Emerging from a nitrate fire in 1963, Quentin Tarantino was fed only exploitation films, spaghetti Westerns and actual spaghetti until he was old enough to thirst for blood. He found his way into the film industry as a PA on a Dolph Lundgren workout video, as a store clerk at Video Archives and by getting encouragement to write a screenplay by the very man who would make a name for himself producing Tarantino’s films.
Peter Bogdanovich (and probably many others) think of him as the most influential director of his generation, and he’s got the legendary story to back it up — not to mention line-busting movies like Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained under his belt. He’s also the kind of name that makes introductions like this useless.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a guy who really loves Hi Diddle Diddle and plans to keep 35mm alive as long as he’s rich enough to do it.
Lie Until People Think You Worked With Godard
“What happens when you start out acting, you gotta have a resume, and if you ain’t done nothin’, you can’t write ‘Nothing.’ People aren’t gonna pay attention to that so you’ve gotta lie. Alright? I had better luck at it than most because I knew a lot about movies and stuff. I was a fan of Jean-Luc Godard, and he’d just had a movie come out. It was from Cannon back in the 80s or something called King Lear. Woody Allen is in it for a moment, and Molly Ringwald is in it, and I saw it. And, it’s like, there’s no way in hell anyone’s gonna see this movie, so I wrote down under ‘Motion Pictures’ on my resume, ‘King Lear – dir. Jean-Luc Godard w/ Woody Allen, Molly Ringwald.’
I even did that with another movie, too, called Dawn of the Dead, you know, the George Romero zombie movie. Well there was a motorcycle guy in the motorcycle gang who kinda looked like me, so I just said it was.”
Tarantino is quick to point out that he had the lies down, providing anecdotes from the set and details from the movies. The King Lear lie eventually seeped into his biography in press notes after Reservoir Dogs, but since he found it funny (and never corrected the mistakes), the lie spread even further. He was eventually listed in Leonard Maltin’s “Movies On TV” as being in the cast of Godard’s film.
Sadly, IMDB doesn’t list him in it.
Of course, there are a ton of people lying to get work in the movie business, so if you’re going to do it, know what you’re talking about and go with gusto. It might also help to know as much about movies as Tarantino.
Good Artists Borrow, But Great Artists?
“I steal from every movie ever made.”
This may be a key deconstructive criticism for his work, but it might also be that he’s simply more honest than everyone else. If we can’t help but pick bits of inspiration from everything, why not be direct? Why not blend them all together to make something new that looks familiar? Who says a director can’t be more like a DJ?
You Might Make Guitar Picks
Make the Movie On the Page
When asked if Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” was what he originally wanted for the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs:
“It’s actually in the script. Which I can tell you I’ll never do again, because the record companies read the script and they know that you want that song. I actually got it — actually extremely cheap — but it was like every other song wasn’t written in the script, so we actually got it for a lot cheaper. They know you want it — it’s written in the script. See, I wanted to make films, and the only thing I could get going was on the page. So I put it all in the script. The big shots. The chase is broken down shot for shot. It’s cut in the script. ‘POV through windshield. Mr. Pink off screen.’ I was making the movie on the page, because it was the only way I could make movies. And then, when I would show it to someone I could say, ‘Look, this is what I’m going to do. I’m not going to do this. Just this.’”
That’s a cardinal sin in screenwriting classes, but if you’re planning on directing (or if you don’t have to prove to anyone why you should be the director), it sounds like solid advice.
Be Impersonally Personal
“My movies are painfully personal, but I’m never trying to let you know how personal they are. It’s my job to make it be personal, and also to disguise that so only I or the people who know me know how personal it is. Kill Bill is a very personal movie.
It’s not anyone’s business. It’s my job to invest in it and hide it inside of genre. Maybe there are metaphors for things that are going on in my life, or maybe it’s just straight up how it is. But it’s buried in genre, so it’s not a ‘how I grew up to write the novel’ kind of piece. Whatever’s going on with me at the time of writing is going to find its way into the piece. If that doesn’t happen, then what the hell am I doing? So if I’m writing Inglourious Basterds and I’m in love with a girl and we break up, that’s going to find its way into the piece.
That pain, the way my aspirations were dashed, that’s going to find its way in there. So I’m not doing a James L. Brooks—I loved how personal Spanglish was, but I thought that where Sofia Coppola got praised for being personal, he got criticized for being personal in the exact same aching way. But that doesn’t interest me, at least not now, to do my little story about my little situation. The more I hide it, the more revealing I can be.”
Think Outside the Casting List
What Have We Learned
Tarantino’s appeal is sort of hidden in plain sight. Yes, it’s easy to love his twisted takes on genre and the beauty of his violent, idiosyncratic characters. But he also represents the movie geek who ascended beyond fandom to become a creator. He is the promise of every cinephile who has even a shred of ambition to write a script or direct. He’s proof that being a huge nerd can pay off in a supreme way. Not just that you can become a filmmaker, but that you can be heralded for doing it exactly the way you want to do it.
His existence and dominance proves that it can be done!
Like Bigelow and others, he’s avoided the mainstream route while finding mainstream success. That’s something afforded to him (as he’s recognized) because his style was so thoroughly embraced by audiences. He didn’t use Pulp Fiction as a springboard to taking on blockbuster budgets within the studio system. Instead, he saw its success as a continuation of the movies everyone wanted him to make — so he happily kept making them.
With intense detail, aggressive focus and just a little bit of lying.