Quentin Tarantino on writing, music and his creative process

The Oscar-winning writer and director discusses scripts, soundtracks and how he got into directing

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Still from the official Pulp Fiction trailer (Miramax)

From Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has written and directed some of the most iconic films of the 1990s and 2000s – films that are renowned for combining brilliant soundtracks with slick visuals and scenes of bloody violence.

Speaking at the Adobe MAX conference in San Diego this week, Tarantino discussed his creative process, how he got into filmmaking and the importance of music and visuals…

Learning through practice

Tarantino never went to film school. Instead, he got into directing through screenwriting and shooting his own films.

In 1987, he made My Best Friend’s Birthday, a black-and-white feature which he wrote with Craig Hamann and shot on a 16mm camera. It was never released – and the final reel was allegedly destroyed in a lab fire – but Tarantino says it taught him a lot about directing.

“I borrowed a camera from a guy I barely knew and I was going to make a short. I worked for a couple of weeks on this short but [indie film] Stranger than Paradise had come out and I thought, ‘I could do a feature’. So I worked for three years shooting on 16mm footage,” he told the audience at MAX.

“It ended up becoming nothing but I kind of learned how to make a movie … in the course of three years, I only put out about £3,000, so I did it for a lot cheaper and learned a lot more than I would have done at university,” he says.

After making My Best Friend’s Birthday, Tarantino wrote the script for True Romance and says he spent three years trying to get it made into a film. “I couldn’t sell it!” he says. It was eventually released in 1993 and directed by Tony Scott who went on to write the script for Natural Born Killers. Tarantino made his directorial debut in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs.

It begins with writing…

Tarantino says every film begins with him sitting with a pen and a blank piece of paper.

“The only film I’ve ever adapted from something someone else wrote was Jackie Brown. I love Jackie Brown and I’m very happy with it – I’d love to do something like that again – but I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction when I’ve been on location, done a movie, we’ve spent all the time shooting it and then I’m going around the world travelling the globe selling it and doing press on it …  to think ‘there was a moment in time where me and a pen were sitting at a table in front of a blank piece of paper’,” he says. “Knowing that it all comes back down to that pen and that piece of paper and that thought in my head, it’s very gratifying.”

He usually has three or four ideas for a story at any one time – but says he has learned to trust his instinct when it comes to choosing which ones to develop further.

“I trust myself as a writer … I know when something needs to sit in the incubator and I never try to pick anything up too soon or do anything that’s premature. If I do, then I usually realise that and I put it back,” he says. Once he feels an idea is ready to be explored, Tarantino says he will try and establish “a few building blocks” to make it more solid before starting work on a script.

…and sometimes, a soundtrack

Tarantino movies are renowned for having great soundtracks – so it comes as no surprise that music forms an important part of his creative process. He often listens to music for inspiration when writing scripts – a technique which he has found particularly useful when ideas are still in their infancy.

“It doesn’t work for every single movie – but if I can give you a knockout, blow-your-socks-off opening credit sequence I will … so when I start coming up with an idea, I go to my record room where I have a big vinyl collection … and I’ll go through my records and what I’m looking for is the beat of the movie, the sound of the movie. That might be other old soundtracks, rock-and-roll music … all kinds of things, but I’m trying to find the rhythm and the beat of [the film],” he explains.

“This is before I’ve even officially started [on a script] but I’m really starting to think about seriously about this idea. And when I find some song where I can just pace around my room and imagine a really groovy opening credit sequence and everybody at the Grand Palais just loving it, then that goes a long way to encourage it and I go further,” he continues. “Even as I’m writing something, if I need a little pick me up, I just go back in and put some of that music back on and I’m right back into it again.”

The importance of craft

Speaking to Adobe’s CMO Ann Lewnes, Tarantino said that technology has made filmmaking more democratic and acknowledged that this was something to be celebrated. “People other than white men can now make movies. A kid doing a project can make a movie about their life if they want to … that [opportunity] is available to them in a way that was never available to me,” he said.

However, he also expressed a concern that young filmmakers are less focused on craft and visual quality than they were in the 1990s. With technology making it easier to create films than ever before, he said there is “even more responsibility” on young filmmakers to achieve “a level of craft”.

“I remember when we were trying to make movies, whether it was [a budget of] $60,000 or a million dollars, we were trying to make them look as good as we possibly can…. The sad thing is, I don’t know how important that is to young filmmakers now, the visual aspect of the movie.”

Defining success

Speaking to Adobe CMO Ann Lewnes, Tarantino confirmed his plans to retire after making ten films. (He has directed eight so far). He is currently working on a project based around his fascination with the year 1970 – but says he has yet to decide what form this project will take.

Asked how he defines success, he said that he would like to be considered not just a director but an artist – and “one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived”. He also said he would find satisfaction in seeing people enjoying his films several decades after they were made.

“Recently I had a thought. I was at a film festival in France … and I was sitting in a jam-packed theatre watching Buster Keaton’s The General and everybody loved it. The movie was magnificent and we all laughed and we all enjoyed it and there were little kids in the audience who loved it, and I thought, ‘Wow. If 60 years after my death, 80 years after I’ve made the movie, if it was still playing and people wanted to see it and would have the time that I had watching The General, that would be really awesome’.”

Tarantino was speaking at Adobe MAX in San Diego. For details, see adobe-max.com

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