Flying with Quentin Tarantino

So I wrote this for Grantland in 2014 just after the Hateful 8 script had leaked. Thought of it this morning, as I was talking to a friend about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and wanted to share it again.

When the Tarantino flap showed up on Deadline the other day, I was brought back to one of the strangest and best airplane flights I’ve ever taken. It was a red-eye, from Los Angeles to New York’s JFK Airport, maybe 14 years ago.

I had boarded early, as is my routine, put on my headphones, and was about to drift off, when I saw Quentin step onto the plane, smiling at the flight attendants. I knew, right then, that I wouldn’t be passing out quite as soon as I’d planned. I scrambled to get to my laptop bag, which was stowed above, because I knew that tucked inside it was an invitation to connect with QT.

I brought the thing down, opened it, and found what I was looking for: an article I had just written for Premiere magazine, all about what a tremendous influence Quentin’s work, Pulp Fiction in particular, had been on a whole generation of filmmakers, and, especially, how it had influenced me. Once Tarantino settled into his seat, which was across the aisle from mine, I introduced myself (we had hung out once before, but didn’t know one another). And then I put the article in his hands. His eyes lit up as he read it. He started nodding along, talking aloud to himself as only Quentin Tarantino could. “Yeah, man! Fuck yeah.”

He finished reading, folded the papers, turned to me and said, “I bought up both of these seats so I can have some privacy. But we’re friends. [We were friends!] Want to move seats, sit next to me?”

Yeah, man. Fuck yeah.

As I sat, Quentin ordered us whiskeys. Now, I don’t drink whiskey. But I did that night. The plane took off, the next set of whiskeys came. He gulped. I sipped. We talked about movies, of course, directors, the entire Walter Hill oeuvre. I was so amped up and adrenalized the whiskey hardly hit me. Quentin seemed to be having fun, too. He wasn’t exactly sitting, he was kind of crouching in his seat, on his feet, and when I’d make even a half-decent point — like noting the similarity in the opening train shots of Hard Times and Liberty Valance, he’d light up, laugh, nod to himself. I was aware I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know, but I was also aware that we were doing what he loved — talking films — and that at least I’d seen enough of them to hit the ball back once in a while.

And then it got really awesome. “I’m writing something now. My next movie. Want to hear some of it?”

Um … YES.

I realize that in the haze of time I might be downplaying how freaked out and psyched I was. There have been three or four moments in my life that made me want to become a screenwriter and filmmaker. The first was probably seeing Raising Arizona. Second maybe was seeing She’s Gotta Have It. But those were in college. And they really just planted the seeds of the idea. In 1994, I saw Pulp Fiction the night it opened, and the entire world changed. And now, Quentin was offering to read me a bunch of his new screenplay.

It was Kill Bill, written, just as advertised, on yellow legal pads. Quentin took one out, flipped through some pages of cross-outs and notes, and began to read me the opening sequences. He acted it all out, too, told me that Uma was in the hospital bed, described the Pussy Wagon, threw air punches as he read the fights.

What struck me was how much he loved these characters, these words, these sequences. He told me as much. And he told me that he needed to do this, to read these things out loud so that he could hear it — and so that he could watch my face, and not just mine, but the faces of whomever he happened to be reading to. He said it told him what was landing, what wasn’t, what he needed to address.

And it also, I could tell, just inspired him. This immediate reaction was fuel for Quentin, it seemed, and pushed him along as he was creating. He probably read me 20 or 30 pages, then got a little gassed and put down the pad. He ordered one more whiskey and we kept talking, at a slightly lower volume, until we landed.

I didn’t hear from him again until years later, when the Pulp Fiction collector’s edition DVD was coming together. His office called to tell me that Quentin wanted to put my Pulp Fiction article on the DVD along with one by Roger Ebert. I quickly said yes and smiled for about five straight days.

So, it’s no surprise that our airplane ride flashed into my mind when I read that Quentin was angry and felt betrayed that the screenplay for The Hateful Eight had leaked.

Now, I know that on the surface, it might seem odd that Quentin, a guy who’d read a screenplay in progress to a virtual stranger, would be wounded by having people read his screenplay. (He even said in that Deadline interview that he generally likes the online discussion of his scripts.) But to me, it makes sense. Quentin knew I was a filmmaker, but more than that, I was a fan. I wasn’t sitting in judgment, and wasn’t making commerce out of it, either. I was there to go on the ride with him, to be swept away, to share in his vision, the fragile fantasy world that all storytellers fight keep aloft.

Look, I’ve had my screenplays leak in the past. One early draft ended up on some screenplay review site days before we started filming. I was furious because I didn’t want a work in the beginning stages judged, didn’t want anyone to decide the merit of the movie before the movie itself existed. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.

When The Hateful Eight got out early, before it was really finished, before he had the chance to hear it, revise it, hear it again, I think it got sullied somehow, changed, hardened in its form before it had attained the form he knew would someday exist. And I think this was painful for him. Because Quentin, as it was clear to me that night, really tries to live there, in the fragile fantasy world. It’s the only way he can make it real enough for himself to make it real enough for the rest of us.

That got broken somehow. Tainted. And I imagine that in the moment, with the shards of his imagination on the floor around him, continuing just felt impossible to him.

I hope that by now, he’s realized that no one can take his story away from him. And I hope he gets the yellow pad out again and finds someone who’s really eager to listen.

And I hope that the next time I take a red-eye, I turn and see him walking up the aisle again.

Looking at ghosts and empties

“Writers have all sorts of ways we sabotage ourselves. One is to imagine the reactions to our work ahead of time. Especially the reactions of those we hoped to impress when we were young. Let those ghosts fade away. Do the work for yourself. This way, you’ll actually do it.”

I made myself a promise the other day, that anytime a Trump tweet filled me with rage, I’d tweet something I’d learned about being a creative, instead of rage tweeting back.

And I’ll also put em here, with some additional thoughts, as I can.

Don’t Call him Mr. President

There’s a moment about ten minutes into Aaron Sorkin’s American President that has always been particularly moving to me. The Chief Of Staff, President Shepherd’s life long best friend, is about to leave the Oval Office, and says “Goodnight, Mr. President.” The President turns to him and says “Call me Andy…you were the best man at my wedding. Call me Andy.”

The Chief of Staff smiles, looks Shepherd in the eye: “Whatever you say, Mr. President.”

I thought of this scene a few months back when Tom Nichols—a guy I like and respect—who’s an Anti-Trump traditionalist, and the author of The Death Of Expertise, put out a series of tweets stating that Americans, no matter how much they may dislike Mr. Trump or his policies, should address Trump as Mr. President, because the office demands it, even if the person occupying it doesn’t live up to it.

For most of my life, I, like Nichols, believed in the notion that the office is larger than the individual who holds it. That’s why the American President scene had such resonance for me. Those words, “Mr. President” mean something. By intoning them, we hold ourselves and the president accountable to the ideals the office embodies and calls us to. We count on the President, especially, to aspire to the hopes we invest in the office and the honor it demands, and to recognize, for all of us, that this American nobility is granted, not inherited, and must be earned.

The words “Mr. President” are, like the office itself, not bestowed, and they too must be earned. They are an honorific. Not a constitutional prerogative. 

In another movie, Frost/Nixon, two aides of David Frost’s are discussing what they will do when they meet Nixon. One of them says “I won’t shake his hand.” A few minutes later, when the occasion presents, not only does he shake, he also calls him by his title.

The exchange is played for laughs, but the point is clear. The cultural imperative to go along with the rituals of power can bend the will of even the most committed members of the opposition.

Donald Trump is the president. Elected legally. Through that election, he earned the rights to the powers and privileges of the office. But he earned the burden of its responsibilities and demands, as well. And his regular rejection of the fundamental rights of his fellow citizens, his intentional manipulation of tribal fears and hatred, his blatant racism and calls to racist action, his disregard for the very rule of law that grants him the office itself, all prove his lack of interest in serving with honor. So I choose not to offer him the honorific.

If I ever meet Donald Trump, I will refuse to call him Mr. President.  And I hope you’d do the same.

The truth is that Trump himself doesn’t understand the purpose of the honorific. Instead he regards it, and the office itself, as a tool of pomp and circumstance, to be used to inflate his own status, business interests and sense of self.

Every other president of my lifetime became larger once they took office as they realized the way Americans counted on them. Even the ones whose policies I reviled were clearly trying to live up to the best of the American ideals. But Trump has proven that he doesn’t care about those ideals. He has proven that by using his position to bully average citizens on Twitter, by using his position to attract people to the properties he owns, like his Washington Hotel, by using his position to defend the many friends of his who have been accused of committing crimes, high and low, all across the land.

Mr. Nichols and others who see the world the way he does, seem  to believe that we are harming the institution if we don’t hew to the traditional signifiers of respect. I believe the only way to respect the office is by withholding those signifiers until the office holder earns them.

But this isn’t only about training Trump to act presidential .

In the same way calling someone Doctor imputes upon them authority and status, possibly allowing them to cut corners or worse, like Larry Nessor did when he was the United States Gymnastic Team’s doctor, calling Trump Mr. President imputes upon him strength and position, inviting him to indulge his worst instincts.

When I read Trump’s cruel tweets, when I watched the military parade he threw in his own honor, when I see him judge other world leaders through the prism of whether or not they said nice things about him, when I watch him strut around his company’s properties, I do not see a President. I see a character from yet another movie…

In the Princess Bride, the ruler of the land is Prince Humperdinck. Humperdinck is vain, he is selfish, he is cruel and, in his country, he is beyond reproach. Nobody will stand up to him. Nobody will call him out for his misdeeds.

Humperdinck preens and poses and acts like royalty. And he gets away with it for almost the entire film. But in a movie filled with sword fights, torture, giants and martial conflict, Humperdinck’s ending does not come through violence; Wesley, the farm boy, simply refuses to regard him by his title. Instead, Wesley calls Humperdinck out for his thin skin, his cowardice, his fear that at core, he is a weak, scared narcissistic baby.  Upon hearing these words, Humperdinck crumbles.

Trump is Humperdinck. Humperdinck is Trump. To call him Mr. President would be to ennoble him, would be to help him continue his giant con.

Like Wesley before me, I’d rather be sent to the Pit of Despair – because that’s where we’re all going to end up anyway if we don’t demand that our presidents rise to the honor of the office we have granted them, for a few, short years.

And the Rounders screenplay

Here’s the Rounders screenplay. This is the third draft, the one that went to agencies to get actor attachments, I think. It’s over twenty years old. But you will see we used Voiceover, we addressed the reader, we made notes about wardrobe. There are no camera moves spelled out in it, I don’t think. But that happened to be the style we found for it. I read it and I see very young versions of David and me. But I also see all the work we put into telling the story in a language that hadn’t been used very often. This made it harder to sell, but more distinctive, so that when someone liked it, they very likely loved it. Happy to answer any questions. ROUNDERS

Screenwriting rules

There was a good twitter thread today about supposed screenwriting rules. Mazin, McQuarrie, Mangold, Rian J and a few others got in there to reiterate that these supposed rules don’t matter. Here’s my screenplay for Solitary Man. You will see I break all the rules on the first page. Michael Douglas read it and signed on.

These rules–don’t use camera angles or moves, don’t use songs, don’t write emotions we can’t film–they don’t matter. Just be engaging. Just carry us through the story. Just demand our attention. Solitary Man, Blue pages