Master and Student
I think back to when Tarantino called Kill Bill “a personal film.” Kill Bill—you know, the one about an enigmatic and deadly woman called The Bride (Uma Thurman) who blazes a trail of bloody vengeance against a squad of assassins after they nearly kill her and her unborn baby. Some autobiography.
In his journey as a self-taught moviemaker, though, lies a curious recurring theme: Like The Bride, who’s at once scarily skilled and eager to learn from martial arts sages more seasoned than she, Tarantino is most comfortable as both master and student, wielding a double-edged sword of hubris and humility.
“I like to think of myself as a combat surgeon who ended up running a college medical facility. You learn on the battlefield,” Tarantino says. Starting from Kill Bill on, he’s always introduced at least one new task to a production that he didn’t know how to pull off. “I can write something on the page, and I might think I know how we’re gonna do it, but I don’t know how the fuck we’re gonna do it!,” he admits. “It’s always me testing myself: ‘Well, how good of a filmmaker are you?’”
He knew that shooting an extravagantly choreographed fight sequence—set in a Japanese Yakuza hideout, the House of Blue Leaves—with one camera “would be the Damocles over my head, so I wanted to shoot it as soon as possible.” It would take his crew forever to finish, but when they do, they’ll know, “We’ve done it!,” he says. “We’ll have this sense of confidence—maybe even hubris—from having done that big sequence first, and that will carry us through the rest of the movie. It would be like Coppola starting his Apocalypse Now shoot with the helicopter sequence and taking that accomplishment with him all the way to the finish line.”
His “Damocles” on Death Proof was its car crash: He knew he didn’t want to do it with CG and wanted it all in-camera, but he’d never shot one before, and “didn’t have a fucking clue” how the characters who are ripped apart by the crash in the scene would be ripped apart. (“FX artist Greg Nicotero and I figured it out,” he starts, before confessing, “Well… Greg figured it out.”)
On Inglourious Basterds, it was the film’s climactic theater fire: “I knew we’d be scared of it and every scene, every day would get us closer to it. But we used the time we had during the entire shoot to figure out how to make it both spectacular and safe.”
On The Hateful Eight, it was dealing with all that snow: “I’ve never shot in real snow without a machine before, and now we have to do it through the whole fuckin’ movie?! That was one of the hardest things I’ve done—shooting to the correct weather for those exterior scenes. You never know more than one day in advance exactly what the weather will be like the next day. So if the sun’s way above your head, you shoot scenes in the stagecoach. If there’s snow falling, you finish one of your scenes that you’ve already started, but have to stop when the day is over. It was a real run and gun approach.”
Before he knew any better, Tarantino used to quarrel with cinematographer Robert Richardson—who lensed all of his films since Kill Bill except Death Proof, which Tarantino shot himself—about what scenes he wanted to do first. On the Hateful Eight set, Richardson was giddy to see how much he’d grown. “Bob said, ‘I can’t believe that you’re so comfortable doing it this way. I’m so proud of you!’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You normally like to start a scene and don’t do anything until you finish it, then you move on to the next scene. But now you’re shooting one side for this one scene and not picking it up again for two weeks because it needs snow. You’re not complaining, you’re not bitching about it! You’re just doing the work!’”
This nurturing instinct comes naturally to Tarantino’s closest collaborators: When they’re not reverent peers in awe of his artistry, they’re proud parents in production and post, encouraging his best instincts and saving him from the errors of inexperience. He’s valued that guidance since his former editor, the late Sally Menke, showed him the ropes as they made Reservoir Dogs—a film on which every stage he went through was a first-time trial. “I was this immovable force who could get what I wanted on-screen, but once I got my cut and we locked print, I kind of let go of the handle because I had just accomplished it and was tired,” he recalls. “But we still had color timing and sound mixing to do! Sally took charge and explained all of this stuff to me. If we got something back from the lab and she and I didn’t like it, I wasn’t irate at them. I was just sad that it looked that way. But Sally was like, ‘No! That’s absolutely unacceptable! Send it back! Do it again!’ I felt sorry for the lab people, but Sally knew when to get tough. There was a learning curve, and she actually lead the way by obstinance.”
Tarantino has long professed that an editor is a film’s only other “co-writer.” Menke’s sudden passing from heat-induced exhaustion during a hike in 2010 left him with huge shoes to fill. He liked what he saw in Fred Raskin, an adroit editor of action who had cut three entries in the Fast and the Furious franchise, and recruited him to do the filling. After taking a typical two-to-three-year break between movies, “the first month back in the editing room with Sally would be me just remembering how to do it all,” he says. Raskin embraced that same process when they first teamed up to make Django Unchained, and that made him feel at ease. “Working all day, going home, and then watching the next day’s dailies all through the evening is all about me getting into the rhythm again. Once Fred and I started, we were right in step as storytellers—one foot in front of the other.”
Inside and outside of the editing bay, Raskin’s wit and astute eye are two sides of the same coin, Tarantino says fondly. “He’s your favorite of your friends that talk about this week’s new movie. He always brings up something about a movie you saw, and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right.’ And, well, that’s a really good eye that he points at my movies! We were just finalizing the cut of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and I said, ‘What if we took out this little thing or that little thing?’ Fred said, ‘Nah, I’m not taking that out.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ And he had this perfect reason not to take it out: ‘I see why you’d want to cut it, but 70 minutes later, when this happens to that character, we won’t feel the same way because we didn’t see this one moment. We could end up feeling the same way—but I wouldn’t risk it.’ That’s invaluable to have.”
When Raskin’s not weighing in critically, he has a way of reassuring Tarantino that the jokes he filmed are landing: “Fred laughs at every funny line in my movie every single time he hears it. We can edit a movie for four months, and every time we play any of those scenes or lines, he’s always had—at the very least—a smile on his face. The fact that he’s constantly amused by the material keeps you constantly amused.”