I was lucky enough to get tickets to the London Death Proof Q&A with Quentin Tarantino and Zoe Bell held at the Ritzy Brixton. Here's part one of my impressions and recollections.
Other parts: Part Two - Part Three
Firstly I have to say how pleased I was that Tarantino came across as a smart, intelligent guy. There have been times in the past when I've seen him waffling on during interviews, and I wonder if he really knows what he's talking about, or he's just talking fast enough and long enough in the hope that no-one will notice. Thankfully it seems this isn't the case, and as the Q&A session progressed, he seemed more and more comfortable, coherent and insightful.
I learnt many things about Death Proof itself, too, and his comments actually changed my mind about the film, which I had been ambivalent about at that point, and made me really appreciate how well structured it is.
Let me just say that I'm going to get spoilerific right now and Death Proof is NOT a film that you want spoiled. What little storyline there is works much better when you don't know what's coming, so please, trust me, go watch Death Proof and then come back. (You won't appreciate what's being said until you've seen the film anyway, so it's not worth spoiling it for yourself.)
Right, now that's out of the way, I'm spoiling everything: When I first saw Death Proof I thought that it was a substandard attempt to copy Psycho. The set-up is essentially the same (as it is with many other slasher movies, to be fair), young woman (or women, in the case of Death Proof) get murdered, in an extremely shocking scene, by a guy that you don't expect to be a murderer.
The second half of the film is spent watching, hoping, that he doesn't strike again.
Now, like I said, I thought this was a substandard attempt to copy Psycho. With Psycho you knew from the outset that there was well, a psychopath waiting to strike. Alfred Hitchcock even explained almost the entire film's plot away in the movie's advertising. This was done, in my mind, to make the first chunk of Psycho (before the shower scene) more tense. The audience knew what was coming, they just didn't know when.
When the violence comes in Death Proof, it's a shock. Out of the blue, "no way", utter shock, and I kind of felt that if the audience had been given a hint at what was coming (maybe even an overheard police radio discussing vehicular homicide) that the first half of Death Proof would have been more compelling.
From Tarantino's comments, however, I realised that the shock was completely and utterly deliberate. Not only that, but more importantly, it was necessary for the second half to be truly scary and compelling. As Tarantino put it, "I spend the first half of the film getting you to trust me, then I pull the rug out and show you that you can't trust me at all". By doing this, the danger is ramped up for the second group of girls. Anything could happen, and as Tarantino pointed out, it would have been perfectly dramatically correct to allow Zoe to die, which ups the ante in the viewer's mind even further.
I was pleased to hear this explained and it made me appreciate that Death Proof's slow dialogue scenes are in fact completely deliberate. Tarantino is persuading us that he's not about to kill off these girls, we've spent too much time getting to know them! Maybe one or two might die, but not all of them!
The other thing I noticed when I watched with an audience was that the first half is creepy. It is sinister, and you do expect something bad to happen to the girls at the hands of the mysterious Stuntman Mike. You don't need that overheard police radio letting you know that something bad is going to happen. Unless, like me, you expected Kurt Russell to be the anti-hero, it's actually pretty obvious from the get go what's going to happen... and Tarantino spends the next 30 minutes slowly, masterfully trying to convince you that, against your better judgement, you're wrong.
Tarantino went on to explain that during his research of watching classic car-chases while writing Death Proof, he realised that the most effective car-chases, the ones where the audience is really emotionally involved, are the ones where we want the car to catch the people they're chasing. He mentioned the French Connection as an example, as opposed to say, something like The Blues Brothers, where the good guys are trying to escape.
This helped shape Death Proof's two-tier car chase: At first the good guys are being chased, and the audience is looking through their fingers at Zoe's near death experiences, then half-way through, the tables are turned and we're given a totally different experience. We're on the edge of our seats, excited, wanting the girls to "get him!".
It was very interesting to hear him explain the reasons for something which I'd completely taken for granted. There was actually a lot of thought and reason gone into the plot structure of Death Proof that I'd imagined, and it made me appreciate it a lot more. As Tarantino put it, the 70's exploitation idea was just his "jumping off" point, and after that, the film becomes something else.
It's not quite a slasher movie, it's not quite a car chase movie, it's not even really a 70's exploitation film, and it uses the low expectations of the audience expecting these things, to its advantage.
I still can see flaws in two aspects of Death Proof, however. Firstly, Psycho has a much stronger McGuffin, than Death Proof. With Tarantino's film we're almost bored. Yes, there's a few lose stories, but they're nowhere near as compelling as a woman who's just stolen money from her boss so she can't start a new life with her lover. Instead it's a bunch of things we're not really that interested in. It almost goes without saying that if the stories in the first half of the film do work for you, then Death Proof works much better as a film.
The second point is a single shot in the film where the "ship's mast" car is shown to have come to a stand-still, and then slowly start accelerating. The tension really drops, and it's almost like you wish you hadn't seen it.
This is discussed in more detail by Tarantino himself in Part Two.
To come: Why the Grindhouse trailers weren't included in the theatrical (and DVD) releases of Death Proof and Planet Terror, why they couldn't have stopped and let Zoe back in the car, and Tarantino dealing with an obnoxious audience member. Read all about it in Part Two...