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Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

“Now is the time in my career to do the good book, just because it would make a good movie….”
—Writer/director Quentin Tarantino
ReelBlend podcast, July 5, 2021

In the past week I’ve listen to over 10 hours of interviews from various podcasts of Quentin Tarantino talking about his new novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. One of the most common questions is what will his tenth and final film be. Here’s a short list of possibilities that Tarantino has uttered into the world or others have speculated would be a good option for him to pursue.

An R-rated Star Trek

A remake of Reservoir Dogs (his first film) with an all-black cast

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Part 2

Kill Bill, Part 3

First Blood (sticking closer to David Morrell’s novel verses the 1982 version starring Stallone as John Rambo)

Lady in Red a remake of the 1979 film written by John Sayles, but with a proper budget and Tarantino’s 30 years of directing experience

Personally, I’d love to see the new dad Tarantino do a Disney kid’s film for his reportedly final movie. But since he’s vowed to never work with Disney after a dispute over a screening of The Hateful Eight, I’ll stick with him doing Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Here are some of my reasons:

  1. A chance for one of the greatest American filmmakers to outdo another great American filmmaker (John Huston) in doing the definitive version of one of the classic American literary works. (Huston, who directed the 1957 version, said he could never finish reading Melville’s long novel.)
  2. Moby Dick is a violent revenge story, with a layer of transcendence. (Shades of Kill Bill/Pulp Fiction and other Tarantino films). He could have Samuel L. Jackson give the sermon on Jonah.
  3. Having just been to the Whaling Museum in Nantucket in June, I was surprised to find just how eclectic and multicultural the whaling industry was 200 years ago. In re-reading the book for the first time in probably three decades, one of the things that stood out to me was how Nantucket whaling ships dominated the market attracting whalers from around the globe to make up crews: Native Americans, Africans, Italians, Chinese, Tahitian, Irish, English, Spanish, French, Icelanders—basically everywhere.
  4. The ultimate hang-out scenario. Tarantino loves hang-out movies and once said Rio Bravo was one of his favorite hang-out movies. There the cowboys on a cattle drive have enough down time to have Ricky Nelson breakout his guitar and sing a song with Dean Martin.

Of course, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a mini-plot, hangout movie. Other hangout movies Tarantino likes are Fandango and Big Wednesday. As whalers went further and further out to sea they were gone for as many as three or four years at a time. Lots of hangout downtime. In chapter 53, Melville writes about what was called a “gam” where boats would met out at sea far from home (like the South Pacific). Little social get togethers on the high seas to trade stories, news, and songs.

5. Captain Ahab is one of the great characters in literary history. Though Gregory Peck didn’t not care for his performance in the 1956 film version, it was one of his more memorable roles. Other fine actors to tackle the role of Ahab include John Barrymore, Patrick Stewart, and William Hurt. While the dangerous whaling business was a young man’s game, the captain and his first and second mates were older. The older and more weathered Cruise (and his laser focus) could pull off the single mindedness that Ahab has in his quest to find the white whale. It would also help Cruise in his quest for an Oscar. (And Tarantino is a fan of Cruise’s work and the two even met to talk about the possibilty of Cruise playing the role of Cliff in Once Upon (the one in which Brad Pitt won an Oscar). Can you hear Cruise saying, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” or “I don’t give reasons, I give orders!”?

6. Now while Tarantino has a list of actors he’d like to work with, one of the actors that Cruise said he’d like to work with is Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson. Tarantino’s Moby-Dick would allow that opportunity.

Here is how Melville describes the 6’7″ Queequeg (who has “otherworldly tattoos” and sleeps with a Tomahawk):

“He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington’s head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”

Queenqueg is from an island “not down in any map” but thought to be in Polynesia. The image of The Rock tossing a harpoon would definitely be included in the trailer.

7. Melville’s Moby Dick starts out from the perspective of Ishmael, who is a polymath who understands ancient history, poetry, philosophy, Shakespeare, biblical scholarship, zoology, and enlightenment anthropology. I’m not sure who would play him, but it’s the person that Tarantino could funnel his intellectual stream of thought.

8. Tarantino says his last film will not be something “frivolous” and Moby-Dick would be anything but frivolous. And since his script for Jackie Brown was based on an Elmore Leonard novel it’s not like he’s breaking a sacred rule by using someone else’s work as a foundation.

9. Details and rabbit trails. Both Melville and Tarantino love to dive into minutiae. One of the reasons Melville’s book is so long is that he seemingly covers not only every aspect of life aboard the Pequad, but a beginner course in Cetology. (Just what every high student steeped in rapid digital technology wants to spend a class assignment learning about between watching and posting YouTube and TikTok videos.)

But Tarantino has also stated that there is a 99% chance that his final film will an original story/screenplay. And while he says he could change his mind, he says that he doesn’t see trying to “out epic” Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He sees his final film being more like the epilogue of a book. Maybe a video store-centered story in the style of High Fidelity will be how Tarantino rounds out the feature film side of his career. Back to his roots.

But it was fun to speculate.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot. I am sure that I did not.
Moby Dick, Chapter 6, written by Herman Melville

I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw the 1956 version of Moby Dick, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the director (John Huston), the star (Gregory Peck), or the actor playing Father Mapple (Orson Welles). It was probably something I stumbled upon in my youth while watching TV on a rainy Saturday afternoon. What I do remember is the minister climbing into the pulpit shaped like a boat. It was visually stunning.

Here’s the sermon that Welles reportedly did in one take. It’s not the sermon on the mount, and I don’t know how theologically accurate the sermon is, but Welles has quite a commanding delivery. (The film version sermon written by Ray Bradbury with the director John Huston is significantly shorter than the book version Melville wrote in chapter 9.)

Last week, I revisited the film version of Moby Dick after part of my recent vacation took me to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The film was not shot in New Bedford, but there is a ship shaped pulpit in Seaman’s Chapel there. (When I stopped by on July 4 it was closed for the holiday, so I could only take exterior photos.) Moby Dick author Herman Melville visited this church in 1840 before setting out to sea on a whaling boat.

I imagine someone has written extensively on sermons in movies, but here’s a short list of movies I came up with.

On The Waterfront (1954)

The Apostle (1997)

Tender Mercies (1983)

Sister Act (1992)

I’ll Give My Life (1960)

Places of the Heart (1984)

The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Elmer Gantry (1960)

Leap of Faith (1992)

MARJOE (1972)

The last three on that list could be filed under hypocritical preachers. And the last one I’d never seen or even heard about until writer/director (and encyclopedia of film history) Quentin Tarantino mentioned the name Marjoe Gortner in passing on his recent interview with Joe Rogan.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.“
Ishmael in Moby-Dick (Chapter 17)
Written by Herman Melville

“I can assure you, Ernest Hemingway was wrong when he said that American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn. It begins with Moby-Dick.”
—Novelist E. L. Doctorow
(More than 150 years after Moby-Dick failed to make a ripple when initially released.)

While I was on Nantucket at the end of June, I picked up the book Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick at Nantucket Bookworks.

Philbrick wastes no time in dropping some surprising facts about Melville that were unknown to me:

Page 6:

“By the time of Melville’s death in 1891, Moby-Dick had sold a grand total of 3,715 copies.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick

Page 2:
”In December 1850, Melville was just thirty-one years old. A few months earlier he’d decided to move his family from New York City to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, the temporary home of his new literary idol, Nathaniel Hawthorne. . . . From the second-floor study of the farmhouse he purchased and renovated with loans from his father-in-law and a family friend, he could see nearby Mount Greylock.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathanial Hawthrone’s The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850. He moved to a farmhouse near Lennox, MA in March of that year, and a few months later met Melville at a picnic. Melville had already had success with his novel Typee. The house he bought in 1850 is known as Arrowhead and located in Pittsfield, MA. I took a tour of the house during the last week of June.

The furniture and other items in the room are not authentic, and there have been some modifications to the house, but the room where Melville wrote Moby-Dick is essentially the same.

And you can see the view that Melville had when he looked out over Mt. Greylock. When Melville finished Moby-Dick, he thought he’d written a story that would be considered one of the best American novels. He arguably did, though it would take about 80 years for the book to be discovered and appreciated. When he died, Moby-Dick wasn’t even mentioned in some of his obituaries. Unable to make a living as a writer, he sold Arrowhead 1863 and moved to New York City where he died 1891.

Though Melville was landlocked when he wrote Moby-Dick, he did spend four years at sea living a great adventure in his early 20s. (He said that was his Harvard and his Yale.) Melville was inspired by the tragic true story of the Essex whaling ship.

Philbrick’s modern retelling of the Essex story is the book In the Heart of the Sea, which became the Ron Howard directed movie In the Heart of the Sea.

P.S. Part of my short time in Nantucket was spent at the Whaling Museum which was quite fascinating, and gave a great overview of how the small island for a time was a hub of international trade due to the islanders success in the whaling industry. And though Melville has a chapter on Nantucket in Moby-Dick, he did not actually visit the island until after his book was published.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Earlier this year I wrote a post called Writing from Theme (tip #20) and I just came across a couple more related quotes on the matter so I thought I pass them along.

“To produce a mighty work, you must choose a mighty theme.”
Herman Melville

“Great writers communicate theme through action and images, with good dialogue used sparingly. They prove their theme by showing it, not talking about it. Themes in screenwriting can be tricky because in real-life we love to talk about our themes—share our philosophies of life, tell people our beliefs about life’s meaning. But themes we talk about are not our life’s real themes. Our true themes are lived out by our actions. ”
Linda Seger
Making a Good Writer Great
page 71-72

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