LOS ANGELES — Quentin Tarantino is about to unleash the ultimate Hollywood rewrite job. He's changed the ending of World War II.
Without giving away details, Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds puts an end to the Third Reich in, let's say, a more visceral and audience-pleasing manner than the way history tells it.
Featuring an ensemble cast led by Brad Pitt, the film follows the Tarantino tradition he established in such violent yet often hilarious romps as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and the Kill Bill movies. Take a well-defined movie genre — in this case, the Dirty Dozen-style men-on-a-mission adventure — and turn the Hollywood conventions inside-out.
Who else would deliver a World War II movie where chatty characters trade more barbs than bullets and the action plays to a musical backdrop including David Bowie's Cat People and Ennio Morricone spaghetti western themes?
Tarantino, 46, said his alternate reality was an outgrowth of the way he develops a narrative, which he describes as a metaphor-paved road the characters trod, with all sorts of side roads they can turn down.
"A lot of screenwriters put road blocks among some of those roads because they don't want their characters to go down there or they can't afford to have their characters go down there, for whatever reason. Usually movie conventions," Tarantino said in an interview. "I've never done that. I've always left it as, the characters know best. They know where they're going. I'm simply following them. So I've never had any road blocks that they can't explore."
Then his characters led him to a colossal road block — history itself — a barrier Tarantino said he initially was prepared to respect. But the characters' actions spoke louder than historians' words.
"I realized, my characters don't know they're part of history. They're in the here and they're in the now, and they don't have a clue about what exactly the outcome of the war is going to be," Tarantino said. "My characters didn't exist, but if my characters had existed, they could have changed the outcome of the war."
Pitt heads an international cast as leader of the title gang, an Allied commando team of Jewish troops that kills and scalps German soldiers. The Basterds eventually are assigned an undercover mission to take out the top German brass at the premiere of a propaganda film in Nazi-occupied Paris.
Caught up in this plot are a German movie star (Diane Kruger), a British film critic turned spy (Michael Fassbender), a vengeful French Jew (Melanie Laurent), a German war hero (Daniel Bruhl) and a Nazi colonel (Christoph Waltz) known as the "Jew Hunter" for his skill at tracking down enemies of the Reich.
Their interactions may result in a different finale for Nazi Germany, yet co-star Eli Roth said Tarantino's revisionist saga brings fresh meaning to the war.
"If that was a historically accurate movie, I'd go, 'OK, that was important, that happened, but that was 70 years ago. That's not me. That doesn't apply to me,'" said Roth, director of the Hostel movies, who plays one of the Basterds, a Jew who beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat. "But because he makes it a fantasy, he taps into my fantasy as a Jew, wanting to go back in time and kill all those Nazis."
Tarantino began the screenplay eight or nine years ago, but the story grew to miniseries proportions, so he abandoned it. He moved on to the Kill Bill movies and Death Proof, his half of the Grindhouse double-feature made with filmmaking pal Robert Rodriguez (whose kid-oriented Shorts also opens this weekend).
Returning to Inglourious Basterds late in 2007, Tarantino raced through a new screenplay, keeping many of the characters he'd originally created but putting them into a different story.
By late last summer, he came to visit Pitt, informing him he had a blitzkrieg plan to get the epic film ready to premiere the following May at the Cannes Film Festival, where Tarantino won the top prize for 1994's Pulp Fiction.
"He's been working on this script eight years, and he said that night, 'We're going to make Cannes,'" Pitt said. "This was August or something ridiculous."
Shooting started in October, and Tarantino dashed through the production in time for Cannes, where Inglourious Basterds won the best-actor award for Waltz.
Hollywood generally handles World War II with reverence and restraint — not Tarantino. He applies trademark touches to surprise and amuse audiences, lightening tense moments with macabre humor and veering the action into wickedly funny asides.
In the middle of a sequence introducing the Basterds in action, Tarantino abruptly freezes the frame and flashes up the name of one of Pitt's commandos, Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), then inserts a violent but playful flashback on how he came to join the gang after savagely slaying a string of Nazis on his own.
"I usually think the audience finds it liberating. It's exciting. It's not just what you're normally used to seeing," Tarantino said. "The humor in the movie. It's the same humor that's been in all my movies. I stop short of calling any of my movies so far comedies, because there's stuff in them that's not funny. But I'll put my movies on a laugh-for-laugh basis with any comedy playing in theaters right now. ...
"One of the reasons the audience laughs so big at the Hugo Stiglitz little section is, especially if you're a fan, you see it and you go, 'OK, Quentin's not just going to be a good boy. He's not just going to play cricket just because he's dealing with World War II and dealing with a period film. He's still going to do his movie his way,'" Tarantino said. "'He's not going to clean up his act now.'"