The film director debuts as a novelist with the addictive 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

Quentin Tarantino: "I wear the word 'troublemaker' on my chest, like a badge of honour"

7 min
The film director and novelist Quentin Tarantino

BarcelonaQuentin Tarantino has not had enough with changing the history of cinema of the last three decades thanks to films such as Reservoir dogs (1992), Pulp fiction (1994) and Inglourious Basterds (2009): two years after releasing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he is making his debut as a writer with a novel that sets off with the same characters from the movie to expand the universe at a fast and addictive pace. Published in Catalonia by Columna and Reservoir Books a few days after its United States release, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood brings back Rick Dalton, a western film star past his prime, along with his chauffeur and stunt specialist Cliff Booth, with the menacing shadow of Charles Manson, who along with his family sought to shake the foundations of the capitalist society of the late 1960s, lurking in the background. The action of the novel takes place in 1969 in Los Angeles, a city marked by the worldwide success of the film industry, as glamorous as it is inhospitable.

Tarantino picks up the phone from Los Angeles, the city where he lives with Daniella Pick, his wife, and their son Leo, who was born in February 2020, a few weeks before the covid-19 pandemic shook the world.

After reading this first novel of yours, I have to ask you how it is you have waited so many years to write.

— I had been thinking about it for years, but I had a lot of work directing films and writing screenplays. After all the work that went into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, when it was time to go out and sell the film all over the world, I found that the characters and the story still fascinated me. Usually it's the other way around, when you finish a film and it's time to go to festivals, you feel like turning the page.

You went back to the characters and the story to explain them in a different way.

— Yes, I grew up reading novel adaptations of films and it seemed to me that a good way to make my debut would be to take the script I already had and give it another form. I didn't want to debut in a pretentious way - no way! [laughs]

It's clearer in the novel that both Cliff and Rick are losers.

— Cliff has ended up being a character cut off from his world, yes. Rick is going through a rough patch in his acting career, but he sees himself worse than others see him. Cliff, for one, can't understand Rick being so down - he'd love to be in Rick's shoes. He has a nice house and an enviable life, what more does he want?

The novel has allowed you to delve deeper into the characters' tastes. Cliff has a devotion to the films of Roberto Rossellini and reveres Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa's fetish actor. In fact, when he compares European and Japanese cinema with post-World War II American cinema, the latter seems "childish" to him.

— Cliff suffers a lot during World War II. He could have died on the battlefield, but he survives, and when he returns to America he finds all those innocent Hollywood movies. It seems to him that Americans are still like children. How can they make such childish films? When, in the 1950s, he saw Japanese films for the first time in the art-house cinemas that were beginning to proliferate, it seemed to him that they really knew how to transfer the experience of war to the cinema. They treat their audience as adults, not children.

It seems that, in this case, the author shares the character's opinion.

— Yes, the Hollywood cinema of those years was designed so that the films would be seen by the whole family: father, mother, teenage children and those who were still small. The great novels of the time, if they were adapted to the cinema and contained sex or violence, had to be watered down. American producers believed that the public would not want to see them if they were too crude. In Europe and Japan, fortunately, this was different.

If I compare the novel to the movie - maybe I shouldn't - I would say that both Rick and Cliff have more shadows. Rick suffers from bipolar disorder and Cliff has an unfortunately decisive role in the death of his wife. Is it a way of making it obvious that the deeper we go into the lives of the characters the more pain and trauma we find?

— Probably yes. It also has to do with the differences when it comes to explaining a story through a film or a novel. A film is better the more ambiguous and mysterious it is: the viewer likes to leave the cinema with unanswered questions. In Cliff's case, the perception of the character is different if you think he killed the woman or that he is innocent. In a novel, on the other hand, clarifying the ambiguity can add to the story you're telling. It allows you to go further, to make the characters more disturbing.

Whoever thought the novel would be less dark than the film was wrong. Your creative world is far from morally praiseworthy. Is it in danger in a context where political correctness is once again rife?

— When it comes to fiction, a problematic character is interesting. I think it's more of a positive adjective than a negative one. I like the weight of the past and the problems that a character carries with them preventing them from making clear decisions. After 30 years in the business I can say that problematic characters are one of my specialities. I wear the word on my chest, like a badge of honour.

Still from the film, with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The novel is set in Los Angeles in 1969. At the time you were six years old and living there, how have your personal memories influenced you creatively?

— The creative engine of both the film and the book was precisely personal memories. The historical events that appear happened, but I highlight them because they have to do with me. One of the bars that Rick goes into was the place where my adoptive father played piano. I had been there a couple of times back then and I thought it would be nice to pay homage to him. So when Rick walks into the bar, the piano player is my adopted father [laughs].

In the last 50 years the city of Los Angeles must have changed a lot. If I were to ask you about something you miss from back then, what would you tell me?

— I guess it's just nicer to stay at home watching DVDs without having to put up with the commercials on the TV channels. 50 years ago I didn't mind the commercials! As a kid I loved to stay up late watching old movies. In the late 60's, however, the word on everyone's lips was groovy and the hairstyles were groovy, and the music was groovy, and the cars were groovy...

And, at the same time, it was a time when characters like Charles Manson and his family could become a threat.

— Yeah, of course they were. There was the Manson family, but there were also political assassinations, and the Vietnam War was raging. It was a curious combination: on the one hand you had all this, and on the other hand you had a wonderful pop culture.

Was one of the challenges of writing the novel to humanize Charles Manson a little more? I don't mean, by any means, to say to forgive him but to show him not just as a crazy cult leader.

— I suppose that was one of the intentions, yes. What I didn't want was for the reader to come to feel sorry for him. Writing about monsters is too easy. The trick is to go the other way. Neither the audience nor the readers can identify with a monster. It's more disturbing to be told the story of a human being than that of a monster.

Manson's dream was to make a career as a musician. He was friends with Dennis Wilson, one of the Beach Boys. He was very disappointed when he failed artistically.

— All of that can be easily found in books about Manson, I haven't made any of it up. The Manson family has a horrible side to it, I won't deny that, but at the same time you also find that one of the girls, Squeaky, took care of George, the owner of the Spahn ranch, where they all lived. In addition to the crimes, this is also true: Squeaky really cared for George.

There's an episode where another of the girls, Pussycat, breaks into a house in a residential neighbourhood and puts on a performance...

— It's pretty disturbing, isn't it? That was my intention, in any case.

The explicit violence that abounds in your films here is more psychological. It's true that in the film it was already less important than in The Hateful Eight or in Django Unchained but in the book it is even more anecdotal. Why?

— They are two different ways of approaching the same thing. A film like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood had to be set towards a particular climax. Viewers had sat through more than two hours to get to a point that would surprise them and be worthwhile.

That's why we know the ending of the film right away in the novel. It's a way of explaining that things will go another way.

— It didn't make any sense to repeat the strategy. The book has a different narrative arc and the aim is to leave you with a different feeling.

An image of the girls who followed Charles Manson during the murder of Sharon Tate.

We won't make any spoilers but we can explain that one of the subplots of the novel has to do with that Western series where Rick will participate in the pilot episode.

— I had a blast writing the chapters set in the West. It's one of my obsessions. The pages about the Lancer family - the revenge the two sons plan against the father, the kidnapping of the little sister - are the ones I enjoyed the most. In fact, when I took the novel to several publishers to see if they were interested in publishing it, I remember a conversation with an editor who told me: the chapters set in the West are some of the best because you don't try to write like Quentin Tarantino.

It must be an homage to some of the authors who appear in the book, such as Elmore Leonard, Marvin H. Albert or Ralph Hayes.

— Yes, homages abound in everything I do. At the same time, readers who finish the novel will see that the Western chapters are dramatically connected to the ending.

And now that you're officially a novelist, is your next step a return to film?

— No

I know you've recently become a father, maybe you don't have much time?

— [laughs] I'm in a very sweet moment in my life. I'm very happy. My son leaves me some time to write and I'm working on a book about cinema right now. I'm analysing several films from the 70s that have marked me, combining it with personal memories.

You will make your debut again, if all goes well?

— Yes, but this time as an essayist!