Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: How To Pitch a Work-For-Hire Project.
This week we’ll be talking about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, by Quentin Tarantino. We’re going to set aside the question of whether the movie actually works or not. Some people think it’s Quentin Tarantino’s finest work; some people don’t like the film at all.
What I’m interested in with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is how you build a premise into the story you want to tell.
Now, it’s impossible to talk about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood without some spoilers. I’m going to give some spoilers here at the beginning, but I’m going to keep them light. Then, as we get deeper into the discussion, there’s a big spoiler at the end. I promise to give you a nice warning before we get there.
The inception for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the Manson murders, obviously a subject that has been explored quite a bit both in news media and film.
So, Quentin Tarantino wants to write a movie about the Manson murders. Whenever you’re exploring a topic other people have explored, you have to have a take. Now, you might love Quentin Tarantino’s take or you may hate Quentin Tarantino’s take, but he’s got a take.
A take means this: why is your approach to this film slightly different than anyone else’s? How are you telling the story differently from an angle that only you could tell it?
This is one of the most important skills to develop as a writer, both for the development of your own projects and also when you get into the work-for-hire world.
When someone is interested in hiring you, they have an idea, a project that’s maybe just beginning, or a project needing to be rewritten, and you’re being auditioned as the potential person to do that rewrite.
What they don’t want to hear is, “Hey, I’m a great writer and wasn’t Manson horrible?” They want to hear how you are going to approach the material in a way that will differentiate it from how anyone else would approach it.
A lot of that comes from instinct and a lot comes from who you are. But the goal is to learn how to talk about it in a way that’s instantly clear so other people will instantly understand it.
What you realize while watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is that Quentin Tarantino is doing the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead version of the Manson murders.
Instead of focusing on Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, the people living at Cielo, the Manson family, or even Manson himself (who we only get one tiny little glimpse of during the whole movie), Tarantino’s take on the material is to focus on two fictional and tangential characters. One is an actor named Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s on the declining portion of his career. The other is his stunt man Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, who is his best friend in the world and doesn’t have two nickels to rub together.
Instead of watching the story from the main character’s point of view, we’re going to watch it from these secondary characters’ points of view.
If you don’t know about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this is a play by Tom Stoppard in which he took Hamlet and turned it inside out using the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two tiniest characters in Hamlet.
Quentin Tarantino is using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as a model to find his own take on the Manson murders. Maybe he’s doing that consciously or maybe he’s not.
One of the interesting things people do when they pitch screenplays is they always say, “It’s this meets that.”
“It’s the Manson murders meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” “It’s Jaws meets Rosemary’s Baby.” People always like to pitch mash-ups.
When I’m pitching a script, I don’t like to pitch mash-ups. If I pitch a mash-up, what I’m doing is sounding just like everybody else. Instead, what I like to do is tell my take on the piece and let the producer, the reader, the manager, the agent, or the star say, “Oh, I get it. It’s this meets that.”
I’m not suggesting your take should be “it’s this meets that.” I’m suggesting that every time you approach material you want to ask, “What matters to me here? What am I interested in here?”
Keep in mind that what you’re interested in might not be the flashy, big thing you think most people would be interested in.
What you’re interested in might not be how Charles Manson convinced a bunch of kids to do this horrible thing. What you’re interested in might be movies, especially if you’re Quentin Tarantino and the only thing you love in the world are movies.
It might be about the objectification of actors. It might be about the humanization of actors. It might be about actors as prey. It might be about the question of how do violent movies, like the kinds you make, fuel violence? Or are actors in Hollywood being used as a scapegoat for people who have their own motivations, as we see in that wonderful, final speech by Sadie Atkins where she tells her two cohorts before going to commit the murders (paraphrased), “We’re going to punish My idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill.”
Your take on writing a true story or historically inspired story grows from what you’re personally interested in.
This is really important. It might be that a lot of people hate your take, but the people who love your take are going to love it so much that you’re the only writer they’ll want to work with.
Your take cannot be something you think is going to impress other people, because at the end of the day you’re going to have to execute your take and you’re only going to be able to execute a version of the story that actually matters to you.
Similarly, your take cannot be the same take most people have on the material, otherwise somebody with a better resume is going to beat you out for the job.
When you’re working on your own material, you might not even know your take at the beginning. When you first come to the Manson story, you might not know your take.
Mindhunter is a completely different take on serial killers than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The Silence of the Lambs is a completely different take on serial killers than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
So, at the beginning, you might not even know your take. It might mean writing a couple of drafts and seeing what’s hot, what’s exciting, what’s interesting. It might be that the thing you thought was going to be really cool isn’t cool at all or the thing you thought was going to be so powerful actually isn’t, but the thing you didn’t even expect to discover turns out to be really exciting.
It might be that you start out thinking you’re going to write a movie about Manson and, instead, some dude named Rick Dalton shows up. He’s kind of sad, kind of funny, and kind of a jerk, and, for whatever reason, you’re fascinated by him.
Your take is something that evolves as you look at the material. There is the way you talk about the take and then there is the way you execute the take.
Your take on the movie is going to affect literally everything you do, literally every choice you make.
If you look at the structure of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (what structure there is), it grows entirely from Quentin Tarantino’s take on the story.
A lot of people are frustrated with the structure of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Quite frankly, I was a little frustrated with the structure of the film. But the reason the structure unfolds so tangentially is because we’re watching the story through the tangential characters.
The reason the pressure of the murders builds so slowly, the reason the idea of Manson builds so slowly, is because we’re watching everything from the perspective of these tangential characters. Even within the world of Hollywood, even though Rick is a Hollywood actor, he is a tangential Hollywood actor dealing with his own tangentialness.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we’re watching the world of Hollywood and the world of Manson happen around these characters. We’re watching it affect the trajectory of their lives without them even realizing what’s happening.
What Quentin Tarantino is building is a growing sense of pressure. For a while, it seems like you’re just having fun until you realize, “Oh my God, that’s Sharon Tate.”
You’re just having fun until you realize, “Oh my God, I think that guy who just showed up looking for Terry is Manson.”
You’re just having fun until you realize, “Oh my God, that girl Brad Pitt just got in the car with, who seems so lovely and flirty, is actually a pretty messed up 16-year-old and she’s tied to Manson.”
You end up slowly putting it all together and realizing, “Oh my God, this is going to culminate in the Manson murders.”
Tarantino is doing something really interesting with violence in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
It could be argued it isn’t totally effective, but what he’s doing is fascinating.
When you’re watching a Quentin Tarantino movie, you’re waiting for the violence. You know the violence is coming, and you know it’s going to be really gross and really brutal.
With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you’re waiting for the violence in the real story, and he keeps denying it to you. He gives you plenty of Hollywood violence when he cuts to film clips of Rick Dalton, but he keeps on denying you the real-world violence.
There is that moment when Brad Pitt’s character is on the boat and you know he’s killed his wife. You’re waiting for the real-world violence thinking, “Oh, this is going to be the grossest thing I’ve ever seen.” In most Quentin Tarantino movies, he’s going to show it to you, but in this movie he doesn’t. He withholds it.
In fact, the only moment of “real-world” violence up until the final sequence is the moment when one of the Manson followers stabs the wheel of the car that Cliff, Brad Pitt’s character, is driving. There’s a moment of really graphic violence between the two of them then.
But all the normal violence we’re expecting in a Tarantino film is denied us. Instead, what we keep watching is play and silliness and loveliness.
This is particularly true with Sharon Tate; she’s not even real in her loveliness. She’s so freaking lovely, we can’t even handle her loveliness. She’s the very idea of loveliness and vulnerability. And we’re just waiting, because we all know what’s going to happen.
This builds up a feeling of pressure. Here we are watching these characters live their oblivious lives thinking they’re not meaningful at all, but woven into their lives is one of the most important things that happens in that time.
And they’re not even aware they’re a part of it, not even toward the end when Rick Dalton shouts down at the Manson followers sitting on the car in his driveway, waiting to go commit their devilish act. Even then, he doesn’t know he’s a part of it.
What ends up happening is we have this growing feeling of pressure inside us. There’s a part of us wondering, “What the hell is this movie about? What’s actually happening? Why am I just wandering through Hollywood nostalgia?”
Then there’s this other part of you thinking, “Oh no, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming.” It’s like seeing the shark’s fin in the water; the more he denies it to you, the more you know it’s coming. You know it’s Quentin Tarantino and you know it’s going to be more horrific than you could ever imagine.
This brings me to the last thing I want to talk about, which is the idea of surprise.
As soon as you have a take on a screenplay, an idea for how the piece works or a pitch, both you and your audience are going to start pitching yourselves what needs to happen.
You’re going to start to envision the kinds of scenes that must happen in your movie. You’re going to start to envision an ending for your movie.
There’s one very simple rule to live by when you’re thinking about that structure. To some degree, you want to play with those expectations and play into those expectations. It’s those expectations that create the genre, that create the feeling of a movie that exists within a certain kind of world.
The emotional effect grows out of knowing what world we’re in. If you made a horror movie that didn’t have horror, or a Quentin Tarantino movie that didn’t have violence as well as play and fun, we would feel ripped off because we come for those feelings.
However, once you know the big thing that’s going to happen, and you know it’s what has to happen because it’s the natural extension of your take on the piece, the one thing you have to remember is this: it can’t happen that way.
It can’t happen that way because at the beginning of your writing, no matter how smart you think you are, you aren’t actually that smart. The reason you’re not actually that smart is because you don’t know your characters and your movie well enough yet.
What you think is an incredible trick ending is actually the trick ending everyone sees coming. The ideas you think are amazing are actually clichés based on other movies you’ve seen.
If you end up writing the movie that takes your take to exactly the place you’d expect your take to go, you’re going to end up writing another derivative movie.
Lots of derivative movies get made, but they don’t get made by first-time screenwriters. They don’t get made by emerging screenwriters. When you’re at the beginning of your career, you have to write the disruptive piece.
Some people are going to hate your disruptive piece because it’s disruptive, but the person who loves your disruptive piece is going to fight for it to the ends of the earth. That’s the kind of fight you’re going to need to succeed in this industry when you’re first starting out.
So, the thing to remember is that whatever has to happen, it cannot happen that way. It must happen in a way that surprises your expectations, your character’s expectations, and your audience’s expectations. It cannot happen the way that’s obvious when you start the movie.
At the same time, whatever has to happen has to happen.
If you’re waiting for that crescendo of violence and the violence doesn’t happen, if you’re waiting for Sharon Tate to be murdered and the violence you’re expecting doesn’t happen, you’re also going to feel ripped off.
This is the challenge in screenwriting. We’re looking for the thing that doesn’t happen the way we expect, but outdoes the genre expectations we’ve built up towards it.
If you’ve seen the movie, you can see where I’m going with this. I’ve given some little spoilers along the way, but now I’m going to give the big one. If you haven’t watched the movie yet, this is the time to sign off…
What Tarantino ends up doing at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is use an old trick he started employing with Inglourious Basterds. You’re watching Inglourious Basterds and you know the history, so you know what’s going to happen.
But Tarantino says, “Screw the history. I’m going to tell the story of what I wish had happened. By telling the story of what I wish had happened, I’m actually going to make what really happened even sadder and more disturbing because I’m going to show you a different path. I’m going to show you what could have been if the world was fair and just and things were right.”
He does the same thing with Django Unchained and again with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He doesn’t show you what really happened; he shows you what he wished had happened. He shows you that instead of murdering Sharon Tate, those three hopped up, messed up followers of a madman stumbled into the wrong damn house.
The execution of that takes these tangential characters and turns them into heroes. It outdoes the genre expectations of how horrible we expect the violence to be by directing it toward the Manson followers, rather than the innocent victims that were really killed on that day.
In doing so, Tarantino is making a statement about the way he sees violence and the way Hollywood gets blamed for violence in a world where we can’t pass a reasonable gun law, where self-serving people manipulate pointing the finger at violent movies in order to do the things they wish to do.
By denying the violence in the film and showing only the ridiculous Hollywood violence and the victimization of these spoiled actors we tend to both love and hate, by turning the whole movie on that one line about going to (paraphrased) “kill the people who taught us to kill,” Tarantino is exploring the violence in his own movies and his own role in this political equation where we do learn from and are inspired by movies. Yet we’re also part of a much more complicated arithmetic.
You’re looking for the place where your take and your theme start to meet.
Every movie has a take and if you’re working from the outside-in, you just might start with your take of, “I want to do the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead version of the Manson murders.”
If you just keep pushing on that take and be assured that some things can happen the way you expect but the big thing you’re expecting can’t happen that way, eventually it’s going to lead you to a theme. It’s going to lead you to a real exploration of something that really matters to you.
Similarly, if you don’t have a take yet, don’t worry about it. Keep pushing on your theme, on the pieces of the script that are interesting to you like the images, the characters, and the lines, all the moments and the questions that are interesting to you.
Keep pushing on the theme and the take will emerge because the take is just the commercial version of the theme, just like the theme is the emotional version of the take.
For those of you interested in learning screenwriting and how to find this kind of take in an organic way, I invite you to check out my Write Your Screenplay class. We have a couple of great classes coming up in September, a weekend intensive version and a 4-week version of the class, both taught by me.
You can attend in NYC or Live Online from anywhere in the world.
For those of you interested in more of the commercial side of filmmaking, we have a brand new class called Produce Your Script taking place on Saturday, October 19th from 12:00 PM to 3:00 PM EST with indie film producer Ramfis Myrthil.
Ramfis is going to be teaching pitching, self-production, how to put together a business plan for your script, how to talk to financiers, distributors, and is even bringing in a whole panel of those people for students to talk to and ask questions. He’ll help you understand how to talk, how to pitch, how to build, and how to take the reins on your script, whether you want to produce it yourself or bring your script to somebody else.
It’s going to be an amazing class and we’re so excited to have Ramfis as part of the team.
Check out my website; come join us and learn with us. Again, you can attend from anywhere in the world and participate live and ask questions. Or you can come to New York City and attend here at the Studio.
I hope to see you in both classes and work with you!