Aiming to delve deeper into the minds of cinema's greatest, Behind the Camera is the ultimate guide to get you in the know for all things film.
Quentin Tarantino is undoubtedly one of the best known names in cinema. He reinvented the term "independent cinema" in the early ‘90s with his grotesque violence, witty dialogue, visual language and memorable characters. Here we examine Tarantino's work to discover what makes him so influential to both American and international audiences alike.
Early life and getting into film
At an early age, Tarantino was first introduced to films from both of his stepfathers, who took him to screenings of raunchy and adult-oriented films, as well as foreign and classic Hollywood films. As he grew up he disregarded what was taught in school, instead favoring history lessons, literature, comic books, and any films he could get his hands on. After eventually dropping out of high school, he went on to work at an adult movie theater and later a VHS rental house outside of LA, where he developed his encyclopedic knowledge for cinema. Tarantino then enrolled in acting classes where he was able to mingle with up-and-coming actors, jumpstarting his career.
Influences and directors
Tarantino is a cinephile at heart. He knows films and genres inside out and uses them strongly in crafting his brand of cinema, literally envisioning his films in genres instead of scenes and shots. Perhaps his love of film is what really drives his movies to resonate with audiences. Below are some genres he takes influence from, warping these into his own creative style.
Blaxploitation films from the '70s – originally made for black, urban audiences, these films include raunchy and racist language, all-black casts and driving funk and jazz soundtracks.
B movies, particularly horror films, from the '40s to '70s – these were produced with very low budgets, are sometimes known for their crude visual effects, and were often overshadowed by higher budget studio pictures of the time.
Spaghetti Westerns – Western films from the mid '60s that were produced in Italy and throughout Europe, which are known for their stylistic piecing together of classic Hollywood westerns and Japanese samurai films; often featuring American stars such as Clint Eastwood.
Film noir – classic Hollywood crime dramas from the '40s and '50s that stylize action and violence, while emphasizing eroticism and cynicism.
Heist films – a type of crime film that follows the criminals during the moment of their heists or crimes.
"If you truly love cinema with all your heart and with enough passion you can't help but make a good movie. You don't have to go to school. You don't have to know a lens – you know, a 40 and a 50 and a – fuck all that shit – crossing the line – none of that shit's important. If you just truly love cinema with enough passion – and you really love it, then you can't help but make a good movie."
Adding to the genre influences, here is a partial list of directors that have inspired Tarantino and his work, as well as contemporary directors whom he remains friends with and sometimes collaborates with. Viewers can often see visual references to these directors and their films, as well as thematic and stylistic similarities. Tarantino has made many personal lists of films that influence his work, yet famously, he constantly revises this list, so it will forever be an ongoing exploration of cinema. The directors include Jean-Pierre Melville, Howard Hawks, Jean-Luc Godard, Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone, John Woo, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Brian de Palma, Steven Spielberg, Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Rodriguez.
Visual and thematic trademarks
Tarantino defines his movies and characters through surrealistic violence and over-the-top gore. His visual and stylistic motifs reference historical genres, pop culture and music, while his limitless knowledge of films and directors provide unending fodder for his inspiration. Tarantino frequently uses a non-linear storytelling technique, in which he often builds animation or stop-motion sequences for titles and other episode segues. He often appears in his films playing a cameo as a minor character – a throwback to his years in acting class – and loves to rework with the same actors across various films.
Interesting Facts & Quotes
Tarantino doesn’t like to use brand placements in his films and has created a series of brands that he uses throughout his cinematic world. These include G.O. Juice, Jack Rabbit Slims restaurant, Red Apple cigarettes, Teriyaki Donut coffeehouse and most famously the Big Kahuna Burger.
In both Kill Bill films, Tarantino used over 450 gallons of fake blood.
In regards to the film industry shifting from analog to digital, he has said, “If it actually gets to the place where you can’t show 35mm film in theaters anymore and everything is a digital projection, I won’t even make it to 60.”
Overview of important films
Tarantino's first feature film from 1992, Reservoir Dogs (the name comes from a mispronunciation of Au Revoir Les Enfants, a late '80s French film) was written while he was still working at the VHS rental store in LA. It was initially meant to be shot with a $30,000 budget in black-and-white on 16mm, but once Harvey Keitel became involved with the project, he helped secure a sizable budget of $1.5 million USD and an amazing cast, including Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi and Chris Penn, with of course the classic cameo from Tarantino in the beginning. It was lauded and celebrated as a classic of its time; the film that reinvigorated “Independent Cinema," shook the film community and shocked audiences for its abrasiveness and bluntness in terms of violence.
It starts off in a classic diner scene, where the characters discuss a heist that will take place shortly after. We never see the heist – a common theme of withholding information in Tarantino’s films – but are thrown into the drama of what happens afterwards as they question alliances and seek to avoid the police and make off with the never-seen diamonds. Chock-full of blood, gore, torture scenes, brutal killings, brilliant dialogue, nonlinear storytelling and homages to films that inspired Tarantino (such as The Killing, The Big Combo, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). Reservoir Dogs is a must see for those seeking to understand the brilliant but wandering mind of Tarantino.
Arguably his most famous work, Pulp Fiction was Tarantino’s followup feature to Reservoir Dogs in 1994, and is assembled with an outstanding cast made up of John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Christopher Walken and Bruce Willis. Pulp Fiction reeks of self-references and homages to past cinema, with interludes of random, brilliant dialogue, graphic novel-style elements, and disorienting, yet imaginative drug, sex, and brutal violence sequences. It portrays a highly stylized story of LA mobsters and other petty criminals in relation to a mysterious briefcase (again, Tarantino withholding information from the viewer).
The film went on to become a cultural phenomenon, an icon of the generation of self-made filmmakers of the ‘90s who preferred rawness and rough edges to the sterility of what Hollywood then had to offer. Pulp Fiction established Tarantino as an inspiration for many future filmmakers, representing a pure joy and energy of what it means to be an independent filmmaker.
A mix between a heist film and Blaxploitation thriller, Jackie Brown, released in 1997, was Tarantino’s first and last adaptation from a novel. The film follows flight attendant Jackie (Pam Grier, who starred in several well-known Blaxploitation films from the '70s) as she is caught smuggling money and cocaine into the country and then seeks to swindle the others who are involved. While overlooked because of Tarantino’s previous hit films, this classic has all the elements of a Tarantino flick, but with a more developed and refined touch of the hand.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 & Kill Bill: Volume 2
After taking half a decade off from directing, Tarantino came back to the screen with this epic two-parter in 2003. Inspired by Japanese Yakuza culture, graphic novels and martial arts cinema, it chronicles the revenge story of the Bride (played by Uma Thurman) as she hunts vengeance on those responsible for trying to kill her and her unborn child during her wedding rehearsal (the leader of the group is played by Kung Fu legend David Carradine, another nod to the genre).
Abounding with lengthy, blood-soaked Kung Fu and samurai fights, musical interludes by Wu-Tang’s RZA, and endless pop-culture references, Tarantino’s idiosyncratic, uncompromising, and nearly reckless film went on to be his largest-grossing in theaters to date. And be prepared – Tarantino has hinted several times over the past years that there may yet be another chapter to come soon.
Written as a historical alternative to WWII, Inglourious Basterds (the double spelling mistake is likely intentional, as Tarantino is famous for his lack of spelling skills) depicts the story of a fictitious group of roaming Jewish-American soldiers out to seek revenge on Nazi fighters and assassinate Hitler. Featuring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Daniel Brühl, and Til Schweiger, the film is a raucous romp through history, replete with Tarantino’s signature bloody sequences, homages to Nazi-era films, a film-within-a-film sequence (directed by Eli Roth of Hostel, a protégé of Tarantino’s), and a wild and fiery ending. While filming, Tarantino himself famously manned the camera crane during the final fire sequence, refusing to cut the shot even as the blaze roared around him and actors and crew fled the building.
A 2012 take on the classic Spaghetti Western, Django Unchained is set in the Deep South during times of slavery and follows Django (Jamie Foxx) as a fictional slave who rises up against slave owners (in particular the dreaded Calvin Candie played by Leonardo DiCaprio), with the help of German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Tarantino has claimed that DiCaprio's character is the only one he’s written that he’s hated, saying, “I hated Candie and I normally like my villains no matter how bad they are. I can see their point of view. I could see his point of view, but I hated it so much. For the first time as a writer, I just fucking hated this guy.” Needless to say, Django Unchained is a brilliant re-envisioning of history through the context of classic American film genres and references.
Now make sure you're up on the 5 Things You Need to Know About Tarantino's Upcoming The Hateful Eight.