Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Pitching Tarantino

A few years back, I was eating breakfast at Barney's Beanery when I noticed that sitting right across from me was famous geek/hipster Quentin Tarantino. He was busily scribbling in a spiral notebook, which he left sitting on the table during a visit to the men's room. Though tempted, I restrained myself from peeking at his work in progress on the grounds that it would have been "uncool."

A year or so later, after watching the latest of Tarantino's excessively violent and pointlessly referential movies, I came to regret that I hadn't stolen the spiral notebook and destroyed it. I wrote about my encounter and the ensuing feelings of remorse in my monthly newsletter to share my experience with the Hollywood Dick community. I received an astute reply from David Hamburger, who said, in effect "Dude, you should make that your next screenplay!"

So I did.

Thus was born "Stealing Tarantino", my screenplay about a hapless screenwriter (all of my main characters are hapless, by the way) named RICHARD who steals a notebook from a famous filmmaker, known only as THE DIRECTOR. The notebook contains the only handwritten copy of THE DIRECTOR's latest screenplay and is therefore invaluable. RICHARD thinks he can use the notebook as a bargaining chip to get THE DIRECTOR to read one of his (RICHARD's) screenplays. He believes that if he could only hurdle past the army of hacks and wannabes that stand between him and the true artists of the industry, he will finally be recognized as the talented writer he believes himself to be.

Of course, THE DIRECTOR is in a panic and hires an investigator named MAX to hunt RICHARD down and get the notebook back. Meanwhile, an unscrupulous studio head (redundant?), who gets wind of the situation, hires an enforcer named MR. BLACK to get hold of the notebook for himself. He plans to hold onto it and force THE DIRECTOR into breaking their deal so he won't have to pay him what he owes him.

It all ends up in a three-way Mexican standoff in front of a local movie theater. The third party in the standoff arrives in the form of a jaded former actress who holds a grudge against the studio head and wants some payback. She forces RICHARD to give the notebook back, but not before THE DIRECTOR tells him what he thought of his screenplay. Turns out he didn't think it was all that great. Not exactly what RICHARD was hoping for.

But then of course, there's a twist.

In preparation for writing the screenplay, I watched all of Tarantino's movies and read all of his scripts. I also read several books about him and numerous articles and interviews. I watched various movies known to have influenced Tarantino, such as Bande à part and Die xue cheng shi. I watched as many of Tarantino's TV appearances as I could get my hands on as well as movies where he appears as an actor. I immersed myself in Tarantino's world. I visited places that loom large in his legend, such as 1822 S. Sepulveda, where he worked as a clerk at the Video World (which is no longer there, by the way.) I tried to think like Tarantino and, most of all to write like Tarantino.

The screenplay is filled with Tarantino references. Many scenes are parodies of scenes in Tarantino movies. Characters are named after characters in his movies. Dialogue is often lifted from his movies. At one point, THE DIRECTOR goes to see his buddy BOB at the Silver Spoon cafe, which happens to be across the street from my apartment. BOB is based on the actor Robert Forster whom Tarantino first approached to appear in the movie Jackie Brown while the two were having breakfast at the Silver Spoon. Forster's character in Jackie Brown is a bail bondsman named "Max."

There are numerous other references to Tarantino's movies and his life in the screenplay. How better to satirize the work of a director who is so well known for his references to other films? But a funny thing happened as I was working on the screenplay. I had intended to write a parody basically to make fun of all of the "borrowed" ideas, inside-out cliches, pop-culture references and flaky dialogue for which Tarantino movies are famous. But I soon became very impressed with the way Tarantino takes all of these bizarre ingredients and blends them into something wholly original, extremely well-crafted and highly entertaining. I became a fan.

When I finished the screenplay, I was convinced it was the best thing I had ever written. I had broken out of the restrictive set of habits that had limited my writing in past efforts. And I had Tarantino to thank for that. Whenever I was stuck on a scene or a particular line of dialogue, instead of following my own instincts, I thought, "what would Tarantino do?" In most cases it was the opposite of what I would have done.

I showed the screenplay to a few friends and they agreed that it was a breakthrough. I was confident that this was the screenplay that would finally get me noticed. I decide to try and show it to a succesful Hollywood Agent I had met recently at a party. She happens to be the person who "discovered" and helped develop one of my favorite screenplays, The Usual Suspects.

I met with The Agent one evening at the Writer's Bar at L'Hermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. She was there to hear me pitch a series of screenplay ideas and help me decide which one to focus on. While we were there, a beautiful dark-haired woman in a cream-colored suit came in and sat down at the table directly across from me. It was Angelina Jolie. She sat there all by herself eating chocolate-covered strawberries and sipping champagne while I tried desperately to concentrate on my movies. As if I wasn't already nervous enough. The Agent thought it was all very funny and even told me a pretty crazy story about Angelina, after she was gone of course. But that is a whole other Oprah.

I pitched The Agent six ideas and she shot down all but one -- including "Stealing Tarantino". She said it was a very clever idea, but if Tarantino decided he didn't want it made for some reason then nobody in Hollywood would dare touch it. It was best to stay clear of ideas about Hollywood because you never know whose toes your stepping on. She did encourage me to continue working on another screenplay called "April Fools" and gave me some very helpful advice. But for the time being "Stealing Tarantino" was back on the shelf.

Every once in a while, however, something happens that sparks my interest again. Like the time I was at the Silver Spoon and saw Robert Forster sitting alone at his usual back corner table. I took a deep breath and marched over, introduced myself and pitched him the movie. I started with the scene that takes place at the same table where he was sitting. He got a kick out of that. He was very cool about it, too. He let me know that there was no way he would ever get around to reading it, but if I got some financing, I should give him a call.

So, cool -- Forster's on board.

A little while later I knew a guy who had a connection to Michael Madsen and told him about the script. Madsen asked to see it and we sent it over. I never did hear back from him, though, and I kind of forgot about it for a while.

Until the other day, when I ran into a guy who gave me some real encouragement: Quentin Tarantino.

I was at the movies with my friend Quan, and just before the feature started, the usher seated a guy in the fifth row, right in the middle. Even from the silhouette I knew it was him. Quan said, "is that...?" I said "definitely."

Afterwards he was just hanging around the lobby, probably waiting for another movie to start and Quan decided to ask him for his autograph. I lurked in the background. Tarantino actually told her he'd rather not give his autograph but agreed to shake her hand instead. Quan looked a little disappointed and slightly embarrassed. I decided to join them. We talked about the movie we'd just seen and some historical and cultural references. Then, during a lull I said, "I have to tell you this story..."

I proceeded to tell him the entire saga, beginning with the first time I saw him at Barney's Beanery. I pitched him the movie, making sure to include some of the references to him and his work. I swear I couldn't have had a better audience. He laughed in all the right places, totally appreciated the nods to his movies and even got a little disappointed when THE DIRECTOR tells RICHARD that his screenplay wasn't that good. But then when I told him the twist ending he brightened right up. "That's really clever!" He was totally into it.

So I told him about the 'warning' I'd gotten from The Agent and he said, "no problem -- you have my blessing. I definitely think you should make this movie." At this point I was completely flipping out. This was even a better ending to the story than the one I'd written. He was so cool and so supportive and encouraging. I shook his hand and thanked him and then quickly went outside to hyperventilate. I looked at Quan and she must have read my mind, because she said. "yes, that really happened!"

As it happened, I was going to see The Agent again that very next week. I couldn't wait to tell her the news. I wasn't sure if she'd even remember me, but she seemed like she did. I reminded her about our meeting and the Tarantino script, then told her I'd met him and he'd given me his blessing. She didn't seem at all surprised. But she did seem very happy for me.

It's funny how one person's opinion can have so much effect on you. Because of what The Agent said, I had all but given up on "Stealing Tarantino". And if I hadn't run into Tarantino, who knows if I ever would have tried to do anything with it. On the other hand, just because he likes the idea doesn't mean I will ever get the movie made. It's just one person's opinion.

But I'll take it.