LOS ANGELES — Here are some things you need to know about Quentin Tarantino.
He pens his screenplays longhand, not on a word processor. “I can’t write poetry on a computer, man,” he says.
If you’re an actor, don’t expect to improvise. Ever. “You hire an actor to learn the lines and say them,” Tarantino says. Unless you’re Samuel L. Jackson, who can wing it.
And if you’re with the filmmaker and he stumbles upon one of his movies on cable TV, don’t expect to go anywhere. “I have to watch it to the end,” he says.
The writer-director of “Django Unchained,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Death Proof,” to name just his last three films, was honored recently at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. In accepting the festival’s American Riviera Award, the 49-year-old filmmaker sat with this reporter to discuss, in front of 2,000 festival guests, his screenwriting career.
Between sips of a constantly replenished margarita, here are edited excerpts of what Tarantino, Oscar-nominated for his “Django” original screenplay, had to say:
Q. You come to screenwriting as an actor first, not as a screenwriter.
A. I never took any writing classes, but I did take acting classes. The actors that I really like are the actors that really invest in their character, invest in the back story, invest in who that person was before the story started, maybe who that person is after the story is over. So it’s that idea, that thought process when it comes to characters, that I think I bring to my writing.
Q. When you’re writing, are you picturing how that scene is going to look, or are you listening to how it’s going to sound?
A. It’s a mix of both. When I’m writing, the director is not really there. I’m still a writer trying to make a good page. I’m trying to put the words together in a way that’s both clever and talented. And it works like literature. The page makes you want to read it. Now, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t come up with the idea of the red blood splashing the white cotton bolls when I was writing (“Django Unchained”). I did. I wrote “Insert: red blood splashing white cotton bolls.” And I was like, “Wow. I’ve never seen that before. That will be really cool.” But for the most part, during that process the writer is in charge and the director is doing something else.
Q. How do you know when a scene is working? Or do you know when it’s not working?
A. When it’s not working, it’s pretty easy all right. Because it’s just, for lack of a better word, your rucksack going up that hill is a lot heavier. And you’re actually really working. And usually that means I should stop that day. If you’re in writing mode, it shouldn’t be that hard. Writing is some of the funnest times I’ve ever had. So if it’s that difficult, then maybe the mojo ain’t with you right now.
Q. When you first start writing, is it a character that you hear? Is it a genre that’s calling to you?
A. It’s a combination. It’s like there’s a genre maybe I’ve always been curious to throw my hat in the ring, but I’m not going to do that until I come up with an interesting enough story to set it apart. And that story is usually connected to a character.
Q. Do you learn from your past?
A. I can look at, in particular, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” and think, “Oh, wow.” You know, I’ve learned a little bit more about directing. A little bit more about handling extras. A little bit more about handling the crew itself. And production design. All that kind of stuff. Like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have had this.” But nevertheless, that’s actually what I love about those movies now: They were that Quentin then, and these movies reflect this point in time now. And to some degree or another, it’s actually the imperfections of the early movies that I love the most.
Q. As a writer, do you start hearing (a particular) actor saying those lines? Let’s talk about Jackson.
A. Sam said my dialogue so well — not for a while. He says my dialogue well today. But for a while there, he said it so perfectly that it was hard not to write for him. I spent about a year and a half writing “Kill Bill.” I think for the first six months, even though I didn’t want Bill to be black, I was writing for Sam Jackson. I wasn’t trying to write it for Sam Jackson. I could not not write for Sam Jackson.
Q. Are you hearing music just like you’re hearing dialogue while you’re writing?
A. The answer is yes, to some degree. It happens all during the time. Sometimes it happens even before I start writing. It’s kind of one of the things that makes me want to actually write it, is I come up with the sequence, then I come up with the cool song in it. And whenever I can just put a needle on a record and play a piece of music as I walk around and think about the movie, that’s a big part in the process. I’m actually jumping over the writing process, I’m jumping over the shooting process, and now I’m kind of in a theater, watching the scene with an audience, before I’ve even written a word on the page.
Q. When you’re actually on set, is your script a template or is it the bible? In other words, are the actors riffing?
A. No, no, no. Actors aren’t there to riff. They’re there to say the dialogue. Uma (Thurman) had a quote once that’s really true. She said that when actors improvise, if they’re not just adding mmms and ahs, then that is all writing. And that is not what you hire an actor to do. You hire an actor to learn the lines and say them. Now there are exceptions to that. Sam Jackson is the exception. Sam Jackson is a terrific writer. He’s a terrific writer in character. He knows how his characters should talk. Now, he loves my words. That’s one of the reasons that he works with me. That’s one of the reasons he would tackle a character like Stephen (in “Django Unchained”), is for me and my scenario. But Sam writes like I write.
Q. “Django” is a script you worked on for, what, nine, 10 years? Is there an epiphany? Do the characters really tell you when it’s ready to go?
A. I came up with the idea of “Kill Bill” at some point during the process of making “Pulp Fiction.” But then I did “From Dusk Till Dawn.” And then I thought, “Well, I’ve kind of done a bride heist movie,” and so I was looking for something else to do. And so I did “Jackie Brown.” Then I came up with the idea of “Inglourious Basterds.” My problem is not writer’s block. My problem is I can’t stop writing.