The following is the transcript from this past Sunday’s “Django Unchained” press conference in New York City at the Ritz-Carlton Central Park Hotel.
“DJANGO UNCHAINED” PRESS CONFERENCE
Leo, Christoph, Quentin, Jamie, Kerry, Walt, Sam, Don Johnson
Moderated by Scott Foundas
Q: Talked about making a western… What sense of responsibility did you have in terms of talking about slavery?
QT: I’ve always wanted to deal with America’s horrific past with slavery. But I didn’t want to do a straight historical movie with a capital H. I wanted to wrap it up in genre. So many movies that take place in slavery times bend over backwards to avoid it. It’s kind of everybody’s fault in America. Nobody wants to stare at it. I think that – in the story of different types of slave narratives, during this time of slavery in America, there’s a whole bunch of stories. I wanted to be the first one out of the gate with it.
Q: To Kerry and Sam…
QT: Black question! Walt, feel free!
Q: When you read the script, what were your first impressions of being asked to play slaves?
JF: I actually saw that the movie was already going. I thought, ‘Wow, here’s another project that I haven’t heard about.’ I had a management change. I said, ‘I don’t care what it is, it’s Quentin Tarantino and I think that he can tackle any subject matter, artistically.’ Reading the script, I’m from Texas, and there’s a racial component. Me being called nigger, growing up as a kid. So when I read the script I didn’t knee-jerk to the word ‘nigger’ because that was something I experienced. But what I did gravitate to was the love story of Django and Broomhilda and the first of everything in this film. When you see movies about slavery and Quentin has made mention to this, we never get a chance to see the slave actually fight back, actually do for himself. In this movie, there’s a lot of firsts. As we did the movie, we started to comment on these being things you’re going to see for the first time. It’s been a fantastic ride thus.
KW: I think a lot of times people in the past may have felt nervous about playing a slave because so many of the narratives in film and television are about powerlessness. This is not a film about that. This is a film about a man who finds his freedom and rescues his wife. He is a liberator and a hero. There’s nothing shameful about that. It’s really exciting and hopeful and inspiring. I was very moved by the love story, particularly in a time in American history, when people weren’t allowed to fall in love and get married. So to have the story of a husband and wife during a time when people weren’t allowed to be husband and wife. We’ve seen star crossed lovers but the thing that stands in between them is slavery. And the other thing was, in terms of firsts, was I said to QT, ‘I want to do this movie for my father, because he grew up in a world without black superheroes. And that was this.’
Q: I want you to talk about the psychology of this character.
SJ: Small power? I’m the power behind the throne. I’m like the Spook-chania of Candyland. I’m all up in that. To tell this story you have to tell this particular character. When he told me to read Stephen I told him I was 15 years too old to play Django. And then I said, ‘You want me to be the most despicable negro in cinematic history?’ Not only was that a great artistic opportunity to create something that was iconic, and turn Uncle Tom on its head in a powerful way. But it was also a chance to do really nasty shit to the guy whose part I wanted in the first place. To tell the story you have to have this guy. Stephen is the freest slave in the history of cinema. He has all the power of the master; everybody on that plantation knows him, everybody on that plantation fears him. He has a feeble persona, people think that he can’t keep up or do things. We used to refer to him as the Basil Rathbone of the antebellum south. I wanted to play him honestly. When Django shows up, that’s a nergo we’ve never seen before, and I have to let all the slaves know that it’s something they can never aspire to. This nigger is an anomaly. So don’t even think about trying to be that. I wholeheartedly embrace that.
QT: Everyone knows that this is two years before the Civil War. We know that this is about to come to an end. THEY DON’T KNOW THAT. They think that at least for the next 150 years, this is the way this is. All those northerners, don’t mean nothing down here.
SJ: Even at the end, I say, ‘There’s always going to be a Candyland.’
Q: Talk a little bit about what made you want to take on this role?
LD: Mr. Tarantino was a major factor. We all read the script; there was a buzz about this script and people were talking about the next Tarantino movie. And the fact that he tackled this subject matter, like he did with ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ and do slavery and combine it with crazy spaghetti western was completely exciting. And he wrote this incredible character. As soon as I read it I was incredibly excited. As Quentin put it, it was a character that represented everything that was wrong with the south at the time. He was a prince that wanted to hang on to his privledge at all costs. Even though he was brought up with a black man, he had to come up with a moral justification for treating people this way. The fact that he’s a Francophile but he doesn’t speak French; he’s a walking contridiction. There was this incredibly interesting, horrific… There was nothing I could identify with. But I had to do it. It was too good not to do. It was too good a character, in that sense. This man writes incredible characters and an opportunity to work with all these people too.
Q: The scene where you break the glass?
JF: He didn’t see what was going on. That whole day, people were coming up from the offices and going, ‘You gotta come see Leo do this scene.’ But what happened was that the shot glass slid over to wherever he was slamming his hand. And he slams his hand down and the shot glass goes through his hand. I’m thinking, ‘Does everybody else see this?’ I almost turned into a girl looking at it. But what was amazing was he was so into his character, even when they finally said cut, he was still in this character. There was a mini-ovation. We were in rehearsal and Leo would say his lines, and he would say, ‘Woo, this is tough.’ Sam Jackson pulled him aside and said, ‘Listen motherfucker this is another Tuesday for us.’ I saw Leo the next day and I said, ‘What’s up Leo?’ And he didn’t respond to me. It was crazy from my perspective.
Q: Can you talk about reuniting with Quentin on this movie?
CW: There was no reunification. There was no working again. It was another mushroom of the fungus that was growing subcutaneously all the time.
QT: I had this same problem with Sam for a decade. It’s hard not to write for these guys. They say my dialogue so well. I’d write Bill and Bill would sound just like Sam. They say my dialogue so well and the way I write, my dialogue, I always fancy it as poetry. They’re the ones who make it poetry when they say it. They come out of my pen. Sometimes it’s not appropriate. I can’t shut it off. I’ve been wanting to do this story for a long time. There wasn’t some German dentist bounty hunter! And when I sat down to write that scene he flew out of the pen.
CW: I work very hard. And succeeded gloriously in falling off a horse. Then my work was a little slower for a few months and then I got back up on the horse.
Q: Don, very exuberant…
DJ: As Quentin told me, ‘You sing in my key.’ I looked at Big Daddy Bennett as a character who had his fiefdom and he was fully engaged in his fiefdom and enjoyed it. As everybody has mentioned, this was going to go on forever. Until these two motherfuckers showed up. They messed up everything. So they’ve got to go. It was a joy. We have a kind of second hand. There’s a look. I’ll finish a take and I’ll look at him and he’ll give me one of those navy hand signals and I’ll do it again and he’ll say, ‘That’s right.’ It was fun.
SJ: I remember the first day I got there I went looking for Quentin, the slaves were on the field, you guys were coming up on your horses. I didn’t realize until I was in the cotton field and I was like ‘Oh shit, we’re doing this.’ It was a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode. I walked up and he had an ice cold drink in his hand. It was so awesome! Everything started to help us do this movie!
KW: We were shooting on an actual plantation. So that lent itself to all of us disappearing into the story. You felt like you were making the film on sacred ground. You were reinacting this behavior on land where they’s atrocities were committed. It started affecting everybody.
SJ: When you got whipped, everything went quiet. It was like ‘Oh shit is this back?’
DJ: My costume designer found out that her anscesters were buried in the cemetery on the plantation. She was visibly shaken.
KW: And they were German!
Q: When you get a call from QT to play “baghead #2.” Do you even ask to see the script?
JH: I got on this business tour with great filmmakers. I don’t care if he wants to be an extra in this movie. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here. I worked for two days on the film. It’s kind of an ego stroke to even want me here. It was the weekend Moneyball came out and Quentin asked to meet with me and I was overjoyed.
Q: As a southerner yourself, made a lot of films about the south. Cultural or social responsibility?
WG: Yeah. The scene in the barn for me, what was so difficult was showing both literally and metaphorically, was taking the ability for a man to spread his seed, and rendering him impotent. I just tried to be as truthful and honest in order to respect the pain endured by African Americans in this country. I was just grateful to do that in this way. The thing about Billy Crash is, for poor whites, the one place you could get a job was on a plantation. If you were smart and ruthless enough you could rise to a position of power. Unfortunately, that was at the expense of a lot of human beings. It was not just the color of Django’s skin but it was my way of life, economically speaking, and I was so happy to have QT give me that end, to make it three dimensional.
Q: You cut a lot. Will we see everything you cut?
QT: I’m not exactly sure. I’m going to wait until the film goes around the world, does what it does. And then I’m going to make a decision. I make these scripts that are almost novels. If I had to do this whole thing over again I would have published this as a novel and done this after the fact. Maybe next time. I could do what Kevin Costner did with the expanded edition of ‘Dances with Wolves,’ and I could very well do that. Because if I put some of that in I have to change the story. But I want this version to be the story for a while.
Q: What does that external stuff help you develop?
QT: That’s a great question. The thing is, I think all these answers can tell you the feeling have the first time they walk into my office and they see all these western posters and Blaxpoitation poster and that doesn’t exist anymore – everything looks like a Vanity Fair photo shoot. That style of viscera, whether it be a spaghetti western album cover, the posters – I’m kind of trying to get at that. When my stuff pops off, I’m trying to get those illustrations in life, in my flicks.
KW: Source is a contradiction in terms. A source is the script and the script has a source, I can point it out to you [points to QT]
QT: On that same line, we’ve got the first issue of the comic book, so everything si in the comic book. I’m as excited about the comic book as I am about the movie. It’s boss.
DJ: I can tell you that period of time is one of my favorite periods in history, in terms of early developing America. It’s full of deceit. It’s rich in human character or lack thereof. And from the Native Americans to slavery and so on and so forth. I’ve read a lot about it. ‘Blood and Thunder’ is a great book I’ve read before I started this. For me, I like to start with outside information and research and start layering – the social ethics of the time, how were manners created – so I start from the outside and bring it in and make it emotional. For me I like to know what it’s like on that day in that time with that energy running around. I do a lot of that work way before I get there.
Q: For Leo – what did you learn by playing Calvin Candie? Has being an actor being all you wanted it to be?
LD: I love acting, it’s all I’ve wanted to do my entire life. I hope to continue doing this for a long time to come. We’re all lucky bastards up here. What was great about doing this role was honestly the sense of community and the support mechanism I had every day. This was my first attempt at playing a character that had this much distain for. It was an incredibly uncomfortable environment to be in. I’ve seen racist growing up but the degree I had to treat other people in this film was disturbing. It was a very uncomfortable situation. One of the pivotal moments for me and this character, was this initial readthrough, and I brought up, “Do we need to push it this far? Does it need to be this violent?” And they both said, ‘If you sugar coat this people are going to resent the hell out of you.’ By holding the character back you’re going to do an injustice to the film. That was the thing that ignited me into going where I did with the character. Once I did even more research, read about the sugar plantations, we’re just scratching the surface. It’s a subject matter that should be looked at more often. I commend QT for combining so many different genres and making the subject matter entertaining for an audience. At the core of it what was great was a group of actors who were all there for one another to support and drive each other. Honestly it felt like we were cheerleaders for each other.
KW: I feel like we relied on each other.
QT: There’s the real way and there’s Kerry’s way and everything else was bullshit as she was concerned. She took a beating for two days. I was like, ‘She’s the real deal.’
Q: Were there any moments where you got uncomfortable and had to change?
QT: We all knew what we were doing. We all got together. I made sure that if anybody was uncomfortable I made sure we talked about it beforehand. And I mean before I hired them. There was only one thing that I felt uncomfortable about. Not shooting but upon finishing the script – it’s one thing to write “Exterior Greenvile, a hundred slaves walk through deep shit mud wearing masks and metal collars and it’s this black Auschwitz.” It’s another thing to get 100 black folks, put them in chains, and march them through the mud. I started questioning – could I do it? I don’t think I’ve ever thought that about anything – can I be the reason that that is even happening. I came out with an idea, possibly, of just shooting those scenes alone in the west Indies and Brazil. They have their own issues with slavery but my problem was having Americans do it. I wanted to escape it. I went out to dinner with Sidney Poitier and I was explaining my hairbrain scene and escaping and he listened to me and told me that I had to man up. He goes, ‘Quentin, for whatever reason I think you were born to tell this story. You can’t be afraid of your own movie. You just need to do it. Everybody knows what time it is. Just treat them with love and respect, treat them like actors not atmosphere, what we’re doing and what we’re trying to get across. You’re going to do this in the South. Those people need jobs.’ There were a lot of guys, ‘Oh man I was a slave in ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter…’
KW: We were shooting one of these days of picking cotton in the Lousiana heat and everyone was hot and exhausted. Waking up every day and putting yourself in that mental state, that was starting to wear on everybody a little bit. There was a background actor who was a pastor, and he said, ‘We are the answer for these people’s prayers. The people that did this work dreamed of a day where you could own property and not be property, you could vote, read, etc.’ And it forced everybody to shift and man up and be blessed to be in this position. It’s the story of a hero and a profound opportunity.
Q: Question – were their earlier cuts where you fractured the timeline?
QT: No never. It was a conscious decision from day 1 to not do my usual narrative tricks. This had to be Django’s journey from beginning to end. It had to be an odyssey. As Django and Schultz traverse America to get to Broomhilda. At one point Harvey was talking about splitting it up. And I said, ‘No, it won’t work here.’ You have to follow Django’s journey to the end. There are so many emotions – there’s the action adventure, the gallow’s humor comedy that runs through it, there’s the pain of the story, there’s the catharsis, there’s the suspense, and hopefully at the end there’s cheering, if the audience isn’t cheering then I haven’t done my job. That I got that cheer at the end was the biggest issue. As far of the pain of the story I could have gone further. I wanted to show more, to show how bad it was. But I also don’t want to traumatize the audience to the point that they aren’t where I need them to be in the last reel.
CW: I’ve been married for too long. Honeymoon is over.
JF: I actually ride my own horse. What’s interesting about my horse and Django is my horse is learning as Django becomes a superhero. So the whole duration of the film we worked on my horse to get to do that. The only thing that’s scary is riding bareback. But the horse was used to the stunt person so when I got to the back of the horse, the horse turns, sees the truck and goes 28 miles an hour. On the outside I look like Django but on the inside I was Little Richard. I was saying, ‘Oh lord Jesus, lord Jesus.’ So I’m thinking, ‘We got it?’ As directors go, Quentin goes, ‘That was great. I just need it one more time.’ So this time we go back and this time the horse thinks that he’s behind and out of the turn he takes off again and this time I’m on the side of the horse and the stunt guy’s like ‘If you feel like you’re about to come off the horse, just let go.’ In my mind the guy’s words are ringing in my head.
QT: I’ve got to say, that’s in my top 3 Django shots in the movie – a handful of mane and another hand with a rifle. That’s some Burt Reynolds in ‘Navajo Joe’ shit.
Q: Screen it for the president?
QT: I wouldn’t be surprised if Barack and Michelle watched the movie. That wouldn’t be the most surprising thing in the world. It’ll be interesting to see what effect it has.
QT: I think it’s a good movie. I hope that I pulled it off – to deal with the pain and the history but do it in an exciting adventure story. The hope was that if you leave your house and pay your money to see a movie, ultimately, by the end of it, you’re going to have a great time at the movies. So far, so good.
SJ: He writes movies that he wants to see. I think I represent a lot of moviegoers. And when you get it right, you get it right. It’s an entertaining film. It does what you want it to do. That’s ultimately what we want to happen.
KW: The theme. The impetus for this whole adventure is love. Everybody wants to have their prince slay the dragon…
SJ: That’s some girly shit! This is Shaft in the old west! Hong Kong bullet ballet thrown in there. German connection.
LD: The whole phrenology sequence, that’s when the character’s culimation came together. Because that was this insane pseudo-science at the time where people were trying to examine the inner workings of the human skull. What Southern slave owners did pre-WWII was justify the difference between these two people. Like I said, he’s this walking contradiction – he’s a Francophile who doesn’t speak French, he thinks he’s a scientist but doesn’t know anything. He needed to have some sort of justification for treating the people the way that he did. He’s that prince that’s so self indulgent that thinks 24 hours a day about what’s going to satisfy him without any regard for human life. He was born into privilege and wants to sustain this plantation at any cost. At the time, for him, slaves were the oil of the south. They were what produced the crop that gave them the money to sustain their business. To strip this away from him would be to strip everything he’s known from life.
SJ: How dare you question his upbringing! I did a good job!
QT: One thing that needs to be addressed is the idea of the planet of the earth… Subhumanity… Winston Churchill as late as 1947 said ‘We should not be embarrassed about anglo-saxon superiority.’ The fact that this thing of sub-humans has been around for a while.
JW: What I hope to happen in your DVD, you do show this conversation, about Christianity and what god deems to be true. You see it in the movie when the Brittle Brothers are about to whip Little Jodie. They have bible passages stapled to his shirt. They felt by god they had dominion over slaves, because the bible said so. Just in slavery – do slave masters go to heaven? What does Django believe about God? Does Django have a beef with the man upstairs? He was born being black. What does Django actually believe? There were a lot of different things that hopefully when people watch this film will spark conversation. When this movie was about to drop, black people were holding their breath. It was amazing that it was entertaining and you could breath easier.
QT: Leo gave me a book that was called ‘Negro: Beast of Man.’ It was written in 1904. And I had this book and it introduced a word to me that I had never heard before: the ‘ademic man.’ Their whole philosophy is that the proof that black folk are sub-humans is – can it be possible that black folks were descended from adam and eve? And what are they using? The dumb-ass white people illustrations in the bible.