THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Inglourious Basterds
Reassessing “Inglourious Basterds” in the age of coronavirus
Thirteen years ago, Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds“ arrived in theaters. The first of Tarantino’s unofficial rewritten history series – “Django Unchained” and “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” the other installments so far – “Inglourious Basterds” is a mélange of interconnected plots that culminate in the killing of Hitler.
The film stars Brad Pitt (in his first Tarantino film), Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, and Mélanie Laurent. As with all Tarantino films to-date, “Inglourious Basterds” was written by Tarantino as well.
From the opening farmhouse scene and the interrogation scene to the restaurant scene and the final movie theatre blaze, “Inglourious Basterds” is chockablock with tense, violent, unforgettable scenes with wonderful dialog that whiplashes between funny and horrifying. But no scene in the film – and arguably no scene in 21st Century cinema – is as tense, well-paced, precisely shot, and indelibly etched in our memories as the scene at the La Louisiane bar.
In this article, we will take a closer look at that legendary scene with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into three categories:
- Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
- Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
- Small tweaks that increase safety
This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines could affect one of the tensest scenes in recent memory. Let’s look at the “German three” scene and see, first, what elements are already COVID-19 ready.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe
When director Quentin Tarantino and company filmed this scene on a soundstage at Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam Germany, no one was thinking about pandemic safety on set. And yet, there are several aspects of the scene that follow good COVID-19 safety procedures. Here we want to highlight two areas:
- Studio Set
- Shooting Schedule
Bablesberg Studios is notorious for being the location where Joseph Goebbels filmed his Nazi propaganda films. Tarantino’s choice of this studio as the location for his Third Reich-killing, Hitler-burning film is no coincidence.
The studio also provides the production with the ability to increase pandemic safety. As we have mentioned before in this series, filming on a studio lot is far safer than filming on location.
Studio lots offer unrivaled location control and security. Access is already limited to only those who are part of the film (something real-world locations often lack) and each and every location is customizable.
When it comes to pandemic production safety, this customizability is vital. Built sets allow the crew to move walls, expand the footprint of the location, and increase on-set social distancing both between the cast and the crew.
By making La Louisiane a fake location on a studio soundstage, Tarantino and company increased their ability to keep their cast and crew safe. Studio lots offer better security, location control, and set mobility than shooting on-location.
According to Brad Pitt, “Inglourious Basterds” was shot sequentially; meaning that the scenes were filmed as they appeared in the script. This decision makes this crowded, indoor scene a little bit safer.
Spoiler Alert: everyone in this scene dies save Kruger’s von Hammersmark and Sergeant Wilhem (Alexander Fehling).
That makes this scene the final day of shooting for nearly everyone in the bar. We have been advising our clients since the beginning of the pandemic to film their problematic scenes last.
While this is not the end of the filming schedule, it is the end of filming for practically every actor in this scene.
Filming on a studio lot and shooting sequentially helped to make “Inglourious Basterds” a safer pandemic production. But there are still aspects of the scene that are less COVID-19 safe. Let’s take a look at some those.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
While there are several pandemic safety issues with this scene, we want to highlight what we feel are the three largest:
- Crowded Indoor Space: This scene involves over a dozen characters in a claustrophobic space. These two elements make it a perfect location for COVID-19 transmission.
- Smoking and Drinking: Everyone in the bar is drinking and many are also smoking. As we discussed in our articles on “The Godfather” and “Training Day” eating, drinking, and smoking present special COVID-19 safety issues.
- The Card Game: The tense game of cards played in this scene involves licking the cards and sticking them to your forehead. This, just like eating, drinking, and smoking creates pandemic safety issues that need to be addressed before we can safely film this scene.
Let’s look at how we can make this scene safer with a few changes.
Small Tweaks That Increase Safety
This scene is a masterclass in filmmaking, and we don’t want to change even one hair on the head of an extra in this scene. COVID-19 safety protocols, however, necessitate a few, minor changes to maximize safety.
If we were hired to provide pandemic safety on “Inglourious Basterds” we would highlight this scene during pre-production and begin a dialog with the creative team that would, hopefully, help them increase the safety of La Louisiane.
We would begin with ideas for making the location itself safer.
A Safer Space
In order to maintain the tense feeling of this scene we must keep the claustrophobic, tight, trapped feeling of this location. To do that, however, doesn’t require that the location itself actually be any of those things.
Here are a few strategic questions we would ask Tarantino and company to assist them in thinking about the pandemic safety of the scene:
- Can the bar be outside? This location doesn’t have to be a basement. It could be a dead-end alleyway bar, set in the open air. The high walls of the surrounding buildings would pen our team in much like the basement location does now. Windows in those buildings would also offer additional shooter placement for maximum danger.
- Can we film it outside? The creative team may not want to change the location so much, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be filmed outside. We would remind film-history buff Tarantino that the titular dance number in “Singin’ in the Rain” was actually filmed outside during the day. Giant black tarps were used to block out the sun and simulate nighttime. A similar strategy could be used here. Build this exact same set outside on the studio lot and block out the sun to make it appear indoors. This would increase our fresh air supply and increase safety.
- Can we rely on tactical lensing? By using long lenses for close-ups and wide-angle lenses for wide shots, we could capture the sense of proximity and claustrophobia without putting the cast and crew in close contact with each other. Tarantino and DP Robert Richardson are both wizards of shot composition, so we are certain they could pull these tricks of perspective off without a hitch.
Once we have a safer location, we would turn our attention to the props.
To maximize the COVID-19 safety of this scene, we need to address that fact that everyone is putting objects into their mouths. While COVID-19 doesn’t live on food or in liquid, it does live on surfaces and our hands. Here are a few ways to make this scene less of a risk:
- Decrease the number of characters drinking and smoking: If, perhaps, half the characters weren’t smoking, drinking, or licking their cards, we could double the safety of the scene.
- Assign props: We would encourage the production to assign glasses and cards to individual actors to ensure that no one else uses their props. This would allow us to know that only one person puts any one prop in his or her mouth during each take.
- Sanitize between takes: If we can sanitize the actors’ hands and the props between takes, we can increase the safety of the scene by decreasing the likelihood that COVID-19 will spread between individuals.
It has been thirteen years since American audiences learned the “German Three.” This tense and masterful scene is quite simply some of the best 15 minutes of film this century so far. With great blocking, lensing, acting, writing, and pacing the bar scene from “Inglourious Basterds” is a technical marvel, while also being so wonderfully simple. No CGI, no special effects. Just great actors saying great dialog in a well-shot and well-edited scene.
That’s the mark of supreme talent: to make something great out of standard parts.
If we had to film this scene during the pandemic, we also want to shoot it on a studio lot and make sure that this scene is at the end of shooting for most of the actors in it.
We would then encourage the creative team to set the scene outside or at least film it outside. We would ensure that props are assigned and that only those who need to be touching objects to their mouths are doing so.
These small tweaks would retain the wonderful, tense vibe of the scene while also maximizing safety. And that is always the goal of good risk management.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.