Django Unchained’s journey to the big screen began over 10 years ago, when writer-director Quentin Tarantino first thought of the film’s main character, Django. “The initial germ of the whole idea was a slave who becomes a bounty hunter and then goes after overseers that are hiding out on plantations,” Tarantino recalls. “I just started writing, and Django presented himself to me. At the beginning he just was who he was – the sixth slave from the seventh on a chain gang line. But he just kept revealing himself to me more and more as I wrote.” Although Django Unchained takes place in the Antebellum South, Tarantino found that Django’s story might best be represented as a Western. “I’ve always wanted to do a Western. I like all kinds of Westerns, but since Spaghetti Westerns have always been my favorite, I thought that the day I do one, it would be in that Sergio Corbucci universe,” Tarantino says.
For Tarantino, Westerns represented grand, masterful depictions of good and evil. He found that the genre’s scope and structure were fitting for this particular story of one man’s struggle to infiltrate a notorious plantation in order to rescue his wife. “It can’t be more nightmarish than it was in real life. It can’t be more surrealistic than it was in real life. It can’t be more outrageous than it was in real life,” Tarantino explains. “It’s unimaginable to think of the pain and the suffering that went on in this country, making it perfect for a Spaghetti Western interpretation. The reality fits into the biggest canvas that you could think of for this story.”
Producer Reginald Hudlin agrees that the genre was an unconventional but appropriate fit. “The shifting moral tone, the dark corners, the moral complexity of both A Fistful of Dollars and the Corbucci films was a huge influence on Quentin’s storytelling. Quentin’s intense study of the genre led to the inspired idea of mashing up the slave narrative with the Spaghetti Western which creates a movie we have never seen before.”
Shortly following the release of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino worked feverishly on the screenplay for Django Unchained. Christoph Waltz, an Academy Award-winner for Basterds, was present for much of the creative process. “I read the script as it was in the making,” Waltz, who plays Dr. King Schultz, remembers. “It unfolded in front of me, more or less. I went up to Quentin’s house and he sat me at his table and put the pages in front of me and then watched me read it. It was a wonderful ritual. I was very touched that he would actually let me participate not in the genesis of the script, but in his train of thought.”
As an early fan of the Spaghetti Western, Waltz took to the script’s close connection to the genre. “The big time of the Spaghetti Western was really the time when I started to get interested in movies as a kid, the late 60s, and then early 70s, and onwards.”
The name “Django” is familiar to fans of Spaghetti Westerns: Franco Nero first portrayed the character in 1966 in Django. Nero joined the production to make a cameo appearance in Django Unchained. “For us in Austria, ‘Django’ was a household name. Not necessarily Franco Nero, but ‘Django.'” Waltz says. “Every Spaghetti Western that came out, even the obscurest ones, in the German version had ‘Django’ in their titles, even though there was no Django in the plot or in the story. They just put ‘Django’ in because Django really was the distilled key word, so to say, to name the genre. If it had ‘Django’ in it, you knew it was a Spaghetti Western.”
“I like evoking the Django title for what it means to Spaghetti Westerns and that mythology,” Tarantino says. “At the same time, there’s a 40-film series of nonrelated Django rip-off sequels that are their own spot of Spaghetti Western history. I’m proud to say that we are a new edition to the unrelated Django rip-off sequels.”
Indeed, the original Django was so popular that other films borrowed the name as a marketing tool. The more imaginative titles include Django, Kill; Django the Avenger; Viva! Django, and Ballad of Django, to name a few.
Tarantino completed his script on April 26, 2011 and began sharing it with friends and colleagues. As “publishing day” approached, the producers began gearing up for production. “As you hear Quentin typing in his house, you’re a couple months out, you start calling all the players. You call [Stunt Coordinator] Jeff Dashnaw, and you call [Sound Mixer] Mark Ulano, and you call [Makeup Department Head] Heba Thorisdottir, You call everybody and you say he’s getting close. You try and keep everybody available because we’re a family, we’ve all done so many movies together, and we love working together,” producer Pilar Savone says.
The reaction to the script was overwhelming. Hudlin, for one, admired the script’s unique and honest depiction of slavery in the years before the Civil War. “We have to remember not only the best of who we are, but the worst of who we are,” Hudlin says. “And we’re not going to appreciate the best of who we are until we see and celebrate the heroism of people who saw evil and faced it down. Even though these characters are fictional, they represent hundreds, if not more, of real men and women, Black, White, who stood up in the face of evil and said ‘no.'”
With the script in place, Tarantino set out to find the right actors for the ensemble. Jamie Foxx, an Academy Award winner for Ray, won the role of Django. “We got together and he was just terrific,” Tarantino recalls. “He understood the story, the context of the story and the historical importance of the film. He got it 100 percent. He’s a terrific actor and he looks perfect for the character, but there’s a cowboy quality to him. When I met him, I was imagining that if they cast black guys in the ’60s to be the stars of Western TV shows, I could imagine Jamie having his own TV show. He looks good on a horse, and good in the outfit.”
Foxx responded to the script’s honest portrayal of the brutality of slavery. “It was the most incredible script I’ve read in all of my life,” Foxx says. “I thought, ‘Who has the guts, and the knowledge to tell it like it really is?’ I thought that the way he’s telling the story — as true and as honest — if it rips your flesh off, so be it. That’s what was exciting about the process.” Foxx notes that Django and Broomhilda’s devotion to each other allowed for a personal, intimate window into these characters. “Back at that time, to be married was taboo. You could be killed. They forced marriages back then – or they forced copulation – so the strongest buck would mate with the strongest black woman and they could get stronger slaves. They didn’t want black people to be married. So Django being married was a big thing for me. This is a love story. And that’s what fuels him. He’s not trying to stop slavery. He’s not trying to do anything but find the love of his life – which is like trying to find a needle in a world of haystacks.”
“The reason that we tighten up because it was a bad place,” Foxx continues. “It was a dangerous time, and we sometimes feel that it does hold us in captivity without the chains, metaphorically.”
Kerry Washington, who took on the role of Broomhilda, also connected to the bond that exists between Broomhilda and Django. “The thing that most drew me to the project was this idea that in a time when so much of the world was committed to the idea that people of African decent were not human, that you could have this love story take place between these two human beings who love each other so much at a time when they couldn’t legally be married on their own accord because they weren’t even their own people. They were property. These two people find a way because of the power of their love to be together, and to honor their commitment of marriage to each other in this historical context. It’s just so powerful.”
Washington also saw a connection between Django Unchained and Tarantino’s overall body of work. “He is not afraid of violence, and darkness, and the dark side of the soul,” Washington says. “I think that you need someone who isn’t afraid of those areas to be able to tell a story that takes place in this time. Because it is fundamentally a love story, you also need someone who believes in the goodness of human beings, and believes in love, and believes in beauty to be able to hold onto the love story in the space of all that evil and darkness and greed. I think it’s amazing that he’s able to hold both of those spaces.”
“Love, rescue, transformation: that’s the destination. That’s the journey Quentin has written for Jamie and Kerry in this movie,” producer Stacey Sher agrees.
Samuel L. Jackson, who starred for Tarantino in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, explains that his interest in Django Unchained was twofold: “It’s a piece of our history that generally gets sort of whitewashed or perfumed in a way that this film just doesn’t do,” Jackson says, adding, “It’s always great to find a character on the inside of one of Quentin’s stories to wrap myself around.”
Django Unchained appears in theatres nationwide on Christmas Day, Dec. 25.