This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In his climactic monologue as plantation owner Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio grew concerned about co-star Kerry Washington, who plays Candie's slave Broomhilda. In the scene, he grabs and threatens her at his dinner table while two bounty hunters (Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx as Django, who's there to save Broomhilda, his wife) look on. "Am I hurting you?" he gently asks her.
In fact, Washington was hurting, and she wasn't the only one on the set traumatized by a production whose grueling conditions were as epic as its themes of revenge and love triumphant over slavery. "We shot that film forever," says Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the head house slave who secretly runs Candie's plantation. (They shot in Lone Pine, Calif., Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Louisiana from late November 2011 to July 25, 2012.) "It was the film that never ended,'" recalls Washington. Hours in a "hot box" -- a coffin-sized metal sauna built into the ground -- full of centipedes and worms left her freaked out and spider-bite scarred. "I had nightmares about it: I was feeling trapped," she says. "I had no ability to make decisions about where I'm going and what I'm doing. I was concerned for my sanity."
Washington got through multiple takes of DiCaprio's big scene, a rant inspired by a racist Civil War phrenology book in the actor's collection. "Leo lost his voice a couple times, and we had to wait for him," says Jackson. On about the sixth take, he adds, "Leo slammed his hand on the table and hit a glass." Adds co-producer Stacey Sher: "It disintegrated into his hand, and he never flinched."
"My hand started really pouring blood all over the table," says DiCaprio. "Maybe they thought it was done with special effects. I wanted to keep going. It was more interesting to watch Quentin's and Jamie's reaction off-camera than to look at my hand." After the take, the room erupted in a standing ovation. "We did it bloodied and bandaged for the rest of the movie," says DiCaprio, to give Tarantino the option of using or omitting the gory take. "I'm glad Quentin kept it in."
For a movie that was so painfully difficult to make, Django Unchained had an easy beginning in 2009, when Tarantino had just finished an essay on Sergio Corbucci, director of the 1966 spaghetti Western Django, for his potential book on major auteurs including Don Siegel and Douglas Sirk. "The Corbucci piece put all those images in my head. I was listening to spaghetti Western soundtracks, and the first scene came to me. Dr. King Schultz [Waltz's bounty hunter] just came out of my pen."
Tarantino wrote the script in longhand, then typed it out. "I typed it with one finger on the Smith Corona typewriter/combination word processor my old girlfriend had in college. The same one I wrote Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction on." He invited friends, including Jackson, to his Hollywood Hills home to look at what he called his 166-page "novel," finished April 26, 2011. "I told him, 'I can't be the hero, and now you want me to be the most hated Negro in cinematic history?' " says Jackson. Tarantino chortles, "He'd just been on Broadway playing Martin Luther King."
For the lead, Tarantino considered at least seven actors, including Will Smith, then deep in rewrites on Men in Black 3. "When I wrote Django, I had no idea who was gonna play him," the director says. Smith said there wasn't time for his Django script input, and in August, Foxx had what he calls "a cool meeting" with Tarantino. "I went with Jamie because, one, he's a very masculine presence, and two, he's funny," Tarantino says. Few actors, he felt, could master the sometimes Blazing Saddles-like humor that balances Django's violence like Foxx could.
Foxx also is good at addressing the film's 100-plus uses of the N-word. "You should be upset if you hear it," says Foxx. "Our intention is never to hurt the feelings of any African-American. But there was no other word used in the period. We do many movies about the Holocaust, which is fantastic. We don't do a lot of movies about slavery, and Quentin's the only person who could get it greenlit."
For the slave master Calvin, Tarantino "wanted the character to be a little bit older, a real cotton man who had a side hobby in mandingo fighting [betting on slave fights]." But DiCaprio's interest intrigued Tarantino. "All of a sudden I thought about a bored, petulant boy emperor: Caligula, Louis XIV. Where his daddy's daddy's daddy was the cotton man. He's the idle, decadent rich."
"Calvin was for all intents and purposes raised by a black man [Jackson's character]," says DiCaprio.
"I write the checks and run the plantation," says Jackson, "'cause he's more interested in mandingo fighting. I'm the person who metes out the vengeance."
Sometimes it felt like fate meted out some vengeance during the shoot, too. Bees startled Waltz's horse, who threw him and caused the actor to break his pelvis. Foxx hurt his back. Northern California had a snowless December, forcing Tarantino to ship sets to Wyoming to shoot. The final budget was an estimated $83 million after tax credits.
"Less than that, but yes, it was more than we hoped," says Sher. "Quentin calls it 'a sexy number.' We had four insurance claims and no snow in California for the first time in 100 years -- for those who don't believe in global warming."
Citing schedule conflicts, actors bowed out: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony LaPaglia, Kevin Costner and his replacement Kurt Russell, in turn replaced by Walton Goggins in late March. "When you make an epic and you go through months and months with an army of people in extreme cold and heat, the hardest thing is remembering why you wanted to do it in the first place," says Tarantino. "It's easy to get lost."
Yet the ordeal helped him find his narrative, and oddly, many bad breaks improved the film. When Waltz couldn't ride horses for two and a half months, production designer J. Michael Riva created a dentist's wagon with a giant wobbling molar on top for him to ride in on to meet Django. "It changes the character and provides some interesting non-corny levity at the beginning of the movie, right when you need it," says Tarantino.
After 18 weeks of frantic, painstaking postproduction, he finished the film in the nick of time, on Nov. 28. A DGA screening was delayed two days, but Django was done in time to get five Golden Globe noms, second only to Lincoln's seven. "Quentin likes to be backed into a corner," says Sher.
"There were a few delays, but it gave Quentin an opportunity to work things out, that's his process," says Foxx. "Sometimes the cinematic gods say, 'Man, you need to have this happen to make it sweet on the other side.' "