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Tarantino Talks Cannes, Brad Pitt and the Birth of His Favorite 'Basterds'

It started, as so many of Quentin Tarantino’s stories do, with a simple idea – men on a mission, their grit and valor tested by the desperation of their circumstances.

Although the nature of the mission came later, the Oscar winner (for 1994's Pulp Fiction) created his characters in short order: a hillbilly, of Native-American descent, leading a group of Jewish-American soldiers behind enemy lines in an Apache-style resistance against Nazi Germany. Thus was born Tarantino’s latest offering, the boundlessly inventive World War II fantasy Inglourious Basterds – which bears only the slightest resemblance to Enzo Castellari’s 1978 thriller of essentially the same name.

Tarantino, 46, bristles at the notion that Basterds, in which his band of mercenaries sets out to kill the Führer, is a fairy tale. He acknowledges taking liberties with history, possibly at the risk of confounding audience expectations – “This ain’t your daddy’s World War II movie,” he says with an impish grin – but the onetime video-store clerk sees his story less as fantasy than as a much-needed revision of real-life events.

Despite his curious rationale, you don’t get the impression that Tarantino is anything but serious. His eyes burn with conviction as his voice rises; he gestures wildly as if to hammer home the point. Clearly, he’s on a mission of his own – not just to “climb Mount Everest,” the analogy he has used for his most labor-intensive efforts, including Basterds and his two-part Kill Bill saga – but to see how his heavily embellished history lesson resonates with moviegoers.

So far, it has. Basterds – a two-and-a-half hour, heavily subtitled epic – exceeded the expectations of industry experts this past weekend by earning $38.1 million, good for tops at the box office and giving Tarantino his biggest opening ever. That’s good news for the director, who might just have a sequel up his sleeve.

On the idea that stoked his creative fire:
“A bunch of guys on a mission – that was my first idea. Reservoir Dogs began as a heist film and evolved from there, and this began as men on a mission, a subgenre of World War II movies – The Devil’s Brigade, that kind of thing. But who are the men? What’s the mission? That’s all it took to get me writing, a basic idea that gradually expanded to transcend the genre but hopefully to deliver all the pleasures of that genre.”

On his decision to scrap the history books and tell his own story:
“I don’t look at [the movie] as a fantasy. I start it with a passage called ‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,’ which suggests I’m saying it’s all a fairy tale, but that’s not where I’m coming from. If you want to look at it that way, fine.

“But where history goes left and I go right, that wasn’t part of my master plan. I didn’t make that decision until I reached that divide. I thought there were historical roadblocks I would honor, and for the most part I did. In the end, my characters changed the outcome of the war. That didn’t happen, of course, because my characters didn’t exist – but if they had, what happens in the story is very plausible.”

On his determination to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where he won the Palme d’Or for Pulp Fiction but received a mixed reception for Basterds:
“Making it to Cannes was always the goal, the dream. There’s no place like Cannes for filmmakers. It is cinema nirvana. During the time you spend on the Riviera, cinema matters. It’s important. Even the things people boo, [they boo] out of passion, it means something. All the world's film press are there, and I value that. I am not an American filmmaker, I make movies for the planet earth, and Cannes is the place that represents that. So if you’re me, when you make a new movie, you premiere it there.”

On his desire to cast Brad Pitt as Aldo “The Apache” Raine, leader of the Basterds:
“We’ve been wanting to work with each other for a while now. We’d met a couple times, and we let it be known that we were mutual fans. When I was about halfway through the final version of the script back in 2008, I was thinking about who could play Aldo, and I came up with Brad Pitt. There was nobody else.

“Aldo was so damn specific, and even though Brad doesn’t have a Southern accent, he’s from Missouri, and he has this Western persona mystique that you’d buy more than some guy from New York putting on a twang. I was writing hillbilly poetry for him.”

On the curious spelling of Inglourious Basterds:
“I'm never going to explain that. When you do an artistic flourish like that, to describe it or explain it would just invalidate the whole stroke in the first place.

“(Artist Jean-Michel) Basquiat takes the letter L from a hotel room door and sticks it in his painting. If he describes why he did it, he might as well not have done it at all.”

On the possibility of a sequel:
“I’ve been working on this idea since ’98, right after Jackie Brown. I’ve had these characters with me for so long, and I shot so many scenes explaining the mythology behind their stories.

“I don’t know if this movie is going to be popular. But if it is, I’d like to make a sequel – or, more likely, a prequel. Those scenes would fit right in. I’m happy to get Inglourious Basterds out of my system, believe me. On some level, it’s a relief. But if I get that chance, I have more story to tell.”