Notes From Tarantino: Master Your Genre

So, the day Quentin Tarantino’s Django came out on DVD, a good friend bought it and gave it to me. “You’ve got to watch this,” he said. So I did. (Sigh) My head is still spinning. It’s a wonderfully thought provoking piece of art. Art’s supposed to provoke an emotion right? Well I got pretty emotional.

But regardless of your opinion of the films content, it really really reminded me how impressive Tarantino is with doing his homework and mastering a genre.

Call me old school but I think new filmmakers should start squarely in a genre,  master a genre, then mix it up. Don’t make, or market a ‘drama’ unless it’s only for your family’s consumption. In this era of, ‘you are your brand’, filmmakers are well served to produce early and produce often, similar kinds of films. So go funny, go scary, go action go violent, but do something that engages an audience’s expectations on the screen. And go big with it. It’s a great place to start.

This has worked for James Cameron (Piranha Part Two: The Spawning), Steven Spielberg (Jaws), Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha), Alfred Hitchcock (The Pleasure Garden), and Quentin Tarantino. It’s currently working for Freddie Wong, Ava DuVernay, Bloody Cuts, BlackandSexy.TV, Digital Corridor and many others. (Ava is doing big things squarely in the drama category… She’s figured out how to walk the tight rope. I don’t recommend it for most.)

Have you mastered a genre? Mix it up. Action comedies are great. Romantic action comedies have been a bit hit or miss over the last few years, but maybe you’re the person to reinvigorate the field.

Tarantino’s films have gotten much better over the years (though I will concede Pulp Fiction is my favorite) but he’s still using many of the same techniques of storytelling. Now, I’m not talking about his cinematic techniques. The last thing you want to be is a Tarantino rip off. Be you, you’ll never make a good him. But from a story beats perspective, mixing comedy or sexy with horror or action is quite effective. But before you start trying to do all of that… master a genre.

Tarantino went down the roads of:
Pulp Action (Pulp Fiction)
Heist Film (Reservoir Dogs)
Blaxploitation (Jackie Brown)
Grindhouse Horror (Death Proof)
Kung Fu revenge (Kill Bill)
French New Wave (Kill Bill 2)
War Movie (Inglorious Bastards)
Spaghetti Western (Django Unchained)

I know some folks might wonder, “French New Wave? huh?” but don’t sleep on Tarantino, he’s an enthusiastic student of film, and does the cinematic equivalent of what DJs call, ‘Digging in the crates.’ If you think you’ve exhausted a genre, go deeper into the obscure. Foreign language films are a great resource. Reservoir Dogs is almost a beat for beat remake of a Chow Yung Fat film, City on Fire. This was a decade before Hollywood started remaking Japanese horror films (The Grudge, The Ring, One Missed Call) and Martin Scorsese’s Oscar award winning remake of Infernal Affairs, The Departed. And Django is a Sergio Leone style western riffing off of Sergio Corbucci’s Django with a cameo by Franco Nero who plays Django in Corbucci’s. Can anyone say, ‘homework?’

Filmmaking can be an art form, and the more you study it, the more you’ll realize how everyone riffs off of everyone who’s come before. Star Wars was a riff of Akira Kurosawa’s films Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress. The Matrix references tons of Japanese anime, not the least of which Ghost in the Machine, which all but invents the character Trinity. Universal Studios entire monster movie cast (King Kong, Frankenstein, Dracula, etc,) was born out of the German Expressionist Movement. And good old Sergio Leone was making American westerns in Italy portrayed in the states as Mexico and the American West that have come to define what an American  Western is.

Now, I’m the first person to tell you not to fill your head full of encyclopedic knowledge just to know some trivia. This is homework, and homework helps you not make dumb mistakes. Are you a writer? Homework helps you see twists done before and helps you reference but not repeat what might be common ground. Set Designer? Homework allows you to see what sold to the audience before so you can sell it again in HD or 4k. Most people haven’t been in a spaceship, they’ve learned what space ships look like by… watching movies. Cinematographers and camera ops will learn how to tell and sell certain moods and moments. Editors can learn how to build tension with timing. Directors can learn how to tell a visual joke or create suspense in the frame.

It’s probably not news that filmmakers need to watch films, but it’s like eating, everything isn’t equally as nutritious. If you’re a screenwriter, or cinematographer, you might be better served watching some black and white Hitchcock and Kurosawa than Iron Man (although the new Iron Man story arch is interesting if you’re working on a sequel.)

Do your homework. Know your craft. Build on the genre but avoid cliche.

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2 Responses to “Notes From Tarantino: Master Your Genre”

  1. Julia says:

    Wise words.

    But getting purist with your great content, I must say ‘Nouvelle Vague’ is the right term, and Sergio Leone filmed most of his greatest movies in southwestern Spain… not Italy, not the US.

    And agreed, ‘Iron Man 3’ has a surprisingly brilliant script.


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