"It's sad," Tarantino acknowledges tightly. "I've been really melancholy the last few days, because this is usually the time where [Menke] would kind of be running the show, this last little bit. So I'm particularly missing her now."

He's always thought of his last draft of his screenplays as "the first edit of the movie, and the edit is the last draft. I like writing these big, novelistic tomes in screenplay form and working it out as the movie goes on." Without Menke around to take charge of post-production, Tarantino notes wryly, "I have to be more responsible for my own movie."

Again, an "event" loomed: To be eligible for the 2012 Academy Awards, Django had to be ready for release before the end of this year. "It's part of our strategy, obviously, or else we'd be opening in March," Tarantino says. "I actually think the movie, commercially, would do fucking awesome in March, all right? But if the film gets the push of a little Academy attention, it'll do awesome right now." At some point in the process, "We had to make that decision," Tarantino says. "Do we have an Oscar movie, or do we not? And we all thought we did."

Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.
Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained.
Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained.

What makes an Oscar movie? "I can say this: For instance, if I wanted to go more explicit with the movie — it's a really violent movie, all right? But if I wanted to go more violent with it, if I wanted to go further and make it more explicit and make sequences even more disturbing than they already are? Then I would have gone in March." He cackles.

From where you and I sit, Tarantino likely will be remembered as the key American auteur of his generation. But history records the industry's respect via Academy Awards, and Tarantino has only one of those. It's for writing 1994's Pulp Fiction, and it's an honor he shares with a friend from his video-store days, Roger Avary, who had story credit on the movie.

Since patching that script together nearly twenty years ago, Tarantino and Avary have fallen out; also, in 2010, Avary spent eight months in jail after drunkenly crashing his car and killing a passenger. Avary, his friendship with Tarantino and his contribution to the Pulp Fiction screenplay are not mentioned in the extensive biographical documentary material on the recently released box set Tarantino XX, which Tarantino told me he considers to be "pretty definitive."

Given that he has exactly as many Oscars as his ex-con ex-collaborator, it makes perfect sense that Tarantino would want an honor all his own.

"How much do you care about Oscars?" I ask.

Without a beat, he answers, "It would be really nice."

The crowd at a typical LA industry screening is, shall we say, rather blasé. Yet at the first-come, first-served first screening of Django Unchained, the feeling in the room is that everyone is fucking psyched that they got in.

For some, Django might bear too many similarities to Tarantino's last movie. Like Basterds, it's a revenge epic informed by identity politics, and it hero-worships con men who, under deep cover, exploit a moral license to kill. Like Basterds, it climaxes with highly symbolic, pyrotechnic destruction.

That said, it's probably Tarantino's funniest movie, while also unsparing in depicting the grotesque surreality of slavery; the two extremes often intertwine. Some of the funniest lines come out of the mouths of the most reprehensible characters; you laugh at a racist's joke, then immediately recoil in guilt and horror.

After the Directors Guild premiere, DGA president Taylor Hackford introduces Tarantino. "Thanks a lot," Tarantino says to the crowd, which has risen in a standing ovation. "Shucks."

Hackford sets the tone of the conversation early when he credits Tarantino as the first filmmaker "to turn the mirror on America and how we started." Tarantino is the first to note that this crowd is not his toughest lay. After the fifth or sixth time Hackford recaps something "fantastic" that happened in the movie instead of actually posing a question, Tarantino cracks, "I've gotta say, coming here and listening to you describe my cool shots is pretty great!" He's beaming. Who needs Cannes? Who needs Google?

How Django will play in different rooms is still an open question, but I've now seen it twice, and while it lacks a certain aesthetic panache (to borrow a word from Waltz's character), the script and the performances place it among Tarantino's richest works. On one level, there's a lot riding on its performance: It cost more than $80 million, making it Tarantino's priciest movie ever. On the other hand, because Basterds was such a massive success, he's got nothing to prove.

"I made a lot of money on Inglourious Basterds — I don't need to make that much money again," he says. "I'm really happy and comfortable. And part of the reason to have success is so you can do that. So you can make the movie you want to make, and not have to be concerned about those kinds of monetary concerns." 

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