At the recent Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Oscar nominee Quentin Tarantino was the recipient of the American Riviera Award for his screenwriting. The event included a conversation in front of 2,000 festival guests and clips of his films throughout his career.
Here is the transcript of that Jan. 30 conversation with L.A. Times writer John Horn; it has been edited for length and language:
John Horn: Thank you very much. Great reception.
QuentinTarantino: Yeah, exactly. Hey, by the way, thanks everybody for coming out. I actually didn’t realize this was such a big deal. And so I’m actually rather taken aback by all this goodwill and love. Thank you very much.
We got a lot of stuff to look at. We’re gonna talk about writing tonight. You come to screenwriting as an actor first, not as a screenwriter. And I’m curious what that brings in terms of your writing. What does it mean to be an actor who’s writing? Do you write something that you know you’re gonna hear?
Tarantino: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s funny. I never took any writing classes, but I did take acting classes. And one of the things is, even to this day, most of the adjectives I use during the writing process are adjectives actors would use, trying to get into character or taking it where a thing goes. You know, the actors that I really like are the actors that really invest in their character, invest in the backstory, invest in who that person was before the story started, maybe who that person is after the story is over. And even, OK, the story says, “They turn left.” But if what if they turned right? What would happen then? And just because the story says you turn left, people have free will. They could actually turn right. And then there’s a whole other thing that could happen. And so it’s that idea, that thought process when it comes to characters, that I think I bring to my writing. Now, by the way, that actually is how most writers write. Might not be how most screenwriters, and I’m not saying that to put down screenwriting. There is a reason why some people would actually write something and actually want to be finished around page 120 and have an idea where you’re going. I kind of like doing it the novelistic way. Where I have an idea where I’m going, but it’s like when you know how to get to somebody’s house, but you don’t exactly know the exact directions but you can kinda find your way on your own. And you trust you’ll end up at your friend’s house. Well, that’s kinda how I like to do it.
Meaning your characters are gonna go where they’re gonna go.
Tarantino: Yeah. I mean, for better or for worse. Doing this now long enough, I actually think if I had more control over the steering wheel, things would get done a little easier and get done a lot better and the story might be even a little bit better. And that might very well be the case. However, I don’t want to do that. I want to create these characters. And I’m helping them out in the first half of the story. But if I’m doing it the way I want to do it, the way I think I should be doing it, they need to be taking it over by mid-story. And then I’m just following them.
So how do you turn off the director in you who’s watching these characters go in that direction and it’s like, “That’s an interesting direction. I can’t film that” or “I don’t want you to go that way”?
Tarantino: I don’t do this that much anymore, but before I would actually follow them down that rabbit hole. I would just go down with them. And I would write this stuff I thought was really terrific, but ultimately is not what I wanted to spend a year of my life making. But it happened. And I was informed by it. And I learned something from it. And it was cool. And rarely can you take it and cannibalize it and put in stuff that works, but it’s still an interesting process to go through. That happened a lot with “Kill Bill.” 'Cause I wasn’t in any hurry to finish it. I just really wanted to have the experience of going through the broader experience. And I have gone down that way now. I’m a little bit more, “No, that’s not the most interesting way. I’m gonna stop them.” Actually, I don’t have to. I don’t really have to do that. I haven’t had to stop them from going anywhere that I thought was just really a fool’s errand.
When you look at these clips, there’s a precision with the dialogue, but there’s also a precision of the imagery. And when you’re writing, are you picturing how that scene is gonna look or are you listening to how it’s gonna sound?
Tarantino: It’s really funny. When you ask me a question like that—and that’s a really good question—but when I give an answer like, “Well, this is how it is,” well it’s a mix of both. It’s a mix of both. When I’m writing, the director is not really there. He is there, and he is there for, like, I come up with some idea for some maybe cool cinematic set piece or something I could do particularly in an action set piece moment. The director is there a little bit. But even under that circumstance, I’m still a writer trying to make a good page. I’m trying to put the words together in a way that’s both clever and talented. And it works like literature. I mean, it can be bad literature, but it works like literature. It’s not just a blueprint of what’s supposed to happen. And that’s what, really, I’m about when I’m writing. I’m about expressing myself artistically as if this were the only thing that I was ever gonna do. As if they were never gonna make a movie from it. I’m gonna write this, and maybe when I’m done, I won’t make it. Maybe I’ll just publish it. And that’ll be enough. And if I give everything I’m supposed to give to my scripts, that should be my feeling when I’m finished. “You know what? I love this. It’s mine to [screw] up.”
When that director guy takes it over.
Tarantino: Yeah. Exactly. And he can [screw] it up. “I mean, this is tough [stuff]. I don’t even know how I’m gonna do some of this [stuff]." I always want to write some stuff that I don’t have a … clue how I’m gonna do it. And then part of the process is figuring it out. You know? And maybe I don’t know at the very beginning, but I figure it out at some point from doing it. And that makes me a better filmmaker. But I don’t feel that way when I finish writing a script. I’m like, “Wow. I love these pages. I think I could just publish this, and then I’m done. And I’m finished." And that’s how I think I should feel. But even the way I would try to make the image right, the way I would try to make the frame right and interesting and evocative as I’m shooting, that’s how I’m trying to make the page look. I’m trying to make it look pretty. I’m trying to make it look together. I’m trying to have one line take you to the next line, which is what most great writers do. If you look at most great writers—even decent, talented writers—it’s not just that their words are evocative. The page looks pretty. The page is inviting. The page makes you want to read it. And that’s what I want. That’s where I’m at, at that time period. Now that doesn’t mean that I didn’t come up with the idea of the red blood splashing the white cotton bolls when I was writing. I did. I wrote “Insert: red blood splashing white cotton bolls.” And I was like, “Wow. I’ve never seen that before. That will be really cool. That’s a really good image.” I lucked out on that one. And I do that. And I come up with set pieces. But for the most part, during that process the writer is in charge and the director is doing something else.
And the director later will say—
Tarantino: The director kind of ignores the writer. I’m not constantly rereading my script and everything. I literally only have whatever sides are next to me.
You talk about a page. Do you work a page at a time, paragraph at a time? How do you know when something is working? Are you able to compartmentalize scene by scene, character or character? Or do you do it incrementally?
Tarantino: No, no. I always have to go, Scene One takes me to Scene Two, Scene Two takes me to Scene Three, Scene 133 takes me to Scene 134. I can’t hop around.
So you’re not one of those screenwriters who puts everything on a board and starts moving the Post-it Notes around in order to make them fit.
Tarantino: Yeah. I can’t just jump to the stuff I want to write, or I’ll never write the stuff I don’t want to write. I have to get to there. And oftentimes by the time you get to there, you don’t want to write it so much anymore. It’s an idea that has actually proven itself past its time. Yeah, you wanted to do it way back when, but now you’re here -- not so important. So I always have to kind of keep moving forward. That’s one of the things I have learned about myself. I have a pretty good idea what’s gonna happen in the first half of the story. I have a really good idea what’s going to happen in the second half of the story. In the second half of “Kill Bill,” I kinda figured she might kill Bill at the end. But the way it happened was much different than I had thought about. Forget about before I started writing, but even after a few months into writing, it became quite different by the time I got to that point in the story. But I actually do think that, again, if you’re trying to just breathe these characters to life and have them take over, well then the middle of the story would be about as much as you could know, before you’ve actually breathed life into them. Once they take over, it becomes a different thing. You shouldn’t be able to know that much from that point on. Now, having said that, I actually work in genre. So there is a bit of a road map, because if I’m doing a western, if I’m doing a World War II movie, if I’m doing a martial arts movie, I don’t want it to be an artful meditation on that. I want it to actually deliver the goods. If you like martial arts films, I want you to watch “Kill Bill” and see a really terrific martial arts film. Frankly, I want it to be more than that. But as far as delivering the goods for the given genre, that has to happen. And that kinda helps you out. That kinda keeps you on track a little bit.
But you talk about writing almost more like a novel, in chapters, as opposed to a screenwriter, traditionally in acts. Do you break it down that way for yourself?
Tarantino: Yeah. I mean, I could write everything in chapters. I like them. I think they’re a lot of fun. And I think they’re cinematic. Now I can read a book and not make it into a movie. Before I’d made a movie, it was impossible to read a book and not make it into a movie in your head. And I found myself wanting to keep most of the literary devices the author had come up with. Not just because I was trying to be faithful to them. But I thought with cross-cutting, that could actually be one of the more cinematic ways to present the material. And usually that’s exactly what they get rid of when they would do the movie versions. They would take all this jumbled narrative and make it chronological, and boom. And that’s why when people said in particular with my first couple of films, “Oh, wow, you really monkeyed around with the structure,” I’d go, “Well, actually, I kind of use a literary structure to tell my story. That’s not really monkeying around with it.”
How do you know when a scene is working? Or do you know when it’s not working? Does the negative prove the positive, in other words? When you’re working on a scene and you’re fighting it and you’re trying to get it right, how do you know when it’s working?
Tarantino: Oh, yeah. Well, when it’s not working, it’s pretty easy, all right. Because it’s just, for lack of a better word, your rucksack going up that hill is a lot heavier. And you’re actually really working. And usually that means I should stop that day. That I’m not into it, I’m not there, or maybe I need to think about this whole thing, because this is obviously not the right way to go. If it that’s hard. If you’re in writing mode, it shouldn’t be that hard. Writing is some of the funnest times I ever had. It’s actually hard enough when everything’s flowing at the same time. So if it’s that difficult, then conceivably maybe the mojo ain’t with you right now. You’re not connected. You should maybe do something else. You can pick it up again tomorrow. When it’s working, it’s a lot easier. Because, you know, it’s working. You’re inspired. Character A says this, then Character B says that, and Character C says that. And Character C just told you something you didn’t know. And now you have to work from that. Either the characters in the scene have to work from that new information—but now you’re also having to work from that new information. Now, I can tend to go wrong when I do that. And so I have to be really aware of, “OK. Is this holding up? Can this be this long?” You know? Hands down, there’s no example to the extent that the basement sequence—
The opening scene?
Tarantino: Not the opening scene.
Tarantino: The opening scene held. I never had a question.
The basement scene of “Inglourious Basterds"--in the bar. OK.
Tarantino: That might be too long for other people, but that wasn’t too long for me. But the basement scene in “Inglourious Basterds,” deep in the movie and there’s no Aldo, there’s no Shosanna, there’s nobody you know; a bunch of [people] you just met. And now all of a sudden they’re in a 40-minute scene. That’s supposed to be suspenseful.
It absolutely is.
Tarantino: In a different language for an American movie. And it was never my intention for that to be that long. I just started writing it and it kept holding. It kept holding, and they kept talking. I kept keeping the reality of the situation -- that [posing as German officers] they could be exposed at any moment. I’d almost expose them, then it seemed like they got away with it. Then something else would happen. And if you think it’s long when you look at it, imagine when I’m writing it. Because I guarantee it’s longer in my script version. After I got through editing it, all right? It’s actually longer. But not only is it longer, I’m writing it by hand. So every two handwritten pages is one scriptwriting page. So the stack is getting crazy high. And my page number is not 40 pages. It’s 80 pages in handwritten script. And I’m like, “Holy…" And then I had to go over it again. And then, “I like it. I think it holds.” And dare I say, I think it makes it more suspenseful. I think the longer I can stretch this rubber band out and actually feel that there’s more rubber there to give, the more suspenseful it will be. Now once the script’s finished and I put it all together, then I’m not really worried about it anymore. I figured it’s worked. But when I’m working and it’s getting to be that much. And like I said, it never seems like 40 to me. It seems like 80 pages to me. But I trust myself.
Why do you write in longhand?
Tarantino: I can’t write poetry on a computer, man.
When you first start writing, is it a character that you hear? Is it a genre that’s calling to you? Is it a story within a genre? What is the genesis generally? Or is it a combination of those elements coalescing at one time?
Tarantino: Yeah, it’s a combination. It’s like there’s a genre maybe I’ve always been curious to throw my hat in the ring, but I’m not gonna do that until I come up with an interesting enough story to set it apart. And that story is usually connected to a character. “Django” is connected to [the 1966 original] “Django.” It can’t not be. The “Inglourious Basterds” are connected to “The [original 1978 Inglorious] Bastards” and they’re connected to Shosanna. I came up with all of them equally. I came up with Landa. I came up with all of them at the same time that I came up with the story. In a roundabout way, but nevertheless. Even “Kill Bill,” that was as equally coming up with The Bride as I am coming up with the story. So it is, “I want to work in this genre. Here’s an interesting story that can work in this genre that I can explore. Hopefully transcend it. And then here are these characters that I care enough about that I want to explore.”
Is it occasionally the case that you’re trying to put characters or a story in a genre, and the genre spits them back out, and you have to say, “Well, maybe they’re better suited for a different genre?”
Tarantino: No. I’ve written characters that didn’t make the final cut. Didn’t even make the final cut as far as even a version of the script that anyone saw. Maybe I invested in it a little bit and then I just got rid of them. And they might be able to be cannibalized and used in something else, or wholeheartedly used in something else. But, no, not the one you were describing.
I think we’re gonna show the first block of clips [from “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”], so let’s look at this clip package and we’ll come back to our conversation.
I don’t want to throw a big film school term at you, but there’s something called subtextual criticism going on here, where you’re taking things like Ezekiel, you’re talking about song lyrics, in another movie you’re talking about “King Kong.” Are those riffs things that are important to you as a screenwriter, in terms of figuring out how to inject them into a movie? And do you come up with that riff and then figure out a place to fit it?
Tarantino: If I did that, I’d probably be guilty of some of the things people have accused me of. They usually come out of the given moment. Now, I like stuff like that. But, yeah, when I started the underground tavern scene in “Inglourious Basterds,” I did know they were gonna play that game, but I didn’t know I was gonna go completely on the King Kong riff that I did. Yeah, I didn’t know I was gonna go on the Superman riff that I did in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2.” Not at the very beginning of that sequence. Actually, that was a sequence I rewrote a few different times. And then all of a sudden, that came out. And it seemed like a really good way to describe The Bride. Who she was, versus who she wanted to be. And I guess I did know it was a Madonna riff ‘cause that’s how I always started. And I liked that story. I’d had that story in my head for a long time, so I wanted to start it. There actually always is an aspect about my scripts. I’m always shoehorning some old material in there. There’s always something I’ve written for something else that I’ve thought, “I could probably use this.” And I try to squeeze in. So I had that Madonna thing in my head for a long time. But for the most part when that stuff kinda comes out, I think the reason it probably works is because it is the character trying to express their feelings in a way that another character can understand. Now, the thing about it is I love subtextual film criticisms. There’s actually few things on the planet Earth that I love more than subtextual film criticism. I adore it. I don’t try to engage in it whatsoever when it comes to my work, while I’m doing it.
That’s probably healthy.
Tarantino: Yeah. That would be bad. That would be bad news. One, it’s not for me. That’s for other people to look at my work and—
Figure out how to read it, right?
Tarantino: Exactly. And maybe that’s for me when I’m doing my autobiography or something and I start thinking about stuff in a more subtextual way now that it’s done and it on the shores of history. But you shouldn’t know that while you’re working. Or else then you’re hitting it too hard. You’re hitting the points too hard. I don’t want to know that when I’m directing the film. I’ll give you an example, though. If I wasn’t a writer, if I was just a director out there getting a script—material that I was excited about, that I thought I could turn into something or that I was genuinely engaged in—I would probably have to engage in subtextual film criticism in order to make the piece my own. If you know what I mean. To actually have something truly to say.
To figure out what it was about?
Tarantino: No, to have something to say. If I come up with my own little subtextual criticism of what this entire story really is about, and now I’m actually shooting that, well, that would be a way to actually gain authorship over it, over the actual author, to some degree. I don’t have to do that, because I’m the author.
Because that is your process, right?
Tarantino: Yeah, exactly. I’m the author. But, like, just to give you an example, I learned how I didn’t want to do that at the Sundance Institute. ‘Cause I was there with “Reservoir Dogs.” And I had shot a scene…I was invited to the directors’ workshop, and we were allowed to do two different scenes from the movie. And that was a good year that year. A lot of cool people were there. And that was a really great experience. I mean, no one really believed in me that much at all. To actually have them believe in me and send me to Utah—I’d never seen snow ever in my life. From Los Angeles, all right? And then everything was kinda just there for you to put your best foot forward. It was a really lovely thing. And I was really touched by the whole thing. And one of the things that they said is, “We want you to get out of this experience whatever you want to get out of it.” So I went and I did a scene. And I wanted to really experiment with long takes, ‘cause I thought that was really groovy. And so I did this whole big long take. And they basically said, “Your shots are really good, but there weren’t enough of them.” But one of the things is, I’m talking to the resource filmmakers there. And one of the directors goes, “Have you done your subtext work?” Like, “No, what’s that?” "Ah, you see. You think because you wrote it, you know everything. But you don’t know everything. You’ve done the writer work. You haven’t done the director work. You need to do your subtext work.” So he’s describing this whole thing, and I was still pretty young at the time. “Wow, is that really [what] a director does? Really, tell me about it.” And so they’re telling the whole thing. And I was actually really kind of excited to go off and give this a shot. So I took what I thought was the most obvious scene you could possibly take. I took Mr. White bringing Mr. Orange into the warehouse all by themselves. Mr. Orange, because he’s a cop and he’s dying, “Please, please, please take me to the hospital.” Mr. White doesn’t know he’s a cop. He’s like, “No, no, no, no. I can’t take you to the hospital. Hang in there.” So I could ask anybody in this theater here, “What does that scene mean?” 'Cause you’ve seen the movie. And you could tell me. But when you actually start putting pen to paper, it becomes a different thing. A lot of stuff opened up that I hadn’t thought about before. Because subtext is getting beyond what’s the obvious thing. So I wrote down, “What does Mr. White want from this scene more than anything else in the world? What does Mr. Orange want from this scene more than anything else in this world? And what do I as a filmmaker want the audience to take away from this scene more than anything else in the world?” And just even writing the obvious [stuff] about, “Mr. Orange is dying and he wants to be taken to a hospital,” all of a sudden, the more I wrote, the more I realized that the movie was a father/son story. And that Mr. White was functioning as Mr. Orange’s father at that moment. And Mr. Orange was functioning as a son. But he was a son who betrayed his father. But his father doesn’t know about the betrayal. And he’s trying to hide it from them as long as he can because the guilt is really starting to hit him. Yet Mr. White has faith in Joe Cabot—Lawrence Tierney—who is his metaphorical father in this situation. And what does he keep saying? “Just don’t worry about it. Wait for Joe to get here. When Joe gets here, it’s all gonna be fine. It’s all going to be fine.” And what happens when Joe gets there? He kills Mr. Orange. And then actually Mr. White has to choose between his father—his metaphorical father—and his metaphorical son. And naturally he chooses his metaphorical son and he’s wrong. But he’s wrong for all the right reasons. That was pretty heavy.
That’s fascinating. Great story.
Tarantino: That was pretty heavy. And me a student at Sundance, I was in my little bungalow in the snow. And I’m writing all that. And I was like, “Wow. That’s really cool. That’s deep. There’s a lot of there there." Well, I’m glad to know my work has such depth. I’m glad to know that the roots extend that far deep. But I never want to know about those roots again. Because I know they’re there. And I don’t want to tell a father/son story. I want to tell my gangster story. I want to tell my heist story. The father/son story will take care of itself. The father/son story is for everybody else who invests in it. And the father/son story is there because it is deeper than just a robbery. But me, I want to deal with the robbery. And let the other guy who’s doing the writing, who knows about the roots, deal with the roots.
Unbelievable. I think that segues very nicely to our next assortment of clips [from “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill: Volume 1”]. So let’s look at the next clip package.
Tarantino:You know, just for the record, I love this. The little thing at the beginning, watching the scenes.
You anticipated my question. When you look at something, do you remember the things you did right? Are you self-critical? In other words, do you learn from your own, not mistakes, but your own past?
Tarantino: Yeah. I can totally watch things and I can totally look at both, in particular, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” and think, “Oh, wow.” You know, I’ve learned a little bit more directing. A little bit more about handling extras. A little bit more about handling the crew itself. And production design. All that kinda stuff. Like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have had this.” You know, I could have done that forever. But nevertheless, that’s actually what I love about those movies now. To some degree or another. They were that Quentin then, and these movies reflect Quentin now. And to some degree or another, it’s actually the imperfections of the early movies that I love the most. Because they were honest imperfections. But…there’s a lot of people out there that talk a lot of things about the fact that, “Oh, I make movies for me. I make the movies for me, and everyone else is invited. I’m an artist. I’m doing it for me.” And that’s a legitimate way to go about it. That’s a really legitimate way to go about it, as far as I’m concerned. But if that’s your way of going about it, you better love your [stuff], all right? If it’s for you, then you better be getting off all the time, 24/7. It’s always interesting to you. You can watch it at any point in time and you’re stuck. You have to watch it to the end. And that’s how I feel about my work. I’m serious. I didn’t realize this was such a big event here tonight.
So I was like…turning into a turtle sitting and waiting for this to start. Jesus Christ, it’s such a big deal. I thought I was just gonna talk about my career a little bit at the film festival, after the screening. And I started getting, like, ugh. Then I watched the reel of movies. Like, “Wow, that was kinda cool,” all right? And I came up here with a slightly different attitude, all right?
And I’m digging on the scenes that they’re showing. I’m like, “Wow, that’s an interesting one they chose. Yeah. I see why they chose that one.” But, man. You know, a lot of the directors that I kind of have met along the way somewhere in the last 15 years, we talk about coming across our movies on the big cable television channels. The big movie channels. There’s a zillion movie channels now. If you own them all, you know, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. You’re going down, like, 30 channels before you get down to the uncensored movie channels. And that’s where your movies are going to. They are going there, all right? They’re gonna have a brief time in the theaters, brief time when they’re talked about, and then, boom.
Tarantino: Yeah. You’re gonna hit that guide, and there’s the eight HBO channels, there’s the eight Showtime channels, and the eight Cinemax channels, all going down. I’ve had Paul Thomas Anderson tell me, of all people, that when you come across your movies on those cable channels, you never wish they were longer. No matter how you’re fighting in the editing room for final cut, you’re never wishing they’re longer then. But when I go through the dial and I see “Pulp Fiction”—I saw “Reservoir Dogs” on one today—I can’t not hit “play.”
Tarantino: I can’t. I have to hit “play.” I have to watch it. All right. And I have to watch it to the end. And even if I don’t watch it to the end, I can’t shut it off, all right? “Reservoir Dogs” was on today. And I turned it on. And literally, it was the weirdest thing—it happens every once in a while when you’ve done enough movies and you’ve been around long enough—where you turn on your TV and one of your movies is playing. And it was somewhere in the last 40 minutes of “Reservoir Dogs.” Wow…. I turned on my TV and it’s…Nice Guy Eddie talking…. And I watched it for a little bit. But I didn’t want to watch it to the end. But I couldn’t shut it off. I made it louder and...let it die a natural death.
People who have seen your movies know there are certain actors that you love working with. And I’m curious, as a writer at a certain point do you start hearing that actor saying those lines? And is that a potentially dangerous thing if they can’t do the movie? Let’s talk about Sam Jackson. I mean, he’s so good with your dialogue. And I know early in your career, maybe you didn’t know that Sam was gonna be in your movie. Maybe later on, you figured it might work out. But is that something that you rely on? Does it help you hear the dialogue? Or is that a dangerous trap if you don’t get that person, or if they’re ultimately wrong for the part, as the part turns out?
Tarantino: Well, you kind of described all the things that could possibly happen by going down that route. For a while, Sam said my dialogue so well—not for a while. He says my dialogue well today. But for a while there, he said it so perfectly that it was hard not to write for him.
I spent about a year and a half writing “Kill Bill.” I think for the first six months, even though I didn’t want Bill to be black, I was writing for Sam Jackson. I wasn’t trying to write it for Sam Jackson. I could not not write for Sam Jackson. If I had a cool male character who’s gonna take a lot of [stuff], go figure, he sounded like Sam Jackson. When I was writing for Warren Beatty, and I go, “I’m writing Warren Beatty to be Sam Jackson? Why not cast Sam Jackson?” But then I ended it with this blonde girl killing a black man would be this thing that you’d be cheering for. All right. Which is a problem for Sam. That’s one’s of the things is actually really kind of cool about how fantastic his performance is as Stephen [in “Django Unchained”]. And I think Stephen is actually one of the best characters I’ve ever written. And one of the things that has actually plagued Sam in these last 20 years that I’ve been making movies and Sam’s been around—I mean, Sam has been around for me, but you know what I’m trying to say—is he’ll read the script and go, “I want to play this guy,” pointing at the villain. Because the villain is the best character in most scripts. “Well, we don’t want to play…because you’re black. That throws everything off. Now all of a sudden our movie is a racist movie, as opposed to being this, or opposed to being that.” He wanted to play the Michael Madsen role in “The Getaway.” “Oh, wow, we can’t do that. Now all of a sudden you’re the black man taking this—" you know, all this [stuff] that shouldn’t come into this, comes into it with him. You know, [stuff] that [another actor] didn’t have to deal with, Sam Jackson has to deal with. And so what was cool in the case of “Django Unchained” is taking all those loaded issues and actually making it part of the scenario.
I want to ask another question before we start the next clip package, about music. About song cues in your films. In “Reservoir Dogs” and “Stuck in the Middle.” Even Jim Croce in “Django.” Is that something that you are thinking about while you’re writing? Is it something that is organic to the shooting process? In other words, are you hearing music just like you’re hearing dialogue while you’re writing?
Tarantino: Well, the answer is, yes, to some degree. It’s a process. It happens all during the time. Sometimes it happens even before I start writing. It’s kinda one of the things that makes me want to actually write it, is I come up with the sequence, then I come up with the cool song in it. And whenever I can just put a needle on a record and play a piece of music as I walk around and think about the movie, that’s a big part in the process. I’m actually jumping over the writing process, I’m jumping over the shooting process, and now I’m kind of in a theater, watching the scene with an audience, before I’ve even written a word on the page. Before I’ve even shot something. It makes a movie, to me. I’m able to jump to the end of it. Now, a good half of that stuff, if not more than half, never gets all the way down to the final cut of the movie. But some of it does. And those things that do probably help me make the movie. Probably kept me going during the hard parts.
Because you hear it? Because you can picture it?
Tarantino: Well, because it’s good. It’s just encouraging. It’s a gigantic piece of encouragement. I’m able to jump to the future. I’m able to get into a time machine, jump into the future, and sit there and watch this movie—the finished, edited movie—with an audience member. As an audience member. Imagining people who I know, who know me, who dig on me, cheering it. All right? And an audience that I don’t know, cheering it. Whether or not they do remains to be seen. But at that moment, that’s a very encouraging moment. And because I’m seeing the movie in my head and I’m playing the music that already exists as I’m walking around my little record room or my bedroom, that cuts through a lot of the creative process. I get a teeny tiny piece of the end result. “OK. Get back out there and do it.”
Let’s go to the next clip package [“Kill Bill: Volume 2” and “Death Proof”].
Tarantino: Let me jump off of those clips. One of the things that is really interesting looking at that, and especially the Michael Parks scene—Esteban Vihaio—is by the time that I wrote that scene, I’m very aware of how long my crazy script is.
Are you in Volume Two at this point?
Tarantino: What? No, no, no. Volume Two didn’t happen until the second half of editing. You know, Harvey [Weinstein] put a word in our ear during a re-shoot. But it would still all be one movie. And I remember writing that sequence. And I’m like, “There is no way in hell I’m gonna have the time for this scene.” I loved the scene. I thought it was fantastic. I thought it was a wonderful character. I thought it did exactly what it needed to do to kick start this epilogue-y section of the story. I made it its own chapter, like an epilogue almost of the [story]. There was a lot of those other things that fell by the wayside ‘cause I know there’s no way. But I was like, “Even if I have to throw it out, even if there’s no way I can stick it in, I have to write it. I have to do it.” And the way it all worked out, I’m glad I did. Because it worked and it was terrific. But even watching, in particular, Uma Thurman’s side of the “Bill” sequence, half the dialogue she says in that stuff is just stuff Uma said to me over the course of the year and a half I was writing the movie. Taken out of context. Because there wasn’t much context. But it was, literally, half the expressions, half the lines she says, they’re just things I learned from Uma. From being with her and listening to her talk and listening to her tell stories and listening to her frame emotions and frame opinions for a year and a half, as I was writing the script. But that’s true through about at least half of “Kill Bill.” It’s her words regurgitated back to her in this genre story.
When you’re actually on set, when you’re filming your script, is your script a template or is it the bible? In other words, are the actors riffing? In your mind have you written the movie that you want to make, or does it change?
Tarantino: No, no, no. Actors aren’t there to riff. They’re there to say the dialogue. If their riffing is genius, I will take credit for it. Actually, I was just talking about Uma. Uma had a quote once that’s really true. It’s true more than I’ve ever read in Stanislavski, “An Actor Prepares.” Uma was a diamond bullet in this one thing she said. She said that when actors improvise, if they’re not just adding mmms and ahs, or they’re not adding cuss words, then that is all writing. And that is not what you hire an actor to do. You hire an actor to learn the lines and say them. Now there are exceptions to that. Sam Jackson is the exception. Sam Jackson is a terrific writer. He’s a terrific writer in character. He knows how his characters should talk. Now, he loves my words. That’s one of the reasons that he works with me. That’s one of the reasons he would tackle a character like Stephen, is for me and my scenario. But Sam writes like I write. It’s like water. Like, just really goes together. At some point on “Jackie Brown,” I was like, “Sam, you just add so much to this. You do a lot of movies, man. Do you do this on everything?” He said, “No … way do I do this on everything. [Forget] all that other [stuff]. I do this for you because I give a [care]. If I—"No, I want you to say it this way and here’s why I want you—" I don’t have to explain why I want him to say it. He’ll just do it. But Sam sings in my key….And like I said, he came up with cool things. Cool, wonderful little moments. Little off things. Sam’s the only writer. When Sam writes in character, he’s writing as good as I would write in character.
I want to ask a little bit about genre. Genre gets an unfair rap. You clearly love it. And I’m curious, when you’re thinking about genre, what do you love about genre the most? And why do you find such an affinity toward it? And how does it affect your writing? Once you’re within a genre, do you take on a different voice as a writer that you think has to fit in that genre?
Tarantino: No. If I didn’t write in genre, all my movies would be five hours long. Because I would be like a novelist that just keeps telling the story through character and telling the dialogue. Genre actually keeps me disciplined. Genre has its own function that if like a genre enough to want to do it, I love that genre. And I want to throw my hat in that genre. There’s some people who make Westerns that have nothing but contempt for Westerns. They’re gonna do their own version. And there’s some people who make horror films who have nothing but contempt for horror films. They’re gonna do their versions. And those aren’t normally my favorite Westerns, nor my favorite horror films. I actually like people who do horror films that like horror films. I like people who do Westerns to like Westerns and actually think about how their Western may fit inside the genre of Westerns themselves. I’m a very pain-based literary writer, and I wrote a car chase movie. Jesus…Christ. You know? And I thought very seriously how my movie would fit inside the history of car chase movies. So to me, it’s like discipline. As terrific as I think my characters are and as much as I want to explore them and go with them, it has to work inside of the genre that I’m doing. Like I said, I don’t want it to be an artful meditation on a genre. I want it to deliver the goods.
But for a movie like “Inglourious Basterds,” which we’ll get to, do you define that genre or do you let the script go wherever it’s gonna go? In other words, is that a World War II movie? Is it a Western?
Tarantino: It’s the starting off point. And it has to be the ending point. But inside of the beginning and the ending, I want to transcend the genre. I want to make it more than just—you know, I started it off as a bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movie. I wanted “Inglourious Basterds” to ultimately mean more than “The Devil’s Brigade.” Having said that, I want it to be as fun as “The Devil’s Brigade.” If that makes sense.
It does. We’ll probably see a clip from it, but the mission movie, the opening scene is the map and, “We’re gonna go there.” That happens probably halfway into this movie, right? And the mission movie maybe has a protagonist. “Inglourious Basterds” probably has three…
Tarantino: Yeah, yeah.
Maybe four. Is that part of what you’re trying to do, is take that genre and bend the rules so they work for you, but they work within the structure?
Tarantino: Well, it’s funny, because the thing about it is on one hand you’ve got a bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movie. And that’s going on. On the other hand, I’ve never seen the Shosanna movie that I created. And she becomes the actual lead protagonist in the piece. But I’m using the bunch of guys on the mission to get Shosanna into the story. And that’s the story I had never seen before. I never saw the one lone Jewish girl bring down the Third Reich. And I wanted to see that. But was that exactly what I wanted to start with when I started off? No. But it became that.
How much of your screenwriting genesis is a “what if?” question. In other words, you’re watching a ton of movies, you’re thinking about stories, you’re thinking about genres. “What if this happened within the genre? Or I like that movie, but what if it went in this direction?” Is that part of your creative process?
Tarantino: It is a part of my creative process. But not once I get actually right down into it, into it, into it, into it. It’s maybe the first spark of a spark plug. But not the process.
And if you’re making a car chase movie [“Death Proof”], do you go out and watch car chase movies? Or do you have them so embedded that you don’t need to? Which is the benefit and which is the downside?
Tarantino: Well, no, in that I watched a lot of car chase movies, ‘cause I had to figure out how to shoot ‘em. But not so much as far as writing it is concerned. But when I did realize, in the case of making a car chase movie—well, writing a car chase movie—was the fact that you have two different kind of car chases. You have the car chases where the lead protagonists are being chased and you have the car chases where the lead protagonists are doing the chasing. Now oddly enough, they’re oddly more involved when the lead protagonist is doing the chasing than when we’re being chased. But they both have their own qualities, and I wanted both qualities to be in the end chase.
Let’s go to the next group of clips [“Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained”].
Now for some reason, this feels like there is a trilogy forming here, from “Basterds” to “Django” to another film. Is that the way you see it too? That there’s something larger at work here?
Tarantino: I wouldn’t be surprised.
Now people would assume that as you are more experienced, things become easier. Yet “Django” is a script you worked on for, what, nine years, 10 years? Off and on.
Tarantino: That’s a little misnomer. I wasn’t ever working on it. I had a few different ideas. And I did know the title, “Django Unchained.” I did know it was an ex-slave, but you see him as a slave first. And the idea more or less of the first scene—even though not any of the particulars—was there in my mind. But I didn’t really know what to do with it. And I wasn’t quite ready to do anything with it. So they’re like babies born too early, which I was a baby born too early. I think I spent three months in an incubator, ‘cause I came out too early. And apparently that’s affected me. And both these last two movies, “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” they spent a lot of time in the incubator, waiting for it to be the right time. Waiting for it to be the—yeah, the right time.
Is there an epiphany? Is there something that happens? Or is there a process? Is it that the key kind of unlocks a little bit slowly? Or do the characters tell you when it’s ready to go?
Tarantino: It’s kind of interesting. I came up with the idea of “Kill Bill” at some point during the process of making “Pulp Fiction.” And was thinking that was gonna be my next movie. And I even wrote some of it after “Pulp Fiction” was released. I think I got up to page 30. Not really what ended up being in the movie, but nevertheless. But then I did “From Dusk till Dawn.” And then I thought, “Well, I’ve kind of done a bride heist movie,” and so I was looking for something else to do. And so I did “Jackie Brown.” Then I came up with the idea of “Inglourious Basterds.” Started writing “Inglourious Basterds.” Got lost in writing “Inglourious Basterds.” My problem is not writer’s block. My problem is I can’t stop writing.
It’s a good problem to have. As long as you can find the story.
Tarantino: When you’re trying to make movies, it’s not the greatest problem to have that you cannot tell a story that’s not seven hours long. I hear your point.
Do you ever consider miniseries?
Tarantino: Well, I did, actually. And now that’s a much more serious consideration, because television is starting to match movies. And especially if you like a show. It’s hard for you to like a movie as much as you like a show, while you’re in it. Now, unfortunately, those shows that you liked last season, when you try to watch them six years from now, not quite the same thing. Season Three of “24” is not as good now as it was in Season Three of “24.” I’m not putting “24” down. I’m simply saying TV is a medium of now. Actually what’s good about it. But, nevertheless, it’s a problem about it. Movies is a medium of now and possibly tomorrow at the same time. And possibly really tomorrow. Depends. Nevertheless, if we’re watching everything on DVD, as it all ends up being, and you could actually do a miniseries and it’s all on DVD, maybe it doesn’t have to be [a movie]. You never know…
What is the best thing that’s been told to you as a writer that helped you and what’s the worst thing that’s been told to you as a writer?
Tarantino: Most of these people that talk about writing for screenplays, if they were teaching acting, they would be thrown out and ridiculed. Because at the end of the day it does seem like—and I’m lumping a whole lot of people, some who may have interesting insights, into one big giant group. And that’s probably not fair. But coming from a teaching aspect, which is how I learned to write, they all seem to be a very actor bad word. They all seem to be result-oriented.
And real actors aren’t result-oriented. But real writers aren’t result-oriented. I mean, the actor wants everything they do to be magnificent. And the writer wants everything they do to be magnificent. But novelists aren’t result-oriented. It’s the doing of it. It’s the process. It’s the getting there. It’s the journey. The journey is everything. The journey makes the destination worthwhile. You can only have a worthwhile destination after you’ve had a worthwhile journey. And novelists trust that. Actors trust that. They trust that they live the part and they are honest. And they don’t try to predetermine too much. That the ultimate end result will be rewarding.
And it seems like people who teach screenwriting go in the opposite direction. I am tar and feathering with a big gigantic trough of a brush of tar. And maybe some people that I’m hitting with that don’t deserve that. But at the end of the day, that seems to be what I hear. And it’s also understandable, because they have to get the results within 120 or 130 pages. And maybe if you’re judging it by a coloring book and you’re getting A’s for keeping your colors inside of the lines, then maybe they are right. But that’s not how I want to judge it. And it can be messy. And I can write a bunch of stuff and then they have to reduce it down to a certain amount in order to make a movie. But that whole process of doing all that is what makes the movie. If you do it right. You could go on the kind of process that I go on and write a bunch of stuff and shoot a bunch of stuff and then you have to drop a bunch of stuff. And then what ends up coming out is a facsimile of what it is you intended. Well, that would be…tragic. And you would have failed. All right? I don’t think I’ve failed. I’ve succeeded. I succeeded in a weird way that I could have never imagined during the writing process. But I succeeded. And also, where I’m coming from, actually, is those things happen. We are informed by those things. Yet it’s different, though. There is an interesting thing. Editing is its own form of writing that needs to be taken into account. Because the thing is, if I included every scene—every single scene—say we were India, say we were Russia, and there’s no time limit for what’s playing at the multiplex. That makes your movie better, the longer it is. If that were the case, you would see a different story than the one that you see now. Because things would have happened that didn’t happen in the version that I released. And once those things happen, they’ve happened. And they affect everything. They affect the characters. They affect everyone’s knowledge about what’s going on. Now, I leave that out. Now I meant to leave that. You’re not supposed to know what those different things are. Because that’s not the story I’m telling now. I’m telling now this story. But that is kind of interesting. It is interesting about what you reveal and what you don’t reveal. The actors said it. They worked from it. They were informed by everything, because that all happened. But now I lose a couple of scenes. The actors were informed by it, but you’re not informed by it. Now you only have the knowledge that you’re given. Well, that’s storytelling. That’s part of my job.