Revenge as Entertainment
by Jeff Bowles
Quentin Tarantino isn’t necessarily known for subtlety. While his films are often genius—featuring nonlinear storytelling, irascible and energetic dialogue, and a certain unabashed love for B-movies and trashy 1970s grindhouse filmmaking—they are also incredibly violent and tend to feature characters who are more nasty than nice. That’s not really a minus in today’s entertainment landscape, nor was it especially considered as such in the 1990s, when Tarantino burst onto the scene with unexpected violent delights like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Yet something new has entered the 53-year-old filmmaker’s bag of tricks: history revision, the kind that allows him to brutalize some of the most notorious bad guys of all time.
In Inglorious Basterds (2009), Tarantino shot, burned, and blew up Adolph Hitler in a French movie house long before WWII ended in real life. In Django Unchained (2012), he took the fight to American slavery, unleashing a bloody revenge romp on a vile and inhumane southern plantation. There’s a certain catharsis to be experienced by, in some passing fashion at least, hurting old ghosts that hurt us still. Especially here in the United States, where as a collective, we’re still very much bound by the sins of the past. Tarantino, for all his faults as a filmmaker, has always been extraordinarily fearless in allowing audiences to exorcise our collective demons. Love him or hate him, he’s got a style and aesthetic all his own, and he doesn’t apologize for all his excesses and bloody genius madness.
Which is why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his 9th film and fourth in a row to feature a historical setting, hits so close to home. This time around Tarantino takes us on a trip to late-1960s Los Angeles, home of an American film industry churning out movies and TV shows in a hilariously fast and loose fashion. The streets are full of hippies, the soundscape is constant rock and pop hits and saccharine advertisements, and the personalities involved crave fame and public exposure like some people crave cigarettes dipped in LSD. Without spoiling too terribly much, the historical bad guys this time around are the Manson Family, and though Charles Manson himself only appears onscreen for a few minutes, his demonic presence is certainly felt.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an aging cowboy actor who hasn’t had a decent starring role in years. He spends most of his time drinking, lapsing into coughing fits, and playing mustache-twirling heavy of the week on any network TV show that will hire him. His best friend and stuntman Cliff Booth (a delightfully chill yet dangerous Brad Pitt) takes care of him as best he can, but he hasn’t performed any stunt work for the former rising star since Rick lost the lead gig to Steve McQueen in a little movie called The Great Escape. Rick has a house in the Hollywood Hills right next door to director Roman Polanski and his new wife Sharon Tate. Here’s where the alternate history kicks in, folks. Younger audiences who know nothing about the Manson Family murders will undoubtedly experience Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in a much different fashion than the rest of us. Needless to say, the film cruises along Sunset Strip with a heavy mind and an eerie sense of impending doom, even when the action is relatively light and comical.
After Cliff engages in an ill-advised backlot sparring match with non other than martial arts legend Bruce Lee, he’s got all the free time in the world. Cliff picks up a vivacious hippy chick he’s been eyeing around town and drives her home to an old Western movie shooting set a large group of young, creepy, dangerous beatniks have converted into their own personal crash pad/drug den. Dakota Fanning plays a particularly dead-eyed Squeaky Fromme, and her interactions with Pitt are devilish. It’s the little historical flourishes that really make this film sing.
To go much further into the plot would spoil the ending, but look, when Tarantino gets his hands on real-life monsters, he goes all the way. Which isn’t to say Once Upon a Time lacks heart. Tarantino is a seasoned, mature filmmaker, and his characters spend much of the movie dealing with the limitations of their own flawed humanity. You really have to feel for DiCaprio’s Dalton, who has long ago confused success for self worth. And Margot Robbie shines as Sharon Tate, an absolute vision of 1960s femininity and grace.
The only real question we’re left with after the credits roll is if it’s earnestly healthy for our collective culture to, say, blow up Hitler or bathe an old plantation house in blood. In brutalizing the villains of history, has Tarantino allowed us mass catharsis, or has he just developed his own brand of big-budget revenge? It’s a forgone conclusion, but realistically, we are in fact dealing with the Manson Family. The actions of three of their members one late August night still ring out as some of the most atrocious and disgusting of the 20th century. Like it or not, Tarantino seems to tell us, we live in a world full of hate and murder, and in the year 2019, when mass shootings happen almost every week, what’s a simple movie got to do with human decency and justice?
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterful expose of the human psyche circa 1969. It’s funny, stylish, chock full of delicious old rock and pop tunes, and yes, it’s got a beating heart that ultimately outweighs the brief but vivid extreme violence that defines its climax. Tarantino has another winner on his hands, though the conversation about his impact on a culture reeling from gun violence will most likely continue.
Writing to Be Read gives the film a solid nine out of ten, but this movie reviewer has to wonder, will there ever come a time healing and revenge are not synonymous?
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It’s my pleasure today to be able to interview JS Mayank, who is not only a screenwriter, but also a director and producer of films in the wild and crazy world of Hollywood. Originally from England, Mayank has been in the screenwriting world for more than a decade and seems to thrive in the world of film making. He currently has four films to his credit, and his short film SOMEDAY just premiered in New York last month. Please help me welcome him as he shares some of his thoughts and screenwriting and film making experiences with us today.
Kaye: When did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter?
JS: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was two and a half. I would draw pictures and then get my parents, grandparents, or any other grown up to write it down– dictating corresponding stories to go along with the drawings. So I’ve always been a storyteller. But for screenwriting specifically, I remember I was in highschool (in India), when I came across the screenplay for THE SIXTH SENSE. It was the first script I had ever seen, and I read it before seeing the movie. When I finally watched the film, I was astounded by how closely it mimicked what I had read on the page. That was a moment of epiphany for me, and I fell in love with the medium.
Kaye: Would you briefly share the story of your own screenwriting journey? How did you go from writing your first screenplay to becoming not only a screenwriter, but a director and producer as well?
JS: Wow. That’s quite the sprawling canvas. I suppose the short version is – I always loved movies and TV. I was obsessed with Hollywood filmmaking in particular. After my undergraduate degree in Economics, I decided to take a year to work with a not-for-profit organization in India, where my boss was making documentaries for the UN, WHO, UNESCO etc. That’s where I fell in love with the form. From there, I came to the US, did a Masters in Communication at Wake Forest University (NC) – finishing the two year course in one year, and taking the second year to just watch movies. I saw over 1500 films in one year. It was the most intense education ever. After that, I got into the MFA program for Directing and production at Loyola Marymount University (CA), and moved to LA. That’s where I trained in the actual craft of directing and producing.
Kaye: What is the working title of your next movie?
JS: The Dead Wives Club – it’s a British dramedy.
Kaye: Which screenwriter, dead or alive, would you love to have lunch with?
JS: A few years ago, I would have said Damon Lindelof (the creator of LOST/THE LEFTOVERS), but he’s now my mentor, and I can already do that. I think I’d like to go with someone who’s not alive. Probably my favorite female screenwriter – Nora Ephron!
Kaye: What is the biggest challenge of being a screenwriter?
JS: I suppose it’s the same as the challenges of trying to make a living as any other kind of writer. Self doubt. Procrastination. Crippling self doubt. Lack of certainty. No job security. Did I mention debilitating self doubt?
Kaye: What’s the most fun part of writing a screenplay? What’s the least fun part?
JS: To me, breaking the story – creating the world, characters, scenarios – that initial spark of the idea is the biggest rush ever! Pure creativity. I suppose, rewriting is the least fun – though absolutely one of the most important parts of the process.
Kaye: What is the most important quality in a screenplay for you?
JS: Voice. A writer’s unique expression. The way they see the world. Quentin Tarantino is totally different from Nancy Meyers, who’s completely separate from Diablo Cody, who’s miles apart from Donald Glover.
Kaye: As a screenwriter, what kind of research do you find yourself doing for your stories?
JS: When I’m writing a script, I immerse myself into every aspect of that world. There’s a TV project I’m developing that I’ve been researching for almost 10 years. Others, I’ll talk to experts, read books, watch documentaries… whatever it takes. I love learning, so research is actually one of my favorite aspects of the job. Sometimes I feel like I enjoy research more than writing… But that’s probably just because I’m procrastinating.
Kaye: Your movie SOMEDAY had its US premiere at the Dominican Film Festival in NY (DFFNY) on July 29th, and won best short there. Would you like to tell us a little about that movie?
JS: SOMEDAY started as a collaboration between an actress friend of mine (Katherine Castro), who said something interesting happened to her, and that it’d make a great movie. Usually when someone says that, it’s really not all that fascinating, but I’ve been a huge fan of hers, and so gave her the benefit of the doubt. When I heard the story, I absolutely knew it was a film. She had an encounter on a plane with someone who was very famous, and she had no idea. They simply conversed the entire way, and had an immense connection. I knew there was a story in there I wanted to tell. So I wrote it, sent her the script, and wished her the best with the project. A day later, she called me saying she loved it, and wanted me to direct it as well. It was a dream collaboration from start to finish.
SOMEDAY: Written & Directed by J S Mayank
Two strangers meet on a 14 hour non-stop flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. Adam is a world-famous composer, but Melody doesn’t recognize her flight companion. Along the way, they laugh, flirt and pour their hearts out… a connection made more beautiful precisely because of its fleeting nature.
Here’s a trailer for it: https://vimeo.com/268517195
Kaye: You are both a screenwriter and the director for Someday. Is there a secret to balancing the dual roles?
JS: Realizing that the script is just a blueprint. A template. A roadmap. Once I’m the director, I have to have a singular overarching vision for the movie, but also realize that I have a great team around me – cinematographer, production designer, costumer, VFX supervisor, editor, composer… and of course, my actors. Each of these collaborators bring their own expertise, ideas and opinions, and sometimes that demands alterations to the screenplay. My job as the director is to ensure each change is for the better.
Kaye: What’s it like to sit in a theater and watch the premier for a movie that you have created?
JS: Nerve-wracking, panic inducing, and absolutely one of the greatest feelings in the world. Seeing an audience reacting to your work is beyond words.
Kaye: What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
JS: Two pieces. First, from Bruce Cohen (producer of American Beauty, Big Fish):
“Always lead with your best foot forward. It’s good to be humble in your personal life. But for work, have a healthy sense of ego in what you do (as long as you have the goods to back it up).”
Second, from my mentor, Damon Lindelof (LOST, The Leftovers):
“Keep doing the work. It will save you every time.”
Kaye: What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters?
JS: Write every day. Write what you’re passionate about. And don’t take no for an answer. Also, be kind (but that’s just general life advice).
Kaye: What is the one thing in your screenwriting career that is the most unusual or unique thing you’ve done so far?
JS: It’s a new project, and something that will probably take my career to the next level, but unfortunately, I can’t talk about it. I’m under an NDA. Keep a look-out for something in September, though.
Thank you JS. You’ve definitely piqued our interest. I know I can’t wait. I want to thank you for joining us here today on Writing to be Read. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you. You certainly offered some insight into the world of film making.
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More than any other industry, the film making arena is a world where connections are everything and success may depend on who you know. Breaking in takes persistence, determination, and maybe even a dash of creativity. Oh, and talent helps, too.
Hollywood Game Plan, by Carole Kirschner, is a must read for anyone trying to break in to the entertainment business. This book gives you the lowdown on what jobs there are in both the creative and the production areas and tells what it takes to land each position, all the way to the top of the Industry.
Much of the advice found within its pages, basic things like being on time, working hard, dressing appropriately, or listening and following directions, could apply to any industry. But, it also contains tips and tricks that are Industry specific to the world of film making, and pays heed to the rules of Hollywood etiquette, which should never be broken unless you’re trying to commit career suicide. From how to use your Industry contacts to move your way up the ladder, to when it is appropriate to seek out advice or assistance from higher-ups. Among the list of cardinal rules not to be broken are:
- Start at the bottom and work your way up – everybody has to pay their dues.
- Be willing to do any chore your boss requires, even the most menial, or most nerve racking, tasks with a smile.
- Never talk badly about an employer, even if he’s the boss form hell.
- You’re going to get fired. Everyone gets fired. Don’t take it personal. Move on.
- Be nice to people. You never know who may turn out to be a future boss.
- Network, network, network. Keep a record of contacts and follow-up appropriately on all.
- Work for free, if you can afford to, and do the best job possible. You never know where it could lead.
- Work harder than anyone else and anticipate your employer’s needs.
Hollywood Game Plan helps you create a solid plan for launching your career as a screenwriter, even if you must begin in a job other than the one you aspire to. This book outlines the step by step approach to laying the groundwork for your new career, from honing your resume and crafting a solid cover letter, to landing that first job, making preparations to make the move to L.A., to working your way up the Hollywood creative or production ladders, and into your dream job.
I give Hollywood Game Plan four quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read, and she never charges for them. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.