Talking up the deal, you were excited and the producer was excited and the young studio exec was fucking beside himself with excitement….Just go away and write it, the exec would tell them…this was a can’t-miss idea. After two years, a new producer and fifteen drafts (only three paid for) based on fifteen conflicting sets of notes, what you had, if you were lucky and the whole thing hadn’t been put in turnaround, was yet another standard-issue piece of shit…
From Richard Russo’s novel,
That Old Cape Magic
It was obvious not all of my fellow Creative Writing faculty members were comfortable with my positioning of screenwriting as more a mercenary than artistic endeavor.
I’d been hired on a one-year contract by a small New England university to teach screenwriting in their Creative Writing program. Afterward, when the slot was posted as a tenure-track position for the following year, I’d put in for it, and, as part of the candidacy process, was required to do a presentation on screenwriting. As I had been with my classes, I was frank and honest about the abuse heaped on and the disposability of both screenwriters and their work.
When the question arose during the presentation as to whether such an attitude from an instructor might scare students away from the profession, I said something like:
“Good! I don’t ever want to hear any student of mine went out to Hollywood and wound up hanging him- or herself from their showerhead. Any student who still wants to give screenwriting a shot after a class of mine will know what they’re in for. Whatever happens to them after that, my conscience will be clear because I’ll know I did what I could to prepare them.”
I was not offered the job. I probably shouldn’t have said the thing about the showerhead.
From their point of view, I get it; this was a creative writing program; consequently, screenwriting was being taught as another form of creative writing. That’s how my predecessor had taught it, that’s how the students I’d inherited from him saw it.
I had been hired, presumably, because of my professional background: two dozen screenwriting gigs over a period of about 35 years. That experience had taught me – and I grant that here I’m speaking in broad strokes — screenwriters are generally not asked to be personally expressive.
What they’re asked to do above all other things is serve. Says Billy Ray, Oscar-nominated for his screenplay for Captain Phillips (2013), “95 percent of what we do is problem-solving” (Rubin). Screenwriter William Goldman goes a few steps further, having once described writing movies as “…shitwork…a rather soulless endeavor” — and this from the man who won Oscars for his screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President’s Men (1976) (Goldman, 78).
After I didn’t get the job, I began to wonder how one should teach screenwriting. The more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if, in any credible, practical, honest way, that was even possible.
In a 2014 The New Yorker article all-too-accurately titled, “Screenwriting Isn’t Writing,” Richard Brody contrasted the experiences of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner in Hollywood. Fitzgerald’s time in the Dream Factory was, according to Brody, “…a period of illusion, of delusion over all.” Brody quotes from Budd Schulberg’s introduction to Fitzgerald’s unproduced screenplay adaptation of his own short story, “Babylon Revisited”: “Instead of rejecting screenwriting as a necessary evil, Fitzgerald went the other way and embraced it as a new art form…” But while Fitzgerald’s literary reputation “…got him in the door,” writes Brody, “…it didn’t get him assignments.” So, at the same time former journalist and future Citizen Kane co-writer Herman Mankiewicz was advising his old reporter colleagues to jump into the lucrative screenwriting game, telegraphing one of them, “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots” (Kael, 11), one of America’s great novelists of the 20th Century was scratching around Hollywood for sporadic, often uncredited rewrite work (Brody).
Faulkner, on the other hand, “…had no such illusion about screenwriting…”. He amassed a fairly substantial filmography over a 25-year period, and while much of his work is also uncredited, he developed a particularly fruitful and friendly relationship with director Howard Hawks, a collaboration producing two true cinema classics: To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946). Writes Brody, “…one of the reasons (Hawks and Faulkner) meshed well is that Faulkner got the idea: namely, that he wasn’t exactly writing; he was providing material that Hawks could make use of in his own way” (Brody).
And that’s the nub of it; the screenwriter does not write for him/herself. In an address Bonnie and Clyde (1967) co-writer David Newman gave to graduating film students some years ago at New York’s School of Visual Arts, he described the lack of proprietorship the screenwriter has even over original material:
“…the only pure vision of the movie is the one that exists in your mind when you write your first draft. For that golden time, it’s yours, and you see this movie that no one has seen and nobody knows about. Unfortunately, that is not the draft that is going to be filmed…you will then be gifted with a lot of collaborators…studio executives and producers who think they have creative input, and you’re going to listen to them, because they sign the checks…directors who have visions of how to reshape your work…actors who certainly don’t have any compunction about telling you…“my character would never say this” – and you will listen because the actor is being paid more than you are.” (Newman)
Read a published screenplay of a classic like Citizen Kane (1941), or any movie you particularly like, after having seen the movie, and you’re bound to be disappointed by what’s not on the page. There’s nothing on the pages by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles capturing the noir feel of Gregg Toland’s cinematography in Kane. Or consider the shriek of an el-train’s brakes bringing the tension in The Godfather’s (1972) restaurant assassination scene to a nerve-jangling pitch; this came not from the screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, but from sound designer Walter Murch in post-production. And the gleaming chrome-striated sets of the early James Bond films came not from their directors or writers, who changed from film to film, or even from the Ian Fleming source novels, but from production designer Ken Adam who was on most of the Sean Connery/Roger Moore Bonds giving them a consistent visual look no matter what director was at the helm.
Even some of the most memorable “writerly” moments in filmdom don’t belong to the credited writer.
In a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), Nicholas Pileggi, who was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay he co-wrote with Scorsese, talks about one of the best-remembered scenes from the movie:
“That scene in, um, ‘I make you laugh’; I didn’t write that. I get credit for that all the time…(actor) Joe (Pesci) made it up. Joe had actually seen that happen, because Joe has been around…he saw some wise guy do that to another wise guy.” (Ratner)
Ray Liotta, who plays the lead character in the movie, improvised the scene with Pesci in rehearsal until it reached a point where they felt they could “lock it down,” and that’s the scene which appears in the finished film (Ratner).
Pileggi tells of another signature moment in the movie which, even though it came up in the writing stage, was pure Scorsese-as-director: the Robert De Niro character silently decides he’s going to kill the man who brought the Lufthansa heist to him. As Pileggi typed the scene of De Niro’s Jimmy Conway standing at the bar having this moment —
“…(Scorsese) says, ‘Put in Cream! Put in Cream!’ I said, ‘What cream?’ He says, ‘Just write that! Write down Cream!’ I said, ‘What’s, what cream? Who’re you talking about?’ ‘Just put it, put it down, do me a favor, just put it.’”
According to Pileggi, Scorsese, at the moment they were writing the scene, had already envisioned the shot; a slow move in to De Niro, the camera slightly overcranked to give the image a dreamy quality, the camera’s movement synched to the intro of the rock classic, “Sunshine of Your Love,” by the band Cream (Ratner).
One of my own personal favorite movie moments takes place in the lead-up to the gun-blazing finale of Sam Peckinpah’s landmark Western, The Wild Bunch (1969): a long walk for four aging outlaws from the brothel where they’ve been holed up to their suicidal face-off in a courtyard with the corrupt Mexican general torturing one of their comrades. In a behind-the-scenes documentary, Walon Green, co-writer of the original story and collaborator with Peckinpah on the screenplay, says that in the script, the Bunch leave the whore house, go to their horses for their guns, and then appear in the courtyard to face the general. It was only while actually shooting the sequence that an inspired Peckinpah told his assistant, “I wanna do a walk thing,” and, on the spot, composed the sequence; one of the emotional high points of the film (Seydor).
And then there’s one of cinema’s all-time great romances: Casablanca (1942), which went through the hands of six writers, was being rewritten day-to-day during shooting with no one sure how it would end, and whose wonderful “button” of a closing line — “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” – came not from any of the writers but from producer Hal Wallis and was dubbed over the closing shot three weeks after filming ended (Dirks, 1).
A poet writes a poem, and that is the poem the reading audience sees. A prose writer pens an essay, a short story, a novel, and the words the writer sets on the page are the words the audience will read. But a screenwriter?
The audience sees an end product of which the screenwriter’s work is probably the least apparent. What they see is the combined effort of dozens — maybe hundreds — of craftspeople working under the guidance of their various department heads who, in turn, work to serve and/or enhance and/or collaborate on the master vision of a given film’s director.
Benjamin “Bernie” Dunlap, noted academic who has extensively taught and written about film, looking back at his experience as both writer and producer of the triptych Tales of the Unknown South (1984), captures all of the positives and negatives of the inherently collaborative moviemaking process:
“…as writers, we inevitably visualize as we work on a script and, with a few exceptions, what the director gets on film is often less satisfying (sometimes for very good reasons, frequently involving the producers’ demands) than what we’d imagined. On the other hand, I was always immensely grateful for what other subordinates had added that I’d never thought of – the cinematographers, art directors, and actors who, more often in my experience than the directors, showed me things about the script that enriched and extended what I’d been trying to do…It was probably part of the almost unavoidable conflict of writer and director that led me to see everyone but the director as collaborators in shaping a vision as opposed to someone (the director) who sees what you’ve produced as nothing but raw material.” (Dunlap)
The work of the screenwriter is, by its nature, invisible. It’s like the girder skeleton inside a high rise. What the audience sees is the finished building; after the exterior is thrown up, the wiring and plumbing done, the interior finished, the rooms furnished and decorated, the grounds landscaped, the music selected to be piped into the lobby. A screenplay is not a movie. It is, at best, a blueprint, maybe only a sketch of a movie, and maybe not even that.
In what I consider possibly one of the best college texts for film appreciation courses, Louis Gianetti’s Understanding Movies, Gianetti says in his chapter on “Writing”:
…generalizing about the writer’s contribution in the movie-making process is an exercise in futility because the writer’s role varies immensely from film to film and from director to director…some filmmakers have hardly bothered with scripts. (358)
I illustrated this point in my Introductory Screenwriting class by showing three behind-the-scenes shorts available on YouTube concerning the making of the broad, bawdy Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles (1974), the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest (1959), and Stanley Kubrick’s mind-tripping horror exercise, The Shining (1980).
Blazing Saddles began with a solo draft by Andrew Bergman, but once Warner Bros. took the project into development and signed Mel Brooks to direct, the writing process was, according to Brooks, more comparable to the collaborative process of writing TV comedy (which is how Brooks began his career). Brooks brought in other writers to work with Bergman and the process became five writers in a room spitballing ideas back and forth. Says Bergman:
“…it would be like a game of Telephone…Nobody could really remember whose joke was what anymore because it would start one way and go around and come back in another form.” (Back…)
In contrast, Ernest Lehman was the sole writer on North by Northwest but went into the project without a plan, without even a vague idea of what the plot of the movie would be. Hitchcock had in mind the germ of a story about a traveling salesman being mistaken for a spy which had been sent to him by journalist Otis Guernsey. Hitchcock turned the idea over to Lehman with whom he’d been working on another then-stalled project. Hitchcock discussed with Lehman some ideas for visuals he’d like to try to incorporate (such as the climactic chase across the faces of Mt. Rushmore), and part of Lehman’s job was to figure out how to get one or more of them into the movie, regardless of what the final plot might be. In those discussions, Lehman began to develop a general idea of the direction of the story, but by and large —
“…I never knew where I was going next, I was constantly painting myself into corners, and trying to figure a way out of them. As a result, the movie has about 10 acts instead of three, and if I tried to sit down at the beginning and conceive of the whole plot I could never have done it. Everything was written in increments…one page at a time, saying to myself, Ok, you’ve got him out of Grand Central Station, now he’s on the train, now what?…the audience never knows what’s coming next because I didn’t either.” (Knudsen, “The Bizarre…”)
Which produced a screenplay even those having to execute it didn’t always understand. Well into shooting, North by Northwest star Cary Grant publicly moaned to Hitchcock that “…I still can’t make head or tail of (the story)” (Humphries, 144).
But, the execution of North by Northwest is so well done – witty dialogue, a charismatic cast, a story always on the move, Hitchcock’s typically brilliant visual flair – that it only occurs on reflection the plot doesn’t always make much sense (even the title is nonsense; there is no such compass direction).
(This brings to mind stories about Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep which is as confusing as the Raymond Chandler novel on which it’s based. When star Humphrey Bogart pointed out during filming that one of the plot’s murders was unaccounted for, it turned out none of the film’s three screenwriters – which included William Faulkner — nor Chandler himself knew which character was responsible [Ebert]. Yet the film is considered one of the all-time great noirs and part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry much for the same reason North by Northwest is considered among Hitchcock’s best: it’s done so damned well.)
And then there’s Kubrick’s The Shining. Kubrick worked with novelist Diane Johnson deconstructing the source novel by Stephen King and then rebuilding the plot integrating concepts about fantasy and the unreal developed by psychologists Bruno Bettelheim and Sigmund Freud which fascinated the director. After a month of discussion and working out different treatments, Kubrick and Johnson spent eleven weeks writing several drafts of the screenplay. But once the screenplay was finished, well, it wasn’t. Kubrick continued to rework the material through shooting, and even through the editing stage. As with most Kubrick films, the screenplay for The Shining was simply a starting point for Kubrick’s own directorial exploration of the material (Knudsen, “How Kubrick…”).
While a maestro like a Kubrick or a Hitchcock may be able to use a screenplay as a springboard to cinematic iconicism, many a traumatized screenwriter will tell you the reverse is equally possible. Every major studio has a bureaucracy of so-called Creative Executives (Biskind, 402). While none of these CEs has the authority to move a project along (or kill it), they do have the prerogative to give input and put screenplays through what can seem like an endless series of rewrites (McCurrie).
The meddling doesn’t stop even when a project begins the production process. Here’s director Sidney Lumet in one of his last interviews in 2012:
“I went to a production meeting with twenty-six people sitting around a table. Now of those twenty-six people, twenty of them were heads of departments who had never had anything to do with my picture. They were never going to be on location, they wouldn’t come along, they’d never leave Hollywood, and they would have an awful lot to say about it…” (Burski)
I had the chance to interview novelist Mark Poirier on his screenwriting experiences, including adapting several of his own works for the screen. The film version of his acclaimed novel Goats, for which he wrote the screenplay, was so mishandled by its novice director and producers (25 people carry some sort of producing credit on the film), that even though the production stayed close to his script, Poirier admits the finished product is a disaster (an abysmal 19% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) (Poirier).
Perhaps there is no better example of the powerlessness of a screenwriter once a project is in a director’s hands than what happened to Paddy Chayefsky’s Altered States (1980) when director Ken Russell took the helm. To maintain better control over his scripts, Chayefsky, one of the most respected screenwriters in Hollywood during his day with three Oscar wins to his credit, had set up his own production entity (Brady, 37). He adapted Altered States from his own novel, and even though Russell was contractually obligated to keep Chayefsky’s dialogue intact, his characteristically flamboyant execution of the material was so off-putting to Chayefsky that the writer took his name off the finished film (Dwyer).
Five-time Emmy-winner Bill Persky, who, over the course of his decades-long career in TV and film, advanced from writer to writer/producer to writer/producer/director, says, “I know I became a director to make sure my stuff was as I intended it to be” (Persky).
In practice, then, the idea of the screenwriter as some sort of “author” borders on absurdism. Producers and directors routinely use and dispose of writers until they get the results they want. Screenwriting is the only form of creative writing I know of in which the originator of material, once he/she has accepted money for their work, not only loses any say over their material, but can be dismissed and replaced at will. It would be like a publisher acquiring a manuscript only to replace its author with another author for a major, maybe even unrecognizable revision. That doesn’t happen in publishing, but in the movie business, that kind of writer’s heartbreak is just another day in Hollywood. Wrote Mark Harris in a 2017 New York piece on screenwriting:
…writing remains the most disrespected of filmmaking contributions. I often hear execs admiringly describe writers as “specialists”: This one can give you a page-one dialogue polish in a week, that one can “bring the heart”; this one is a carpenter who can hammer the framework of a plot into place, that one can “add depth”….you can stare at the title card for eternity and you’ll never know who contributed what. (Harris, 80)
One-time studio exec and Variety editor Peter Bart, in his book The Gross: The Hits, The Flops – The Summer that Ate Hollywood, tells about director Michael Bay going through a parade of screenwriters on Armageddon (1998), sometimes only to develop a particular scene or strengthen dialogue for a specific actor (88-89). Impressed with that monologue Robert Shaw gives in Jaws (1975) about surviving the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis during WW II? The credit goes to neither of the billed screenwriters – Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb — but, according to Jaws director Steven Spielberg, it was originally conceived by Howard Sackler, rewritten by John Milius, and edited down by Shaw himself (Stecker). And then there’s The Flintstones, the 1994 live-action movie adaptation of the 1960s TV cartoon series which, according to various sources, passed through the hands of anywhere from 32 to over 50 screenwriters in the years the project was in development.
Then there are the practical issues screenwriters must contend with. Says Robert Towne, who won his screenwriting Oscar for classic neo-noir Chinatown (1974):
Movies are not done under laboratory conditions. They are done over a period of time, under the gun of a budget…and there are all sorts of problems: weather problems, people problems, lots of surprises. People may not know each other, and there may not be enough time to rehearse. You can lose locations. You can lose light. You can lose your fucking mind. (Brady, 407-408)
I landed a job adapting a post-apocalyptic novel which took place in New England during late autumn. The protagonists suffer through the season’s first snowfall, and the climax consists of a helicopter chasing the hero in a car zipping around on a frozen lake, ending with him downing the chopper which crashes through the ice.
But the movie was slated to be shot in New Zealand where the financing was being set up. That meant no autumn, no snow, no frozen lake. I was told not to feel bad about losing the frozen lake: “On our budget, we couldn’t do it anyway.”
I was instructed to do away with as many night scenes as possible as they’re more expensive to shoot. And also for budgetary reasons, lose a major character: the part of a great-grandfather. But keep his dialogue, which the studio execs liked; maybe give it to the great-granddaughter.
And then: tamp down the violence. I objected, saying the movie easily met the standards for a PG-13 rating. Apparently, there was an individual who disagreed.
“Who the hell is he?”
“He represents the bank putting up the money.”
So the action scenes were tempered.
Some years later, I was working on a low-budget thriller, and, again, the writing had to take into account the logistical limits of the physical production. As it was originally written, Road Ends (1997) was set far down in the Florida Keys. The main character, Maceda, who’d come to the U.S. years earlier as a Cuban refugee, is now on the run from a drug lord. To lead the bad guys away from his family, he heads down into the Keys to hole up for a face-off with the villain in a small town near the now-closed Coast Guard station through which he’d been brought as a child picked up on a raft. I thought there was a nice texture to Maceda going back to the place where his American sojourn had begun, staring out at the ocean where his homeland lay not far beyond the horizon.
But the company making the movie couldn’t afford a Florida location shoot. Instead, the film was shot in the hills outside of L.A., the Straits of Florida were replaced by a lake, the shuttered Coast Guard station became a shuttered orange-packing plant. Not quite the same thing.
Easily the most uncomfortable rewrite request on the project was to write in a completely gratuitous sex scene, and when I explained the plot allowed no credible way to carry that out, I was asked if there was any way to at least get the female lead naked: “Maybe coming out of the shower or something like that?”
When I balked, it was explained to me, “Our marketing guy says if you get the girl naked, it’ll add fifteen percent to the overseas sales.”
So, to go back to the question we began with, only more emphatically: how in hell does one teach this?
True, there are countless books, seminars, and online instructionals for the aspiring screenwriter, and while one could endlessly debate their relative merits (or lack thereof), the sheer mass of them can easily give the impression there are infinite ways to teach screenwriting. However, what’s clear, at least to me, is that as a general rule these how-to vehicles are designed to help the novice, writing on his/her own not accountable to anyone but their own self, turn out a completed draft of original material – a “spec” script – that is good and/or marketable (no, they’re not always the same thing). Says Robert Towne, “I know there are places where they teach screenwriting, but there are no rules” (Brady, 425).
Learning how to write a good script is not learning screenwriting, and that’s not just me indulging in a bit of semantic gamesmanship.
For one thing, in terms of sheer tonnage, most paid movie writing work is either gun-for-hire assignments where a producer and/or director have hired a writer for a specific project, or it’s rewrite and script “doctoring” chores. Says Bill Persky, “…most of what I have written was filling in the next episode of people someone else had created, and except for originals, that is what most film writers are doing. There is a limited amount that’s original…” (Persky). From Robert Towne: “All scripts are rewritten…the only question is whether it is rewritten well or badly” (Brady, 406). In other words, most working screenwriters earn a lot if not most of their money writing what someone else wants them to write. Mari Okada, who worked her way up from writing direct-to-video schlock to acclaimed anime features, puts it nicely in her autobiography: “…screenwriting is the kind of job where you receive a brief: ‘I want a script for X with Y kinds of features’” (Okada).
Screenwriting is sitting with a producer wearing an expensive track suit and orange-tinted sunglasses asking you to write a thriller resembling a best-selling novel but changing it enough so he doesn’t have to buy the rights to the novel, and it has to open in the lobby of the Dorchester Hotel in London. Why? “Because I love that hotel!” (True story.)
Screenwriting is an agent offering to peddle your sci fi screenplay if you can work in a scene where the creature is in the face of the female hero. When you point out that not only is there no place in the plot offering that opportunity, but it’s a painfully obvious steal from Alien (1979), the agent enthusiastically gushes, “I know! I love that shot!” (Another true story.)
Screenwriting is ghosting on a cable movie for an ill writer whose name is part of the reason the project is getting made, and having to deal with often conflicting input from the network, the production company’s New York office, the production company’s L.A. office, and the writer, none of whom are communicating or coordinating with each other. (Yes, this really happened, too.)
That is screenwriting. “Each project is different,” says Robert Towne, “there’s not very much carry-over from film to film” (Brady, 423). Compounding these sundry insanities is that they often take place within pressure cooker time frames. Veteran screenwriter Mark Sanderson advises novices to set strict deadlines for themselves while working on their spec scripts to accustom themselves to the demands they’ll find in the professional environment:
If you’re working under a WGA union contract, the minimum time for a first draft is usually twelve weeks. You can guarantee the producer or executive will start calling your agent or manager in about four weeks, sniffing around to see how you are progressing…If you want to work professionally…you will need to work efficiently under a deadline and at the best of your ability… (Sanderson)
On non-WGA projects, the time frames become outrageously accelerated. This is the experience of screenwriter Travis Rink on his non-union low-budget thriller Caroline at Midnight (1994) for Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures:
(Concorde production chief Mike) Elliott reached into his desk and held up a check. “We want to do this movie,” he told Rink… “I am prepared to pay — ” and he gave Rink a number. “This is a check for 80% of it. You’ll get the rest when the rewrite is done.” They sealed the deal then and there and Elliott handed over the check. “What do we need to get started?” Elliott asked.
“I can be ready to start in one hour,” Rink told him, then took the check to his bank, made sure it was good, deposited it, and headed back to the office…
“It was 6:30 (in the evening),” Rink remembers. “I had a portable word processor with the script on it. They asked me what I needed. I said, ‘I need Chinese food, a six-pack of beer, two packs of cigarettes.’…I wrote from about seven that night to five the next morning. And that was it.” (Mesce, Reel…, 149).
Rink at least had the luxury of doing his spec first draft on his own time. I’ve done non-union jobs where I’ve had to turn in a complete first draft in less than a week.
So, even if you think Robert McKee’s “Story” seminars are the biggest gift to aspiring screenwriters since laptops, there’s nothing in them to prepare you for these kinds of working conditions. The question I’m wrestling with is: is there anything that can?
“Movies are like wars,” says Robert Towne, “The guy who becomes an expert is the guy who doesn’t get killed” (Brady, 423).
So, how does one make the screenwriting student an expert? At least enough of one to survive his/her initial professional foray?
Dedicated film programs have a focus and architecture to them expressly designed to cultivate some level of a starter’s expertise. But what about where screenwriting is offered as an English or Creative Writing course (my experiences) without a lot of the cinema-related foundation courses required in a film program? If the aim of the course is to provide at least some level of professional grounding, then it has to be understood that of all creative writing forms, arguably none of them are so bound up with non-creative issues as writing for the movies. Trying to teach screenwriting to students lacking at least a minimal understanding of film history and of the motion picture business is like teaching someone to swim by throwing them in the deep end of a pool while they’ve got a cinderblock in each arm. By the end of the day, the skimmer is clogged with bodies.
When I say film history, I’m not talking about classical cinema chronology i.e. knowing the importance of Edwin S. Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery” (1904), Edison, D.W. Griffith, Citizen Kane, etc. I’m talking about a filmic data bank which essentially acts as a lingua franca in the development of material; common reference points.
Those reference points may change from generation to generation, but when I was first coming up, if a producer or director discussing the flavor and tone he/she wanted a project to have tossed around descriptives like “Felliniesque,” “Kubrickian,” “Bergmanesque,” or said they wanted a “Hitchcock villain,” or a “noiry feel, not Chinatown neo-noir, but classic Bob Mitchum noir,” I would know what they were after.
Several years ago I was hired to do a screen adaptation of Jean Craighead George’s classic Y/A novel, Julie of the Wolves. The novel concerns a young Inuk girl on a grueling odyssey across the Alaskan tundra in search of her long-lost father. The bulk of the story has Julie bonding with a family of wolves as she tries to survive the harsh Arctic environment. In discussion with the producer who’d hired me, we came to agree this would be a minimalist, visually-driven piece with little dialogue or exposition, and where the environment would be an integral character in the story. If that sounds a bit amorphous and you’re wondering what that would look like, that’s because it is amorphous. That’s why our conversations went like –
“Yeah! Something between Carroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf (1983) and Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972)!”
These references are a way of articulating that which defies verbal articulation. Naturally, the smaller the data bank of references, the more difficult that discussion. The data bank of most of my screenwriting students tends to be limited to the widely popular and/or cultish, and almost exclusively to film releases within their own life spans.
Taking the point one step further, most of my screenwriting students have little understanding of the film medium itself; how it works, why it works the way it does, what its strengths and limitations are. In most cases, having never taken a film appreciation course, they show little awareness of the purely visual possibilities of the medium, and in their overwritten descriptions – including what’s going on inside a character – one senses them trying to shoehorn a sensibility more literary than cinematic onto the screen.
Conversely – and for the same reason – they also don’t understand what film can’t do.
Film has no “interior”; as a general rule, it can only work with what we are able to see and hear. If Goodfellas had been a novel, a good writer could have gone on for a nice, meaty paragraph, maybe even a page, about what’s going through Jimmy Conway’s head as he stands at a bar deciding to murder the annoying blabbermouth who brought him the Lufthansa caper. Indeed, many of my students have done something similar on the script page.
But that’s writing for a reader, not for the camera. Film can’t give us that kind of interior mental process. Martin Scorsese can only suggest it with that camera move into De Niro, juicing the malevolent tone of the shot with his off-speed camera and the dark, opening chords of “Sunshine of Your Love.”
I once interviewed film critic Stephen Whitty on the fallacy of the Show, Don’t Tell concept, in the process of which he gave a fairly good explanation of one of the limits of a medium which deals much better with the concrete than with the abstract which lends itself much more easily and even naturally to literature:
The reason that novelists like Faulkner and Joyce are so tough to film is that nobody ever read those writers for their plotting; you read them for the words, for the ideas, and if you only concentrate on the storytelling, as movies tend to do, you lose a great deal of what makes them work. The eternal power of The Great Gatsby comes from the words on that last page, as Fitzgerald talks about America and hope, and romanticism and dreams; he uses the green light at the end of Daisy’s pier as a symbol but for a filmmaker to just show us that light without the words accompanying it is to strip the image of its meaning. (Mesce, “What Do You Mean…,” 38)
The missteps my students make often come out of a lack of basic knowledge of how movies are made and, consequently, what the role of the screenwriter is. Their scripts tend to be overwritten, with dense, prosy descriptions – novel-like – including their physical descriptions of characters. They tell directors where to put the camera, actors how to say their lines, work out specific blocking in scenes. I’ve even seen a few student pieces which tell the music composer what the music should be like under certain scenes.
They also don’t understand – and sometimes actively reject – the need to understand the motion picture business, seeing that end as irrelevant to their creative endeavors.
The professional reality, though, is the business not only dictates what movies get made, but how much/little support they’ll get if they do get made, and what compromises in the material will be asked (I say “asked” even though I’m referring to what’s really a camouflaged demand).
Understanding the business is about more than keeping an eye on box office scores, although that’s a useful gauge as to what’s working for audiences (and to what degree), and what’s not, while a canvass of reviewers can provide some insight as to why something is working (or failing). But one also needs to parse the numbers, and get past the idea that just because you and your friends loved a movie doesn’t mean it’s either a qualitative of quantitative success.
Show students hard numbers and my anime aficionados are surprised to see just how narrow a niche the genre has here in the U.S. (which is why if you want to write anime, consider moving to Japan), or that some big budget theater-filler was actually a flop because of its exorbitant cost, while a small art house title they never heard of was a success because of its return on its small budget.
What does this have to do with screenwriting? It teaches you to write your straight dramas (i.e. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri ) to be shot economically because straight dramas tend not to be huge earners (Three Billboards was shot for $12 million in contrast to, say, Justice League released the same year with a price tag of $300 million; Billboards was hugely profitable with a domestic take of $54.5 million while Justice League stiffed despite finishing in among the top ten earners of the year with a take of $229 million); it teaches you there is little market for intellectual science fiction (2018’s Annihilation with an impressive 87% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes but was a dud with a $32.7 million domestic gross against a $40 million budget); that silly (2017’s A Bad Moms Christmas; $72.1 million) out-earns warm and witty (also from 2017, The Big Sick; $42.8 million), no matter the reviews (29% positive on Rotten Tomatoes for Bad Moms; 98% for Big Sick).
Study the business and you also learn that marketability is as much a part of the discussion (sometimes the deciding vote) on whether or not a movie gets made as the quality of the work (I once included a gratuitous car explosion in a script because I knew it would help the production company decide the project “would cut a good trailer” – and, indeed, when the film was shot, the exploding car was in the trailer).
The business also tells students how to (providing the industry gods smile on them and they land professional work) navigate the shoals of the profession and build a career. Students looking at writer/director/producer Christopher Nolan, for example, know about his Batman films and big-budget hits like Inception (2010), and consequently think that kind of material is their gateway into the business. But that’s looking at the caboose of a train going by and saying, “I want to ride that car!” not realizing there’s nine cars and a huffing-and-puffing engine pulling it along.
What my students don’t know is that Nolan made his first movie – Following – in 1998 for about $6,000. It was the success of Following that got him the $9 million Memento in 2000, the success of which brought him his first gig with a major studio – Warners – with the $46 million Insomnia, the success of which persuaded Warners that Nolan was the guy to revitalize their Batman franchise. Batman Begins (2005) is Nolan’s breakout film, and thereafter he bounces between turning out Batman sequels for Warners and doing more personally idiosyncratic work like The Prestige (2006), Inception, and Interstellar (2014). It’s this ascending, unbroken string of critical and commercial successes that buys Nolan the license to go to Warners with a skimpy 76 page script with a challenging fractured narrative chronology, little in the way of dialogue or conventional characterization, set against a WW II battle most movie-goers have never heard of and in which the Good Guys lose, with a production price tag of $150 million. In effect, Dunkirk (2017) was a project 19 years and 9 films in the making.
I saw this professional myopia at work in one of the best-written pieces in my Advanced class from an inherited student. It was to be the first entry in a multi-film fantasy epic, sort of in the vein of the Lord of the Rings films. My student was genius at world-building with blocks of the most detailed descriptions of fantastic environs and equally fantastic inhabitants, including the main character: a humanoid reptilian samurai-like warrior. He had great command of dialogue and character.
It was also, to my eye, going to be hugely expensive, easily – based on similar fantasy epics – in the $150-200 million range (Hollywood rule of thumb is a movie has to gross 2-3 times its cost to break even; the American movie industry has averaged 715 releases per year over the last 5 years, with an average of only 6 per year earning $300 million or better – this script’s minimum break-even).
I ran it by a veteran writer/producer acquaintance to see if his opinion jibed with mine. He did the calculation: a big-budget, effects-heavy fantasy from a new writer with no produced or published credits, an original spec fantasy not building on a brand name franchise (like, say, the Marvel universe characters) or connected to a well-known literary work (like the Lord of the Rings movies). Verdict: “Veteran writers can’t sell that stuff.”
All of this naturally has to be integrated into working on traditional story-telling tools like character, dialogue, setting, etc., although sometimes mightily tweaked for the specific demands of the medium.
I did concoct one exercise that did more or less capture the craziness and arbitrariness of professional screenwriting and that also seemed, thankfully, fun for most students.
Each student wrote a 10-15-page original piece. The originals were turned in without anything identifying the writer. Then each member of the class randomly selected one of those pieces and was tasked with a rewrite. The rewrite commands were a set of completely arbitrary (but industry-typical) instructions drawn from a hat: make the main characters younger; add an older character; write in a product placement; eliminate most exteriors; add a teen romance; add a cameo for Ryan Reynolds, etc. They’d had a week to do their originals, but only a few days to execute the rewrite.
The results of this exercise are always interesting. Some can’t pull it off, some offer a definite improvement, but the most eyebrow-raising pieces are those which are neither better nor worse but refreshingly different. Frankly, this isn’t any different than what happens at the professional level.
The most beneficial exercise I could’ve brought into these classes but was never able to pull off would’ve been to work across departmental boundaries to collaborate with theater and film/video classes to film at least some select scenes from some student scripts. Even if all that was recorded were actors at a table read, the experience of seeing material interpreted by actors not envisioned by the writer, under the guidance of a director with his/her own view of how the material should be rendered, would’ve been, I believe, an eye-opener for all concerned. That would’ve been close to Robert Towne’s proposition that, “The only way you can effectively learn about screenwriting is to write something and then see it done as you’ve written it. Then you can see where you went right, and where you went wrong” (Brady, 425).
Had I been able to pull together the components from different parts of the school, it might’ve answered a complaint some of my inherited Advanced students had: that unlike other writing classes and my predecessor, I didn’t have students workshop their pieces in class. Why? Bluntly, if you want to workshop screenplays, you don’t workshop them for other screenwriters; you workshop them in front of a class of directors. Why?
Because that’s how movies work.
I remember hearing, some years ago, that the goal of military training wasn’t to teach soldiers how to be good soldiers since any combat veteran could tell you that nothing in training could prepare you for actual combat. The goal of all those weeks of training was to give the new soldier enough skills to maybe survive in the field long enough to learn from the combat experience itself.
Similarly, it’s hard for me to picture any kind of screenwriting program that can truly prepare a twenty-something aspirant for the head-spinning variety of crazinesses and absurdities and psychic pains which constitute professional movie-making. To the dismay of some of my colleagues, I never advocate screenwriting as a goal for any of my students because I know first-hand how crazy, absurd, and painful it can be, and that most screenwriting careers also tend to be, well, not really careers.
I’ve often compared a screenwriting career to one in professional football: if you make it to the pros, you’re going to have some hot years, then a couple of not-so-hot years, and then in all probability wish you’d minored in accounting because your years in the game are over. And, unlike pro football, the length of that tenure will have had little to do with the quality of your work, but more about good and bad breaks: a move that gets made is miscast, or misdirected, or mismarketed, or there’s a change in studio management while your project is in development and everything pre-dating the new management – including your project — is killed, or — … It goes on and on and on. “(If) you must make a choice between luck and talent,” said director Robert Aldrich, whose many films included The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), “you have to opt for luck. It’s nice to have some of both…but if you can’t, luck is the answer” (Silver, 16). Why?
Because that’s how movies work.
I had a student – one of my older, Advanced students – ask me, “Then why do it?” If you were always compromising your material even on gun-for-hire jobs, and the odds of anything you sold or were hired to write actually making it to the screen were a hundred to one, and your chances of a long career about equally as bad, why do it?
I smiled. “Man, because you get to write a movie!”
To anybody for whom that’s not answer enough, I say do something else.
- Bill Mesce, Jr.
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Knudsen, Tyler (w/d). “The Bizarre Process of Writing North by Northwest.” Cinema Tyler: Making Film. March, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lltazliRp58
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Mesce, Jr. Bill. Reel Change: The Changing Nature of Hollywood, Hollywood Movies, and the People Who Go To See Them. Albany, Georgie: BearManor Media, 2014.
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Ranking Quentin Tarantino’s Films
Tarantino has crafted an oeuvre ripe for debate…
Quentin Tarantino is back with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his most unabashedly emotional movie ever— but how does it compare to the rest of his filmography? We decided it might be fun to look back at Quentin Tarantino’s trajectory over the course of 20-plus years helming films and try to agree on what his best film is. It quickly became obvious, this was no easy task.
Before we get to the list we should mention that although Tarantino has contributed to other projects such as Four Rooms, Sin City, True Romance, ER, and CSI to name a few— we’re ranking just the theatrically released feature films he has directed. And yes, while Tarantino does consider Kill Bill one movie, it was unfortunately released both theatrically and on home video as two separate films, and so for the purpose of this list, we are splitting them up (not to mention, it’s still nearly impossible for most people to see them as a single entity).
With that out of the way, please accept our definitive ranking.
Tarantino’s homage to the road demon genre may be one-half of a double bill, but the film also works as two movies in one. You see, Death Proof offers two incarnations of the same story: two separate sets of beautiful women are stalked at different times by a psychotic stuntman who uses his muscle cars to execute his murderous plans. In other words, Death Proof is essentially two slasher films, since the second half (which takes place a year later) works as a sequel, with four new voluptuous victims for our murderous villain, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), to terrorize. The claustrophobic first half of Death Proof takes place on a dark, raining night amidst a dingy Texan bar, intact with neon lights and a soulful soundtrack of rare ’70s pop tunes. The second half takes place mostly on the open road, in bright daylight, and features sun-baked cinematography and a twangy score in place of the soundtrack. Much like the two sets of women, the two halves work as contrasting doubles. In tone, Death Proof begins as a dark thriller, but it quickly shifts gears and becomes a non-stop action film. In fact, everything about the two halves is completely different, from the pop culture references, photography, automobiles, visual effects, music, and clothing, to the hairstyles, props, etc.
Death Proof is also deliberately atmospheric and very patient taking its time getting to know each character and Death Proof gets the bragging rights of landing Kurt Russell, the iconic star of many beloved genre films. Tarantino’s gift for resurrecting the careers of iconic actors said to be past their prime is once again on display, as Russell turns in a tour-de-force performance as the smooth-talking tough guy who gets his kicks from vehicular homicide. With Russell and Tarantino working together, we see a movie star and a director in perfect harmony.
Some call it a masturbatory fantasy project, but Tarantino’s kinetic action sequences and his avid love for cinema in all its incarnations make Death Proof a work of art. More importantly, Death Proof doesn’t simply comment on its genre inspirations – it adds to their very legacy. The car crash that ends the first half is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a breathtaking slice of gory mayhem shown four times from various points of view, and ten times more frightening than anything you’ll see most horror movies. And while Tarantino may lack the budget of bigger action films, he does not lack the talent to skillfully direct a car chase and capture the horrifying aftermath of a car wreck. The extended car chase is a bona fide old-school tour de force, a sheer brutal and primal statement on the new power balance of the sexes. Jammed with astonishing stunt work (absent of CGI), the climax will have you gripping to your armrest. Obviously, Death Proof is shaped by such films as Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Steven Spielberg’s Duel, but Death Proof is influenced by more than just vehicular horror; it’s a grim stalker picture, a slasher film, and a blaring anthem to female empowerment. It’s also a small masterpiece and the Frankenstein creation of a movie fanatic of exploitation cinema. Tarantino’s sadistic ode to muscle cars and real-life stunt work is sheer genius. (Ricky D)
9) The Hateful Eight
Less the epic spaghetti western it initially comes off as and more of a chatter-filled murder mystery, The Hateful Eight nevertheless feels grandiose, presenting a sprawling cast of unforgettable characters teeming with infamous reputations and potential lies. And that’s really the draw for Tarantino’s eighth film — just what exactly is the truth, and is anyone telling it?
Though it’s a satisfying enough whodunit revolving around an octet of grizzled manhunters, brutish outlaws, conniving desperados, and mysterious cowpokes snowed in at a remote mountain general store, The Hateful Eight is really a story about telling stories. Everyone’s got one, and they’re used for all manner of things; a sordid tale of a tortuous journey across icy peaks is clearly meant to provoke hurt and outrage, while a former Johnny Reb spins an unlikely tale of accepting a new position as Sheriff of the nearby town in order to gain trust enough to be invited for a stagecoach ride. Bloody Civil War battles are recalled for the sake of establishing camaraderie, and a detailed explanation is offered for the absence of the store’s proprietors in order to allay suspicions. But are any of these intricate narratives true, or just manipulative yarns?
Some may be turned off by the preponderance of lengthy monologues, but those with a love of language and violence will be riveted by this deadly, high-stakes poker game of bluffs and tells. These killers are the stuff of legend, poking and prodding at their opponents with words, before unleashing more gruesome attacks. And never mind that The Hateful Eight isn’t Tarantino’s most ‘cinematic’ film by a longshot (despite being handsomely photographed on 70mm film); he makes the most of the rustic interior setting with expertly staged action and brilliant performances, unraveling his story through careful speech and chronological shifts that keep things fresh — all the way to the rotten end. (Patrick Murphy)
8) Django Unchained
It’s hard to describe why Tarantino’s Django Unchained is such an odd and interesting entry into the director’s filmography. On one hand, it has all the hallmarks of a classic Weinstein production: excessive blood and violence, dark and irreverent humor, and a strange sadistic fascination with race and gender relations that overshadows the whole film. On the other hand, the film truly ups the ante and turns all of these narrative dials up to eleven, telling a disturbing story of slavery, interracial violence, and greed to illuminate the depravity of the human condition in the antebellum south in new and inventive ways. Somewhere wavering between these two elements lies the true spirit of Django Unchained: a movie that both screams characteristic Tarantino and yet still constantly surprises audiences with its unorthodox approach to the cowboy film category.
Part Spaghetti Western and part Blaxploitation narrative, Tarantino’s Django Unchained births a new genre with its unique portrayal of American life, dubbed by Tarantino as “the Southern.” While the film’s plot isn’t as complex as a majority of Tarantino’s work, Django Unchained relies heavily on the incredibly strong performances from its all-star cast of characters. Following up his Academy Award-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, Christopher Waltz nails his role as the whimsical and enigmatic Dr. King Shultz, earning himself another piece of hardware for Best Supporting Actor for his talent. Jamie Foxx also does a spectacular job of selling the almost cartoonish superhuman character of Django, being both sternly humorous and deadly serious when the situation requires to bring life to one of the darkest of Tarantino’s creations. Even the interplay between the unlikely duo of Samuel L Jackson and Leonardo Di Caprio serves to elevate the film, and the pair make memorable villains that serve the narrative well.
Although it was relatively controversial with the media because of its subject matter, Django Unchained achieves its goal of making audiences incredibly uncomfortable by viscerally articulating the violence and depravity of Southern slavery in film. Through his portrayal of Django, Tarantino effectively counters this racial trauma with full force, creating a brutal and nuanced character that comes to epitomize the revenge that the audience craves for the wrongs of the past. Within this struggle lies the heart of the narrative, reminding viewers that the wrongs of the past are always present in the social fabric of today and that even fantasy retribution can’t fully cleanse the sins of the South’s forefathers. Watching from cozy California, the film feels like an odd history book fever dream, but from a theater in Mississippi, Django must feel like something else altogether. (Ty Davidson)
7) Kill Bill: Vol. 2
Although Quentin Tarantino intended Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2 to release as a single film, there are distinct differences between the two volumes. Where Vol. 1 was a very visceral, action-packed film, the second half of the Bride’s quest for revenge opts for a slower, more meditative approach. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is a film that likes to linger on the tragedy of the story; instead of flashing back into an action-heavy backstory, the film dedicates nearly half an hour to Bud’s miserable life after the Vipers’ failed assassination attempt on the Bride.
Through Budd, Kill: Bill Vol. 2 eases into some much-needed emotional reality after the bombastic back-half of Vol. 1. Budd becomes endearing in a way that O-Ren wasn’t, something both Elle and Bill ultimately share. Vol. 1 may have had one great villain through O-Ren Ishii, but Vol. 2 features Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and Bill Caradine acting against Uma Thurman in one of her best roles.
The more introspective approach on storytelling doesn’t mean Vol. 2 isn’t devoid of action either. While nothing’s quite as exciting as the Bride’s final duel with O-Ren at the end of Vol. 1 — let alone her massacre of the Crazy 88 — the Bride squaring off against Elle is a magnificently claustrophobic battle, and flashback scenes detailing the Bride’s training help to keep the action a constant presence without needing to elevate the stakes as often as the first film.
When it comes down to it, however, it’s the finale that makes Kill Bill: Vol. 2 such an incredible conclusion to the Bride’s story. Where the first film ends in an epic sword fight, the second ends with a quiet conversation — the dissection of a relationship, of history, and the duality of man. It’s a philosophical note to end such an intense film on, but it’s to Kill Bill‘s credit, remembering that it’s characters who drive the action. (Renan Fontes)
6) Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino performed an act of cinematic resurrection by casting a thoroughly washed-up John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and revitalizing his career (if only for a time). It was confirmation that Travolta still had all his talent intact — he just needed the right filmmaker to unlock it. Prior to his latest film, Quentin Tarantino was, if not as down in the dumps as Travolta, at least in a serious and deepening slump. Inglourious Basterds was formally stunning and graced with wondrous lead performances, but the film was flippant in its portrayal of one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th Century. Its revenge narrative was as tasteless as it was thrilling. Django Unchained suffered from a similar lack of introspection, but this time the compelling characters he’d become known for never quite materialized. By the time he made his horror Western/chamber revenge film The Hateful Eight, Tarantino seemed to be relying on pure sadism to fuel his vision.
With the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it becomes clear that latter-day Tarantino needed a better director all along — in this case, a better version of himself. It doesn’t hurt that he’s jettisoned the now-tired revenge plots, despite telling a story that could easily have been converted into a tale of vengeance. But Once Upon a Time also marks the first time since at least Kill Bill — and maybe Jackie Brown — that Tarantino makes his audience feel deeply connected to his characters, and moved by their hopes and failures.
The film reunites him with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, sharing leading roles as, respectively, a formerly successful TV actor whose career has floundered just as he tries to ascend to making films, and his trusty stunt double whose sense of devotion prevents him from becoming bitter at his subordinate status. Margot Robbie fills out the edges of the film as Sharon Tate, fresh off her star-making turn in Valley of the Dolls. Even further on the margins are the festering followers of Charles Manson, who is glimpsed only once.
Once Upon a Time impeccably blends the pleasures of a Tarantino hangout film with a mounting sense of dread, minus the tiring speechifying (which even Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown suffer from in hindsight). There’s also a measurable dose of loss pervading the movie — for a bygone glamorous Hollywood felt by the industry in 1969, for the seemingly limitless possibilities of that area by present-day Tarantino, and for Tate, who would be brutally murdered by Manson’s followers on August 9, 1969. All are gone now. It’ll be a terrible folly if Tarantino sticks to his plan to stop making movies after his tenth feature, but if he had decided to call it quits early and stop after Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it wouldn’t have been a half-bad way to go. (Brian Marks)
5) Jackie Brown
There are few experiences greater for a cinephile than seeing a director they previously knew to be a master produce a follow-up that expands their already considerable talents in stunning new ways. Jackie Brown is just such a film, one that capitalizes on the promise of Pulp Fiction while proving that Quentin Tarantino wasn’t a one-trick pony.
Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 crime novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is a film at war with its own contemporary setting. The movie takes place in 1995, yet it’s filled with vintage cars, outfits, and mannerisms harkening back to the 1970s — Tarantino’s favorite decade for cinema. To a certain extent, it’s intentional and reflects the time-warp status of Los Angeles’ South Bay at the time, but someone watching an isolated scene who wasn’t already familiar with the movie might have trouble pinpointing exactly what decade it was trying to approximate.
As he had rescued John Travolta’s career, Tarantino gave two other ‘70s icons their biggest roles in decades. Pam Grier, of Blaxploitation classics Coffy and Foxy Brown, stars as the eponymous character. She’s a middle-aged single woman who barely makes ends meet as a flight attendant for a third-rate budget airline that flies from LA to Mexico. In order to pad her earnings, she smuggles cash for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a drug runner branching out in gun sales. But when an errant bag of cocaine puts Jackie on the radar of the LAPD and the ATF, she enlists bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to double-cross all involved parties.
After the formal inventiveness of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino wisely chose to adopt a more conservative approach to this crime story. Had he continued in the vein of that previous film, with its short story–like chapters, shifting protagonists, and fantastical touches (the glowing briefcase, Uma Thurman’s air drawn–square), it might have signaled that he was incapable of telling a compelling story without the techniques — that they were crutches rather than garnishes. Aside from some deceptive editing in the bravura mall sequence, he mostly plays it safe. Of course, “safe” for Tarantino still includes complicated shots, expressionistic framing, compelling performances, and virtuosic (if overly verbose) dialog.
What makes Jackie Brown not just an excellent film but one of Tarantino’s best is the obvious compassion he displays toward Jackie. Her fears about having to start over might seem mundane compared to the problems of his other leading characters, but the everyday nature of those struggles makes her more real than any of Tarantino’s other leads.
His newest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, seems closest in structure and tone to Jackie Brown, which, not coincidentally, is why it’s such an improvement over his other recent films. Whether or not Jackie Brown influenced him anew, here’s hoping he never forgets its lessons. (Brian Marks)
4) Reservoir Dogs
Featuring a tightly woven script, clever directorial style, cracking dialogue and a superb cast who populate his picture as morally ambiguous criminals, Reservoir Dogs is a testosterone meltdown that gleefully immerses itself in love of outlaws, profanity, violence and pop culture. It’s aggressive, intelligent, visceral and unforgettable. Decades years later, perhaps what stands out most is Tarantino’s camera work. There is not a single dull shot in the movie, from the opening scene continuously circulating the breakfast club, to the slow-motion Wild Bunch credit sequence, to the brilliant pan-away during the cutting of the ear, and thereafter when the camera follows Blonde outside the warehouse to his car, and back inside again. There’s a method to Tarantino’s style; every frame is calculated, and every line of dialogue serves to set the action in motion. The film never slows down, and Tarantino makes great use of dozens of long tracking shots. Even more impressive is that the film boasts a timeless quality since it is unclear as to what decade they’re in. From the pop tunes from the ’70s to the 60’s black and white suits and skinny ties, to the 80’s automobiles, Reservoir Dogs may as well take place in some strange parallel universe. A small, offbeat, extremely well-crafted crime caper with terrific surprises sprinkled over top.
At once a tribute to traditional notions of trust, loyalty, honour, and professionalism, and a stylish, ironic pastiche inspired by the likes of Woo, Peckinpah, Melville, Ringo Lam, Kurosawa and many more, Reservoir Dogs may have not been original but it is raw and a one-of-a-kind, and has since been often imitated. (Ricky D)
3) Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Exploding onto the scene as the first part of Quentin Tarantino‘s 4th film, the hyper-stylized Kill Bill was his most ambitious and audacious film yet. The film follows Uma Thurman as The Bride, a betrayed ex-assassin on the hunt for the four comrades, and their leader, who tried to kill her on her wedding day. As The Bride herself later says, she roars, rampages, and gets bloody satisfaction (emphasis on the bloody).
Packed with the snappy dialog, memorable characters, and brutal violence that have come to trademark Tarantino’s films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is also home to some of the best fight scenes in the history of action filmmaking. Particularly impressive is the frenetic climax, which sees The Bride face off against 88 sword-wielding criminals in a Japanese bar.
Basically, QT’s love letter to some of his favorite samurai action films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 nonetheless succeeds as its own beast, and is still fondly remembered as one of his best films. (Mike Worby)
2) Inglourious Basterds
Kicking off with a “Once upon a time…in Nazi-occupied France,” Inglorious Basterds lets viewers know right away that this isn’t really a World War II movie — it’s a Tarantino playland fantasy, where the good guys are cool, steely knights, and the bad guys are rotten, devious ogres to be beaten, shot, torched, and dynamited in spectacular fashion. Yes, it’s in many ways a movie about movies, but it’s also a work of gleeful imagination. Aldo Raine, Shosanna, Archie, the Bear Jew, Bridget von Hammersmark, Hans, and Frederick Zoller are wielded like toys by a director and script that on the surface wants little more than to show good utterly destroying evil in the most awesome and satisfying ways. Which it totally does.
Of course, part of getting to that sweet release is the masterful way in which Tarantino builds up and draws out suspense, often using lengthy conversation duels to withhold longer than seems possible, until finally unleashing his absurd violence in gushing massacres that more than satiate the audiences need for closure. As usual, the stream of dialogue isn’t just there for pacing or self-indulgence, but creates rich, distinct characters that can then (probably) die in unforgettable ways — like in a tavern standoff involving incorrect hand signals, “speaking the King’s,” and a pistol to the groin.
No, Inglourious Basterds isn’t revisionist history. It’s not even historical fiction. It’s pure fairy tale, with darkness and light, feats of depravity and derring-do, and a cast of heroes and villains who all know their place in the story, and are only too happy to fulfill such with a wink and a smirk. It’s wonderfully fantastical entertainment, filled with the kind of vicarious thrills that kids used to get with G.I. Joes, and might just be the most fun you can have watching Hitler explode. (Patrick Murphy)
1) Pulp Fiction
A sensation that helped draw attention to and shape independent cinema in the 90s, Pulp Fiction might not always work as a sum of its parts, but boy have those parts been engrained into the moviegoing consciousness. Taratino’s L.A. crime opus is full of meandering conversations, gruesome encounters, and moments of supercool quirkiness that seem completely besides the point — until you realize that they are the point.
Mixing various intersecting stories via a jumbled-up chronology that serves the film’s dime-novel tone, Pulp Fiction takes a leisurely stroll across the seedier parts of town, never getting too anxious to stop and chat for a game of eeny, meeny, miney, moe in the prison-like basement of a perverted pawn shop, a discussion on bedroom furniture when needing to clean up brains and skull from the back seat of a car before Bonnie gets home, or praise for a tasty burger when mopping up a deal gone sour. There are very few awkward silences here; Pulp Fiction is often a symphony of gab. That constant flow sometimes overpowers a budding visual style that eschews the darkness of its subject matter for bright colors and sunny days, but those who pay attention to such things will notice some inventive staging and techniques.
Still, the stories of Vincent, Mia, Marsellus, Butch, and Jules are all about the spoken song. Full of memorable rhythms and shockingly violent punctuation, that symphony never gets old. Since then, Tarantino has certainly gone on to create bolder visions with a more confidant hand at the director’s helm, but despite that increased ambition and polish, few have managed to achieve the iconic status granted to this groundbreaking film. Pulp Fiction injected a shot of adrenaline into the heart of indie filmmaking, courted controversy and acclaim, and inspired a bevy of wannabes, all aiming to be as cool. Few have achieved such. (Patrick Murphy)
‘Ready or Not‘ Derives a Fair Amount of Mileage out of its Simple Premise
A rich family hunt the bride in a very bloody game of Hide And Seek
Making its World Premiere at the Montreal genre festival, Ready or Not is a blood-spattered, tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that features plenty of gore and a sense of humour as dark as the terror on display.
Anyone who has seen the trailer is already familiar with the simple premise. What is best described as a cross between The Most Dangerous Game and Clue, Ready or Not stars Samara Weaving as Grace, a young bride who marries into the wealthy but strange Le Domas family that made their fortune in the board game industry. When it comes time to consummate the union, the bride is told that the marriage won’t be complete until she participates in an unusual family ritual: before the strike of midnight, the newlywed bride must draw a card from a mysterious box which will dictate which game they play into the night. Grace pulls the one-and-only cursed card that reads “Hide and Seek.” But this isn’t the traditional children’s game we are familiar with; in this deadly version, she is hunted by her soon-to-be-revealed psychotic in-laws wielding heavy weaponry like crossbows and shotguns.
A surreal cat-and-mouse chase ensues, with Alex ostensibly trying to help his bride survive while the rest of the La Domas clan remains dead-set on sacrificing her through the mysterious ritual. Their motive is simple: the La Domas believe that they must kill her before dawn as part of a satanic pact agreed upon years ago, otherwise they will have to repay their debt with their own lives. As to whether or not there actually is a satanic pact is unknown; as far as Grace is concerned, these rich folks are batshit crazy and out of their goddamned minds.
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are collectively credited as Radio Silence (V/H/S, Southbound), Ready or Not has a lot to offer in wit, style, and entertainment. It feels tailor-made for a midnight audience, as the bloodthirsty relatives arm themselves to the teeth in a wedding night filled with crossbows, shotguns, decapitations, a car chase, and a level of gore I didn’t expect given the marketing. The climax is especially memorable — an all-out gore extravaganza that left the audience laughing hysterically.
There’s a lot to like here, from the score by composer Brian Tyler to the cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz, but the reason this film works so well is because of the talented cast they’ve assembled, most notably Alex’s alcoholic brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), who serves as the family’s moral core. And of course there’s also Samara Weaving, (Mayhem, The Babysitter) who pretty much sacrifices her body in blood-soaked scenes of action and terror. The actress is fully dedicated in her role, turning into her own version of Ripley while tearing apart the upper-class society, their ridiculous traditions, and their silly superstitions.
I don’t want to oversell Ready or Not; it’s a great B-movie (albeit a big studio B-Movie, but a B-movie nonetheless). The quick pace, simple concept, and terrific performances are what carry it through the 95-minute run time. Ready or Not is simply put, a lot of fun — a horror-comedy that offers a ton of laughs, delivers the action, and cements the star power of Samara Weaving. The best compliment I can give is that I’m ready to see it again. It’s the perfect movie to watch with a group of friends on a stormy night, and a late-summer surprise for genre fans everywhere.
- Ricky D
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 25, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.
‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ Celebrates the Ambitious
‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ explores what happens when the creative can’t create, and delivers an incredible performance from Cate Blanchett.
From The Before Trilogy to Boyhood to Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater is about as prolific of a filmmaker as they come. In one year he could release an experimental indie film, and the next he’s doing School of Rock. Then there are those films in between that feel like personal stories that Linklater just needs to put his mark on. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is just that type of movie, and falls somewhere between his more Hollywood comedies and something like 2017’s Last Flag Flying. Much in that same vein, Linklater tells a story of creative people driven from their passions for one reason or another, and in the process of doing so brings to life another fantastic performance from Cate Blanchett as a character both lost and unaware that she is lost.
Bernadette Fox (Blanchett) spends her days hiding away from people in her big, always-under-construction house, with her only form of contact being between her, her family, the occasional wealthy parent, and her digital assistant that orders things for her from Amazon at a rapid rate. One might look at her life and see things in shambles, as she always seems anxious, stressed, or simply at the end of her wits. Her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), works at Microsoft, and spends more time at work than he does with his family. Meanwhile, their daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), is preparing to go off to boarding school of her own volition, but wants to go on a trip to Antarctica with her family while they have some time together. No one objects, including Bernadette — a shock to her husband and daughter alike.
What ultimately follows is a deeper exploration of Bernadette’s character, as she tries to wrestle with her anxieties and worries about going on a trip of this magnitude, while also making sure that she doesn’t let her daughter down. Where’d You Go, Bernadette has one large hurdle that audiences will likely have to get over, and that is its affluent main characters. Elgie is a tech wiz, Bernadette is a retired architect, and Bee is going to private school, and somehow the entire family can justify going on a trip to Antarctica with only five weeks notice; they’re the kind of rich that’s absurd, and if this movie was about anything other than creativity and creative types, it would buckle under the knowledge that most problems could be solved by money. In fact, even when a disaster occurs that damages someone’s property, Bernadette throws money at it as a solution. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a movie about rich people that are surrounded by rich people who have normalized being rich people.
Yet once again, even with its characters being who they are, Linklater still mines Maria Semple’s book-of-the-same-name for themes and ideas that can hit hard to the right type of person. As the title (and marketing) suggest, there is a mystery component to Where’d You Go, Bernadette that has other characters exploring Bernadette’s life and why she just up-and-disappears. Surprisingly, however, the movie’s title does not just emphasize a physical disappearance, but also a mental one. Where is the Bernadette that would move the world to create something she so passionately wanted? That question is where Linklater finds something personal to latch on to, and why other creative people will want to explore the quirks of the titular character to find out why she has stopped creating.
Though saccharine to a high degree, the cast and Linklater’s knack for writing engaging conversations and beautiful moments tends to help audiences take in all the sweetness without gagging. It’s a very cute, whimsical film that really leans into it by the time it ends. That tone is mostly what gives the movie its momentum, however, along with some of the neat directorial decisions that help paint a fuller portrait of Bernadette’s family without slowing things to a crawl and sacrificing that momentum. Blanchett provides the right blend of motherly love and manic obsessiveness to carry the entire film on her shoulders, but fortunately Crudup and Nelson give plenty of support, as do some of the briefer appearances from the likes of Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, and Laurence Fishburne. Moments that are kind of silly sometimes clash with attempts of being more serious in the scene, but it feels like that’s kind of the point to a certain extent. If Crudup feels like he’s playing the scene more seriously, it’s because his character is attempting to be the serious one in an outlandish scenario.
Those scenes that take the absurdity to new heights or suddenly fall into melodramatic territory are also the most memorable moments, because they often have their tone dictated by the perspective. If the perspective is Bernadette’s, it might lean more on the anxious, tense side of things, where it’s unknown how the scene will end or what a character will do. With Bee it’s often a sweet, loving moment. Almost anything involving Elgie tends to involve a sense of urgency, and takes things far more seriously than the others. Where’d You Go, Bernadette holds a lot of power in the way it presents a side of a story, and walks a very fine line on who is right and who is wrong in any given scenario.
As with any Linklater movie that isn’t experimental in its narrative, there will be those who can’t get behind the sweet, caring portrait of a character often at odds with the rest of the world. He’s proven he can do those characters with films like School of Rock and Bernie, but he’s perhaps best known for capturing a feeling or a time and place. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is fairly straightforward, and won’t surprise many going in (it’s unapologetically heartwarming) but provides an illustration of someone who has a lot to offer the world, and the ways we may inadvertently — and unknown to them — stifle their ambitions.
Beautiful ‘Shadow’ Stands Out
As a sort of somber Shakespearean political melodrama, Zhang Yimou’s Shadow sometimes feels a bit too overplotted, with enough self restraint and looks of longing to make it feel claustrophobic, and so many schemes and betrayals that the script almost gets dazed among them. However, as a fantastical period piece — decked out in luscious trappings and painterly compositions, and bolstered by passionate performances and balletic battles with umbrellas made of blades — the experience fares better, resulting in a look at ancient intrigue that always manages to entertain one way or another.
A brief bit of opening text sets the stage for a precarious peace between two lands — the kingdom of Pei, and the kingdom of Yang, the latter of which currently occupies the city of Jing, much to Pei’s dismay. When the renowned Commander of Pei strikes a deal with Yang’s unbeatable warrior king to compete in a one-on-one duel for the fate of the city, he is rebuked by his own ruler, and stripped of his title, demoted to a mere commoner. However, it is secretly revealed that the man acting as the Commander is actually a lookalike named Jingzhou, captured in his youth and bound to serve as ‘shadow’ to the true Commander — who is still recovering from near-mortal wounds from a previous encounter — in case of threats to his life.
This sickly Commander confines himself to an underground cavern beneath the city, and relentlessly trains Jingzhou in order to uphold the subterfuge, even going so far as to give him similar scars. All the while, he plots to retake Jing and assume Pei’s throne, promising to free Jingzhou from his duty upon victory. Of course, this being a royal court, there are any number of Machiavellian conspirators, each setting wheels in motions that surely will collide. This includes a weaselly king, a fiery princess, a sniveling courtier, and the Commander’s wife, Xiao Ai, who plays along with her husband’s maneuvers, but may be falling for his more honorable ‘shadow.’
Those who casually wander into this inter-kingdom squabble will no doubt soon become as lost as these ancient civilizations themselves, but despite the gravity with which the various players detail their plans, the importance of what they’re saying is mostly smoke and mirrors; sure, the duplicity stacked upon duplicity is mildly diverting, but it’s also shallow and devoid of meaningful motivation; so do the myriad of machinations in Shadow really matter? Not when there are plenty of other things to hold one’s interest.
Chiefly among those elements is the sumptuous look of every frame. Working with a relatively small canvas, director Zhang Yimou has carefully composed grandiose images filled with nuanced staging, deliberate movement, and indelibly rich texture. His choices give otherwise modest engagements an epic feel, and not just in moments where swords are flashed. Conversations become mini-wars in themselves, as he zeroes his camera in on the meticulous exchanges between the main players of his power game, their precisely worded responses and subtle facial expressions acting out aggressive thrusts and parries in word form, often cutting just as deep as any knife.
One need not understand the spoken particulars to get the general idea, and Shadow actually communicates better through the clarity of its visuals. Each guarded step or confident tilt of the head feels deliberately choreographed, as if part of deadly dance. And instead of overloading the screen with period detail, sets are clean, populated only with objects of significance. This laser focus allows for minute aspects that otherwise may have been overlooked in clutter to factor prominently, especially when Zhang Yimou holds his shots so patiently.
And it must have easy for him to do so with a cast as magnetic as this. Deng Chao does double duty as the Commander and Jingzhou, but creates characters so disparate that you’d be forgiven for thinking they bear no resemblance whatsoever. He manages bitter and reptilian just as easy as dutiful and courageous, showing how life has affected these two men, tied together by a facade, in vastly different ways. Sun Li as Xiao Ai nobly hides her torn affections behind expressive eyes that should reveal more than they do; everyone is playing the game. Zheng Kai and Guan Xiaotong round things out nicely as the deceitful king and his more straightforward, honest sister, who challenges any threats to honor.
They are eminently watchable, completely up to the task of holding down the fort even when besieged by layers of backstabbing that would require a more talented contortionist than the script is capable of. That’s Shadow itself; from one-on-one political maneuvers to an entertainingly inventive battle involving hundreds, there is almost always something splendid to soak in, even if it makes your head spin.
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on July 25th as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. Shadow is now available in Canada on Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray.
‘Incident In A Ghostland ‘— Pascal Laugier Revisits the Genre that Made Him Famous
‘Martyrs’ director Pascal Laugier takes another stab at the horror genre.
Writer-director Pascal Laugier is well-known for his heady 2008 breakout French thriller Martyrs which is regarded by many as one of the most disturbing horror films ever made and took the torture porn genre to untold levels of nastiness. While not his best film (that honor goes to Brotherhood of the Wolf), Martyrs stands as an extreme example of just how twisted French new wave horror films can be.
In 2012 he directed his first English-language feature, The Tall Man, a slow atmospheric thriller about a dying mining town where children begin vanishing without a trace. Despite the star power of Jessica Biel, The Tall Man was both a critical and commercial bomb, and not necessarily what fans of Laugier’s first film were expecting. His latest (and second English-language offering) revisits the grisly torture-porn genre that made him famous but the question going in was, is it any good?
Following in the footsteps of French auteurs Alexandre Aja (High Tension) and Alexandre Bustillo (Inside), Incident In A Ghostland begins as your typical home-invasion thriller and follows single mother Pauline Keller (French Canadian pop star Mylene Farmer) and her two teenage daughters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) who relocate to their new home. En route, the trio is briefly terrorized by a speeding ice cream truck before noticing a local headline about a series of brutal crimes sweeping the area. The Kellers haven’t even had a chance to settle in yet and already things aren’t looking too good. Anyone who’s seen at least one horror movie knows what happens next. What follows is a no-holds-barred assault that will leave the audience emotionally and psychologically scarred.
What makes Incident In A Ghostland different than the countless other home invasion thrillers that came before, is that the raid on their house takes up only the first twenty minutes of the film. After managing to survive the attack, we fast forward some years and discover a grown-up Beth (Crystal Reed) has written a memoir of her family’s traumatic experience that has made her a famous horror novelist. Her sister Vera (Anastasia Phillips) on the other hand, isn’t doing so well; suffering from PTSD and reliving that horrible night over and over. It’s here that my plot summary must end in order to avoid spoiling the film’s many twists and turns— but to sum it up, the remainder of the running time jumps between past and present, dream and reality, nightmares and hallucinations and dreams within dreams all while keeping the audience guessing as to what is real and what is in Beth’s imagination.
Like the director’s gory debut, Incident In A Ghostland is light on plot (and even lighter on character development) but extremely heavy on the torture inflicted on the young women who are subjected to unspeakable acts of physical, sexual and mental abuse, both real and imaginary. Like Martyrs, Ghostland dwells on the terror our protagonists experience with the camera constantly closing in on tight shots of their wounds, bruises, and screams as they are kicked, punched, choked, chained and dragged around the house. Needless to say, it’s rather painful to sit through, with each scene stretched out for maximum discomfort. Incident In A Ghostland is the sort of movie in which roughly half the running time consists of women screaming in pain while the other half will have you scratching your head trying to make sense of it all. It’s especially unsettling as Laugier subjects Beth and Vera to acts of pedophilic sadism, and later learning that the then-19-year-old actress Taylor Hickson reportedly sued the production company for injuries suffered on the set. Meanwhile, fans of Farmer may be appalled to watch the French-Canadian idol beaten to a bloody pulp while stabbed repeatedly— and if you have a fear of dolls, I recommend you stay as far away from Ghostland as it features an abundance of creepy doll imagery.
While Pascal Laugier’s most recent offering isn’t as depraved as Martyrs, it’s still an intentionally unpleasant nightmare to watch unfold and while I admire the craft that went into making it, I can’t say I enjoyed my time spent watching it. But it is a well-made film featuring stunning cinematography from Danny Nowak (who provides the movie with a sheen polish) and great set design by Gordon Wilding and his collaborators who do a marvelous job in bringing the house to life (so to speak) and making it, as creepy as the villains played by Kevin Power and Rob Archer.
I’ve noticed a few critics online comparing Incident In A Ghostland to the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre which in my opinion, is heresy. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains to this day a motion picture of raw, uncompromising intensity, a punishing assault on the senses via some of the most extended scenes of absolute sustained frenzy ever captured on celluloid. Incident In A Ghostland brings nothing new to the genre and is just another example of a movie that relies on plot twists and extreme violence to get a rise out of the audience. Whereas Marilyn Burns’ doomed screams will forever be etched in your memory, the hundreds and hundreds of screams heard in Ghostland will soon be forgotten. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre undoubtedly ranks as the best horror film of all time and also boasts one of the most unforgettable abrupt endings ever. I’ve already forgotten how Ghostland ends.
Incident In A Ghostland is a Shudder exclusive. For more info, visit their website.
- Ricky D
Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.
Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com
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