Leaning back in his chair, Tarantino strikes an imposing figure, six foot something and stocky with it, in an ornately embroidered cowboy shirt, baggy pants and crisp, white boxing boots. “I’ll tell you how it works. I think listening and interpreting what characters say to one another is the best part of the job, getting into peoples heads and into their humanity. For the last five years or so I’ve been hanging out with these various groups of women. The majority of my deep friendships come from these different female posses, black girls and Korean girls and white girls. So we hang out and eat and go to the movies or whatever. I’m not one of the girls or anything, but they don’t edit themselves around me anymore. So it was cool, once I had finished Death Proof, to realise that in a twisted way the film was a love letter to these women that had become friends of mine and are such a big part of my life”.
In that same twisted way, his women friends should thank him. Splitting Death Proof down the middle gives Tarantino two fascinating gangs of beautiful, resourceful and super-tough chicks to conjure with. The first posse, Texan townies played by Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito, strike up a talkative flirt with Kurt Russel’s Stuntman Mike that ends spectacularly, if badly for them. The next, entirely different crowd (Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell), are far better prepared to dish out some payback when Mike tries the same trick again.
As a cackling bad guy, Stuntman Mike arrived in Tarantino’s head almost fully formed. “I knew I wanted to do a 70s style horror thriller, specifically a slasher movie, because I especially like that genre. So the challenge is to see if I could do for the slasher picture what I did with the heist movie in Reservoir Dogs, use that initial idea as the place to jump off from”. Tarantino pauses to take a sip from a pint of Guinness delivered as we sat down. His demeanour clearly indicates he is the middle of an anecdote, and there appear to be no short-winded Tarantino stories. “So, there I am, sitting around with this notion in my head and then I remember something from years before. I had decided I wanted a really safe car and I bought a Volvo. Later I was on a movie set, talking to a guy who handles cars for movies and I’m telling him about my nice, safe, brown Volvo. He told me I could bring any car to a good stunt team and they would ‘death-proof’ it for me for 10 thousand dollars. ‘You could drive it into a wall and walk away” he said, and that stuck with me, along with the words he used, ‘death proof’.”
“That’s the job of a writer, as I see it. When something sticks in your ear, it sticks there for a reason. So, I’m asking myself all these questions. What if my killer had that car? He could get into the worst wreck in the world and be sure he would live. What if he was killing women that way? He would have to be a stuntman, the way I figure it. Add it up and I had a demented ex-stuntman killer pervert out there who is getting off on these deadly crashes he painstakingly engineers. He claps his hands together, letting one slide off the other palm and on towards the ceiling – “Bam! From that point on, I was off to the races”.
For the first time, Tarantino shot his movie himself, having “listened to and learned from every cinematographer I’ve ever worked with”. He says he’s delighted with the results, especially the horrified reactions from the laboratory technicians when he explained what he wanted to do to the negatives. There's more giggling and twitching as he explains how he achieved his 'dupey' look, to make the film look like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. He is most proud of the fact that he shot his elaborate car stunt sequences in camera. “No CGI, no body doubles, no cranking the film. That really is Zoe Bell on the hood of that car and it really is going that fast.” The originator of the crashes, Russell plays Stuntman Mike with a smirk, playing on his own B-movie heritage to make the murderous stalker and a likeable and compelling road buddy. At one point, he even breaks the third wall to tip us a wink. “You are supposed to like him”, Tarantino says. “It’s good to be conflicted about how you feel about him. It was just amazing to get to make a movie with Kurt Russell and I’m proud to say that Stuntman Mike is as mean and ornery a character as he’s ever played. The weird part about it is that when, in the second part of the movie, Mike gets his just desserts, you feel just a little bit sorry for the poor bastard.”
The version of Death Proof that we get to see is ‘about a half-hour, maybe more’, longer now than it was in the US double release, but Tarantino claims that was the way it was planned. “The big difference between the two movies is that this version is the screenplay I wrote, you know, with all of my narrative strategies and dialogue and everything. But what me and Robert ended up doing is using both of our movies to make a third movie – Grindhouse – to try and capture that whole experience. So that movie had to work on that gut level and also on a creative level that was interesting for us. Part of that was cutting our movies down to the bone. I got it in under 87 minutes but the point is, I knew even before I started shooting that the movie would be coming out by itself in the rest of the world and DVD in the US. I loved experimenting with Robert on Grindhouse, but a stand-alone Death Proof was there, right from the get-go”.
Changing the subject, I tell Tarantino that I recognised his handwriting on the jukebox in the bar. “Yes, that’s my own jukebox. I shipped it down especially and I hand-wrote all the title cards, like you spotted. Not only are the records all my own 45s, but they’re the original pressings of all those records. No re-issues”. He chuckles, amused by his own geekiness. The director and his music are so closely connected, I ask him how he comes up with his final selection. “When I decide to make a movie, I go up to the record room in my house – it’s all set up like an old time record store – and flip through my vinyl. It’s not just about finding the music that will play in the movie, it’s about finding the beat, the rhythm. Now, if you’re talking Pulp Fiction, you’re talking about 60s surf guitar. Jackie Brown, its 70s Soul music. Kill Bill Vol. II is Spaghetti Western soundtracks. But with Death Proof, it was a little different because for the most part, all the actual songs came straight off that jukebox. It was ridiculously sort of…organic”.
Hip mood music is a essential to the Tarantino brand, but there are dozens of familiar idiosyncratic touches and references that go into his movies; extravagant cars, made-up products, recurring characters, long takes, colour schemes, black and white reels. And women’s feet. It has become blindingly obvious that Tarantino has a thing for women’s feet. He chuckles madly when I bring it up, jiggling his shoulders and creasing his face. “Well, yeah”. It’s obvious too that he’s enjoying himself, but isn’t he in danger of becoming too knowing and wind up caught in a loop? “Actually, it’s all pretty intentional on this movie, Death Proof has a lot of those self-referential bits in it. I didn’t think it has gone too far in a bad way, but I can see how I might get nailed on it, a little bit. But it’s supposed to be that kind of movie and the audience can take a joke. I can frame it from the perspective that this is the universe my characters live in. So, it’s my universe, where people eat Big Kahuna burgers and the theme song from here is the ring tone over there. Right? And actually, I’m not making that one up. Kill Bill Theme is like, the best selling ring-tone in Eastern Europe!” At this point, Tarantino is literally out of his seat, his arms going like Hong Kong Phooey.
It’s all a bit tawdry and inconsequential, though, isn’t it? “Well, that’s partly the point, with this one. Death Proof comes straight from the gutter.” There is no doubt Tarantino is a serious and significant filmmaker, but a crust of critical apathy has built up around the legend. His recent output has been compared to a Michelin-starred chef who chooses instead to make hot dogs. I’m explaining this opinion to him in the context of Inglorious Bastards while Tarnatino leans forward in his chair and takes a sip of his pint. He looks at me over the rim of the glass. “For all it’s low-minded origins, Death Proof still has enough layers to make it a pretty intense, seriously delicious hot dog. And I wouldn’t call Kill Bill a hot dog, it’s like a ten course gourmet banquet. At least it is for me”.
“I thought about this very point when another critic said Kill Bill ‘was the B-movie to end all B-movies’. I knew I wasn’t exactly moving on when I did Death Proof, but I didn’t realise it was going to be such a big deal. I get it, of course…”. He hesitates, opens his mouth to say something and closes it again. “I make the movies I want to make. My stuff will always be fun, until it’s not. Even for me. It will be enjoyable until it’s terrible. It’ll be funny until it turns horrific”. He laughs again, and pauses for effect before delivering his judgement on the whole thing, Grindhouse and The Weinsteins, ego-trips and exploitation, himself and his critics. “There will always be movies, right? Even if only to give teenagers somewhere to go on a Friday night.”
On Friday night, Tarantino pulled out of an appearance on The Late Late Show at the last minute, preferring to sit and watch Death Proof with the throng gathered in the Savoy to hear him speak, than play nice for a few hours with Pat Kenny across town. This crowd-pleasing move no doubt quickened the pulse of his already harried handler, who had spent the day with an ear to the phone and both eyes on their watch, but it seems Tarantino does what he pleases, exactly when he pleases and more power to him.