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How Watching Movies Taught Quentin Tarantino and Can Teach Screenwriters

January 30, 2023
5 min read time

It’s important for aspiring screenwriters to watch movies: older films as well as current ones. Many of the films of today have been inspired by films of the past, and in some cases, this knowledge can lead to box office success, multiple awards, and a lifelong career of writing and making movies. 

That’s exactly what happened to Quentin Tarantino.

In his first nonfiction book about cinema, Cinema Speculation, the acclaimed writer/director opens up about his childhood in the first chapter: “Little Q Watching Big Movies”. In the chapter, Tarantino details the movie-going experiences that shaped his tastes during his formative years (circa late 1960s and early 1970s). His mother Connie was a young and unconventional woman who took the elementary age Quentin to several hard-edged and adult themed movies, including John G. Avildsen’s Joe (an underground and reactionary precursor to Taxi Driver), Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H*, Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, The Godfather, Dirty Harry, The French Connection, and Bullit to name just a few. At an impressionable age, these films left a lasting impact on Tarantino’s psyche, and it’s not hard to see the considerable influence they had on his own work as a filmmaker. 

After this first and very revealing chapter, Tarantino examines some of the films he viewed during his childhood and adolescence that had a profound influence on him; in addition to some of the above-listed films, he also writes about Deliverance, The Getaway, Sisters (an early Brian De Palma thriller), Taxi Driver, and Rolling Thunder among others. Breaking down the films’ cultural context while writing about his personal impressions of them, Tarantino analyzes each of these films as if they’re inextricable components of his own consciousness. They’re more than just movies to him; they’re part of who he is. Of course this is no surprise as Tarantino has always worn his movie fandom on his sleeve (in both his interviews and his actual movies). But with Cinema Speculation, we’re treated to a more thoughtful side of Tarantino’s movie fandom, and it reveals the full scope of artistic influence: how it informs our tastes and shapes our voices as screenwriters.

When trying to develop your voice as a screenwriter and perfect your craft, dont be afraid to use your influences. This doesnt mean copying what others have done, but building on and branching off from their work. For example, Tarantino doesn’t simply take from one kind of film: he takes from several kinds and mixes them together in a way they’ve never been mixed before (e.g., Kill Bill: Volume 1 & 2 mixed martial arts films and spaghetti westerns with a French New Wave aesthetic recontextualizing the genre elements).

Not only is it important for aspiring screenwriters to watch movies, they should understand them: Why do some films work better than others? Or at very least, why do they work better for you? Now this doesnt mean you have to be a film student or cinephile like Quentin Tarantino. There are many things that can inspire writing; in addition to movies, there are novels, comic books, television, video games, YouTube videos, TikToks, and perhaps most importantly: reality. However, oftentimes the best art is a reflection of reality (another reoccurring theme in Cinema Speculation), and the greater your cinematic vocabulary is as a screenwriter, the more methods you’ll have of expressing yourself. For example, my first spec script I sold was a parody of Jean-Luc Godard films; if I hadn’t watched and fully digested his movies, I would have never became a professional screenwriter.

Once again, you don’t have to be a cinephile, but you should be able to have a conversation about the films you like. Some years back, my former writing partner and I had a general meeting with director Jay Roach and his producing partner. After some initial pleasantries, I pitched a divorce-themed Rom-Com in the vein of The Philadelphia Story and War of the Roses. Roach revealed he was a big fan of the two films I referenced, and he wanted to develop the concept with us and pitch it to Universal. Afterwards, my writing partner said,It should make you feel good to know that all these years of watching films and acquiring knowledge is actually paying off!” He was right. It made me feel very good, and a few months later, we successfully pitched the concept to Universal (with Roach attached as a producer). Like many projects, this one eventually fell into “Development Hell”, but it was a paying gig and it still looks good on a resume. Because I had watched those two classic films and was able to talk about them with Roach, it led to a big writing job and a great learning experience.

In addition to improving your interaction with industry professionals, film knowledge enhances your screenwriting. If youre genuinely excited about the art form, itll show in the writing. This doesnt mean your scripts have to be loaded with cinematic allusions and references, but nothing substantial is created in a vacuum. When writing your screenplay, you should feel like youre adding and building on history. Initially your influences will be more pronounced; its similar to a music act whose influences are more apparent on their earlier albums, but over time, their own style emerges. Usually its a combination of different influences that helps one carve out their own identity. Maybe youre a big fan of action films, but you also appreciate dark comedy (e.g., you’re into the Fast and Furiousfranchise, but you also love Martin McDonagh films). In such a case, writing a high adrenaline script with darkly comedic characters might be the way to go. When different influences are mixed together they can lead to something fresh and oftentimes result in the X Factor that is called Your Voice.”

Just like Quentin Tarantino created his own voice via his cinematic influences, you have the same resources at your disposal. Think of past and present-day filmmakers as instructors that will help guide you to your own style.

Youre not stealing from them. 

Youre learning from them.

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