Alt Script: You Are Not Tarantino or Kevin Smith

The past couple of weeks I’ve had five or six fairly futile stabs at writing an article about the importance of niche cinema, with each one less to the point and less satisfying than the one before. It happens. Sometimes I know what I want to say, but am not sure how to say it. 

QuentinTarantinoMoviesIn screenwriting and the film industry it’s really difficult to present an alternative view point, without it sounding like an attack on conventional thinking, which I don’t want to do. The irony of this is, the point I want to make is precisely that, it is about attacking conventional thinking. However, at the same time it’s not. Hence the difficulty. Just how do you say, “things need to be torn down and changed,” without saying, “the industry’s way of working is BS?”

And then the coolest thing happened, industry insider and pro script reader “Bitter Script Reader” (BSR) made all the points I wanted to make, whilst coming to a set of conclusions which were precisely what I wanted to both explain and challenge. Which was nice.

BSR’s article is called “You Are Not Tarantino”. I strongly recommend you read it.

The first thing I want to make clear is that everything BSR writes in his piece is bang on the money. People who want to submit spec scripts should know how to play by the rules, and, at the same time, should also understand the price you pay for not playing by them. As BSR points out Tarantino’s early career was dogged by a series of fairly brutal rejections, simply because his script wasn’t recognisable as a script by readers. He illustrates this with a quote from the recent Vanity Fair article about the making of Pulp Fiction, by the very talented Mark Seal.

“In 1986, Tarantino was a 23-year-old part-time actor and high-school dropout, broke, without an apartment of his own, showering rarely. With no agent, he sent out scripts that never got past low-level readers. “Too vile, too vulgar, too violent” was the usual reaction, he later said. According to Quentin Tarantino, by Wensley Clarkson, his constant use of the f-word in his script ‘True Romance’ caused one studio rep to write to Cathryn Jaymes, his early manager: 

Dear Fucking Cathryn, How dare you send me this fucking piece of shit. You must be out of your fucking mind. You want to know how I feel about it? Here’s your fucking piece of shit back. Fuck you.”

As an alt-cinema writer I love this anecdote because it neatly explains precisely why alt-cinema is important. It’s important because history has proven that Tarantino was right to write what he did, the way he did. At the same time I also believe the studio rep was absolutely right to reject his early scripts. I know that may sound an odd thing to say, when taken in the context of his following successes. Isn’t the studio rep’s job to spot the genius presented, regardless of the way in which it turned up and regardless of the fact that everything on the page flew in the face of conventional thinking?

Nope. No. Not in the slightest. That was, isn’t and never will be what their job is. The job of the gatekeeper isn’t to uncover unconventional approaches to screenwriting, and the industry doesn’t exist to innovate. The industry exists, quite simply, to create mass market products which fill cinemas and sell popcorn. And, the way the industry does this by sticking rigidly to three basic rules:

  • If something worked, do it again, and again, and again
  • If someone makes money doing something you don’t understand, hire them
  • Once you understand how they do it, apply rule one

Which brings me to the point I wanted to get to, which is, most of the things you will be told to do to succeed as a screenwriter, by either script gurus and industry script readers, came into the industry because an artist/film-maker made money or gained public approval by doing something the industry didn’t understand. These mavericks and independents, wrote scripts and made films no one at the heart of the mainstream industry could or would put into production. By doing that, successfully, they forced the industry to reconsider what the rules were and what was possible. Today’s conventional “this this how it is done” thinking, was yesterday’s “mad as bats” alt-cinema.

Did you know that there was a time in cinema history when it would have been inconceivable for anyone within the industry to shoot movies on location or to attempt realism in cinema. At that point in cinema history, the industry believed that cinema needed to be glamorous, epic and completely synthetic. It was independent filmmakers who changed that, by making better and more interesting movies by adding the realism of location shooting, and by telling the stories of everyday folk.

So, what does this mean?

Well, in the first place it means that there are always two different kinds of screenwriters.

The first kind are artisan-screenwriters. These are the kind of writers whose skills lie in finding interesting ways to interrupt conventional wisdom, as it exists in the industry, at that point in cinema history. In 1940’s Italy, that meant studio epics with lots of togas and horses. In present day Hollywood, it means ticking all the boxes a script reader needs to tick. BSR’s articles are written to elucidate and educate artisan-screenwriters, as are most of the books written to teach you how it’s done. Script readers and script gurus all live and die by the rigid application of rule one.

The second kind of screenwriters are the artist-mavericks. These are the screenwriters who don’t give a flying-monkey’s nut about character arcs or plot points, they come to the party with a specific vision of what a film could be like if you just did X. X in this case being the interesting thing the writer has in their head. X also being the one thing that no script reader would ever pass up the line, the idea that no industry insider would ever finance.

If you want to be a successful artisan-screenwriter BSR is right, you are NOT Tarantino. You’re not required to change cinema or bring a unique vision to the screen, you are required to turn out good product. Your job is to help the industry apply rule number one: if it worked before, do it again.

What the industry requires from its artisans are competence and a willingness to know their place. You get the pay cheque, but you get that by playing nicely with others, dotting your “i’s” and crossing your “t’s.”  If your ambitions are to be a successful artisan-screenwriter, then when you get notes about typos or unrealistic dialogue, the one thing you are not allowed to say is “Tarantino does this.”

Now, ironically, if your ambition is to be a successful artist-maverick, then you are also NOT Tarantino. You’re not Kevin Smith. You are not Charlie Kaufman. The industry already has a QT, it already has a Kevin Smith, it already has a Woody Allen, it already has a David Lynch, it already has a Charlie Kaufman. The industry doesn’t need or want more than one of those guys. If you want to be a rule breaker and a maverick, you have to present your unique vision of cinema, the emphasis being on the unique element. Show the world a movie we’ve never seen before and change our view of what is possible. Smash the rules to little bits and have all the script gurus saying “Well, X is unique, her work stands alone. The rules don’t apply.” The only thing is, don’t expect the industry to financially support your experiments, until you’ve shown them that a buck can be turned from it.

The bottom line is that the industry is a mass market industry, it is about making the films that pretty much anyone can enjoy. Maverick talents are always niche. They always split audiences into those who love what they do and those who hate it.

Over the last ten years, just as digital technology has brought down production prices to pennies, the mainstream industry has retreated further and further into rule one. The industry is currently more conservative and more risk adverse than it has ever been. The industry isn’t looking for the next Tarantino, anymore. And, the industry will stay that way until the day some new alt-cinema film-maker makes the industry’s ideas about how you make a film look cliched and dated.

BSR’s primary conclusion was that screenwriters should stop bitching about being told to play by the rules and play by the rules. That is very good advice for anyone looking to make a name and a living in the industry.

My conclusions are different. I believe that whether the industry is prepared to finance it or not, cinema needs a constant battering from new ideas and new talents. The rules the industry applies to make movies need constant refreshing and savagely challenging. We need to write and make the movies that the industry doesn’t even know that it wants to make, yet. We need to write the scripts they will hate, and make the films they won’t take a risk on. And, the great news is that there has never been a better time to do that. Now is the time to write the best scripts we can, and to produce them ourselves.

My final thought is a question:

Given that cinema needs to constantly evolve, if it isn’t to become stale and tedious, what kind of movies should we be making?

The thing I love most about this question is that I don’t have the answer. I have some ideas I want to play with as a writer, but the thing that excites me most is wondering what incredible things you guys are going to show me over the next ten years, because in my opinion the next ten years will see an explosion of paradigm changing alt-cinema, the like of which we haven’t seen since the 1970s. And, if I am right, how cool will that be?

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