Monday, 6 February 2012

Cinematic Anticipation - 'Django Unchained'

My most anticipated film of 2012, Django Unchained is the 8th film by legendary writer-director Quentin Tarantino. Anybody that knows me or reads this blog should be aware of the fact that I have reverential respect for the man. His movies are cinematic entertainment at its finest, and I've seen all of them multiple times. Needless to say, any new Tarantino project is something I look forward to. A lot. Hit the jump for my longest Constellation of Cinematic Anticipation post yet - a 4000 word sprawling rant that is riddled with diarrhetic adjective use and rampant speculation, but hopefully contains something worth reading too.

Oh, it's long, so you may not get through it in one sitting. I didn't want to split it up though - some come back and finish it please!


Origins

A while back, 2007 to be precise, Quentin Tarantino dropped the first hint on the film which was to become Django Unchained. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, he said this:

“I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.”

Now, two things come to mind here. One, he wanted to do a Western. Well, not exactly. He actually referred to it as a "Southern" - since it would be set in the Deep South instead of the Wild West. Notwithstanding the genre bending, this is hardly earth shattering news, since some of QT's greatest influences have been Spaghetti Westerns from the likes of Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima and a bunch of other Sergio's I'm sure. Two, any interview in which QT says he wants to do a particular movie needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. He wants to do shitloads of movies - he talks about them all the time - but whether he actually does it is another story all together.

After that, things became quiet on the Western front, the Basterds were dropped into France (dressed as civilians) and QT's Southern was all but forgotten. History became legend, but before legend could become myth, Franco Nero (an Italian Spaghetti Western actor) said some things about a new QT movie called "The Angel, The Bad and The Wise". Fortunately he was totally wrong about the title, because in April 2011, the title of his new film was leaked in the form of a photo of an alleged script front page. "Django Unchained", penned in Tarantino's characteristic scrawl, meant that something was cooking for sure. Since then, things have moved pretty damn quickly.

Story

The plot of Django Unchained is no secret, since the actual script was leaked online at the beginning of May 2011. I even managed to download it the other day. It's practically burning a whole in my hard drive because of how badly I want to read it, but I will not do it. I will persevere. Okay, I read the opening paragraph. It was wonderful. Anyway, here is a brief synopsis from IMDB - it's the one I like the most since it almost looks like QT could've written it himself. Warning though, if you are extremely sensitive to spoilers, don't read it. I don't think it gives too much away though…

"Set in the Deep South during the 1850s, Dr. King Schultz is a German bounty hunter/former dentist who buys Django as a slave so that he can help Schultz identify bounties for him. After successfully helping the good doctor with his bounty hunting, Django is given his freedom papers and is recruited by Schultz to continue being his partner in the bounty hunting business.

Django hones his bounty hunting skills until Schultz thinks he is ready to go to Mississippi; in order to free his wife (Broomhilda). When they find her whereabouts through slave auction records, they discover she is in the hands of monsieur Calvin Candie; a Francophile who takes great pleasure in watching Mandingos fight to the death. Django and Schultz cleverly con Candie into selling Django back his Broomhilda. But something goes rotten in the state of Denmark and Django finds himself fighting for his life, his wife, and sweet bloody vengeance."

Sounds bloody Tarantino-esque to me! What have people said about the script? Well, just what you'd expect, ranging from Harry Knowles (Ain't It Cool News) saying:

"DJANGO UNCHAINED is an operatic southern… this is my favorite QT script. & I've read them all. This I absolutely love at every level."

… to Matt Holmes (Obsessed With Film) complaining that the 166-page screenplay is overlong, self-indulgent and defiantly non-commercial. "There is nothing for Joe Popcorn to cling on to here," he said. "This isn't a movie that young teenagers/adults, unless they are huge fans of Tarantino, will get off their ass[es] to see in their droves. Tarantino is playing for a niche market here – nobody has really made a movie about race like this for years, and when they did it was never for a mass audience."

Excuse me? I don't see the problem. Tarantino's work is fundamentally overblown, and at it's best the more overblown it is. And since when has he written with Joe Popcorn in mind? He is Quentin Tarantino, not Michael Bay.

Influences

Because of my unwavering commitment to not reading the script, I can't really make my own guesses as to QT's influences here. It's a safe bet though that there will be many, and that they will be revealed in due course. Based on the title and synopsis alone, one could assume that he was influenced to some extent by Django (a 1966 Sergio Corbucci SW starring Franco Nero), Mandingo (a 1975 movie about fighting slaves directed by Richard Fleischer) and possibly (if only for the genre twisting) Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django (in which QT has a cameo). I also listened to a monster interview with cinematographer Robert Richardson recently in which he cited The Great Silence (1968) as another movie he and Tarantino watched in preparation for Django.



A fundamental component in any Tarantino film is, of course, music. The whole world is hoping that Ennio Morricone, the living legend composer of almost every memorable Western score, will do Django for Quentin. He was meant to score Inglourious Basterds, but scheduling issues forced him out, and QT used some of his existing pieces instead. He isn't confirmed for this yet, but let's hope. Just from reading the first paragraph (literally 4 or 5 lines) of the script, my feeling is that QT wants Morricone for this.

The LA Times recently did a piece on the movie ranches in Santa Clarita, California (more on this below), and had an interesting titbit to share on Django's music…

"On a cold, wet afternoon two cowboys trudge across a muddy street in a western town carrying saddles on their backs as a loud speaker blasts Jim Croce’s hit song “I got a Name.” The scene was being played out at the historic Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita , where director Quentin Tarantino was filming his upcoming western “Django Unchained,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx."

Don't know the song? Here is a link. In fact, play it in the background while you read the rest of this post.

Cast

QT has probably watched more movies than any director alive. I'm not exaggerating - he used to work at a video store in LA called Video Archives, and after Pulp Fiction, he took almost four years to make Jackie Brown, during which time he apparently spent an entire year designing his home theatre, and would spend literally months on end watching movies all day and night until he felt ready to attempt something after the massive hit he had in Pulp Fiction. In fact, it was not just a hit, it was a game changer - the first indie movie to gross over $100 million, and the reason why so many indies are competing in the Oscar big leagues today. Thank Tarantino and the Weinstein brothers.

Anyway, like I was saying, Tarantino watches a LOT of movies. And, as a director who watches a lot of movies, he is probably quite particular about who he casts in his movies. This is borne out by the memorable characters, breakthrough performances, major comebacks and career-bests attributable to him - Pulp Fiction saved Travolta's career and made Samuel L Jackson's, Jackie Brown got Robert Forster his only Oscar nomination in a career spanning over 40 years (and probably the only one he will ever get), Kill Bill (and Pulp Fiction) are some of the only truly memorable roles Uma Thurman has ever had, and Inglourious Basterds not only turned Christoph Waltz into an instant star (with Cannes, SAG, Golden Globe, Academy and a string of other awards on the mantelpiece to prove it), but it was also Michael Fassbender's breakout performance. Look where he is now.

Love him or hate him, QT has created some of the greatest characters in all of cinema, and he is the best actors' director working today (from both a casting and performance perspective). The cast of Django Unchained is therefore of particular interest to anyone keen on this movie, and if you have doubts, try and think where QT went wrong casting-wise in the past. That's right, no-motherfuckin'-where. QT sees things we don't see, things that only jump out at you after watching a million movies. In a row…

Leading…

Jamie Foxx is Django who, being titular 'n all, is probably the most important character. He wasn't the first Django though - apparently the offer went to Will Smith first (according to Variety the part was written with him in mind), but he passed because of the controversial nature of the role - you know, Smith is the biggest cash cow in all of Hollywoodland. Others were considered (Chris Tucker, Michael K Williams) and some came close (Idris Elba), but the role eventually went to Jamie Foxx.

Do you feel that this is the right choice? I do. He may be all smooth and stuff, but he is a great actor (Ray) and he isn't looking so slick these days. In fact, he was positively slovenly (and bearded) when talking about his role recently. I thought Will Smith had potential, but Chris Tucker cannot be taken seriously, Idris Elba is too bad-ass looking and Michael K Williams would do better as a villain. Quite frankly, Foxx is the right man for this job.

Recent pics of Waltz and Foxx sporting their Django beards. The pic of Waltz is way back in October, when he was still in crutches. Imagine that beard now!

Christoph Waltz returns as the character with the coolest name - Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter (!?). What's more, this time he is the good guy! Being the first to officially sign up to the film, Waltz now gets to play a character written specifically for him, and I cannot wait to see what he has up his sleeve, especially considering what he had to say about their working relationship:

You’ve got one of the greatest screenwriters ever. You’re gonna tell him what to do? I know that there are people who would like to do that. I’m not one of them. I’m happy about everything that he writes and that I have to wrap my mind around. That’s where I get my fun and pleasure. I’m trying to understand what this is and not trying to impress on him what I want. I know what I want anyway. Why is that so interesting? I’m eager to see what Quentin wants!” Me too.


Leonardo DiCaprio is Calvin Candie, the villainous plantation owner whose hatred of African Americans is rivalled only by his cruelty towards women. Did you know that the part of Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds was initially written with DiCaprio in mind? This did not come to fruition because QT decided that the role should go to a German speaker. Well, now he gets the best of both worlds! According to The Playlist, "he’s a typically rich Tarantino villain, both eccentric (he’s a Francophile, and insists on being called ‘Monsieur,’ even if he can’t speak French) and complex—he’s a solid gold bastard, to be sure, but he’s also charismatic and not without his depths." By the sounds of things, Calvin Candie is going to be one nasty piece of work.

Supporting...

Kerry Washington is Broomhilda, Django's wife, Candie's captive and the primary objective in Django's mission. Word has it her role is pretty controversial, being subjected to Candie's sexual deviancy and all that.

Sacha Baron Cohen is Scotty, a gambler who buys Broomhilda as his female companion. Interestingly, he might have replaced Jonah Hill, who was going to play a character called Scott. But this Scott is an overweight twentysomething whose father purchases Broomhilda for him as a "playmate". Seems like QT tweaked the role a little and cast Ali G after Hill had to bail due to scheduling issues.

Kurt Russell is Ace Woody, a vicious trainer who takes great pleasure in whipping Candie’s fighting slaves into shape. He replaced Kevin Costner who had to decline due to scheduling conflicts. I'm quite sad about this one, but after his turn as Stuntman Mike in Death Proof, I have no beef with seeing Kurt Russell in a QT film.

Of course Samuel L. Jackson, QT's greatest regular, has a role written specially for him. He plays Stephen, a house slave and right hand man to Calvin Candie. Perfect, I can see him as an older Ordell Robbie set in slave times!

Anthony LaPaglia and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are Roy and Jano, a pair of Australian slavers who encounter Django on his mission. That can't end well. As for the casting, I love it! LaPaglia has an unmistakable face that you may remember from TV's Without A Trace and movies like Lantana, The Client and Empire Records; and JGL is one of my favourite young actors. I must add though, there are reports that JGL has not officially joined yet. Let's hope he does soon.

It doesn't end there either. In order to prevent this post from turning into a non-fiction novel, I will simply add that roles have also gone to RZA (did music for Kill Bill), Walton Goggins, James Remar (who said "I’ll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle" in The Warriors), Don Johnson (Miami Vice), Gerald McRaney (Major Dad), M.C Gainey (Lost), Dennis Christopher (Deadwood) and Tom Savini (From Dusk Till Dawn). See them below (left to right, starting at the top).


Crew

Because Django has only just started production and information is hard to come by, some speculation is required to spice up this post a little. Being a man of such specific requirements, QT strikes me as the type of director who establishes long working relationships with certain members of his crew. Indeed, some, like cinematographer Robert Richardson and the late editor Sally Menke are widely know to be regular Tarantino collaborators. But what about the other crew members? If they are not regular collaborators, how are they chosen? For a person (like me) who doesn't know a huge amount about the film production industry itself, figuring this out is quite a challenge, one that gets tougher the further we go down the ladder of prominence (if there is such a thing). So, with the trusty IMDB at my side, a little QT knowledge and a healthy dose of rife speculation, lets see… just who is working on Django Unchained?

Cinematographer: Robert Richardson

He worked on Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. He also works a huge amount with Martin Scorcese and Oliver Stone, which is probably how he hooked up with QT in the first place (via Natural Born Killers, which QT wrote and Stone directed). Incidentally, Bob Richardson is one of the greatest cinematographers alive, having won 2 Oscars and been nominated 5 more times. My bet is on him winning again this year for his (apparently) incredible work on Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

Editor: Fred Raskin

How do you replace Sally Menke, who died tragically in 2010, and worked on all QTs movies? QT went for a not-so-big name in Fred Raskin (he is not a total unknown though, having edited the Fast & The Furious movies). Why?

They probably hooked up via Paul Thomas Anderson, who is a great friend of QT's. Raskin worked as a post production assistant on Hard Eight, as second assistant editor on Boogie Nights and as additional editor on Punch Drunk Love. He was then assistant editor on Kill Bill, and the rest is history. Under the cruel tutelage of Quentin Tarantino, Django is surely Raskin's big break.

Makeup: Heba Thorisdottir

She worked on Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, and is therefore a QT regular too. Her career started out working on David Lynch's awesome TV Series Twin Peaks. Could that be when she caught QT's attention? It's not all that important, but I would love to know. Useless fact: she is often a personal makeup artist for Scarlett Johansson.

First Assistant Director: William Paul Clark

Although he has never directed a film himself, he is an assistant director par excellence. He has worked with QT on Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, and is also the last QT regular of this post. 

Casting: Victoria Thomas

This is where it starts getting tricky. She has never worked with QT, so why now? The answer - she is black (not that her colour has anything to do with it), and sort-of specialises in casting black characters. A name I spotted a few times in her filmography is none other than Will Smith. Being the initial choice to play Django, could he be the origin? Lets see if the other crew members reveal more…

Production Design, Art Direction, Set Decoration and Costumes: J. Michael Riva, David Klassen, Leslie A. Pope and Sharen Davis

When digging through the IMDB profiles of these craftsmen and women of Django Unchained's visual style, I could find no QT links. However, some other common factors became apparent rather quickly. All of them except Sharen Davis worked on Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spiderman (currently in post production). What the hell does Spidey have to do with Django you may ask? Easy: Sony Pictures is one of the production companies on Django, and Columbia Pictures (owned by Sony Pictures) on Spidey. Obviously they have a say in who gets to work on the film. So, a bit of an anticlimax really. Read on though - you will soon see that the plot does thicken (a little).

Will Smith is still a really strong link regardless of Spidey (Smith has nothing to do with Spidey - other than the fact that he played a superhero once, and he was in a movie with a big metal spidey). The only movie with all four the above crew members in common is Seven Pounds, and The Pursuit of Happiness has three out of four. Does Smith have any connection to Sony or Columbia? Why, yes. He started out rapping under the Columbia Records label in the late 90's. He is now with Interscope, but somehow I think his Columbia relationship never died. Since his big break as Mike Lowery in Bad Boys (1995), Columbia Pictures (or Sony) has been involved (either as production or distribution company) in almost every single one of his movies. So there you have it. Will Smith and Columbia are tight.

So, did Smith bring Sony to Django or did Sony bring Smith to Django? Which came first? Well, they arrived sort of simultaneously. News of Smith's involvement broke on the 6th of May last year via Variety, whereas the Sony announcement came on May 9th via Deadline. The consensus seems to be that Sony was chosen in an attempt to wow Smith. That is probably correct, even though I would like to think it's the other way round: that Sony signed on, and wanted Smith to be involved. They also brought along the abovementioned crew. Tarantino didn't want Will Smith, and managed to swap him for Foxx. Unlikely though. 

Incidentally, twice Oscar-nominated costume designer Sharen Davis seems to be a bit of a movie-with-black-actors specialist herself, having worked on a string of prominent black-dominated films, including The Help, The Book of Eli, Dreamgirls, Seven Pounds, The Great Debaters, The Pursuit of Happiness, Beauty Shop, Ray, Antwone Fisher, Rush Hour, Doctor Dolittle and Devil in a Blue Dress. Is the task really that specialised? I suppose it makes sense in some way, Sharen Davis being a black lady 'n all. Wow, how does a man write this without sounding like a bigoted asshole? Whatever, judge if you will, but the fact remains: Hollywood has become so specialised that you get costume designers who specialise in costumes for black actors!

By the way, Sharen Davis worked with Victoria Thomas (casting director), way back in '95 in Devil in a Blue Dress. So there's yet another link.

I have confused myself. Basically it would seem that Tarantino was interested in Smith, so Weinstein went to Sony, who brought along a number of crew members (some of whom specialise), Will Smith was too scared to play Django, but Sony stayed and so did the crew. Maybe (this is probably not true), QT wanted that highly specialised crew, so they went to Sony, who tried to bring their boy Will on board, but did not succeed. QT wins on all fronts. If only. 

Production

Filming has officially begun, and from this interview with cinematographer Bob Richardson, it has actually progressed pretty far. They are currently filming at the Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, California. I hadn't heard about it before, but it's an area with about 10 movie ranches that have been home to a multitude of productions. QT is reportedly having a blast, saying "most other western towns look like dollhouses. This has the complete look. It's fantastic." Take a look below at the recently surfaced set pictures - it does look rather huge, and read this interesting piece over at the LA Times.



It's not like there haven't been issues though: there were some minor delays, Christoph Waltz dislocated his pelvis - fell off a horse - while preparing for filming (ouch), but had only the following words: "It’s a western. Things happen in a western. You don’t do a western on a bicycle. Even though, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there’s this big sequence on a bicycle.” Tough Austrian.

I think Bob Richardson said they've finished shooting in LA, are now (as already mentioned) in Santa Clarita, and will soon be heading to New Orleans, which is presumably where Candie's plantation is. Speaking of, I read on Totalfilm about a photographer called Alfonso Pompo Bresciani who took a photo of a plantation where he says Django Unchained will be filmed:

"In this very same location, Quentin Tarantino will be shooting his new feature film… [The] crew have been working there for over a month setting up everything ahead of the shoots and the security around there is a pain in da…butt. Can’t wait to see the movie, hopefully we’ll see a shot right in this alley of oak trees too."

I don't know how accurate that is, but if you look at the photo below, it looks incredible (by which I mean awesome and not the opposite of credible).


Finally, we do know that Samuel L Jackson will be sporting a wig again in this one. He tweeted the following on my birthday last year…


And that's it. For now. Django Unchained hits theatres 25 December 2012, and you can be sure this blog will be dedicating loads of time to the development of QT's next masterpiece!

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