Writing an action movie? Let’s do some work today on action sequences by studying Tarantino. Yeah I know, I’m on record as not worshiping at his alter like so many of my Columbia kids. There’s much to love about some of his stuff– Pulp Fiction, sure…that staggering opening set piece in Inglorious Basterds, how y’gonna beat it?–but what gets me jazzed every time is reading the guy’s screenplays. Even the movies I didn’t like have balls-out, rule-breaking, take no prisoner screenplays.
And nobody, not even Shane Black, writes action sequences like this guy. You can almost hear him laughing as you read his scripts–he’s having a grand old time as he writes, setting the format rule books ablaze in his utter disregard for traditional screenwriting conventions
Now I’ll tell you something you already knew: You can’t copyright a verb. You can’t copyright a style of how words are laid out on a page. You can steal Tarantino’s verbs because he doesn’t own them. You can also CAP EVERY OTHER GODAMN WORD like he does, or move back and forth in time. It’s not you telling me that The Bride slices off someone’s head with a samurai sword will get your script sold–it’s HOW you do that. Apply some of Tarantino’s style to your own stuff without being a complete clone. Every 19 year-old film school kid is ripping the guy off so if that’s what you’re into, have at it. I’m suggesting a different sort of synthesis.
Let’s study the sensei himself, in his own words:
- KILL BILL
Ultimatums are BS. When someone tells you it must be done a certain way, they’re full of it. Remember all that stuff about the screenwriter never, never, never directing the movie? Tarantino didn’t get the memo. Never mind that he’s a world-famous director and the usual rules don’t apply to him. Of course that’s true. But even if you’re not a world famous director, if you’ve raised the money and are directing it, you can write in camera angles, no sweat. You can also keep the script clean and put those camera instructions into a SHOT LIST that you and the director will examine. Once again we see that the equation, Good Reader, is
STORY over FORMAT.
You absolutely have the freedom to write in camera angles and unfilmables into your spec script. Just make sure you have the writing chops to open your own action movie like this:
A hand belonging to the off-screen Man’s Voice ENTERS FRAME
holding a white handkerchief with the name “BILL” sewn in the
corner, and begins tenderly wiping away the blood from the
young woman’s face. Little by little as the Male Voice
speaks, the beautiful face underneath is revealed to the
But what can’t be wiped away, is the white hot hate that
shines in both eyes at the man who stands over her, the
“BILL” of the title.
In another age men who shook the world for their own purposes
were called conquerors. In our age, the men who shake the
planet for their own power and greed are called corrupters.
And of the world’s corrupters Bill stands alone. For while he
corrupts the world, inside himself he is pure.
I bet I could fry an egg on your
head about now, if I wanted to.
He continues wiping away the blood.
No kiddo, I’d like to believe, even
now, you’re aware enough to know
there isn’t a trace of sadism in
my actions… Okay – Maybe towards
these other jokers – but not you.
We see for a moment, A WIDE SHOT looking down at the woman on
the floor. Bill (from behind) bent down over her. Four others
in black suits, standing over her(three are female, one is
male). And about four DEAD BODIES lying in their own blood.
We also see we’re in a wedding chapel that’s been redecorated
by blood death and gunfire. And firstly or lastly, depending
on the viewer, that the woman on the floor is dressed in a
white bridal gown.
This woman is our Heroine, and from this moment forth she
will only be referred to as The BRIDE.
Back to CU of The BRIDE.
The BRIDE on the floor. Her pretty face is wiped clean.
BILL’S VOICE (O.S.)
No Kiddo at this moment, this is me
at my most masochistic.
While still in her CU The Bride speaks for the first time in
the picture. She looks up at the man standing over her and
Bill, I’m pregnant. It’s your baby.
After saying the “y” in “baby”, we hear a BANG and The Bride
receives a bullet in the side of her head.
BLACK SCREEN: Presentation Credit
“The 4th Film by
Tarantino loves to play with time, screwing with non-linear structure. He pops in and out of the narrative with entire flashback sequences, delighting in keeping the reader/audience off balance. Here’s one:
FLASHBACK – SPAGHETTI WESTERN STYLE
(That means our Heroine is remembering something, and we see
it with an orange filter.) We’re back inside the wedding
chapel. The Bride is taking the beating of her life by four
people in black suits. A black woman PUNCHES HER in the
face… WE see it’s the black housewife, five years earlier.
The BRIDE ON THE PORCH
We Zoom quick out of her eyes to CU, a VENGEANCE THEME PLAYS
LOUD ON THE SOUNDTRACK. (Whenever we hear this theme
throughout the picture, we’ll quickly learn what accompanies
it is The Bride goin Krakatoa all over whoever’s ass happens
to be in front of her at that moment.) As the Vengeance Theme
plays, a Vein in The Bride’s forehead begins to pulsate. When
the Vengeance Theme stops, The Bride ATTACKS The Housewife.
“Goin Kratatoa all over whoever’s ass happens to be in front of her at the moment.” Hear that? He owns that sound. The cheesy music is there for a purpose. So are the rapid cuts and extreme camera angles. It’s ALL in your face and equal a style, the Tarantino style.
Here’s another sequence…
An ornamental iron and tempered-glass bookcase that has
framed family photos, display toys, some African art, and a
collection of painted commemorative plates depicting the
negro experience in the American military. Starting with a
plate featuring Cripis Atkins in the revolutionary war, negro
troops in union blue during the civil war, Buffalo soldiers
fighting Indians, the Jim Crow troops of the first world war,
the colored troops of world war two, Korea, Vietnam, and
finally Colin Powell….The Bride and The Housewife CRASH
THROUGH all this reducing everything to rubble.
They land hard on the floor covered in broken glass, locked
in grapple, each trying to get the best of the other one,…
When The Housewife HEADBUTTS The Bride in the nose.
hops off The Bride, runs into the kitchen, opens a drawer and
comes out with a HUGE MOTHERFUCKIN BUTCHER KNIFE.
rises from the floor, and WHIPS OUT a KNIFE in a sheath
hanging from her belt known as a SOG. (A SOG is a long,
double-edged knife that’s as sharp as a razor, and is what
Navy Seals use to kill humans with.)
Look at the detail in that first paragraph, all the stuff they reduce to rubble. Look at how the Housewife runs into the kitchen not for a butcher knife but a HUGE MOTHERFUCKIN BUTCHER KNIFE. Nothing succeeds like excess and Tarantino is the King.
Tarantino flashes in and out, he specifies camera angles, he plays with SLO-MO and 24 frames a second, and he lays the words on the page with white space to push the reader’s eye down the page, like here in this battle with Yuki. Cartoon-style violence be damned, he’s having a grand old time writing these sequence and the movies are considered action classics. The shit can’t be bottled, but maybe something can rub off. Here’s that sequence:
She fires her machine gun around the corner, tearing up
everything around the Bride.
When the young girl stops firing, the Bride yells;
THE BRIDE (JAPANESE)
Yuki, in about two minutes there’s
going to be an army of police here.
So if you’re gonna kill me, now’s
From her hiding place, Yuki snorts a line of baby blue
powder. It gives her energy.
THE BRIDE (O.S., ENGLISH)
So what’s it gonna be bitch?
Slapping a new clip in her machine gun.
That fucking does it!
Yuki comes around the corner FIRING her machine gun in the
Bride’s direction, ripping up everything around her.
The Bride lying flat on the floor fires her 9mm.
The explosion of ammo creates the hysteria of warfare combat.
Yuki charges the Bride, Kamakazi style.
Three more bullets rip into the Bride, the Bride fires up at
Yuki, hitting her three times in the body, knocking her off
her feet, and sending her tumbling down the stairs.
The Bride shot up, pulls herself to the top of the stairs.
She sees Yuki lying at the bottom, dead.
Yuki’s face, dead, eyes closed…then they pop up open…
Guess what…she’s not dead. Though she’s bloody and her
schoolgirl uniform is filled with bullet holes she rises. Her
head turns in the direction of the Bride…
The Bride sees this and can’t believe it…
They lock eyes…
…Yuki, who no longer has the machine gun, takes out a
deadly looking knife and snaps it open with a smile that
builds to a scream…
She charges up the steps at the Bride.
The startled Bride fires at her…the 9mm’s empty…
Yuki charging up the steps, yelling, knife raised high…
The Bride, hurriedly removes the pistol she keeps in her
The Bride cocks back the hammer…
…Yuki charging, getting closer…
The Bride FIRES
Bullet hits Yuki, stops her for a quarter of a second, but
she keeps charging…
The Bride fires again…
Yuki jerks but keeps on charging…
Yuki jerks, but keeps charging…
Yuki jerks, keeps chargin, almost at her, knife raised
The Bride FIRES
Yuki jerks, but keeps charging, knife ready to do its duty…
The Bride fires, but her gun jams…
Yuki leaps on her with the knife…
They struggle for a moment…
…The Bride realizes Yuki’s dead. She tosses her to the