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The Inglourious Basterds Press Day
Tarantino at the helm. | Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company
(editor's note - LAist sent our intrepid reporter, Lois Lane, er, Courtney Quinn to the Inglourious Basterds Press Day last weekend. In the spirit of Tarantino's film, she's segmented her coverage into something very, well...Basterd-like. It's a good, long read so get comfortable in your chair. Extra points for creativity, Coco.)
Once Upon a Time A Bunch of Basterds got Together
LAist recently caught up with some of the stars of Quentin Tarantino’s soon-to-be released film, Inglorious Basterds. They shared with us some interesting stories about what it was like to work with the exuberant director and bring his vision to life. Please be forewarned, there are a number of spoilers ahead. And now, allow me to introduce you to some real Basterds.
French actress Mélanie Laurent plays Shoshanna Dreyfus, a young Jewish woman who narrowly escapes execution by Nazis and takes refuge in a Parisian cinema by (as we learn in a scene cut from the final film) posing as the niece of the owner, whom she cleverly observes could use an extra hand. “I’m really French,” Mélanie claims, seeming to embrace the American stereotype. Too bad she’s too utterly adorable to come across as remotely arrogant. “I didn’t even speak English when I first started the movie, maybe because I didn’t want to. And I just learned fast because I had to. Because now I am working with him (Tarantino) and I didn’t want to be getting direction and be like, ‘Quoi?’ ”
Courtney befriends Melanie Laurent and never phones me. WTF? | Photo courtesy of Courtney Quinn/LAist
German actor Christoph Waltz is Colonel Hans Landa, a Nazi S.S. officer who is known as “The Jew Hunter.” When Christoph arrived for the interview, he took the time to shake the hand of each person in the room before he sat down. He then removed his horn-rimmed glasses and set them on the table, as if to say, “Go ahead now. Ask me anything.” He has an intelligent air about him and a wry wit. When asked, “How much of this character was yours and how much is from the script?” he responded, “Precise percentages?” cracking us up before continuing, “Yes, the bringing in of your own personality is inevitable. It can’t be avoided because it’s me who’s doing it. But this is, what I refer to as, the greatest part. Landa is one of the great villains in dramatic literature from the very beginning and for specific reasons. It’s a real job to find out the reasons. You sit there and you study… and you study… and you study. You could teach years of courses on that part alone.”
If the Boondock Saints were triplets, Michael Fassbender would be the third McManus brother. In a dark T-shirt and jeans, he’s got that cool, sexy Irish thing going on. In the film he plays British officer Lt. Archie Hicox, a former film critic who goes undercover as a German Captain. Michael’s father is German, so on playing the bilingual character he says, “It was fine, I had the awkward accent already. The thing is that unless you’re a native German and grow up speaking the language, which my dad and my mum tried to make me do when I was younger, you’re going to be hard pressed to do Hochdeutsch. I just had to try to get it as close to German as I could. My dad saw it in Cannes and he was like, ‘Not bad, actually,’ so I was pretty happy.”
“I gotta say, as a young girl, when I watched Pan Grier in Jackie Brown, I was like, ‘That’s who I want to be. She is so cool,’” says Diane Kruger, who was born and raised in Germany, yet has hardly any trace of a German accent. “I’ve always thought that for women, Quentin is the guy, you know? His movies lift women up. They empower women. I’ve always liked that about him.” Diane plays Bridget Von Hammersmark, a German movie star who plots with the Brits to bring down the Third Reich. “It’s fun to have a character who’s rough and gets down and dirty and not have to be this precious little piece that sits in the corner and just stands by the action.”
Eli Roth is Donny Donowitz, the bat-wielding Basterd nicknamed, “The Bear Jew.” Eli, the director of such films as Cabin Fever and Hostel, is a fast talker who has almost as much energy as Tarantino. Seriously. His character’s backstory in Boston was filmed but cut. He said, “Donny goes to a sporting goods store and he gets a bat and you see him smashing it outside the store, like on the ground. Then he takes the bat and goes to this little old Jewish lady’s neighborhood and has her write the name of someone she’s worried about in Europe.” Eli also worked as a director on the project. He filmed the film within the film, Nation’s Pride, about which he said, “I felt like I gave him another character. I actually prefer directing, I mean I loved acting and it was really, really fun. Quentin said to me, ‘You have another career here, if you want it. You are killing it. You are hitting it out of the park, you really are.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know how I’ll ever top this experience,’ and he said, ‘Well, you might not. But, now you have permission to write great parts for yourself.’ And that is something I think I might do.”
B.J. Novak plays Smithson Utivitch, a Basterd known as “The Little Man.” That physical distinction was almost a problem, according to B.J. “Quentin said, ‘You know you might not be small enough to play Utivich,’ which was a very bittersweet compliment. On The Office, (on which B.J. produces, writes and stars as Ryan, the former temp) everyone’s like six-foot-five and they tease me for being the point guard of the group. And now Quentin was telling me that I was too tall for something I really wanted. I think Utivich’s attitude fit really well for me, so that was the part I ended up getting.” It could have been his attitude that nailed him the part, but it was probably his eyes. Utivitch has this classic movie showdown scene where he just stares down the camera, and B.J. has Tyler Hansbrough eyes. They’re cartoonishly big and blue, but their innate Disney quality is snuffed out by this fierce intensity behind them. B.J. said, “I think being the third guy on that scene was overwhelming and scary for me. And it was a completely overwhelming and scary situation for Utivitch. And I think that’s what you see in my eyes.”
Casting Inglorious Basterds
Mélanie: It was very classical casting. I was up against a lot of actresses who just HATE me now.
Christoph: The first thing that they did, they sent me the script. The cover page is handwritten on that script. It’s Quentin’s handwriting and it reads (he says as though writing it out himself), “In-glor-i-ous Bas-terds by squiggly squiggly, Quentin Tarantino. 2008.” So, you know, seeing this handwriting, it’s already something personal. It’s something that says, “Look, this is what I’ve written.” And it’s not an industry standard kind of form with some studio-stamped title. It’s something personal, so it’s already completely on a different level from the very first moment.
Mélanie: Quentin did an amazing thing and it’s very, very rare because usually, when you have an American project, you get two pages. That’s all. And it’s very, very secretive and you can’t read the whole script, so you just have a casting and you really don’t know about the character or about the movie. You just don’t know anything! And he sent the script to every actor he wanted to meet. I just read the script and at the end I was like, “Oh, I want to do that.” It was not like, “Oh I want to do that,” (excited tone) it was like, “Oh, I am Shoshanna” (resolute). “I’m Shoshanna.” Most of the time I play fragile characters in my country, but I’m strong. And I have had this dream since I’m four to just kill Hitler. I’m Jewish, so it’s like an obsession to me. So, it’s hard, cause if I don’t get that part I’m like, “Augh…” I’m just going to be so disappointed.
B.J.: How things work in Hollywood is you get a call from your agent and everyone tries to take credit, so I don’t know if Quentin called for me or if the agent worked his ass off or what, but I just got a call, “Quentin Tarantino would like to meet you to discuss his new movie, Inglorious Basterds.” And I said, “Yes.” That’s a good call to get. I don’t usually get calls like that because my agent knows I’m working on The Office ten or eleven months a year. But he knew that I would make an exception for this, just to take the meeting alone. Things went well and I got called to come back and read different parts. And when I read the parts, Quentin is such an actor in his heart that he got so wrapped up in the parts he was reading that he wasn’t paying much attention to what I was doing, which was hugely scary to me. I had prepared this stuff, you know, and I was making certain facial expressions with certain timing, and he was buried in his own script sort of blowing me out of the room. The casting director literally interrupted him to say, “Hey, I think B.J. is doing something interesting.” He was just having so much fun with it.
Mélanie: When Quentin met me, it was like three rounds. The first was in front of him. He used to play all of the characters, which was funny. I just watched him and forgot about the casting. The second one, Daniel Brühl came to Paris and shared the lines with me. And the third one was a dinner, face-to-face with Quentin. It was supposed to be the last round. I choose the restaurant and during dinner he said to me, “There is something I just don’t like. It’s because you’re famous in your country and I really wanted to discover someone.” So I was like, “No, no,” you know, “I am not so famous.”
Michael: I remember when I did the audition and Quentin said, “People are coming in here reading this guy like Michael Caine. I don’t want that.” And I was like, “Okay, I think I kind of get it.” I think there’s something both dashing and absurd about that British, “Give it a go, Old Boy,” (with tweedy accent) “It’s jolly good.” I definitely didn’t want to have him be too suave. He’s a film critic and I thought he was really kind of in awe of film stars and that there was something about him… that he kind of wanted to be a film star. But it was all given to me because Quentin said, “This is like a young George Sanders,” you know, 1930’s, 1940’s movie star. I just tried to take in the physicality of that kind of animal, the props that they used at the time, like a lighter. There was a real elegance to that. And the way that they spoke, it was in a very particular way. I wanted to bring as much of that to Hicox as possible.
Eli: I just wanted to give a performance that was real. I knew I would be graded on an extra hard curve because I’m friends with Quentin and I’m known as a director. I had to show this pain and fury and anguish that’s in this guy’s eyes as soon as he comes out with the bat, that he just has this murderous rage to kill these Nazi’s, he’s so angry at them, and it couldn’t come just from lifting weights. I really pushed myself like I never have before.
Mélanie: Dinner was just amazing and we have a great time and at the end I say to him, “You know, you’re cruel. You send me the script; I think it’s amazing. I spend the last two weeks working with you, now I have a great moment at the restaurant, so if you don’t choose me, it’s like, you’re an asshole.” We just laughed.
Diane: The tough part is to get the part, because Quentin’s sort of infamous for only hiring people he thinks are 100 percent right for the job, and he’s really one of the last directors in Hollywood who gets away with that. He wouldn’t have hired Brad Pitt if he thought he was not Aldo Raine. And it was hard for me to get the part. First he had someone else in mind… then he didn’t believe I was German... and it’s like, for God’s sake, what’s next?
Mélanie: After the dinner, after four days of waiting, he called and he said, “Hey, honey, how are you?” And I said, “I’m not fine. Give me a yes, or give me a no, but just TELL me something.” And he said, “Would you be my Shoshanna?” And I said, “What? Oh, yeah. Okay.”
German Nights and Days in Berlin
B.J.: We were all kind of out of our element, being in Germany on our own. Quentin was actually great with creating a little community based around his love of films. He would screen movies for us once a week; things that inspired him, things that he thought would inspire us, things that he just happened to have lying around, things connected to people in the production. And there would be posters up, like they were made by a dorm RA, “Don’t miss a classic!” He has so much enthusiasm. And who’s going to turn down a chance to go to Tarantino Film School? Especially when the alternative is ordering wienerschnitzel room service in your cold German hotel? So we would go down to this screening room at the studio and watch an obscure movie or even a mainstream movie. Quentin would give a rambling 25-minute introduction that taught you more about films than any class you’d ever taken. There would be beer and pizza. It was awesome.
Diane: Quentin says, “Every Friday night, crew drinks,” and everybody goes. It was really fun. It’s a very intimate set and he really likes all the people that work for him. There was a bar that we would go to all the time called Tarantino’s. Can you just imagine? This guy is like Quentin’s biggest fan, the bar is full of memorabilia from his movies and in walk Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino and like the entire cast of the movie. The guy almost had a heart attack.
Christoph: Quentin arranged at the very beginning to keep us separate a little bit. There were lots of occasions where they kind of went out and we agreed that it might be a good idea to not establish this buddy-buddy situation.
B.J.: I think preserving the tension in Inglorious Basterds is what makes it so funny for the audience. Brad, of course, had his own very complex security motorcade to get down to the set when the three of us were shooting that showdown scene, but Christoph and I carpooled together. Quentin had been very specific that no one gets to rehearse with Christoph until you meet him because you’re supposed to be legitimately terrified when you finally do, but I guess he hadn’t coordinated that strategy with the transportation department. They had us riding together in this van for 45 minutes everyday. It was perfect because it was even more terrifying, knowing who he was, as he tried to make gentle small talk with me. (Puts on a refined German accent) “Have you seen any theatre in Berlin since you’ve arrived? I highly recommend the opera.” And I was like, “Okay, Jew Hunter, stay on your side of the van. Let’s do this thing.”
Eli: First of all there were no cell phones, no BlackBerrys and no computers on set at all. We had a guy called Checkpoint Charlie and you handed him your cell phone and if your phone went off, you were out. You’re there to make a movie and all that other bullshit you can do in your trailer. Quentin was very strict about it. He did not have a trailer. He was like, “What the fuck am I doing in my trailer? I should be on set. If we’re not shooting, I’m setting up the next shot. That’s my job, to be here focusing on making this movie. That’s why I’m here.” As a result, everyone is just on, 100 percent, all the time, and it just elevates everybody’s performance. And if you give him what he wants, if you give him the line exactly right and he says, “That’s great,” and you say, “Quentin, I’d really like to do one more, I’ve got something I’d like to try,” he’ll let you do it.
Diane: Quentin lets you do a couple of takes and do your thing. Then if he likes something he will go in that direction and if he’s not happy then he will step in. But it’s the lines. You have to be true to the text. You have to say every word.
Michael: I would always find it frustrating, watching films about World War II, Und ze Germans are speeking to each ozer like zis and zhares no ozer Engliz speeking people in ze room, and it’s like, “What’s going on here? Why don’t they just speak in neutral English then?” It’s like the illusion has already been popped for me. So I think it’s fantastic that in the film the French people are speaking French and the German’s are speaking German.
Eli: I think the death of so many of these World War II movies is that they’re so precious and reverent that they don’t realize how absurd it is to have German people speaking in English in these “historically accurate” movies. I’m like, “What the fuck was that? When my relatives were being killed, I don’t think they heard English, and don’t tell me that’s fucking historically accurate.”
Mélanie: [Speaking Shoshanna’s final monologue in English] was my idea. I said, “You know what, if she wants to be understood by the Germans, she has to be clear, so maybe it’s logical to say it in English?” And it was my idea because… it was really hard because… when you speak French, it’s like very flat. So, “And you are all going to DIE” is going to be like, “Et vous allez tous mourir,” and I’m going to be the most bad actress ever in my country. It was funny because I just did it in French and he said, “Okay, it’s crap.” And I was like, “Yeah, I told you.”
Eli: It took six days to shoot the sequence of interrogating Rachtman. I was back there in this cave with a punching bag and I asked the guys to install a pull-up bar so I was ready. I was loose. I was ready to kill. And I was listening to music, I was listening to Misfits and Iron Maiden and all this stuff, and then, as a joke, my girlfriend at the time had put Hannah Montana on it, so I hear this doot-Doot-doot-Doot and I was like, “Man, what the fuck is... Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has those days. Everybody knows what… what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. NOBODY’S PERFECT.” And I was like, “Oh my God!” I just caught myself rocking out to Hanna Montana, and like missing my girlfriend, and then wondering, what if Brad Pitt caught me and was like, “What are you doing, dude? You’re listening to Hanna Montana? My kids don’t even listen to that.” And what if Quentin came back here? I had like this Hannah Montana shame. So then I just thought, “Jesus, don’t ever let me loose at a concert with a bat.” So I went out there to shoot the scene and just went psycho and pummeled the guy. I did it for two days and I was heaving and sweating and I just stank like a bear. Then the next day we had to film the reactions of the other guys. So the first take I was like miming out beating the guy so we could get their reactions and they were like, “Yeah.” And Quentin says to them, “No, you guys should be like laughing and cheering,” and then to get that reaction from them I just started, like, fucking the dummy. And then they were like, “Yeaaaaahhh!” and Quentin’s just laughing like, “Ah, Haa HAA Ha!” So you see the guys’ reaction in the movie and they’re actually reacting to me like fully having sex with the dummy. Everybody was like, “Oh my God,” and I said, “Greg, I’m so sorry I defiled your dummy. Again.”
B.J.: I felt on the set that Quentin the filmmaker was always trying to outsmart Quentin the film fan. He would often talk about what the audience would expect him to do and what he was going to do instead. And I, knowing so much less about film, thought, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting anything. Do whatever you want.” But that’s where he was coming from.
Diane: That is actually Quentin strangling me in the tight shot. It was my last day on set, and I was kind of sad to leave and, knock, knock, Quentin’s at my trailer. He comes in and says, “You know, Christoph’s just an actor, and he, you know, is probably going to squeeze too hard, or not hard enough, and I just know exactly what I want. So I think I should do it.” So I was like, “Okay, sure thing.” Now, Christoph is not a very tall guy, and Quentin, as you know, is very tall, so none of the costumes fit. They had to make strap-on S.S. sleeves that sort of tied around his neck. And so he’s over me, he’s choking me and he didn’t want to hurt me, obviously, so he was a lot less tough than Christoph was in the wide shot, except I couldn’t tell him. I was like, “No, choke, choke, it’s fine.” It was so sweet.
Eli: Omar Doom and I were almost killed in that fire sequence. Quentin’s like, “Look guys, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s going to be fucking hot in there.” And we’re like, “Good. That’s all right. We’re ready,” you know, “We’ll go home with our battle scars. We’ll take one for the team.” Well, they’d done these fire tests on the set, and it’s only me and Omar up on this balcony and two guys under us with fire extinguishers and the only other person up there, on a crane, is Quentin in a full fire suit, operating the camera. It had gotten up to 400 degrees centigrade during the test. Well, they’d never tested it with the flags and all of the shit caught fire and it burned way out of control. The flames came right up to us and it got up to 1,200 degrees centigrade, which is 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. So all this is right up above us, the ceiling is 2000 degrees and it’ s 45 or 55 seconds of us shooting machine guns. You can see me wince in the film and that’s me just getting charred. I’d never been in a fire so I had no frame of reference for that kind of pain. I could never imagine what that would be like, but we also knew we had one chance to get this, that there was no second take. We were burning the set to the ground so you’d have to rebuild it to do another one. And I’d done so many hundreds of clip changes that I was on autopilot. Right as soon as he yelled cut we just dropped everything and I remember we went downstairs and it was zero degrees out and we had to walk to this tent. We watch the playback and Quentin goes like this (gives two thumbs up and a smile) and I just conked out. The next thing, I wake up and I have my hands in ice water up to my elbows and ice on the back of my neck and I sat there for five hours like that. We were blistered and had to go to the hospital. The Fire Marshalls, apparently, had been a wreck. They were watching the shoot saying, “Oh no. Please, tell him to cut. Please, tell him to cut.” They said another ten or fifteen seconds and the whole structure would have collapsed. You can see a swastika fall. That was not supposed to fall. It had six steel cables and the steel liquefied and the thing crashed to the ground, which made a great shot. But we were almost that swastika.
The Movie that Defies Classification
Diane: Chapter One kind of sets up one storyline and then Chapter Two sets up another. Chapter Three is kind of tying those two together. Then Chapter Four, that’s when the movie takes off.
B.J.: What I loved about this script was that you could anticipate that a surprise was coming, because scenes would be constructed so that there are threats coming from many different directions, and you never know where the action is going to come from. And then it comes out of nowhere, or it comes from one of the five places or five of the five places. That was the really exciting thing about the script. That and the way he blended fun with depth and dialogue and comedy… and comedy with action… and violence with sweetness.
Eli: Quentin always says that his movies take a couple of viewings to get used to, because people have very specific expectations. And if you think about Quentin, he’s continually defied expectations. After Pulp Fiction, nobody expected Jackie Brown, and it took people a while to get into the rhythm of Jackie Brown. He said that with Kill Bill, everybody said, “Where’s the great Tarantino dialogue?” Then in Kill Bill II, it was all dialogue, and people said, “Where’s the great action from Kill Bill?” So he said that no matter what he does, the movies take a few times to get used to, that people have got to watch the movie to get out of their heads whatever it is they have in their heads and then they can start to see the movie for what it is.
B.J.: I think this movie is the single best example of Quentin’s brilliant subversion of expectations. That fact that there are these simultaneous plots to blow up a movie theatre, and you don’t know which will work or how they’ll cancel each other out. The whole thing is built towards surprise and showing you too many elements to pay off. You have love stories that can’t all work together and military plots that can’t all work together. You have this great character played by Michael Fassbender, Lt. Hicox, who, in any other movie, is the dashing English hero who saves the day. And then you throw him together with Brad Pitt’s Basterds, who, in any other movie, is the rough gang that gets the job done. And it’s funny, where you were expecting one of two great military action plots to work out, instead you’ve got a great comedy scene where the punch line is a lot of violence. Simply going from Brad Pitt with his awesome mustache and accent in a trench, to the beauty of a movie theatre in Paris during wartime, and then right back to Hitler’s lair; you never know what’s coming next in this movie. And yet everything that comes up you think, “Well, of course!”
Michael: I really loved watching the scenes I wasn’t involved in on this film. I mean the opening scene blew me away, it’s like a short film unto its own. And what I didn’t realize so much from the script was how much it’s like a series of individual films sort of intertwined into one.
Eli: Quentin said, with every chapter change, every twenty minutes, I want the audience going, “Wait a minute. What movie are we in?” He was continually playing with tone where you kind of go into this 1940’s romantic movie for a while and then at the end you’re almost in a Marx Brothers movie… it almost goes into farce. But it’s always continually in this Tarantino Universe.
Diane: The thing with Quentin, I think all his movies ride a very fine line. He rides in-between genres so you don’t really know where to put his movies. I think this one could be a breakout one. But don’t quote me on it, I don’t know. Whether or not this movie will be a box-office success, I’ve won the lottery. I’m in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Article by Courtney Quinn