Quentin Tarantino talks to The Skinny about all things Grindhouse, and the controversy surrounding its very existence.
In the foggy haze of a drunken night outside a Texan desert bar, a girl sidles up towards a flashy muscle car, a mean looking black charger. Having left her friends behind to make her way home with a scar-faced stranger - always a winning idea - the mood turns to one of foreboding at the ominous sight of a skull printed on the hood. Recreating the aesthetic of Halloween, the scene is the stuff of 70s thriller - right down to the shaky camera and grimy reel it was filmed on. Forget about the stylistics of the thing for a minute though, a young lady's life hangs in the balance. "Is it safe?" she asks of the driver. "It's better than safe," he quips. "It's Death Proof."
And she's toast.
It took a good few hundred yards of grainy celluloid, character framing and a heavy dose of that detailed incidental dialogue we've come to expect from a certain director over the years, before we arrive at this point in Death Proof, where the audience begins to realise what kind of ultra violent madness the prodigal son of pastiche movie making is about to unleash on our eyeballs this time.
Making his return to the silver screen this month, Quentin Tarantino offers another deliciously twisted paean to grisly retro cinema. But let's skip the narrative and get to the crux of matters: warehouses, diners, airports and even Japanese tea houses have all previously been the pivotal scene setters of Tarantino's realm in the past. So what's with the car?
"My starting off point was that I wanted to do a slasher film," he reasons. "I'm a big fan of them and I thought that it would fit in really good with our whole idea of what we were trying to do. But now, when I started thinking about the slasher film I was like, 'ok, well, part of the thing I like about them is that they're all so rigid and the same'. So what I tried to do is use the structure. It's a slasher film at 200mph."
That structure is one perhaps more synonymous with the deliberate pacing and grisly ambience of John Carpenter's style than most, an attribute that Tarantino doesn't shy away from. In fact, with Death Proof he goes so far as to cast sometime Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell as the smooth talking villain, Stuntman Mike, a slick demon who stalks and chases down groups of young ladies who get his name wrong with a ridiculous, super-charged vehicle.
So far, so Michael Myers in a car with cool dialogue, right? But not quite, because it's only when the female of the species takes the wheel, so to speak, that the real mania of Death Proof unfolds. However, Tarantino insists that he didn't need to deviate from the traditional thriller template to achieve a pro-feminine outcome.
"Everyone's been talking to me about the idea: 'oh is this a revenge film? Is this a feminist film? Are you empowering women? Because the exploitation films you take them from didn't do that'. And I say that's not really 100% correct. Actually it was exploitation movies, and not just American exploitation movies but exploitation movies from all over the world that actually dealt with female heroes and female avengers and female empowerment - in violent genre kind of ways - that Hollywood never did. There was no white Hollywood A-list major studio equivalent to Pam Grier in the '70s, she stood by herself. There was in Japan, there was in Hong Kong, there was in a lot of countries back then. But also, in terms of slasher films, that is the third act of every slasher film - the final girl who rises up and has the moral fortitude to beat the bogeyman. That's always been the staple of that genre."
Amongst Tarantino's posse of cult sirens on board for the ride are Rosario Dawson (Sin City, Kids), Rose McGowan (Scream) and, in one of the most hair raising roles of the feature, Kiwi actress Zoe Bell, who began her internship as a Tarantino muse while stunt doubling for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.
By now, this all sounds like it could just be a vanity project for the maverick director, but Tarantino's continued devotion to raising awareness of certain historical facets of cinema proves otherwise - something which extends to the original game plan behind Death Proof. When the film was conceived it was with the intention to pair it with Robert Rodriguez's sci-fi zombie flick Planet Terror and call it Grindhouse.
Having stumbled upon the full double feature as it played at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in April, before catching up with Tarantino at the Cannes Film Festival - by which time Death Proof was on its own - it seems as though the Weinstein Company might be making a colossal mistake in denying audiences the option of the complete package at the cinema. As a three hour horror marathon which gives insight to the two-for-one B-movie underworld that Tarantino and Rodriguez have always talked up, bogus trailers put together by Rob Zombie, Eli Roth and Edgar Wright are used to round out an evening of pulp fiction in its realest sense - a "revival tent religious show experience" as Tarantino still excitedly puts it.
Although we now have the benefit of an extended version of Death Proof, it seemed that there was little to pacify Kurt Russell on the matter when The Skinny caught him waxing lyrical on the subject. "These two movies are now gonna go off by themselves and live their own life but my prediction is that, twenty years from now, you'll want the Grindhouse experience. You won't want them separately, you'll see them separately now and hopefully you'll enjoy them but, at the end of the day, if you want to have the full effect, the other experience is something bizarre that I've never experienced before. And in that regard, I like the short version, I like the way it is. I'm interested to see this long version to see how it stands up on its own."
Tarantino, however, sees a clear benefit in both cuts and points out the reasoning behind the restoration of key footage for his longer edit of Death Proof where he replaces the so called 'missing reels' that teased the Grindhouse audiences into submission. "The weird thing about it is, a lot of the grindhouse movies that have risen to the top as cult films, most people have actually seen them on DVD. They have a lot of young fans who have never had that grindhouse experience. I think it could still exist on DVD in a very good way. So, it can be experienced in a lot of different ways."
"The majority of the stuff that I put back in was stuff that I took out of Grindhouse for the simple fact that Robert and I made three movies. We made Death Proof, we made Planet Terror and then we made Grindhouse. And they are three different movies. Death Proof and Planet Terror were always meant to stand alone but when we put it together as Grindhouse it had to work as one evening's experience. We didn't cut our movies to the bone, we cut them past the bone."
"You just have to remember, in the opening scene, say, you meet all the girls and they all talk and everything. Well, opening scene of the movie, that's five minutes in the movie - we can take time, I can let my dialogue play, we can let the jokes flow. In the case of Grindhouse, that's 95 minutes into the movie, the audience has been there so you don't quite have the patience to let my dialogue scenes play all the way out. So aside from the scenes I lifted, that was one of the biggest cuts I made, just shortening the dialogue, especially in the first half."
However, back at Cannes, Harvey Weinstein placed both projects into direct competition and proposed that the individual release of either feature would "dwarf" Grindhouse. As he went on to suggest the possibility of tacking the trailers on too, the waft of filthy lucre hung pungent in the air, which provokes a strong rebuttal from Tarantino. "I do have one thing to say. My feeling is: I love Death Proof. I love Grindhouse. Having said that, I thought it would be wrong to try to put the trailers in Death Proof or possibly in Planet Terror because that's not what they are now that they're stand alone movies. I actually want to keep Grindhouse special. Grindhouse isn't going anywhere - you'll have the rest of your life to watch it on DVD. Part of the Grindhouse experience is the trailers. It's actually cheapening it and almost prostituting it to some degree to try and split them up and to attach them to the single films. What's that about?"
Certainly, a Tarantino-only vehicle shorn of the distinctly non-British appendage of a b-movie drive-in spectacular might stand to collect a heavier box office draw in its own right, but this also denies that audience a unique opportunity to discover the full force of a fun genre. As Tarantino relates, "If you didn't grow up with those films then everything is brand new to you, and you might even appreciate it even more. I've got a different agenda to what I'm trying to get across in the films, which is different to the agenda of most drive-in movies."
Oh Hollywood, curse you and your politics. But, much like everything Tarantino has touched to date, whichever way you see this tale about a quaffed stuntman and his penchant for nudging bumpers, Death Proof and Grindhouse are undeniably all about the preaching of Tarantino's gospel. As he summarises of his time spent at the cinema in his early 20s, "As far as I was concerned I wasn't going to the movies. I was going to church."
Death Proof directed by Quentin Tarantino is released on 21 September.
Planet Terror directed by Robert Rodriguez currently has no UK release date.