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“Ladies, That Was Fun”: What’s Happening Under the Hood in “Death Proof”…

Okay… Warren’s sending over shots, and you know the house rules. If he sends over shots, you gotta do them.

What?

Hey, them’s the rules, baby.

Warren says it, we do it!

I love that philosophy! “Warren says it, we do it.”

The filming of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 took nine arduous months. There were a variety of reasons for this, most obviously that the film represented a departure from the stylistic sensibilities and aesthetic associated with Quentin Tarantino. A director best known for his snappy dialogue and vivid characters was pushing himself outside of his comfort zone, building a movie that would incorporate elaborate action sequences and even an animated interlude. In fact, the films came after something of a short break in the director’s career. The six year gap following Jackie Brown was the longest in his career to that point.

As shooting was winding down, an incident occurred on the set. Details of that incident would not be made public for more than a decade and a half, although it would have a profound impact on all involved. By all accounts, Tarantino pressured Uma Thurman into driving a stunt car herself, leading to an accident. Thurman recalls, “The steering wheel was at my belly and my legs were jammed under me. I felt this searing pain and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to walk again.’” Thurman was not paralysed, but she was scarred by the experience, with a “permanently damaged neck and […] screwed-up knees.”

It was an act of reckless malfeasance from a director who had – with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – announced himself as one of the preeminent directorial voices of his generation. Tarantino is remarkable among directors of his generation for establishing a cult of personality, being as effective on the chat show circuit as behind the camera. Tarantino has been known for making brass pronouncements and asserting his authority, from his famous assertion that he is god within his fictional universes to his insistence on shutting down lines of questioning in interviews to rejecting reporters’ questions outright.

The case involving Tarantino and Thurman is perhaps more complicated than a lot of the similar stories of directorial abuse that have entered the spotlight since the #metoo movement rippled through Hollywood. This complexity is compounded by the fact that Thurman has publicly forgiven Tarantino for his part in the accident, and for Tarantino’s contrition on that point. (Tarantino’s public support of progressive causes like Black Lives Matter also plays a part, even if there is still a larger debate to be had about Tarantino’s relationship with African American culture.)

Even if none of this was made public until after the release of The Hateful Eight, these details hang over a lot of Tarantino’s work since the accident. Tarantino has conceded, “Beyond one of the biggest regrets of my career, it is one of the biggest regrets of my life.” It is notable that Tarantino had always been particularly close to Thurman. The story for the Kill Bill films is credited to “Q and U”, the pair practically living together during the development of the story. (Tarantino allegedly promised the script to the actor as a thirtieth birthday present.)

The tragedy echoes through a lot of Tarantino’s subsequent work. It is notable, for example, that a lot of Tarantino’s later work focuses explicitly on the idea of rewriting history. Inglourious Basterds famously offers an alternate ending to the Second World War, a striking piece of historical revisionism. There are also shades of the tragedy to be found in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, which features two protagonists that are – to quote actor Brad Pitt – “two sides of the same coin.” Rick is a washed-up has-been who worries he is out of touch. However, his best friend is a reckless stuntman who may have killed his wife.

A lot of the discussion around Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood has likened it to Inglourious Basterds. This makes a great deal of sense. Both stories are effectively historical revisionist fairy tales. Notably, the opening chapter of Inglourious Basterds is even helpfully subtitled “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France.” It is a logical point of comparison, but one that conveniently glosses over an even more obvious reference point for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood within Tarantino’s filmography.

That point of comparison is Death Proof.

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