Quentin Tarantino: mastering the process of making iconic films

When director Peter Bogdanovich died, his estate paid Quentin Tarantino $110,000! 

Bogdanovich had directed some amazing movies in the 1970s. He was nominated for Oscars a couple of times. But everyone who worked with him: from Burt Reynolds to Cher – ended up despising him. He sued the Hollywood studios when they edited his movies in a way he didn’t like. Even though he was a skillful director, he struggled for work because of his personality.

But Tarantino helped him when he could. In 2000, when Bogdanovich lost his house, Tarantino let him stay at his home for a year! And over the next few years, he gave Bogdanovich money to pay his bills. It was only after his death that the $110,000 was paid back!

So why did Tarantino help someone who most people could not stand? Because Tarantino found Bogdanovich as obsessive about films as he himself was. Bogdanovich saw 6 to 8 movies a week. And he wrote down his assessment of a movie on little index cards. By the time he was 30 and his first movie was out, he had a collection of over 5000 index cards! 

It reminded Tarantino of his own education in the films. Before Tarantino made movies, he would watch 200 movies a year in the cinema! And he watched the ones he liked multiple times! And after watching each movie, he would rate it.

It’s this immersion in films that made him a great director.

“When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them no, I went to films.” – Quentin Tarantino

The path to mastery

The path to mastery starts with immersing yourself into the field. But after immersing, you’ve got to deconstruct the subject. How do you do that?

You learn from the master of deconstruction. Tim Ferriss. Within 6 months of his first Tango lesson, Ferris made the semifinals of the World Tango Championship. That’s not all, within 2 months of starting with kickboxing, he won the Chinese national title for it!

So what can you learn from Tim Ferriss about deconstructing a new field to master it?

  1. You start with a goal. Identify the overall purpose of the thing you want to deconstruct.
  2. You then break it down into smaller components. What are the minimum learnable units, the lego blocks?
  3. And then you focus on the 20% work that can help with 80% of output. Find the smallest things that can have the biggest impact.

Tarantino deconstructs the film elements

Did you know that Tarantino wanted to become an actor? He even paid for acting classes at the James Best Theatre Company. But in 1985, 22 year old Tarantino got a job at the video rental company. And he lost all his ambition for the next 3 years. He just fell in love with watching movies and didn’t want to do anything else. Tarantino was obsessed.

When he came out of the 3 year funk, he no longer wanted to become an actor. Instead, he wanted to make movies. Movies that he had loved. Movies that would connect with the audience. Give them a cathartic release. That became his goal. Make just 10 movies in his whole life: but 10 movies that would become iconic.

Tarantino broke down the ingredients of past iconic movies. He would often watch a whole movie multiple times if he found one particular scene in it that connected with the audience. 

Have interesting characters. Put them in compelling situations. Give them authentic memorable dialogues. Use music to dictate the mood. 

In his own words, Tarantino wants to top your expectations. He wants to blow you away.

He uses highly stylized violence. Curse words. Great comedic timing in serious moments. But the one trick that he is known for is shifting the timelines. His stories have a nonlinear structure where scenes and segments are shown out of order. He shows the future before he shows the present. 

This nonlinear storytelling allows him to build tension and anticipation. He can keep the audience engaged through multiple viewings of the movie – just like he used to watch. And he can give them a cathartic release when they are surprised but yet their anticipations are met. Its a trick Tarantino uses to make you watch a movie twice. Which has made his movies iconic! Which has made movies like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill!

Action Summary:

  • Immerse yourself in your field. Become obsessed. Learn from everyone in the field.
  • Deconstruct the masters to become a master. Break the elements down and focus on the essential.