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All The Write Moves: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

August 5, 2019
5 min read time

Even for moviegoers who aren’t steeped in film industry lore, there’s a lot to unpack from Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. With his customary boldness, Tarantino mixes the story of two fictional characters with a subplot about a real person, actress Sharon Tate, who was among the victims in a 1969 murder spree committed by Charles Manson’s followers. Because it’s difficult to talk about the Manson aspect of the movie without spoiling the film’s ending, that topic will be set aside. This discussion of Tarantino’s wild meditation on Hollywood circa the late ’60s will focus on screenwriting techniques that others can emulate.

That said, here’s a caveat — overly imitating Tarantino is always a bad idea, a lesson learned the hard way by various wannabe auteurs who fizzled in the late ’90s while copycatting aspects of Tarantino’s breakthrough hit, Pulp Fiction (1994). Part of Tarantino’s appeal is his singularity. Therefore, considering which of his methods you can responsibly borrow provides a teachable moment in the difference between learning from a gifted filmmaker and simply poaching ideas.

There’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from Tarantino’s artistry, particularly since he has been so forthcoming about the filmmakers from whom he draws inspiration. But in the same way that each of Tarantino’s cinematic offerings is uniquely his own — an amalgamation of things he finds interesting — you should endeavor to ensure that your own work is just as distinctively individualistic. Be the next Tarantino, not the next Tarantino clone.

Write what you know

Few axioms in the creative arts spark as much heated debate as the advice to “write what you know.” Taken literally, this means that screenwriters (and others who craft fictional narratives) should tell only stories that parallel personal experience. To put it mildly, this advice is problematic. It’s true that, for instance, a writer with a law degree can theoretically write more authentic courtroom scenes than a writer without a law degree, and it’s also true that anyone who ventures into purely autobiographical terrain does with innate credibility. However, there are other considerations.

Has Tarantino ever been part of a professional robbery crew, like the characters in Reservoir Dogs? Is he a boxer or a drug dealer or a Vietnam veteran, like some of the characters in Pulp Fiction? Is he a black female flight attendant who dabbles in criminality, like the protagonist of Jackie Brown? You get the idea. For Tarantino, “write what you know” could easily be replaced with “write what excites you.” In his scripts, Tarantino explores personalities and worlds that he finds stimulating, and, inevitably, these personalities and worlds allow him to express his insights about the human experience. Does the fact that his work rarely resembles autobiography make him an inauthentic writer? If so, then Shakespeare was inauthentic, and so too are many of history’s great writers.

Some scribes adhere closely to the “write what you know” adage and forge remarkable careers — but the principle does not apply equally to everyone, because each person’s creativity is unique. For Tarantino, who loves movies and the culture of the 1960s, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is authentic, after a fashion. The film takes place on movie sets, Hollywood hangouts, and locations associated with the Manson killings. Instead of simply “writing what he knew,” he wrote what excited him. That’s what works for his process. And if that’s what works for your process as well, then that’s something you can draw from Tarantino — don’t let anyone build fences around your imagination.

Takeaway: Stories rooted in elements that fascinate the author have a type of authenticity.

It’s a man’s man’s man’s world

Although Tarantino has written memorably strong female characters (e.g., the Bride in the Kill Bill movies), he has primarily focused on characters who represent various ideas of male identity. This aspect of Tarantino’s artistry reaches a zenith with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the core of which is a close friendship between Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a TV star whose career is in decline, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s longtime stunt double and personal assistant.

Consider the layers of contrast between these men. Rick makes his living pretending to be a tough guy, when in reality he is desperately insecure about his status in the film industry. Conversely, Cliff occupies a subordinate role, but he exudes tremendous self-confidence, which is backed up by his ability to handle himself in fights — even when his opponent, in one amusing scene, is the legendary martial arts master Bruce Lee. Rick has success but feels emasculated, whereas Cliff lives a humble existence but feels empowered.

This juxtaposition raises all sorts of fascinating questions about what it means to be a man, especially since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in an era with simplistic ideas about gender.

Note that Tarantino deliberately includes moments of Rick and Cliff displaying kindness toward people they respect. In one of the film’s most unusual beats, Rick bonds with an 8-year-old actress on a TV shoot, then takes a paternal interest in her safety. And when Cliff becomes aware that Manson’s followers have taken up residence at the Spahn Movie Ranch, where Cliff once worked, Cliff endeavors to ensure that the ranch’s proprietor, aging George Spahn (played by Bruce Dern), is safe. Rick is prone to narcissism and Cliff is capable of brutality, but Tarantino presents them as complicated characters with whom the audience can easily empathize.

The point is that Tarantino has a worldview — a problematic one, to be sure, but a fully formed perspective nonetheless. That’s one reason for the swagger in his writing. He knows how he feels about the things that he explores in his stories. Watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we, as viewers, can extrapolate a strong sense of how Tarantino perceives male identity by examining the perspectives of the male characters he imbues with the highest degrees of integrity and nobility.

Takeaway: Characters can be tools for expressing how you see the world.

A study in contrasts

In a lengthy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sequence, Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) attends a matinee of The Wrecking Crew (1969), a real movie in which the real Sharon Tate plays a supporting role. With the wide eyes of a child, Sharon (the movie character) watches Sharon (the real-life actress) onscreen, reveling when other people in the theater laugh along with the real Sharon Tate’s comedic portrayal in The Wrecking Crew. It’s a weirdly self-referential moment, especially because of Tarantino’s choice to integrate real clips of Tate instead of recreations featuring Robbie.

More importantly for this discussion, the joy that Sharon (the movie character) derives from being a promising young Hollywood starlet provides a poignant contrast to the anguish that Rick feels about being something like a has-been. His career is not over, but it has definitely shifted to a lower gear, so he constantly frets about opportunities he missed in the past and opportunities he can’t seem to grab in the present. In this sense, Sharon represents the beautiful dream of Hollywood and Rick represents the ugly reality.

Yet we all know that unspeakable tragedy ended the real Sharon Tate’s dream, and the long history of faded TV actors tells us that someone like Rick Dalton could have gotten another 20 years of steady work in commercials, guest shots, and theater even as his leading-man status evaporated. Sharon’s beautiful dream was an illusion, and Rick’s personal nightmare was not as bad as he imagined it to be.

Although the film’s climax determines how these particular story threads resolve, it is sufficient for this space to consider how these threads begin. One gets a sense of Tarantino maturing past indulgence — the practice of putting things onscreen just because he finds them enjoyable — and entering the grown-up space of real existential contemplation.

Is Sharon’s beautiful dream of Hollywood really just an illusion? And is Rick’s ugly reality really closer to the truth? The answer to both questions is yes — and no. In real life, Sharon Tate was a beauty who photographed well and seemed eager to improve her craft with each project — in other words, exactly the sort of person for whom the gates of Hollywood will always open wide. Similarly, Rick is presented as a diligent professional who excoriates himself whenever he slows down production — in other words, exactly the sort of person the industry gives second, third and fourth chances, so long as useful work produces results.

Given these circumstances, one of the most touching aspects of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is that it seems to represent Tarantino offering a love letter to the film industry — but rather than an immature love letter rooted in naïveté, it is a mature love letter rooted in deep understanding of the industry’s complexities.

Takeaway: Contrasting persons at different stages of the same career is a useful way of expressing a theme about that career.

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