Wednesday, July 16, 2008
An Open Letter to Quentin Tarantino
Dear Mr. Tarantino,
I am writing you to raise a conscientious objection to statements you have recently made in public. The reason I am doing this is not simply for the sake of editorializing, but also for the purpose of refuting the poor advice reflected in your assertions. Be assured that this is not an ad hominem attack planned for the sake of maliciously discrediting you.
Let me begin by stating for the record that I am, for the most part, a great admirer of your work. As I have mentioned to several acquaintances, my virgin viewing of Pulp Fiction on the night of November 26th, 1994, will always be etched in my memory as a movie that ended too soon. How fortunate I felt -- and still feel -- that a young maverick's career was unfolding before my very eyes. Not since Martin Scorsese have I encountered an American film artist whose vision has almost single-handedly shaped an era of movies.
Now that I have said that, it's time to get down to business. According to a news story published by IMDB on May 23rd, you held a Cinema Master Class at the Cannes Film Festival during which you said, "Trying to make a feature film yourself with no money is the best film school you can do."
There is plenty to tear apart in your statement, so I'll start with the obvious. Why would you encourage young film artists to avoid film school at all costs? You haven't spent one day on a film school campus, so what gives you the right to speak out against the idea? There are those who would argue that you didn't need film school to make you successful (and, by that rationale, neither did John Ford), but let's be honest: not everyone possesses your skills. Some people look forward to the rewarding experience of spending three or four years at a prestigious institution honing their craft while forming lifelong bonds with trusted mentors.
You shouldn't assume that anyone who follows your example will achieve your results. Why do I say that? For one simple reason: you got lucky. Extremely lucky. Consider this ratio: for every fortunate soul like yourself who writes, produces, directs, and acts their own movie with little or no money and subsequently hits the big time, there are literally thousands of others whose talents go cruelly unnoticed -- and that's assuming that their films make it to distribution. The directors, writers, producers, and cinematographers who made it to the top of the business by starting at film school far outstrip those who hacked it out on their own.
You could have very well suggested combining real world experience with film schools. What's wrong with shooting for the best of both worlds? Spike Lee financed his first feature on a credit card after completing his MFA at NYU. Of course, Kevin Smith simply took enough film school classes to learn the basics before dropping out and making Clerks on cash advances and a credit card. I could go on citing examples ad nauseam, but my point is that there is no absolutely right way to begin a career in directing films, but there certainly are a ton of wrong ways. I won't belabor the peaks and valleys of both approaches, which I'm sure you already know. Advising an audience of hungry young cineastes to forego film school altogether is dangerous. There are excellent undergraduate and graduate programs on the landscape; one just needs to know where they are and how to get accepted to them.
By now, you're probably wondering, "Why the hell should I listen to you? You've never worked in this business. You're just a critic." We critics aren't the only ones who take this position. Some of your fans with whom I've spoke happen to agree with me. You wouldn't want to alienate your fans, would you? Lest you wonder, I do have experience directing films. What's more, my studies of film history and criticism afford me a focused look at the big picture of cinema. Whatever your bearing of mind on the matter, please tell me you don't subscribe to the tiresome, ignorant old myth that those who can't do teach, and a critic is simply a film school reject who couldn't hack it in Hollywood.
Should you hold any master classes in the future, you may want to consider qualifying your anti-film school advice with the following words of wisdom. If you're not going to opt for film school for whatever reason (e.g., lack of sufficient funds, mistrust of academia, an eagerness to just get out there and start making movies), get experience wherever you can. Gravitate toward colleges large and small; schools with busy film and video production departments. Look up local production companies online. Robert Altman started out making industrial films for a Kansas City based company. If you can't find a company that will hire you, team up with a group of friends and create your own LLC. Without sounding pedantic, I'll close this subject by saying that whatever path you choose, you have to decide how many mistakes you want to make, and how quickly you're willing to learn from them.
At that Cannes master class, you went on to speak disdainfully of film composers. You were quoted as saying, "I just don't trust any composer to do it. The idea of paying a guy and showing him your movie at the end -- who the fuck is this guy coming in here and throwing his shit all over my movie. What if I don't like it? And the guy's already been paid!"
Am I to take it that you prefer to used licensed music in the public domain? Sometimes that approach works, but you can't fall back on Dean Martin and The Beach Boys to set the mood for every scene. A young director cannot afford to pay the licensing costs. There are web-based services out there who charge a per-drop fee for every piece of synthesized music they offer. The music is far from four-star quality, but it'll do in a pinch. Practically speaking, no hungry young director can afford to face the business end of a lawsuit in this litigious society. In that case, it is highly advisable for a director to hire a composer. Is it risky? Of course it is. But think of this? What part of creating art isn't? Every time a director hires someone, be it an actor, cinematographer, set designer, composer, or any other staff member, they are taking a great risk for entrusting creative license to said individual. By the way, your anti-composer statement didn't stop you from hiring The RZA to compose themes for both installments of Kill Bill, did it? According to the most current page for Inglorious Bastards on IMDB, you have yet to hire a composer for the film. Whether you hire one or not is your decision entirely, but if I were you, I would think seriously about employing the skills of a gifted musician. Dyed-in-the-wool film fanatics like myself are counting on artists like you to keep the medium of cinema fresh with new scores instead of the same recycled melodies. Think of all the leitmotifs lifted from every piece of classical music from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to The William Tell Overture in countless commercials, parodies, and movie trailers.
If you're going to choose a composer, hire wisely. John Huston once said, "Ninety percent of directing is done in the casting." That principle applies to every single person a director works with when given command of a movie. Any CEO out there will tell you that if you hire well, the vast majority of your problems will be solved before they occur in the first place. Never send an amateur to do a professional's job.
For those young directors who are trying to get their careers off to respectable starts, they would do well by seeking out a starving young composer attending NYU or Julliard on a scholarship. The world of academia is packed with talented Mancinis just waiting to be plucked from obscurity. Not only would said talent be eternally grateful for being discovered, but the world just may be introduced to a unique musical talent that would otherwise be ignored.
As for you, Mr. Tarantino, I suggest that you find a composer with whom you can form a career-long bond. Where would Steven Spielberg be without John Williams? Where would Fellini be without Nino Rota? Would Hitchcock's films have achieved their notoriety without the efforts of Bernard Herrmann? Each composer's rich, recognizable melodies complement the action on screen like a gourmet salad dressing.
If you're worried about your composer potentially misinterpreting your vision of the movie (the Venn diagrams don't always overlap perfectly, do they?), remember what Leonard Rosenman once told Stanley Kubrick while in preparation for Barry Lyndon: "Just describe the scene as you envision it. Then, I'll take what you said and translate it into music." What director wouldn't feel assured that their movie's music was in good hands after hearing a suggestion like that? Not surprisingly, the man who back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Original Song Score.
If only Frank Zappa were still alive. He'd feel your pain...and he'd make damn sure that your score wouldn't come out sounding like garbage. How about hiring Howard Shore to score your next film? Or better yet, pull Dominic Frontiere out of retirement. One listen to his catchy, vibrant score for The Stunt Man confirms his reputation as a songsmith. Then again, if you want to guarantee an Oscar nomination (if not win) for Best Original Score for Bastards, give Ennio Morricone a call. After all, he composed the themes to the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns you love so much. Whatever happens, just don't do what William Friedkin did when he rejected Lalo Schifrin's score for The Exorcist. As I'm sure you recall from Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Friedkin hurled a reel-to-reel tape recorder through a window at the recording studio before screaming at Schifrin in a drunken rage, "Cut that fuckin' mariachi music outta my movie!" Schifrin was later replaced by Jack Nietzsche. All kidding aside, don't you want to see at least one of your films included on an AFI reel of clips selected for a live performance honoring film scores down the road?
If hiring a composer is something you are still unwilling to do, just pull a Clint Eastwood or a Charlie Chaplin and score the picture yourself. In fact, you even mentioned that yourself during your class. If the thought of composing a film scores on your own seems daunting, relax. You live in the twenty-first century. My advice is to use Reason, a software program that affords the end user a capability equivalent to operating five Synclaviers at once. It takes a little time to get the hang of it, but it certainly beats drawing sticks and dots on sheet music paper for hours on end.
[As an aside to my readers, it might be of interest to you that the author of this letter once considered a career in music composition, but gave the venture second thoughts upon learning the fact that it usually takes an average of 16 hours to compose a single page of sheet music for an entire orchestra.]
I know you are a busy man, and will not take it personally if you refrain from responding. However, should you find the time to reply, simply leave a comment where prompted to do so. And whatever you do, make sure your message is easier to read than Death Proof was to watch.