Tuesday, February 19, 2013

You are not Tarantino

Vanity Fair has a great article on the making of Pulp Fiction.  As exhaustive as it is, I'm sure most film fans are well-acquainted with the ins-and-outs of the rise of Quentin Tarantino.  In fact, I know most of them are because "Tarantino" is the rallying cry for any aspiring writer who chafes at being told to color within the lines.

I'm sure you're familiar with this.  Some insider like me tells writers that typos on the first page are a tipoff that the writer doesn't know what they're talking about, and inevitably someone in the comments will spout off that Tarantino can't spell for shit, so why does one need to worry about a bunch of arbitrary rules?

Well, because you're not Tarantino.

And even Tarantino wasn't always Tarantino.  Note this excerpt from the article:

Iin 1986, Tarantino was a 23-year-old part-time actor and high-school dropout, broke, without an apartment of his own, showering rarely. With no agent, he sent out scripts that never got past low-level readers. “Too vile, too vulgar, too violent” was the usual reaction, he later said. According to Quentin Tarantino, by Wensley Clarkson, his constant use of the f-word in his script True Romance caused one studio rep to write to Cathryn Jaymes, his early manager: 

Dear Fucking Cathryn, How dare you send me this fucking piece of shit. You must be out of your fucking mind. You want to know how I feel about it? Here’s your fucking piece of shit back. Fuck you.

Okay, so history would seem to exonerate Quentin and prove those guys to be wrong, right?  But here's the thing, violence and vulgarity are not what make Quentin's scripts great.  Profanity alone doesn't take a PASS to a CONSIDER.  But what is it that makes a Tarantino script better than 99% of the scripts by people who use him as an excuse to skirt the "rules?"

“Every major studio passed,” says Lawrence Bender. 

Then, says [producer Danny] DeVito, “I gave it to the king, Harvey Weinstein.” It went through Richard Gladstein, who was now at Miramax. Weinstein, who had recently merged Miramax with Disney in an $80 million deal, was walking out of his L.A. office on his way to catch a plane for a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard when Gladstein handed him the script. “What is this, the fucking telephone book?,” Weinstein asked him when he saw that it was 159 pages, the normal being 115. He lugged the script to the plane, however.

Take note - the first thing Weinstein commented on was the length. Before he even reads it, he's making a derisive remark about how thick the script is.  And that's because he knows that 99.999% of a time, a tell-tale sign like that marks a loser.

“He called me two hours later and said, ‘The first scene is fucking brilliant. Does it stay this good?’ ” remembers Gladstein. He called again an hour later, having read to the point where the main character, the hit man Vincent Vega, is shot and killed. “Are you guys crazy?” he yelled. “You just killed off the main character in the middle of the movie!” 

“Just keep reading,” said Gladstein. “And Harvey says, ‘Start negotiating!’ So I did, and he called back shortly thereafter and said, ‘Are you closed yet?’ I said, ‘I’m into it.’ Harvey said, ‘Hurry up! We’re making this movie.’ ”

THAT is when you can break the rules - when the writing is not just good, but "fucking brilliant." When you do things that has a studio head thinking you're crazy, but still intrigued enough to see how you proceed from there.

Okay, but what of the matter of the people who passed? Of the other pros who thought Quentin's rep was out of her mind for sending out that garbage?

[At Cannes,] it didn’t win anything until the very last award, the Palme d’Or, for the best of the 22 feature-film entries. When that year’s jury president, Clint Eastwood, announced that the winner, by what turned out to be a unanimous vote, was Pulp Fiction, the audience went wild. After Tarantino and the cast rushed onstage, one woman screamed, “Pulp Fiction is shit!” Tarantino shot her the finger and then said why the prize was unexpected: “I don’t make movies that bring people together. I make movies that split people apart.”

That is why.  If you want to be Tarantino, if you want to break all the rules as he did and assemble them your own way, then you need to make peace with something - not everyone will love you.  In fact, those that hate your work, probably will do so passionately.

So get used to the fact that not everyone is going to bow down and recognize your brilliance.  If you're truly talented, eventually your work will speak to the people it's made for.  But the people who don't get it, won't ever get it.  And no amount of shouting "Tarantino does it!" will change that.  It just makes you look whiny and petulant.

Take your criticisms with grace. If there was an accurate and absolute way to measure the merits of every creative work, then Rotten Tomatoes would be out of business because every film would score only 0% or 100%.  Tarantino needed to alienate a lot of people before he found his champion, and when he did, that guy went to the matt for the work because it spoke directly to him. Take THAT as the lesson of his rise to glory.


  1. Best article EVER, Bitter Script Reader,

    I'm a HUGE fan of Quentin Tarantino. Was really looking forward to meeting "the Q" at a recent Sherwood Oaks Experimental College event, but "the Q" was a no-show, Sherwood Oaks gets a lot of those. Even tried to make him a promotional t-shirt (like I was wearing only featuring stuff he'd written) but the folks at Custom Ink want his permission to do so, and I didn't have that. FYI 5 custom shirts would have cost me $150. But for the chance to impress "the Q" I would have gladly paid it.

    The guy's just a maverick. I LOVE the fact that Quentin Tarantino is his own brand. There is no other like him, he's unique. And that's saying a lot.

    My favorite Quentin Tarantino movie of all-time is "Reservior Dogs." That movie helped me structure the plot for I spec. I wrote many years ago entitled, "The Judas Project."

    Long live Quentin Tarantino. He's one of the best things going in Hollywood right now.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  2. Richard Gladstein's interview on the Pulp Fiction XX documentary is hilarious. The stuff of Hollywood lore.

    Also worth noting: Tarantino's rise to glory (getting "rule breaking" material made) happened after he directed one of his own dialogue-drenched scripts himself. He had to SHOW his critics how it was done with Reservoir Dogs (his shortest script in page length, I believe) before studios could imagine the translation of his other 150-page opuses to screen. Bam, a sliver of success and all those "fucks" didn't seem so foul; True Romance and Natural Born Killers sell and go into production.

    Timing, as we all know, is also incalculable. It was the 90's, when a renaissance in independent voices was exploding in film, from festivals into mainstream success. Would Tarantino's rule-breaking scripts anonymously find a home in today's comics-TV-book adaptations and remakes market? A voice that strong cannot be denied, but again, probably not via a manager/agent pitching like there's no tomorrow. Does Pulp Fiction even get to Gladstein without Tarantino first directing Reservoir Dogs (showing those words in all their power and glory)? I think RD opened doors Tarantino's scripts never could have gotten through on their own.

    It's a valuable post. Tarantino is the default defense for sensitive writers who can't take feedback. What they often forget is QT didn't give a fuck who could or couldn't see his vision because hell or high water he would SHOW us all via Keitel's shoestring investors. A major issue for 99.999% of holier than thou screenwriters: they don't posses QT's directing chops to slice through the doubters.

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  4. Thanks for the posts over the years that have been informative, funny, and most of all enjoyable. I saw Resevoir dogs in the theaters and i left hooked. It took about eight years for me to revisit that initial seed of an idea but Tarrantino was always an inspiration and I can even say i never tried to ape him, I knew i needed my own voice; his was to hard to copy.

    Chris Mcq. has that same kind of gravitational pull in his scripts.


  5. Great article, but all the love for Reservoir Dogs (classic movie) makes me wonder if nobody else has ever seen City On Fire?

  6. The comments for screenwriters has come true by Q's examples of his script format. Beginning, middle and end doesn't apply if you crafted the script to capture the reader. I despise being told the first ten pages must open to some story concept that promises a Hell of a Ride. Yeah...Ok some truth there, however don't be short changed if you develop the character arch, backstory, grittiness and tone of the film script before explosions and car chases.

  7. This is a very interesting article. There are a lot of important points here, and on one level I agree with your conclusions, in so much as they represent the views of an industry insider, whose job is to filter scripts.
    My perspective is slightly different. My interests are in screenwriting from the POV of alt-cinema.
    Rather than get into a complex subject here, I's rather respond to the issues in this piece in a separate article. I'll shoot you a link when it's published.
    However, just to give you an idea of my perspective, it's primarily about the way in which the "rules" which the industry applies to filter scripts today, were primarily developed by past mavericks. It's about the relationship between what the industry believes at any given moment, and how that's altered by successful independents challenging the rules of their period in cinema history.
    Fundamentally, I believe we're both trying to get writers to understand the same thing, but from different positions. You're telling them that the industry needs their scripts to conform to the rules, in order to stand any chance of getting through the filtering system, unless the script is both exceptional and the writer is very, very lucky. What I want writers to understand is that the industry needs us to break the rules, and to create scripts and movies that confound current thinking, but we shouldn't expect it to finance our experiments. Where I think a lot of writers go wrong, is in wanting to be mavericks, but expecting the mainstream industry to pay them to do that. Maverick screenwriters have to be better than spec screen writers, and they also have to be prepared to prove to audiences and the industry that they are worth listening to.

  8. Tarantino became his own brand and is not compared to any other. He is the film version of DR. Frankenstein and his ability to extract specific emotions from his audience is so powerful a need for him -- his movies are becoming part of the social commentary.

    His admission to this at the oscars shows me he's eventually going to do a sic-fi movie, you watch, where he can explore themes he has yet to mine for.


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  10. "Some insider like me tells writers that typos on the first page are a tipoff that the writer doesn't know what they're talking about..."

    "...if you want to break all the rules as he did and assemble them your own way, then you need to make PIECE with something..."

    "...and when he did, that guy went to the MATT for the work because it spoke directly to him."

    Great article, but you may want to correct that. Or leave it in to be ironic. :)

  11. "if you want to break all the rules... then you need to make piece with something - not everyone will love you."

    By which, of course, you mean "P.E.A.C.E."

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

  12. So, I said I'd respond to this article with a piece of my own. And, here it is.

    It's over at Scriptmag and the link is:


    It's about the same issues presented from the perspective of alt-cinema

  13. We have neither seen a Tarantino after Tarantino nor a Pulp Fiction after Pulp Fiction..that is enough proof of how true this article is..good one

  14. Question:

    Are you trying to BE Tarantino?

    Or Are you BEING Troy Duffy?