Exclusive Inglourious Basterds set report
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Once Upon a Time.... Basterds at Work
an exclusive report from the set of Inglourious Basterds
by Sebastian Haselbeck. (the text is subject to change as long as this note is still visible)
I look outside my train window and I see snow-covered landscapes. It's deep winter in north-east Germany this time of the year. While we don't get much snow, it's usually bitter cold and nasty weather. A few rays of sunshine penetrate the cloud cover. I read a few more scenes in the Inglourious Basterds script, and then put it away for good. I have a huge smile on my face. Earlier this morning I had tears of joy in my eyes when I read a few of the opening pages of a few scenes from the movie. Classic Tarantino, I thought, original till burst, yet vintage in some way, cinematic and purely entertaining. Characters that jump off the screen, violence that will make some people cringe and dialogue that will stay in people's heads. How long have we waited for this, I think to myself. Kill Bill was a monumental epic, Quentin Tarantino at the peak of his filmmaking powers, yet here he goes again, trying to climb his Mount Everest of film making. Never mind those few websites out there who still don't do their homework and call this a remake of Enzo Castellari's 70s macaroni combat classic (more on that later). Inglourious Basterds is a film that, in pure Tarantino fashion, combines several stories into one great, cinematic orgasm. Everything is in there. The Nazis, the Basterds, the heroine, the movie within the movie, the hommages, the crazy dialogue, the porn and Mike Myers. Inglourious Basterds might just be the craziest film in a long time, and when my train comes to a halt, I only have one more night until I see the master in action. I'm on my way to Berlin.
Fast forward 15 hours, the alarm goes off. My hotel room is a blur, my head hurts like it had been hit by the Bear Jew's baseball bat and my throat is a combination of tonsilitis and too much red wine earlier that night. I get my shit together and an hour later I sit in a van on our way to the set, with (lacking any point of comparison mind you) the coolest publicist working in the business. I had no idea Potsdam was so far outside of Berlin. We drive for almost half an hour or so until we pull up to Babelsberg Studios, Germany's version of the Universal Studios. A place that's been around since Metropolis, and recently enjoying good business, be it The International with Clive Owen or Valkyrie with that scientologist, what's his name, they all come here, for the good cooperation, the funding and the historic landmarks. The place is relatively quiet. We get out of the van and walk up to the main soundstage, the Marlene Dietrich Hall, a historic site you might say, and its existence definitely a reason why the main Basterd wants to shoot here. We leave our cell phones with the Big Bad Handyman (Handy is German for mobile phone) and sneak into the huge soundstage. Prepare to drool, I think to myself.
The first thing I see is: Swastikas, plenty of them. “All the Nazis and all the people there” Quentin would later say, laughing. Huge red banners and flags with deep black, menacing swastikas on white circles, staring at me like a bad dream. Being German I feel extra uncomfortable in this environment, but I know it's just a movie and the Nazis are gonna get their asses kicked, so we make our way around the huge construction that takes up most of the huge building, which is almost as big as a football field. It's the lobby of Shosanna's cinemateque, with the main entrance being also Robert Richardson's dolly crane runway. I see bright lights, lots of crew members running around and a man gesticulating and laughing somewhere close to where the camera is pointing at. Did I mention I ran into Jeff Dashnaw on the way in? More on that later. I soak up the atmosphere and start looking around. The huge lobby has stairs on both sides and a gallery above to where you enter the auditorium. Lots of fake marble, swastikas and chandeliers decorate the place. Extras dressed up as Nazi officers, old ladies or other Vichy regime VIPs populate the floor. The huge crane is being wheeled in an out by a few poor Basterds in sturdy sneakers, at the end of the pole sits Bob Richardson, his hair white as snow, his eyes focused on the scene and his hands holding on to the I can not imagine how expensive camera equipment. Suddenly someone starts shouting "roooolling!" and another girl repeats the call in German shouting "ruhe bitte!" or something along these lines, and suddenly you could hear a needle drop to the floor. Quentin Tarantino, somewhere behind a bunch of people says "eins zwei drei" (German for one two three), and then we hear "Action!" and SS villian Hans Landa, played by German TV actor Christoph Waltz, walks up to Bridget von Hammersmark, spilling a few slimy compliments her way, while his intentions can only be the complete opposite. The whole scene is being repeated a few times until Q is satisfied. A few minutes later, having chatted with a few people here and there, including the associate producer, who's missing the beach already she just escaped from, we step further inside the lobby, to get a closer look at the action, and shake Quentin's hand. He invites us (the publicist and me) to sit down at the stairs to watch, and in between a few takes points out some of the lobby cards that are hung up next to the theater's entrance. Lobby cards of what, you might ask.
Stolz der Nation (pride of the nation) is the movie that will premiere later, the feature presentation of the German Night in Paris, a Nazi propaganda film concocted by Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich's propaganda minister. The whole place is littered with advertisements for this film. Fredrick Zoller, a war hero cum film star, plays himself in this feature, a marksman who killed hundreds of Allied attackers from a church tower. Zoller is played by one of Germany's star actors Daniel Brühl, who might be known to American audiences from movies like Goodbye Lenin or Merry Christmas, the latter being the WWI movie he co-starred in along with Diane Kruger, who's just standing a few feet away now, playing the charming Bridget von Hammersmark, a German movie star and spy. I'd later talk to her during lunch break, she turns out to be quite a nice person. Where are the Basterds? Clearly the focus of today's shoot are not Aldo Raine's troopers but the movie's deadly climax in Paris. Yet there they stand, Omar Doom and Eli Roth, who's also the real-life director of Stolz der Nation. It's the last take for this scene and we're clearing out until the crew has prepared the next scene.
It's remarkable how the German crew and the overseas movie-makers work together. What's even more remarkable is how everyone is coping with the heat in this place. The spotlights, the wooden set and lack of air condition turn the cinemateque into a sauna of sorts, while it's freezing cold outside. We return to where the actors and producers sit on chairs with their names on it (some with the actual names, some that say Zoller and Hammersmark). So far so good, I think. How will I write about all this, I don't even know where to start, I'm thinking. But here I am, just typing away. We run into the girl you might remember from the Potheads II advertisement in Death Proof, she's with the camera department and would later let me handle the slate once. I have never been so nervous, I can tell you that, shouting scene so-and-so, take I-don't-remember with a thousand eyes up on me, definitely an adrenaline rush. Another take is prepared and silence falls upon the set once more. The grips haul the crane along the rails and the DP sails through the air, following actors and extras up or down the lobby stairs. It's getting especially interesting when Melanie Laurent enters the gallery from the top, musters the crowd with spite and then walks down to say hello to her nemesis. Trademark long-shots here they come. Quentin knows how to build up the tension. The audience will know exactly what's on people's minds, and the characters will know, too, but this is a poker game with a fatal ending, and everyone is anteing up before playing their cards.
I chat with Eli Roth, who's definitely uncomfortable in his tuxedo, considering the temperature in this place. Him and Omar are faking Italians in this scene, so we're exchanging the few Italian words we know, doing our best impressions of what we think Italians are like. I had no idea I'd meet a real one later. But the whole language aspect is definitely worth losing a few words about. The movie stays true to characters' languages, so “the French will speak French, the Germans speak German and the Americans speak American” as Quentin tells me later, “it's about a three-way split. For instance, the whole episode in La Lousianne, that's all in German”. It will be very interesting to see which kind of impact this movie will have on European audiences because of this. This will be the first time Germans will hear a Tarantino dialogue in German that's not dubbing but the real thing. The publicist asks if I need an aspirin. I shake my head, even though I have a hangover the size of Texas. Luckily it's lunch break.
I imagined catering on a movie set to consist of fast food and paper plates, people sitting on boxes and empty beer bottles on the floor. Where does that cliché come from? Oh right, watching Full Tilt Boogie. I'm in for a surprise. We enter a huge party tent with wooden floors after grabbing most delicious food outside, sit down next to Eli Roth and Omar, Diane Kruger, the producers and a guy from KNB FX, I presume the guy in charge of the scalping to look really convincing. I think about that for a second and then start eating. Eli leans over to me and says: “Have you seen Enzo? He sits right over there!”, Enzo who I think, and I can't believe my eyes. A few tables further down sits Enzo G. Castellari, director of Inglorious Bastards. I sort of refuse to believe what I just saw and continue eating. After desert there's stuff going on on the radios, my cell rings, I'm being summoned by Q to his office. We step through the entrance of the office building and walk through ever winding corridors, past the production offices and I'm entering Quentin's office, close the door behind me and sit down. A desk full of stuff between me and the director, smoking a cigarillo and shuffling papers on his desk.
What follows is a lecture about grindhouse cinema followed by what I'd say an improvised little interview (bits and pieces I have strewn throughout this text). I already posted the two Top 20 movie lists with quotes that constitute the lecture part of this sit-down. Before we start I give Quentin a souvenir from Spain, since he missed out on the Sergio Leone edition of the Alamo Drafthouse's Rolling Roadshow screenings, and a Tarantino Babies t-shirt. I ask if the movie's on schedule and whether it will in fact make the Cannes release. “So far so good” he says, “We hope. That's the trick, it all depends on can I finish it up this month, the big climax, can I finish that up this month.... If I can get done by the first week of February then we should be fine. It'll be a crunch but we should be able to do it”. Him and Sally in the editing room, I imply. On the Ennio Morricone story he says he'll just do the music the way he normally does it, “compiling it from different soundtracks and stuff”, the Morricone story was really just a big rumor after all. Who knows if it might've been something had the project not been in such a hurry? Who knows. After we're done talking, we make our way back to the set, the publicist and me stopping by one of the offices so I am equipped with a proper copy of the actual script, as opposed to the print-out of the leaked script I had with me on the train.
Back on the set, I notice new takes already being prepared. The cinema lobby is again filled with extras, crew and actors. Daniel Brühl is in character talking to some people, including a woman in a peacock-like dress, it turns out it's Julie Dreyfus (as Francesca Mondino I assume), I almost did not recognize her. They are standing in a group talking about an award Fredrick Zoller might receive. The shot involves people everywhere, walking up and down the stairs, smoking, drinking champagne. Lots of smalltalk, loud laughing and toasting. Speaking of laughing, in another take, we see a principal character walking across the gallery, past two Nazi big shots, and the two actors must have had some sort of joke worked out between them because their laughter as the character passes them and the crane camera pans across is so convincing and loud, that everyone always starts chuckling. I probably should've asked them what the joke was, I cannot believe that was something fake on-command, it looked to convincing. Without being too metaphorical, I think that the lobby serves as some sort of pre-climactic platform, the lead up to the big finale of the film, and I think that is reflected in the camera work, which would only later that day change from an looking-into-the-lobby set up to an looking-down-from-the-gallery set up as the film's story progresses and the Nazi party people arrive. We take a short walk to an outdoor set, a little cardboard city alley that shows the cinemateque from the outside and a few houses, also used for the scene that takes place in Brooklyn, I'm told. We then step inside another set, the actual auditorium, plastic still covering the seats, carpenters still at work, the paint still fresh.
During the next break Quentin is waving at me motioning me to come up to where they are sitting. As I walk up the three steps to the little lounge, my heart starts to pound. He wants me to meet an old guy sitting next to him and Eli Roth, of course it's Enzo Castellari. Excited like a little kid who gets to talk to Santa Claus, I try to greet him in Italian (my Italian is miserable), all I can say is “il maestro!” and what an honor it is to meet him. It's a geekasm. Quentin, Eli, Enzo, Enzo's son, and me, all talking about Spaghetti Westerns. Quentin has to get back to the scene, so Eli, Enzo and me continue talking, and Eli elaborates more on how he admires Enzo's talent for coping with sever budget restraints and what he learned from it. Eli would later tell me about the shooting of Stolz der Nation and how much Enzo's tricks helped him to accomplish this “totally over the top” propaganda film. Enzo will have a cameo appearance (see the picture).
As the afternoon progresses, I can feel the exhaustion the crew must feel. Not only does my hangover now severely impair my ability to observe, the heat is starting to feel unbearable. We're now walking around the set more, I meet the nice fella in charge of the hair, and the head of the make up department, as well as Lawrence Bender with whom I exchange a few remarks about Full Tilt Boogie, which I watched for preparation. “Good times” he says, thinking back to the problems with the unions and the sand storms. The set is surrounded by equipment of course, and the prop department tables are especially interesting, with all the guns, knives and … explosives. Before I conclude this report, let me highlight another surprise. Jumping out from nowhere, Zoe Bell "the cat" almost ambushes my publicist and I later chat a little with her. As you may know she's got an online show coming up, and for this movie she's doing some stunt doubling for Diane Kruger. But just like me that day, she's just here for fun (minus the hangover I guess). Before the next take, we check out another set, that's hidden behind drywall and we've been passing it numerous times, Shosanna's private chambers, unfortunately already deprived of all the inventory.
The last scenes shot on that day are takes of Omar and Eli hastily leaving the auditorium, running up the stairs and off towards what I assume might be the projection room. First Eli, bursting through the swing door, taking large strides toward the stairs and then running up, wiping some dust of the rails with his fingers on the way up, a little gimmick I assume is part of him improvising the under-cover character he's playing. A few takes later, Eli visibly out of breath, and Bob Richardson having flown through the air multiple times, at one point almost hitting a chandelier, Omar and Eli run up there together. A few more takes - “because we love making movies” as the crew sings to Quentin's conducting – and another day of shooting a Tarantino movie comes to an end.
Inglourious Basterds will hit on a warm summer night this August, at a theater near you, taking you by surprise, grabbing your attention from beginning to end, making you jump, laugh and cringe. As I say goodbye to Quentin and Lawrence, Erica Steinberg (the exec producer) and the rest of the amazing crew I met that is standing close by, I slowly realize what I've been witnessing here. Luckily I have only read parts of the script (good will power on my part, Quentin assures me), barring me from being completely spoiled, but from what I've seen, with Quentin being so incredibly focused, everyone working their butts off from morning till night, we'll be in for a treat, I swear on fake-Brad Pitt's mustache.
Tight security around the set, click to enlarge.
What'll come after this I asked Quentin, to which he replied “Oh I don't have a clue, I can honestly say I don't really know. If this is a hit, I could do another version of this, or I could do a Kill Bill 3, or I could do something completely different. I'm not really sure, Im just really focused on this, so I don't really have an idea what will come after this.”
Special thanks to all those who've made this possible, you know who you are.
This page is exclusive content, no authorized reprinting, republishing or other use permitted without prior permission. Feel free to quote with proper citation. Please contact us if you have questions. Enzo Castellari pictures courtesy of enzocastellari.com. Set pictures courtesy of Paul. Pictures not taken on the same day.