These tips are not concrete in any fashion. They are merely
suggestions based upon a closer look at various films and examining why they do or don’t work. So there’s no confusion, I include myself in the audience these tips are compiled for. Let’s see what today’s title has to offer us…
Recently, I was trying to figure out what makes a great low budget movie. Low budget doesn’t mean low quality. It means making the most of your resources and creating a great end product. One of the places to look is usually the first films made by your favorite filmmakers. The ones that got them out there and showed the world what they could do. The lack of funds required them to utilize their creativity and storytelling abilities. The next few entries are going to examine what makes these low budget films unique, good and most importantly, entertaining.
Quentin Tarantino is probably my favorite living director. “Pulp Fiction” is my all-time favorite movie. So in order to examine how he eventually made that film, I’m taking a closer look at his first film, “Reservoir Dogs.” Made for the low budget of $1.2 million, Tarantino crafted a unique heist film, instantaneously making a name for himself in the world of filmmaking. Let’s see what we learn…
BEWARE: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! You’ve been warned.
Opening Manifesto. Straight off the bat, we get the line, “I’ll tell you what ‘Like A Virgin’s’ about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The whole song- It’s a metaphor for big dicks.” IMMEDIATELY, we KNOW this movie ain’t what we were thinking it was. Any predispositions we had… they all went out the fuckin’ window.
By starting your movie off with a bold, outta-left-field line of that caliber, (Better, if you are able to back it up, as well as put it in context sooner, rather than later.) you can be sure that you’ll catch the average cinema-goer off guard. Thanks to making a bold statement early on, you can signal COMMAND an audience to pay attention.
But don’t do it for show, that’s the sure sign of an amateur (dialogue about nothing). No, back up your statement by doing what Mr. Brown does: explain the statement, all the while showing (not telling) the character, how he came to that conclusion, how it relates to the manner in which they view the world. (Who else but Mr. Brown could hear a Madonna song and come to the conclusion it’s about a man with large genitalia?)
Non-Pointless Dialogue in Disguise. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Tarantino is a MASTER of dialogue. The problem is that when most aspiring screenwriters figure this out, they all try to emulate the hell out of him. Hey, I’ll admit, I’m as guilty of that as anyone. We all love how his conversations (seemingly about nothing) can go on for an extended period, and we don’t tire of them.
But why is that? An offshoot of the above example, the opening coffee house scene exists purely to establish character. Period. It’s not inane, it’s not about nothing, it’s about showing us these characters for the first time. So how does he do it? Well, pop in the movie and see for yourself. Listen to how these guys sound like they’re all old buddies. Like they’ve been working together for years. (No one’s overtly offended when the subject of a big dick is brought up during breakfast.)
Also, we see Mr. Pink explain a simple philosophy behind why he doesn’t tip. By discussing that, we see how the other characters react to this, and learn more about them. Several of these (not yet revealed) crooks sympathize with the waitress. (Something the average film-goer might not think a hardened criminal is capable of — empathy.) This is kind of a reversal of the old rule “Show, Don’t Tell.” Almost. The thoughts they tell show us who these characters are in a natural way, instead of being downright obvious about their character traits.
Imagery. Good God Almighty, imagery! When you’re on a budget, you gotta be a creative sonuvabitch when it comes to imagery. Imagery is what makes a movie memorable. Think of it like those anniversary trailers Universal Pictures put out on their re-released movies. All those iconic shots: Chief Brody reacting to Jaws, B-Rabbit putting the audience in a frenzy, the birds chasing the people as they run from them. If you’ve seen the movie, you KNOW the clip, even if it’s just for a second or two.
Spectacle. And realize that it’s not as complex as you might think: for “Reservoir Dogs,” the imagery of a few guys dressed in black suits, ties and sunglasses in slow motion has become iconic. They parodied it on “Coupling.” Hell, it was even the LOGO for Tarantino’s company, for crying out loud.
And hey, remember “Pulp Fiction”? One of the posters for that movie is just Vince and Jules aiming their guns. That’s it. It’s two people standing, pointing guns. But more importantly, we know the context of that image.
My point is, if you have an idea for an iconic image, try and figure out how you can include it into your low budget opus. Who knows? You might just see people making a reference to it one day.
Building Tension. Not even following, but DURING the opening credits, we hear the distressing sound of somebody in pain. Even saying, “I’m gonna die!” Low and behold, we then see Mr. Orange in the back seat of a car drenched in blood while Mr. White drives, reassuring him that he’s not.
I bring this up because in a bad movie, this kind of dialogue would most likely be revealed to be a movie-in-movie ordeal. (Like a bad horror flick, for example) Here, it’s a simple setup and payoff that is worth our while. (Since it’s relevant to the plot.)
Realistic Reactions. As Mr. Orange is crying out from the backseat, Mr. White is trying to take his mind off the pain, via a combination of logic and humor. “I’m going to die!” “Oh excuse me. I didn’t realize you had a degree in medicine.” (The holding of hands was a nice touch to this scene.)
It’s two comrades in arms trying to get the hell outta Dodge. And like all comrades, one tries to console the other through his injuries. It’s realistic because some people, in the face of panic or danger, might use humor to alleviate the tension. (Unlike that stupid “You’re too big for this world” bit from “The Man of Steel.”)
Raise the Tension. After calming Mr. Orange down, Mr. Pink comes in very panicked, not letting up on the audience. The sense of urgency is also present here because not only is Mr. Pink panicked, but he suspects that they’ve been setup, sharing his logic and explaining how he came to this conclusion. Now the audience is curious: IS there a rat? And who?
Necessary Exposition. Normally, this is a no-no. But, since Tarantino IS a dialogue God, he gets away with it. These stories are necessary since the budget didn’t allow for seeing the heist at all. These characters’ vivid storytelling abilities (“Jesus, how old you think that black girl was? 20? 21?” “If that.”)
By their reactions to the events, we can get a sense of just how bad it went down. Plus, Mr. Pink even had to correct Mr. White’s version of the events (when exactly the cops made their presence known), thereby telling the audience that they each had a different vantage point and there was so much chaos around them.
Besides, had we seen the actual heist, their recounting of the events would’ve been superfluous and would’ve put the film at a standstill otherwise.
Showing History. In the first flashback we see how Mr. White became apart of this job. What’s great about this scene is that in between the asking and telling details about the job, Mr. White and Joe are touching base, asking about old partners and friends. This shows how these guys have gone back a long time. There’s a similar scene in “Ocean’s Eleven” when Danny finds out one of his associates died from skin cancer.
Pacing. Directly following a slow-ish (but still entertaining) flashback, we get a high-octane scene: Mr. Pink saying they gotta get outta there. He and Mr. White try and think logically. They can’t leave Mr. Orange, he’ll bleed to death, etc. (This allows for a real reason to stay in the same location.)
The scene continues to escalate when Mr. Pink finds out Mr. Orange knows Mr. White’s name and where he’s from, causing Mr. Pink to completely freak out about Mr. Orange talking to the cops. This causes Mr. White and Mr. Pink to draw guns on each other.
Turn it Up! While Mr. White and Mr. Orange have guns drawn on each other, enter Mr. Blonde, the same guy they were both calling a psycho earlier. A funny side note is that Mr. Blonde is the only person to not raise his voice in the movie. What’s great is that he’s the calmest guy in the room while being the craziest. There’s no better bad guy than the one that doesn’t let you read him and can be a loose canon at any moment.
As they’re all getting pissed at each other, Mr. White says that Mr. Pink is taking Mr. Blonde’s side, to which Mr. Pink says, “Fuck sides!” It’s logical here, since they’re all working towards trying to make sense out of a chaotic situation.
Anticipation. Mr. Blonde says he has something to show the others that they’ll like. He shows them he has taken a cop hostage and they can find out who ratted them out. Then, we get a flashback. We don’t get to see them immediately get information from the cop. We want to see it now! But instead, Tarantino delays violence, letting the audience simmer with the promise of violence around the corner.
So we get another flashback, this time showing how Mr. Blonde got on the job. It’s shows just how these guys look out for each other. (Got a prick P.O.? We’ll set you up at this job where you don’t have to show up, and they cover for you if he shows up to check up on you.) This scene sets up a future plot point relating to Nice Guy Eddie and Mr. Blonde. Not to mention, the back and forth between them is utterly hysterical.
Adding Chaos. Nice Guy Eddie shows up to the warehouse as the guys are beating up the cop. Once again, adding a new person into the mix, always seems to turn a scene up. Personalities clash and tempers flare when the new guy tries to understand the situation. When we left off, all the guys were calm, but once Nice Guy Eddie comes in, they all go back at each others’ throats. Any time you can (as naturally as possible) inject more chaos into a scene, do it.
More Anticipation. Nice Guy Eddie orders Mr. White and Mr. Pink to come with him and ditch the cars and get the diamonds, leaving Mr. Blonde to watch the still bleeding Mr. Orange and the cop. Here we get the most infamous scene in the movie, the Ear Scene. Mr. Blonde hacks off the cop’s ear with a straight razor whilst dancing to a song on the radio. While he’s torturing, he once again never raises his voice. Instead, he lets his actions speak for him.
Tarantino adds even MORE anticipation by having Mr. Blonde go out to his car just after cutting off the cop’s ear. How does he do it? With a long tracking shot, of course. By doing that, we don’t know what to expect. Are there cops outside waiting for him? Did the cop get loose and grab a gun? The suspense is killer!
Then, Mr. Blonde gets a tin of gasoline from his trunk and douses the cop in it, fully prepared to set him on fire! At the last second, he’s shot full of lead by… Mr. Orange?? What? Then, it turns out… Mr. Orange is a cop! What?!
And it’s a terrific scene because since both Mr. Orange and the cop have both lost blood, they talk slowly, allowing for this new information to really sink in with the audience. The cop knows Mr. Orange is also a cop and does give an explanation for how he knows this.
Again, since they’re both wounded and talking really slowly, this allows for the information we learn to really sink in. In a bad movie, right after someone reveals that they’re an undercover cop, they might cut to showing that person as a cop right away, and not let the scene play out in a natural way.
Explanation. After the reveal that Mr. Orange is a cop, we get our longest flashback of the film. It shows how Mr. Orange got in good with the crew. It needs to be said that you should beware of something Tarantino does here: use a flashback WITHIN a flashback. It usually never works. Here, it does. Why? Because of how it’s framed.
Mr. Orange meets his contact in a diner. His contact asks if a story worked? We get a flashback showing Mr. Orange learning an anecdote to tell as a story to the crew to give himself credibility.
Why the flashback here works is because of Orange’s contact telling him he needs to make it real. And what happens? That’s what Tarantino does. There’s ANOTHER flashback within a flashback within a flashback (and this is a decade plus BEFORE “Inception.”) where Mr. Orange is telling the crew this story and we actually see it happen, despite it never actually happening to him. But since Mr. Orange did what his contact told him to do, owning all the details of the story, it literally came to life.
Showing Character. Again, the scenes often thought pointless are there for a reason. When the four guys are in the car, they tell stories and quip over who played a role on TV. This gives insight into where these guys came from. (Nice Guy Eddie worked in his dad’s strip club and knew one dancer who he told a story about. How else would we have known that?) Also, with the exception of Mr. Blue, every single member of the crew gets a moment to shine.
Every single one of them gets to own a scene at some point or reveal an interesting aspect of themselves. Also, never once is there a boring story. They’re all told extremely well. And, hey, they’re entertaining as hell. Character can be shown through the simple act of storytelling. The words they use to describe a girl, or name a TV show where the lead actress looked just like that person. It goes a long way to tell you as simply as possible who these guys are.
Revealing Relationships. There’s a scene where Mr. White and Mr. Orange are scoping out the location for the heist and Mr. White gives a rundown of how to control the room when they’re robbing the place. Here, we see Mr. Orange impress Mr. White. (“That girl with the great ass?” “Right here on my dick.”) This gets a laugh out of the usually stoic Mr. White.
Because of this scene, it’s easier to believe Mr. White’s actions (holding his hand) when Mr. Orange gets shot and he tries to comfort him. We can see that this is really where Mr. White started sort of taking Mr. Orange under his wing. Even going so far as to dispel any thought that he could be the rat when Mr. Pink brings up that notion.
The end of the flashback, showing how Mr. White and Mr. Orange got away does bring up some suspicion. We actually see the lines previously delivered during the credits in audio form only. This time, with Mr. Orange’s eyes shifting. For my money, I think this was Mr. Orange’s way of trying to stay alive: panic a bit more, causing Mr. White to not suspect the guy writhing in pain in the backseat as being a cop.
Payoffs. When Nice Guy Eddie, Mr. White and Mr. Pink come back to the warehouse, they see the carnage. Eddie shoots the cop Mr. Orange was trying to keep alive. Mr. Orange tries to tell them that he shot Mr. Blonde because he was going to kill them when they returned to the warehouse.
But Nice Guy Eddie don’t believe him. He reveals something about Mr. Blonde. He just got out of jail after four years. He could’ve gone free had he said Joe’s name, but he didn’t. So because of that degree of loyalty, no way does Eddie believe Mr. Blonde would do a thing like that.
Earlier, they’d hinted at Mr. Blonde doing something for Joe that he was very grateful for. This scene totally pays off that setup. Since they don’t reveal it early on, it comes as a surprise that Eddie wouldn’t believe a convincing story.
Climax. When Joe shows up, he fingers Mr. Orange for the rat. Mr. White still defends him, causing a Mexican Standoff between him, Joe and Eddie.
With the exception of Mr. Pink, they all shoot each other. Joe and Eddie are dead. Mr. Pink runs off with the diamonds. Then, Mr. Orange reveals to Mr. White that he is, in fact, a cop.
This wounds Mr. White, who aims a gun at Mr. Orange’s head as cops burst in. We don’t actually see what happens, but my guess is that Mr. White actually shoots Mr. Orange and the cops shoot Mr. White.
The pacing between the standoff and Mr. Orange revealing his identity is slow, but for good (natural) reason: Mr. White is also shot and it takes longer for him to absorb this new information. That’s one of the reasons this movie works so well. When you reveal a twist, you have to give the audience time to absorb this information before cutting to something else.
What I Gained: When you don’t have a large budget, try and be resourceful with your story. Most of this movie takes place inside a warehouse. Reasons are stated for why they can’t leave the location, so we no longer question their logic.
Use of simple storytelling techniques such as long tracking shots add to the tension already present in the scenes. These techniques are effective and best of all, inexpensive. The other thing you absolutely need in a low budget film: memorable characters. If you can’t afford to show extraneous amounts of your characters’ lives, have them tell a story. Let their words tell you about them.
I would beware of writing a film that doesn’t have a lead, at least as your first script. It’s easier to explore a single character and get him or her fleshed out fully before you write a project where you flesh out SEVERAL characters. That way, you can practice getting one character right before you try getting multiple people eight. That’s a difficult thing to accomplish.
A great film doesn’t necessarily mean you need a huge budget. If you have less toys to play with, the more creative you’ll have to be with those toys. If you have to make it small, for Pete’s sake, make it quotable. Now I’m hungry, let’s go get a taco.
Until next time, Movie Buffs!
Script Link: Reservoir Dogs