Quentin Tarantino had been shooting "Django Unchained" for two solid weeks at a plantation outside New Orleans, but a pall of uncertainty hung over the cast and crew: Just what kind of slavery movie was this going to be?
After all, this was a white writer-director with a blaxploitation fixation whose previous film, "Inglourious Basterds," was a wisecracking Holocaust revenge farce. Now it was February in Louisiana, and he had scores of African American extras on set playing field hands, house servants and "ponies" (pretty black girls who served as companions to slave owners), and some racially tinged tension was bubbling up.
Tarantino set up a key scene: Jamie Foxx, playing slave-turned-bounty-hunter Django Freeman, would confront a white overseer who had tortured and punished him and his wife before selling them off to different owners. On cue, Foxx began mercilessly whipping the man. As the realistic lashes intensified, Tarantino quietly began gathering the extras behind his leading man, giving the cast its first direct look at the movie's revenge theme.
"I yell 'Cut!' and they all burst into applause. That's when Jamie turned around and realized that he had an audience: 40 black folk, all dressed as slaves, rooting him on," Tarantino recalled. "That's when everyone saw the movie we were making."
Whether general audiences will embrace "Django" as unequivocally when it hits theaters Dec. 25, though, remains to be seen. The risky $100-million production (minus Louisiana tax breaks), co-financed by the Weinstein Co. and Sony Pictures, zigzags between graphic scenes of bloodshed and slapstick moments, including one in which Ku Klux Klansmen gripe about the design of their hoods before a raid.
Early reviews have been positive, and the film picked up five Golden Globe nominations this week, including best picture, drama.
Part spaghetti western, part operatic love story, part buddy comedy, "Django" wraps in elements from German fairy tales and black folklore and explores racial dynamics that may discomfit some viewers. Unlike several other 2012 movies that deal with issues of slavery and societal division in fairly conventional ways, such as "Lincoln" and "Les Misérables," Tarantino takes on the topics through broad humor and extreme brutality.
In "Django," Foxx's character is freed by Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist who has become a bounty hunter. Shultz despises slavery but is not above using the system to his financial benefit. He initially teams with Django to help locate a trio of outlaws and ends up forming a longer-term partnership with him, helping Django find his wife (Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a brutal third-generation plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Advance interest in the film, which also features Samuel L. Jackson as an opportunistic head-of-household slave, is running very high, according to pre-release surveys, particularly among men and African Americans: 33% of black respondents to a recent tracking survey widely used in Hollywood listed "Django" as their first choice among upcoming films, far ahead of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," which is No. 2 with 14%.
Unlike "Basterds," which earned more than 60% of its $321-million worldwide gross overseas, Sony and Weinstein are expecting to make more of their money domestically on "Django." The filmmakers may need award nominations to help sell the movie abroad, where jokes about the Klan and bloody portrayals of American slavery won't translate as well. Sony is opening "Django" throughout Europe, where Waltz is a major star, in mid-January, following the Golden Globe ceremony and after Oscar nominations are announced.
For the 49-year-old director of "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown," treading into violent and racially charged waters is hardly unfamiliar territory, and Tarantino said that he's girding for a polarized response.
"I'm expecting the exact same reaction as 'Inglourious Basterds,' if not rougher," said Tarantino, referring to his 2009 World War II revenge film that was criticized for trivializing the Holocaust. "The Jewish community had a long time to get ready for 'Inglourious Basterds.' The black community is not ready for this movie."
Yet with a bit of his traditional swagger, he added: "Even for the movie's biggest black detractors, I think their children will grow up and love this movie. I think it could become a rite of passage for young, black males."
Racial elements aside, fans of Tarantino's gory style are likely to be satisfied with the film, which the Motion Picture Assn. of America rated R for "strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity." "If we could get a triple R rating," Tarantino said, "we would have had a triple R."
"Django" pays homage to both Sergio Corbucci's films of the 1960s and Arthur Penn's satirical, über-violent western "Little Big Man." Tarantino also relied on the German fairy tale of Siegfried rescuing Brunhilde from a mountain, a dragon and a ring of hellfire as a framework for the story, and he throws in a poignant literary reference to Alexandre Dumas and "The Three Musketeers."
Despite the film's lighter moments — Tarantino says he considers the Klan bit in "Django" the funniest he's written since his infamous "color" scene in 1992's "Reservoir Dogs" — the director and his collaborators admit the production was an arduous journey because of the subject matter and the brutality.
"I didn't sleep through the night throughout this whole shoot," Foxx admitted in June. "Quentin was constantly challenging me to get to the slave. How do you leave your persona? You are starting all over again, to be that vulnerable, to not be able to read. For you to be able to let go like that, that's a scary thing."