”?
Quentin: My 40s were pretty good!
Bret: I guess my 40s weren’t so good — that’s why I had it! But you’ve also said that you are going to retire at 60 or after you complete your tenth film. You want to get to your tenth film. You think there are a few impediments. You think that there’s the idea that film is not going to be available to you, and you really don’t want to shoot on anything else. So if that happens, then maybe you’re going to be writing that novel, or whatever you’re going to be doing before that. So is that really the one impediment, the idea that there is no film?
Quentin: I think, especially if I’m talking about only doing two more, I think I’ll get past that. I think we’re okay. We’ll see what happens…
Bret: You’re right, because there is enough film: there’s a three or four or five-year stack.
Quentin: Look, things can change four years from now. But more or less, I don’t think that would be the thing that would stop me. It’s interesting because there is an aspect about the idea of saying you only have two movies left that I actually think is almost doubling and tripling down on my artistic vitality. I think that’s an interesting way to look at it, because I think most directors when they talk, especially if they get around my age, they all think they have more time than they really, truly do. I’m going strong after 20 years but going strong after 30 years… that’s a different story. And I’ve been very lucky.
But part of it all is just that nothing is more important than this. This is what this is; this is the time. And it’s not about wives, and it’s not about kids, and it’s not about anything. It’s about this.
Now, I don’t know if I can keep that up for a 40-year stretch, and I don’t even know if I would want to. But the thing about it, though, is I do think most directors think they have more time. And they talk about this book that they would like to do, and then this movie, and this genre movie, and this one and that one, and either they don’t live long enough, or their circumstances commercially change.
But if you’re actually thinking “you only have two movies left”, and asking what are those movies going to be and what is it that you want to say — well, then you’re not just going to be derailed by a bestseller that comes out, or a project with a big actor you want to work with, or any of the things that can possibly come up. Right now, in my brain, from stories that I have come up with in my head, I could do four or even four and a half movies. Now if I only do two, which of those four and a half will I end up doing, committing the next six years of my life to do?
That’s interesting, to see which of those two end up being the ones that I put my mark on. Which will be the ones that I end on, meaning they define me? Maybe I change and do 1. Who knows? Maybe I don’t. If the tenth one is bad, maybe I will. The idea is to kind of go out, you know, with a good one.
This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation from The Bret Easton Ellis Show.