How did Quentin Tarantino learn to write his trademark dialogue?
October 9, 2005 12:21 PM   Subscribe

How did Quentin Tarantino learn to write his trademark dialogue? Who were his influences?

I know of the many filmmakers who were influential for Tarantino in developing his directorial style, but where did he learn to write the stylized dialogue that is characteristic of his films? I would guess Elmore Leonard novels and David Mamet plays, and I even remember T. referring to Ernst Lubitsch on the Pulp Fiction DVD commentary. Anyone know of any other influences?
posted by soiled cowboy to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
QUENTIN TARANTINO: -Hawks is a gigantic influence, but-
QUENTIN TARANTINO: Oh, well, he is the single, as far as for, for my money, he is the single greatest storyteller, all right, in the history of cinema.
CHARLIE ROSE: The single greatest storyteller.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: Yeah. He- and, and, and probably the single most entertaining filmmaker in the history of cinema. It's, it's so funny, because when you get into this- I mean, when you're talking about people who've like, you know, worked for 30 years and have like, you know, 25, 30, 40 films to show for it, you know, the old guys, the pioneers, all-


QUENTIN TARANTINO: Oh, I love Elmore Leonard. In fact, to me True Romance is basically like an Elmore Leonard movie-
posted by matteo at 12:49 PM on October 9, 2005

Unless QT has come right out and said it it's going to be impossible for anyone to really say what his "influences" are, specifically. I think it's a given to say that part of the reason he writes the way he does is because he is open to influences from all levels of culture ("high art", "pulp fiction and cinema", "exploitation cinema", noir, etc etc.). It is easily the thing that impresses me most about him (I'm only a so so fan of his films, actually).

Though I absolutely cannot say with certainty that he's been influenced by any of the following, I'd guess that he's familiar with their work and finds it inspirational, if only because I believe these writers have created some of the best work in their respective genres/periods. If you're a writer yourself and interested in dialogue, each of these is worth investigating:

Sam Fuller, Billy Wilder, Donald Cammell (particularly, Performance), JL Godard (QT's prodco is named after one of his films), David Rabe, John Huston, Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, James Ellroy, Ernest Tidyman, Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell of Success in particular), Sam Peckinpah, Waylon Green (if only for Wild Bunch), Robert Towne, Richard Price, David Milch, Adrien Joyce (if only for Five Easy Pieces and The Shootist), Robert Riskin, Barry Levinson, David Mamet (though I don't see any influence in QT's films), Lem Dobbs (if only for The Limey), Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr, Stirling Silliphant, Charles Brackett, Preston Sturges, Walter Tevis, Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, Waldo Salt, Frank Pierson, Samson Raphaelson, John Cassavetes, IAL Diamond (on the scripts he wrote with Wilder)... heh. Okay, I'll shut up now.
posted by dobbs at 1:16 PM on October 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Okay, let me clarify a bit. I spent the weekend reading the scripts for "Reservoir Dogs", "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown", and in each story I was struck by Tarantino's extraordinary ability to write dialogue that sounds uniquely his own.

I know a lot about the filmmakers whose cinematic styles were influential, and I can think of many movies that look the same way, that feature similar characters and employ the same narrative devices that Tarantino uses, but I can't think of any films that sound the same way his do.

Read the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. Eight guys sitting around a table talking for ten mintues about tips, "True Blue", K-Billy's super sound of the seventies, Toby-fucking-Wong and dick dick dick dick dick dick dick.

The closest I've read in print would be Elmore Leonard. Closest I've come across in English-language drama might be "Glengarry Glen Ross". Can anyone cite any specific films (pre-1992) in which characters speak the same way?

Actually, Dobbs, I was hoping somebody knew of an instance in which Tarantino actually did name specific influences for his dialogue. But thank you for the exhaustive list -- there are some names there I'll have to look into.
posted by soiled cowboy at 1:56 PM on October 9, 2005

soiled_cowboy, I emailed you a very lengthy answer that I don't think was appropriate for Ask as it was a bit chatty. Check your email that's in your profile.
posted by dobbs at 3:11 PM on October 9, 2005

I agree: Quentin Tarantino's works shows little or no direct influence from David Mamet.
posted by cribcage at 4:01 PM on October 9, 2005

The first few moments of Piano Player illustrate this: the establishing shot is straight out of an American film noir, a man running terrified down a dark street one step ahead of a sinister pair of headlights. He stumbles, crashes into a lamp post, and is revived by a passing stranger. As they walk down the street, they start a conversation about marriage, the high proportion of virgins in Paris, and the stranger's wife and kids. They soon part company, and suddenly the film remembers to pick up where it left off as the man resumes his flight through the dark streets.

From La Fiction du Pulp, an essay about the influence of the French New Wave on Tarentino's film-making that draws interesting parallels between Truffaut's Piano Player and Pulp Fiction.
posted by elgilito at 4:34 PM on October 9, 2005

Just for clarity, elgilito, the film is Shoot the Piano Player or Shoot the Pianist.
posted by dobbs at 5:01 PM on October 9, 2005

Soiled_Cowboy is having probs getting mail from me (hotmail hates my domain) so here's the email I sent gussied up a bit as it's a bit more permanent here:

Diner and, especially, Tin Men (both Barry Levinson) immediately come to mind. There are patches of such dialogue in Spike Lee's work as well (particularly, Mo Better Blues and She's Gotta Have It); Who's That Knockin' At My Door's got a bit of it (talking about John Wayne and Lee Marvin smashing up chairs); Hal Hartley's done it a few times (thinking specifically of Trust); some of Altman's work's got it (Long Goodbye and Nashville)... but what makes Tarantino's scripts stand out is the quantity of "pointless" dialogue within them.

I think many screenwriters go out of their way to avoid such dialogue because they feel it doesn't lend to the story. In fact, on the commentary for The Limey, Lem Dobbs jumps on Soderbergh for adding a scene where some body guards sit around talking about "sliding scales" in pay. Soderbergh asks what's wrong with it and Dobbs says, "It's pointless. It's that Quentin Tarantino shit. No one cares."

Closest I've come across in English-language drama might be "Glengarry Glen Ross".

I think this comparison is really throwing me. I don't see it at all. Tarantino's characters (in the instances I believe you're reffering to) talk about "nothing"--meaning they're just talking. Mamet's characters seem to be, on the surface, talking about nothing but in reality are talking about something: they're trying to get what they want.

Often, when you read Mamet's plays for the first time, they can seem like gibberish and I believe this is partly because the characters dance around what they want and not only are you trying to follow who's saying what, you're trying to figure out who wants what. In Tarantino's work, you don't have to figure these things out because his characters say exactly what they want/mean. Everything Mamet characters say is integral to the plot, which is his particular talent--his characters and plot are inseparable. I cannot, for example, imagine Ricky in any other situation than the ones I'm shown in GGR. But I can easily picture any character from Res Dogs in plenty of other scenarios.

Taken further, I cannot even imagine Ricky in scenarios within the context of GGR that I'm not shown. For example, in the film version, there is a change of scene following this line: "You ever take a dump made you feel like you'd just slept for twelve hours?" I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what he says to Jim next. Or what Jim would respond. I cannot think of any comparable thing in any of Tarantino's films.

Perhaps you're equating the two writer's dialogue styles because they both have chracters who "sit around and shoot the shit". This is true. However, if that's as far as you're willing to go in your analysis, I don't think you're doing either writer justice.

The characters in Waiting or Godot are, in a sense, sitting around "shooting the shit", too, as are George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (or Jerry in A Zoo Story, another Albee play), but one would be incorrect to compare them to Tarantino's work as the things these characters say have a basement. Though I like Tarantino's work, there's no basement to the dialogue in many of his most famous scenes. This is one of the reasons so many of his films are quoted out of context--they don't require context to "work" (as funny, or smooth, or whatever) dialogue. However, if I say "Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch!" or "Coffee's for closers" or "Kenilworth" or "All train compartments smell vaguely of shit." most people won't know what the fuck I'm talking about. Out of context of GGR they mean nothing. In context they mean what they mean plus... what they don't mean, so to speak.

So, if you're looking for characters genuinely talking about "nothing" I can think of no one who writes as many characters like that or anyone else who does it as consistently well as Tarantino. Others, like those mentioned in my first paragraph and first answer, do it in small doses, but the very reason QT stands out is because it's so rarely done in the work of others and anyone who does it now is considered to be ripping off Tarantino.

This'll probably catch me hell, but to me, one of the reasons QT has been so successful is because he really walks a middle line. His films are not bad enough to scare away film snobs and not good enough to scare away the layperson. For this reason, I've often equated his films to the music of bands like, say, Radiohead--they fall neatly into a grey area that doesn't possess enough things which scare away indiesnobs on one hand and people who listen to mainstream music on the other. However, because of this, they do run the risk of being very temporary. They indeed have influence--some of it very deep--but, in my opinion, it will be very short lived. It is very difficult to be "influenced" by QT without being called on it (in a very negative way--such as how Lem called Soderbergh on it, an instance which perhaps wasn't even a conscious influence). Because of this, he's his own engine, so to speak, which is something that really works to his benefit.

As to why, prior to Tarantino, very few people wrote dialogue like that and almost nobody at that level or quantity, much of it has to do with the screenwriting market. The majority of films made today are not written (entirely) by the director. And in the 'buy my script' market, that kind of stuff just doesn't fly. In other words, I'm saying that without Tarantino's success as a director, I don't believe he would have met much sucess as a screenwriter without having changed his style significantly. This is not a dig against his writing but a dig against the close-mindedness of Hollywood.

Anyway, sorry for the long-winded answer. Hopefully you'll be able to read it before it gets deleted. ;)
posted by dobbs at 5:47 PM on October 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

You might like Mike White's Who Do You Think You're Fooling (if you can find it), which shows a number of places that Tarantino cribbed dialog from directly.

That being said, he's just a good writer. I think it's important to understand, too, that he knows what it means to develop character indirectly through dialog. Many people marvel at his apparent ability to write fascinating rants that have nothing to do with the story. But his dialog always has something to do with the story. The opening scene in Reservoir Dogs sets up the dynamics between and personalities of the characters in ways that are necessary for the rest of the film to work. Tarantino's (earlier) characters rarely say what they mean, saying instead a string of apparently unrelated things that end up giving the viewer an understanding of what they mean that is much more powerful than it would have been if they had actually said it directly. In that respect, he is a lot like Mamet.
posted by bingo at 5:59 PM on October 9, 2005

On post-view: I see that dobbs has essentially explored what I said in more detail, and to my surprise, I don't disagree with most of his comment.
posted by bingo at 6:04 PM on October 9, 2005

I think I prefer bingo's position that QT's dialog is meaningful at a subtext level. The whole quarter-pounder-with-cheese bit, while intrinsically funny, also sets up the interaction between Vincent and Jules, sets up Vincent as a faux-intellectual with limits.

Then there's even this:
Vincent: I ain't saying it's right. But you're saying a foot massage don't mean nothing, and I'm saying it does. Now look, I've given a million ladies a million foot massages, and they all meant something. We act like they don't, but they do, and that's what's so fucking cool about them. There's a sensuous thing going on where you don't talk about it, but you know it, she knows it, fucking Marsellus knew it, and Antwan should have fucking better known better. I mean, that's his fucking wife, man. He can't be expected to have a sense of humor about that shit. You know what I'm saying?
Jules: That's an interesting point. Come on, let's get into character.

It both works to comment on the meta aspect of getting into movie characters, as well as the meta aspect of having both an intellectual matrix for analyzing movie relationships and a hard-ass action side, which bounces out to a meta-take on QT's own style. So it has depth, although you might say it's a Vincent type of depth, where he knows French McDonald's because he went into it, but not Burger King, because he didn't.

Mamet is more of a lasting talent, of course, but you can see why Tarantino is popular with film fans; he flatters their methods of interacting with movies. I think Mamet was unquestionably influential in giving him a respectable "reality through vulgarity" path, as well as movies that are structured and dense enough to stand repeated viewing -- but they go in different directions after that.
posted by dhartung at 10:33 PM on October 9, 2005

I don't want to sound pissy or anything, and being from New York, there's nothing I like better than sitting down with someone I disagree with, and getting into it.
The following should not be construed as pejorative to any of the previous poster's intelligence in any way.


I get tired of this new wave of people "indulgently" talking about Tarantino as a "minor but influential" filmmaker.

As for the dialogue being about "nothing"? Elmore Leonard is a great comparison: I think about resevoir dogs, and pulp fiction, and I feel like I KNOW those characters. In my opinion, EVERY DAMN SCENE in pulp fiction is packed with some of the best dialogue I've ever heard. The film is still, after over a dozen viewings, completely entertaining to me, totally involving, and still shockingly fresh. Give me this over crappy exposition any day of the damn week. Same with Jackie Brown (the best elmore leonard adaptation), same with Kill Bill.

This is definitely a longer discussion than my fingers have energy for, and all the posters above are totally entitled to their own opinion. I count several friends who hate tarantino and think it's all overrated. I disagree with them, but I'll still buy the next round.

Finally: mamet as a lasting talent? Don't get me wrong, in theater definitely, and I'm one of the only people I know that love all of his films (does anyone else think that Spartan is as brilliant as I do?). But even an over-opinionated new york bastard like me wouldn't utter a comment about 'lasting talent'

I've been proven wrong too many times before. Looked at films I LOVED years later to find them dated and silly. The only thing that will really tell is (wait for it) time. I'll keep forking over the dough for QT's films, and buy them all too. If they're half as good in 10 years as they are now...
Well that still places them above 95 percent of the dreck I've seen. (we could fight over that too: I hated Crash)

Sorry about the uneven capitalization.
posted by asavage at 11:41 PM on October 9, 2005

In all the did-he-or-didn't-he re: Mamet's influence on Tarantino, I'm surprised no one has mentioned "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." The first scene in particular, essentially an extended monolog on a very improbable seduction, seems very Quentin-esque to me.

Danny: And all this time she was nineteen?
Bernie: Nineteen, twenty. So down we sit and get to talking. This, that, blah, blah, blah, 'come up to my room and I'll play you back for the cigarettes.'
Danny: No.
Bernie: Yeah.
Danny: You're shitting me.
Bernie: I'm telling you.
Danny: And was she a pro?
Bernie: So, at this point, we don't know. Pro, semi-pro, Betty Coed from College, regular young broad, it's anybody's ballgame. So, anyway, up we go. Fifth floor on the alley and it's 'Sit down, you wanna drink?' 'What you got?' 'Bourbon.' 'Fine.' And goddamn if she doesn't lay half a rock on me for the cigarettes.
posted by zanni at 11:58 PM on October 9, 2005

asavage, I don't know if you're referring to my comments, specifically, but rest assured that in no way do I think he's a "minor" talent. He's an extremely assured writer. And I never said his talent was or would be short-lived. I do believe his influence will be. It may already have run its course--this is not a dig against him. As I said, it is very difficult to copy his writing style and it not be obvious.

And as for his dialogue being about "nothing"--again, I wasn't insulting him. As I wrote, I think that Hwood is short-sighted for not understanding that this can work (it certainly does with QT). And of course his dialogue reveals character. No question--that's a given.

But I pretty much draw the line at the Royale with Cheese scene or the Madonna scene as having any basement whatsoever. And, what I mean by that, is that they reveal nothing new on future watches. That doesn't mean they're not well written. That doesn't mean they don't reveal character. It just means I think they have no basement.

Give me this over crappy exposition any day of the damn week.

I don't think anyone's suggesting expository dialogue is better than anything Tarantino is offering up.

Personally, I'd rather read his scripts than watch his films (I think he's a better writer than he is director or actor)--with Mamet, it's the opposite or balanced (I enjoy doing both). If Tarantino or Mamet have any lasting influence in film, it'll be for writing. And yes, I loved Spartan and all of Mamet's other films. (Though Spartan has holes I wish weren't there.)

In short, I simply took umbrage with the comparison between Mamet and Tarantino because I don't think they're comparable. I think they're doing very different but equally interesting things with their writing.
posted by dobbs at 12:45 AM on October 10, 2005

« Older Credit Card Mortgage   |   What are these strange symbols? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.