Directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez know a thing or three about music and the movies. Tarantino's soundtracks have become pop-culture staples (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill), while Rodriguez is one of very few filmmakers who also score their own movies (Sin City is his best).
Their latest, Grindhouse, is a modern-day double feature that pays homage to the low-budget, ultra-violent, ultra-sexualized "grindhouse" exploitation flicks of the '60s and '70s, which turns out to be more than enough musical inspiration for the two as Tarantino gets to add country to his eclectic repertoire in Death Proof and Rodriguez taps the guitar sounds of legend Link Wray for the horror soundtrack to his Planet Terror. This one-two punch delivers two different soundtracks with two very different feels.
We sat down with them recently, poolside at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, to discuss their new movies and how music affects their creative process. It's not entirely relevant, but Tarantino inexplicably showed up in a leprechaun-green sports jacket over medical scrubs while his close friend Rodriguez—the sedate half of the duo—wore his trademark cowboy hat. It added just the right amount of weirdness to a conversation with two directors infamous for their unique (read: eccentric) filmmaking styles.
Quentin, when do you begin to introduce music into your filmmaking process and what role does it play?
For the majority, for the killer tracks, I usually come up with [those] during the writing of the film. It's just one of the things I do. As soon as I come up with an idea that I actually think, 'Oh yeah, this could be my next movie.' I have a room next to my bedroom—my record room—and I have a big record collection. It looks like a little used-record store. It's even broken down into genres and sub-genres, with stuff in bins. So, my thing is to actually dive into my record collection and what I'm looking for is the beat of what this next movie's going to be, the rhythm of it. I start with the opening credit sequence. If I can find the right piece of music and stylistic opening credit sequence for it, then I might actually make this movie. It's the tone setter. It sets it off; I know the beat, I know the rhythm. Can you give some examples?
In the case of, say, Jackie Brown, that movie moved to the rhythm of old-school '70s soul. In the case of Pulp Fiction, it moved to the rhythm of surf music. Also, writing is hard. If you get a good idea for a sequence that will work with this piece of music, that's like my catnip. Whenever I get tired or I need a boost, I just go over to my record room and play that piece of music and imagine an audience sitting and watching the sequence I haven't shot yet, to that music and how they'll ooh, ahh, this and that.
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Robert, Spy Kids (2001) was the first time you scored one of your own movies. Can you talk about how you started down that road?
When I started taking on writing more of my own music, just organically, the writing process of the music would not come until the end period of filmmaking. [I would think], I've been writing this movie so long, I don't want to just turn it over to a composer five weeks before the movie comes out. Then they just write a bunch of music, and hopefully I'll like it all. Danny Elfman [ex-member of Oingo Boingo]—who inspired me to do more—asked me, "Why don't you write your own score? You play guitar." And I thought, "Yeah, right," but it was just the way he looked at me that made me think, "Oh yeah, he was in a rock band, and I guess he converted." Sure enough, now he's doing these big orchestral numbers.
So how has scoring your own movies affected your filmmaking process?
I found that it became exciting to write music as I was writing the script, like writing themes for characters. In the case of Grindhouse, before I even started my second pass at the script, I came up with the "Grindhouse Theme." That kind of informed everything. "Hmm, that sounds like a grind dance. I need to have a character dancing over the opening titles. Well, I should make the girl who loses her leg a dancer then." That's how much the music was informing the characters and scenes. You actually have music coming from the same place these characters come from. The person who wrote these characters also wrote the music. It's a really cool way to do it if you can do it that way.