What Quentin Tarantino Taught Me About Buying In

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I’m not the biggest fan of Quentin Tarantino. I like his work but I’m not a devotee like so many are. I’m not an authority on his career. I actually prefer Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction. And I’ve not seen his last two pictures. (Mr. Tarantino, if you’re reading this, don’t be mad, they’re in my queue.)

I also didn’t grow up watching kung-fu movies. My Saturday mornings were filled with WWF action called by Gorilla Monsoon & Bobby Heenan. And then there was NWA World Championship Wrestling at 6:05 on the Superstation TBS. So Hulk Hogan & The Four Horsemen filled my over the top action quota for the weekend.

Many years ago, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 arrived in the mail. Yes, I still use DVD. I like physical media. Old school. I was curious about Kill Bill but not overly excited. I didn’t run to the theatre to see it and basically was watching it to keep up with the buzz.

I popped Volume One in and relaxed on the couch. A mere few minutes in, Uma Thurman confronts a suburban mom in her doorway. There’s that noise, you know the one, as Quentin closeups on their eyes narrowing in focus. And then BAM they’re fighting all over the house in as high stakes a life-and-death struggle as I’ve seen.

That was it. I was in. Wherever Tarantino took me, I was going. Oh Quentin, My Captain. He could have taken me to the villain giving a monologue while making a sandwich and I would have been riveted. Oh wait, he did and I was. I watched the whole thing from the edge of my seat loving every second. I wanted to shake Quentin Tarantino’s hand and buy him a beer for the experience.

I was hooked. We often talk about the hook as vital for the early pages of a screenplay. But makes an effective hook can be quite elusive. Whatever the genre, the hook is the thing that makes someone want to keep reading, pay money for a box-office ticket or drop the remote while saying “Ooo, what’s gonna happen next?” But we know all too well how hard that interest can be to capture in our gigantic media and ever-busy world saturated with distractions & content.

And let’s be honest – a hook also can help the filmmakers pull off the slight of hand of hiding a film’s flaws by seducing the viewer into the journey. We’re trying to get you so into the piece, so interested in the story that hopefully don’t notice the joins or figure out those trespasses they make fun of Mythbusters. If you’re on the edge of the seat about how they’re going to rescue the princess, you’ll overlook the obvious shot of the stunt-double in Act 2.

To borrow a phrase from sports, a hook makes the viewer buy into the movie the way a player has to buy into a coach.

Friends chatting about movies can be an invaluable resource for screenwriters and filmmakers. It’s a first hand focus group where people are talking about what they like and don’t like about a movie. Not over-analysis or overused jargon about inciting incidents and payoffs.

That being said, I’d suggest gently that people don’t always know how to accurately articulate what it is they didn’t like about a movie.

Some examples:

“It had no plot or story.”  If you think a summer blockbuster had no plot or story, I have a long list of 60’s art films for you to check you. Movies that have no plot or story aren’t released widely. You may not like the plot or the story, you may find the story very boring or you may not really care about it. But it’s very difficult to find a movie with no plot or no story.

“It was sooooo bad.” Problem with this is bad is a relative term. You hear it all the time – objectivity planted onto subjectivity. I’ve heard it was “soooo bad” about movies that have won awards on every level with a fierce loyal audience behind it.  I’ve heard it “was so bad” about some movies that when I finally saw them I was expecting such dreck that I actually said “it’s not that bad.” The reverse happens to be true as well. I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience.

Fortunately, no one has ever told me a script of mine was “sooo bad” but if they did, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Obviously I thought it was good. Chances are another of my readers liked it as well. So how do I fix “sooo bad?” I can’t. Boring? Sure, we can pick up the pace. Low-stakes? Can do, we can ramp those up.  Too many story threads? Cut & combine. But sooo bad? I’m gonna have to ask you to be A LOT more specific.

And if I’m hearing my friends complain about a movie and someone says “I just didn’t buy it.” A-HA! Now we’re talking. Usually, there was something that was a bridge too far when it came to suspending disbelief. And that’s important and something us screenwriters can work with:

*Was there an inconsistency in character behavior?

*Was the emotion of the story not the right pitch?

*Was world of the script something the viewer couldn’t believe could happen? (Not necessarily realistic, but credible.)

Can we answer those questions within the story enough to get the audience to buy in? That is the great quest but you can see how much easier those questions are to work with. And some of them can be answered by a great hook.

See, it’s easy to say “Come up with a great hook that gets the reader/viewer interested.” But it’s more than that. You need a great hook that seduces the viewer into another world they don’t want to turn away from.

Every movie has a hook somewhere in the top. Movie history is overrun with great hooks that make people say “I’m not going anywhere.”

*The HUGE spaceship that kicked off Star Wars

*Jack Burton’s driving monologue at the top of Big Trouble In Little China

*Harmonica’s first gun fight at the top of Once Upon A Time In The West.

Hell, at the top of Annie Hall, Woody Allen tells you directly some of his favorite jokes that are the theme of the movie. In some ways, he’s saying “This is what this movie’s about. Let’s go.”

Those are a few of my favorites. You can probably think of hundreds more. Talk about it with your friends this weekend. It’ll be fun.

You don’t want to lose the viewer. You don’t to let up the excitement/drama/stakes, all those synonyms for story. BUT the lightning in the bottle is get that hook that grabs people and doesn’t let go, that makes people, “Oh, I am IN” or “How will Harry & Sally finally get together?” “How are they going to catch that shark?” “How is Bruce Willis going to fix that little kid?”

Quentin Tarantino is a MASTER of the hooks. The Madonna chatter at the top of Reservoir Dogs. The robbery at the top of Pulp Fiction. And my favorite, the fight at the top of Kill Bill.

He cinematically tells you in 30 seconds or less, “This is the story I’m telling. I make no apologies for it. And I’m not holding back.” (For the record, that’s not an actual quote, just my interpretation.)

Because here’s the sad truth. Sometimes, the viewer just isn’t going to buy in.

I’ve watched movies that are objectively of a very high quality, that have been made by intelligent artists with the most painstaking care, that are honest and raw with a real message. And I still just don’t like them. You can say the same thing. I can guarantee it. (Again, the “sooo bad” being relative to the point of meaningless.) I just didn’t buy in. I can usually point to something specific that undid the hook. 

This is meant with the highest respect to the filmmakers and this is all a matter of taste, but…

*Room: I don’t know of a mother who wouldn’t figure out how to escape through that skylight during those 5 years.
*The Dark Knight: The Joker’s henchmen engaged in basil exposition dialogue during the bank robbery for reasons I saw as just moving plot, not story. Also, Batman beating up the cops of Gotham City isn’t a Batman story I’m interested in.
*High Plains Drifter: A cowboy raping a woman is horrible and unacceptable whatever era the movie was made in or portraying.

I could not buy into those movies. If you could, great! I’m glad you enjoyed them. What bothered me didn’t bother you and fair enough. Goo goo g’ joob. (Well, High Plains Drifter is a tricky one to justify. I’ve seen attempts but no, he raped that woman so fuck that movie.)

So sometimes that Hook doesn’t work. Sometimes we’ll look right at the stunt-double and change over to Food Network. What’s the answer? How do you get that great hook?

There’s simply no surefire answer. No one knows that and be dubious of anyone who does. But what I’ve learned, I’ve seen clearest in Quentin Tarantino’s films. “This is the story, no apologies, come along if you can.” In other words, if you know not everyone will buy in, there’s no reason to compromise your story. Stay as true to it as you can when inviting the viewer along for the ride.

I don’t write universal stuff. Not everyone will like my scripts and that’s quite frankly OK. Because to try and please everyone would actually undermine the stories.

So the hook shouldn’t be a cheap trick or gimmick. A dead body for the sake of a dead body. Like bad magic, people will see right through that. They’ll be insulted and uninterested.

I believe the Hook has to be something at the core of your story. Something that could define WHY you wanted to write this story. Something about what’s possessed you and made you obsessed with it. Something that will offer that same possession to the audience. Or a moment that will lead to that core of the story.

One of scripts I’ve written is about the French resistance of teenage girls fighting the Nazis during World War II. I got the note from several producers and writers that it took too long for the action to begin. A fair note and something I could work with. So I added a flash forward. The very first shot on the very first page is my lead character, Sophie, pointing a rifle at a Nazi soldier. Before they even speak, the core of the story is there both visually and on the page. The feedback and interest in the script went through the roof. Fingers crossed you’ll get to see it one day (and that you’ll buy into it.)

Revisiting those examples above:

*The HUGE spaceship that kicked off Star Wars

(A love letter to Flash Gordon, the inspiration of Star Wars, but it’s the start of Darth Vader’s chase of the heroes throughout the trilogy. Central to the story)

*Jack Burton’s driving monologue at the top of Big Trouble In Little China

(It’s ridiculous and funny but Jack is essentially describing his whole philosophy. He’s introducing himself to the audience)

*Harmonica’s first gun fight at the top of Once Upon A Time In The West.

(Harmonica’s revenge is the driving force of this story. We get started page 1, shot 1.)

No, you won’t seduce everyone with your hook. Someone’s going to read your script and say either “eh” or “that sucks.” But that’s not your audience. Your audience is the people who will get hooked by what your saying and stay with you for the entire ride.  And if they do, then your story will truly resonate with them the way it resonated with you. Or in ways you never even though of which can be the most fun at all.

Keep writing. I’m pulling for ya. And I hope people are buying in.

The Handsome Timmy D Express is proud to be a part of:

The Dan & Travis Show Podcast: An Awesome Thing

http://thedanandtravisshow.libsyn.com/

and 

The Chronic Rift: A series of podcasts that attempt to “find the culture in pop culture.”

http://www.chronicrift.com/

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