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Posts Tagged ‘Quentin Tarantino’

“Originality is just undetected plagiarism.”
—Anonymous
(Some version of this quote is attributed to William Ralph Inge, Mark Twain, Herbert Paul, Paul Chatfield, Katharine Fullerton Gerould, and others.)

“I steal from every single movie ever made. I love it—if my work has anything it’s that I’m taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together….I steal from everything. Great artists steal, they don’t do homages.”
Two-time Oscar wining screenwriter Quentin Tarantino
Empire, November 1994

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The Adrenaline shot scene from Pulp Fiction is one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema.

Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary won an Oscar for the screenplay of the 1994 film, and it catapulted Tarantino to international fame as a writer/director. Film critic Roger Ebert remembers that when Tarantino went to the Cannes for Reservoir Dogs he was just glad to be there, but said of Tarantino when he went back with Pulp Fiction that ” the whole top floor of the Carlton has been roped off for him.”

And in his 1994 review of Pulp Fiction Ebert wrote that it “situations are inventive and original” and pointed out the scene where John Travolta and John Stolz argue over who is going to plunge the adrenaline-filled syringe into Uma Thurman’s heart: “YOU brought her here, YOU stick in the needle! When I bring an O.D. to YOUR house, I’LL stick in the needle!”

I don’t know who first detected the origin of that scene, but I just discovered it last week when I stumbled on the 1978 documentary American Boy: A Profile of – Steven Prince directed by Martin Scorsese. The Criterion Channel profile of Steven Prince calls him a “former drug addict, road manager for Neil Diamond, and actor who played the gun salesman in Taxi Driver. Here’s one of the many unusual situations he recounted:

“I managed to get a lot of medical supplies, medical equipment that you didn’t normally have. Like we had oxygen. We had an electronic stethoscope that gave you a tape readout so you could tell how many heartbeats. We had Adrenaline shots . . . the kind of shots to bring you through when you OD. And this girl once OD’d on us. And she was out, man. And it was myself and her boyfriend. And her heartbeat was dropping down. And we got everything out, oxygen, and nothing was working. And he looks at me and says, well, you’re gonna have to give he an Adrenalin shot. And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘You give it to her’ and he said, ‘I can‘t. It’s like a doctor working on someone in his own family.’ I said, ‘That’s bullshit, you’ve known her fucking two days.’ . . .  And he said, ‘No, I can’t do it.’ So we had the medical dictionary—you know how you give an Adrenaline shot? Okay, the Adrenalin needle’s about that big, and you’ve got to give it into the heart. And you have to put it in in a stabbing motion, and then plunge down on the thing. I got a Magic Marker, make a Magic Marker where her heart was, measured down, like, two to three ribs and measured in between there and I just went [motions stabbing the syringe down and injecting the Adrenaline] and she came back like that [snaps fingers].”
—Steven Prince

Might that look something like this?:

I wondered if someone had done a mashup of Steven Prince’s story and the Pulp Fiction scene—and the answer is, of course. (Found the video below on an 2017 IndieWire article by Jude Dry. Can’t believe it took me 26 years to hear that story.)

P.S. “We found adrenaline does not increase your chances of surviving without severe brain damage. In fact, of the survivors, twice as many have severe brain damage.”
— Dr. Gavin Perkins, professor of critical care medicine at the University of Warwick Medical School in England. Source 2018 WebMD article. 

Related post:
Stealing for Screenwriters (According to Paul Schrader) 
Stealing from Shakespeare 

Scott W. Smith 

 

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“How did I learn screenwriting? Endless hours at the typewriter, then the computer, which came along later. It was really a lot of applied time and effort and self-study. Which is the way most people learn.”
Writer/director Frank Darabont

Long before Shonda Rhimes signed a contract with Netflix for $100 million, she graduated from a series of private schools, Marian Catholic High School in Chicago, Dartmouth College, and and MFA from USC School of Cinematic Arts. Being smart, talented, and driven, I don’t know exactly what scholarships and grants Rhimes received back in the ’80s and ’90s when she was in school, but today that education has a list price of over $500,000.

Perhaps that’s why she gives the following advice to young people interested in going to film school. (And this was before a global pandemic shook up the economy and film industry in ways that will take months or years to sort out.)

“I think that USC was really instrumental for me in getting me contacts and getting me acclimated. I came to Los Angeles not know a single person, and getting an internship, getting to know people, getting the introductions to things—USC was very helpful for that. Here’s what I think, ’cause I think film school is invaluable in that it’s an amazing little lab. And I did come in knowing a lot about production because of it, and that was really helpful as well. But I think it terms of just financially if you are hurting for money if you have to take out a lot of student loans, if there’s not a scholarship waiting for you, and you are worried about that—and frankly it’s different now. Student loans back when I went to school (because I’m an old lady) and going to school now are just different. So, to me, if you have to make the choice between going to film school, and coming out to L.A. and getting a job as a PA [production assistant] on a set, or a job as a PA in some writer’s office or something like that, get the job. Because I think there’s a lot you can get done with you writing at night, and getting a job during the day, and working your butt off and making contacts that way. I think it’s very, very, very expensive to go to school right now. And while I think that everybody should get a college education, I’m not necessarily sure you need a film school education.”
—Writer/Creator Shonda Rhimes  (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal)
MasterClass, Take the Job Over Film School

Now, you don’t need to do much digging to find production assistants in Los Angeles today complaining about the low pay and long hours of working as a PA in the film industry. On top of living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. On top of, as of this writing, potentially being laid-off or underemployed because of the shutdown over the coronavirus.

It’s a hard business. Would Rhimes have had the same success if she hadn’t taken the educational route she took? We’ll never know. But we do know there are filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Tyler Perry who’ve had phenomenal success without ever attending college. (In fact, both of them dropped out of high school.)

But you have to create. And you have to get good enough at creating something that someone will pay you to create more and you can make a living. That’s the game. And one thing this pandemic has taught us is people still need entertainment (and toilet paper). Actual movie theaters may decline in coming months and years, but streaming content is in ultra growth mode. (Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and others have all had recent jumps in daily viewership.)

Be as creative getting an education as you are with writing stories and creating videos with your friends. Avoid getting monster student loans that follow you for decades and drag you down professionally with house payment-like monthly payments.

Look at inexpensive community colleges with solid digital media programs. (Some two-year schools now offer four-year degrees.) And, yes, there are good film schools out there that aren’t over-the-moon expensive. If you picked up basic production skills in high school, there’s a good chance you can find an entry level production position as soon as the country is back up running again.  “Hire for attitude, train for skill” was an popular expression way back when I went to film school back in the ’80s—and probably long before that.

Which brings up some bonus advice from Rhimes that is helpful if you move to New York, L.A., Atlanta or stay right where you are and take a entry-level PA job:

“A thing that I think can be really helpful for people when they get a job, and people don’t seem to know this right now, and it’s feels very obvious. If you get a job in the industry making someone coffee, making someone copies, running someone’s errands, you better make the best coffee they’ve ever had. And it better be with a smile. The ones that seemed flat out pissed that they’re there, or frustrated, or lazy, or entitled, you want them to go away.  Because you think, man, they’re just sucking the air from the room. . . . People that have a great attitude are the ones that I always end up saying, ‘What’s your script about?’ or ‘What are you doing? What are you interested in?’ Those are the people that get noticed and get their scripts read, and get advice. And get a chance. Because you think, man, they’re working hard.”
—Shonda Rhimes
MasterClass, Do Grunt Work with a Smile

Writer/director Lulu Wang is the most recent filmmaker who did a version of what Rhimes talks about. She did not go to film school but did get her undergraduate degree. (I think she took one or two film/photography classes.) Then she moved to L.A. and did various film-related assistant jobs and wrote and produced her own stuff, networked, until she got the opportunity to make Farewell. Check out the post Lulu Wang’s Day Job Before ‘The Farewell.’

Before Scott Beck and Bryan Woods wrote A Quiet Place they also decided to not got to film school since they’d been making films together since sixth grade. They did get communication degrees before moving to Los Angeles where they had a series of small successes before hitting it big. Read the post How Do You Break Into the Film Industry Without Any Connections to see their abridged version of how they did it.

And lastly, if you‘re into hacks and shortcuts, let me link to a post I wrote back in 2003 that’s one of my favorites on the subject—Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcut.’ 

P.S. For those of you graduating from high school or college in 2020, I know this is not how you envisioned the final months of school ideally ending.  But you’ll earn a layer of resilience that will serve you well throughout life. Go back and watch The Shawshank Redemption (1994) again with 2020 glasses. One of the main reasons that film is currently the #1 rated movie of all time on IMDB is that going through a lot of crap in life is a universal experience.

“Hope is a good thing…maybe the best of things.”
—Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption
Written by Frank Darabont, based on a story by Stephen King
(Darabont was born in a refugee camp, immigrated with his family to the U.S.,  and also did not go to college. He started his Hollywood career as a PA on low budget movies and writing on the side until he got good enough to be paid for doing it.)

Additional related posts (for those without wealthy parents) and a great ending quote from Amazon’s Ted Hope:
Is Film School Worth It?  A post I wrote as a response to The $330,000 Film School Debt.
What’s It Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Scriptnotes Ep 422: ‘Assistants Aren‘t Paid Nearly Enough’

“If I ran a film school, I would require the students to make a feature film for just a thousand dollars. They’d learn tricks that they could apply for the rest of their lives, no matter how poorly the movie turned out.”
Ted Hope
Hope for Film, page 15

Scott W. Smith 

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“Whenever there is that struggle for power, of who is going to be the leader, that is pure Shakespeare.”
Sam Wanamker (Nicholas Hammond)
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Blu-ray extra scene)

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The other day a friend of mine watched Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for the first time and really enjoyed it. I told him I’d written several blog posts about that movie, and he said to send him some links. When I did a search on my blog I actually discovered some blog posts I’d written with that title back in 2009.

That’s a full ten years before Quentin Tarantino released his Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood title, that I wrote ten blog posts called Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. …. The only difference was the placement of the ellipses. (My Once Upon were kind of a sweeping overview of some of the changes throughout film history.)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… (Part 1) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 2) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 3) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 4) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 5) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 6) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 7) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 8) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 9) 
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood … (Part 10)

I’m not saying that Tarantino lifted the title from my blog (or even knows it exist), but I did write and publish that title long before his even started writing his script. I don’t recall ever seeing the title Once Upon a Time in Hollywood used before my posts, but it’s possible someone will say that used that title ten years before I did. Or someone else did in 1940-something.

There is a book titled Once Upon a Time in Hollywood  (no ellipsis) by Juliette Michaud, but it wasn’t published until 2013.

There’s nothing new under the sun folks.

Here’s a few of the links I sent my friend:

The Unofficial ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ Film School
Once Upon a Time … in Van Nuys
Once Upon a Time in Modesto (and the American Graffiti influence on Tarantino) 
‘Once Upon a Time …’ Once Again 
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood —in 1987 (How Robert Townsend’s ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ Influenced Tarantino
Once Upon a Time … in Burbank

P.S. After seeing Once Upon nine times in the theaters, I now have the Blu-Ray and will see if the movie holds up as well at home.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I left the theater [after seeing Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood] thinking that this was Brad Pitt— kind of like his Dirk Nowitzki 2011 Finals title. Where it’s like, oh man, I’d written the chapter on his legacy. I didn’t realize we were going to keep rewriting the legacy.”
Bill Simmons (Comparing Pitt’s now Oscar-winning later career performance to a NBA basketball player who helped his team win a Finals title—and series MVP— later in his All-Star career.)
The Bill Simmons Podcast

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I saw Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood nine times while it was in theaters. That’s right, I saw Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film nine times—don’t judge.  That tripled my viewing record of any film while it was still in theaters. It’s an amazingly rewatchable movie, so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed The Rewatchables podcast where host Bill Simmons and the gang discussed Once Upon at the Sundance Film Festival last month.

Tarantino loves hang-out movies, and I think you could consider The Rewatchables as a hang-out podcast. (In the Once Upon episode, Simmons hung out with Sean Fennessey and Chris Ryan for a lively discussion.)  I’ve been binging on back episodes for the past week, and it was no surprise that Tarantino himself popped up to hang-out on a few of The Rewatchables. These are usually long format podcasts, but here’s a short sample of the episode on the movie Unstoppable where between talking about his love for actor Denzel Washington, Tarantino spoke about how he wrote the Jules character in Pulp Fiction for Laurence Fishburne— and why Fishburne turned down the role.

Simmons comes from the world of sports analyzing (ESPN, HBO, Grantland) and brings to each podcast a fresh take on movies where he mixes his encyclopedia of knowledge on a variety of topics and sprinkles in enough sports analogues to get someone like me jazzed.

The first 20 years of my life were defined by sports. My ’70s childhood/teenage memories are full of watching the ’72 Miami Dolphins go undefeated, and the Big Red Machine winning the ’75 World Series. I played competitive baseball and football for a decade. I read Jim Boudin’s Ball Four, Gary Shaw’s Meet on the Hoof: The Hidden World of Texas Football.  and consumed sports movies like Brian’s Song, Le Mans, The Longest Yard, Rocky, and North Dallas Forty.

All of that lead for a year in college to working as a sports photographer/journalist with the Sanford Herald.  There I interviewed and/or photographed pro athletes Jack Billingham, Doug Williams, and Tim Raines. Then I walked-on to the Miami Hurricane football team and started studying movies and filmmaking.

After dislocating my shoulder in practice and having an operation, I walked-off and moved to Los Angeles in 1982 to finish film school. Back then, sports and movies were essentially two different worlds. My first spec script was titled Walk-On and I was repeatedly told Hollywood didn’t like sports films because they didn’t sell. That was years before Rudy— and a zillion other sports films.  I learned that in filmmaking, as well as sports, that timing is everything. And there’s always a talent pyramid. (One of my football coaches was fond of saying at the beginning of the season “the cream always rises to the top.”)

While in Los Angeles I worked for a few years at Yary Sports Photography, co-owned by Ron Yary. Yary blocked for O.J. Simpson and won the Outland Trophy at U.S.C, before going on to be a seven time pro-bowl player with the Minnesota Vikings. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.

That sets up why Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Bill Simmons resonate so much with me. I had the opportunity to drive all over Southern California (including Sunset Blvd. and Hollywood Blvd. hundreds of times) between ’82-‘87 taking team photos (including the L.A. Rams and L.A. Raiders) as well as getting a healthy dose of old Hollywood. I was also able to do business at various movie/TV studios including Disney, Warner Bros., and Paramount. It feels like half of Once Upon takes places driving around L.A., which explains why the Once Upon soundtrack has lived in my car CD player since July.

Perhaps in an alternative world, instead of being a few years older than Simmons, ideally I would have been a few years younger and ready to work on the ESPN’s 30 by 30 sports documentaries that launched in 2009—with none other that Bill Simmons as co-creator with Connor Schell.

One of the first 30 by 30 docs was directed by Billy Corban on the University of Miami National Championship football program in the ’80s and ’90s. A documentary so successful that ESPN did a second doc on on the Hurricanes.

With The U doc (along with Rudy, Friday Night Lights, Sandlot, etc.etc.) it’s easy for me to identify some with Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) about the road not taken, but also Cliff Booth’s (Brad Pitt) life ain’t so bad philosophy. Working in production has paid my bills for over three decades, allowed me to travel widely, and to work with many very creative folks.

And like  Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, I still have hope that at the end of day that just maybe (like Rick Dalton) the gates will open to yet another new chapter of life. Who doesn’t want to have hope we’re “just one pool party away” from whatever it is we’re longing for? To be like NFL great John Elway leading the Denver Broncos to back to back Super Bowl victories in the final two years of his career.

“My father always said to me I would be a late bloomer. I believe I’m the oldest person to ever win this particular award. I hope that record is broken.”
Oscar-winning speech by 74-year old David Seidler (The King’s Speech)

But I’m at a point in my life when I can truly appreciate other people’s success. That includes Simmons own “Apex Mountain” (to use a phrase he’s fond of) who’s selling his L.A. based The Ringer podcast company to Spotify in a deal reported to be in the $200 million range. Not bad for a CEO who was fired by ESPN five years ago.

That’s more stunning than if Tarantino had written an ending with Rick Dalton being cast to star in the Roman Polanski directed film Chinatown (1974) instead of Jack Nicholson. Congrats to Bill Simmons on his team for adding their version to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood folklore.

P.S. One of the categories of The Rewatchables is nitpicks. For instance, in Once Upon they wondered if Brandy the dog that hangs out in Cliff’s trailer has someone take her out for a bathroom break during the day. I did wonder that. But my real nitpick in Once Upon revolves around a key moment of the film. At Spahn Ranch, Cliff discovers not only that he has a flat tire, but that the knife is still in the tire. First, why would you leave your knife in the tire that you flattened?  And secondly, why was only one tire punctured? If you wanted to mess with someone, wouldn’t you flatten all four tires? The only logical explanation is upon flattening the first tire, the knife got stuck. But I think it’s really an homage to Road House (1989), where Dalton (Patrick Swayze) comes out of a bar late at night (after a rowdy fight) to find a knife in his flat tire. In that case, all four tires were slashed. And it had a nice set-up and payoff in that we see in the prior scene Dalton buying four tires and sticking them in his trunk (implying that he’s two steps ahead of the bad guys, knowing they are going to slash his tires).

Related posts:
The Unofficial ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ Filmmaking School
The Dave Martinez  Redemption and the Drama of the 2019 World Series
Remembering the Friday Night Lights 
Once Upon a Time … in Burbank  (reflecting a little on Burt Reynolds )
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Part 1 of 10)

Scott W. Smith 

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Both the feature film Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and the HBO/SKY TV program Chernobyl won some Golden Globe awards earlier this week including Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy  (OUATIH) and Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television (Chernobyl).

I was a cheerleader for both of those productions—and won’t confess yet how many times I saw Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood while in was in theaters. (But it was a personal record.)

Here are some links of posts I wrote on both of them:

ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD

Once Upon a Time … in Burbank 
The Unofficial ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ Film School
Once Upon a Time … How Quentin Tarantino Made the Leap from Unpaid to Paid Screenwriter
Once Upon a Time … in Van Nuys
Once Upon a Time in Modesto 
‘Once Upon a Time … ’ Once Again
Once Upon a Time … in the UK
Once Upon a Time … in Iowa (with Jean Seberg) 
Once Upon a Time … in Florida 
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Soundtrack)
Once Upon a Time … in Utah
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood —in 1987
Once Upon a Time … in the Harlem of the South
Once Upon a Time … in  Jacksonville 

CHERNOBYL

‘Chernobyl’: Craig Mazin’s Real Life Scary Movie Lands 19 Emmy Nominations 
Emmy-winning Writer Craig Mazin Loses His Umbrage and Finds His Happy Place 

Scott W. Smith 

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“I didn’t go to film school—I went to films.”
Quentin Tarantino

Note: I’ll start The Unofficial Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Film School with a list of 10, and then add and update this post from time to time. There will be spoilers. And I’m sure some of these notes will make it into the final draft of my almost finished book.

It’s unusual for me to write much about movies while they are still in theaters because there hasn’t been enough time to reflect on them. It’s not in the general collective consciousness yet.

But I think Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is an instant classic. And while I don’t know how many $90 million original stories are going to be made in the future, I think there are things to take away from Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film that can help a filmmaker of any budget.

Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch the George Stevens classic A Place in the Sun 50 times. The thing about watching a single film 50 times—verses say, 50 films—is you get a deep understanding of how the film was made.

I have seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood seven times in theaters in the first seven weeks of its release. (Apparently, I’m on the once a week as needed plan.) Here are some things I’ve observed. Please feel free to comment on or send me an email so I can continue to make this a valuable resource for others.

  1. Embrace Limitations
    “It’s difficult to have a lot of characters.”—Francis Ford Coppola
    Though Once Upon a Time runs two hours and 41 minutes it centers around just three characters: Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).  While there is a great supporting cast those are the three characters whose point of views Tarantino focused on. And along with those three characters there are three stories lines. A) Rick’s career and buddy relationship with Cliff. B) Cliff’s dog and excursion to Spahn Ranch where the Mason cult lives. C) A few days in the life of actress Sharon Tate. These three stories are connected in the climax and resolution at the end of the story.  Essentially the movie takes place over just three days in 1969, and is limited to a few locations. Rick’s western film set, Rick’s house and Sharon’s house (just one crane shot away), Spahn Ranch (an run down exterior movie set used on old westerns), and the streets of L.A. Cliff’s trailer, three restaurants, LAX airport and insert shots are sprinkled in, but the main story takes place on just a handful of locations. (Not that it matters as much on a $90 million budget, but using limited characters for limited days cuts down on wardrobe costs. I imagine they could have dressed Cliff for under $1,000 for the entire shoot—including rental of that 1960s era scuba outfit.)
  2. Ticking clock/Bomb Under the Table 
    “As you explore some of the great classics of stage and screen, you will see that most have a ‘bomb under the table.’”
    —Director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success)
    On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director
    Hitchcock explained that if the audience saw a bomb under the table as two characters talk that the most mundane conversation is riveting because there is built in suspense because of the danger involved. At some point we expect that bomb to go off. Tarantino doesn’t even show the bomb under the table—because of the horrific events of August 9, 1969 you’re expected to know that going in to the theaters. The clock is ticking before the movie starts.
    The Bomb Under the Table
    Ticking Clock (Tip #103)
  3. Major Dramatic Question
    The the first major dramatic question was set up in the second scene when Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) lays out Rick’s career options. Keep doing bad guy guest appearances on TV and watch his career die, or go to Italy and star in spaghetti westerns. After that meeting Rick sees Sharon and her director husband Roman Polanski in passing and says to Cliff that he’s, “One pool party away from staring in a Polanski movie.” The other major question is just how is this film going to end? How do Sharon Tate, Cliff, Rick, and the Mason cult collide at Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon?
    The Major or Central Dramatic Question 
  4. Characters/Casting
    Tarantino said he could do five movies just on Cliff Booth’s time in World War II. That’s indicative of the layers of reserves that Tarantino had for the characters he was writing. So he wrote some fascinating characters you want to hang out with and in doing so attracted an incredible cast of actors working at the highest level of craft.
    Writing Actor Bait
  5. Conflict
    The story is full of conflict on every level. Rick with his career. Rick and his alcohol. Rick and his lines of dialogue. Cliff and the gang at Spahn Ranch. Cliff getting kicked off a movie lot. Cliff underemployed as a stuntman. Cliff confronted by someone with a gun telling him, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work.” Even Sharon Tate as a ray of sunshine has a cloud of conflict over her as we the audience know what happened to her in real life.
    Conflict-Conflict-Conflict
  6. Theme
    Rick tells the 8-year-old Trudi that he’s reading a book about a character named Easy Breezy, and she asks him, “Where are you in it?” It’s a line of double meaning. He’s technically on page so and so, but where he’s really in it is the main character Easy Breezy who as Rick explains, “He’s not the best anymore. Far from it. Coming to terms with being slightly more useless everyday.” It’s an echo of that other cowboy named Woody who is coming to the end of the line at the start of Toy Story 3. Perhaps one time movie star/singer Tad Hunter said it best in the doc Tad Hunter Confidential, “Products of Hollywood are interchangeable, and ultimately replaceable.” (Hunter was so big in the 1950s that he once got a role over Paul Newman and James Dean, and had a record knock Elvis out of the #1 position on the charts. But he didn’t make the transition smoothly into the new Hollywood of the late ’60s that favored Peter Fonda and the like.)
    Writing from Theme
  7. Restraint 
    Tarantino is a fan of the exploitation films—the low budget ones that played on double bills at drive in theaters. Films that often centered around prisons, bikers, stock car races, and teenagers. They came with titles like Switchblade Sisters, Caged Heat, Werewolves on Wheels, and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. They usually had a mix of gratuitous sex and violence.  Knowing that Spahn Ranch was a place where Charlie Mason attracted teenage girls (as young as 15) for sex and drugs (along with his racist rants), Tarantino could have easily exploited a situation where young girls were dropping acid and running around naked. He could have shown the charismatic side of Manson that allowed him to befriend record producer Terry Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson—both who visited Manson and the girls at Spahn Ranch. But he didn’t. And by Cliff simply turning down Pussycat’s sexual offer sure seemed like a post-Weinstein/Epstein era touch. And once upon a time, producers would have see shooting at the Playboy Mansion an excuse to show at least one topless female in the pool.
  8. Setups and payoffs
    The three big payoffs are A) Brad Pitt is a likable who is also dangerous. He’s a war hero who is rumored to have killed his wife and can hold his own with Bruce Lee, and doesn’t like people messing with his bosses car. B) Brady is a pit bull who eats “Good food for mean dogs” and is under Cliff’s control. C) Rick spent two weeks learning how to use a flamethrower on the set of The 14 Fists of McClusky. Cliff, Brandy, Rick (and his flame thrower) are all set up early in the story and paid off when the impact would be most felt.
    Setups & Payoffs
  9. Climax
    “Finish the story as soon as possible after the ‘big’ scene.”–  Francis Marion
    What can I say? There was a pit bull, a can of dog food, and a flamethrower all set in action to stop evil (all to the tune of Vanilla Fudge’s version of You Keep Me Hangin’ On”). Depending on how you count it the movie ends one or two scenes after the climax. 
    Francis Marion on Movie Endings (80 Year Old Advice)

  10. Catharsis -—For those that thought the climax was excessively brutal perhaps didn’t carry around four decades of memories of knowing that six people were shot, strangled, stabbed, and mutilated—including Sharon Tate who was 8 1/2 months pregnant when the Manson cult killed her. There have been worst murders before and since then, but for whatever reason the Tate/Labianca murders went down as some of the most shocking of the 20th century. (Polish filmmaker Wojciech Frykowski was stabbed 51 times at the Tate home.) Tarantino’s reworking of history was a cleansing of sorts. I thought he earned his ending.
    Pity, Fear, Catharsis (Tip #69)
  11. Resolution
    In the final scene Rick gets invited up to Sharon’s house to meet her and her friends and while it took an unusual “pool party” it is a nice bookend to what was setup early in the movie. Who knows, maybe Rick will land Jack Nicholson’s role in Chinatown and have a career in movies that mirrors the transition that Clint Eastwood and Burt Renyolds made going from TV cowboy actors to movie stars.
    Earn Your Ending
  12. Selling the shot
    One of the challenges of shooting Once Upon a Time was making Los Angeles look like it did in 1969. Old western movie sets and midcentury modern houses helped do some of the heavy lifting. The exterior driving shots in L.A. had to be a challenge. In interviews Tarantino said the key was to find two or three blocks that are somewhat generic and then you dress (or in some cases build facades) to help sell the shots as 1969. Often times these changes are done digitally, but Tarantino likes to do it old school. One simple thing the design team did was rent a large Greyhound bus. It’s in at least four different scenes. I imagine those are not hard to rent and because they are long can block a lot of modern signs and buildings.  Sometimes low tech is the easy fix.
  13. Two characters talking
    Tarantino, like Aaron Sorkin, is a verbal writer. So it’s no surprise that he leans into dialogue quite a bit in Once Upon a Time. But one of the secrets of writing great dialogue scenes is they are often reduced to two people talking. The simplicity of it just makes it easier to follow. So in Once Upon a Time you these scenes:
    Rick talking to Cliff
    Cliff talking to Marvin
    Cliff talking to his dog Brandy
    Sharon talking to Jay
    Rick talking to Sam Wannamaker
    Rick talking to Jim Stacy
    Cliff talking to Pussycat
    Cliff talking to Squeaky
    Cliff talking to George Spahn
    Rick talking to Trudi
    Rick talking to Johnny Madrid (the perfect old west cowboy name)
    Cliff talking (and fighting) to Bruce Lee
    Cliff talking (and beating up) Clem
    Rick talking to Randy
    Cliff talking to Randy
    While there are some great visuals throughout Once Upon a Time (and Sharon’s persona is largely communicated non-verbally),  I’d estimate 90% of the movie is essentially two characters talking.
  14. Emotions
    “Everything I write is an emotional catharsis. It’s my way of exercising demons.”—Diablo Cody
    Tarantino exercises some demons in Once Upon a Time and spreads a healthy dose of emotions throughout the movie. And the music and cinematography heighten those emotions. There’s anger (Rick’s outrage in trailer), fear (when Cliff walking down the hallway toward George’s room), joy (Sharon enjoying people enjoying the movie she’s in), and the list goes on.
    Emotion—Emotion—Emotion
  15. Tapping into what audiences want
    Aaron Sorkin says two things that always fascinate audiences are times of transition and a look behind the curtain.  In Once Upon a Time Tarantino does both. He sets in story in 1969 was one of the height of one of the biggest transitional periods in modern American history, and he shows a behind the scene look of how movies are made lives of those who work in the film industry.
  16. Begin with the end in mind
    While beginning with the end in mind is common advice in everything from building a business to building a house, it has not been the way that Tarantino has traditionally worked. Usually he says he knows about the midway part of his script before he starts writing, then the character lead the way to the end. But with Once Upon a Time he knew the ending at the start.
  17. Relationships
    “Positive relationships trump positive accomplishments.”—Lindsay Doran
    At the end of Once Upon a Time Rick makes a point to tell Cliff (just before the ambulance takes Cliff to the hospital) that he’s a good friend and Cliff simply responds, “I try.” We sense that though Cliff may not be working for Rick anymore that they are forever friends. After that Rick starts a new relationship with his next door neighbor Sharon and there’s hope that it could change the direction of his career.
    It’s the Relationships Stupid!
  18. Coincidence
    “Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.”
—Alexander Mackendrick
    There’s a fair amount of coincidence at play in Once Upon a Time:  Rick living next door to Sharon, Cliff picking up a hitchhiker who happens to be a part of the Manson cult, Cliff working on the roof when Charles Manson visits Tate’s house, and the Manson family deciding to kill all the people in Rick’s house instead of Sharon’s, and Cliff’s dog Brandy at Rick’s house at the end. Perhaps the key lesson here is to tell a story where coincidence is used to get your protagonists into trouble, or at least is so embedded in the story that the audience won’t notice.
  19. Stakes
    Potential loss of career/income and life & death. (Though intellectually if Rick cashed in and invested his money wisely and bought a condo in Toluca Lake in 1969 and held on to it and were alive today (and avoided costly divorces) he’d be worth millions today. And professionally he could do the dinner theater thing, an indie film here and there, and guest slots on the Hollywood Squares.)
    What’s at stake?
  20. Let the actors act/ Let the camera roll
    There are several extended scenes where there is no editing. The filmmakers just let the scene (or parts of the scene) play out. This includes Rick and Cliff outside the Musso & Franks Grill, Rick and Cliff driving, Cliff and Bruce Lee interaction (from the start of the scene until Cliff gets knocked down), Rick and Trudi talking, and the Rick and Jim Stacy scene where Rick is forgetting his lines. Along with the great direction, acting, and editing is some tremendous camerawork in those scenes.
  21. Crane shots
    There are two incredible Technocrane (or a Technocrane-like crane) shots in the film. The first is early in the movie when the camera is above Rick as he floats in his pool and then cranes over the trees into the front of the Tate/Polanski house just as they are walking out the door and getting into their little sports car and driving away. And the second is a shot at the end when Rick starts walking up the driveway of the Tate/Polanski home and again cranes over the tress and sits above the drive way and Rick is welcomed by Sharon Tate and her friends. Even on big budget shoots you have to limited your days with specialty equipment. I don’t know if Director of Photography Robert Richardson and his team shot both those in one day, but they could have. The first shot was a dusk and the second was was a night shot. In fact, if the were really ambitious they could have shot the sequence with Cliff on the roof in the late afternoon light (doubling for early morning light) and then grabbed the dusk shot, and then the night shots. They probably didn’t, but they theoretically could have. And if you have a production where you have two or three money shots in one general locations you want to try to bundle them together so you limit your rental days with specialty equipment.
  22. Keep the background interesting
    The truth is the exteriors of movie studios often look like plain warehouses, but in Once Upon a Time they keep it visually interesting. In a scene with Cliff and the stuntman (Kurt Russell) several space aliens walk by in the background. As  Rick walks to the Lancer set a several horses and a wrangler walk pass in the background. As Rick and the 8-year-old Trudi talk during a lunch break on the Lancer set there is a camera on a dolly and lights in the background. The aliens, the horses, and the film equipment add visual interest (and sometime movement) to an otherwise pedestrian background. The same is true for the Spahn Ranch sequence were they utilize dogs, horses, and dust being blow to add a subtle action to background action.
  23. Magical movie moments
    Once Upon a Time has what I consider many magical moments.  Little things that just give a film that little something extra. It’s the sequence when the lights come on wth all the signage, when Pussycat does her little spin before catching a ride with Cliff and later when she jumps on the car at Spahn Ranch and yells “George isn’t blind, you are,” when Rick has his meltdown, and when Cliff makes himself comfortable on the roof revealing his scars and movie star glory.
  24. Music and Sound Design
    There are so many layers to this sound track I could sit in the dark and just listen to this movie—it’s that good. In film school we were taught that you could learn a lot by watching a movie with the sound off. But I’ve never just listened to a whole movie without the picture. But when the Once Upon a Time DVD comes out, I’m going to try that. There is one particular sound cue that I didn’t notice until Tarantino pointed out in an interview. It’s just as Cliff makes his way down the hallway to see George and Squeaky changes the channel on the TV from commercials or whatever TV show to a suspenseful movie we don’t see. The eerie track is a Bernard Herrmann composition for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. But Hitchcock didn’t like the score and not only didn’t use the music, but fired Herrmann. The two never spoke together after that breakup.
  25. Poetic Justice (with a touch of irony)
    The opening scene of Once Upon a Time is an old black and white industry news-style interview that introduces Rick as the star of the Tv show Bounty Law and his stunt double Cliff. In traditional western genre they are the good guys who catch the bad guys—with Cliff doing the dangerous stunt work so Rick doesn’t get hurt.  And at the end of the movie it is the real life of the characters that put an end to the bad guys—again with Cliff doing the dangerous work. Cliff ends up going to the hospital, and Rick gets invited to enter the gates to walk up the driveway of the Tate/Polanski house perhaps on his way to a career boost. Order has been restored in the new west. All it took was an unusual “pool party” with some uninvited guests.

More to come…

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“I would say 99% of your effort should go to writing a good script.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt

Tomorrow I’ll try to get my post on The Unofficial Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Film School published.  Concepts based on Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film that I’ve now seen seven times in theaters. But today, I found this nugget from Tarantino from a “lost” interview he did with Jeff Goldsmith back in 2009. Here Tarantino talks about going from an unpaid screenwriter to a paid screenwriter.

“No one was interested in my stuff at all. What actually got me going as far as a writing career was concerned—I’d never had any success ever and finally I met a really good buddy of mine, his named Scotty Spiegel —he wrote Evil Dead 2. He’d just sold a big script. It was a big deal. He was involved in low budget horror films and stuff, so all his friends started calling up say, hey, would you do a re-write on my stuff? And he was like, well I can’t, I’m busy. But I have a friend of mine named Quentin maybe you should give him a call. So then all the sudden I was getting paid like $4,000 to do a little dialogue polish on somebody’s thing, and I got paid $6,000, and then I got paid $10,000 to do something. Well F—! I’d gotten paid $10,000 a year working for minimum wage. So for the first time I was actually making a living as a writer. It was unfathomable to me. I can tell you, from going from even that low amount of money, to actually directing a movie—which happened in about a year later, well that was kind of  a big leap—but there was no leap bigger than working at a video store and actually being able to exist from writing. That was the hugest leap. That was the Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon leap. Everything else was small by comparison to that leap. When I actually didn’t have to do a day job again that was a big deal.”
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

Of course, buried in that answer is Tarantino was writing stuff that was solid enough that made a produced and working screenwriter recommend him to others. Talent mixed with the The 99% Focus Rule.

Related posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter—John Logan
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter —Michael Arndt
Once Upon a Time …. in Hollywood— in 1987 (How Robert Townsend’s ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ Inspired Quentin Tarantino)

Scott W. Smith

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I learned all the rules of a modern day drifter
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
Written by Sharon Vaughn
(Recorded by Willie Nelson for The Electric Horseman sound track)

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The Van Nuys Drive-In Theatre opened in 1948 and was demolished in the 1990s—but it found a new life in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s where Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) lives in an Airstream trailer with his pit bull.

Actress Jane Russell began working in theater at Van Nuys High School on her way to becoming a Hollywood star working along side Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Clark Gable. Natalie Wood (Rebel Without a Cause) graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1956.

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Jane Russell in “The Outlaw” (1943)

Another Van Nuys High School student who was more interested in sports than theater also went on to become a Hollywood star. Actor/director Robert Redford graduated in 1954 while Russell was still in her prime. Six years later Redford began his rise in the western Maverick— a show where Once Upon a Time’s Rick Dalton could have been a guest star.

Redford teamed up with Paul Newman on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), had an incredible run throughout the 70s, won an Oscar for directing Ordinary People (1980), started the Sundance Institute in 1981,  and got to use his athletic skills in The Natural (1984).

It’s near impossible to see Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood circa 1969—in Aviator sunglasses and a denim jacket no less— and not think of Redford circa 1970.

 

Redford directed Pitt in A River Runs Through It (1992) and they co-starred in Spy Game (2001).

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I did watch Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for a seventh time today and it still holds up. It’s turning into the ultimate hangout movie for me as the two hour and 41 minutes flew by as I admired the craftsmanship on so many levels. And each time I see it I pull back a few more layers. Today was actually the first time I noticed that the movie rating at the Van Nuys rating was GP which was a pre-1972 PG and meant the film was intended for general audiences but parental guidance was suggested.

And since Redford came up in this post, one of his films I’d consider a spiritual cousin to Once Upon a Time… is The Electric Horseman. Redford plays a Rick Dalton/Easy Breezy-like character who is a past his prime rodeo star who drinks too much and—to pull a line from Tarantino’s movie— is “coming to terms with what it means to be slightly more useless each day.”

 

P.S. New Beverly Cinema double feature suggestion:

The Natural starring a 47-year-old Robert Redford and Moneyball starring a 48-year-old Brad Pitt. Two of my favorite films.

P.P.S. Van Nuys, California also had a small part in the classic Casablanca as the Van Nuys Airport doubled for an airport in Morocco. 

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Scott W. Smith

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“I saw the beginning of the sixties as a real transition in the culture, because of the Vietnam war and the things we were going through, and I wanted to make a movie about it.”
Director George Lucas on American Graffiti

“References to Modesto abound in American Graffiti, right down to the Ramona Avenue address where Carol lives and where Lucas grew up. The cruising loop, Mel’s Drive-In, Burger City  … the radio station—all have real-life antecedents in the crowded nighttime streets of Modesto in the late 1950s and early ’60s.”
Dale Pollack
Skywalking:The Life and Films of George Lucas
(American Graffiti was shot primarily in San Rafael north of San Francisco)

“I wasn’t thinking about [American Graffiti] when I was writing [Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood] but when I made the decision that I can use these [1960s KHJ] commercials—I can use this DJ stuff, we created a really interesting thing in the movie and I can kind of duplicate big chunks of that on the sound track album. And then that brought to mind American Graffiti— we can definitely do this. And then upon realizing that I realized how much the film had actually been influenced by American Graffiti between like characters in cars driving around all day seemingly aimlessly. Right down to the fact that Margaret Qualley’s Mason character Pussycat could be Suszanne Summers in the T-Bird. The girl [Richard Dreyfuss’ character] keeps seeing all over town. …But the thing is that ended up being a seminal album for me when I got it because I had just really started listening to oldies radio—that was during the 50s revival in the 70s—so I’m only like 13. I hadn’t even seen the movie. So  I’m loving the American Graffiti soundtrack on its own. I didn’t see the movie until it was re-released after Star Wars which was like ‘78.
Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino
Soundtracking, Episode 155, podcast interview with Edith Bowman 

You could also argue that the Margaret Qualley character in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is closer Mackenzie Phillips’ character in American Graffiti. The underage girl  that ends up driving the Modesto, California strip in cool guy Paul Le Mat’s hot rod.

P.S. The layers of Once Upon a Time go on and on. Mackenzie Phillips is the daughter of John Phillips  who wrote the songs on the  Once Upon a Time … soundtrack.Twelve Thirty recorded by the Mama’s and the Papa’s which he was a part of, and California Dreamin’ with Michelle Phillips (the Jose Feliciano version was used in the movie).

This isn’t the place to dive deep into the connections between John Phillips, Terry Melcher, Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, but let’s just say there’s no prince in shining armour in that group. I prefer Tarantino’s “fable”—as he calls his movie.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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Yesterday I went to see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for the sixth time.

That’s more than twice the number of times I’ve ever seen any movie while it’s still in theaters. But I must put an asterisk by it. In August I signed up for the new Regal Unlimited Movie Pass Subscription allowing me unlimited viewing of movies at specific Regal cinemas for just $22 a month.

While I think Once Upon a Time ... is an extremely well made and enjoyable film, I’m not sure it would have broken my personal record without the unlimited card.  I never signed up for MoviePass as it looked like one of those too good to be true offers (and it was), but they did start the “Netflix for theaters” concept back in 2012 and paved the way for a new price structure for going to movie theaters.

On this sixth (and probably not my final viewing) of Once Upon a Time … I really took in the roles of the supporting cast. (Because I’ve mentioned Julia Butters,  Bruce Dern, Margaret Qualley in pervious posts I won’t repeat myself.)

Nicholas Hammond as the director Sam Wanamaker could be the center of a whole  Tarantino film. His credits are as a varied as General Hospital,  Eight is Enough, The Love Boat, and back to the classic The Sound of Music. I’m sure Hammond has many personal stories of the changes in Hollywood he’s seen over the years. Partly because I was not familiar with his face, he’s the one person in the entire film who truly felt like he was transported from 1969 to be in this film.

Dakota Fanning plays Squeaky Fromme so effectively in her Spahn Ranch sequence with Brad Pitt that even if you didn’t know that real life character’s background, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she would  one day try to kill the president of the United States.

Zoë Bell and Kurt Russell play a husband and wife team that are so dynamic together that if the story would have followed them for 10 or 15 minutes I would have been game for the ride.

Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy and Luke Perry  as Wayne Maunder bring their star persona to two brief cameo roles. Both understated performances that you appreciate on multiple viewings.

Mike Moh as Bruce Lee. Since this story is a fable I have one fantasy that I would like to see in this film and that is somehow Moh and his martial arts skills were utilized in the climatic ending. Moh is grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and spent a decade in LA. pursing an acting career before moving to Madison, Wisconsin to open a martial arts school. It’s not a stretch to bet that someday he’ll star in a film about Bruce Lee.

Al Pacino has been such a great actor in so many fine movies it’s easy to overlook is role as the agent Marvin Schwartz. He really only has one key scene, and it’s a hard one to pull off. It’s a long exposition scene in which he has to explain to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) that his career has been on a downward trajectory. There are so many layers to Once Upon a Time that I didn’t fully appreciate Pacino’s performance until the fourth or fifth viewing.

Quentin Tarantino? —There is a brief clip (just a second or two) of the film The 14 Fists of McCluskey that shows a person (solider?) is a beret that sure looks like it could be Tarantino. It’s a quick shot and I can’t be sure. But if so it would be a brilliant Alfred Hitchcock-style way of sneaking the writer/director into the film. He is uncredited as the voice of the director of Red Apples’ cigarette commercial in the end credits. So regardless, he did make the final cut.

The Dogs. Brad Pitt’s pit bull and the dogs wandering around Spahn Ranch add a dimension to the movie that looking back you can’t imagine the movie without them.

And even after writing over a month of posts about this film, I still have a week of posts to go. Look for Once Upon a Time … Film School and Once Upon a Time … Spahn Ranch next week.

P.S. If the New Beverly Cinema ever has a double-double feature with Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Sunset Blvd. at night and La La Land and The Player in the afternoon matinee please let me know).

Scott W. Smith

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