Director Quentin Tarantino on violence, race, and the n-word

The Hateful Eight director Quentin Tarantino says it is not his job to be politically correct and he is not saying the violent acts are right

Quentin Tarantino, Hollywood's enfant terrible, is at it again.

As the Oscar-winning film-maker unveils his new movie The Hateful Eight - a western featuring the same violence and liberal use of the n-word he has drawn flak for before - he has been busy making new enemies, among them the powerful Disney media company and police unions in the United States.

Tarantino recently accused Disney of vindictively stopping a cinema chain from screening his movie at a flagship Hollywood theatre; he has also been vocal about US police brutality, prompting a threat by police unions to boycott his film, which opens in Singapore tomorrow.

But the acclaimed director of Django Unchained (2012) and Pulp Fiction (1994) shows no sign of backing down, spiritedly defending both his views and his work at a press event in Los Angeles last month.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other media, the 52-year-old - whose films have often courted controversy with their charged portrayal of race and gender - argues that thinking about political correctness is simply not his job as a writer or film-maker, although he is not insensitive to such concerns.

"As a writer, it is my job to ignore social critics or the response that social critics might have when it comes to the opinions of my characters, the way they talk or anything that can happen to them."

AMERICAN FILM-MAKER QUENTIN TARANTINO, whose films have often courted controversy with their charged portrayal of race and gender

"One can be inclined to just say, 'Eff this political correctness, I don't have time for that.' But in polite society, there is such a thing as sensitivity to some issues. There was a time when we weren't politically correct at all and we all wince at moments when we look to the past and see that.

"However, as an artist, I don't really think about it at all. It is actually not my job to think about that, especially in terms of me as not only a writer, but also a filmmaker," says Tarantino, who won Best Original Screenplay Oscars for both Pulp Fiction, a darkly funny crime drama, and Django Unchained, his anti-slavery spaghetti western.

"Particularly as a writer, it is my job to ignore social critics or the response that social critics might have when it comes to the opinions of my characters, the way they talk or anything that can happen to them."

These critics include AfricanAmerican director Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing, 1989), who has accused him of being exploitative in his repeated use of the n-word in his films, along with a variety of commentators who believe he fetishises violence, particularly as it relates to female characters.

In a clip that went viral, Tarantino walked out of a televised interview with a British journalist in 2013 when he was asked if movie violence causes violence offscreen.

This interview finds him in a much better mood when the subject comes up, as it invariably does.

He restates his view that Hollywood has nothing to do with the real violence witnessed in America. "I think where America is today is all America's fault."

As for whether there is a link between reel and real violence, he says: "I never want to be defensive about it because I don't think I have anything to defend, but I will talk in an illustrative way about it and, to me, the biggest illustration is that for the last 25 years, hands-down the most violent cinema among the industrialised countries has come out of Japan.

"And it is probably the least violent society of the industrialised nations of the world and I think that speaks for itself."

Pressed on the brutality meted out to The Hateful Eight's sole female lead - the outlaw Daisy Domergue (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) - the director is equally satisfied that there is nothing amiss, although some reviewers have accused him of being sexist.

Domergue's arrest by bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and their encounter with another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), set the story in motion.

However, Tarantino does not agree that Leigh's character is a victim in the movie, which is up for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Leigh) at next month's Academy Awards.

"Yeah, she gets punched in the face, but far worse things happen to the other characters," he says.

"I'm sure some people might be uncomfortable about the violence that is handed out to Jennifer's character, but I'm playing with that over the course of the movie.

"When she gets cracked in the head by John Ruth at the beginning of the movie, that is meant to send a shockwave through the audience. I'm not saying what he's doing is right and you're not necessarily meant to like Domergue in that moment - you are meant to think that John Ruth is a brutal bastard because that does seem like an overreaction to what she did and what she said.

"By the time we get to the last chapter of the movie, I think we'll see the real Daisy for the first time."

Echoing this are the cast of the film, who include Tarantino movie veterans such as Jackson, who appeared in Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained, as well as newcomers Channing Tatum from the Magic Mike movies (2012, 2015) and Demian Bechir from the television series The Bridge (2013 to 2014).

Their anecdotes paint a portrait of a man so dedicated to his craft and his actors - many whose careers Tarantino resurrected (see other story) - that he made sure to watch every single performance they had done.

Tatum, Russell, Bechir and Leigh say Tarantino was so prepared he could even quote them obscure lines of dialogue from their previous works, even ones they had forgotten themselves.

The Palme d'Or winner at Cannes in 1994 for Pulp Fiction, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema and television is well documented, will admit to this obsessiveness. But he insists there is a point to it beyond simply geeking out.

"In the case of Demian, I did binge-watch a bunch of his works and, in the case of Jennifer, I had seen a lot of her works before, but I had a complete Jennifer Jason Leigh film festival and watched a bunch of stuff I hadn't seen before.

"And there's a reason for that: I think I work with some of the best actors in the world and they have a rogue's gallery of characters that exists before me, and I might love how an actor is going to attack this particular character, but I want to love them as a performer in other movies - I want to be a fan.

"They need to be heavyweights and I need to watch a bunch of their different fights and see how they've done their work."

Tarantino also addresses the veiled threats made against him by police unions, who said they had a "surprise" in store for the filmmaker after he attended an antipolice brutality rally in New York last year and said: "I am here because... when I see a murder I cannot stand by, and I have to call the murderers, murderers."

Speaking to reporters last month, the director says: "People ask me, 'Are you worried?' The answer is, no, I'm not worried. I do not feel that the police force is this sinister organisation that goes out and f***s up individual citizens in a conspiratorial way.

"Having said that, civil servants shouldn't be issuing threats, even rhetorically, to citizens. The only thing I can imagine that they might be planning to do is picket one of the screenings.

"I do respect the good work that the police do… but at the same time, you should be able to talk about abuses of power and you should be able to talk about police brutality and what, in some cases, as far as I'm concerned, is outright murder and the loss of justice - without the police organisation targeting you in the way that they have done me."

  • The Hateful Eight opens in Singapore tomorrow.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Extreme violence meant to shock'. Print Edition | Subscribe