Erik Bauer

Method Writing: Interview with Quentin Tarantino

Method Writing: Interview with Quentin Tarantino
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The Academy Award-winning writer/director gives Creative Screenwriting his most in-depth interview on Jackie Brown, his writing/acting method, and not being afraid of words that wound

Originally published in the Jan/Feb 1998 issue of Creative Screenwriting.


by Erik Bauer

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.

Perhaps it’s Ordell’s influence, perhaps not. But Tarantino is cultivating a new reputation. “I bitch slapped [Don Murphy] like three times, bam, bam, bam.… a little bitch slap don’t hurt nobody, it just humiliates them and that’s the object,” Tarantino recalled on the Keenan Ivory Wayans Show. Combine such aggression with a new black beret-wearing look, and you have Quentin Tarantino, Hollywood’s bad boy writer-director. In meeting with Tarantino I decided to set aside his image making and focus my inquiry on his writing, the heart of his power as a filmmaker.

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.

Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard

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.”

Quentin Tarantino at Jerry's Deli (Photo: Erik Bauer)

Quentin Tarantino at Jerry’s Deli (Photo: Erik Bauer)

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

QUENTIN TARANTINO: 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.

Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper's classic scene in True Romance

Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper’s classic scene in True Romance

BAUER: 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?

TARANTINO: 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.

George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn

George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn

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

TARANTINO: 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.

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

The trunk shot from Pulp Fiction

The trunk shot from Pulp Fiction

TARANTINO: 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.

BAUER: Do you think the Hollywood environment is constraining to writers as far as their perspective?

TARANTINO: Well, it’s your life and anybody’s life is valid, you know. But to really get to know people and discover humanity, which is what I truly think writers and actors do, you’ve got to be interested in other human beings, you have to be interested in humanity in general, and you have to do some discovering of humanity and different people. In real life there are no bad guys. Everybody just has their own perspective. I do have sympathy for the devil. To keep pursuing that you need to break out of your environment, whether that is Hollywood or you’re a novelist living in Rhode Island. You gotta go have a conversation with and get to know somebody that makes $10,000 a year. You know, they have a different fucking perspective. So that’s the only danger, you’ve gotta work at it, you gotta work at going out and keeping your hand into other people’s lives and not just your own.

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

TARANTINO: 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.

"The Cadillac of mini-vans" in Get Shorty

“The Cadillac of mini-vans” in Get Shorty

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

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

BAUER: What about Scott Frank’s adaptation of Get Shorty?

TARANTINO: 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 a 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.

BAUER: 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?

TARANTINO: 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?

BAUER: Definitely.

TARANTINO: There are a lot of directors out there where you can almost number their films. That doesn’t make them bad films and these guys are doing exactly what they want to do. I just want each movie to have a life complete unto itself and still when you look at it from a perspective you can see how it all fits. I don’t want to do a Woody Allen or a John Sayles thing where one film blurs into the next. Those guys are doing exactly what they want to do, and I’m not putting them down. I just want to do something else.

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown

BAUER: In Jackie Brown it almost seemed like you went to great lengths to make the dialogue naturalistic. Some of it was taken from Leonard and some not, but it really casts against the very stylized excessive dialogue that you’re known for. Is that a step away, like you were saying, from your voice as we know it?

TARANTINO: Yes. I don’t want to be known for writing… 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.

BAUER: It doesn’t?

TARANTINO: 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.

Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown

Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown

BAUER: Does the Cockatoo Lounge really exist?

TARANTINO: Yeah. I found the place. I was looking for a black cocktail lounge in Hawthorne, and I eventually found the Cockatoo Inn and it was perfect.

BAUER: 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?

TARANTINO: 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.

BAUER: 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.

Bridget Fonda as Melanie Ralston in Jackie Brown

Bridget Fonda as Melanie Ralston in Jackie Brown

TARANTINO: 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…

BAUER: Definitely more than screenwriters where it’s all structure, structure, structure.

TARANTINO: I just don’t do that, you know by the first act this has to happen, and so on. I hold no interest in that, I just see it in too many movies. I’d like to see more art put into screenwriting. One of the things about writing a novel is you can do it any way you want. It’s your voice that’s important and I see absolutely no reason why a screenplay can’t be the same. Now it makes it a hell of a lot easier when you’re the writer and the director. But that’s not even necessary now, because things are a little more open.

BAUER: In what way?

TARANTINO: There are a lot of bad screenplays so if you write a good screenplay people are going to respond to it. Now if you’re way at the bottom and you’re just starting your career it might take a long time to get to the people that’ll appreciate it. It’ll just get shot down by all the readers and everything. But if you keep persevering, eventually you’ll get past that reader and on to the people that are really bored to death reading screenplays. These are the people that really appreciate something new. That was the big thing I had against me starting off in my career. I was writing shit differently, and different meant I was doing it wrong in that whole reader mentality. Before David Mamet was David Mamet, people probably thought he said fuck too much too. But once they get to know you, once you get that Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, it’s a whole different story. But in the beginning having a different voice is a real hindrance.

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

Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs

Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs

TARANTINO: 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.

BAUER: 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?

TARANTINO: 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 Fiction, 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.

Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown

Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown

BAUER: Ordell uses “nigga” a lot in Jackie Brown. How is his use of the word different than that of the characters in Pulp Fiction?

TARANTINO: 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?!

BAUER: 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.

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

BAUER: You’re right.

TARANTINO: 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.

BAUER: Other than it being more realistic, what other differences do you see between your universe and that of Elmore Leonard?

Burt Reynolds in Stick

Poster for Burt Reynolds’ Stick

TARANTINO: The two big things were to make it much less stylized and don’t rush it, ’cause his novels are not rushed—they talk about things and eventually it kind of creeps out, as they’re talking. But there’s no rush, it’s the best part of his rhythm. Stephen King actually summed it up pretty well when he said, “I went and saw Stick, and I love Elmore Leonard’s novels and the plot’s all there, everything that happens in the book pretty much happens in the movie, but what is gone is the feeling that I get when I read an Elmore Leonard novel.” I wanted to get that feeling in my own writing too, not just with his writing. So my stuff and his stuff go together pretty seamlessly.

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 weren’t doing it together or anything. I adapted it myself and I made all these changes I was gonna do.

Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary at the Academy Awards for Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary at the Academy Awards for Pulp Fiction

My name alone is on the script for Jackie Brown, I’m the guy that did it. But, I think more than Roger Avary, 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.

I also tried to get away from that on Jackie Brown. I think in the screenplay there is too damn much importance given to the page count.

BAUER: It’s structural thing.

TARANTINO: 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.

Robert Forster as Max Cherry in Jackie Brown

Robert Forster as Max Cherry in Jackie Brown

BAUER: You’ve optioned four of Leonard’s books? Why did you make Rum Punch first?

TARANTINO: Again, it was extremely organic. I actually read Rum Punch before it got 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!

BAUER: 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?

The robbery in Reservoir Dogs was told in flashback.

The robbery in Reservoir Dogs was told in flashback.

TARANTINO: 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…

BAUER: …be true to itself?

TARANTINO: 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.

BAUER: That’s interesting on the screen.

TARANTINO: 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.

BAUER: Why is that?

Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction

Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction

TARANTINO: 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.

BAUER: Has it been daunting to adapt the work of someone who you have so much respect for? I know Elmore Leonard kind of cut you free saying, “You’re the filmmaker, make your movie.”

TARANTINO: The only thing daunting about it, was when I was finished with it and gave it to him to read. I wasn’t going to change it, but I really wanted him to appreciate it and sign off on it. But during the actual writing process I think you would have a hard time doing a good job if you were thinking about stuff like that. I was dropping stuff left and right. Stuff I had totally intended to use, I ended up not using. You know I got this book, and I gotta find my movie inside of it. So I wrote a ton of shit.

BAUER: Was your writing process different for an adaptation?

TARANTINO: Actually it was different, but my process didn’t really change that much. I’ve always equated the writing process with editing, sort of like when I get through editing the movie, that’s like my last draft of the screenplay.

BAUER: That’s how John Sayles sees it too.

Quentin Tarantino and editor Sally Menke

Quentin Tarantino and editor Sally Menke

TARANTINO: My editor Sally [Menke] was like my writing collaborator on this; and adapting Jackie Brown was like this six-hour movie that I had to cut it down to two-and-one-half hours. It was funny because I took about a year to write it. The last five months, that’s pretty much all I was doing, and I found it very beneficial to sit with the material that long, especially for an adaptation, because, I just kept finding my movie inside the material, more and more. I learned to lose more and more, and I’d make those cuts in the script exactly the way you do when you’re making cuts in the editing room. The stuff that I did in the last two months of writing it, after writing for the whole year, was some of the best stuff in the whole script, because I had lived with the material for so long. If you’re trying to drop ten pages from a screenplay, it hurts like hell, but if you just put it away for a month and then take it out, you can do it just like that!

BAUER: Right. Get some perspective on it. 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?

TARANTINO: 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.

Trunk shot of Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Tucker (as Beaumont Livingston)

Trunk shot of Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Tucker (as Beaumont Livingston)

The single biggest addition I made to the book is the whole Beaumont section. Of all the structural things in the movie, I think that is the best thing I brought to it. It’s almost like a non-sequitur, it has nothing to do with the Jackie thing, except it mirrors it completely. Right? You get to understand Ordell’s situation and what’s going on with Jackie through the Beaumont situation, cause you’ve just been through that. It’s like a movie unto itself for the first twenty minutes. But it sets up everything that you’re going to see and I really like the storytelling involved in that. When Elmore Leonard read the screenplay, one of the comments that he passed on to me was, “What’s with all the Beaumont stuff?” He didn’t think it was important? But by spending twenty minutes with Beaumont here, that’s a really neat shorthand I can do for the rest of the flick. ’Cause you know Ordell’s modus operandi.

The only major structural thing I did in Jackie Brown was I liked the idea of telling the stories from the different perspectives of the characters, without being real precious about it. I dropped that from the movie, though. I took out the title cards. It worked well enough, but it was too precious. I wanted the film to have more of a rhythm at the beginning. And it seems to play, one into the other, and everything happens like in the script. The ball does get passed to Max, when it’s Max’s turn; and the whole first part is Ordell’s, but it was too much like Pulp Fiction, it was just a little too precious. I didn’t need to be so clever and precious with the structure. I was like, “No, this is the story, this will tell it.”

BAUER: Jackie Brown is a story that constantly unfolds. Not necessarily in reversals, but new elements are added, and those reversals per se are often brought about through Jackie’s dialogue. Was that something that you liked?

Samuel L. Jackson and Pam Grier in Jackie Brown

Samuel L. Jackson and Pam Grier in Jackie Brown

TARANTINO: I think it kind of works well. It is always unfolding; it’s not a movie about Jackie figuring out in the first ten minutes how to get a half million dollars and doing it—no! It’s like little by little by little it starts coming to her, as life and situations change and she’s being torn in this direction and that direction. It slowly evolves; and then from that point on, it’s straight ahead until she does it. It’s very novelistic in that the first ninety minutes of the movie is just about characterization. Then, it’s all execution. The last half-hour is just them doing it, the money switches and all that.

BAUER: There’s more exposition in the dialogue of Jackie Brown then in your previous scripts.

TARANTINO: That’s for damn sure, yeah.

BAUER: Was that a part of the adaptation process?

TARANTINO: Yeah, I mean, that’s all that happened in the book, she’s talking to the people about that stuff. That’s part of Max’s whole relationship with Jackie, kind of talking about their problems, with him acting as a counsel, trying to help her out. In the second half it’s her thinking out loud, she’s kind of talking to herself. Yeah, that’s the first time I was dealing in exposition in a big way.

BAUER: That definitely struck me in reading it.

TARANTINO: Did it come across as “Oh, here’s the exposition thing?”

BAUER: No, but there’s certainly a lot more of the plot being told through the dialogue. That’s a departure from your earlier work.

TARANTINO: Yeah, yeah. But they’re planning something too, so it’s organic to the piece.

BAUER: 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?

TARANTINO: 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.

BAUER: Okay.

TARANTINO: 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.

 Robert De Niro as Louis and Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell have a lengthy dialogue in the beginning of Jackie Brown

Robert De Niro as Louis and Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell have a lengthy dialogue in the beginning of Jackie Brown

BAUER: 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.

TARANTINO: Yeah, definitely.

BAUER: What kind of music are you going to have in the film?

TARANTINO: What surf music was to Pulp this is all soul music, kind of the rhythm that this story takes place to.

BAUER: Did you write to that music? Is that something that enters into your writing process?

TARANTINO: Oh yeah, yeah, it’s a major part of it, that’s kind of how I write. I’ll write for a while and then I’ll find an appropriate song and in a weird way the music will keep me in the mood. I find music to define the mood of the movie, the rhythm the movie is going to play in.

BAUER: Besides writing an adaptation, what creative goals do you set for yourself in writing Jackie Brown?

TARANTINO: I like the idea of following a female lead character as in Jackie Brown. I like that a lot; I think I have an extremely unfair rap from people who say, “Ahhh, but can he write women?” The only fuckin’ reason they’re saying that is because I did Reservoir Dogs first. I really love the idea of following a black woman in her forties. It’s funny, I do feel that Jackie Brown is mine, she’s the same character in the book, but by making her black, it affects her ’cause her life experiences are different, and her dialogue is different, but she’s the same person basically.

Pam Grier and Robert Forster develop a relationship in Jackie Brown

Pam Grier and Robert Forster develop a relationship in Jackie Brown

BAUER: Was there any specific research you did for her character?

TARANTINO: No, I actually have known a few women in my life who reminded me of Jackie and that’s who I used. I just wanted to find her in myself. I joke about it, but I’m very much a method writer. I really become the characters when I’m writing them. I’ll become one or two of them more than others, I’m consistent that way. I become all of them when I’m writing, but I’ll become one or two when I’m not writing. The entire year I was Ordell. He’s who I identified the most with in the piece. I was Ordell when I was writing the script. I walked around like him. I talked like him. I spent a whole year basically being Ordell. I couldn’t shut him off and I didn’t want to. And in a weird way Ordell is the rhythm of the movie.

BAUER: What do you mean by that?

"Ordell" character poster for Jackie Brown

“Ordell” character poster for Jackie Brown

TARANTINO: Like his character, the way he talks, the way he dresses—everything about him is how this movie should play. He is the old school of soul music. He’s the personification of that, and I completely identify with that. If I wasn’t an artist, I would probably be exactly like fuckin’ Ordell.

BAUER: That’s interesting, but it’s not his movie.

TARANTINO: It’s Jackie’s movie. It’s Jackie’s movie but what’s so neat about Jackie’s character, is that she ain’t revealing at all. The story requires her to have a poker face. It requires that you don’t know what’s going on in her head. One of the things I held on to in the adaptation was that every time she got with Ordell, she would tell him everything she knew about the cops. That would always surprise me, no matter how many times she did it.

BAUER: It was always a new wrinkle.

TARANTINO: Yeah! It’s like, “I cannot believe she’s fuckin’ him so bad!” I couldn’t believe she was fuckin’ the cops and I couldn’t believe she was fuckin’ Ordell. But I was like, “God, I hope she isn’t fuckin’ Max.” I think she’s playing straight with us, but I don’t know 100 percent. And it’s a different thing, because Max is the audience. You see the movie through Max’s eyes.

BAUER: He’s an outsider…

TARANTINO: Yeah, he’s an outsider and he’s also the conscience and the heart of the piece and he’s definitely the major human link to the film. It’s like Max is the audience, but Ordell is the rhythm, the soul of the movie in a weird way.

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

TARANTINO: 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.

BAUER: Ordell is fascinating because he really seemed to change from the book. He becomes a lot smarter in your script.

TARANTINO: Oh really?

BAUER: Definitely. How did he evolve?

Promotional poster for Elmore Leonard's book The Switch

Promotional poster for Elmore Leonard’s book The Switch

TARANTINO: That’s pretty interesting because I had a lot of prior knowledge of Ordell, Lewis, and Melanie because I read The Switch. The Switch was the very first book I’d ever read, so even before Rum Punch was published, I was like, “Oh shit! Ordell, Lewis, Melanie, Jesus Christ!” I was like, “Oh my God!”

BAUER: Is that the whole thing about the kidnapping?

TARANTINO: Yeah, yeah. I knew these characters because I was doing a little adaptation of The Switch in my mind when I was fifteen, when I read it. So I knew the characters pretty well, but I really did kind of become Ordell to one degree or another when I was writing Jackie Brown. I didn’t choose that, it just happened, and I was walking around as Ordell. There’s a lot of me in Ordell.

BAUER: Do you put a lot of thought into the way you juxtapose humor and violence?

TARANTINO: No more thought than I put into anything else. I love it, I think it’s like a Reese’s Cup, two great tastes that taste great together. I’m not bending over backwards to try and do it, it just kind of happens. And then when it happens, it’s like, “Whoa, that’s great. I got something.”

BAUER: The final scene between Melanie and Louis was taken almost verbatim from the book.

TARANTINO: Right.

BAUER: But you could have written that scene, your voices were so in sync there.

Ordell shoots Lewis in Jackie Brown

Ordell shoots Lewis in Jackie Brown

TARANTINO: Yeah, I felt that. And it was so cool—because when I actually talked to Elmore Leonard about something like that, like the scene where Ordell kills Louis—he writes like I write. He didn’t know Ordell was going to do it. He knew one of them was going to kill the other one, but until it actually happened he didn’t know how it was going to happen or who it was going to be.

BAUER: For that last scene between Melanie and Louis, Leonard had a lot of time to set up Louis’ character that you just didn’t have. The violence that came out of him seemed like an extension of his character. In your script it comes more as a shock. That’s something you’ve used before—violence as a shock.

TARANTINO: Right, sort of the way violence plays out in your life, all of a sudden. Very rarely does violence build up in real life the way it does in movies. No, it explodes in your face. That’s what’s so shocking about it.

BAUER: What do you think that accomplishes dramatically? For an audience, I mean using violence as shock.

TARANTINO: Well I think it gives the movie a dose of reality, especially in the scene we’re talking about. That’s kind of how it would go down. And it’s played like that. It’s not played in terms of good guys and bad guys, it just kind of explodes out of nowhere.

BAUER: But as a dramatist, isn’t it important for all action, especially major action to be set up, so people understand why it took place?

Louis shoots Melanie in Jackie Brown

Louis shoots Melanie in Jackie Brown

TARANTINO: I think it is set up, but Louis is only partially on the page—all right? I remember talking to De Niro about the role and saying, “Look, this is not like most of the characters that I write.” The reason actors like to do my stuff is because they usually have a lot of cool things to say and they feel cool saying them. But Louis is a different fish, and I told him, “You know, Louis is a different character than the ones I ordinarily write. He doesn’t say a lot. This is a character that truly needs to be gotten across with body language.” I’m talking to one of the greatest character actors in the world. That’s why I wanted him for the part, because he does that, all right?

BAUER: Did you know who you wanted to cast for all the characters when you were writing Jackie Brown?

TARANTINO: This is one where I completely did. I normally don’t. I’ll have some people in mind, but this was one where I pretty much had everybody. The one guy that was kind of open was Louis. I thought about De Niro, but I wasn’t a 100 percent sure I could get him.

BAUER: Do you think that the audience has an attachment to Melanie when she dies? Or is that important?

TARANTINO: No, I think the audience has a complete love-hate relationship with Melanie. Audiences applaud when Louis shoots her, but they…

BAUER: That would partly be the nature of the scene, I mean she is being so…

TARANTINO: Such a bitch, all right. It’s impossible that someone could be asking for it, but she’s asking for it.

BAUER: And she’s kind of that way throughout most of the movie…

TARANTINO: Yeah, she’s a fuckin’ smart ass, treacherous and all these things. But we also like her at the same time. She’s a totally fun character. So I think it’s a love-hate relationship.

Tec-9 demonstration in Jackie Brown

Tec-9 demonstration in Jackie Brown

BAUER: You’ve said a number of times that you don’t want to be known as “the gun guy.” But Jackie Brown and your future projects are basically all crime stories.

TARANTINO: Well, the next one I do, I think as a director, will be a Western.

BAUER: Really?

TARANTINO: Yeah, but there’s guns in Westerns too.

BAUER: A Western in the mode of The Good, The Bad, The Ugly or Unforgiven?

TARANTINO: Actually it’s different, it’s a prison Western. It takes place in a prison in Yuma, Yuma Territorial Prison. So it’s like a Western Papillon.

BAUER: Will that be an adaptation or an original?

TARANTINO: It will be an original. But I know where you’re going with this question. The thing is, I’ve only done three movies. I’ve got all the time in the world to do different things.

BAUER: Haven’t you really done four movies? Wasn’t True Romance your movie?

TARANTINO: Yes and no, the thing is, it’s Tony [Scott]’s movie. I never visited the set of True Romance, and I only visited Tony once, just once. I made some suggestions and he didn’t take them.

BAUER: But isn’t that your voice on the screen?

Val Kilmer as Elvis advises Christian Slater as Clarence in True Romance

Val Kilmer as Elvis advises Christian Slater as Clarence in True Romance

TARANTINO: Yeah, it’s my voice, but it’s Tony’s movie. I would have made a much different movie out of it. I actually think Tony made a better movie out of it than I would have at the time. True Romance is a case where it all worked out, it all completely worked out. If Oliver [Stone] hadn’t done Natural Born Killers I would have gotten away scott free in this business. I wouldn’t have any horror stories to talk about.

BAUER: What about Natural Born Killers?

TARANTINO: I wasn’t even involved in that one either. But I think I fucked up. I would have preferred they had not made the movie. I actually didn’t want anybody to make the movie, not just Oliver, anybody. But as a script it was pure. I did what I wanted to do.

BAUER: Why didn’t you want anyone to make Natural Born Killers, to bring your story to life?

Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers

Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers

TARANTINO: After my passion had gone for it, when it’s expiration date passed as far as my love for it and everything, it was almost beside the point to make the movie. It was pure—you read my…

BAUER: Yeah I read your script.

TARANTINO: I fuckin’ directed that thing on the fuckin’ page man. It was right there. And I did all that on paper. I think there’s nothing you can’t do on paper. I’m making my movies first here on the page.

BAUER: And they hold up. Especially if you look at True Romance, I mean you only made that movie on paper, but I would say that it’s more your movie than Tony Scott’s.

TARANTINO: Yeah, but his take on it was different. My movie would have been harder.

BAUER: 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?

TARANTINO: 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.

BAUER: I didn’t notice any borrowing in Jackie Brown.

TARANTINO: 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.

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

TARANTINO: 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.

Mexican standoff scenes in Quentin Tarantino movies.

Mexican stand-off scenes in Quentin Tarantino movies.

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.

BAUER: To resolve it.

TARANTINO: Yeah. That’s the case with a lot of movies, the writers never come up with a way to end it. You see a movie with a good ending now and you go, “Jesus Christ! It’s a masterpiece.” Oddly enough, you can fuck up a whole movie and if you end it good, people will walk out of the movie thinking it was good. But having said all that, it was like a tome, like 500 pages and I wasn’t even to the third act yet. But it was a very important script for me because I had never really gotten that far before. I always crapped out around page thirty or so. I’d always come up with another idea, something better. And the reason was I wasn’t writing. I was doing what every other screenwriter seems to do: they want to write to a screenplay, they want to write a cool movie, they don’t want to tell a story. To me that’s totally putting the cart before the horse. It doesn’t work that way. You should have this burning story to tell and you can’t wait to get your movie on the page. That’s why I always dropped everything by page thirty, it starts to be hard work about then.

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

Quentin Tarantino at Jerry's Deli (Photo: Erik Bauer)

Quentin Tarantino at Jerry’s Deli (Photo: Erik Bauer)

TARANTINO: 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 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 (Unforgiven) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), but lesser writers need not send him their scripts. 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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About Erik Bauer

Erik Bauer is the founder of Creative Screenwriting and Screenwriting Expo, and was editor from 1994-2005.

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  • Mel

    Interesting interview with one of today’s most interesting filmmakers, and first time I’ve seen him addressed on his use of the word “nigger” for shock value. Don’t think it can be said that everyone who is offended by the word is a racist though, as Tarantino maintains. Yes, “takes one to know one” is very often the case…especially when it comes to the most outspoken “offendees” like Spike Lee and Katt Williams (although Katt Williams shouldn’t be in a sentence with Spike Lee)…but there are still those, of all races, who are simply offended. Which is not to say he should stop using it in his films, just don’t agree that all who are offended are racists.

  • Vignesh Raja

    extremely informative. A peek into the mind of a creative genius.