I finally got to see Django Unchained at the weekend, a film I’d been looking forward to for a long time since a) I love Westerns, b) I like Tarantino and c) I love Leo DiCaprio. My review is over on my film blog, but I had a few thoughts about what writers could take away from the movie.
1) Do your research.
The world of Django Unchained felt very plausible, and very real. At no point did I look at anything and think it was anachronistic, although while checking things for this post, I discovered that Tarantino has included dynamite some eight years before it was invented. Still, fiction is allowed to take some liberties, as long as they’re within the bounds of possibility. The costumes were fabulous, the set design had a real attention to detail that period pieces always need, and Tarantino had clearly researched the social situation of 1858. No matter whether you’re setting your story in 2087 or 1887, it needs to feel real to a reader. Even futuristic pieces need research to extrapolate the likelihood of possible inventions becoming reality.
2) Don’t be afraid of controversy.
Don’t feel you have to court controversy – for every person who reads your work out of genuine interest, you’ll have another who reads it for its reputation, and that’s a Pandora’s box you don’t want to open as you scrabble to top each controversial outing. Having said that, don’t shy away from a topic because you feel it is, or might be, controversial. Fiction will always need brave authors willing to talk about things that no one else will discuss, and if you have an original, fair, or unique take on a subject, why not try it out? Tarantino certainly did. Whether he was right or wrong to do tackle the subject of slavery using the generic conventions of both the Western and the Revenge film so is not for me to decide, but kudos to him for having the balls to raise the topic in the first place.
3) Know when to end a scene.
There were more than a few scenes where I found myself mentally screaming “CUT! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, CUUUUUUT!” Tarantino’s often had the tendency to ramble, letting scenes go on far longer than they need to, while the additional running time does nothing to further the story (although it may increase your need to duck out to the bathroom). As a reader, if you feel that a scene is going on too long you might just skip to the next one – or worse, you might put the book down altogether. Writers need to know when to stop a scene, or cut it entirely. If it doesn’t further the plot or illuminate something important, lose it. If it feels like it’s running out of steam, cut and get on with it.
4) Using up your big finish too early.
It wasn’t one of his biggest hits but Death Proof got it just right when the climactic set piece, that epic car chase, was at the very end of the film. Likewise the fight sequence between the Bride and O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill Pt I. Trouble is, I felt like Django Unchained‘s big shoot-out was the big set piece, as opposed to the actual climactic ending…meaning that the film after said shoot-out sagged a little. That would be like Luke destroying the Death Star and spending another forty five minutes wandering around. Keep your big finish for the end.
5) Give your hero flaws…but don’t make him easy to dislike.
I think my biggest problem with Django Unchained is that I warmed to King Schultz very easily, and I really liked the character, but I found it nigh on impossible to root for Django himself. If your sole presented reason for me rooting for someone is how badly they’ve been treated by someone else then you’re not exactly presenting a rounded character. Likewise, making the guy a natural shot so he’s a better gunslinger than Wyatt Earp without any practice just makes me too incredulous. His motivations were understandable, and possibly even commendable, but as a character, I just didn’t like Django. I know that, in places, Django himself was playing a character in order to further his own ends, but it didn’t feel like Django was stretching himself too much to play a bastard. Schultz had flaws, but they were there to make him human. By contrast, Django’s flaws just made him into a cartoon character. So by all means give your protagonist flaws – after all, we don’t want yet another Mary Sue – but don’t make them unlikeable in the process. Even anti-heroes like Snake Plisskin are likeable.
What do you think?