screenwriting

The Tarantino Factor

 

Quentin Tarantino, Movie God

Quentin Tarantino, Movie God

Greetings, Movie Buffs! It’s certainly been a while since my last entry. My apologies. This is due to working a ridiculously amount of hours at these last two jobs. That’s right. Since moving down to North Carolina, I’ve had two jobs. Thankfully not simultaneously.

That said, let’s get down to it.

A few days ago, a guy I’ve given a few scripts to had a couple really good questions for me: What makes for a great script? And what makes a great pilot script?

I proceeded to give long and detailed answers to both questions. It was during the answering of the first question that I had an epiphany.

Quentin Tarantino is considered a God among filmmakers. He’s my favorite director working today. To put it in perspective, I saw “Pulp Fiction” probably ten years ago. It was, I believe the first of his movies that I ever saw. Ever since then, it has changed my perception of cinema, and it has been my de facto favorite film.

He is the king of writing ten minute dialogue scenes that are iconic for their cadence, and timbre. And as the king, many writers try to imitate. It is here where every single one of them has failed. They all think that all you have to do to write one of these scenes is to have your characters talk about life for ten minutes and maybe introduce a gun into the scene.

The epiphany I had dealt with just how Tarantino can make these scenes work. These scenes of people just talking for ten minutes shouldn’t work as good scenes. So HOW does Tarantino do it? It’s actually quite simple. He treats these scenes like mini movies. Most, if not all of these scenes have a little three-act structure to them.

Take for instance the opener to “Pulp Fiction”: Pumpkin and Honey Bunny talking in the diner. At first, it’s inane, throwing the audience off their balance, not knowing what to expect. Finally, they start discussing the act of robbing a bank with just a phone. Back in the day when this came out, that was an unusual concept, so I can only imagine how interesting it must’ve sounded to the audience. Call this Act One. From there, we get the two dropping lines about their profession: robbery. Now this becomes even better for the audience. Are they planning on trying this method on their next job? Finally, they decide to rob the very place they’re eating breakfast. They pull out their guns. This is Act Two. Then, they actually rob the place. This is Act Three. In this case, Act Three is short.

Care for another example? I thought you might!

I know the previous example wasn’t a ten minute scene, but it did have a three act structure to it. So let’s examine the opener for “Inglourious Basterds”: Act One: Hans Landa interrogates Mr. LaPadite about his former neighbors. Once again, we are thrown into the scene without any real direction to follow. Tarantino likes to let the audience play catch-up. Then we see the very family being discussed is hiding under the floorboards DIRECTLY BENEATH THEM. That is Act Two. Finally, Landa deduces that they are nearby, and forces Mr. LaPadite to reveal their hiding place. He does, and Landa has his men execute all of them. That is Act Three.

So let’s look a little closer at them. Both of those scenes end in major plot points. If these movies were told in chronological order, that fact would be a little more obvious. The little “Inciting Incident,” as it were is utilized in the second act. Usually in a Tarantino film, there is plenty of glorious violence to look forward to. That violence will more likely take place in the Third Act. From the promise of violence in the Second Act, Tarantino can pull the audience along for however long he damn well pleases. He knows the audience will watch the carnage, so he makes the build-up worth our while.

Most amateur writers don’t understand this, and they just write a ten minute dialogue scene where their characters just pontificate about life, and that’s it. The scenes don’t build, they don’t pay off the audience’s patience, they just linger for ten minutes. Or should I say crawl, since that’s what those pointless scenes tend to do.

These “Mini-Movie” scenes can work by themselves and back to back. As long as they build, and have a good payoff, they can work. I wouldn’t advise a novice writer to try writing these scenes, but hey, what do I know? If you decide to, I would advise that you start small, doing a shorter scene as practice before you try the longer ones.

I’m sure more of these examples can be found in Tarantino’s films. The other thing to keep in mind is that these little “Mini Movies” are layered upon actions and dialogue that show so much about the characters.

While scenes that show character are paramount, layering them with a building point will put you well over the top. That was my big takeaway from that realization. I hope you guys found this helpful.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

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10 Screenwriting Tips from “The Silence of the Lambs”

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…

I’ve owned this on DVD for a few years now, but it was just a regular DVD, and I decided to rent the library’s Special Edition. This was a two disc set, with the second one PACKED with bonus features. Also, it makes me really want to check out that TV show “Page to Screen” hosted by Peter Gallagher. There was an episode of it on the “Get Shorty” Special Edition as well, and I really enjoyed both episodes.

Anyway, what I gathered most from those bonus features were little touches that I’d missed on my earlier viewings. It’s with these in mind that I thought I’d dissect this chilling classic.

BEWARE: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

  1. An At-Odds Hero. This was done intentionally in the film, and the makers discussed this at length. Jodie Foster is right around five feet tall, and the filmmakers wanted her to seem less capable to the audience. They did this by having as many actors tower over her, and look down on her. This can be a great effect for your hero, giving the viewer a great deal of satisfaction if and when your hero overcomes these extra adversities.Silence of the Lambs 01

  2. Discomfort. You’d be surprised just how much this can give off a great effect. When you see the FBI Headquarters in Quantico, the classrooms and offices look very cold and sterile. The best example is Jack Crawford’s office. It was small, with no windows, very cold, complete with an inescapable wall of serial killer victims on one wall. It’s equaled by Crawford’s cold demeanor towards Starling. Describing a room like this along with a conversation of this nature can make for a bone-chilling atmosphere.Silence of the Lambs 02

  3. Active Cast of Characters. This was something I hadn’t noticed before, but damn near every character was working towards one thing or another. The only exceptions that come to mind are Starling’s friend at the academy and the orderly at the asylum. Even a side character like Dr. Chilton was after something. He wanted to crack Hannibal’s psyche. I’ll admit, I’d forgotten about how he screwed over the FBI’s investigation just for the credit.

    Look at him, taking all that credit for himself.

    Look at him, taking all that credit for himself.

  4. Solid Scenes. This and the above tip go hand in hand. Because every character is active in the story, there are no unnecessary scenes. If there’s one that doesn’t advance the plot, it most definitely reveals character. I had initially thought of these as ones at Buffalo Bill’s lair, but then I realized two things: they were showing some form of motive (he wants his woman suit), and they show that the catalyst for this story (the Senator’s daughter) is still alive and she is eventually active towards the end (never seen a captive use a captor’s pet against them). This is a big reason the movie never felt slow. Every scene had a purpose, and therefor, there was nothing tedious about them.

  5. Make It MORE Difficult. Starling has been ordered to get Hannibal to take some psychiatric evaluation tests and he doesn’t want to unless she tells him about herself. Exactly what her superior had said NOT to do. So now her obstacle in getting Lecter to take the test has just gotten bigger. Can she do her job with him inside her head? This happens several times in the film. She wants information on Buffalo Bill, but he wants to play his little mind games. She asks a question, he asks a question. All the while, a life is in danger. No one has time to play these games. Except Hannibal. All he’s got is time.

    All good things to those who wait.

    All good things to those who wait.

    The game of question asking has been used since, most notably in “The Sixth Sense” in Malcolm’s initial meeting with Cole. The main difference being that they weren’t really pressed for time.

  6. Memorable Villain. You knew this was coming. Hannibal Lecter is a fantastic villain, but what exactly makes him that way? Starting with the fact that he’s talked about up until the minute we meet him, we expect a disfigured monster or something, but we are met with a prim and proper gentleman-type. Even so, the great thing about his reveal is him standing in the middle of his cell, standing straight as an arrow.

    For me, this is completely normal.

    For me, this is completely normal.

    The big tip here is to always have your villain be the opposite of what people expect. You can write up a description of yours, and have people describe what he or she may look like, then take that information and make a polar opposite of that. The polite serial killer is always more interesting than the constantly screaming one.

  7. Villain Speak. A while back, I was discussing how Mr. Blonde never raised his voice, and how doing so made him even more effective as a bad guy. Hannibal only raised his voice once as I recall, but it was just him calling after Starling once she’d left, so that’s a moot point.

    A great thing Hannibal does is after a few minutes of speaking with Starling, mimics her accent and uses it to insult her person. She has no choice but to take it, since this is her first big assignment.Silence of the Lambs 09
    Any time you can make a character HAVE to be in a position they’re not going to like, always heap the discomfort on them in droves. There’s a danger to doing this excess, though, “Monk” being the obvious example of this. Why this works is that Hannibal uses it as a means to get into Starling’s head. It wasn’t meant to be humorous, but off-putting. That’s why he only did it the first time, and not constantly. (At least not as thick as he did the first time)

  8. Suspense Via Crosscutting. Admittedly, this was done in post, but this should still be strived for in the scripting stage. The example from the film where the action cuts between Buffalo Bill in his basement, being alerted to someone outside and the FBI getting ready to raid a house. The crosscutting was greatly effective, building tension up for a conclusion to the already tension-filled story. Even during my latest viewing, I was still sucked into believing that they were actually going to capture Bill.

  9. Don’t Go In There. This is what’s referred to as Dramatic Irony. The audience knows about the danger lurking behind a door, but the hero is oblivious to it. We scream at the screen: “Don’t Go In There!” This was how the audience felt when Starling went into Buffalo Bill’s house. She just thought he was a random neighbor of a victim, but we knew differently.Silence of the Lambs 07
    Now, Dramatic Irony doesn’t need to be thought of as JUST this kind of scenario. Alfred Hitchcock famously illustrated the use of suspense in thrillers as: “There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t…”

    A related idea might be a kid who has snuck a puppy home. His parents have said he can’t have one, but he’s disregarded them. Now he has the puppy in his room, but he hears his mom coming down the hall, so he hides the puppy in the closet. Now, when his mom comes in, there’s nothing but tension, because any sound the puppy emits gives it away, so the kid is going to try and get his mom out as fast as possible without letting her pick up on something being off about his behavior.

  10. Stakes. An extension of the above point. Dramatic Irony is only as good as the stakes of the situation at hand. In the film, if Starling realizes the guy she’s talking to is Buffalo Bill, she can arrest him and he can’t kill anymore. But if she doesn’t, not only does he kill his captive below, but his killing spree can continue.

    Those are pretty high stakes, plus, we’ve spent the last ninety minutes getting acquainted with these characters, so the outcome of the encounter has a huge impact one way or another.

    Now in the example with the puppy, the stakes aren’t necessarily that high. That is to say, the fate of the family doesn’t hang in the balance. This is a scenario found mostly in family films, but nonetheless, there are still stakes. If the puppy is quiet and not uncovered by the mom, the kid gets to enjoy the puppy a little while longer at least. If the mom finds the puppy, she could very well take it away, and the kid would be sad.

What I Gained: If a scene feels tedious, double check to make sure that it is contributes towards the plot. Make sure most of, if not all your characters are after a goal of some sort, and aren’t just sitting around, waiting for things to happen.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

Script Link: SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE by Ted Tally (1990.01.15)

What I’ve Learned This Year

On the second of September, it will be one year since I’ve had employment. This was planned to be the year that I wrote six to ten screenplays before setting off to work and save up for a move to Los Angeles.

There was a change in plans shortly after my job came to an end. My parents, who I’ve been living with, informed my brother and sister that they had decided to move to North Carolina, and we were all invited to come with.

This news came as quite a shock, and naturally, I was pissed. This changed everything. How would I live? Where would I work? Why the fuck bother? I hated the notion, and hoped to move straight to the west coast. Following some examination of living costs out there, I recanted. My brother asking aloud, “Did you come to your senses, then?” He’s kind of a shit at times, but he’s family, so what can you do?

Following a couple months of wallowing in self pity, and being quite direction-less, I finally managed to get my act together and get some ideas down.

First was the month-long research period for “Soldiers of Fortune.” I spent days on the internet trying to learn all I could about the weight and size and classes of 16th century ships. Around Thanksgiving, my library facilitated me with a book on Columbus’ ships that proved most helpful.

One of the critical parts of planning this story was figuring out the time frame of it all. As it was an Action/Adventure film, there was naturally globetrotting. What I had trouble with was finding out the travel times between destinations, the time difference and how long each of the events in each location would last. It was necessary to create an actual time line for the project, and it came in quite handy.

Before I wrote, I outlined, with a simple rubric I plan to touch on at a later date. Any problems with a scene about to be written were further outlined on my trusty 4×6 notecards. When completed, there were at least 100 cards related to this particular project. Each of them handwritten.

The writing was rather fast, two weeks, I believe. I had it at 100 pages. And I saw that it was good.

A month later, I wrote my second script. “While This Offer Lasts.” A rewrite of a script I had done the year before. This project is what I refer to as the “Manic Draft.” Named that for when I told my doctor at a checkup and he said, “Good God, are you manic?” He was taken aback by the particulars of the project: 113 pages written in eight days.

The project itself took all of ten days total. The first day was the beat sheet. The second was outlining. On the third, I started. I used notecards in the same capacity as the previous project. And like it, I used over 100 cards.

Shortly after finishing the second script, I sent in the first to Scriptshadow’s Amateur Offerings. Around that time, I started really delving into the articles on the site. It was there that I found the article discussing cheating the margins. Putting the script into Final Draft, I realized I had been doing things wrong.

Once I took care of the formatting, I read more of the articles. It soon became apparent to me that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. On one hand, it was terrible. There went the last two months of work I’ve done, all the while thinking it was good. On the other, it was exciting. There, on the web was an example of something similar to what I’d written, what was wrong with it, WHY it was wrong, and a suggestion or two about how to correct it.

In the past year, I have bookmarked hundreds of articles on one site alone. (A great thing about the bookmarking feature in my browser is that I can re-name each bookmark, and say why I bookmarked it, instead of going to the page and having to re-read it.

Another helpful aspect was the reading of two books: “Scriptshadow Secrets,” which, as I’ve stated, is the best screenwriting book I’d read to date. That remains true. The second one I haven’t finished yet. It’s called “Crafty Screenwriting” by Alex Epstein. This book, I would venture to say, would be tied for the title of the best screenwriting book you can buy. I’m dead serious. This book was written by a former studio suit who knows what the hell he’s talking about. For instance, in the first chapter, he says that you have to hook the reader by the third sentence in a query letter. I’ve NEVER heard that. Not in all of the books that Writer’s Digest peddles, or anywhere else.

I’ve also joined a screenwriting forum. It was probably the best decision I’d made all year. On there, I think I’ve really found a place I belong. And if this site is any indication of what networking with other screenwriters is like, I can’t wait! I’ve met a ton of really great people on there who I just love chatting and exchanging ideas with.

An example of this is how for a long time, I was having trouble with loglines. Through this site, as well as a book or two (see above), I’ve managed to help a couple writers better fine-tune their stories. It was all from the realization that if the information in your logline does not directly have an effect on the story, lose it. IE, if your story takes place in the early 19th century, but it’s about a construction worker being blackmailed, the time really doesn’t play into the pitch, since it’s all about the construction worker.

But by far the two biggest things that I’ve pounded into my head are building a concise character description, and understanding the economy of the page. A side note for the latter being more diverse with descriptive verbage. These two subjects became the biggest focuses over the later part of the year.

I will admit, however, I feel a little guilty, not having written a single page since January. This was really when I discovered I was doing it wrong. The good news is that I’m still technically writing everyday. I always have my phone, a notebook, or notecards handy to jot down an idea when I get it.

Another reason for my sloth-like behavior was the fact that my family is moving to North Carolina, and we sold our house back in April. It was fast. I mean, REALLY fast. We put it on the market on a Wednesday, and we closed the sale the following Wednesday. Yes, ONE WEEK.

So it was really hard to do much writing with all of my noted being packed in moving boxes. Then, we moved to an apartment in Madison until we were set to move South in the fall. Currently, we have a month left here, so my notes are going BACK into storage for the next move. Where, I’m told, we’re going to be at another apartment for an initial three months before possibly looking for a new place to rent. It’s kind of harrowing.

Once I get settled in, I plan on seeking full time employment. After I get into the swing of things, that’s when I’ll get into writing again.

In the meantime, I plan on creating a sort of handbook for screenwriting that breaks down the aspects of screenwriting. (Excerpts from articles all having to do with writing a concise character description would all appear under the same category, for example.) This may take some time to put together, but I feel it will be well worth it in the long run.

I’m also really hoping that the public library system down there holds a candle to mine here in Wisconsin. The resources have just been phenomenal.

All in all, this has been a pretty well-utilized year. I’m still far from where I’d wanted to be a year ago, but with all that I’ve learned, I’m okay with that. I’d rather try writing one great script after a year of learning how to improve, rather than having six projects that I would have to agonize over rewriting. I’m just as sure now more than ever, that this is the only career path that I want, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!