Over the weekend, the New York Times broke a story where Uma Thurman gave an account of how she had been sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, but also talked about how she had been mistreated on the set of Kill Bill when director Quentin Tarantino forced her to do a stunt that left her with serious injuries. Tarantino has now responded via an interview with Deadline where he takes full responsibility for the crash and also tries to address some of Thurman’s other claims with regards to his treatment of performers.
It would be easy to file this away as a “He said, She said” story. It would also be wrong. To categorize this story (or really any story) in such a way is simply to claim that the truth is unknowable and we should simply go on with the status quo. Instead, we should engage with both narratives, try to find common ground, and critique the messages and the messengers where appropriate.
To begin, Thurman released an Instagram post that provided an update of sorts to the story she told Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. In the post, Thurman absolves Tarantino of responsibility, credits him for getting her the footage in the first place, and places the blame squarely on producers Lawrence Bender, E. Bennett Walsh, and Harvey Weinstein:
i post this clip to memorialize it’s full exposure in the nyt by Maureen Dowd. the circumstances of this event were negligent to the point of criminality. i do not believe though with malicious intent. Quentin Tarantino, was deeply regretful and remains remorseful about this sorry event, and gave me the footage years later so i could expose it and let it see the light of day, regardless of it most likely being an event for which justice will never be possible. he also did so with full knowledge it could cause him personal harm, and i am proud of him for doing the right thing and for his courage. THE COVER UP after the fact is UNFORGIVABLE. for this i hold Lawrence Bender, E. Bennett Walsh, and the notorious Harvey Weinstein solely responsible. they lied, destroyed evidence, and continue to lie about the permanent harm they caused and then chose to suppress. the cover up did have malicious intent, and shame on these three for all eternity. CAA never sent anyone to Mexico. i hope they look after other clients more respectfully if they in fact want to do the job for which they take money with any decency.
I’m glad Thurman told her story, and it’s a shame we had a system in place that prevented her from telling it for so long. It’s also shame that the messenger in this case happened to be Dowd. For a story that required clarity and precision, Dowd decided to conflate two narratives, put them under the umbrella of “abuse”, and ended up muddying both. It was a work of poor journalism from someone who should know better. Dowd isn’t a neophyte. She’s been with the Times since 1983, and instead of crafting a better feature she simply jammed two stories together in a way that led to more confusion.
A couple days later, Tarantino responded in an interview with Deadline, and I use “interview” in the loosest possible sense of the term. Mike Fleming, Jr., after casually dismissing the #MeToo movement in the second paragraph, works more as Tarantino’s publicist than a journalist. Keep in mind that Fleming is in the business of getting scoops, and so rather than challenge anything Tarantino says, he simply asks leading questions that lets the director cast himself in the best light. For example, here’s Tarantino rambling on about why he needed to choke Diane Kruger on the set of Inglourious Basterds:
“When I did Inglourious Basterds, and I went to Diane [Kruger], and I said, look, I’ve got to strangle you. If it’s just a guy with his hands on your neck, not putting any kind of pressure and you’re just doing this wiggling death rattle, it looks like a normal movie strangulation. It looks movie-ish. But you’re not going to get the blood vessels bulging, or the eyes filling it with tears, and you’re not going to get the sense of panic that happens when your air is cut off. What I would like to do, with your permission, is just…commit to choking you, with my hands, in a closeup. We do it for 30 seconds or so, and then I stop. If we need to do it a second time, we will. After that, that’s it. Are you down to committing to it so we can get a really good look. It’ll be twice, and only for this amount of time, and the stunt guy was monitoring the whole thing. Diane said, yeah sure. She even said on film in an interview, it was a strange request but by that point I trusted Quentin so much that, sure. We did our two times, and then like Uma with the spitting thing, Diane said, okay, if you need to do it once more, you can. That was an issue of me asking the actress, can we do this to get a realistic effect. And she agreed with it, she knew it would look good and she trusted me to do it. I would ask a guy the same thing. In fact, I would probably be more insistent with a guy.”
Tarantino’s reasoning is basically, “I needed it to look realistic, I didn’t trust an actor to do it, and the participating actor agreed to it.” But this approach ignores the fact that A) If you don’t trust your actors to act, then you’re not doing your job as a director; and B) No actor is really in a position to refuse his or her director, especially one as revered as Tarantino, because they could get labeled as “difficult” and harm their career. For her part, Kruger responded on Instagram saying that working with Tarantino was “pure joy”:
In light of the recent allegations made by Uma Thurman against Harvey Weinstein and her terrifying work experience on “Kill Bill”, my name has been mentioned in numerous articles in regards to the choking scene in “Inglourious Basterds”. This is an important moment in time and my heart goes out to Uma and anyone who has ever been the victim of sexual assault and abuse. I stand with you. For the record however, I would like to say that my work experience with Quentin Tarantino was pure joy. He treated me with utter respect and never abused his power or forced me to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with. With love, D xoxo
A post shared by Diane Kruger (@dianekruger) on
When it comes to addressing the crash itself, Tarantino says that while he didn’t yell or shout at Thurman to get in the car as the Times’ interview says, he admits that it was Thurman’s trust that got her in the car, and that he failed her:
I came in there all happy telling her she could totally do it, it was a straight line, you will have no problem. Uma’s response was…”Okay.” Because she believed me. Because she trusted me. I told her it would be okay. I told her the road was a straight line. I told her it would be safe. And it wasn’t. I was wrong. I didn’t force her into the car. She got into it because she trusted me. And she believed me.
When it comes to Weinstein, Tarantino also admits his responsibility, but also seems a tad annoyed that he has to keep addressing his “complacency,” although there’s the faint hope that maybe he recognizes the landscape has changed and behavior like Weinstein’s has to be confronted rather than ignored:
About how Harvey was able to do all the things he did? Oh, my god…I’ve already dealt with my…complacency…in chalking it up to this harmless form of…For some reason that now feels wrong, back in 1999, it was easier to chalk up what he was doing, to this mid-‘60s, Mad Men, Bewitched era of an executive chasing the secretary around the desk. Now, it’s like…as if that was ever okay! One of the things that has happened in this whole thing is there is a lot of staring in the mirror. And thinking about, how did you think about things during that time? What did you do in that time? What was your feeling about things, at that time? I remember when Mira told me about the time Harvey tried to get up in her apartment. I remember being shocked and appalled and that that was going on in today’s Hollywood. The big question I keep asking myself is, when did that shock go away?
What you get from the Tarantino article is a guy who’s basically taking some responsibility, primarily for the crash with a long explanation of why the stunt went wrong, but also trying to clear his name with regards to the incident as well as his long relationship with Weinstein. Where this leaves us as viewers is that we must reckon with the fact that while Tarantino makes great movies, his methods, especially with regards to how he treats his actors, is deeply flawed at best and unacceptable at worst. He should be challenged on these decisions just as any director should who believes that mistreatment is the only way to get the performance he (and it’s always a “he” in these situations) needs. There’s a line between being a control freak and taking a shortcut to get what you want from an actor, and Tarantino has crossed it multiple times.
It’s contingent on individual viewers for where they draw the line now on Tarantino. For some, they may be done with him as a filmmaker and refuse to see his movies. Others will shrug and move on. It’s not our place to be the moral arbiters of what filmmakers you will and will not patronize. My personal belief is that Tarantino should continue to be critiqued for his missteps in the hopes that he changes his behavior. When he eventually does press for his next movie, he should be challenged on his record and forced to reconsider his actions. Tarantino is a great filmmaker, but he could stand to be a better person.