Last-Minute Honoree Quentin Tarantino Talks Writing in Santa Barbara

Tarantino at Santa Barbara International Film Festival - H 2013
Tibrina Hobson/FilmMagic

Tarantino at Santa Barbara International Film Festival - H 2013

On Wednesday night at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, screenwriter/director Quentin Tarantino, a best original screenplay Oscar nominee this year for Django Unchained, was honored with the American Riviera Award. Tarantino, a longtime friend of the fest, was a last-minute replacement for his film's star, Leonardo DiCaprio, and he seemed to have no idea what was in store for him as he waited, along with everyone else in the packed Arlington Theatre, for the show to get under way. Once, however, a montage of his 21 years of film work played and the audience got on its feet for a lengthy standing ovation, it seemed to sink in. "I actually didn't realize this was such a big deal," he said as, holding a goblet of Moet champagne provided to him by the evening's sponsor, he took his seat on the stage for a roughly 90-minute Q&A with Los Angeles Times staff writer John Horn. "I'm actually really taken aback by all the goodwill and the love."

Most of the evening focused on writing and directing theory, with Horn asking questions about Tarantino's creative process and Tarantino giving characteristically colorful -- and sporadically profane -- answers, to the delight of the audience.

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Tarantino revealed that he hand-writes his scripts -- "I can't write poetry on a computer, man!" He said that he never took writing classes, but did take acting classes, and consequently writes using acting terms. And he indicated that he feels more like a novelist than a screenwriter. "I kind of like doing it the novelistic way," he explained, finding out where characters are going only as he writes them, not via outlining or storyboarding. "I work in genre, so there is a bit of a roadmap," he granted. But he also emphasized, "The journey is everything. The journey makes the destination worthwhile." Sometimes, he enjoys the journey so much that he doesn't want it to end. He recalled that while working on Kill Bill -- which he reminded the audience was written as one film before "Harvey [Weinstein] put a word in my ear" that it needed to be two -- "I wasn't really that interested in just finishing it. I just wanted the experience."

Tarantino famously loves movies, but also emphasized that he loves writing -- indeed, he said that it has provided him with "some of the funnest times I've ever had." Sometimes he enjoys it too much. "My problem is not writer's block," he said with a laugh. "My problem is I can't stop writing. And when you're writing movies, that's not the greatest problem to have." He went on, "I can tend to go long," citing as an example the basement scene in Inglourious Basterds (2009), which involves "a bunch of motherf-ckers you just met, and now all of a sudden they're in a 40-minute scene that's supposed to be suspenseful. It was never my intention for it to be that long." He added, "If you think it's long when you're looking at it, imagine me writing it!" But, he hastened to add, "I trust myself." He said he's also grateful for the pre-existing structure of genre films. "If I didn't write in genre, all of my movies would be five hours long. Genre keeps me disciplined."

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Tarantino, who turns 50 in March, often listens to music while writing, which he said helps him imagine scenes. "Seeing the movie in my head and playing the music," he explained, "cuts through a lot of the creative process." And he said that while listening, "I imagine people who know me -- who dig on me -- cheering it." He doesn't cheat: "I can't just jump to the stuff I want to write, or I'll never get to the stuff I don't want to write. I always have to kind of keep moving forward." And he doesn't stop writing until he feels that he can say: "I love these pages. I think that I could just publish these pages and then be done."

In a reference to Basterds, he said, "I never saw the one lone Jewish girl bring down the Third Reich in all my movie-going, and I wanted to see that." When it's time to direct, he's willing to make changes -- but he's not interested in having others do that, especially via improvisation. "Actors aren't there to riff; they're there to say my dialogue," he said forcefully. But, he chuckles, "If their riffing is genius, I'll take credit for it!" After a slight pause he seemed to reconsider: "Now, there are exceptions to that. Sam[uel L.] Jackson is an exception. Sam is a terrific writer. Sam writes like I write. When Sam is writing in character, he's writing as good as I could write in character." He went on, "For a while there, he said it so perfectly that it was hard not to write for him" anytime he wrote "a cool male character who was gonna talk a lot of shit."

Regarding Jackson's controversial part in Django Unchained, he says, "I think Stephen is actually one of the best characters I've ever written," adding, "What was cool about Django was taking all those loaded issues and actually making them part of the scenario." Asked if Basterds and Django might be the first two installments of a trilogy, Tarantino said, "I wouldn't be surprised."

When Horn asked Tarantino to comment on "subtextual criticism" of his work, the writer-director replied, dead-seriously, "There are few things on the planet that I love more than subtextual criticism ... but that's for other people to look at my work and do." Tarantino remembered his 1991 visit to the Directors Lab at the Sundance Institute, where he workshopped the script that would become Reservoir Dogs. He said that it meant a great deal to him to be invited, since "nobody had ever believed in me that much," and that he paid very close attention when a consultant there helped him to understand how he could discover the subtext of his own script by asking himself questions about the characters' fundamental motivations. By doing this, he said, he arrived at the conclusion that Mr. White and Mr. Orange were effectively father and son, and that the father was unaware that he was being betrayed by the son, and therefore fought to save the son who wanted him dead. Tarantino said this revelation -- the knowledge that "roots" existed in his work -- was very exciting to him, but that in the future he would not repeat the exploration, because he felt and feels that it is for others to explore. In short, he said, "I don't want to tell a father-son story. I want to tell my gangster story."

Tarantino clearly enjoyed himself. As the evening wound down and numerous clips of his work were broadcast to the audience, he said, "You know, just for the record, I'm loving looking at these movies." He said that he can't not watch one of his films when he comes across it on television; at the very least, he keeps it on as background noise. "I have to watch it, and I have to watch it to the end," he said, noting that he came across Reservoir Dogs on TV that very day.

That said, once he does tune in, he doesn't mind viewing out his earlier, less polished works, because "they were that Quentin then, and these movies reflect this Quentin now."

"This Quentin now" seemed to be truly touched by the reception that he received from the Santa Barbara audience and, in particular, the heartfelt tribute that he received from festival director Roger Durling. In parting he said, "This has been a wonderful night."