How Quentin Tarantino Thinks About Music And Film

The day after his Once Upon A Time In Hollywood premiere, I spoke with Quentin Tarantino about his record collection, mixtapes, and his carefully-constructed and extremely fun soundtrack for OUATIH. But guess what? There’s more. A whole lot more.

In part two of this conversation, Tarantino thinks out loud about music, film, and the intersection of the two — a combination that he uses with virtuosic effect in his most memorable film sequences — plus meta-narratives, the transcendent role of the disco version of Under My Thumb in a bad ’80s roller-disco movie, and the one time a bad guy might be the absolute best guy to have on hand.

Spoiler alert: We also break apart a couple of moments from OUATIH.

I’ve heard you talk about how you would watch movies a few times in the theater as a way to understand how music drives one scene in a movie.

Yes. But oftentimes it was just because I’d go see a movie, and the way that song was used in a scene was so magnificent, and there was no video at that time, so your only choice was to watch the movie three times at the movie theater just to see that one scene. Well, I did that many times growing up. [Laughs.]

Yeah! What is one scene that hooked you like that?

Oh, there’s a whole bunch! This isn’t the best one, by far, but for some reason when you asked that question, one of them popped into my mind.

There’s this really bad roller-disco musical called Skatetown U.S.A. Scott Baio is in it, and the bad guy in it was Patrick Swayze — but it was one of his first movies, way before Dirty Dancing. In the movie, they have this little talent show that the different people of this roller disco are trying to enter, and [Swayze] is the leader of the “bad gang.” But now it’s his turn to go out and do his dance number. And actually Patrick Swayze was a dancer, and he does it with a girl who in real life was his dance partner when they were professional dancers. And they do this almost “Apache” routine set to a disco version of Under My Thumb.


And it was great. It was absolutely great! It was one of the coolest dance sequences in any of the disco-themed movies at that time. And to get to that scene was so horrible, with all this horrible comedy, you know. Horrible vignettes and stupid stuff, but that scene was amazing! And I saw the movie at the theaters three times just for that scene alone.

Listen to the disco version of Under My Thumb. It’s pretty good!

[As an aside, I went down a rabbit hole of disco Under My Thumb covers, and also found this one by Fast Radio. May it bring you as much joy as it brings me.]

You’ve said that when you use music correctly in a scene, it’s kind of like you’re flying or skating. I translated that to mean creating a state of flow that brings the audience into the story without effort. What is your method or technique for connecting a song to a scene to bring people with you in this frictionless state?

It all depends on the song and the sequence. You can use a song that’s really cool — that’s, like, nice to listen to in the course of a movie, or maybe drives the scene a little forward a little more — or you can have a song that kinda wraps itself into the scene so it’s a nice soothing thing. Or you can have some nice music playing that helps move the scene along. That’s normally what you’re doing.

But every once in a while, you get a magnificent song, and you have a situation to create a sequence around it. So you’re building the sequence for the song, and the song is building the sequence for the film — and that’s when it all just takes over. At that point, it’s almost like the narrative of the movie just passes itself to the song, and the song just takes it. And when those music/movie sequence moments happen, now you’re lost in the movie. You’re riding. And it helps if it’s at a cool part in the movie where you’re ready to double down, too.

So I think I have a few examples of this, but a random one off the top of my head that I think would apply would be the [David Bowie] Cat People song; the way I worked that sequence around it in Inglorious Basterds. I think that’s a thing where the song takes over, and now the movie has wings. And you kind of fly for a while, and then when it’s over, now you’re back on the ground again. But you flew for a while.

And if I was 12 years old, I’d say, “Hey, rewind that! Play that back again! I don’t wanna watch the rest of the movie; I just want to see that scene again!”

So I was thinking about how Stevie Wonder makes music. He carries a song in his head, and it’s different in music, because you really can be a one-man band in a way that you can’t be the lone cowboy hero in making a film…

Ha, yeah.

When he goes to the studio, he lays all the drums down. And then bass down. And he has the whole thing in there. And so much of the creative process is: You aim for the moon, and you’re lucky if you get two-thirds of the way there, and it’s really fucking good. (The proverbial you—not you as in Quentin.) And then sometimes you get past the moon, and you’re like, “Wow, slam dunk!” And you’re lucky if most of the time you get to the moon. Have you ever succeeded more wildly than you imagined, and have you ever had a time you fell short?

I couldn’t be happier with my movies, but I think I would associate that more with the set pieces inside of them. ’Cause I mean, those set pieces would be similar to my “Stevie Wonder has a vision in his mind of how it’s all supposed to work, and he’s gotta do each individual piece before he can get the mosaic.” But he knows how it’s supposed to be, and he knows how it’s supposed to sound, and he knows whether he did it or not. I’m not gonna write which ones I think are better than I thought and which ones I think aren’t quite there [laughs]. All in all, I’m very happy.

But when I go to start [filming] those sequences, it’s me at my most trepidatious. Because I see the sequence in my head, and it’s fucking amazing. It’s mine to screw up. If I don’t pull this off the way I imagine it should be, well then I’m not as good as I thought I was. And so it’s gotta be great; the cinematic stuff has got to be fantastic. But it’s because I just have high expectations for it.

If I don’t do it, it’s all my fault.

When I’m working with the singer of a band who’s essentially the director of a project, I’m trying to apply my creativity to help them realize their vision. And then on the flip side of that, when you’re the director, you have the vision but you can’t play all the instruments, for example, but you’re trying to pull these things out of different people. You don’t have as much control over the jobs that other people have to do…

I imagine that you just have to create the right kind of dialogue with those people. That you can hum it and beat it out in a way that they can really get it. Or you could be crazy frustrated.

So when you’re making a film, are you focused on the meta-narrative, or the thing in front of you?

I’m not really. Normally I’m just trying to tell my story. I try to keep it on the surface, knowing that the roots will go deep. I don’t know what the roots are right now, but I don’t want to know what the roots are. I want to write the tree.

But I’m trusting that the roots of the tree go deep. For the most part, I like to do all the subtextual work after the fact.

There’s that scene in the film where Rick forgets his lines on the Lancer set, and then he uses his shame to goad himself into delivering that transcendent, villainous performance [as a bad guy] with the little girl. We watch Rick go into a state of flow creating this villainous moment, but we also get to watch Leonardo DiCaprio in flow playing Rick.

So when you’re making a film about something like the movies, are you thinking about these meta-narratives? Or are you just thinking about character and story, and how does this film skate along?

Look, if I’m using Sonny Cheeba as my samurai master in Kill Bill, there’s a little bit of a meta-narrative going on. Same thing a little bit with Pam Grier in Jackie Brown. If I’m using a character who’s famous for a certain genre, and I’m doing one of my weird versions of that genre, yes. But when I’m writing on the page, it’s not Sonny Cheeba. It’s just a character. So for the most part, I’m just kinda trying to tell my story, and just deal with it.

I learned this a long time ago. When I was at the Sundance workshop, working on Reservoir Dogs, a bunch of resource directors there said “Have you done your subtext work?” And I said, “Well, what’s that?”

And they go, “Well, you think you know everything because you wrote it, but you don’t know everything! You do your subtext work.” And I actually thought it sounded like a neat idea, so I took a random scene, and I wrote down what this character and that character want from the scene, and what do I want the audience to get out of this scene?

And then even writing something as simple as, “Mr. Orange is shot and he’s bleeding to death, and he wants to be taken to a hospital,” I was surprised how much opened up. … And then I was like, “Oh yeah, this is really a father/son story, and Mr. White’s the father, and Mr. Orange is the son.” And it’s interesting how through the whole thing, Mr. White is telling Mr. Orange, “Don’t worry, when Joe gets here you’ll be fine. Wait for Joe, wait for Joe.” But then Joe gets there, and what does Joe do? Joe has come to the warehouse to kill Orange. And Mr. White has to choose between his surrogate father and his surrogate son. So he chooses his surrogate son. And actually, he’s wrong. But he’s wrong for all the right reasons.

So all that was really interesting. And when I was finished, I was like, wow, that was a really good experiment. That was really interesting! But I never want to do that again! I don’t want to know that I’m telling a father/son story. I want to tell a gangster story!

It’s nice to know that all that’s there, but I don’t need to be conscious of it as I’m doing it, per se.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Since I’m a professional feminist, I have to ask about the scene where [Brad Pitt’s character] Cliff turns down the blowjob in the car because the girl is underage. It felt kind of good to watch that scene. And I was wondering if it was important. Like why that scene right now, today in time, even though this movie is a time capsule?

I appreciate that. I wasn’t at all trying to deal with the attitudes going on now, per se. But, in doing my research, especially when it comes to the girls in the Manson family, there were a lot of people who were having sex with a whole lot of underage girls [in 1969]. Especially at that time. And it was kind of like, not a thing. If you do the research on the Manson family, all the famous people that were associated with them to one degree or another, whether it be Dennis Willson or Terry Melcher — they all had sex with underage girls in the Manson family. Like numerous, multiple times.

And all those rock stars living in Laurel Canyon, it was just what was going on in 1968 and ’69, and people had a sliding scale about it. And the thing is, Cliff isn’t a sophisticated, Dennis Wilson-like rock star. He’s an older dude who comes from a world of, “No, you go to jail for a year and a half for having sex with a 14-year-old.” So he means it when he says, “I’m not going to jail for poontang!”

So it really was a character-driven decision.

Right. It was a character-driven decision. And rather than being a comment on now, it was a comment on how much that was happening back then. When [Pussycat, the teenage girl] says the line, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re asking me [about my age], are you joking?” she means it.

There’s this moment that I love in OUATIH when Cliff and Rick are having their uncoupling celebration. They each get super hammered in their own way. [Laughs.] And I interpreted this moment as their supreme intoxication being a cocoon for each of them, so when the Manson family comes in [to kill them], they’re protected by this innocence of intoxication, and they just slip into their on-camera roles [of stunt double and hero]. They go, in real-life, into these flow states of self-protection.

Wow. Ok, look, I wasn’t thinking about that, but I buy that. That’s actually a very good reading. That wasn’t a subtextual architecture going on, but that completely works.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

So in looking at this line between fiction and reality, we have two guys who in their real lives are actors who have these violent jobs where they kill bad guys, who then click into this moment of real-world self-defense, complete with a flamethrower thing. And in the process, they save their own lives, and they save Sharon Tate’s life, and they change the course of history.


So throughout the whole movie, and this has been a theme in my work, there’s kind of a duality at play. And now here, almost the entire architecture of the movie is about the duality. Because a weird way, Rick and Cliff are very close friends, and they’ve been with each other for a long time — but they’re almost the opposites of each other in almost every way.

Starting with their personalities: Rick is full of high drama and anxiety about what he’s going through, but it’s all anxiety of his own making. He actually has a pretty fucking great life. He just doesn’t appreciate it, because he wants something else. Where Cliff seemingly doesn’t have a great life at all, but he seems to be completely at peace with where he is and who he is, and even his place. “Every day above ground’s a good day!” You know? He has almost a zen quality, where Rick is just tied up in neuroses.

And even their whole relationship: Rick’s job is to pretend to be an action cowboy hero, but it’s Cliff who does the real dangerous stuff.

It’s implied in the movie that Cliff is a real-life war hero. Well, Rick plays a hero. Rick was a hero.

Now [further into the story], Rick’s playing villains. Maybe Cliff killed his wife. So Rick plays bad guys, and maybe Cliff is really a bad guy.

It keeps going down to the very aspect of when Rick is on [the set for Lancer, a fictional show within the movie], he’s standing up to these cowboys and there’s all this stuff that’s going on on this Western set, and this big cowboy drama going on. And then Cliff finds himself on the Western set of Spahn Ranch [where the Manson family lives], and now he’s acting out masculine cowboy fantasies, but with some of the biggest killers of the 20th century.

Right, and Cliff’s doing it in his real life.

And he’s doing it in real life. And to some degree, even Sharon Tate and Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat are almost doppelgangers. They both spend the movie moving around Los Angeles. Pussycat by hitchhiking, Sharon by driving. They just seem to be covering a whole lot of ground, coming up, doing their day. Going wherever the day takes them!

But this is because we brought up the dualities.

Yeah! So in that vein, within the creative world of the film, there’s this line between fiction and reality. Rick and Cliff cross that line successfully.

That even continues that day. The idea that I’m cutting back and forth between Rick and Cliff, and how they spend their night, and Sharon and Jay and their friends spend their night. Even to the point that Sharon and Jay go to El Coyote, which is like the cool vibey Hollywood Mexican bar, and they go to Casa Vega, which is the cool, vibey Valley Mexican bar.

And there’s the line between the movie world where Sharon lives, and history where Sharon doesn’t live.

I think when it came to putting my male characters in that situation, it was coming more from the idea that Cliff is a very interesting, troubled, complicated guy. And there’s a world and a situation where he could really, really be a bad guy.

But in that exact situation, maybe the bad guy is the best guy. [Laughs.]

Last question: Acid has a little cameo in this movie. The Manson family uses it for indoctrination, and Cliff uses it for his uncoupling rager moment. Have you done acid?

I haven’t done acid in a long, long time.

But yeah.

Anna Bulbrook is an interdisciplinary artistic director, creative curator and programmer, and speaker/writer at the intersection of music, pop culture, ideas, and social justice. Bulbrook is the founder and leader of Girlschool, the Los Angeles-based feminist creative-producing organization that uses interdisciplinary emerging culture to imagine paths forward. She is also a professional musician with an RIAA-Certified Gold Record from a decade as the violinist in major-label rock band the Airborne Toxic Event, plus additional credits with Edward Sharpe + The Magnetic Zeros, Sia, Beyoncé, Vampire Weekend, Kanye West, and more.

This article was produced in partnership with Columbia Records.

Keep Digging

Want to join the Discogs Community of music lovers?
Sign up for an account, subscribe to Discogs newsletters, and discover music articles, exclusive news, limited-edition offers, and more.
Return to Discogs Blog