What are some inspiring writing lessons that writers can learn from the story of Quentin Tarantino and his journey through growing up poor in Los Angeles, working in a video store, and then shooting to fame as one of this generation’s greatest auteurs?
Welcome to the inaugural post of our new ongoing series, Inspiring Writing Lessons from the Greats, where we feature inspiring stories from some of the greatest writers and filmmakers of our time and apply the lessons that can be learned from them to your screenwriting journey.
Quentin Jerome Tarantino was born on March 27th, 1963. While he lived a majority of his life in Los Angeles County, which is often the setting for most of his most celebrated films, Tarantino was actually born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Connie McHugh was his mother. His father, Tony Tarantino, left Quentin’s mother before he was even born.
His mother relocated them to Los Angeles in 1966.
One of Quentin’s first memories is of watching a John Wayne movie with his grandmother. His storytelling abilities began to take hold at a very young age. “He wrote me sad Mother’s Day stories. He’d always kill me and tell me how bad he felt about it,” Connie told Entertainment Weekly. “It was enough to bring a tear to a mother’s eye.”
His mother remarried, and his stepfather later introduced him to movies, doing his best to encourage young Quentin’s love for cinema. They attended adult-oriented movies like Carnal Knowledge and Deliverance, with permission from Quentin’s mother of course. Sadly, Connie’s second marriage would not last. They divorced in 1973.
While other kids were into sports, Quentin was into movies. He loved horror films, including the classic Universal monster movies. He also loved comedy. As a child, his favorite film of all-time was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
When he was fourteen-years-old, Quentin wrote one of his first screenplays — Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit. It was based on the iconic 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit.
When he was fifteen, Quentin was caught shoplifting Elmore Leonard’s novel The Switch from a Kmart store. His mother grounded him, only allowing him to leave their apartment to attend the Torrance Community Theater.
Life didn’t get easier as Quentin dropped out of high school. He continued to pursue his acting aspirations and attended the James Best Theater Company soon after dropping out of school — but he left after only two years. He would later collaborate with several of his acting peers from that group.
Quentin worked several jobs, including some time in his teen years as an usher in a movie theater. In the 1980s, he found himself making ends meet as a recruiter in the aerospace industry until he found work at Video Archives, a video store in Manhattan Beach, California.
“Until I became a director, it was the best job I ever had,” Quentin later said in an interview.
Quentin dove into cinema through this position. He was known to discuss cinema at length with his peers, and even with the customers. He would take every chance he could get to introduce a cool movie to the customers of Video Archives.
Quentin met future collaborator Lawrence Bender at a Hollywood party. Bender encouraged him to write a feature screenplay. His first attempted script, which Quentin described as a “straight 70s exploitation action movie” was never produced and was quickly thrown out.
Over three years, he co-wrote and directed his first movie My Best Friend’s Birthday. While they were editing the film, the final reel was almost completely destroyed in a lab fire.
This script and film would form the basis for a new screenplay that Quentin was working on — something called True Romance. For two years, he worked to get the screenplay made. Various people and companies killed him with encouragement that would later break his heart. He always seemed to be two weeks away from making the film for $1 million. But it never panned out.
He later realized that no one was going to risk giving $1 million plus to an unknown. He decided to work on his third feature script, Natural Born Killers. It was now 1990, and, again, no one was going to give this unknown screenwriter and director any money.
By this time, the screenplays for both True Romance and Natural Born Killers were done. He had managed to make enough contacts in the industry that True Romance was about to be sold for Guild minimum at the time — $30,000. Since he knew that no one was going to give him any money to shoot a film, he decided to write a script that he could shoot for the amount that he would be making for the sale of True Romance. That script would go on to be his breakout indie hit, Reservoir Dogs.
His friend Lawrence Bender read the script, and he believed that he could raise Hollywood money to make it. Quentin didn’t believe him. He had gone through that process time and time again with empty promises and dead ends.
Quentin decided to give him two months to make something happen, which is a ridiculously short amount of time. As luck would have it though, Lawrence’s acting teacher was married to someone that was part of the Actor’s Studio with actor Harvey Keitel.
Keitel liked the screenplay so much, he called Lawrence and Quentin and told them that he was committed to the movie. This opened so many doors because now they weren’t just a couple of unknowns asking for money to make a movie — now they had a celebrated actor committed.
Keitel’s commitment got the film made. It would go on to be that year’s one of the most talked about films.
He would go on to make Pulp Fiction as his follow-up, a film that catapulted him to even greater success, earning him Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and a win for Best Screenplay.
And the rest is history.
What Does This Teach Writers?
If you think you can’t make it in Hollywood because you’re a nobody that’s working at a movie theater, or as a cashier, or some job that just pays the bills, look to Quentin’s story for inspiration.
During the days of video stores, nearly everyone looked down upon those video store clerks that were overly-enthusiastic about their favorite movies. They were just cashier’s renting videos. But Quentin took the knowledge he learned from watching endless movies — the good, the bad, and everything in between — and poured it into his work. That was his education. Watching and studying movies. He never went to film school. His film school was ingesting movies, making his own, and honing his craft as a writer.
Quentin’s story also teaches us about never quitting and always be looking forward.
When True Romance wasn’t going to get made under his direction, he didn’t quit the business. When the same thing happened with Natural Born Killers, he decided to learn from the experience and evolve his approach to what his next project would be.
He wrote a contained crime drama that could be shot on the cheap. While he intended to use his Guild minimum money to shoot Reservoir Dogs himself, he instead utilized his network that he had built up — in this case, through the form of Lawrence Bender — to keep his options open. Even though he had been burned a couple of times prior.
And that networking worked against all odds.
We all go through difficult times in life. We all struggle. But you can’t let the trials and tribulations of life get in the way of your dreams and aspirations. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Quentin Tarantino is arguably one of the greatest screenwriters and directors in the history of cinema — and even he had to struggle for years before anyone gave him a chance.
Anyone reading this right now has the very same odds as Quentin did. You just have to keep pushing forward, never give up, build and utilize your network, hone your craft, and choose your projects wisely.
Watch this inspiring story of Quentin Tarantino as he and his peers discuss his early life and rise to the top.
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