How did Tarantino make it to the top in Hollywood? Lessons you can learn from his experience

imagesQuentin Tarantino is one of the most famous writer/directors. But he was a low achiever at school and found academic studies very difficult. He had a troubled childhood. How did Quentin go from being a sales assistant in a video shop to a famous international movie director in five years?  Here is his story and what you can learn from his experience.

One of the interesting traits that seems to be consistent with successful film directors is that they seem to have a “calling”; an inner voice that drives them to write and get their films made.

As an adult he found one obsession, watching films on his VCR. It was from this obsession of watching movies over and over again that Quentin learned about film making. As a result of watching so many videos at his local video shop, Video Archives invited him to work for them.

As a result he got paid to watch numerous films at work. His knowledge of movies was and still is encyclopaedic. Video Archives video shop was the single most important influence on Quentin’s eventual success as a director.

Quentin was a great networker was able to get people to help him in his career. Another of the most important influences on Quentin in the early 80’s was Cathryn James. She became his personal manager in 1984 and advised Quentin of his options if he wanted to make it as a director.

Cathryn James said, “For someone with no contacts, make your own low budget film and write at least three strong scripts.”

This is exactly what Quentin Tarantino did. He co-wrote a script called My Best Friend’s Birthday and they started to shoot it. They knew nothing about film making and as a result had a hard time making the film.

Shooting dragged out over three years before wrapping in 1987. It cost $5,000 to make the film.  The Film was processed and an edit was attempted. The Film turned out to be very amateurish and as a result it received a poor response. It was not the sort of film that Quentin could show and hope to persuade people to raise money.

One of the big lessons from Quentin’s experience was that he knew nothing about film making when he started to make the film. It’s so important to first learn how to make a film and then make a film. It sounds obvious, but if you want to be a Film Maker you will need to know how to make films. The first step for anyone who dreams of being a film maker is to learn from experienced film makers who make films. Quentin Tarantino should have attended a Film Course and learned how to do it properly.

Tarantino learned many lessons through the process of shooting the film. It was also during this time he got the idea to write True Romance. For the next few years Tarantino would write many of his famous scripts. Most famous directors write scripts when they start out. Directors will always stress that you need three or more scripts to give you the chance to be noticed.

If you’ve seen True Romance, you will probably agree that it is a hot movie. Written by Tarantino and directed by the late Tony Scott, the film was successful when released.

Initially, the Hollywood Studios and major production companies didn’t like the script. Cathryn James sent it out to over a hundred sources and it had lukewarm response at best, with vicious rejection at worst.

One rejection letter from a Studio Executive stated

“How dare you send me this f… piece of shit? You must be out of your f… mind. You want to know how I feel about it? Here is your f… piece of shit back. F… you.”

How would you like to be told that about your script? How would you like to be the idiot film executive who wrote that review of a future successful film?

The lesson to be drawn from this is that even the very best filmmakers have problems getting accepted at the beginning. It takes persistence, getting the script package out there and never giving up.

Persistence is one of the key attributes of any successful film director.

So after a year of sending True Romance out and getting negative feedback, finally a break happened.

Stanley Margolias, a producer of two feature films called Bearing Boogie and The Dark is Mine read True Romance and liked the script. He promised Quentin and Cathryn that he would try and get a deal in return for a percentage. Finally Tarantino had a fan other than Cathryn James!  Stanley Margolias put the script out and had a negative reaction. He tried and tried but received nothing but dislike for the script and its content. One rejection letter for True Romance read:

“The Action is not exciting and the characters are under-developed and unbelievable. True Romance is one long hollow adventure.”

True Romance received rejection after rejection. One year after Margolias took on True Romance he was feeling like he had a stinker of a script, but producer’s work hard for their money.

Tarantino was now working on Natural Born Killers and at this stage had earned no money from his scripts or his script writing ability. It takes persistence to keep pushing on when nobody takes you seriously in your writing. On top of that, the experts in the film industry hate your work.

In 1990 Quentin’s life turned around. He was offered a writing gig, working on a script called From Dusk Til Dawn. It was the first time he was offered money to write. The fee was $1500. Now Quentin had been trying to break into the industry since 1984.

From Dusk Til Dawn died soon after Tarantino wrote it, and didn’t re-emerge until 1995 when Tarantino had his power and fame. He acted in the film and Robert Rodriguez directed it.

At this time Tarantino completed Natural Born Killers, so he was moving in a forward direction, always writing scripts. The lesson from this is to always be moving forward. Do not get bogged down with one script or one project that’s not financed. Move on and write more scripts and make films.

In 1990, most of Hollywood hated Quentin’s material. But one thing that he had on his side was his ability to make friends with whoever was remotely involved in Hollywood. People generally enjoyed his company.

This ability to network is so important if you want to make it in the film business. So many times, an important producer or financier is two degrees of separation away.

This was the case for Quentin. In early 1990 Quentin met Scott Spiegel who co-wrote The Rookie starring Clint Eastwood. Quentin and Scott became best of buddies and hung out talking all about movies incessantly. In May 1990 Scott invited Quentin to a Memorial Day BBQ. This day would change Quentin’s life forever.

He had become good at pitching his projects and could give a 30 second pitch on Natural Born Killers.

The BBQ had many minor celebrities such as Michael Rooker who starred in Days of Thunder and HenryPortrait of a Serial Killer. There were also many low budget producers and directors.

At this BBQ, Quentin met Laurence Bender who was frustrated producer and out of work actor. Laurence was actually explaining to somebody else at the BBQ that he wanted to completely give up the movie business. His movie The Intruder had gone straight to Video and he was disappointed in people’s reaction to the film. He was over Hollywood.

Speigel introduced Bender to Tarantino at the BBQ and as a result, one of the hottest droducer/director partnerships was conceived.

They got into a conversation about movies and the machine gun enthusiasm of Tarantino generated an excitement in the jaded Laurence Bender. Quentin pitched Natural Born Killers in less than a minute – Bender loved the sound of it.

With the alcohol hitting the bloodstream, Quentin decided to pitch another story about a heist gone wrong. He had titled the story Reservoir Dogs. Laurence Bender asked for a look at the script. Quentin had to explain that he had to write it and he would have it written in less than a month. It would be easy to do on a Low Budget.

They swapped numbers and Bender left the party thinking that he was headed back east to the family business.

Quentin watched The Intruder the next day and saw that it was shot in a warehouse on a small budget. He felt that he had found a producer who could deliver Reservoir Dogs.

That’s if he could persuade him to produce the film.

He sat down the next day to write the script. For three straight weeks he wrote and wrote, developing the script that would change his life and turn him into a star film director. After three weeks, he had completed the script for Reservoir Dogs. Over those three weeks he had locked himself away and got lost in the world of his story.

He had just written his first hit film script.

Bender came over to his apartment and read the script. He loved it and instantly wanted to produce the film. Bender thought the writing and the dialogue was pungent and sharp and would make a strong impact on the audience.

Tarantino wanted to make the film now on no budget. Bender had much bigger plans and asked for six months to get a film package and financing together. Quentin was used to five years of bitter Hollywood rejection and didn’t want to wait six months but in the end relented and gave Bender the six months he needed to raise the finances for the film.

At the same time as this was all happening, the producer Stanley Margolias was finally getting traction with True Romance. Tony Scott became interested in directing the film and very quickly Tarantino’s first script became a $30 million dollar production.

From this Tarantino was paid $50K. When you’re considered new to the film industry the pay is minimal relative to the budget.

Build a thick skin and take criticism as part of the course of being an emerging film director.

Laurence Bender made contact with an experienced Hollywood director, Monte Hellman. He read the script for Reservoir Dogs and instantly wanted to direct the film. Monte begged Tarantino to let him direct.

Tarantino had just received 50k for True Romance script and was determined to direct the film himself using this fee. Hellman was extremely disappointed as he felt it was one of those very rare, incredibly great scripts.

He decided he wanted to be involved anyway as an executive producer and started sending the script out to all of the various studios and distributors. Tarantino called Monte ‘The Godfather’.

Most people baulked at giving money to a first time director. One thing Quentin had on his side was that he wasn’t desperate.

He had the $50k from True Romance and if his conditions weren’t met, he would make Reservoir himself. He nearly wanted this to happen so that he would have absolute independence in making the film.

His main condition for finance was that he would direct the film. Tarantino knew that he had a hot script and therefore it’d be successful in any case. Eventually one company relented to Tarantino directing the film. This company was Live Entertainment, headed by Richard Gladstein.

Richard loved the script and decided to take a chance on the inexperienced Tarantino. Gladstein gave them a list of ten actors, saying “if you get one I’ll give you a million, if you get two I’ll give you two million.” Most companies that sell movies want a recognisable name in the film. This is so important.

Harvey Keitel was on this list. Keitel loved the script and committed straight away. The Film was getting legs now. Once Keitel was on board the chances were good that the film would get made.

After some months of tough negotiations, the deal was signed over at Monte Hellman’s office. In less than a year the film had been green-lighted for $1.3 million. Tarantino had been trying to make it as a film director since 1984. That was seven years and finally now his first feature film was green lit with Harvey Keitel heading the casting and a whole swag of top actors in the other roles.

Tarantino made it on his scriptwriting ability. Writing one of the hottest scripts was his entry to film making.

Tarantino now had to go to intensive Directing school at Sundance. He spent two weeks learning all about the process of directing a film. He’d spent years learning all about films watching videos and studying them.

Reservoir was shot on a tight schedule. Everybody was impressed with Tarantino’s enthusiasm and his on-set direction. He naturally slipped into this role showing his talent as a filmmaker. When the film was finished, there was incredible advance buzz. All the actors had being raving about the film and about Tarantino. So momentum was on their side.

At this time Tarantino was signed up by Danny DeVito’s company. Stacey Sher, the president of the company reckoned she could get an advance of $1million dollars for Tarantino’s next film.

She knew that Tarantino was going to be hot. This was purely on the buzz of Reservoir Dogs.

The Film screened at the Famous Sundance Film Festival in 1992 and the cinema rights were snapped up by Harvey Weinstein of Miramax for $200,000.

The Sundance art house audience had a mixed response. Some people hated and some loved the film, but everybody was talking about it. Film festivals are very important for an up and coming director.

When you make short films or low budget films, film festivals are where you get noticed and often the film gets sold. This was the same for Tarantino. In the next year of film festivals the buzz would follow him everywhere and doors would open in every direction. Every major film festival wanted his film and for one year he would travel the world with the movie.

He went to Cannes where the film was very well received. He was noticed by all of the powerful stars and film powers at Cannes. He was now considered the new hot director and all the studios distributors and sales agents all wanted to offer him a deal for his next film. He was gearing up to write the film that would make him legendary.

Pulp Fiction

True Romance was now about to be shot with a host of movie stars such as Brad Pitt, Denis Hopper, Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette. Tony Scott would direct the film.

At the same time, Oliver Stone now wanted Natural Born Killers.
Reservoir Dogs became a hit film around the world. Miramax were delighted with the response to the film in all territories around the world. Most of Pulp Fiction was written in an Amsterdam flat in Holland.

Tarantino once again locked himself away and wrote a 500 page script. That in screenplay rule of thumb terms equated to an 8 hour film. It needed to be trimmed down to 200 pages. Tri-Star had signed a Deal with Jersey Films, DeVito’s company, and when they read the script they wanted out.

So they passed on a financial and critical success: Pulp Fiction. This film would become iconic and a Quentin Tarantino classic. It also would become a box office smash.

After Tri-Star passed, Miramax came to the party and financed the film and even accepted the casting of John Travolta. Travolta had been in flop after flop and nobody wanted him in their films anymore. He would become a hot star again as a result of Pulp Fiction. Originally Michael Madsen was offered the role of Vince but turned the role down. This opened the way for John Travolta.

On Release, Pulp came an iconic film that moved Tarantino to legendary celebrity status. All the success happened in the space of three years, but remember, Tarantino had started his dream of making films ten years earlier in 1984 when he made his first film.

Where could you be in five years time?  What can be learned from Tarantino’s story?

The most important thing is you need help to make it as a Film Director. You need the very best Film Courses on the market.

 

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