Quentin Tarantino Doesn’t Steal Movie Ideas, He Rents Them

You can take the clerk out of the video store, but you can’t eject the video store from the clerk.

It is being reported that Quentin Tarantino is being sued for $150 million for stealing the idea for his movie Django Unchained. Filmmakers Oscar Colvin Jr. and Torrance J. Colvin claim that Tarantino took the main plot points from their script Freedom and Tarantino-ized them into Django Unchained. The screenwriters say it is possible that Tarantino saw the script because they submitted it to a talent agency to shop around. Tarantino claims that he based his screenplay on Sergio Corbucci’s Django.

While it is altogether possible that Quentin saw the script, he might have just caught the emotional flow of it through his own flipped creative channels. The plaintiff is pointing to an admission that Tarantino made that he steals movie ideas all the time. 

The iconic dance scene between Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) at the throwback diner from Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction is a spin and a twirl from Federico Fellini’s classic film 8 1/2. When Mia makes the square in the air, referring to squares, she is doing an impression of Wilma from the animated sitcom The Flintstones. The aerial shot of the carnage in Django Unchained is stolen, or an homage to, the aftermath of the Civil War battle in Gone with the Wind from 1939.

“I steal from every single movie ever made,” Tarantino told Empire magazine in 1994. The director, writer, producer and weekend key grip, says every one of his movies has ripped off some classic film that Tarantino can’t get out of his head. For a director like Tarantino, this is a sign of him giving back to the motion picture community.

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You see, Tarantino started out as a video store clerk, something that a lot of people reading this will smirk at and proclaim to be a long-lost fictional creature of yore. Just like the use of the word yore. Real people never said that.

A video clerk was a person who sat behind a register in a store, a physical brick and mortar structure, though usually there were steel beams and sheetrock included if we’re going to be fair, and sold VHS or Betamax tapes, or later DVDs, of moving pictures to mostly-paying customers. Some customers, of course, just sat in the store for hours watching movies on suspended television screens. Some of them, myself included, might just be hanging there waiting for the next cycle at the laundromat next door. But for the most part, video store clerks rented out movies and reminded people to always rewind.

But video store clerks did so much more than that. These guys had a personal stake in every inch of tape in that store, and they would protect that and advise on it. Video stores had weekly movie picks from the staff and most of them could sit you down longer than a Quentin Tarantino movie talking about the minutiae of any given film within their sphere of expertise. There were horror movie experts, sci-fi geeks, musical comedy nerds, though not too many of them as they often fell prey to the action hero aficionados in the video store food chain. Each of these experts knew their movies inside out, and if the particular movie a customer wanted was lent out, they would be able to give the customer a list of celluloid alternatives.

Danny Strong, who wrote Hunger Games scripts and edited the Yale newspaper on The Gilmore Girls, and got down with ancient Incan goddesses on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, once said Tarantino was a “fantastic video store clerk.” Strong said Tarantino’s knowledge of movies rivaled that of one of the Django Unchained director’s heroes, Martin Scorsese. This can’t possibly be where the comparisons between the two directors end.

Compare any Tarantino interview with Scorsese’s appearance in that old American Express commercial where he’s in the photo shop talking about losing the thread in the pictures he took of his nephew’s birthday. They both have an enthusiastic manner and an almost breathless delivery. Both directors seem to be constantly just aching to be asked a question about movies. Any movie. They are quite happy to talk about their own movies, but they really shine when they are talking about the work of other directors.

Tarantino has great and varied taste in movies too. As a video clerk, he would have been able to accurately direct customers to the perfect Western genre film or martial arts movie, and probably knew his way around jukebox musicals. He is also a not-so-closeted fan of romantic comedies, which he once called his favorite genre to watch while traveling by plane.

Tarantino told the 2012 Sight & Sound directors’ poll that his own personal dirty dozen were Apocalypse Now, The Bad News Bears, Carrie, Dazed and Confused, The Great Escape, His Girl Friday, Jaws, Pretty Maids All in a Row, Rolling Thunder, Sorcerer, and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But his favorite movie of all time was Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Great video clerks are born, not made. While Scorsese was holed up at home in his Little Italy apartment by a series of childhood ailments, watching old movies and envisioning a life in a seminary, Tarantino was raised fully loaded to be a film geek. Tarantino is exactly four days younger than I am, not that that does you any good as a reference.

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Tarantino’s mom let him see adult movies like Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Deliverance (1972) when he was a kid. I identify with that. I saw Fritz the Cat and Pink Pussycats by the time I was eight. Tarantino was named after Burt Reynolds’ character on Gunsmoke, Quint Asper. One of the first scripts Tarantino ever wrote when he was 14 years old was loosely based on the plot of one of Reynolds’ most popular films, Smokey and The Bandit. Tarantino called his script Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit.

I have to paraphrase Detective Harris from the TV show Barney Miller here. At one point in the first season, Sgt. Chano Amanguale asks the precinct’s resident expert, the ever-stylish Sergeant Harris, how he got to be so smart. Harris coolly answers, “when I was a kid, I stole books.” The hero of Tarantino’s first script stole pizzas, but the young teenager got busted for nabbing Elmore Leonard’s novel The Switch from his local Kmart. Tarantino was grounded and could only go out to act at the Torrance, California, Community Theater.

He would go on to repay Leonard by adapting Leonard’s novel Rum Punch into the love letter to Blaxploitation films Jackie Brown in 1997. Leonard would go on to say that Jackie Brown was his favorite screen adaptation of any of his works. He also ground one of Leonard’s works into the house pic Death Proof.

Back in the ’90s, I wrote and produced New York City’s original Vampyr Theatre, which had a direct connection to Tarantino. Our special effects guy, Rick Crane, told us he was in charge of “blood continuity” on a movie called Reservoir Dogs. When the movie came out, the entire cast went to see it. Over and over. I still watch it over and over.

I have seen and either like or love all of Tarantino’s movies, but Reservoir Dogs will always be my favorite. I don’t care if he makes better movies, that one caught me at the right time. It was a perfect storm. One of the greatest casts of almost-unknowns, besides Harvey Keitel, who I’d loved since Mean Streets, were brought together in one of the best written and most tightly directed indie movies ever.

It also starred Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney, Michael Madsen, Tarantino, and Edward Bunker. Bunker was a former criminal who brought a sense of reality to the proceedings. Buscemi went on to be one of the most bankable indie spirits in film. But it was Madsen who stole that heist movie. The real-life non-violent actor has said in interviews that he hated doing the scene that he is most associated with after the actor playing the cop in the chair improvised the line “I got kids at home.”

Reservoir Dogs had everything I look for in movies, except sex that is. It had gangsters, violence, danger, blood and humor. It was filled with laugh out loud moments that reminded me of another of my favorite movies, Diner. That overlapping, out-of-left-field dialogue that wasn’t dialogue, it was conversation. It was natural. Tarantino was a natural. He had to be. He was born to it. The best video store clerk on the planet was destined to be one of the best directors in America, and part of being the best here is knowing what was going on elsewhere.

I’m not talking about knowing what they call Big Macs in Paris, like Tarantino did in Pulp Fiction in 1994. I’m talking knowledge of foreign films. Tarantino catches a European film vibe every now and then. His Kill Bill movies are so steeped in Eastern film traditions of Wuxia (Chinese martial arts), Jidaigeki (Japanese period cinema) you’d think he could walk on trees. He even got the original Kung Fu master himself, David Carradine, to mentor Uma Thurman’s most deadly bride in the world.

It’s not just that Tarantino is a student of film, he is a fan of film. An unabashed, unashamed and unembarrassed fanatic. You go into a Tarantino movie knowing that what you’re seeing on screen is everything you could hope for in a movie and more. Usually about a half hour more. That doesn’t bother me. I actually like movies that other people think are too long. They breathe. Tarantino casts his films to suit the moods he knows the audience needs to see. He not only recycles great movies, he recycles his star players.

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Quentin Tarantino is known for his rotating cast, but he often works with the producer Lawrence Bender, who first pushed Tarantino to co-write and direct the film My Best Friend’s Birthday in 1987. The movie got ruined in a fire, but Tarantino dusted off the ashes and turned it into the script for True Romance. The producer has worked on the majority of Tarantino’s films. Between the stock players and his easy teamwork with the producer, Tarantino comes across as a gifted artistic collaborator. He also apparently loves collaborating with other directors.

Tarantino loves all genres of film and his career looks like a bucket list of cinematic goals.I can picture him walking through the aisles of a video store saying, “Someday I’ll have a movie in this section, that genre, on this shelf,” and he’s getting there. While I prefer his gangster movies, his Hateful Eight is a thoughtful ride through the Western genres while Inglourious Basterds is a World War II revenge fantasy war movie. And one of my favorite vampire movie scenes of all time, along with Salma Hayek’s snake dance, comes from Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk till Dawn (1996), which Tarantino wrote.

Stealing movie ideas is a much worse offense than not rewinding a videotape and the fines are far heftier. I don’t know the full story behind the Django Unchained lawsuit, but it appears that creative energies sometimes become part of the collective unconscious of the artistic community. After a read-through of one of the Vampyr Theatre scripts, our director, Troy Acree, asked me if I’d yet seen the film Natural Born Killers, which had opened the night before. I am an unabashed Oliver Stone fan and planned on seeing it that night. 

Halfway through the movie I realized I was going to have to scrap my script. There were words coming out of the mouths of the actors that were perilously close to what I’d written. How did this happen? There was no way Tarantino could have seen my script and there was no way I could have seen his. I didn’t even know the movie was written by Tarantino until my second viewing. To this day, I believe there was something in the air, much the same way that shows like ER premiered the same season as Chicago Hope or how sometimes moviegoers will be inundated by several movie openings that feature similar storylines. Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film Platoon, for example, was in development at the same time as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

Tarantino says digital film is going to drive him to early retirement, which he had planned to do when he was 60. The video store geek didn’t spend time in the stock room but he is a true stock player.