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Notes on Quentin Tarantino’s Writing Routine

June 30th, 2021 · 22 comments

About an hour into his recent interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Quentin Tarantino was asked about his writing habits.

“It all changed,” he revealed, “more or less around the writing of Inglorious Basterds.” Before starting work on the 2009 film, Tarantino described himself as “an amateur, mad little writer” who would work late at night, or by going to a restaurant, where he would “order some shit, and drink a lot of coffee, and be there for 4 hours with all my shit laid out.”

He decided he wanted a more “professional” routine. Here’s how he described it:

“I started writing during the day time. I get up, so you know, it’s 10:30, or 11:00 o’clock, or 11:30, and I sit down to write…Like a normal workday, I would sit down and I would write until 4, 5, 6, or 7. Somewhere around there, I would stop. And then, I have a pool, and I keep it heated, so it’s nice, so I go into it…and just kind of float around in the warm water and think about everything I’ve just written, how I can make it better, and what else can happen before the scene is over, and then a lot of shit would come to me, literally a lot of, a lot of things would come to me. Then I’d get out and make little notes on that, but not do it, and that would be my work for tomorrow.”

Here are three things that caught my attention about Tarantino’s routine…

First, notice how he leverages a return to a specific and notable setting — his heated pool —  to help support creative insight. Like Darwin making a fixed number of circuits on his sandwalk each morning, the brain can learn to associate certain environments with certain modes of thought.

Second, notice how at the end of each deep work session he leaves in place a creative ramp to help speed up his entrance to the next day’s session. With elite-level cogitation, getting started can be daunting. Having well-developed notes waiting to direct your initial efforts diminishes this hurdle.

(Hemingway did something similar. As he explained in a 1935 Esquire interview: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.”)

Third, and finally, notice how his ritual underscores the distinction between hard work and hard to do work.  It is very hard in the long run to produce a screenplay at Tarantino’s level. But this reality does not necessarily require short term periods of frenzied, exhausting effort.

Tarantino writes, then floats, writes, then floats — a rhythm that’s tractable at the scale of any individual day. “This has become,” he explains, “this really nice, this really enjoyable, this really lovely way to write.”

But over time, it aggregates to yet another Oscar-worthy outcome.

22 thoughts on “Notes on Quentin Tarantino’s Writing Routine

  1. I’m a believer in what you preach Cal, and I take your point, but couldn’t one come to the opposite conclusion? Tarantino says he started working this way during Inglorious Bastards. But that means the best work of his career (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, etc) was produced in his more scattered, disorganized way.

    However, in his more disorganized days, he does say that he would go to a restaurant or work late at night, also two things that probably triggered his deep focus.

    So it seems to me he just changed the window dressing on an existing ritual.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      The timeline is kind of murky because he started working on Basterds pretty early in his career (late 90’s). It was something he kept coming back to. The question then becomes at what point did he switch to this routine; e.g., back in the late 90s, or later.

      1. EA says:

        I think that the point is slightly different. When Tarantino wrote Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction he wasn’t the celebrity that he’s now. He certainly had a different life, with different pressures, and wasn’t pressured by studios to “deliver” anything that would make hundreds of millions at the box officer. My understanding is that he had to force himself to create a more stable routine to preserve his mental energy, thus improving efficiency (probably also a consequence of his aging), to face all the different tasks that are now part of his life and that weren’t part of it before (he’s now a producer among other things).

    2. Vivin says:

      The later work is just as good. My favorite is Inglorious and Once Upon a time in Hollywood. So I don’t see a drop in the level of creativity. But sustaining that level of craftsmanship for 30 years means at some point he had to formalize his writing methodology to be more as Cal says ‘hard work vs.hard to do work’.

    3. Jordan says:

      Fair point (although I also note Cals point below in regards to the timeline), however, I think something equally as important here as to what kind of work he was putting out is that he seems to really, really enjoy this routine better and describes it as a lovely way to write. I could imagine someone becoming burnt out the way he was doing it before.

  2. I gotta listen to that interview. Saw it came out this week. It’s on my list!

  3. Jesse Langel says:

    Cal, your podcast has skyrocketed to my favorite. Excellent stuff, man.

  4. Daco says:

    That’s a great point that Melanie Novak suggests. Tarantino’s best work belongs to those juvenile years of licentiousness. However, was this practice durable? Apparently, his body answered him and since Glorious Bastards, the producer seemed to adopt a behaviour more appropriate for a man of his age. In other words; I think Tarantino adopts these protocols a little bit by thinking about the mental and physical man he will be ten or twenty years from now.

  5. Tying work routine to a heated pool is the pinnacle of classism.

    1. Nitin says:

      That’s besides the point. So the guy’s rich and has a heated pool, good for him. I could substitute the pool floating with a long walk by the lake, or a stroll through a wooded park to seek out similar cognitive benefits in my own life.

    2. Study Hacks says:

      I actually found the heated pool bit to be surprisingly egalitarian: pools in CA are the staple of the middle class. The classic classism examples among famous writers usually involved exotic islands to which you jet to think, or JK Rowling paying $1000 a night for a hotel suite at the Balmoral to finish Deathly Hallows; to instead float in your background, ranch house pool is by contrast comfortingly obtainable.

    3. Isaac says:

      I think the point was missed. Pool is one way to do it. There are many other ways.

    4. Jordan says:

      Care to expand? The entire world knows hes reach, he’s earned it well, and it’s just a pool that is heated…very common in many mundane parts of the country.

  6. Javier de Pascual says:

    What’s really interesting to me about this revelation is that, personally, I find his scripts started dipping in quality precisely at the time he made Inglorious Basterds. He could write amazing scenes but the stories, in a larger sense, suffered from it. Or, at the very least, you could argue there’s a very noticeable change. So now there’s evidence the change in his way of working affected the results in a very fundamental way.

    There’s also this tremendous insight about his process while writing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: he didn’t think he was gonna turn that story into a film, so he used it as a way to build back his “writing muscle” after finishing whatever movie he was making at the time, and he did that for 8 years, until he found out it was gonna be his second-to-last, epic opus, and he focused on it. That turned out really well, as a lot of us recognize Once Upon a Time in America as one of his best. He sat on this story for a long period of time, lived through their characters, spent time researching and figuring out the world he was gonna inhabit. Then, when he saw he was ready, he started turning it into a script. To me, it shows how patience and waiting for the right moment is an essential skill for any knowledge worker.

  7. Great post, thanks Cal. An insight for me is further proof of the power of tapping into our unconscious minds.

    John Cleese writes about this in ‘Creativity’:

    “If I put the work in before going to bed, I often had a little creative idea overnight, which fixed whatever problem it was that I was trying to deal with.”

  8. Huw Davies says:

    Hello Cal,

    I’m surprised you haven’t covered Tarantino before – he’s a classical digital minimalist.

    – He writes his scripts by hand
    – He hates smartphones – he doesn’t own one and bans them from his film sets
    – He dosen’t use email – Brad Pitt says you have to call him on his landline and leave a message on the answer machine

    I’d love to see you write an article about this.

    All the best,
    – Huw

    1. Huw, I will say I was able to confirm the no phones on set, along with email, but all I could find is him not having a cellphone in general. Where did you see/hear the smartphone bit?

    2. EA says:

      David Lynch is similar, no smartphones or cell phones on set as he wants everyone to focus.

      An article about Tarantino: https://www.vulture.com/2019/06/quentin-tarantino-bans-cellphones-from-film-sets.html

  9. As much as I think perfecting the routine can be an insidious form of procrastination, it’s always helpful to be remind of what taking writing seriously looks like versus just going through the motion in a way that is self defeating.

    Ultimately it’s a question of self knowledge borne from experience.

    Have a good day at the desk reflect on what went right, notice patterns (usually via Journalling) and then repeat and iterate.

    For me early morning no screens, get to the library for opening time after a long walk to get there (while focusing on a writing problem en route as you have mentioned many times in your work) and then sit down at my usual spot and write on paper with pencil for 3+ hours.

    If I do this I have a good session. If I deviate much from this I don’t. It’s that simple.

    Thanks for this Cal. Great as usual.

    Tom

  10. So your post now have cussing in them? I realize you were quoting him however you would have shown some class by editing the curse word.

    1. Jay says:

      Who cares?

  11. Daniel says:

    I’ll also note that this sounds like Tarantino has a shutdown routine! I’m sure that the fact that after he’s gotten out of the pool and has his next-day notes ready, he’s better able to “switch off” from writing and truly recuperate before he’s into the next day. That’s gotta be better for staying consistent.

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