Tarantino and Rodriguez: Who's the Man?

February 9, 2009, 9:18 AM

March 30, 2007 — -- TAPPER:: You guys are known as filmmakers that are always trying to top what you did last. In terms of narrative, in terms of cinematically, certainly. At some point, do you reach a level where you can't go any higher? Do you ever fear, "Oh, God. I don't know how I'm going to top a woman with a machine-gun leg."


RODRIGUEZ:: You don't fear, but you know that's always a challenge. I finished two series at the same time. I finished the "Spy Kids" Trilogy and I finished the "El Mariachi" Trilogy within two months of each other. And they both did really well at the box office.

I try to take a left turn. So I'm going to do "Sin City." I'm going to go do something that's just cinematically a lot more challenging for me and gets me excited. Because if I don't get excited about the next project myself, I know the audience isn't going to get excited. And you almost want something that has built-in challenges, something that people haven't seen before, but, mainly, something you haven't seen before.

And I did that one, then I had the same problem. "Well, now, what am I going to do?" We took the color out. And then I thought, "Double feature." Can't be better than that. So, now, the more you raise your bar on yourself, the more the audience benefits, because they'll end up seeing things that are more original, or just something that they haven't seen before, because you get tired of doing the same thing. So already I'm thinking, "OK. Now, what can we do that's going to get me excited?" And I won't do it unless it makes me excited.

TAPPER:: What about you? I mean, you've certainly had the same kind of career practice, constantly trying to challenge yourself.

TARANTINO:: Well, yes. I would never stop trying to challenge myself, because that's always my favorite -- it's the scariest stuff that I do when I'm really kind of throwing it on the line as far as testing my filmmaking abilities, as far as pulling off this sequence or that sequence. And those are always the scariest ones to go into because if I fail, then I'm not as good a filmmaker as I thought I was. Kind of scary.

But getting through it is always the most fulfilling, the most rewarding and usually the best filmmaking. By being scared and climbing that mountain anyway. If you look at my whole career, though, I actually didn't try to top myself after "Pulp Fiction." With "Jackie Brown," I actually purposely went underneath "Pulp Fiction" to do more of a character meditation. And I knew I would be in the wrong mood to try to top "Pulp Fiction." I can only just show my strength as a filmmaker and as a character-oriented director and go the other way. Then, after that, then, with "Kill Bill," I wanted to really go to the moon…

I was talking once to Eleanor Coppola, who is the wife of Francis Ford Coppola, and I was talking to her and she asked me what I was doing next, and I had just finished up "Kill Bill," which was like climbing Mount Everest. Come down off of there, you're not going to quite be the same man you were that started it.

And she's talking about what I'm going to do next. So I had another big idea for a cool project, but it would be another Mount Everest, and I was like, "Look, I want to do it, but I don't want to be climbing that mountain again. I just got off."

And we were talking a little bit and everything, and she goes, "You know what, Quentin? I think this is your time in life to climb Mount Everest. These are your mountain-climbing days." And I knew she was right the minute she said it.

TAPPER:: Meaning what?

TARANTINO:: Meaning this is my time to do big projects. If I've got a grandiose idea, this is the time. If I'm going to do something that's going to take a long time and be very difficult and "Screw life, it's all about this, life can't get in the way, I've got to do this mission." You know, when it comes to whatever project, this is the time for that. It's not going to be when I'm 60. It's not when I'm 55. It's right now. Now, I think it'll be that way when I'm 55, too, or I'll stop, but it's got to be on line. It's got to be I'm really trying to do something.

TAPPER:: Robert, you're 38, Quentin you're in your 40s. You're no longer the fresh kids. It's not 1992. You're not filmmakers in your 20s and 30s. I mean, obviously, you have retained a lot of the same spirit as when you were young and just completely self financed. Back when you, Robert, did medical experiments to finance your first movie.

RODRIGUEZ:: I come from a family of 10. I couldn't go hit mom or grandma for money. So, yes, I did medical experiments.

TAPPER:: You took pills or something?

RODRIGUEZ:: Well, Austin is a big college town. So the pharmaceutical company there is called Pharmaco. They would get students to come in and they would test the latest drug on them, because you have to do that to pass through the FDA. And you would get money for it. And so I did anything from like a cholesterol-lowering drug -- which is on them market now, but they were still testing it -- to a speed-healer drug, where they punched holes in my arms and then put speed healer on one and a placebo on the other and cut it away. Went and did tests on it. I got $2,000 for seven days work. That's how I'd go pay for my movie.

TAPPER:: And it cost $7,000?

RODRIGUEZ:: "El Mariachi" did. Yes. That was a lot of money to me, to any college kid. "You got $7,000 in your pocket I can borrow?" You know, that's a lot of money. So people say, "Oh, that's so cheap." The hell it is. It cost me my body. Cost me my blood. That thing cost, man.

TAPPER:: How is it different now? Obviously, it seems like you can pretty much do anything you want with almost any actor you want. Is that right?

RODRIGUEZ:: Right now is a great time. Like when we thought of this idea for the "Grindhouse" movie, it became our dream project all of a sudden, to do this double feature… But it didn't have to be a dream project we had to dream about for very long, because we get to turn around and start making it.

So that was a really exciting thing to do, and then bring actors in and Bruce Willis looks at a little test -- "Well, I'll be there. Sure. Just tell me any part I can play." I mean, it's a great time.

And so, you know, you want to wield that power carefully, because you wonder what can I do next? What should I do next? And it's a great time right now. So try to put your best foot forward.

TARANTINO:: I think the only thing that would be fantasy would be if I wanted to do an NC-17 movie. And I could do that, but it would have to be not the budget of "Grindhouse," it'd have to be a smaller budget, because of going with new ground, trying to make something like that popular. So that would be the only limitation there. I could still do that, but I'd have to do it at a price.

TAPPER:: I'm sure you've seen this happen to filmmakers that you admire -- they get so powerful that they don't have anyone around them that says, "That scene doesn't work." "This movie's too long." "This whole idea is horrible." "That's the wrong actor." They don't have anyone like that, because they're in Hollywood, they're surrounded by yes-men and studios who see them as money making. How do you avoid becoming those guys?

RODRIGUEZ:: I don't know. For myself, I have always just trusted my inner voice. I have always tried to just please myself first. If I really think something is good, well, you know, it's subjective. It is good. Even though other people might not like it, you can't let that make you think, "Oh, maybe my ideas aren't right. Maybe I shouldn't trust my instinct." This might be the wrong time for it. It might just be ahead of its time, behind its time…

You can always trust that. You're not going to always have consistent people around you that you can always listen to. And everyone's going to tell you different things. You've got to be able to trust your heart, so that you always are doing the right thing for you.

So, I don't think it'll be a problem. I think maybe my ideas will stop working after a while, but as I am listening to my voice, I can't blame anybody. I can't blame anyone for giving me the wrong advice at any point. You always listen to yourself, and it's served me well. So try to do that, because if it's not true to one person, at least, it's not going to work for anybody at that point.

TARANTINO:: The thing with me is, I'm a writer-director, and actually the writing of the script is a huge part of what I do. It's as important -- that process and that writing of the script, and even just the script itself, as a finished document as a piece of literature that I will publish later -- it's as important to me as the movie…

And so I'm always coming off from a really strong base. I either do it on the page or I don't. I either make the movie work there or I don't. When you read my scripts, you see the movie. It kind of either works or it doesn't. You know what I mean?

So I am always coming off from a very strong base by the time I actually get a movie together, which is different than, say, a director for hire who could get caught up and lost because he's trying this and that and the other. My material is always coming straight from scratch.

And I actually don't see your scenario as a problem to really worry about. There's another problem to worry about, and that is becoming too much of a Hollywood professional. I don't think the problem is, "Oh, we can do whatever we want. Oh, my God." I think the problem is passion about what you're doing, not just working to work, not just doing something for political reasons or for a gigantic paycheck to pay for your pool or to pay for your alimony or to work with this actor or just to keep busy. I think everything's got to be all or nothing, as long as I'm the writer and director and I'm doing my thing and this is my next piece of work, and it stands in the canon with the other pieces of work.

And, yes, there'll be days -- and with "Jackie Browne" you can ever see that was the case -- where a film might not be so accepted when it comes out, but, hey, it's not about the day it opens. It's about the eternity of cinema, and it ain't going nowhere, and time can pass and five years, 10 years later, it can be accepted, and, actually, most of the directors I like, my favorite movies of theirs were the ones that weren't accepted in their day, but over the course of time have risen in the ranks.

TAPPER:: Like what?

TARANTINO:: Oh, well, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is one of the greatest movies ever made -- for me, the greatest movie ever made. And it totally got thrashed by Pauline Kael and The New York Times and the LA Times when it came out. And, then, "Once Upon a Time in the West" was really torn apart by everybody, and those are considered classics now. "Night of the Living Dead" didn't get good reviews when it came out, and that is one of the classics of independent cinema of all time. "2001" got bad reviews.

RODRIGUEZ:: I don't relate completely to what you say, because I do live in Texas, and I'm not really surrounded by people like that. Everyone that surrounds me down there isn't in the movie business at all. So they don't even know what I do really. "When's that movie you got coming out?"When I did "Sin City," I thought for sure this is easily something that will not be caught onto immediately at all. Maybe discovered later in DVD, but it's very weird. It's black and white. It's an anthology. It's got voice over. The three No's, what you're not supposed to do in a movie.

I really felt like it was something that was exciting, I hadn't seen before and that I would get an A for effort. "At least he tried to do something different." And so it was a big surprise that it was so successful right off the bat and that people caught on to it.

The same with this movie. As I had this idea, I thought people might not get it at first when it comes out in the theaters. But as soon as people saw the trailers, they were going crazy for it. So you're not always sure if your ideas are going to work or if they are coming out at the right time, but you just always got to follow your heart. You take consensus of what people think, you're going to get a different answer from everybody. So, really, the only answer that matters is the one that you find inside.

TARANTINO:: There is one other aspect that's also a kind of a danger, especially if you're a writer-director. There are a whole lot of writer-directors that come out here. They do one movie, two movies, three movies, and it's like, "What a voice! What a voice." They wrote the scripts and they direct the movies and they're all of a piece and they're terrific.

But then they get successful, and facing that blank page and starting all over again, every single time from the scratchiest of the scratch, that's hard work.

It's hard to put yourself back at square one every single solitary time. And that is what you do when you write a script from scratch. And, at a certain point, those guys are like, "Forget that, man. Let me go and let me look for a script that I like. Let me find something out there that I want to do."

And then they find something out there, and because they're a writer, they can work with a writer and have them change it or think, "Oh, I'll just do it myself and do a pass," because it's easier.

And that works maybe OK for a while, but the next thing you know, they do three more movies like that, and then you look at all of them together, and what was the strong voice or the real artist trying to do something gets diluted down and diluted down, because the voice is just getting weaker and weaker and weaker. They might be directing the heck out of the movie, but that voice that you heard, that's gone.

Following is a transcript of Jake Tapper's interview with "Grindhouse" star Kurt Russell, star of the Tarantino section of the film, "Death Proof."

TAPPER:: TARANTINO: doesn't seem like he's actually changed that much since he first came on the scene in '92, except, now, he can do everything he wants to do.

KURT RUSSELL:: People like Quentin, they don't change. They are who they are. He's a self-made man. I think he's been who he is since he was probably 12 or 13 years old. We've actually talked some about that. And I understand it, because, you know, I was starting in this business when I was nine years old, too.

He is just a savant when it comes to anything to do with movies. He remembers everything he's ever seen, ever. That's not like an overall statement that's kind of thrown out there. I don't think there's anything he's ever forgotten that he's ever seen.

TAPPER:: He knows your work intimately?

RUSSELL:: Everything. Everything. My favorite line from every movie. He remembers everything from "Used Cars" or "Big Trouble in Little China" or any John Carpenter movie I've done, he just knows it, just flat-out knows it, better than I do.

I said to him one day, "Quentin, I've seen 'Escape from New York' three times." I'll see "Grindhouse" twice, maybe in my life. If he sees it once, he doesn't forget it, but, then, he drills it in. Whatever movies he loves, he drills into his head. But what's great about him as a director is he doesn't copy things. He then takes that information, pushes it aside, uses it, because he knows he can, and then he does his own thing. His does his own version of whatever it is he is going to do. Really fun person to work with and be around, too.

TAPPER:: You weren't in any Grindhouse movies in the '70s, but you saw a bunch of them. How close is this to the experience?

RUSSELL:: I not only saw them, I interviewed for them. I was making movies at that time. One that I saw that I really liked at that time was "Vanishing Point." I really liked "Vanishing Point." And what is it about them? I don't know. I think that exploitation of sex, violence and extreme subject matter. I think it was like you didn't know what you were going to see.

I do remember going on some of the interviews and you talk to the guy next to you and say, "If you get this part, are you going to do it?" "I don't know, man. The thing where you're eating the rats?" You didn't know if you were going to actually do this stuff.

I ended up not, and, for me, luckily, 35 years later, I get to do with Quentin Tarantino. So I'm happy about that.

TAPPER:: How was this experience different from working with other directors?

RUSSELL:: His set is a circus. It's just a fun time. He is a very secure person in what he wants to do. He is very open in talking to you about what it is you want to do to try to help, you know, make his vision come onto the screen.

The day itself is just a blast, because he likes to play music during the day, and he works really hard, very -- not self-indulgent at all, shoots fast, shoots long, shoots hard, plays hard. Just a full day where you get to create. For anybody who has ever thought about getting into this business, a day on Quentin's set is exactly what you envision. You're supposed to go up there and just create and have fun, and have a great time, and you do.

TAPPER:: Tell me about the character you play.

RUSSELL:: Stuntman Mike is just a guy who's at the bar, is fairly charming and a little creepy, but his simple story, you know, is that, yes, he uses his car as a gun. Psycho, psycho bad guy, weirdo. Coward. Crazy.

TAPPER:: Hollywood is criticized for being very violent. Do you ever have any compunctions about doing a movie that's very violent?

RUSSELL:: No, I think if violence belongs anywhere, it belongs on film. These movies are so extreme that, hopefully, you get to a place where you realize you're able to just laugh and have a good time with this.

We are human beings. We have the ability to look at ourselves and evaluate ourselves and evaluate our behavior. And, yes, I think that we don't like to see violence on the streets, but violence is part of our life. It is part of our world.

The only place I think you should experience it, perhaps, is at the movie theater. And I think that, in the old days, that was an understood thing. You just sort of understood it. You sat there. You had the safety of being in this room, this theater, and it was all happening up there, and you could live vicariously through that. Personally, to over-intellectualize it and try to justify the fact that it can be brought into society by introducing it to society, I think it's the cart before the horse. But that's just my opinion.

TAPPER:: You don't think that pop culture, film, television have any role in our society becoming any more violent?

RUSSELL:: Yes, I do. I think that comes because of the Fourth Estate's assessment of it. I think that once you romanticize a notion, true or not, you can create a concept. And once you have created the concept, I think there are a lot of people out there willing to run with the ball.

But I don't think that that was ever the intention of the people who created it in the first place. It used to be something that was laughed at. It used to be something that you giggled at or you guffawed at, like you do with "Grindhouse." You look at it and somebody's arm comes off, and you literally turn to your buddy. You go, "Oh, no -- " It didn't mean you're going to go out and get a machete and do that.

I think with the press taking the ball at some point and being amazed by the ability of Hollywood to create such a real look, and then making the statement that it crosses some sort of line where it begins to mesh between reality and -- that is not necessarily true, just because they said it. Just because somebody wrote it, doesn't mean that that in fact, is true, and I don't think it ever was. I think that it's created a notion. That's my opinion on it.

TAPPER:: What's your favorite part of "Grindhouse"?

RUSSELL:: I like the concept of the night. I like the ads. I like (the preview for he fake movie) 'Machete.' I like the ads. There's a good feeling. It's a good-feeling night. It's just a goof night. For a whole generation, it's sort of like, "I heard about this. I knew about this. I never saw it. Never saw a double feature. Never saw this kind of crazy stuff." The whole night is what I like about "Grindhouse." We used to participate in these things. And this generation, I think, has to be cut loose in the theater to do that. I think that's what Quentin and Robert are trying to say. It's OK to go have some fun, guys. It's just crazy. Just keep saying to yourself over and over, "It's just a movie." You know, it's that night.

ABC's Dan Morris contributed to this report.

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