10 Screenwriting Lessons You Can Learn From Django Unchained

Welcome to a new series of articles we’re running here at WhatCulture, prior to a new section of the site…

T.J. Barnard

Editorial Team

Django5

Welcome to a new series of articles we’re running here at WhatCulture, prior to a new section of the site that will be opening up soon – one which will focus entirely on the subject of screenwriting.

Previously, I’ve looked at both The Dark Knight Rises and Prometheus. Today, I’m going to see what lessons we can take from Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western/blaxploitation hybrid Django Unchained.

In this day and age, it’s becoming more and more difficult to see a movie at the theatre and come out feeling completely satisfied. Two decades ago, I don’t think that would’ve been such a huge problem, and I’m somewhat envious of those movie-goers who went to the movies without the excessive baggage brought on by relentless marketing campaigns, trailers and advertisements: with all that going on, it’s nearly impossible not to build up a huge set of expectations, right?

Which is why, at first, Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino’s seventh feature – left me feeling slightly disappointed. And I say slightly, because deep down, I think my expectations were too high to begin with and that jaded my viewing: the “perfect” movie I had conjured in my head (mainly because I adore both spaghetti westerns and Tarantino) would have been impossible to achieve – and even if it could have been attained, would I have really wanted that version of the movie anyway?

My experience with Django Unchained didn’t start with the finished movie, though: I read the screenplay a couple of years before when it got leaked online. At first I tried to resist, but the temptation was too great. Reading it, it struck me as a bit of a mess – in retrospect, “messiness” is a trait that most critical reviews (even the positive ones) picked up on. It also struck me as wildly imaginative, immensely fun to read, and packed to the brim with that great QT dialogue we all know and love.

Earlier this year, Tarantino won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay at the Oscars for this very script. Though I was certainly pleased for him, I can think of other QT screenplays that probably deserved the Oscar more: it’s far from perfect (and that’s something you can pick up by either watching the movie or reading the original screenplay). But the movie is still a great one, and is entirely deserving of the high praise it has received.

Tarantino is generally seen as a bad role-model for aspiring screenwriters because he doesn’t conform to any of the rules that you might glimpse in books by Robert McKee or Syd Field or attending prestigious screenwriting courses. Simply put, writing a Tarantino-esque script isn’t seen as a good way of breaking into the industry. Why, despite all those Oscars? Because the man doesn’t adhere to “standard structure” and writes enough dialogue to fill five or six different screenplays.

Despite all that, though, QT’s films are engrossing as hell, so whatever he’s doing, it’s safe to say it works. In this article, I’m going to wrench some screenwriting lessons (both good and bad in nature) from Django Unchained and see what we can learn. Given the idiosyncratic nature of QT’s script, these tips might prove to be a little more left field than those offered in the previous articles in this series, but will hopefully reveal themselves to be valuable nonetheless.