Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘screenwriting’

“A big theme for me is people in spiritual crisis. I keep coming back to this, every movie that I tend to be drawn to, that I want to spend years on, is about somebody going through a spiritual crisis. And this person—this man or this woman—is trying to make sense of their life because they’re trying to get better instead of worse . . . In many cases that is the whole object of the film. To take that person from a lost state, from a broken state, to a state where they can sudden start to repair themselves.”
Actor/director Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate)
Masterclass

Related post:
The Caterpillar and the Butterfly Every story is ‘The Caterpillar and the Butterfly.’”–Blake Snyder
Screenwriting & Slavery to Freedom “In the vast majority of stories, the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom.”—John Truby
‘Stories are about people who are messed up’ “Stories are about people who are messed up, and need to figure out a way through it.”—Judd Apatow

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“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 transitiona smoothly into the new Hollywood of the late ’60s.)
    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…

Related posts:

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

“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

Read Full Post »

“Convincingly creepy while also slightly thought-provoking, it warns about deceiving facades, because what hides underneath masks is possibly much worse.”
Carlos Aguilar review of HAUNT
Los Angeles Times 

Filmmakers Scott Beck & Bryan Woods were working on the screenplay for their new movie Haunt at the same time they were working on the script for A Quiet Place. Last year A Quiet Place found a worldwide audience and made $340 million at the box office. Yesterday Haunt opened in select theaters with a wider release next week.

It’s not playing in Orlando yet, so I’ll round out my extended run of posts on Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood in the next few days. Then I’ll turn my attention toward Beck and Woods’ recent film.

But if you happen to be in Davenport, Iowa tonight Beck and Woods will be returning to their hometown Quad Cities area for a screenwriting at the Putnam followed by a Q&A session. Next week Haunt opens in Iowa City where Beck and Woods went to college and they’ll also be on hand for a Q&A there as well— September 21 at FilmScene as part of the theater’s grand opening of their Chauncey location.

“To come back to meet some of the founders of FilmScene who just have a love for film as much as people in California is incredible. We couldn’t be more excited to come back to Iowa.”
Bryan Woods
Isaac Hamlet, Iowa City Press-Citizen

The next project for Beck and Woods is adapting Stephen King’s short story The Boogeyman. They’re not doing too bad for a couple of guys who started out screenwriting from Iowa.

Congrats both of them. May they be a major inspiration to you—especially to those of you working on screenplays and making movies outside of Los Angeles.

P.S. Haunt is also currently available On Demand and digitally. 

Related posts:

A 20 Year Journey to ‘A Quiet Place’
Writing an Unorthodox Script (‘A Quiet Place’)
Scott Beck and Bryan Woods on Theme
‘A Quiet Place’ Meets ‘Screenwriting from Iowa’

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

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)

Screen Shot 2019-08-15 at 9.53.14 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 8.27.58 PM.png

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).

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 9.07.59 PM.png

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. 

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 11.46.26 AM

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Screen Shot 2019-09-06 at 1.27.22 PM.png

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

Read Full Post »

“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

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: