When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, 'no, I went to films.'
25 years ago, Quentin Tarantino made his indelible mark on the film industry when he wowed audiences at Cannes with his new film, Pulp Fiction, winning the Palme D’or for his efforts. Following on in the footsteps of his trailblazing debut Reservoir Dogs, here was a director who was not only making great films but becoming a master of storytelling on the big screen. And we lapped it up. Gangsters who discussed the meaning of Madonna’s Like a Virgin, why Mr Pink didn’t tip (it’s the world’s smallest violin, playing just for the waitresses), the ‘Royale with Cheese’, and why you should never, ever bring out the gimp. Independent cinema had an explosive and immediate shot in the arm, and going to the flicks (and pretending to be over 18) was pretty much the coolest thing you could do…
Next month, sees the release of Tarantino’s latest feature, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Though – arguably – he’s no longer quite the red-hot ticket of the 90s, his influence as a screenwriter and director has far exceeded even his own back catalogue, and his services to pop culture and defining an entire generation, should not be underestimated.
So, what were, and are, Tarantino’s magic ingredients? Why do his films stand the test of time so well? Cast your eyes back to that line in the first paragraph: that wondrous quality of master storytelling.
Tarantino writes brilliant dialogue. He doesn’t just write clever plots and drama, he writes about the bits in between that make people human, and outlandish scenes relatable (even gangsters in black suits and kickass girls in yellow motorcycle jackets). For Tarantino it’s about the nothing and yet the everything – a brilliant tip for any budding writer who seeks that elusive flavour and substance behind the otherwise mundane. In that sense, we all love a good ‘Royale with Cheese’ conversation or insight to break away from the serious stuff.
He also structures his stories in non-linear fashion, which plays with the audience’s perception of time and consequence. It enables characters to literally come back to life, and more importantly, unveil their backstories piece by piece, but not necessarily in the order you’d expect. Think Travolta in Pulp: one minute getting shot on the toilet waiting for his Pop Tart, the next surviving a restaurant heist at the hands of Pumpkin and Honeybunny. ‘Everybody be cool, this is a robbery!’
Aside from his hipster scripts, his camera also does the talking. Like a master of theatre, he sets his scenes with lingering wide shots, in which his actors slowly prowl, scowl and humour each other. And then he cuts in…so reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, using the epic wide, and the super close close-up. Wild eyes that fill the screen, itchy trigger fingers, Uma Thurman’s wiggling toe in Kill Bill - and then cutting back to a grand panorama as the dust settles.
His music choices are also his calling card. In a blog I wrote a couple of years back (‘Music matters’) I babbled about the importance of music in film, and how a soundtrack – whether freshly composed or lifted from the commercial vaults – can stamp a movie scene into the collective consciousness. One of the reasons Mr Blonde’s torturing of a cop is so shocking in Reservoir Dogs, is because it juxtaposes an ear-severing with the 70s pop song, ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’. Ultraviolence with a jaunty singalong and Dad-dance. It works, horribly well. You’ve probably danced to it at a wedding party.
Retro-hip records and scores breathe personality and spiritual verve into his cinematic vision, and I love that he thinks about the songs as he writes his scripts, and not as an afterthought.
According to legend, Tarantino wanted The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’ to underpin the ‘Zed’s Dead’ rape scene in Pulp Fiction, but unsurprisingly some of the band members weren’t so keen. Not sure if that was wise or not!
Finally, there’s the confidence. The show-off directing techniques, the mastery of his medium, the effortless panache that makes other directors trail in his blackly humorous, gun-toting wake. He wears his influences on his sleeve (like every great artist, Tarantino borrows great ideas and then improves upon them, whereas plagiarists just steal). And he knows his audience as well as he does the history of movies. That was the only real schooling he needed, and we can all take a sizeable leaf from that particular book: know your thing, as best you can.