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Archive for August, 2019

“So you got that foundation story [in Hollywood Shuffle], but it goes into the whole set piece about Hollywood’s first ‘Black Acting School.’ Then it goes into the whole detective piece, and even the movie they’re actually shooting at the end is like a setpiece in itself. It’s really interesting how every phase of Shuffle opens up into this whole cinematic universe of its own . . . . Even The New Negroes is continuing the lineage from Hollywood Shuffle and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka to now.”
Hip hop artist and comedian Open Mike Eagle
Tracing the Influence of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle with Open Eagle Mike by Erik Abriss
October 2018

The 1987 spoof Hollywood Shuffle might seem like an odd film to inspire a young Quentin Tarantino before he became an Oscar-winning writer and director, but when you step back it all makes sense. And Tarantino’s takeaway from Hollywood Shuffle may help you in your own writing.

The low-budget indie film Hollywood Shuffle (co-written by Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans) was a critical and commercial success and got good marketing buzz at the time by being self funded using credit cards. To use Ted Hope’s phrase that was the “Story behind the story” that helped build an audience. And back in the pre-digital days it was unheard of to make a feature using credit cards. (Though it’s still not a strategy I’d endorse, it paid off for Townsend who was already an accomplished actor.)

In episode three (“You’ll Be a Director Soon”) of the excellent three-part podcast Quentin Tarantino’s Feature Presentation Q&A with Amy Nicholson there’s this brief exchange:

AMY NICHOLSON : Was [Hollywood Shuffle] inspirational to you—that you can just make a thing?

QUENTIN TARANTINO: Yes, it was inspirational. But it wasn’t inspirational because of the movie he made. It was the inspiration involved in him making it. To me Hollywood Shuffle was inspirational for like the way he did it and also the way it could be done. What I mean by that is— to make a feature film from beginning to end on no money is something. 

Tarantino doesn’t consider his first film as is first film. Perhaps because it was never finished. (At least I don’t think it was.) But he does consider his four year effort to make My Best Friend’s Wedding as his film school. If my math is correct, Tarantino worked at Video Archives from 1985-1990 where he was a mini-celebrity for his vast film knowledge.

But he was a 9th grade drop out, only making $200 a week, and his life seemed to be going nowhere. In interviews he’s said that he got the itch to make a film two years into his job renting videos. Add two years to 1985 and you land on 1987 and the release of Hollywood Shuffle.

One takeaway from My Best Friend’s Wedding is a scene where his character talks about Elvis. That scene was recycled into his script True Romance which sold in 1990. In 1991 he went to the Sundance Labs to further develop his script Reservoir Dogs which in 1992 became his directorial debut. True Romance (1993) got made with Tony Scott directing and Christian Slater and Patrica  Arquette starring . Then Pulp Fiction was released in 1994 and he collected his first Oscar in 1995.

Would all of that happened without Tarantino seeing Hollywood Shuffle in 1987? We’ll never know, but I imagine his talent and ambition would have found other ways rise to the top. But we do know that the black acting school sequence in Hollywood Shuffle did show him a different way to chunk out a movie.

“If you’ve got the kind of movie where you can do this sequence, and you can pour all your time and effort into this sequence, and then it’s done and you can go down for a little bit and then raise the money to do the next sequence—well, that’s different. That’s like you can do a few short films and you’ve figured out a way bring your short films together and turn it into a feature. Now you’re not just hanging and trying to tell this one story, you have these little mini-movies that you can do, and actually have a sense of accomplishment when you do them, and then you can pull them together.”
Quentin Tarantino on Hollywood Shuffle
Interview with Amy Nicholson

This is a technique that Tarantino is still using over 30 years after seeing Hollywood Shuffle. My favorite sequence in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is when Brad Pitt drives Margaret Qualley back to Spahn Ranch. My second favorite is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) going to Westwood to buy a book and catch a movie.

Go back and watch the first 20 minutes of Inglourious Basterds and you’ll see a sequence that is far from the Hollywood Shuffle in style and content but one that’s totally connected. That opening is a masterpiece of filmmaking and could have been its own mini-movie. (Indie filmmakers take note, that scene is essentially two actors and one glass of milk.)

Nicholson also points out to Tarantino in her interview with him that in Hollywood Shuffle they play with many styles—sitcoms, noirs, infomercials, actions movies, a slave movie, [you can also add satire and TV review spoof] and it reminded her that in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood he also plays with many types of styles, genres, and skits.

Tarantino said he hadn’t made that connection himself. And adds that a movie associated with Shuffle that says holds up better as a film is the blaxploitation satire movie I’m Gonna Git You Sucker (1988). It’s also a film he says deals with subtext of cultural identity better than Shuffle.

So there you have it, two unlikely films that inspired and informed a young Tarantino before he had a filmmaking career and that still resonates in his work today.

P.S. My Own Personal Earthquake in 1987: 

My life changed on October 1, 1987 during the Whittier earthquake. I remember clearly where I was when it happened at 7:42 in the morning. I was in a Ford Ranger at a stop light on North Glenoaks Blvd by Burbank High School.  I was on my why to a post-production house in Hollywood. When my truck started bouncing my first thought was some high school students were jumping on the bumper of my Ford Ranger truck as a prank. When I saw the windows of a 7-11 store wobbling and people running out of the connivence store I knew it was an earthquake.

I was 26-years-old and working full time as a 16mm camera operator and editor. I had made 8mm and 16mm narrative films in film school, and also done workshops at UCLA extension, AFI, Tracey Roberts Acting Studio, Robert McKee’s story structure, and had just finished my first feature script. I felt pretty confident I’d make my first feature by the time I was 30.

Two people I’d gone to school with had already made features, David Nutter—Cease Fire (1985) and Peter George —Surf Nazi’s Must Die (1987), and a third, David Huey, was working as a camera assistant on Pee-wee’s Playhouse on his way to making martial arts feature films.

I could see a path to where I wanted to go. But quicker than you can say Rick Dalton the path was altered. To make a long story short, I was married with two young stepkids at the time and my wife (from Colorado originally) was terrified after seeing the damage, injuries, and death brought on by a modest 5.9 and like a lot of people worried about “the big one.” There were other factors—like cost of living— and we made the decision to return to my hometown of Orlando at the end of 1987. Perhaps I could take advantage of getting on the ground floor of Hollywood East as Disney and Universal Studios were building sound stages for the planned influx of work to Central Florida.

In The Natural when Glenn Close asks Robert Redford what happened to him he says, “My life didn’t turn out the way I expected.” Can you relate to that? I think most people can. And one of the joys of going to the movies is seeing characters deal with life— the good, the bad and the ugly.

Related Posts:
Once Upon a Time … in Burbank
‘Once Upon a Time …’ Jacksonville  

Scott W. Smith

 

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Ritz Theatre and Museum in Jacksonville, Florida

Jacksonville, Florida was once known as “The Harlem of the South” referring to the African-American renaissance going on in Harlem, New York mostly in the 1920s and 30s. A time of intellectual, social, and artistic explosion.

That creative expression was also experienced on a smaller level in the LaVilla area in what’s now part of downtown Jacksonville. There were clubs, restaurants, and movie theaters for blacks in the “separate but equal” era of racial segregation.  The Ritz Theatre and Museum in the above photo was built in 1999 on the original site of the Ritz movie theater. (The sign is part of the original building.)  A young Ray Charles performed there and author Nora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) worked around the corner at the Clara White Mission while living with an uncle in the area.

The Ritz Theatre was one of the stops on what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” where black entertainers traveled between places like the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Fox Theatre in Detroit, and Royal Theatre in Chicago. Dates vary, but that period appears to have lasted from the early 1900s though the early 1960s.

There were a couple of movie theaters in the LaVilla area including The Strand Theatre which was built as a vaudeville theater in 1915 and became an African American theatre showing movies. (To read more of the movie history visit The Lost Theatres of LaVilla.)

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The Stand Theatre

According to the book Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking by Barbera Tepa Lupack in 1914 there were only 238 theaters in the United States that catered to exclusively black patrons (compared to “32,000 white houses”). Most of those theaters catering to blacks showed traditional Hollywood movies. But after D.W. Griffth’s Birth of a Nation (a movie said to give rise to an almost dead KKK movement) there was a push to make what was known as race films or race movies.

John Noble and Rex Webster made The Birth of a Race as a direct response to The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film premiered in 1918 at Chicago’s Blackstone Theater. It was nowhere as widely seen (or praised) as Birth of a Nation—nor as technically proficient. But it was a response to make films that did not show a stereotypical view of blacks. One that resonates today. And one that was addressed in Robert Townsend’s 1987 movie Hollywood Shuffle. (A film I’ll write about later this month since it influenced a young Quentin Tarantino.)

Producer, writer, director Oscar Micheaux (The ExileHarlem After Midnight) is considered the first successful African-American feature filmmaker and I like to point out that his first film (The Homesteader) based on his novel was shot in Gregory, South Dakota and…wait for it—Sioux City, Iowa.

Few of the race films in their entirety survive to this day. But I was able to see one this weekend in Gainesville, Florida. The Cade Museum showed all six reels of The Flying Ace (1926) which was billed on the original poster as featuring an “ALL ALL-COLORED CAST.”

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The film was written and directed by Richard E. Norman. I wonder if he ever crossed paths with Micheaux. Before Norman moved to Florida he lived in Iowa (I swear I don’t make this stuff up) and had a company called Capital City Film Manufacturing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. One of his business cards stated, “Director and Photographer of Successful Photoplays Featuring Home Talent, Des Moines, Iowa.”

Apparently he did advertising, industrial films, and recorded special events throughout the Midwest. He did well enough that he had his own laboratory in Des Moines to develop his film. He also was resourceful enough to make short films with local talent in various cities and then show the films at a local theater and make a lion share of the 60/40 spilt with the movie theater.

But he moved to Jacksonville, Florida and opened Norman Studios and eventually began using his talent to make race films. He also happened to be white. At the screening Sunday his grandson was on hand to introduce the screening of The Flying Ace. 

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Live music accompanied the screening of The Flying Ace.

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The buildings of Norman Studios survive to this day and a non-profit organization has been set-up to preserve its history. If you look at the map below you’ll see that Norman Studios was located less than five miles from where the Ritz Theatre now stands.

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Google Earth screen capture

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And because all things are connected in Quentin Tarantino’s Tarantinoverse parts of The Flying Ace were shot in Mayport just outside of Jacksonville. The Navel Station Mayport is located there and if you’ve read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff you may remember that Wolfe starts out discussing Navy life in Mayport/Jacksonville and begins with a gruesome plane crash of Navy jet in the swamp area around Mayport. (See the top right area of the above map.) Here are the first few paragraphs of The Right Stuff:

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The wives of the young jet pilots were calling each other to see if they’d heard what had happened “out there” until an officer would arrive at one of the homes and begin with “I’m sorry….” I don’t recall that part being in the 1983 film version The Right Stuff. 

But perhaps it will be touched on in the Tv mini-series of The Right Stuff that is being set-up at Universal Studios Orlando. (Just a few miles down the road from where I’m writing this post.) One of the producers is Leonardo DiCaprio who plays Rick Dalton in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. 

Here are some other posters from the race film The Green Eyed Monster that Norman produced that perhaps can serve as inspiration to Tarantino’s 10th and final film before he retires from feature filmmaking.

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P.S. Yes, I am aware that other places considered themselves “The Harlem of the South” so no need to write me about that.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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So I called up the Captain
“Please bring me my wine”
He said, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969”
Hotel California/Eagles

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Yesterday I went to see Once Upon a Time …. in Hollywood at the Sun-Ray Cinema in Jacksonville, Florida. I drove to this theater two hours from my house because it was the only place in Florida showing Quinten Tarantino’s movie in 35mm. (Yes, if you drive two hours to see a movie in 35mm—and one you’ve already seen twice—you may be a cinephile.)

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I’ve heard this movie called “nostalgia porn” which is a phrase I’ve never heard before. But the movie does resonate in me in ways I can’t explain. But it no doubt has something to do with the mesmerizing sound track, the cinematography, the Cinerama Dome insert shot, the Camero, the old TV shows referenced—even the Marantz stereo receiver (I still have my from the 70s.)

I’ve decided I don’t want to see this movie again—I want to crawl into the movie and hang out with Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and have him drive me around old Hollywood in his Karmann Ghia. Maybe grab a drink with Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie at The Musso and Frank Grill.

I’m not ready to write this movie off as wishful “Once upon a time…” thinking mixed with nostalgia. There may have been more of an emphasis on art direction than plot, but this is my favorite Tarantino film. I didn’t say it was his best, just that it’s my favorite.  It’s a meditation of sorts that’s hard to define. (Which makes sense since he said this was his Roma. ) This is his $90 million memory film. After seeing it the first time I had to recalibrate my expectations to truly enjoy the accomplishment

And I can’t even articulate what Tarantino accomplished, but it’s one of those hang-out movies that he loves. And one that I think movie lovers will hang-out discussing long after it picks up a few Oscars nominations.

The Sun-Ray originally opened in 1927 as the Riverside Theatre. It was the first in Jacksonville to screen movies with sound. So it was nice to tap into that history. Unfortunately the 35mm film brought back some memories of the down side of film verses digital. There was a problem with one of the projectors yesterday causing a chunk of the film focus appear soft (including the climax of the film).

Not the end of the world for me since I’d seen it twice, but less than ideal. It made me think of all the problems I’d seen back in the day when films would be scratched and dirty, or would break during a screening, or a film hair would dance on the screen, or a bulb or projector would burn out.  Factor in that few films are shown these days in 35mm and you have older projectors that are going to need more nurturing to stay alive and operating.

And when you factor in the many problems that can occur while loading film cameras, or shooting, or in the developing stage it’s no surprise that many ASC cinematographers are less romantic for film than Tarantino. (Tarantino also has plenty of disposable income to keep his film projectors in top shape at his New Beverly Cinema in ways that’s not as economically viable for others.)

But I’m glad there’s a Tarantino in the world to keep that heartbeat alive. It made for a nice weekend for me to kick around Jacksonville and pull back a few more layers of his movie and the history of cinema.

Once upon a time Jacksonville, Florida was known as the winter home of the movie industry. This was back in the silent era when Fort Lee, New Jersey was the movie capital of the world.

Estimates are that more than 30 film companies in Jacksonville produced 300 films between 1906 and 1916. After World War I, production shifted to Los Angeles. Like Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time … Hollywood, Jacksonville became a has been. Replaced by the young attractive glamour of a newcomer named Hollywood. (The first film in Jacksonville was made three years before the first film made in Hollywood.)

Over the years Jacksonville has been a bit player in the movie industry getting in some close-ups in a few films; Cool Hand Luke, Sunshine State.Lonely Hearts, Forces of Nature, G.I Jane).

The Norman Studios was a production company in Jacksonville that took over the old Eagle Film Manufacturing Company and between 1920-1928 produced films with an all black cast. One of those films, The Flying Ace (1926), will be shown today at the Cade Museum in Gainesville Florida with the grandson of the director Richard Norman in attendance.

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While in Jacksonville I also drove past another historic movie theater, the San Marco (built in 1938), to take a photo and complete my journey.

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P.S. Did you know Jacksonville, Florida was named after Andrew Jackson? I didn’t until this weekend when I drove past a statue of Andrew Jackson in downtown Jacksonville.

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Scott W. Smith

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“People talk about, ‘Wow. You’ve had so much success and it’s been so overnight and whatever.’ Well, whatever success I’ve got has come after like eight years of nothing working out trying to get a job in films.”
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino
1994 interview with Charlie Rose

 

 

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A graphic designer/web developer friend of mine asked me if I’d seen the Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood website and I said I hadn’t. It’s brilliant. It’s set up like a magazine published in 1969, complete with a letter from the editor—Quentin Tarantino.

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Scott W. Smith

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“A good majority of movies that come out you pretty much know everything you’re going to see in the movie by the first ten or twenty minutes. Now that’s not a story. A story is something that constantly unfolds—I’m not talking about a quick left turn, or a quick right turn, or a big surprise— I’m talking about it unfolds . . . It’s not that I’m on this big crusade against linear storytelling, but the thing is it’s not the only game in town. My storyline [for Pulp Fiction] jumps all over the place, back and forward, and the thing about it is if I’d written Pulp Fiction as a novel and I was on your show you would never remotely bring up the structure. You would never bring it up. A novel can do that no problem. Novelist have always had complete freedom to pretty much tell their story any way they saw fit. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do. Now the thing is for both novels and films 75% of the stories you’re going to tell will work better on a dramatically engaging basis to be told from a linear way. But there is the 25% out there that can be more resonant by telling it this way. Both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction gain a lot more resonance being told in this wild way.”
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood)
1994 interview with Charlie Rose

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