Reading Quentin Tarantino

Saying Quentin Tarantino is a great screenwriter is like saying that Bach is a good composer or Wilt Chamberlain is a great basketball player – he may not be the best ever, but he’s a definitive and obvious master of the medium and he’s won two academy awards, which seems like too few. But because the only people who read screenplays other than screenwriting students and people who are actually in the films that the screenplays become, there’s something to be said about Tarantino’s craft that goes beyond how well it translates to the screen. Tarantino’s screenplay are reading experiences in a way that few are – they go beyond functionality and economy and into a totally unusual domain where what follows INT – JACKRABBIT SLIMS – NIGHT are eloquent and hilarious and even literary. For that reason, they’re terribly uninstructive for beginning screenwriters, who could never get away with this (aside: the most instructive and economic script I’ve ever read is The English Patient, which is less than a hundred pages even though the movie is about three hours long). Tarantino’s scripts read like novels – they are even broken up into chapters, which often make it into the movies. I haven’t seen a Tarantino movie fresh since Jackie Brown; I’ve read the script for every one through some kind of illegal downloading, most recently because of the leak of The Hateful Eight that made him threaten never to make it. I was delighted and read it within an hour of getting it.

The other reason you should read Tarantino’s scripts is because whole scenes or chapters end up on the cutting room floor for budget or for length. Most famously, this happened with Kill Bill, which ended up becoming two movies even as whole scenes are dropped. Sadly, the ending of Kill Bill involved an epic night-time sword fight on the beach between Bill and The Bride, which the film replaces with her much quicker sneak attack. Inglorious Basterds explains how the orphaned Jewish refugee Shoshanna becomes the owner of a movie theater in Vichy France, and also how Donnie became the Bear Jew. Django Unchained explains how Calvin Candie came to own Broomhilda. True Romance is a very different script, with a less linear structure that creates mystery and ends more tragically – but we have Tony Scott to thank for those changes.

Here’s a few examples of Tarantino’s descriptions at their most vivid, and also some stuff that’s been dropped (all of these scripts are available online; all you have to do is google them).

Kill Bill opens gloriously with the fight between Uma Thurman’s Bride and Vivica A. Fox’s Cobra. And the description realizes the domestic destruction they bring:


The film obviously (and maybe even wisely) cuts all the specifically observed domestic details, like the commemorative plates, but here we get that Cobra is now Vernita – an assassin who has thrived in the domestic life of a homemaker that the Bride has never known. And that’s precisely what the Bride is set on destroying. But the energy of the film is completely evident on the page. Tarantino apparently can’t type well, so he writes his scripts in spiral notebooks with red and black felt pens (hence the misspellings and typos: it’s “Crispus Attucks”). Reading this, you can see his visual imagination at work.

The early scripts – Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and True Romance – are leaner and meaner. But one abandoned scene in Pulp Fiction deserves to be mentioned. It’s when Vincent Vega goes to pick up Mia Wallace and she talks to him over the intercom:


This is the classic early Tarantino that would be ripped off over the next few years – spot-on perfect pop culture references coming from unlikely sources as a way of establishing character quirks. And the undeniable fact is that it was wisely cut from the film because it doesn’t make sense: Vincent has just shot up and wouldn’t be this lucid. Mia is nervous yet mysterious and cool and this gives too much away. The film shows a stoned (and equally nervous) Travolta out of it and swaying to the dope, and that works perfectly. With the Jackrabbit Slim scene yet to come, it’s just too much chocolate syrup in your milk. But this exchange, particularly the Encyclopedia Brown reference, kills me. I wish it could exist in another movie.

Django Unchained is full of references to other Westerns, as is The Hateful Eight. But my favorite is the description of “Minnie’s Haberdashery” in The Hateful Eight, which is where (this is not a spoiler) about 70% of the story is set:

qt3Apart from the punchline, and the loving encyclopedic knowledge of Westerns, this seems like the closest thing you’re going to get to shooting the shit with Tarantino at a bar. And since the rest of the film is going to be set there, you can observe how much he makes the setting a character. I seriously doubt we’ll hear any of this in the movie, but if it works, you’ll see the spirit.

There are more, but I’ll return to Kill Bill because it’s one of my all-time favorite reading experiences. I bought it in  New York from a street vendor (they still do this) before the movie came out and read it in a sitting. In the script, Bill is introduced much differently. We never see him in the first film, but we do hear his voice – that’s not the case in the script. When Elle Driver goes to poison the comatose Bride in a hospital, and Bill calls at the last minute to tell her not to, we don’t hear Bill’s reasons – we just see this:

qt4There’s so much more mystery established here than what the finished film ends up showing: Bill from the neck down caressing a sword and adding what the script only hints at through the enigmatic pauses. It makes Bill – the guy in the title who needs to be killed – too cool for us even to listen to yet. He’s as persuasive as he is deadly, and this is something that I feel got lost in David Carradine’s stylized performance – here, you can see the part that was originally written for Warren Beatty, playing on his image as a master manipulator of woman, and making his ultimate demise more satisfying.

And finally, to show that Tarantino can do the whole brevity thing, I’ll close with the way he introduces Bill. This is my favorite thing that was ever cut from a Tarantino script. It’s in a chapter called “Can she bake a cherry pie,” and it takes place in an illegal casino. Bill has knocked at the door and we haven’t seen him yet, so we’re following the perspective of eyes through a slot in the door. And here’s what we finally see. Keep in mind that this is the guy from the title, who has been talked about but never seen or heard, so we’re expecting the same kind of intense and awesome details we get for Minnie’s Haberdashery. But instead:qt5


A Livable Galaxy Far Far Away

In his review of Revenge of the Sith, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane writes:

“After all, the Lucasian universe is drained of all reference to bodily functions. Nobody ingests or excretes. Language remains unblue. Smoking and cursing are out of bounds, as is drunkenness, although personally I wouldn’t go near the place without a hip flask. Did Lucas learn nothing from “Alien” and “Blade Runner”—from the suggestion that other times and places might be no less rusted and septic than ours, and that the creation of a disinfected galaxy, where even the storm troopers wear bright-white outfits, looks not so much fantastical as dated? What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence.”

Lane wrote a much more sympathetic review of the latest movie, but there’s still a hint of the “disinfected galaxy” and “terrible puritan dream” complaint there. In fact, I’d say this is one of the things that Lucas set up so brilliantly in the blueprint of A New Hope: that a populated interplanetary world is a terrible, terrible place. There are deserts and swamps and ice globes, and these are more or less the only places to live. You survive in dive bars, or in caves, or in floating palaces, or by farming ore or sand or whatever Owen Lars has Luke doing on Tattoine. If you take a wrong step, you might get swallowed and digested by a Sarlacc. I mean, what’s disinfected about Jabba the freaking Hutt? I’m reminded of Stephen Crane:

One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb. The conceit of man was explained by this storm to be the very engine of life. One was a coxcomb not to die in it. However, the Swede found a saloon.

It’s telling that when Luke and the gang finally arrive at the Rebel headquarters, we only get a brief shot of the forest world they’ve occupied. That’s not what Lucas wanted to show. The jungle in Endor, the most beautiful of the planets we visit in the original trilogy, is modeled after Vietnam. We spend quality time inside of a Jawa dump truck. Even on the Death Star, he wants to show us the trash compacter. Kashyyyk, the Wookie Planet home to Chewbacca, seemed to be okay because treehouses, but Wookies smell terrible.

Or, you have the sterile, aseptic mechanicalism of Death Stars and the intermediary places like Cloud City. It makes sense that the Empire would be a desirable option when the alternate option is a weekly sand-people cane-beating. So long as you don’t challenge them, the Empire deviously presents itself as the kind of order that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere in this galaxy.

  • (FWIW: the main thing I remember about the dreadful Attack of the Clones is when Anakin finds his mother in a Tusken village, full of tee-pees, campfires, etc. Are the sand-people supposed to be the native inhabitants, like Indians. Do they raise children in some kind of civilized way? Are they trying to take back a territory that’s rightfully theirs?)

When I lived in College Park, Maryland, I was always delighted to see the signs that welcomed you to the city: “A Livable Community.” No need to double-down on its virtues – “livable,” it’s the most purely functional of descriptors. What was odd about College Park is that it doesn’t fit the values of “livable” as its mostly described: it’s difficult if not impossible to walk or bike anywhere because of the constant traffic flow and tiny sandwalks. It’s livable in the most basic and blandest possible sense, and that’s very much the virtue of a place like Tatooine.

But unlike the George Lucas who had just come off THX-1138 and American Graffiti, J.J. Abrams has always been more into grand vistas of epic, natural beauty. There are Aztec-ians ruins in his galaxy which rest on a palatial lake, and a final battle takes place where it might be cool to go cross-country skiing. And at the end, we find out that SPOILER SPOILER lives on a beautiful SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER, which does seem a bit more like prime real estate than Dagobah. But Abrams does get one aspect right where the prequels failed brutally: shit breaks down a lot. That’s the through-line of American Graffiti to the original trilogy, where Lucas was interested in monster cars and the kind of seemingly pathetic but weirdly inspirational guys who drive them like John Milner and Han Solo (Who you calling scruffy looking?) Those movies were inspired by the then-clunky approach to American car manufacturing, while it’s telling that the prequels came out after the Japanese had the bright idea of making cars that don’t break down a lot. Abrams revises that spirit in The Force Awakens, at least in part – the wonder of the earlier scenes relies on lonely Rey living in the hulking carcass of an AT-AT walker, left over from some unmentioned battle. This seems right: it’s hard enough to land those suckers on a desert planet, and I doubt that Jakku has the kind of civic infrastructure to provide for some kind of reasonable salvaging budget.

And yet, what worked about those early movies was that despite the Wookie scat, we all would want to live there. This is why the first three movies work, and modern epics not filmed in New Zealand could learn a bit from this – its physical trappings are messy, dangerous, foul, and wonderful.