QT Talks to Brian Helgeland

From The Quentin Tarantino Archives

(originally published at www.nytimes.com/2003/11/09/movies/09ROUNDTABLE.html)

Screenwriters Are (Obsessive, Creative, Neurotic) People, Too

Moderated by LYNN HIRSCHBERG. Published: November 9, 2003

To write the script for Kill Bill, Tarantino went on a quest to recover the original Smith Corona typewriter word processor -- owned by an ex-girlfriend -- that he used on his first two films.

Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, for which he won an Academy Award for best original screenplay. Brian Helgeland has written several original screenplays and adaptations. His script for L.A. Confidential (which he wrote with the director, Curtis Hanson) won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Last month, as their two new films opened to great acclaim, Tarantino and Helgeland sat down in the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles to share some wisdom about the screenwriting life.

The Consolation-Prize Theory

Tarantino: Here is a fact, or an observation, or something I've just noticed about the Oscars: when American Beauty won best picture, that was the beginning of a new day. The underdog movie, the cool movie, finally won. Before that -- and this is a generalization, but I think a true one -- you'd have the favorite, the more Hollywood movie, and you'd have the cooler movie. You know, the critical darling. But the status quo Hollywood movie always got big respect from the middlebrow critics, the Rex Reeds of the world. And invariably, when it came down to the final mano a mano, those status quo movies won best picture. And they won best director. And the cool movie would always win the screenplay award. That was its consolation prize for being cool. And what this highlights is obvious: the writing branch of the Academy is much hipper. There's no two, three, four ways about it. The progressive branch of the Academy is the writing branch.

Helgeland: I think there's truth to that.

Tarantino: My year, the year Pulp Fiction won screenplay, Forrest Gump won best picture. What won the year you won for L.A. Confidential?

Helgeland: Titanic.

Tarantino: Titanic. It didn't even get nominated for screenplay.

Helgeland: Which just proves, I guess, how hip the screenwriting branch is.

Tarantino: I happen to love Titanic. I think it's a wonderful movie.

Helgeland: I have to excuse myself from talking about it, because we were against it. So I can't do anything but hate it.

Tarantino: I understand. Still, the theory is good. There are tons of examples. For instance, I knew when Jane Campion went up to accept her award for screenwriting for The Piano, I knew that was the last time I was going to see her that night. And when Neil Jordan went up to accept his award for The Crying Game, that was the last I was going to see him that night.

Helgeland: You held out hope, though, right?

Tarantino: No, no, I didn't. I knew. When I won, that speech I gave, the one thing I said that was true was something like: This is the last you're going to see me tonight.

Helgeland: I thought you almost said that but didn't quite say it. I had the feeling you knew it, but you didn't want to come right out and jinx yourself.

Tarantino: You may be right. I think I at least alluded to it.

Helgeland: You were like, This is the last -- no, I'm not going to say it. That's what it was.

Tarantino: That sounds like me. What did you say?

Helgeland: I went on about James Ellroy, I think. That was about it. I said I was going to call the award an Ellroy.

Tarantino: Excellent. You know, I would be very interested to listen to adaptation speeches to see how many times someone actually thanks the original author. Not very often, I bet.

Helgeland: Yeah, well, given a chance to be gracious, it's very hard to actually do so.

The Early Inspirations

Helgeland: I think Cool Hand Luke was probably the first movie in which I was aware of the writing as its own separate thing. It was that speech when the guy reads Paul Newman the riot act. The speech about going in the box.

Tarantino: Oh, yeah.

Helgeland: It's about a two-page speech. Bang, bang, bang. It's great. I think I was around 12 when I first noticed it.

Tarantino: God, I wish I could say that. I wish I was aware of that kind of writing at 12, but I wasn't. I think the first thing I was really into were novelizations.

Helgeland: I wasn't aware of it as writing, really, I was just aware of the words. There were a lot of words there. That speech is so long.

Tarantino: Were you into novelizations?

Helgeland: A couple, yeah.

Tarantino: When I saw movies I liked, I would go to the 7-11 and I would find the novelization. That's where I found W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings. To this day, I reread it every three years. And I still have the same paperback that I bought way back when. The movie was written by Thomas Rickman, who was nominated for an Oscar for Coal Miner's Daughter.

Helgeland: And the novelization?

Tarantino: Also Thomas Rickman. I found out later that Thomas Rickman was so disgusted with what they did with his movie that he asked to write the novelization, so that one person out there would know what it was that he intended. I'm 40 now, and I still read W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings every three years. I'm that one person. When I saw the movie, though, a few years after I'd first read the book, I was like, What the hell is this? I mean, I was offended. I was literally offended. The novelization was pure. But this was Hollywood garbage. So that's why I started writing screenplays, because I was so outraged.

Helgeland: What was the first thing you wrote?

Tarantino: I was in the sixth grade -- the end of my first time. I was held back; I was in the sixth grade twice. But my first time in the sixth grade, toward the very end, I went and saw The Bad News Bears, and I fell hopelessly in love with Tatum O'Neal. I mean, so much in love with Tatum O'Neal. I'm embarrassed to tell you how much in love I was with her.

Helgeland: I love that line: Look, you crud, just get back to your beer. I liked that kid Lupus, too. I wanted to name my son after him, but my wife wouldn't let me name him after a Bad News Bear. That screenplay is so good. I don't think they'd make that movie today. Walter Matthau's character is just too extreme. Driving drunk, with the kids in the car without their seat belts on. One of them could have gone through a window.

Tarantino: My crush on Tatum O'Neal was so strong that actually you could almost consider it your first love. So in the sixth grade I started writing an ABC Afterschool Special about me meeting Tatum O'Neal. I called her Somerset in the script, and I did what I could never do in real life. I finagled a way, through conniving and lying, to meet Somerset O'Neal. And she was charmed by me. I never got that far in the script. I wrote the first 20 pages and then abandoned it. But after that, that's all I could do in school, just write new scripts. Eventually, the teacher complained to my mom. And at some point, when my mom was mad at me, she said: Oh, and by the way, this little writing career of yours? It's over! And I thought, This little writing career? This little writing career? You have no vision. I will never buy you the house that Elvis bought his mother. And to this day I have not bought my mother a house. And I never will!

Writing With an Actor in Mind, and Other Rituals

Tarantino: Can I ask you -- I've been thinking about Mystic River -- how did you feel when Clint cast the movie?

Helgeland: Well, I wasn't thinking of any of the parts. I was thinking of the characters, but I wasn't doing a casting thing in my head. So I thought he was pretty on the money. The only thing is that when he cast Tim Robbins, I immediately thought he was too big for the part, physically. And then when I saw the movie, Tim himself is aware of it, and he plays it kind of like the world has shrunk him. And it's even better for that reason. I don't really write with living actors in mind. I guess I write for dead actors. I'll think of like, you know, Burt Lancaster would be good in this part, and so on. With L.A. Confidential, it was like, wouldn't it be cool if Dean Martin played the Kevin Spacey part?

Tarantino: I definitely often write for Sam Jackson. I know his rhythms. I feel like he can turn my lines into poetry. In fact, the character of Bill in Kill Bill, when I first put pen to paper, was Sam Jackson. And finally I had to stop it. I knew I didn't want to cast Sam Jackson as Bill. So I had to mess with the process. It had to be something else. And when I started writing Max Cherry, the main character in Jackie Brown, I was hopping back and forth between four actors that could do the movie. Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Robert Forster, and the other one was John Saxon. But in my heart of hearts, I knew it was Robert Forster. And the crazy thing is, I walked into a restaurant, a coffee shop, during the high point of writing it, and Robert Forster was there. In the throes of writing it, at my most passionate, I walk in the room, and he's there. And I gave it to him.

Helgeland: Oh, yeah. The signs are always out there. It's like when you're location-scouting and you start to see the names of the characters on street signs and stuff like that.

Tarantino: Oh, man, I've never had that happen, but I'm going to start looking for that.

Helgeland: There are all the writing rituals, too. Write only on the legal pads, transcribe onto the computer. I'll write all of the ideas and then I'll write scenes. And then when I have a scene done, then I'll type it in just to get it in there. Because I get all kinds of crazy -- you know, it's like the house is going to burn down and all the legal pads will burn up. The idea will be gone. Stuff like that.

Tarantino: Do you type like that, two fingers?

Helgeland: Yeah. Sometimes three.

Tarantino: If it's going good?

Helgeland: Yeah.

Tarantino: Before I wrote Reservoir Dogs, I was able to get friends of mine to type my scripts. But then, there I was, writing Reservoir Dogs -- and I couldn't be more excited by anything I've ever written -- and I look around and I've got no one, there's no one who will type it for me. All friends have dried up.

Helgeland: No house for them. No house.

Tarantino: Right. They don't get a house, either. I like that. No house. All right, so I realized I was going to have to do it myself. My girlfriend had one of those old Smith Corona word processors. It was great for me because it was idiotproof. One of the more famous things in Reservoir Dogs, the argument over who's going to be named what color, was written with one finger on that word processor. So then when I wrote Pulp Fiction, she let me borrow it again. But for Jackie Brown, I didn't have it, and it made me crazy. So on Kill Bill, I was like, I've got to get Grace's old word processor back. But we'd broken up. So I went to her, and I was like, Let me just have it. She said her sister had it. But her sister gave it to somebody else, and that person gets in touch with me and says: I have the Smith Corona word processor that you did 'Pulp Fiction' on. Would you like it? Yes. Yes. Yes.

The Anxiety of Adaptation; the Melancholy of Lost Possibilities

Helgeland: The funny thing about James Ellroy is he's my favorite novelist, and had been for years before I was hired to write the script for L.A. Confidential. So when it was done, my overriding fear was that he wouldn't like it, in which case it would all have been a waste. All of it. Even if the movie came out and did well, it wouldn't matter. But it got sent to him, and he read it and liked it and signed off on it.

Tarantino: That's cool.

Helgeland: Yeah. The high point of the whole experience was that James Ellroy didn't think I had messed it up.

Tarantino: I felt that way with Elmore Leonard and Jackie Brown. Nothing, not studios, nothing, has ever made me more scared than I was when I changed his heroine in Rum Punch from a white woman to a black woman. I was actually scared to talk to him. The phone just weighed 500 pounds. And it gained 100 pounds every time I glanced at it. And then I started thinking, You know what, I can't be that way, I've got to go my way. But that didn't really make it any easier to talk to him about it.

Helgeland: It's a very complicated thing, adaptation. And it's a very different kind of satisfaction than you get from doing an original. It's easier, sort of, but also trickier. If you write an original, it's like you went in and dug a well and you hit oil. But an adaptation, it's like the oil well's on fire, and they bring you in to put the fire out and get it working again -- or something like that. It's like, here are these 18 problems that you need to solve in order for this to work as a movie. An original is always -- I just think it's closer to you. Not that they're not all close to you, but the original is more yours. It's your kid, as opposed to the adaptation, which is like having to raise your sister's kid from the time he was 10. With an original, you're not looking over your shoulder at the book.

Tarantino: Yeah, yeah, exactly. You're not thinking, How do I sell this book, how do I sell this moment? Even when it's easy, it's still hard, because the book can do all these things that you can't do. Not the obvious things, like omniscient voice or something. It's the other things. Take Jackie Brown. Elmore Leonard has this -- for lack of a better word, we'll call it a subplot, though it's not really a full-fledged subplot. Anyway, in this thing, this subplot, that you can't really translate into film, there are three crucial pieces of information, and in the book they all are presented organically. Now you have to figure out a way to get these three crucial pieces of information into the movie while preserving that organic quality. That's tough.

Helgeland: It's like someone wrote a math theorem that covered a whole chalkboard, and then you have to come in and erase a third of it and prove that theorem only with what you have left on the blackboard, if that makes sense.

Tarantino: It makes complete sense. Still, though, whenever I read a novel, I'm always adapting it into a movie as I read it. I wish I could turn that off, but I can't. Everything I read, I'm always making it into a movie as I'm reading it. Is that true in your case?

Helgeland: Yeah, definitely. If I'm in the bookstore and I see a 700-page novel, my first thought is, Ooh, how could you cut this down to size and make a movie out of it?

Tarantino: It's one of the reasons I really enjoy reading some film criticism and theory, because you can't make it into a movie. It's pure writing. Even historical novels, I get lost in how to turn them into movies. I mean, to do any research on World War II is to just create a whole life of movies you could make. But you can't do them all. When I was younger and reading plays and books, I would always think, Oh, man, I'll do this and I'll do that. Only to sadly realize that I can't do it all, and you try to go back and this stuff that I once thought was great, maybe I've outgrown that material.

Helgeland: Yes, I know that feeling.

Tarantino: And there is a little of you that's gone. You're now a new you. And it's not like the new you is so much better. You wish you could have the excitement, the first love, that you had when you read that stuff and making that movie is all you wanted to do. It's not a happy day when you realize you've outgrown material that you once loved.

Helgeland: Yeah, you can't go back. It's very bad.

Favorite Screenplays: A Rapid-Fire Exchange

Helgeland: Moonstruck, by John Patrick Shanley; Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon, by Frank Pierson (Those Pierson scripts made me want to write screenplays).

Tarantino: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, by Sergio Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni; His Girl Friday, adapted by Charles Lederer from the play The Front Page (Not only the greatest dialogue in the history of cinema, but it's a genre that doesn't exist anymore: the newspaper comedy. And it's a blistering social satire); Unfaithfully Yours, by Preston Sturges (I don't love Preston Sturges the way other people love him, but his dialogue is fantastic).

Helgeland: The Poseidon Adventure, by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes (The characters are introduced perfectly -- you know everything about them almost instantly); The Outlaw Josey Wales, by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus; Horton Foote's adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (It's just a great adaptation).

Tarantino: Rio Bravo, by Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman (It works as a crackerjack story, and it's just fun. It's the ultimate hang-out movie); What's Up, Doc? by Robert Benton, David Newman and Buck Henry; Hero, by David Webb Peoples (This stands alone as a great script that a great movie didn't make).

Helgeland: Heaven Can Wait, by Elaine May and Warren Beatty (A great ending and one of the all-time best remakes); Slap Shot, by Nancy Dowd (One of the best profane scripts of all time); The Big Lebowski, by Joel and Ethan Coen (Because they so convincingly make their own world); Klute, by Andy and Dave Lewis (Jane Fonda's character talks all the time, and you don't know anything about her. Donald Sutherland's character doesn't say a word, and you know everything about him).

Tarantino: Shampoo, by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty (It's just brilliant); The Great Escape, adapted by James Clavell and W. R. Burnett (The shortest three-hour movie ever made in the history of time); Switchblade Sisters, by F. X. Maier and John Prizer (The dialogue is so wonderful that half the people watching it would think that it's bad dialogue -- the script is ingenious).

Helgeland: Rocky, by Sylvester Stallone; Blade Runner, by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples (It wasn't all art direction -- the dialogue was terrific in that movie); Unforgiven, by David Peoples (The best script in my lifetime).

Tarantino: Out of the Past, by Daniel Mainwaring (Maybe the best dialogue in a dialogue-heavy genre, the noir movie); Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by Russ Meyer and Jack Moran (The funniest, most quotable dialogue); Scarface, by Oliver Stone (Extremely memorable -- nearly every line of the movie is worth repeating).

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