It’s the critical night for the heroine of your comedic-noir-World War II film, the evening when she unspools her plan to burn the leaders of the Third Reich to a crisp during a premiere at her Parisian movie theater. As the director, the question is, “What song do you play as she glams herself up for the night?” For Quentin Tarantino, the answer was obvious, and it elicited gasps and laughter from filmgoers at a recent screening: the era-inappropriate but lyrically astute “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” by David Bowie.
Tarantino’s latest film, “Inglourious Basterds,” debuted Aug. 21, three days after its accompanying soundtrack arrived on Warner Bros. Records. Following the pattern established with his previous movies, including “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” Tarantino uses an off-kilter mix of Ennio Morricone, Ray Charles and Elmer Bernstein, among others, as musical genres and era variations to underscore the mayhem onscreen.
You have some wild music in “Inglourious Basterds.” How did you put it all together?
Part of my process when I’m making a movie is to just dive into my record collection. What I’m looking for is the rhythm of the movie or the beat of the movie. In the case of, say, “Jackie Brown,” that’s ’70s soul. I’m finding pieces, and that keeps inspiring me to make the movie, actually.
Do you write scenes specifically for particular pieces of music?
I am always looking for some cool song that I could use as a big set piece. I’ll finish work and I’ll go into my record room and I’ll put on some song, and literally, I can see it on the screen. I can project myself into a movie theater and I’m watching the scene onscreen and I’m hearing the music and I’m imagining an audience: either an audience of people I know who are digging it or an audience of people I don’t know who are digging it – they’re always digging it. [laughs] And it keeps reminding me that I’m making a movie.
Talk a little more about your record room.
My record room is set aside pretty much for vinyl. I have CDs, but they’re lying around. Any CD I like, I have to buy it three times because I have no one place to put it. It’s like a sock, it just gets eaten up by the laundry. In the house that I bought, connected to the bedroom was a little nursery room – like if you had a newborn and you had them there close to you. I don’t have that, so I literally turned it into what looks like a record store. I created bins that are in there, and there are a couple artists I have there by themselves – but everybody else is broken down by decades, and then all the subgenres that would happen inside those decades.
That’s really anal-retentive.
It’s like a record store! [laughs] In the ’60s, there’s like a psychedelic section, and then British Invasion, and stuff like that. The ’70s would have soul as well, and this or that or the other. But the biggest section, since I’ve been collecting them since I was a kid, is my soundtrack section. And in the soundtrack section, I go from normal films from A to Z, but then I have certain subgenres that are particularly unique in their music: spaghetti westerns, a blaxploitation section, a spy movie section and then a motorcycle movie section.
Is it easy for you to get the rights for these songs?
It’s actually quite easy to get the rights now, because I’ll use music that some people haven’t heard that much before. Then after my movie comes out, it seems like every commercial in the world buys it. They can double or triple and quadruple their income just by the exposure the movie gets it. That 188.8.131.52’s song, “Woo Hoo” [from “Kill Bill: Vol. 1”], seemed like it was on every commercial for a long time.
Talk about some of the specifics from “Inglourious Basterds.” What was behind the Bowie song?
I’ve always loved that song and I was always disappointed at how [director] Paul Schrader used it in “Cat People,” because he didn’t use it-he just threw it in the closing credits. And I remember back then, when “Cat People” came out, going, ‘Man, if I had that song, I’d build a 20-minute scene around it. I wouldn’t throw it away in the closing credits.’ So I did.
It would be easy enough for me to hire somebody to write “The Ballad of Shosanna” [the heroine of “Inglourious Basterds”] if I wanted to, but I don’t want my choices to hit the nail on the head. I want them to be glancing blows. The second-generation quality about it makes it more resonant. You’re watching that scene and you’re hearing the lyrics and you’re actually surprised at how appropriate they are to her story. In its own way, I think that makes it play even more like interior monologue. I [played] it on set when we [filmed] it. That’s always really cool to do – you can’t do it all the time, because you’re probably recording sound at least half the time – but what’s really fun when you do it is, not only do the actors respond to it, the whole crew responds to it. It’s like they’re watching the movie as we’re making it. When you actually play the soundtrack and you can sync something up, the crew gets a glimpse of what the movie is going to be like, and it just thrills them.
And you used actual music from some German propaganda films of the era.
In particular, there’s a song in there-the English title of the German song is “I Wish I Were a Chicken” [“Ich Wollt Ich Waer Ein Huhn”]. That’s the third one on the soundtrack, with Lilian Harvey and Willy Fritsch, that’s from a German propaganda film-it’s actually a screwball comedy, but it was made under [German propaganda minister Joseph] Goebbels-that was called “Lucky Kids.” And then the German song before that [“Davon Geht Die Welt Nicht Unter”] was performed by Zarah Leander, who was a huge, huge star in Nazi Germany. The thing that’s very interesting about her is the way Bridget von Hammersmark [Diane Kruger’s character] is in the movie-where she’s this big German movie star, but she’s actually working for England-there’s rumors that Zarah Leander was doing the same thing, except for the Soviet Union.
What do Ennio Morricone and Lalo Schifrin – who are both on the soundtrack – mean to you?
When you talk about the maestro [Morricone], you’re talking about the greatest film composer that ever lived. Lalo Schifrin-the first time I knew who he was was [when I heard] his soundtrack for “Enter the Dragon,” which was so dynamic, and I always thought of him as the action guy. Now this is an adventure story, and I realized if I’m really going to do this genre justice, I have to blow up the guns of the Navarone. [laughs] And being able to use “Tiger Tank” from “Kelley’s Heroes”-that really turned it into an adventure movie. No art film meditation, but literally an adventure film at that point.
How did you decide which of all the songs in the film go on the soundtrack album?
Making the soundtrack album itself is like another version of the movie, and it’s not about using everything that you used-it’s about using everything the way that you saw it in the movie. My ultimate thing is, “Can you play it without hitting skip?” If you put it on in your car, which is where most people listen to stuff nowadays, can you just let it play? And I still think of it in terms of albums. I still think of it in terms of side A and side B. [laughs] I’m happy to say that vinyl’s making a comeback. I always made a big, big deal that the record companies that come out with my movies have to print vinyl-and wherever they sell it, we’re going to be there. And Warner Bros. has always accepted that commitment to me that they will always make records for my movies.
You’re obviously a movie music fan, but you’ve shown your love on TV as well. Are you going to go back as a judge on “American Idol” anytime soon?
They have to ask me. [laughs] We’ll see what happens. I really had a great time when I was the judge on it, because I was watching the show and I was judging them at home. [laughs] And I wasn’t the nice guy judge, all right? All the celebrity judges were always really kiss-assy and I was like, “That ain’t going to be me. I’m going to be like, ‘You suck.’ “