Category Archives: Kevin Ikenberry

Jackie Brown: Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece

JackieBrown

Quentin Tarantino’s Subtle Masterpiece

We’ve all seen Quentin Tarantino’s movies and the episodes of television he has guest-directed (I’m partial to his epic episode of ER), and there are so many things we love or maybe hate about them. I have my favorites and my not-so favorites like everyone else. Yet, his almost unique approach to storytelling makes him one of the examples I use when I discuss movies that are even better than their screenplays read. Does he tend to have too-long periods of conversation? Sure. Is there a lot of gratuitous violence? Yes. But it hasn’t always been that way. Along the way, he mastered subtle story-telling.

My favorite of Tarantino’s movies is Jackie Brown. The movie is based on crime fiction master Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. With a stellar cast including Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert Forster, Chris Tucker, Bridget Fonda, and Robert De Niro, this film is not a hyper-violent revenge saga (Kill Bill) or a riff on alternate history (Inglorious Basterds), this is a very subtle character study and as such it is a masterpiece.

Jackie Brown (Grier) is a middle-aged flight attendant who smuggles money from Mexico into the United States for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Jackson). When she’s caught by Federal agents, they propose a deal for her to help them arrest Ordell in exchange for her freedom. Ordell bails out Jackie with the intention of eliminating her, but Jackie is thinking ahead and plots a way to steal $500,000 from Ordell with the help of her bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster). Things seldom are so simple.

From the beginning of the movie, the characters are so subtly handled that it almost makes you wonder if you’re watching a Tarantino film. We immediately like and empathize with Jackie in a dead-end job because we see her hurrying through the airport and putting on a smile all the while. When she’s caught, we can see she was stuck in the middle of a bad situation because it helped financially. Ordell (a masterful performance by Jackson) is creepy, distrustful, and loathsome from the moment we meet him – and he gets worse throughout the film. But these audience reactions are genuine and not ham-fisted by any means. Just by watching the movie and letting the character’s depth play out visually, you pick these things up. Tarantino mastered “show, don’t tell” and he doesn’t need product placement, direct conversation, or tedious imagery to get the point across.

The heart of the movie is the relationship between Jackie and Max. We see two middle-aged people in dead-end jobs that they do not enjoy being drawn together. How Tarantino handles their relationship is simply beautiful. The gradual development of their unspoken feelings for each other reaches a crescendo when Max puts his life on the line for her. I won’t spoil the ending, but the first time I watched it I remember wishing like hell it had been different only to realize that it was perfectly crafted for the characters because of who they were and what we as the audience had learned about them throughout the film.

And one more example. Robert De Niro’s character is such a departure for the actor that you’re almost dumbfounded he’s playing that role. To me, this is brilliant casting because you’re waiting for De Niro to be De Niro, you know? And when it happens, it’s brutal and perfect. I’ll leave it at that and not spoil much more. Brilliant casting.

One final thought. I always write with music playing and I pay very close attention to movie soundtracks for what works and what does not. Music is important to mood and when done well it’s a subtle attention grabber. The soundtrack for this movie is simply amazing. Every song fits its scene perfectly.

Tarantino’s strength in bringing memorable characters to life with the subtle aspects of their personalities, likes, dislikes, and they way there simply “are” is something all of us should strive for in our writing. Beating the reader over the head with what you want them to know takes away from the level of care they should develop for your characters. Be subtle. Be brilliant.

“The Most Successful Bankrobber Ever”

Jack Foley.

The first time I met Jack Foley was in Elmore Leonard’s novel Out Of Sight. Elmore Leonard was a literary genius and his approach to storytelling and dialogue are two of my biggest influences when I write. You’ve probably been aware of his work (notably Get Shorty, 3:10 To Yuma, and the television series Justified to name a few). When I read Out of Sight, I immediately liked Foley as a character. But when the movie came out, something incredible happened. The movie version released in 1998 and was directed by Stephen Soderbergh. It remains one of my favorite movies and, in my opinion, the best of Leonard’s novels turned into film (in a tie with Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown – which I’ll discuss next month!).

Foley’s career bank robber with a good heart escapes from the Glades Federal Penitentiary in Florida and promptly runs into U.S Marshall Karen Sisco. In the commotion of the escape, they end up in the trunk of a Cadillac as Foley and his accomplice, Buddy, run. By the time we see this, we’re already in love with Foley. He is smart, good looking, charming as hell, and always has a plan. In the trunk of the car, lit by the reverse side of the taillights, Foley and Sisco have a conversation that feels as natural as one that you and I could have. In the midst of the dangerous situation, sirens and flashing lights close by, we’re pulled into their discussion as naturally as possible. By the time they got out of the car, and the rest of the tale unfolds, we’re clearly following both of them and wanting them to get together at the end of the movie.

In the movie, George Clooney plays Jack Foley and Jennifer Lopez plays Karen Sisco. With Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Michael Keaton, and Albert Brooks as some of the stellar cast, the movie is very true to Leonard’s novel.

So what’s the big deal? Why is Jack Foley a memorable character?

Flash forward a few years and Elmore Leonard’s sequel to Out of Sight was released. Road Dogs follows Jack Foley after his release from prison as he tries to build a new life for himself but keeps running afoul of shady characters out for money and blood. From the book Out of Sight, which is one of my favorite Leonard titles, I liked Foley’s character. However, seeing him played by Clooney so perfectly, as I read Road Dogs, I could not stop seeing and hearing Clooney in the role. That’s where Foley transcended being a likable sympathetic character into something different. Clooney’s effortless performance as Foley indelibly attaches his “aura” to the character. The likable, memorable character has become something else entirely through the visual medium.

There are a few movies that suck me in when I find them one television. All of them have something in common. A sympathetic, regular guy protagonist with a good heart trying to get by. All of those movies have been perfectly cast so that the main characters are indelibly etched into our minds. Seriously – could anyone other than Tim Robbins have played Andy in Shawshank Redemption? Clooney’s performance as Jack Foley did exactly the same thing. When written stories become films, so many times the elements the make the books vibrant and alive are lost. Sometimes, we cannot see a character in our minds as clearly as the movies define them.

But when a likable, memorable character is played by the right actor or actress – wow. And you all know exactly what I’m talking about. But is it the actor or the character that is memorable? I vote character. No matter the actor’s talent, commitment to the role, or appearance, the character is developed on paper and is the vision of the writer/screenwriter that the actor is to bring to life. When it’s done perfectly in a book, it resonates with us. When we see that on camera, it’s more than memorable. It’s legendary.

Et tu, social life?

Maintaining a work/life balance for me as an author is very different than a lot of folks. Up until recently, I served on active duty in the Army as a space operations officer. Military service is a 24/7/365 thing. Even when weekends and holidays arrive, there’s always the chance that something will happen and I would have to tug my boots on and get back to work. Now that I’m in the process of retiring, that constant pressure has lessened, but my work/life balance as a writer remains pretty much unchanged.

Why? Several years ago, when writing the book that became Runs In The Family, I established a pretty decent routine of writing 2,000 words a night after our only daughter (at the time) went to bed. I kept that up for about four years until our second little one came along. With two in the house, I found writing any amount of words difficult for about a year, but I still kept to a schedule of writing at night and getting 500-1,000 words down when I could. It was a struggle, but the novel than became Sleeper Protocol came from this routine, as did the rough drafts of two other books and a couple dozen short stories.

Routine matters. What has taken up the slack for my routine is that my social time is very limited. Granted, this happens with small children and probably won’t ease up until they are in high school or college, but the reality is that I still write at night and I’ve had to limit the evening social times I’ve enjoyed with writer friends a lot over the past year to get the writing done. I’ve eased off a bit on those limits recently, mainly because it’s important to get out and be social with fellow writers, but I still am writing every day.

My retirement situation has left me in the search for another full-time job, so I have considerable time during the week to get new words down. I’m taking that opportunity now and shifting my schedule around to compensate. When I get back into a work situation, I’ll likely go right back to tucking our kids in bed, sharing a glass of wine with my wife, and sitting down at the writing desk to knock out 2,000 words.

The routine of sitting down to write on a schedule is a critical part of a work/life balance. Everyone talks about the self-discipline needed to be a writer, but the true self-discipline is not writing the words. That comes pretty easy for most of us. The real challenge is getting those words in around work, kids, dirty laundry, yard work, and a host of other things that get in our way. By setting aside a time and getting the words down, you train yourself to be creative at that time and what starts as a difficult slog becomes easier as time goes by. I have a great many friends who get up extra early to write before going to their jobs – and they’ve done this for years. They’ve trained themselves to do it.

The simple reality here is that you can, too. Your writing time is as important as your job and your family and your social life. Most likely, you’re like me and cannot pass up the first two. Will I miss having a beer and super nachos with good friends every now and then? Absolutely! But, I also know that if I can get the words down, edited, and submitted, that’s a victory I can celebrate. One night out isn’t going to hurt me because I already have a plan for the next night, and the one following that one.

You should, too.

Sometimes You Have to Let Go

Sleeper ProtocolIn October 2014, I signed a contract with Red Adept Publishing for my debut novel, Sleeper Protocol. From February of this year until September, the publisher’s amazing editing team worked with me through six content edit passes and four copy-editing passes. I could say, without lying, that I learned to love the editing process because of the awesome team I had in place. But what I learned this year to improve my craft was that sometimes you have to let go.

You see, Sleeper Protocol went through it’s early stages several years ago as a short story and then novella entitled “Walkabout.” Every time I worked on the basic idea, there was so much more to tell. I fell deeper and deeper in love with the story as I wrote. Strong feelings during the writing process are good because they take us deeper into the scenes, the motivations, and the surroundings of our story. When I made a sweeping change to the story and “appointed” a new antagonist, the book took off. When I submitted the manuscript to Red Adept, I was understandably nervous but I believed that the book’s title, first line, and entire plot would get the publishers attention.

I was right – but one out of three ain’t bad.

In one of the very first conversations I had with my publisher, the working title of Walkabout had to go. There were too many other books out there with the same title or a variation thereof and finding it could present a problem to prospective readers. To my surprise, this wasn’t that difficult to swallow, except that I spent about two weeks trying to use Walkabout in every possible title combination. Nothing worked. I decided to put off searching for a title until the content edits were completed. I spent weeks brainstorming a new title only to find that my publisher and I both came up with the same possible title, and Sleeper Protocol was officially born.

During the editing process, though, I learned the biggest lesson of all. We’re told to put everything we have into the hook. The right voice, descriptions, and purposeful prose will bring the reader in, right? I created what I thought was a great first line only to have my editor immediately tell me it had to go. There was a POV inconsistency in it and it led the reader in the wrong direction – but in my mind it was perfect!

And there was no point arguing about it. My content editor was exactly right. We made the change and re-tooled the first few lines and made the opening stronger. When the very first line gets the ire of your editor, it’s easy to think that the rest of process will be horrible. To the contrary, it gave me a tremendous boost of confidence that she loved the book enough to say “Hey Kevin, let’s do this differently.”

The lesson: don’t hold on too tight. Yes, the story is your baby and you’re understandably anxious about the whole process, but when your team says “consider this” you have to listen. I am glad that I learned to do just that, and I think that the novel is so much stronger than when I submitted it eighteen months ago. Hopefully, you’ll help be the judge of that.

Sleeper Protocol releases in ebook formats on January 5, 2016 with print versions to follow. You can find more information on my website www.kevinikenberry.com. Happy New Year, and I wish that 2016 be a great year for your writing!

About the Author: Kevin Ikenberry

Kevin IkenberryKevin ikenberry’s head has been in the clouds since he was old enough to read. Ask him and he’ll tell you that he still wants to be an astronaut. Kevin has a diverse background in space science education and works with space every day.

Kevin’s science fiction and horror short fiction has appeared internationally, most recently in the anthologies Extreme Planets and Pernicious Invaders. His debut novel, Sleeper Protocol, is due in January 2016 from Red Adept Publishing.

Kevin is a member of Fiction Foundry, Pikes Peak Writers, and is an alumna of the Superstars Writing Seminar.

He can be found online at www.kevinikenberry.com.