Tarantino ‘Unchained,’ Part 2: On the N-Word

In the second of a Q&A series, he talks critics and Django's depiction of slavery with Henry Louis Gates Jr.

A scene from Django Unchained (Weinstein Co.); Quentin Tarantino (Getty Images)
A scene from Django Unchained (Weinstein Co.); Quentin Tarantino (Getty Images)

QT: On one hand, yeah, he doesn’t get hit by these guys. At the same time, we actually show that they’re such bad shots that they keep shooting each other.

But one of the things that I had to do — nobody brings it up, and it’s such a big deal — you’re used to seeing Hong Kong movies where guys have .45 automatics and Uzis, and they can do this and they can do that. You know, Django has six shots in each gun, and that’s it. And this was before the time when they had actual case shells.

So it’s like everything has to be prepared in that cylinder — where it’s like a little ball of lead, and the gun powder … There’s no, just like, emptying out your chamber and reloading. You have to prepare [the ammunition]. So in that whole big gunfight, his one big job is to keep killing guys and taking their guns from them.

It was interesting, because on one hand I’m telling a historical story, and when it comes to nuts and bolts of the slave trade, I had to be real and had to tell it the right way. But when it comes to more thematic things and operatic view, I could actually have fun with stylization — because it is taking parts from a spaghetti Western. And I am taking the story of a slave narrative and blowing it up to folkloric proportions and to operatic proportions that are worthy of high opera.

So I could have a little fun with it. One of the things I do is when the bad guys shoot people, the bullets usually don’t blow people apart. They make little holes and they kill them and wound them, but they don’t rip them apart. When Django shoots someone, he blows them in half.

HLG: I noticed that.

QT: And [there’s something else I did] so obviously that I wasn’t worried about historians having a hissy fit, because I made it so obvious in using the spaghetti Western ideal that life is cheap but death is expensive — death has a price. I made the slaves unnaturally low for what they cost, selling them back and forth, but I made the bounties [for wanted men] outrageously high.

HLG: I wondered about that. Why did you do that?

QT: That’s just kind of a spaghetti Western thing. Life is cheap. Life is dirt. Life is a nickel. Life is a buffalo nickel. Life is a wooden nickel. But death is profit. Death can bring money. Death is gold.

HLG: I’m a scholar of slavery, and one of the things I notice in my classes [that I teach] is that we’ve become inured to the suffering and pain of slavery, that we’ve distanced ourselves enough from it, that people can’t experience the terror, the horrible pain, the anxiety, the stress, et cetera, that came with the slave experience. I thought that in Django you really began to reinsert contemporary viewers into that pain, particularly through the scene when the dogs tear Candie’s slave D’Artagnan apart. And by the way, I don’t know if you know, but that actually happened. The French used these dogs in the Haitian revolution …