There are a lot of movies and shows and comics and books I like, but if I had to pick one that represented the ideal for the kind of stories I would like to tell, it would be From Dusk Till Dawn. I am, of course, a fan of both director Robert Rodriguez and writer/actor Quentin Tarantino; there is the non-zero possibility that, like many men who are fans of these directors, they inspire me to write stories because I want people to admire me the way I admire Rodriguez and Tarantino. But I prefer to think of myself as a) being secure in my sense of self and b) having a nuanced view of them as artists and able to pick apart what I want to take from them and what I’m happy to leave in the past, and From Dusk Till Dawn manages to catch a lot of the former and, when the latter is present at all, is present in a way that’s easy for me to express. A lot of it comes down to the tone.
What attracts me to the film is that it’s fun to watch in the moment and it’s fun to think about later. Column A: heightened dialogue, exaggerated filmmaking choices, a wacky world of over-the-top genre elements, and gallons of blood. Column B: rich characterisation that comes from people making comprehensible decisions within the rules of the world they operate in. A large part of my distaste for subFincherian dronelike bullshit is that it feels like the filmmakers are deliberately boring me out of a sense of feeling ‘adult’; I do love stories about people doing boring, banal, ‘adult’ things, but I disdain being force-fed my vegetables, especially when I suspect I’m being force-fed granola bars.
From Dusk Till Dawn is closer to the vivid Mexican food Rodriguez is famous for cooking; filling, rich with vitamins and minerals, and tasty. I think of his description of how he shot Michael Parks in his opening monologue, zooming in because he felt literally pulled in by what he was saying. Parks is both a lamb slaughtered by the movie to sell that the Gecko brothers are bad motherfuckers and a real person with his own history and morality – it feels like a legitimate sacrifice on the part of the movie to kill him off even after like three minutes of screentime. That is to say, like everything else in the movie, he’s treated with love and respect on the part of the film itself, through the dialogue given to him and the actor chosen to play him and the way the camera looks at him.
There’s little real pretense of realism here – right down to the language, where Rodriguez chose to keep Tarantino’s mangled Spanish because he found it charming (“You called him a dot at the end of a sentence! It’s okay, we make up our own words.”). It starts with larger-than-life myths; the Gecko brothers are already on the run from the cops for a bloody shootout when we meet them, and even the Fullers appear to be on the start of a melancholic but ultimately wholesome family-friendly road-trip comedy. I love melodrama filmed melodramatically, and the myths are enhanced by plausible psychological motivations. On that commentary, during the scene where Seth and Jacob are negotiating the trip, Tarantino remarks that he always hated watching kidnapping films when he couldn’t identify with the father because he would go totally passive; his kidnapped father was always looking for the way out but wouldn’t be stupid about it. Meanwhile, he laughs over how Seth is completely unimpressed with any of Jacob’s bravado.
That’s the kind of thing I want to write – where characters are brilliantly vivid because what they want and how they go about getting it are clear and specific. What they do is larger than life, but why they do it is perfectly comprehensible – they aren’t just devices pushing the story forward or signifiers of ideas (though they are also that), they’re real people prioritising different things. I want to write these hermetic hyperreal worlds that are still recognisably human, like what we’re presented with here. I want ridiculous situations that I deeply care about. Another note that I always liked was Rodriguez observing they made the Titty Twister into the single coolest bar they could think of, filled with everything they ever wanted to see in one place (“I’m often asked if I ever want to make a real Jack Rabbit Slims. But I don’t know how much I like the idea of Jack Rabbit’s Slims. But I want a real Titty Twister! I want a whole franchise of Titty Twisters!”). I want to care about these fictional worlds that much.
The film also has examples of things I do not want to take from these filmmakers. One thing that attracts me to Tarantino’s work is that he takes even his most violent, racist, piece-of-shit characters seriously as people. Within this film, we have Richie, a violent psychotic who sexually assaults women, and in the commentary both Rodriguez and Tarantino remark that from his perspective, what he’s doing makes an internal logic based upon what he sees. Another way of putting it is that Tarantino’s characters are revoltingly evil but can’t be completely dismissed. Alan W Pollack once remarked that the Beatles loved covering 12 bar blues songs and yet wrote less than a dozen examples of the form themselves, as if they appreciated it but didn’t feel it expressed themselves well, and I feel that kind of thing here.
A lot of works I enjoy have rape as a major element in some way, and while I feel they use it well, it’s not something I’m personally interested in writing, and that extends to other self-consciously ‘edgy’ elements. I suppose the other big thing I love about this movie is the same thing I love about almost everything I love: I have no idea what’s going to happen, right from the moment the Gecko brothers emerge from behind the shelves. Edgy shit was funny and cool to me when I was younger because it was a subversion of expectations; at this point, edginess has become the status quo (at least in my head), and so it’s funny to me now to subvert that. Not in any bullshit Steven Universe actually-everybody-loves-and-should-love-each-other isn’t-it-nice-to-be-nice way, but in the sense that the universe is never predictable. I like how often my own characters are either smarter or more decent than I expected.
The movie also, interestingly, lacks some things its creators do that I also choose not to take on. On the Tarantino side, this has almost none of his wacky techniques; the wackiest technique is the bifurcated structure where the movie suddenly changes from crime thriller to supernatural horror for absolutely no reason. No chapter titles, no flashbacks or flashforwards, no narration, nothing like that. I love that shit – it’s why I love Kill Bill so much – but I’ve found it’s just not me, and my writing has improved enormously ever since I rejected that in favour of a Shield-style chronological the-action-as-it-happens approach, which this movie also takes.
The thing I admire most about Tarantino’s movies is his ability to create these massive unique systems out of the old parts of other movies, like a guy building dune buggies and motorbikes out of old cars. The reason it works is because the reference itself is almost secondary to its utility; he needs to convey that a character hates Nazis and he effortlessly reaches for a Title Card and Flashback and Narration. I try and do this shit and I end up wildly overthinking it and creating this stupid overly-mannered bullshit that even I find tedious. I just don’t have either the patience or the confidence to make what he does; I’m finding focusing on the action of the scene keeps me busy enough.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez doesn’t try hard enough. There’s a line in his book, Rebel Without A Crew, that I’ve always found significant: “Why should something that takes ninety minutes to watch take three months to make?” I’ve always felt this was the source of everything good and bad about his work. On the one hand, his rock’n’roll energy is delightful and infectious; on the other, he really could take a few more passes over his scripts to stop them falling apart at the end. Of all his personal scripts, the best are El Mariachi, which has a very simple dramatic setup (and still kind of fucks up the end) and Spy Kids, which has an extremely traditional kids movie bildungsroman that gives structure to Rodriguez’s vivid imagination. My other faves of his tend to be written by other people, who actually bring an intention into the proceedings. Sometimes it feels like he has so much fun shooting a film that he forgets to make it fun to watch. I never want to make that mistake.