How the west was outgunned

THREE years ago, when Quentin Tarantino was in Japan promoting his revisionist World War II epic, Inglourious Basterds, the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s were enjoying a resurgence. On his only day off, Tarantino stumbled into a record store and came out with the inspiration for his irreverent western, Django Unchained.

''I'd been wanting to write a spaghetti western that dealt with a former slave and bounty hunter for about 10 years,'' Tarantino says, sitting in a New York hotel and talking a mile a minute.

''I was looking around the record store and hit the mother lode, because I loaded up on a whole bunch of really great old scores that I'd never been able to find before on CD. I was back in my hotel room blasting the scores, and having a good time, and then the story just came to me.''

The filmmaker sat down to write the opening scene. ''I didn't have my normal notepads with me, so I literally just wrote it out on hotel stationery,'' he says.

Tarantino, who is 49 and has nine features to his name, is well past his years as the new kid on the Hollywood block, but he seems determined to feed his anti-establishment reputation. He arrives at the plush hotel suite with dishevelled hair, scuffed sneakers and a blue-and-grey hoodie with ''Wu Wear 95'' emblazoned across its front, a nod to the New York-based Wu-Tang Clan rap group from the mid-1990s. It is testament to Tarantino's ''cool'' factor that when he is photographed in the same vintage hoodie a few days later at a public screening, the group's name begins trending on Twitter.

The director has made a habit of reviving retro phenomena. John Travolta owes his comeback to Tarantino's 1994 hit, Pulp Fiction, and in 1997, he pulled '70s blaxploitation actor Pam Grier from obscurity to star in Jackie Brown. Even Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who wrote the scores for Sergio Leone's 1960s westerns, came back into vogue after allowing Tarantino to use his tracks in Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Death Proof.

Tarantino recruited Morricone to write an original song for Django Unchained.

''He showed up in Rome for the premiere of Inglourious Basterds and said he really liked the film,'' Tarantino says. ''He says because I used some of his scores, they got renewed popularity and now when he performs, he gets asked all the time for stuff from Navajo Joe or Two Mules for Sister Sara.''

Tarantino's new film is a nod not only to Django, the original 1966 spaghetti western directed by the late Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero (who has a small cameo in Django Unchained), but to the genre itself.

''I'm happy to tip my hat to Sergio, but since there have been about 40 Django ripoffs, it's also an archetype,'' Tarantino says. ''Even though we were making this big epic, I was proud to be in the grand tradition of unrelated Django ripoffs of the spaghetti western canon.''

Set in 1858 in America's south, Django Unchained takes place two years before the Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave, rescued from his owners by a German-born bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, the Austrian theatre actor who won an Oscar for his performance in Inglourious Basterds). Schultz is on the trail of a murderous gang and recruits Django to help. In return, he promises to free Django and help save his wife (Kerry Washington) from a brutal plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Tarantino will attend the Australian premiere in Sydney this month, which may be a daunting experience, given he has a small cameo in the film as a character with a strong Australian accent. The scene features Tarantino and Australian actor John Jarratt as guards transporting slaves to a coalmine.

Tarantino looks proud when I tell him he is one of only a few Americans to get the accent right. But, given the film's setting, how does he justify the presence of Aussies? The explanatory scene hit the cutting-room floor, he says. The characters work free because the company paid for their passage from Australia. ''Django points out [that this] makes them slaves, too. So there was a sociological aspect going on with the two Aussies.''

The western is clearly a genre close to Tarantino's heart. He nominates The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as his favourite movie and names several of Corbucci's violent spaghetti westerns as sources of inspiration, including Navajo Joe and Hellbenders.

He is pickier about the genre's more recent offerings.

''Most westerns since the '80s have been boring because they have all fallen in love with these beauty shots,'' he says.

''It's not about the hills in the distance and the cloud passing over the horses as the sun breaks out. We've got shit to do and people to kill … [Django Unchained] is very much a mud-and-blood western.''

The film is pure Tarantino in its almost cartoonish depiction of blood and violence and gallows humour. But in the US, it's a risky proposition to mix comedy with a film about slavery that uses the word ''nigger'' a hundred times.

It earned the ire of African-American filmmaker Spike Lee, who called it ''an insult to our ancestors'', even though he hadn't seen it and said he didn't plan to. But Jamie Foxx, who plays the title role, stands by his director.

''I've never been on a set where it's that much fun,'' he says. ''[After] every hundred rolls of film … we'd do shots; either tequila or, on the last few, we did mint juleps. We were dealing with a difficult subject matter, but it was great to see how gracious [Tarantino] was. When we were on the chain gang, freezing and locked in chains, he went to every guy on that chain gang, whether he had a line or was an extra in the background, and made sure they were OK.''

Tarantino has long embraced his indie reputation, but there are also signs he is finally growing up. After two decades of refusing to join the Directors Guild of America, this year he became a paying member and chose the guild's Hollywood theatre for the first screening of Django Unchained.

''I'm not a Hollywood outsider any more,'' he recently told Playboy magazine. ''I know a lot of people. I like them. They like me. I think I'm a pretty good member of this community, both as a person and as far as my job and contributions are concerned.''

He even acknowledges he would like children. ''A few years back I … had baby fever, but the fever broke,'' he says, without a hint of humour. ''That doesn't mean I don't want to have kids; I had a couple of instances in the last three years if things had gone this way as opposed to that way, things would be really different in my life right now. But, having said that, I don't really want something in my life that is more important than my movies right now.''

Django Unchained opens on January 24.

This story How the west was outgunned first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.