Method Writing

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by Erik Bauer

  • Portions of this interview were previously published in the January/February 1998 issue of CREATIVE SCREENWRITING.
  • To purchase this issue, visit creativescreenwriting.com

Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who inhabits his characters, and through them, the very stylized world of tough guys, shocking violence, and captivating rhetoric he has brought to life. “I’ve been living in Ordell for a year now,” the Oscar-winning writer told me over lunch at Jerry’s Deli. Ordell Robbie, the current star of the hour is black, cold-hearted, and the stylistic center of Tarantino’s new film Jackie Brown. Ordell is a bad motherfucker and fits snugly into the universe Tarantino’s powerful vision and writing have conjured.

More than any other writer of his generation, Tarantino has created a distinct dark universe where he unfolds his stories. Although dogged by questions of his borrowing from other films and filmmakers, there is no denying that Tarantino has crafted a unique reality that audiences want to spend time in. It is a testament to the strength of his vision that it has prospered over four films: Reservoir Dogs, True Romance (directed by Tony Scott), Pulp Fiction, and From Dusk Till Dawn (directed by Robert Rodriguez). Only in Natural Born Killers did the vision of Oliver Stone, another strong writer-director, obscure that of Tarantino.

Jackie Brown fits Tarantino’s universe like a new glove over an old fist. Described as “a comic crime caper loosely based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch,” JACKIE BROWN is Tarantino’s first true adaptation. But because Leonard’s writing has had such a strong impact on Tarantino, and their writing styles are so similar, Jackie Brown doesn’t end up being much of a stretch for Tarantino.

“Leonard opened my eyes to the dramatic possibilities of everyday speech,” Tarantino told me. And there is no lack of that everyday speech in JACKIE BROWN. Tarantino’s adaptation follows Leonard’s plot line, dropping a few minor characters, improving several others (most notably Ordell), and inserting only a handful of new scenes. But it is in the dialogue of the script that Tarantino follows Leonard’s low-life naturalism most closely. Only a few scenes get a taste of the stylized, pop-culture prose Tarantino is known for. This may be a stretch for Tarantino, but we miss his electrified dialogue and powerful voice. Tarantino is a man who holds his filmmaking craft very close to his vest. Although he was reticent to show too many cards, our discussion of JACKIE BROWN and his writing roots opened a few windows into his world and his technique as a “method writer.”

CS: How exactly have Elmore Leonard’s books influenced your writing style?

QT: Well, when I was a kid and I first started reading his novels I got really caught up in his characters and the way they talked. As I started reading more and more of his novels it kind of gave me permission to go my way with characters talking around things as opposed to talking about them. He showed me that characters can go off on tangents and those tangents are just as valid as anything else. Like the way real people talk. I think his biggest influence on any of my things was True Romance. Actually, in TRUE ROMANCE I was trying to do my version of an Elmore Leonard novel in script form. I didn’t rip it off, there’s nothing blatant about it, it’s just a feeling you know, and a style I was inspired by more than anything you could point your finger at.

CS: The strongest scene in TRUE ROMANCE is the confrontation between Cliff [played by Dennis Hopper] and Coccotti [played by Christopher Walken]. How did you approach crafting that scene?

QT: The way I write is really like putting one foot in front of the other. I really let the characters do most of the work, they start talking and they just lead the way. I had heard that whole speech about the Sicilians a long time ago, from a black guy living in my house. One day I was talking with a friend who was Sicilian and I just started telling that speech. And I thought, “Wow, that is a great scene, I gotta remember that.” In True Romance the one thing I knew Cliff had to do was insult the guy enough that he’d kill him, because if he got tortured he’d end up telling him where Clarence was, and he didn’t want to do that. I knew how the scene had to end, but I don’t write dialogue in a strategic way. I didn’t really go about crafting the scene, I just put them in the room together. I knew Cliff was going to end up doing the Sicilian thing but I didn’t know what Coccotti was going to say. They just started talking and I jotted it down. I almost feel like a fraud for taking credit for writing dialogue, because it’s the characters that are doing it. To me it’s very connected to actors’ improv with me playing all the characters. One of the reasons I like to write with pen and paper is it helps that process, for me anyway.

CS: What’s the relationship between your acting and your writing?

QT: I think they’re almost inseparably married. When I describe things in my writing I never use writing adjectives. I don’t know what a writing adjective is. I always use acting adjectives. To me writing’s almost the same thing because you’re acting like a character and that’s what acting is all about, the moment. You don’t want to be result oriented, you don’t want to say, “Okay, this is what’s going to happen.” No, you start with your character and anything can happen, like life. You shouldn’t try to predestine where you’re gonna go and what you’re gonna see. You can hit the nail on the head, but you want the kind of freedom that allows for something you hadn’t even imagined to happen. I’m very much a man of the moment. I can think about an idea for a year, two years, even four years all right, but what ever is going on with me the moment I write is gonna work it’s way into the piece.

CS: Can you think of an example where your perspective at a certain moment really changed the way you approached something?

QT: Well anything that’s really personal I wouldn’t want to talk about because that’s not what the scene’s about, it’s just underneath it there. But like something more on the surface would be Vince’s whole thing in PULP FICTION about Amsterdam. I was in Amsterdam for the very first time in my life when I was writing that script and it was kind of blowing my mind. And it was blowing Vince’s mind too, he’d just come back from there too. When I spent time in Amsterdam I was just going there to be by myself, but it worked its way in ‘cause that is what I was going through and that was gold.

CS: What adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s books do you admire?

QT: I liked GET SHORTY a lot, I guess where he was funny and I really liked 52 PICK-UP. I think that’s the only other crime one that I’ve really liked.

CS: Did other adaptations suggest anything for your own approach?

QT: No, I’ve never really felt that anyone got [Leonard] in the prime zone.

CS: What about Scott Frank’s adaptation of GET SHORTY?

QT: Well it’s funny because he came pretty damn close. I actually read his script and thought he did a really good job with it. But there was still something lost in the translation. I’ve always been kind of a perfectionist about the idea of adapting an Leonard novel because I just wanted to have the feeling of the novel, those long dialogue scenes where a character is slowly revealed. To me, that’s the fun of adapting it. I’m not dissing Frank at all. I think he did a great job with GET SHORTY, but there’s another aspect of Leonard’s novels that I’m interested in.

CS: You’ve voiced concern in the past that your own voice, your own dialogue might someday become old hat, that people might grow tired of it. Was that one of the reasons you decided to go with an adaptation rather than an original script for your next film?

QT: Well, that wasn’t the reason but it does very conveniently serve that purpose. It’s a nice way of kind of holding onto my dialogue, of holding onto my gift and whatever I’ve got to offer. I don’t want people to take me for granted. The things I have to offer I don’t want wasted. When you watch something David Mamet’s written you know you’ve listened to David Mamet dialogue. I want to try and avoid that if I can. I want to try to avoid that as a writer and I want to try to avoid it as a filmmaker. I want people to see my new movie not my next movie. Does that make sense? You’ve gotta remember, I’ve done two movies before this, so wait till I’ve done six movies to start pigeonholing me. I tend to do different types of things. DOGS, PULP FICTION, TRUE ROMANCE, and my script for NATURAL BORN KILLERS take place in kind of my own universe. But that doesn’t make them fantastical. Larry McMurtry writes with his own universe. J.D. Salinger writes with his own universe and it’s a very real universe and I think mine is too. But having said all that, this movie doesn’t take place in my universe.

CS: It doesn’t?

QT: This is in Elmore Leonard’s universe and it was interesting making a movie outside this little universe that I created. This was Dutch’s universe, and because of that, I wanted it to be ultra-realistic. I used a different cinematographer to kind of get a different look. It still looks great but just a little bit more down to earth, a little less like a movie movie, a little bit more like a '70s STRAIGHT TIME. I actually like building sets. In JACKIE BROWN I didn’t do that. Every single solitary scene in the movie was shot on location. Some things were written for specific locations in the south [of LA] that I went out and found.

CS: I think one of your great strengths as a writer is that you have been able to define your own vision, your own universe, and set your stories within that. In looking at the difference between that and where you see JACKIE BROWN, what elements would you say define the Tarantino universe of film?

QT: Well, that’s kind of a hard question to answer because a whole lot of this stuff is subliminal. It just comes out. One of the ways other writers have created their own universe is through overlapping characters, which I think is very interesting.

CS: I understand what you’re saying about it being kind of subliminal but you’re also a smart guy. I’m sure you get analytical about some of it too, especially as far as where you take your universe.

QT: To tell you the truth, I try not to get analytical in the writing process. I really try not to do that. I try to just kind of keep the flow from my brain to my hand as far as the pen is concerned and, as I’ve said, go with the moment and go with my guts. It’s different than when you’re playing games or trying to be clever. To me, truth is the big thing. Constantly you’re writing something and you get to a place where your characters could go this way or that and I just can’t lie. The characters have gotta be true to themselves. And that’s something I don’t see in a lot of Hollywood movies. I see characters lying all the time. They can’t do this because it would affect the movie this way or that or this demographic might not like it. To me a character can’t do anything good or bad, they can only do something that’s true or not. Basically, my writing’s like a journey. I’ll know some of the stops ahead of time, and I’ll make some of those stops and some of them I won’t. Some will be a moot point by the time I get there. You know every script will have four to six basic scenes that you’re going to do. It’s all the scenes in the middle that you’ve got to—not struggle, it’s never a struggle—but you’ve got to write through—that’s where your characters really come from. That’s how you find them, that’s where they live. So I’ve got basic directions of how to get to where I’m going, but now I’m starting the journey. I can always refer to my directions if I get lost, but barring that, let’s see what we see. I think that is how novelists write. That’s how Elmore Leonard writes.

CS: Do you think that repetition of a phrase or word in dialogue enhances its power for an audience or detracts from it?

QT: Well I do that a lot. I like it. I think that in my dialogue there’s a bit of whatever you would call it, a music or poetry, and the repetition of certain words helps give it a beat or a rhythm. It just happens and I just go with it, looking for the rhythm of the scene.

CS: Some people have criticized your use of certain words such as “nigger,” and you have always responded that no word should have that much power in our culture. I’m not sure I buy that. I’ve got to be frank. Aren’t you also using powerful words to electrify your dialogue, to make it more interesting?

QT: You know, if you didn’t know me, I could see where you’d come up with that. I mean, I am a writer, I deal in words. No, there is no word that should stay in word jail, every word is completely free. There is no word that is worse than another word. It’s all language, it’s all communication. And if I was doing what you’re saying, I’d be lying. I’d be throwing in a word to get an effect. And well, you do that all the time, you throw in a word to get a laugh, and you throw in this word to get an effect too, that happens, but it’s all organic. It’s never a situation where that’s not what they would say, but I’m going to have them say it because it’s gonna be shocking. You used the example of “nigger.” In PULP FICITON, nigger is said a bunch of different times by a bunch of different people and it’s meant differently each time. It’s all about the context in which it’s used. George Carlin does a whole routine about that, you know. When Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy do their stand-up acts, and say nigger, you’re never offended because they’re niggers. You know what they’re fucking talking about. You know the context in which it’s coming from. The way Samuel Jackson says nigger in PULP FICTION is not the way Eric Stoltz says it, is not the way Ving Rhames says it. They’re all coming from different places. That word means something different depending on who’s saying it.

CS: Ordell uses “nigga” a lot in JACKIE BROWN. How is his use of the word different than that of the characters in PULP FICTION?

QT: Actually Ordell probably doesn’t use it any different from Jules. Actually when Jules and Marcellus use it in PULP FICTION they’re comin’ from the same place, but having it mean different things. Marcellus is very much like, “You my nigger now,” and that was Ving Rhames who came up with that. But Ordell’s comin’ from the same place, he’s a black guy who throws the word around a lot, it’s just part of his dialect, the way he talks. And if you’re writing a black dialect, there’s certain words that you need to make it musical. Nigger’s one of them. If you’re writing about that kind of a guy, motherfucker’s another. Those are two of the key words that are appropriate for that guy. Sam Jackson uses nigger all of the time in his speech, that’s just who he is and where he comes from. That’s the way he talks, so that’s the way Ordell talks. Now what do you have to say to that?!

CS: That’s a good question! I think you have a valid point if that’s where you’re going with the character. Certainly the word nigger is part of the universe you’ve created. It’s one of the things that stands out about your writing.

QT: Also, I’m a white guy who’s not afraid of that word. You know most white guys are deathly afraid of that word.

CS: You’re right.

QT: I just don’t feel the whole white guilt and pussy-footing around race issues. I’m completely above all that. I’ve never worried about what anyone might think of me ‘cause I’ve always believed that the true of heart recognize the true of heart. If I’m doing what I’m doing and you’re comin from the same place, you’ll see it, no question about it. And if you’re comin with an ax to grind, with your own baggage and your own hate, then you might react strongly to where I’m comin from. Now what I just said there is that if you have a problem with my stuff you’re a racist. I practically said that. Well, I truly believe that.

CS: You always tend to write long, I mean 500 pages for PULP FICTION, and then cut back. Do you think that’s a good process in bringing out the best in material?

QT: It works good for me, all right, but I don’t actually think about anything like that, for most of the script. I start getting responsible about length in the third act. You can do all kinds of shit at the beginning of the movie that you don’t have the fuckin’ patience for when it gets to the end. You want to see how it ends. I also tried to get away from 120 pages on Jackie Brown. I think in the screenplay there is too damn much importance given to the page count. It's structural thing. I mean, when it came to JACKIE BROWN, it was like you know what? I'm in a position now I can just say fuck the page count. I know the movie's gonna be about two-and-a-half hours long. All this page count stuff is for the production manager. It has nothing to do with me. So I'm not gonna dumb down my writing to keep the page count down. I end up still kind of pulling back towards the very end of the process because it was getting pretty excessive. But you know it used to be I would write all this description and everything and I would be all happy with it and I would be battling page count by the end, and it would just turn into Vincent and Jules walk into a room and start talking. On this one I'm not gonna even fucking worry about it. Also because now my scripts are getting published now, this is gonna be the fucking document. I'm not writing novels, these screenplays are my novels, so I'm gonna write it the best that I can. If the movie never gets made, it'd almost be okay because I did it. It's there on the page.

CS: How did the writing of JACKIE BROWN differ from PULP FICTION?

QT: It was kind of funny because when I wrote PULP FICTION I wrote that by myself. The middle story I adapted from a script that Roger Avery wrote, but you know it was me at page one and it was me at the end. It wasn't like we were doing it together or anything. I adapted it myself and I made all these changes I was gonna do. My name alone is on the script for JACKIE BROWN, I'm the guy that did it. But, I think Elmore Leonard almost deserves credit on the script. We never talked about anything but there was a real collaboration . . . actually I was the one doing all the collaborating. So much in fact, that I kept a lot of his dialogue exactly the way it was and I wrote a lot of my own and now as time has gone on, I don't really almost remember what was mine and what was his. I don't think his stuff stands out or my stuff stands out—I think it works like a really happy marriage.

CS: You've optioned four of Leonard's books? Why did you make RUM PUNCH first?

QT: Again, it was extremely organic. I actually read RUM PUNCH before it was published. It turns out Elmore Leonard's agent is a really really good friend of Lawrence Bender, my producing partner. So they sent us the book and I loved it, but I didn't want to do his books as big budget movies, because they are actually very modest stories and can't bear a $50 million price tag. So we were getting ready to go into PULP FICTION, and were talking about a deal where we could option it for very little money and shoot it for very little money. But his agent very rightfully said, "Now guys if we're gonna do this, and he's gonna pass up millions of dollars, you guys gotta commit to do this after PULP FICTION." You can never really do that, all right, cause who knows who I'm gonna be after I get done with a movie. I couldn't really commit to it 100 percent, so I let it go. And it so happened it became available again with these other three novels. I was going to give it to another director to do, so I read it again so I could talk about it. In reading it again I remembered exactly what it was I wanted to do when I read it a long time ago, it was like I saw the movie that I made in my head a long time ago, and let go of, that movie came right back. It came right right back. That's what I'm gonna do. So that's how that one became the one. You know if you love something, set it free? Well I did, and it came back!

CS: Were there any techniques or any ideas you had, to bring the numerous "talking head" scenes in JACKIE BROWN to life? To keep the interest of the audience?

QT: It was funny 'cause I thought about that when I was writing the script. There were a whole lot of scenes with people talking to each other, right? But I thought about it and said, "That's what it is. Don't be afraid of what it is." All right? And I made a pack with myself that there are two different styles going on here—the first half is about character and the second half is about action.

CS: Okay.

QT: I'm not necessarily going to try to show off to the world what a great filmmaker I am in the first half. 'Cause the way you service that is you just get the best single performance you can from the actors and you edit it the right way so that their best work is showing and then you can have talk for ten fuckin' minutes, twenty minutes or an hour, it doesn't fuckin' matter. But in the second half we're going to crank it up. It almost ties back to what you were saying about the editing really kicking in in the third act. There was a lot less flash there I mean, just boom, boom, boom, boom, as opposed to the longer character scenes up front. Yeah, definitely.

CS: In reading your interviews you shield it a little bit, but I think you take a little pride in the way you presented RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION in non-linear formats. In JACKIE BROWN you moved to a linear format. Why did you decide that? Was it just the material?

QT: Yeah, I'm proud of what I did in RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION. I'm not too proud of it, 'cause I think that everyone should be able to do that, and it just seemed like the best way to present those stories. I don't have any one way to tell a story, all right. I don't have any rule book of how it's supposed to be done, you know? But I've always said that if a story would be more emotionally involving told, beginning, middle, and end, I'll tell it that way. I won't jigsaw it, just to show what a clever boy I am. I don't do anything in my script just to be clever. That's the first thing that goes, it has to . . .

CS:. . . be true to itself?

QT: Yeah, emotion will always win over coolness and cleverness. It's when a scene works emotionally and it's cool and clever, then it's great. That's what you want. In the case of JACKIE BROWN, this story is told better this way. And the sequence where the money is switched three times? That's how I saw it when I read the book. It's not in the book that way, but that's how I saw it.

CS: That's interesting on the screen.

QT: Yeah, I love it. I was just watching the movie in my mind as I was reading the book and thought, "That would be really cool." Before JACKIE BROWN, the most interesting character I ever wrote was Mia [IN PULP FICTION].

CS: Why is that?

QT: Because I have no idea where she came from. I have no idea whatsoever. She's not from another movie, she's not somebody I know, she's not a fantasy girl, she's not really a part of me, she's not a side of me. I knew when I was writing that story, I knew nothing more about Mia than Vincent did. All I knew were the rumors. I didn't know who she was at all, until they got to Jack Rabbit Slim's and she opened her mouth. Then all of a sudden this character emerged with her own rhythm of speech. I don't know where she came from and that's why I love her.

CS: When you’re developing a character, what do you do to get into their mind? Do you do a kind of back story on them? What do you do to get a character down?

QT: That’s a very interesting question. Maybe I should actually—I don’t. I do that as an actor though. That’s very interesting. Maybe I should start doing that in my original stuff or even on this stuff. No, in the case of JACKIE BROWN by the time I started writing the script I was pretty damn familiar with the material so I felt I knew these people. I don’t know, because part of that process is discovering them as I’m writing them. It’s different from acting. I won’t even think now about acting in a role where I didn’t do a back story for a character. Sit down with pen and paper and bring them up to this point. All right. But there’s a birthing process when you’re writing.

CS: In the past you’ve been real open about how you’ve cannibalized your own work in building new scripts. Is that a way of drawing stories into your own unique universe?

QT: Initially, when I first started doing stuff like that it was just so I didn’t have to write that part of it, it was a way to save time and pages. But it never quite works like a slam dunk anymore. By the time I get through with it I’ve usually rewritten it so much to make it work for whatever I’m doing that I might as well have written a new scene. I haven’t done that in a while actually.

CS: I didn’t notice any borrowing in JACKIE BROWN.

QT: Oh yeah, not at all. I think it was more like I save my writing and everything, and I never throw anything away. And I’ll just take something and read it, and get excited about it again. “That’s good, oh God, why did I stop doing that, that was really good.” So it’s just an attempt to not let it go to waste. To find some way to fit it in.

CS: The only script of yours that I haven’t read is Open Road.

QT: Yeah, no one has read that. I never finished it. That was like the first time I really wrote a script. Roger Avary had written a script called Pandemonium Reigns that was forty pages long and really funny. It’s like these two characters on the road and there’s this hitchhiker and it’s a surreal, wild comedy. Then they get to this kind of crazy, surreal town. Then he ended it in this way that I didn’t like at all. Because I had never finished a script, I had just written scenes, I asked him, “Could I take that? Like rewrite it, just do my own version of it?” And he said, “Yeah, go for it.” I don’t think he was going to do anything with it—I don’t think he liked his ending either. I started with getting the guy on the road, I wrote forever setting up the thing—now that you bring it up, I had forgotten, but there’s actually a really funny, like violent comedy scene in it that’s really good. I get really annoyed with people saying that I ripped off the Mexican stand-off stuff. OPEN ROAD was like way before I even knew who John Woo was. It had a Mexican stand-off scene, TRUE ROMANCE has a Mexican stand-off scene. I wrote that like in 1985 or 1986, way before I had seen A BETTER TOMORROW or anything. Way, way before. That Mexican stand-off scene is mine as much as it is his. That’s always been in my shit. So I really set-up this big fuckin’ deal to finally get him on the road. But I ultimately found out that I didn’t have a good ending for it either, I saw no way to end it.

CS: Did you incorporate any scenes from that script into your later scripts?

QT: I never really did because THE OPEN ROAD was just so damn specific—well, I did you know, that's a big lie, cause actually I did do one thing, the character I was going to play—a guy named "F. Scarland" was in my very first draft of NATURAL BORN KILLERS that most people never read. I later did a complete rewrite on NATURAL BORN KILLERS but in the first draft, F. Scarland was like the third lead in the piece.

I had waited an hour for the interview to start . . . but when Tarantino finally sat down, he delivered—five hours of rapid paced conversation on a variety of topics. In the conclusion of our discussion Tarantino told me he’s not adverse to directing scripts written by other writers in the future. He respects the writing of David Peoples (HERO) and Frank Darabont (THE GREEN MILE), but lesser writers need not apply. And if you’d like him to executive produce your film, forget it. “If I’m going to make a movie, it’s going to be my movie. Otherwise, I’m going to do the things I enjoy outside of filmmaking—acting and living.”

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