Open Source Filmmaking, Part 1: A Thieves Guild

Lawrence Articles

Last night I watched a 2 part interview between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Filmed this year for the El Rey network, it’s as close as I’ve ever seen to Quentin talking to one of his buddies about his process. Rodriguez brought out video footage from twenty years ago. Footage of Quentin reading early drafts of Kill Bill, of Quentin rereading later drafts. It’s spellbinding to someone like me, who grew up in the hay day of indie film. The 90’s.

The presumption is always the same with Quentin. He’s achieved in a couple of films, an aesthetic that maybe 4 other people in American film enjoy. The presumption when we sit down is, we are about to see a masterpiece. Just wait. It’s very much what Kubrick and Wells enjoyed. Quentin has refused to discuss those guys, citing a “sibling rivalry.” Clearly there are aspects of this job that have gone to his ego. And perhaps rightly so, he has crafted a modern style much like the other perennial favorite, Wes Anderson. But as Rodriguez and he discussed his process, one thing in particular stuck out and set him apart from Anderson. Quentin’s approach, this license that we’ve all collectively given him, is to steal as hard as he can from as many great films as he can.

That revelation isn’t exactly new. Everyone knows Quentin repurposes actors, lines, story points and shots from his nearly encyclopedic memory. But in this interview we ventured into the origin story of that. How Quentin started as an actor who needed to write, to one of the greatest writers in cinema history. In do so, I’d argue Quentin is the director that moves cinema from one era to another. From the era of his heroes, Sergio Leone, Kubrick and Wells to what we have now. An industry that’s so scattered, on-demand, serialized and filled with inspiring cinema, on the small screen.

The first story is from his acting class, where he needed a 2 man scene to perform. He choose a scene from Flash Gordon of all films. “I always had a good memory, so I would watch the film and go home and write that scene. Any parts I forgot, I’d change, because it was my scene now.” This act marks Quentin’s first foray in the world of creative borrowing. Artists stealing is nothing new. There’s even a saying about greats stealing while good artists borrow. It’s as old as art itself. But before Quentin, no one was applauded for it. Before that time, you couldn’t watch the movie as you wrote either. VHS was an invention of the 1980s. That’s not that long ago, and not long before Quentin’s career started.

Brian DePalma once griped publicly about how the VHS era made it harder to be a director, because now people had proof that you were stealing. George Lucas could borrow deeply from Hidden Fortress for Starwars, because no one was renting hidden fortress. It could be perceived as wholly original by an under-informed audience. The more esoteric Quentin’s influences became and the large his legend grew, the more license he was granted. This license was a good thing and I believe ushered in the era we live in now. Dubbed by some as the era of the remix, it’s really the era of the sample. At the same time in music, rappers and electronic music was sampling from the great era of rock and roll to jump start their careers. And as long as everything was licensed, everyone was happy.

Quentin, unlike DePalma, is often forgiven for lifting from other films. Partly because he so openly admits it. This is important to an audience. He’s the director you’d want at the end of one era. The director who would watch countless hours of Blacksploitation films so you don’t have to, and recreate their finest moments with all the skill and money that Hollywood’s great craftsmen offer.

But another aspect of Quentin’s stealing revealed itself to me in this interview. I knew he was a craftsman with the soundtrack, but what I didn’t know was how much he borrows from other film’s soundtracks when it comes to scoring his own film. He lifted the entire soundtrack to Coffe, a 1970’s film starring a younger Pam Grier, for Jackie Brown. He now uses old soundtracks for nearly every film. Again proudly. I’m pretty proud for him. The repurposing of old music against new footage gives the film the feeling of that era, without having to do a period piece or recreate all the bad haircuts. There’s evidence in Wes Anderson’s films of a similar technique. It’s brilliant in every way, and that idea came form Harvey Weinstein while tracking Jackie.

Quentin is still working. Hopefully, will work for a long time, using inspiration form old movies and regurgitating them in his own, now highly, honed way. He’s has become the keeper of the old way of american film. The obsessive cinema librarian at the end of that era to cut out the beautiful frames and remix them into something everyone can enjoy. Because he led the way, we all have permission to finally treat film history the way other kinds of artists have looked at their art. Copy the masters first. Copy and find your voice but always give homage. The act of copying without homage is DePalma territory. It’s LeBouf territory.

Hollywood may never be the same after entities like Youtube and Vine bring just as much on-demand, amateur entertainment as the Studios produce every year. We may never see another great auteur in the same vein. Quentin may be the last Wells, the last Kubrick. But his coveted place in American film history also gives a gift. That gift begins with stealing and ends with paying homage. This is Open source filmmaking.

In the next installment, I want to talk about Open Source filmmaking from another angle. The angle of opening the process, teaching while creating and keeping the channels of learning open. I learned so much about Quentin’s process in this interview, I wish he was available more often to inform and teach a new generation. In the meantime, give this interview a watch. It’s really worth your time.