KILL BILL: Quentin Tarantino
Article by Steve Biodrowski
As a director, Quentin Tarantino owes much of his success to his skill as a writer. His early directorial efforts (including Pulp Fiction and Jack Brown) are competently staged, and he seems to get genuinely good acting performances out of his cast (look at the way Bruce Willis set aside his trademark movie star smirking persona in order to play an actual character in Pulp Fiction). But the visual quality of his films does not stand out strongly in memory. In the case of From Dusk Till Dawn, in which he was involved as both a writer and an actor, Tarantino even turned the directorial reigns over to the more flamboyant Roberto Rodriguez (Desperado, Spy Kids), who provided a level of technical virtuosity unseen in Tarantino’s work up to that time.
With Kill Bill, Tarantino has inverted usual writing-directing equation. The film contains the clever dialogue, laced with a film geek’s pop culture sensibility, that one expects from Tarantino, but in this case the script obviously exists as a platform for him to show off what he can achieve as a director in terms of outrageous stunt and action work. The genesis of the project dates back to Pulp Fiction, when Tarantino and actress Uma Thurman conceived the character of the Bride, a female assassin out for revenge against her former cohorts, the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.” (The idea of the assassination team was derived from “Fox Force Five,” the unsold TV-pilot in which Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace, is said to have starred). Inspired by countless Hong Kong kung fu movies, Japanese Samurai and anime flicks, and Spaghetti Westerns, Tarantino churned out an epic script that, when filmed, resulted in a three-hour-plus running time.
Tarantino expresses pride in what he was able to achieve as a director, especially in regard to staging the lengthy and elaborate fight sequences, in collaboration with martial arts choreographer Woo-ping Yuen.
“It’s probably pretty obvious that’s the reason I made the movie,” says Tarantino, who insisted on directing these scenes himself, instead of handing them over to a second unit. “I’ve never quite understood the way they do these things in America, where they hire a second-unit guy to do the action scenes. I don’t get it: you’re doing an action movie; why would you hire somebody else to do the action? It’s like fucking and then letting somebody else have the orgasm! If you meet a guy who directed the last James Bond movie, you go, ‘Hey man, great movie!’ Well, you didn’t like the exposition scenes, and that’s what he did! Three other guys did the other shit! So I was like, ‘Enough of that shit! It may suck, but it’ll be mine!’ In China, they have action directors—a separate director; the director can go home when the action director is working. Not because he’s taking over but because they make the movies so fast: one guy’s doing the dialogue while Woo-Ping is doing the action, and the movie’s going to be in theatres on Wednesday! That’s the way it is. In America, the guys know even less. You have the director watching everything on a monitor, while Wu Ping’s on the floor actually doing it, and the director just goes, ‘Yeah, great job. Cut!’”
Before filming Tarantino even trained with Woo-Ping in order to bring himself up to speed. The training had another advantage, when it came to directing his leading lady and her co-stars. “I didn’t want to split my focus, but it was a good thing for me to go through the training for two basic reasons,” Tarantino explains. “One: it really made me close to the fight scenes; it really made me part of the fight scenes. So we could choreograph scenes together and talk about them. Two: I wouldn’t have had any authority with those girls if I hadn’t gone through the same pain that they went through. I’m serious. If I was saying, ‘Harder, faster,’ they’d say, ‘Fuck you, motherfucker!’ But I could say, ‘Hey bitch! I know what it feels like! Go back out there and do it again!’ The bottom line was, I’ve been watching this shit all my life; I’ll be damned if these girls are going to have all the fun, doing what I’ve always wanted to do!”
Much of the film was shot at the old Shaw Brothers studios in Hong Kong, where many of the films that inspired Tarantino were made. Tarantino felt this was necessary in order to achieve the proper staging for the action.
“There’s a big difference between the Chinese way and the American way” of filming, he explains. “In America, it’s all about schedule; the schedule is God. In China, fuck the schedule! Movies are kind of cheap there, so especially when you shoot an action scene, you shoot until you’re done, and that’s it. They can afford to do that. That’s what we did. In America, also, you shoot everything on one side of the room—everything for a ten-minute scene. Then we turn the camera around and shoot everything the other way; change the lighting. Not in Hong Kong action movies. You break it down into little bite-sized bits, and you shoot everything you need for that bit. And when you’re done with it, you move on to the next little bit. That’s the only way you can really do it, because if you try to do it the American way, you’ll never remember it. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to remember every little thing you need. So in Hong Kong you keep going with the fight, doing every little bit.”
“So what would happen is… It was a process we found, because I had never done it before, so I didn’t know how to do it. I would have two members of the fight team show me what we were doing. They would do the four or five moves of that moment of the fight. I would make them do it again, five or six times. While they’re doing it Woo-Ping is watching them; Bob Richardson, the cinematographer, is watching them; I’m watching them. When it’s all over, I say, ‘Camera here, here, here, and here. Woo-Ping, what do you think?’ ‘Very good.’ ‘Bob Richardson, what do you think?’ ‘Oh, great, great!’ ‘Okay, way to go!’”
The results mix elements from many different sources, which adds much-needed variety, especially to the extended climax. “It’s a hodgepodge” of styles, Tarantino explains. “If you take the House of the Leaves sequence and break it down, it’s interesting to see the different fighting styles I was going for. When [the Bride] fights the first six of the Crazy 88, that is like Zatoichi, pop-Japanese style. Then she fights Gogo [Yubari, played by Chiaki Kuriyama]—that’s like a live-action Japanese anime. When the Crazy 88 come in—the big fight—to me, that’s completely old Shaw Brothers style—the classic scene, the one-against-a-hundred fight. Then you go out in the snow garden, and it gets Japanese style again. So it just kept popping back and forth, back and forth.”
Kill Bill visual references are not limited to oriental filmmaking. The influence of Italian Westerns is also apparent (albeit more in Volume 2). And there are even flourishes borrowed from Brian DePalma, including a split-screen sequence in which Daryl Hannah (playing a killer in a nurse uniform, a la Dressed to Kill) “I waited my whole career to do a DePalma sequence. This is it!” Tarantino gloats.
Even more elaborate is an extended Steadicam tracking shot that takes place in the House of Blue Leaves—very reminiscent of similar shots used by DePalma in the openings of Bonfire of the Vanities, and Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars).
“I’m really proud of that sequence,” Tarantino admits. “I’d always wanted to do one of those big long shots. Larry McConkey is like the king of the Steadicam. He’s the guy who does DePalma’s big Steadicam shot. I don’t know if this is as good as those, but it’s damn good. The thing is I had this beautiful set. I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got the money now; I can get whatever I can dream up, so let me dream up something really hard.’ I can honestly say it was really exciting shooting that sequence, for a couple of different reasons. One of the reasons it was really exciting was we didn’t really know if we could do it. We didn’t know if we could pull this off in one shot. It’s a shot where obviously your day is going to be doing that shot. At four o’clock in the afternoon, we had only got the first quarter of it done, just in rehearsal—practicing it. It wasn’t until nine o’clock that we got one whole take, and kept going. We used the last one, out of thirteen takes.”
Tarantino adds, “There’s one thing I have to talk about. I almost can’t talk about the movie without talking about this…the experience of working with a crew in Beijing. It was a gigantic Chinese crew, and we also had a gigantic Japanese crew, working as keys, not just flipping sandbags while all these Americans were doing the job. There were a lot of Americans there, but also a whole lot of Japanese and a whole lot of Chinese, working together. That meant four different languages going on constantly, and translators for each of them: you had English; you had Japanese; you had Mandarin; you had Cantonese. If count the Australians on the set, it was five languages!” he interjects with a laugh. “The thing that was really cool was the last day of our first week of shooting was that Steadicam shot. The whole crew made that shot work. Because cranes are coming in, cranes gotta go; walls are coming in, walls gotta go. At the height of a Tower of Babel atmosphere, everyone came together to pull this shot off. It’s one of the cooler things about doing a shot like that, because every member of the crew is working to pull that off. That was when we knew that this family we had created was going to completely and utterly work. We all achieved something that we were really proud of.”
The result was, typically for Tarantino, one that alienated many critics, who were put off by the film’s excessive violence. The criticism had been made before; what was new was the accusation that Tarantino, once the master screenwriter, had for the first time let style trump content. “An eye-popping, blood-soaked, ingeniously choreographed thriller and Hong Kong homage that ultimately adds up to…not much,” complained John Anderson in Newsday. Bob Allan in Denton agreed, calling Kill Bill, Volume 1 the “chocolate éclair of fall films: a delicious, yet empty treat.”
Fortunately, Tarantino was able to shrug off criticism, thanks to the film’s strong box office, and there were positive notices as well: “The violence, blood levels—and just plain cheesy gore—in this film are extreme, but Tarantino’s sharp dialogue and expert editing leave you breathless,” said Paul Clinton on Cable News Network.
Tarantino gives credit for the “expert editing” to Sally Menke, the longtime collaborator who has edited all of his previous films. “She’s great,” says Tarantino. The director prepped his editor by exposing her to some of his favorites in the genre. “I did show her a bunch of Hong Kong movies. She had a year to watch the, too, while we were shooting. She didn’t grow up watching Shaw Brothers movies, but she loved them. She had such a good time. Not only that. I don’t give someone a lot of help in the editing room while I’m shooting. I don’t watch dailies. I don’t say, ‘Use this shot; don’t use that one.’ That frustrates me, because it just makes me want to start editing right away, and to me there’s two different processes: shooting and editing. So I don’t tell Sally what I want; I just let her figure it out. If I want to cut from here to there, when I’m in the editing room, I’ll do that. In the meantime, let her find her own way; maybe she’ll come up with something even cooler that I hadn’t thought about. It’s also good for her to get to know the material. There’s also another reason: she’s so fucking good that I don’t want her to know anymore that’s in my head. If I told her what I want, she would do it while I was shooting, and I’d have nothing to contribute later. So I keep her in the dark so that I can be part of the process.”
A relatively late decision in the editing process was to split the film into two parts. To avoid cutting epic running time down to standard feature length, Tarantino took a bit of advice from Miramax, the film’s distributor: he sectioned the movie into two parts (a la Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers), with Volume 1 coming out in 2003 and Volume 2 released in 2004. It was a difficult decision to make, but Tarantino was ultimately able to come to terms with it, on aesthetic as well as commercial grounds.
“I always thought about the move, even before I split it into two, as kind of being split in two, stylistically,” he claims. “This [first] movie was the Asian movie, with Spaghetti Western overtones. Spaghetti Westerns are undergoing a big revival in Japan right now. They’re not called ‘Spaghetti’ Westerns; they’re called ‘Macaroni’ Westerns. No joke! They have stuff on DVD in Japan that you cannot get here [in the U.S.], so I loaded up when I was there. But Volume 2 is my modern day Spaghetti Western, with Asian film overtones. [The first] is my Eastern; the next one is my Western.”
Copyright 2002 Steve Biodrowski