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“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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I did finish watching the HBO mini-series Chernobyl and plan to write a post about it tomorrow. In the meantime, yesterday I saw the trailer for Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood and it triggered a few things.

A few days ago a friend of mine was in outside his midcentury home in an Orlando suburb when a location scout started asking him some question. Turns out he was looking for homes for the TV program The Right Stuff. (The Tom Wolfe book of the same name was made into a remarkable movie back in 1983.)

I wasn’t even aware that they were doing a TV show on The Right Stuff—much less one right here in Central Florida. A quick Google search showed that Leonardo DiCaprio (recently starring in Once Upon a Time . . .  in Hollywood) is executive producing. And Emmy-winning director David Nutter is scheduled to direct the pilot.

I went to film school with Nutter at the University of Miami and our paths almost crossed again back in the early 90s when he was editing Superboy at Century III at Universal Studios Orlando and I was in the next bay editing a project. On a break I went over to say hello but he was already gone.

And he was soon gone from Florida and off to incredible success in Hollywood. His long list of directing credits include Band of Brothers, The X-Files, The West Wing, The Pacific, and The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones.

To show what an interconnected world production can be, the location scout for the new The Right Stuff studied film with Ralph Clemente at Valencia College, who Nutter studied with at Miami. (See the post The Perfect Ending).

And while I was editing projects at Century III (the top post house in Orlando back in the day) I worked with Mike Elias (in the pre-AVID/non-linear days) using a video editing technique that used rows of VHS machines to assemble an edit. (I forget what machine was called, but it would be great for production students to see in action to appreciate non-linear editing). Elias was a good friend of Nutters (and also worked on Superboy) and for the last few years has been an editor on Family Guy.  If I recall correctly, Mike’s father is the writer Michael Elias who co-wrote The Jerk starring Steve Martin and The Frisco Kid starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford.

The thing that brought David Nutter and Mike Elias to Orlando in the late 80s and early 90s was this thing called Hollywood East—a marking ploy to position Florida as a major player in film and TV production. Disney and Universal Studio opened working film studios at that time. Panavision opened and office and for a decade it appeared to be working.  Parenthood (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990),  Passenger 57 (1992), Marvin’s Room brought some of the biggest names in Hollywood to Florida including Ron Howard, Steve Martin, Johnny Depp, Wesley Snipes, Meryl Streep and DiCaprio.

And then Hollywood East was gone. Not gone-gone…it just relocated from Florida to its currently home in Georgia. But now at least DiCaprio is coming back to shoot at least part of The Right Stuff in Central Florida.

Another  fun connection I just learned yesterday is I edited a video two months ago on sustainability (and learned about things like hyrdroponics) and the person I did that video for was hired to work full time as the Sustainability Lead on The Right Stuff. The goal of the DiCaprio’s production company and Nat Geo is to “become the most sustainable TV production ever.”

I’m not sure this will jumpstart a new wave of film and TV production in Florida but it’s a nice addition to Florida’s production history that goes way back to the early days of cinema. If you’re every in Jacksonville, Florida check out touring Norman Studios which began making silent films in 1916 and produced movies with exclusively African American cast in the 1920s.

P.S. I first arrived in L.A. in the early 1980s and felt like I got a glimpse of the old a fading Hollywood that Tarantino appears to capture in Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood, which is set in 1969.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

 

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Author Neil Gaiman was once on his blog was once asked what words or quote would he inscribe “on the wall of a public library children’s area” and this is the core of his answer from his essay Just Four Words (found in his book Stories: All-New Tales) mixed with his Masterclass on storytelling:

I’m not sure I’d put a quote up, if it was me, and I had a library wall to deface. I think I’d just remind people of the power of stories, of why they exist in the first place. I’d put up the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear. The ones that show that it’s working, and that pages will be turned: 

‘. . .and then what happened?’

The four words that children ask when you pause telling them a story. The four words that you hear at the end of a chapter. The four words, spoken or unspoken, that show you, as a storyteller, that people care. And then what happened? And those words, I think,  are the most important words there are for a storyteller.”
Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Good Omen)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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Now class, everyone thank Emily and Vanity Fair for making this video. (Virtual applause.)

Scott W. Smith

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Poor plot construction is the bane of many a beginner. When a story lacks continuity, that is, breaks into parts that have no close relation, the plot needs additional building up. While I have known those who built up complications and plot tangles so knotted that neither they nor anyone else could unravel them reasonably, a more usual defect is a too weak conflict which, of course, results in a weak climax. The struggles recounted are not important enough, the difficulties are not impressive, and to overcome them requires no interesting activity on the part of the plot actors. It seems almost as if some writers are afraid to hurt their characters, are afraid to make them suffer, or to get them into distressing situations from which they must fight their way out. Yet one of the very first things any fiction writer must learn is that where there is no struggle there is no drama.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)

P.S. If you want a mental image of a character in a distressing situation…

Related post:

Conflict-Conflict-Conflict 

Scott W. Smith

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When you have a clear idea of a plot, write out the entire story as interestingly as you can. Keep in mind that the audience is not interested in seeing actions which people do generally, but in seeing what specific actions specific persons do in specific circumstances.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion 
How to Write and See Film Stories (1937)

Moneyball is a movie I adore and return to often. Here are two scenes from that movie that show something specific about the game of professional baseball. But they are also  scenes that are universal. Since people throughout time have had to do some kind of work to survive and be productive in this world —getting fired or firing people is a part of life.

And Office Space is another work related movie that comes to mind as unpacking specifically what Peter (Ron Livingston) does in a given day to avoid being fired. It’s a great scene because of the twist at the end.

And another scene that comes to mind dealing with specificity is from Breaking Bad.

You don’t have to be a fan of baseball, work in a cubical, or have an interest in chemistry/meth to enjoy the stories of Moneyball, Office Space, and Breaking Bad because the writers drilled deep into the specific aspects of the characters.

P.S. Speaking of work . . . over the weekend I made significant progress on lining up details for the release of my book this month.

Scott W. Smith

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Certain plot patterns long since have won public favor and with fresh treatment doubtless will continue to do so. Among these is the rise to success plot centering on man’s search for the satisfaction of accomplishment. It is found in one version in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and probably appeared long before that. In modern times, the giant may be a rival business man, a falling market, a soulless corporation, or it may be poverty; but in any version of this plot an appealing underdog comes out on top. Its feminine version is the Cinderella plot centered on the poor girl who, after many heart-breaking situations, wins her prince; but whereas the success plot requires the male protagonist to fight strenuously to achieve his success, Cinderella usually rouses the desire of her prince through her beauty and goodness. This plot has brought more motion pictures actresses to fame than any other. The audience knows it so well that its sympathy is with Cinderella  from beginning to end. Her success, in spite of lowly origin, or pitiful circumstances, or other handicap, always suggests gratifying possibilities to almost every woman who watches her. If done with an appealing heroine, fresh and modern treatment, and a fair degree of reality, it never fails. It can be done with great dignity and charm.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 54-55

If you’re hunting for a story to write, kick some evergreen ideas centered on the rise to success of such and such a character. What are some of you favorite “success” stories? Here are some successful success stories over the decades:

P.S. One thing I noticed about contemporary rise to success stories is there is a tinge of defeat in many of them. True of A Star is Born, Moneyball, Wolf of Wall St., The Social Network, The Founder. So storytelling has evolved, yet remains rooted in timeless traditions. Roots that go back to Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), and the Biblical story of Joseph.

Scott W. Smith

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