Quentin Tarantino
Carlos Allegri, Reuters

Given his penchant (and talent) for onscreen mayhem, it is not unreasonable to surmise that Quentin Tarantino’s stomach for cinematic violence is somewhat more cast-iron than yours. Certainly the director of violent fare like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Inglourious Basterds does not hold back on brutality in his latest film, Django Unchained. A comedy-drama set two years before the start of the American Civil War, it includes scenes of a man being torn apart by dogs and one slave gouging out another’s eyes in a fight to the death. (The latter is the very image, cut from the final film, which appears on the cover of the current issue of horror magazine Fangoria.)

Perhaps surprisingly, though, Tarantino, in Toronto recently to talk up Django Unchained, says that the Motion Picture Association of America, the country’s film ratings body, “got” the film “right away” and bestowed an R-rating to a “more rough” version than the one that will grace screens upon its debut in theatres Christmas Day. In fact, it was Tarantino who decided to temper the film’s violence in its final edit; hence the softening of the eye-gouging scene into something awful but not sick-inducing.

“Basically, what kind of happened was I could handle a rougher version of the movie than what exists right now,” he says. “I have more of a tolerance for it.

“But I kind of realized when I watched that version of the movie with audiences that I was traumatizing them too much. It’s just that f**king simple. I traumatized them, and I want people to enjoy that movie at the very end of it. And after I traumatized them with the dog scene and traumatized them with the Mandingo fight scene, [I realized] that I did cut their heads off. They grew another head and they continued watching it, but they were traumatized, and they weren’t quite where I wanted them to be at the very end because of that trauma.”

Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave promised his freedom by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christophe Waltz, Inglourious Basterds) if he will help him track down a trio of outlaws whose faces only Django has seen. The job goes well, and Schultz takes Django on as an apprentice on one condition: that the older man helps him find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, Lakeview Terrace). They discover her on Candyland, a vast plantation owned by the wealthy Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Mayhem ensues as Django and Schultz, attempting to free Broomhilda by posing as slavers interested in Candie’s stock, attract the suspicion of Candie’s favourite slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) who questions the newcomers’ motives.

As he recently admitted to Playboy, Calvin Candie is the first character Tarantino actively despised while writing, although he says he attempted to remain empathetic if not sympathetic to his point of view. Casting DiCaprio helped Tarantino tolerate the character.

“Leonardo thought this guy was just as detestable as I did,” he says. “When we’re actually doing it, we don’t have the luxury of doing that. We had to take the guy for who he was.

“And we just invested in his home life; what his life must have been like growing up on this plantation most of his life and being the fourth Candie to be running this plantation... And it did pose the question: can you blame a Borgia for being a Borgia? You can blame a Borgia for being a Borgia, but it’s not that easy not to be a Borgia when you are a Borgia, right? And so it did finally get back to what I always wanted; that everybody does have their reasons. They can be awful reasons, but everyone has them.”

With our brief time coming to an end, Tarantino makes a final point about the film’s racial politics.

“Some people have asked me today, ‘Well, is there a message you were trying to get across about slavery?’ One, you know, I wasn’t so much trying to get a message across. I was trying to paint a very realistic picture of what America was like at that time and create a world where slavery is the norm to the people and the participants dealing with it, both the slaves and the slave owners and the slave handlers... and then create that version of America that existed then and put you right in the middle of it. And so you have to deal with that America.

“And so that was what I was trying to do. Rather than make some soapbox speeches about slavery or make points against America, I wanted to just set up America at that time and just take you back to that time one hundred percent and just stick you in the middle of it. That was the idea.”