Once upon a time, there were two guys who worked in a video shop in Manhattan Beach, California – a semi-suburban area a little south of LAX – named Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary. It was here that they became very good friends and developed a working relationship. They both wanted to be in the movie business and started writing scripts together. Reservoir Dogs was written by Tarantino, but came out of a project that started off amongst the two of them; True Romance was a co-written script; the Natural Born Killers script had Avary portions in it. They then co-wrote Pulp Fiction, the film for which they both received screenwriting Oscars. It made Tarantino a household name. After that, they never worked together again.
There are different theories about why the fallout between the two occurred, but I’m not interested in rehashing them. What I am interested in is the way these two guys created great stuff together – and how all of the projects they produced post-fallout, apart from one another, weren’t nearly as good.
I sort of think of Avary and Tarantino like Lennon and McCartney, with Roger the Lennon figure and Tarantino the Macca. Without his song writing partner, John Lennon could be a bit too introspective and self-serious; without Lennon as ballast, McCartney’s solo career often veered into the fluffy and insubstantial. Avary’s work I find can be a little slow moving and navel gazing; Tarantino post-Fiction tends to be a little empty. Very action packed but without a lot of substance most of the time, with too much reliance on pastiche.
There’s a theory that floats around in some circles that Avary was the true genius and that the reason Tarantino’s output went downhill post-Fiction was because Quentin no longer had the real talent doing the dirty work for him anymore. This is a very unconvincing argument; if it were true, Avary’s own films would be masterpieces of world cinema, which they are definitely not. No, it’s clear to me that both Tarantino and Avary were lesser artists without each other and that their collaboration – the way their two minds melded when working on scripts together – was something special.
One scene in particular makes me think about the way they might have worked together after 1995. It’s from Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds, a motion picture that was made well after his collaboration with Avary had ceased and that, like all of his post-Fiction work, is vastly overrated. The scene I refer to is the one which introduces us to the “Basterds” themselves. In the sequence, a Nazi soldier is captured and talks about how he came to be the titular characters’ prisoner. It essentially involves great valour and self-sacrifice on the part of the German infantryman. After this, the Basterds beat him to death.
I bring it up, partially because I really hate this scene – if you’re going to make the bad guys Nazis so we don’t have to question anything that happens to them, why have a scene which humanises one of them completely unnecessarily? – but mostly because I think it provides insight into why Avary-Tarantino works. While watching the Nazi scene, I recall imagining Avary going, “Quentin. This is stupid, leave it out”. Which Tarantino would have listened to. Perhaps Avary’s greatest strength was as an editor to Tarantino’s wild, often uncontrolled imagination.
But I can only speculate obviously. However their partnership worked, it worked. And it’s shame for all of us that instead of a host of great films over the past two decades, we’ve instead had Avary’s Easton-Ellis obsession and Tarantino’s video nasty regurgitations. We’ll never know what we missed out on.
Preston Michael Simpson says
I really like your argument here, and do wonder what they could have made if they stayed together/could make if they got back together. I do sympathize with (at least Avary’s side of) them splitting. I’m an aspiring actor/screenwriter myself, so naturally you can imagine that Tarantino was an inspiration to me because he does both of those in virtually everything he directs.
But what I am getting at is that Avary has, after the fact, stated a lot of seemingly brilliant things from Tarantino actually came from Avary. More unfortunate, Avary has done very little in terms of his resume when compared to his former collaborator’s. Though this can be partially blamed on his manslaughter charge, but that’s only like 8 months of his life.
I guess what I am saying is, as a writer, I would hate for things that were my idea to be credited as anyone else’s. Which is basically why I would even consider directing. So that nobody can ruin my written work. I mean I am working on a directing offer right now, and I want to make sure the writer gets explicit credit. He’s even listed as top billed director, even though he’d mainly be directing the few scenes I’m acting in (I’m not the lead, don’t worry). So I intend to make sure my business partner gets more than fair credit for his baby, I just handle 2 parts of it (director/actor) while he’s handling 4 parts (writer, producer, music, co-director) and we both will edit the film.
So my long story short, the artist(s) should not have to suffer just because it makes the audience happy. The films they’ve made on their own may not quite hold up a candle to what they made together, but they are doing it for themselves and that’s why people do art in the first place.
Ugh, you only hate that one scene? And you’re okay with Hans Landa being devilishly funny, witty and charismatic? Who makes it look cool to be a Nazi? What about Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction? Are they really that much better than Nazis? They’re criminals going around killing people in a world seemingly devoid of police… Making bad guys sympathetic is Tarantino’s shtick. Sounds like a petty complaint to be honest.
Avary was definitely a good influence on Tarantino. It’s a bit heartbreaking that Tarantino seems to never mention him since their falloff.
As a person who likes to study writers I know that something truly special can happen when two writers sit together bouncing ideas off each other ignoring stuff that comes to both of their minds.
John Spence says
I actually agree with your analysis. I LOVE QUENTIN TARANTINO films and always gave him credit for them, however, after Pulp, I had no interest in Jackie Brown, found it quite boring, Four Rooms was ok. From Dusk till dawn lost me when they reached the bar. I DID LOVE KILL BILL and I enjoyed Deathproof. Both Inglourious basterds and Django Unchained were complete messes to me, but some scenes played well. The hateful eight in my opinion is BY FAR his worst and is a total mess and a waste of Ennio Morricone, and NONE of the story is good..
Like you, I have thought a lot about why Pulp Fiction has that stroke of genius about it and why Tarantino’s subsequent films have been lesser in quality. However, to credit Avary for this because “he co-wrote the script and he and Tarantino had a special working relationship” doesn’t hold any water.
Tarantino wrote Pulp Fiction alone, over the course of two years in Amsterdam. He used stories that Avary wrote specifically for True Romance, and gave him credit for it, winning Avary an Oscar. Avary should be very happy about that.
Not a single line of dialogue came from Avary’s pen though, Tarantino directed it from start to finish and came up with the film’s structure.
Malach Dorell says
This “article” is such a disappointment. If you’re going to open an apparent analytical piece with “I am interested in [sic] the way these two guys created great stuff together”, then follow through with that. You go on to spout weirdly biased opinions regarding Tarantino’s post Fiction days, basing them in part on the complete assumption that Avary was the “true genius” behind Fiction’s script. If you’re going to downplay the work of someone as experienced and masterful as Tarantino, let’s see some facts. I’m not trying to diminish your opinion on his films–think what you’d like. But back your shit up. Put fucking “op-ed” in the title or some shit, not “case study”. For anyone passionate about cinema and familiar with this story, and also versed in good journalism, this is sad and highly frustrating. I hope to find something of much greater substance from you. Next time, send your work to an editor. Or get a new editor.
Trash article. Roger Avery John Lennon? You ignoramus…