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December 1, 2022

Breaking Down Django Unchained Using Save the Cat

Django Unchained is one of Quentin Tarantino’s greatest films. Let’s take a look at what makes this movie so compelling and break it down using the Save the Cat beat structure to see how we can apply this to our own writing.

Don't forget to check out our free template and introduction to Save the Cat to assist you in writing your own script.

What is Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained about? 

In Django Unchained (2012), Quentin Tarantino takes us back to the pre-Civil War American South. He tells the story of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to rescue his wife from a cruel plantation owner.

The film also stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kerry Washington.

Dr Schultz and Django dressed in stylish Western-style clothing evoking a unique style in a film about Slavery.
Django and Dr Schultz, an unlikely partnership, head out on the road to get their revenge.

What are the main themes of Django Unchained

The main themes of Django Unchained are slavery, revenge, and justice.

The film is set in the antebellum South, where slavery was legal, although those wondering where was Django Unchained filmed might be interested to know it was in California, Louisiana, and Wyoming

It follows Django, a slave who is freed from his chains by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and trained to be a bounty hunter himself. Their journey together leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where Django seeks revenge for his wife Broomhilda's (Kerry Washington) abuse at Candie's hands.

The movie also touches on themes of injustice as it explores how difficult it can be for black people to find justice when facing off against white people in the pre-civil war era.

Tarantino plays on this idea by showing the humorous and cathartic nature of the violence freed slave Django enacts on Candie to secure his form of justice in an unjust world. 

As Jelani Cobb writes in The New Yorker ‘The theme of revenge permeates Tarantino’s work. If the violence in his films seems gratuitous, it’s also deployed as a kind of spiritual redemption. And if this dynamic is applicable anywhere in American history, it’s on a slave plantation.’

Where did Quentin Tarantino get his ideas from when writing Django Unchained

One source of inspiration was a book called Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves by Federal Writers' Project (1938). 

This book includes interviews with over 2,500 former slaves who had lived through slavery in America and were still alive when this book was published. Quentin Tarantino read these interviews while writing his screenplay for Django Unchained, which helped him create characters that felt more real.

Tarantino is also known for taking inspiration from Spaghetti Westerns and reinventing them in a different setting.

The title card of Django Unchained in dark red letters in a desert setting, evoking a Western genre.
The title card of Django Unchained is in the style of a Western movie, a unique lens through which to explore the subject matter of Slavery. 

Who are the main characters in Django Unchained

Now let’s dive into the main characters in Django Unchained and the Django Unchained cast.

Django (Jamie Foxx) 

A freed slave teams up with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to find his wife and rescue her from a dangerous plantation owner.

Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) 

A German bounty hunter who helps Django find his wife and rescue her from a dangerous plantation owner.

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) 

The evil plantation owner goes after Django and Dr. Schultz when they try to free his Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) 

A twisted house servant of Candie’s, Stephen carries out Candie's racist agenda. Jackson famously said of Tarantino’s casting, “You wrote this 15 years too late for me to be Django, but now you really want me to be the most hated negro in cinematic history?”

Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) 

Django’s wife is one of Candie’s slaves. After escaping from captivity himself, Django begins an epic mission to free his wife with bounty-hunter Dr. Schultz. 

Django Unchained breakdown

Django Unchained is structured in three acts. We've talked more about the three-act structure here.

Act 1

Opening image

The first image is a group of shackled black slaves on foot walking through the desert. The shackles are central to the notion of enslavement and Django being freed or unshackled is central to the notion of him being ‘unchained’ both literally and figuratively in him being able to speak his mind. 

Theme stated

The theme is stated by Dr. Schultz when he says to the slaves after freeing them ‘...when it comes to the subject of what to do next you gentleman have two choices. Once I’m gone you could lif that beast [the slave owner Schultz has injured but not killed] and carry him to the nearest town which would be at least 37 miles back the way you’ve come. Or you could unshackle yourself, grab that rifle, put a bullet in his head, bury them deep, and then make your way to a more enlighted area of this country…’

Schultz sets this up as a revenge movie in which the freed slaves have the choice to continue living their life or to have some fun and fight back.

Set-Up

Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda from a life of slavery. 

Catalyst

Django and Schultz discover that Broomhilda is owned by Calvin J. Candie. He is the brutal owner of the Candyland plantation. Here his slaves fight to the death in brutal "Mandingo" wrestling competitions. 

Debate

Together Django and Schultz craft a plan to rescue Broomhilda. They realize that Candie is so evil if they try to buy Broomhilda, he will probably price her too high for them to be able to purchase her. Instead, Schultz will first buy one of Candie’s best fighters to help soften him up to buy Broomhilda.

Act 2

Break into two

On their way to Candie’s plantation Candyland, they meet him at a gentleman’s club and he invites them himself, impressed by Schultz. 

B story

On the way to Candie's land, Schultz and Django see Candie's slave trackers. They have surrounded D'Artagnan, one of Candie’s Mandingo fighters who has escaped. Schultz wants to rescue him, but Djangos stops Schultz from blowing their cover. Candie has his dog maul D'Artagnan to death. 

Fun and games

Django and Schultz arrive at Candyland and agree on the deal to buy Broomhilda. However, before the deal gets underway housekeeper Stephen realizes that Django must know Broomhilda and alters Candie. 

Midpoint 

Candie changes the deal at gunpoint and Schultz has no choice but to agree.

Bad guys close in

Candie says he will kill Broomhilda if Schultz does not shake on the deal. 

All is lost

Schultz loses his cool and shoots Candie. A gunfight breaks out. Candie’s bodyguards kill Schultz in retaliation for killing Candie. Django goes on the rampage in revenge, killing more of Candie’s henchmen. However, when Broomhilda is captured and taken hostage, Django is forced to surrender. 

Dark night of the soul

Django is tortured and is on the verge of being castrated by Candie’s remaining henchmen. It seems Django is about to die. 

Act 3

Break into three

Django is saved by Candie’s sister Laura, the new owner of the plantation. She orders that Django not be killed straight away but be sold to a mining company to be worked to death. 

Django escapes and returns to Candyland with dynamite.

Finale

Django recovered Broomhilda's freedom papers and kills the trackers on his way to Candyland, getting revenge and carrying out Schultz’s wishes from earlier in the plot. At Candyland, Django kills Laura and the remaining henchman as she buries her brother. Then he blows the whole estate up with dynamite after killing Stephen.

Final image

Django and Broomhilda are reunited; they observe from afar as Candyland continues to burn. Revenge is sweet.

What can we learn from the breakdown of Django Unchained

Django Unchained encompasses elements of a classic spaghetti western film with those of a revenge movie. Tarantino misleads us with a mass shootout in which Candie is killed. We think the movie is at an end with the principal antagonist killed. However, this quickly turns into a dark night of the soul as Jango is captured, tied up, and threatened with castration. 

Think about how you can subvert your viewers’ expectations in your script. 

Don't forget you can download our screenwriting software from our website if you're looking for an industry standard tool.

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Breaking Down Django Unchained Using Save the Cat
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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