COVER STORY : A Chat With Mr. Mayhem : Quentin Tarantino quickly acquired quite the reputation for violence. His 1992 film ‘Reservoir Dogs’ was a cult hit. Now comes ‘Pulp Fiction.’ Is he trying to outgun himself or all of Hollywood?
Perhaps it is genius at work, an audible whir, evidence of synapses plying their magic in a West Hollywood apartment complex. The junk mail in the front hallway suggests this scenario could be true: “Quentin Tarantino or Current Resident.”
“I’m in the kitchen!”
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Oct. 2, 1994 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 2, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 3 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Palme d’Or--A Sept. 11 article about director Quentin Tarantino incorrectly reported the number of American films that have won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. As reader Steve Barr points out, 13 American films have won or shared the honor: “Marty” (1955), “Friendly Persuasion” (1957), “MASH” (1970), “Scarecrow” (1973), “The Conversation” (1974), “Taxi Driver” (1976), “All That Jazz” (1980), “Missing” (1982), “Paris, Texas” (1984), “sex, lies and videotape” (1989), “Wild at Heart” (1990), “Barton Fink” (1991) and Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” this year.
It is here that he lives, 31 years old and a legendary filmmaker with just a pair of movies--"Reservoir Dogs,” his 1992 cult hit, and now “Pulp Fiction,” the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes. Already he is the stuff of myth and currently at work--over a blender.
“I’m on this diet,” Tarantino sings out over the whirring, slinging a fistful of ice. “I’ve already lost 12 pounds.”
Even the diet, penance for a lifetime’s devotion to Denny’s, Tarantino imbues with his own zealous stamp. “It’s the best because you make it with any kind of diet soda,” he says, cracking a Mountain Dew, dumping its tell-tale luridness and a packet of mysterious pink powder into the icy slush. The blender glows like neon.
“God,” he says, snapping off the machine, pouring himself a glass and holding it aloft to admire his creation. “I would never go on anything disgusting like Slim-Fast.”
It is, to be sure, a fine distinction but indicative of the deep idiosyncratic taste that has propelled Tarantino into the proverbial forefront of a new generation of filmmakers. With his playwright’s ear for dialogue and penchant for violent, structurally complex narratives, the self-taught director--a former video store clerk and high school dropout from the South Bay area--has parlayed a fan’s fascination with pop culture into one of the most promising and controversial film careers going, a move that he describes almost disingenuously: “I’m a guy who makes movies you either like or you don’t.”
That divisiveness certainly attended his debut film, “Reservoir Dogs,” a stylish, low-budget crime drama about a jewelry heist gone awry that both mocked and exploited the genre’s conventions with its “Rashomon” narrative techniques. After sweeping through the Toronto, Sundance and Cannes festivals, the film earned Tarantino comparisons to Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese. In the words of one producer, “It was the best film debut in 25 years.” Like the other young, culturally diverse directors to whom he was initially compared--John Singleton, Gus Van Sant and Abel Ferrara--Tarantino had arrived with an agenda: to revive and personalize an art form he saw as more than due for generational overhaul. As a post-baby boomer raised on a cultural diet of videotape movies, MTV and “reality-based” tabloid news shows, the filmmaker brought a puckishly postmodernist sensibility as well as a cineaste’s rigorous aesthetic evident not only in “Reservoir Dogs” but also in his scripts for last year’s “True Romance,” directed by Tony Scott, and “Natural Born Killers,” Oliver Stone’s controversial drama, which opened last month.
“Because movies are so characterless these day--basically film versions of situation comedies--I like to work in a genre while subverting it from the inside,” Tarantino says. “I like to work against an audience’s usual expectations.”
Not everyone sees his work in those terms. Many critics decried “Reservoir Dogs,” which contained a controversial 10-minute torture sequence, as overly violent, needlessly profane, racist and possibly misogynistic, a showy calling card as much as serious artistic endeavor. Siskel and Ebert gave the film a resounding “two thumbs down.” Given that “True Romance” was hailed as a “Bonnie and Clyde” for the ‘90s,” and “Natural Born Killers” opened only after a protracted struggle with the ratings board over the film’s violent content, Tarantino would seem to have a lock on what he calls “the guy with the gun.”
That simple perception is already being tested with “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino’s much-awaited second directorial effort that will be released this fall. A crime drama that blends seemingly banal pop cultural references, explosive violence and an absurdist style of humor in a rich, twisting novel-like narrative, the movie stars John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis and Uma Thurman. Only the fourth American film to win the coveted Palm d’Or, “Pulp Fiction” will open the New York Film Festival Sept. 23 and go nationwide on Oct. 7, after its upset win at Cannes this spring.
“Oh, the Palme d’Or? I’ll give you the real answer to that question,” says Tarantino, flopping onto a chair in his living room, which seems largely furnished with a massive television set and mountains of laser discs. “It hasn’t changed my stature in the industry, because my stature in the industry couldn’t be better. But it has given me the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, so if you don’t like my work now it has to do with your own taste and not my material.”
His feckless self-confidence notwithstanding (he has already termed “Pulp Fiction” “a great film”). Tarantino faces the larger issue of determining what his career means for Hollywood as a whole. In an industry that has, with few exceptions, seldom been comfortable producing edgy, iconoclastic films, and in the current economic climate even less inclined, the question lingers: Exactly how mainstream will Tarantino become?
So far the signs appear to mixed. Despite the cult-hit status of “Reservoir Dogs,” the film was regarded within the studio system as largely “a succes d'estime “ as one producer put it, a perception that was not altered when “True Romance” failed to generate much more than controversy. As early as last year, one studio, TriStar Pictures, declined to produce “Pulp Fiction” despite its modest $8-million budget.
Even now, when the movie is arriving with the Cannes imprimatur and the marketing savvy of Miramax Films (the producers of “Pulp Fiction,” with whom Tarantino has a development deal), the anticipation is not one of guaranteed box-office success. Not after David Lynch, another darkly iconoclastic American director who won the Palme d’Or (for 1990’s “Wild at Heart”), only to see his career languish as too marginal, too off-putting for mainstream audiences. Observes one former studio executive: “Quentin’s films are at the point--but not yet beyond it--where they open because of the critical community and an underground audience.”
Yet “Pulp Fiction” is arriving at a perhaps crucial time when studios have begun to re-examine their existing formulas. When difficult, downbeat films like “The Crow” gross a surprising $50 million at the box office and “Natural Born Killers” scores an unexpected $10-million opening weekend--a figure that caught several studio heads unawares--the possibility exists that “Pulp Fiction” may further tap into that growing segment of the audience that appreciates dark, even violent films done in a classy, art-house way.
“If ‘Natural Born Killers’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’ are commercial as well as critical successes, Tarantino can write his own ticket,” says the former executive, “because he will have shown not that he is mainstream but that he can bring mainstream audiences over to his vision.”
Indeed, amid all the pre-release hype surrounding “Pulp Fiction,” there is the growing perception that Tarantino’s rise to prominence has been far more calculated than the guileless ascent by some idiot savant filmmaker that the media have so far reported. Rather, colleagues say, Tarantino’s career has been a carefully orchestrated, frankly self-serving campaign that not only speaks to his abilities as a director but also to his talent for creating himself in the public eye. His model, they add, is not Scorsese or Brian De Palma but “triple-threat auteurs “ like Woody Allen and Spike Lee who write, direct and act in their own works.
“Quentin is a brilliant guy, but he is brilliant in a lot of ways, and one of those is managing his career,” says longtime friend, screenwriter-director Roger Avary. “He is a completely self-taught guy, a writer, director and actor who has closely studied the lives of other filmmakers, and he knows exactly how his career should go.”
“Everyone is waiting to see how this film does,” says Lawrence Bender, the producer of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” and Tarantino’s partner in their film company, A Band Apart. “But even before ‘Dogs’ we had an overall plan--we knew the second movie would be more important than the first one--and we deliberately set out to build our careers.”
Yet all of this has begun to take its toll, not only on some of Tarantino’s key professional relationships--notably the fraying of his longtime association with Avary, who recently directed his first film, “Killing Zoe,” and who shares story credit with Tarantino on “Pulp Fiction"--but also on the filmmaker himself. According to some reports, he is struggling with the ramifications of having become “too big too fast,” as one colleague puts it. As Tarantino recently confided to one old friend: “I still feel like that kid in the video store and that some studio guy is going to tell me to get out.”
But in conversation, particularly one for the record, Tarantino seems far from any display of insecurity. With his lantern jaw, rumpled hair and stocky build, he has the slightly menacing look of an overgrown kid--an impression that is only abetted by his college-dorm approach to domestication and his swaggering conversational style, a schoolyard bravado that would be off-putting if he were less catholic in his enthusiasm. As Julia Sweeney, the former “Saturday Night Live” actress and one of the filmmaker’s closest friends, characterizes it: “Quentin is totally into his own opinions.”
Or as he describes himself: “People keep on me for all the violence and the pop culture stuff,” he says, downing the last of his homemade brew. “But if that’s all that I really had to offer, well, my movies would be boring, and they’re not.”
It was supposed to be simple, as its title suggests, a film noir homage to the crime novels of the 1930s. Crime stories are one of Tarantino’s favorite narrative styles--he has used variations of the genre in all four of his screenplays--and he finds inspiration for his work in such diverse sources as Howard Hawks films, Elmore Leonard novels and black exploitation and kung-fu movies.
“I just thought it would be really cool in ‘Pulp Fiction’ to do like a Black Mask style of crime anthology where you made one movie out of three separate stories.” His intentions were not “gimmicky,” he adds, but literary, a way to infuse genre filmmaking with some of the creative latitude he saw in novels. “Fiction writers,” he explains, “have a freedom that filmmakers have yet to enjoy.”
Perhaps it was the scope of those ambitions or the film’s unusually long gestation period in a foreign locale (Tarantino spent more than a year, most of it living in Amsterdam, writing a 500-page first draft) or his collaboration with Avary, who had written a full-length script called “Pandemonium Reigns” that eventually became the film’s middle story. Or perhaps it was simply that Tarantino was wary of being permanently labeled “the gun guy.” Whatever the reasons, the resulting 2 1/2-hour gangster movie is the director’s most mature, complex and accessible script to date.
“You hear the same voice in this, the same playing around with humor and (violent) intensity as in my other scripts,” Tarantino says, “but basically this is a totally different kind of movie, a much more laid-back tapestry where the humor takes center stage.”
Laid-back is a relative term, especially when discussing Tarantino’s muscular, volatile style, in which, as one critic writing about “Pulp Fiction” at Cannes put it, “the viewer never has the faintest idea what to expect.” From the tongue-in-cheek casting of pop icons Travolta and Willis as garden-variety tough guys, to startlingly original plot twists that include a boxer fleeing the ring by leaping out a window, a drug-overdose victim miraculously brought back to life and a shootout that results in a religious epiphany, “Pulp Fiction” nimbly stays several steps ahead of an audience’s expectations.
I t is all part of his boldly immod est ambitions to not only write a film “that I want to see” but also to lay down something of a gauntlet to American movie-makers, who he sees as languishing under a lack of imagination.
“There are so many films out there now that are just carbon copies of what we’ve seen--this version of the action movie, that version of a comedy,” Tarantino says. “I want to see a return to storytelling, which is what American films did best--tell stories--but we can’t even do that anymore.”
Says Stacy Sher, president of Jersey Films and an executive producer of “Pulp Fiction”: “What is unique about Quentin’s work is that he takes situations we’ve potentially seen before and stands them on their heads. His use of structure is brilliant, and his characters and dialogue are wholly original.”
Despite the violence tag that is usually affixed to his work, Tarantino’s films are actually more distinguished by their canny interplay with an audience’s emotions, a directorial style that has possibly more in common with the camp deconstruction practiced by Andy Warhol than the visceral cinematic stylizations of, say, Scorsese.
Whether he is slowing a film’s pace to real time as he did in the torture sequence in “Reservoir Dogs,” framing a shot to exclude a key piece of information or, as in the elaborate restaurant sequence in “Pulp Fiction,” satirizing the American fascination with pop culture, Tarantino subverts viewers’ usual expectations, where, as he says, “you know within the first 10 minutes exactly kind of movie you are watching.”
“I like to play with tone and pace and point of view not just to be cool but because it is all available to you,” Tarantino says, shrugging off criticism that he is “reminding people they are watching a movie--I think they know that already.” Besides, he wants to challenge rather than appease an audience. “I don’t like to spell out everything for them,” he says. “I think movies work best when (audiences) have to do a little bit of work too.”
It’s one reason why he uses violence with such a liberal hand, to keep the audience on its toes and off-balance.
“You usually don’t hear a music cue when something horrible is about to happen,” he says. “Real-life violence isn’t that way. It’s more like one minute you’re waiting for a bus and the next minute people are chasing each other with baseball bats. That’s how I try to play it in my movies.”
Tarantino’s taste for visceral crime dramas stems less from a desire for controversy (“I’m not trying to (make a statement) about violence”) than from his own keen appreciation of such classic films as De Palma’s “Blow Out,” Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” and Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” which head his personal Top 10 list because “they’re just good stories.” His preference for “rude, rowdy stuff,” he says, has to do with craftsmanship--one of the easiest ways to suspend an audience’s disbelief. The more realistic that violence, he adds, the more likely “that you forget you are watching a film.”
Yet, for all his protestations about his genial ambitions, “Pulp Fiction” narrowly avoided a NC-17 rating with its numerous gunfights, stabbings and--in one particularly memorable sequence, an S&M; anal rape scene--the kind of content that troubled, at least initially, some of the film’s cast.
“I wasn’t sure that I could morally or ethically align myself with this kind of movie,” says Travolta, who also recognized that playing a heroin-addicted hit man whose reading tastes run to “Modesty Blaise,” offered him “an unexpected career break at a time when I was considered a cooler rather than hotter commodity in Hollywood.” After discussions with Tarantino “helped me realize that he is portraying crime and drugs in a very unglamorous way,” Travolta signed on.
It is an incident that speaks to Tarantino’s continuing frustrations with what he sees as misperceptions of his work. Most of the objections to his films, he says, “are from people who haven’t even seen them.” As for the violence tag, he says, that has more do to with perception than reality. “It’s not that something graphic is happening every minute, but the threat of violence is in the air all the time, so the audience sits there with its gut all scrunched up.”
That’s one reason why Tarantino remains touchy about “Natural Born Killers,” a film about two serial killers that he wrote several years ago as “a dark, satiric comedy” about violence and celebrity. Although he had written the script intending to direct it himself, he eventually sold it to Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher, two young producers, when he needed funding for “Reservoir Dogs.”
“It was one of my first scripts and not one of my strongest,” says Tarantino, who sold “True Romance” to an outside producer for similar reasons. Despite what both sides agree was a good-faith effort to get Tarantino to direct the film himself after “Reservoir Dogs,” the relationship with Murphy soon soured. “It was like an old girlfriend, at that point,” Tarantino says. “I was already on to other things.”
The situation became even more acrimonious when Oliver Stone contacted Murphy about directing “Natural Born Killers” for Warner Bros., the studio that coincidentally was releasing “True Romance.” Stone thought that Tarantino’s movie was potentially “brilliant” but that it needed rewriting, a more straightforward narrative and the addition of back-story for characters who were possibly off-putting to mainstream audiences.
“Once Oliver and Warner Bros. got involved, we’re talking about a film that needed much more mass appeal,” Murphy says. “But Quentin was very much ‘How dare you rewrite my film!’ ”
It is this question of authorship that clearly rankles Tarantino and was a major reason why the release of “Pulp Fiction” was pushed back from August to October.
“I didn’t want to go head to head with ‘Natural Born Killers,’ ” he says, “because I didn’t want the two films compared, because Oliver basically took my script very seriously, which as dark as it was was also pretty playful. I like audiences to make up their own minds, but Oliver Stone has to get the big idea across, and if one person doesn’t get it, he thinks he’s failed. I would rather the film never got made and that my script remained pure.”
That issue of authorial purity, however, has never been a clear-cut one for Tarantino, who freely concedes that his collage-like techniques impel him to “stealfrom every movie I see.” With his almost encyclopedic knowledge of film, an apparently photographic memory, as well as the kind of easy access afforded by videotape, Tarantino has a wealth of movie sequences at his fingertips.
Indeed, many critics noted the similarities between “Reservoir Dogs” and Joseph Sargent’s “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.” Such stylistic homage is increasingly common among young filmmakers such as Tarantino, Sam Raimi and Joel and Ethan Coen.
“Every generation has its blessing and curse,” says Avary, who has known Tarantino for more than 10 years. “Ours is being such a media-literature generation.”
“All of Quentin’s stuff has to do with some other movie,” says Samuel Jackson, who plays a second hit man and John Travolta’s partner in “Pulp Fiction.” “Lots of times he’d explain a scene to us like ‘We’re going to start with the opening shot of “Casablanca,” then go into something Sergio Leone did in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” and then finish up with kind of Wile E. Coyote thing.’ It’s not so much that Quentin steals but he’s paying homage with his shots.”
For Tarantino, however, the issue has become something other than a theoretical one. Already one film journal, Film Threat, has accused him of lifting entire scenes as well as the basic framework of “Reservoir Dogs” from an obscure Asian film, Ringo Lam’s 1987 “City on Fire"--a charge that Tarantino publicly dismissed at Cannes.
Meanwhile, a dispute with Avary over the authorship of “Pulp Fiction” culminated in Tarantino paying his close friend only Writers Guild minimum while asking him to sign a waiver removing his name from any screenplay credit, permanently damaging that relationship. Avary, who has worked with Tarantino on almost all his scripts, has told friends that he will never work with him again.
“Roger wrote a script that I wanted to use for the middle story of “Pulp Fiction,’ so I bought it from him,” Tarantino says somewhat heatedly, referring to “Pandemonium Reigns.” “Then I came up with all the other ideas and characters, and so I adapted his screenplay the way you would adapt a book. But having said that, I don’t want Roger getting credit for (any of the actual) monologues. I wrote the monologues.”
It is perhaps not a surprisingly pugnacious attitude, given that Tarantino took the hard-knocks, rather than film school, route to Hollywood. Tarantino, an only child born in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1963, moved to Los Angeles when he was 2, after his mother, Connie Zastoupil, a nurse, who was part-Cherokee, separated from Tarantino’s father. “I never met my real father,” he says coolly.
The two settled in Torrance, where from the very first Tarantino was something of a film buff, attending movies several times a week accompanied by his musician stepfather. By the time he was 8, Tarantino had seen films ranging from “Bambi” to “Carnal Knowledge.”
Not surprisingly, he originally planned on becoming an actor. A poor, almost dysfunctional student--one story has Tarantino not learning to tell time till he was in the sixth grade--he dropped out of school after the ninth grade to study acting full time. Although he would eventually become proficient enough to land a guest shot playing an Elvis impersonator on “The Golden Girls,” as well as cameo roles in his own films, Tarantino quickly realized that writing was his forte and directors were his real heroes.
Looking to create the kind of splashy, attention-grabbing script that would lure investors, he penned “True Romance,” “Natural Born Killers” and “Reservoir Dogs” as somewhat flamboyant writing samples while supporting himself by working at a video rental store, the now-fabled Video Archives in Manhattan Beach.
I t was there that he first met Avary and began to establish his reputation as a walking library of film, the kind of self-described “movie geek” who knew every camera angle in all of Sergio Leone’s films but who couldn’t be bothered to keep his car registration current. A legendary story has Tarantino spending 10 days in L.A. County Jail when he wouldn’t pay the more than $7,000 in parking fines he incurred on the chance that he might pick up some dialogue useful in his screenwriting.
“Quentin was the kind of guy who had such a limited education I don’t even think he knew how to write--he printed everything--but no one could hold a candle to him when it came to his knowledge and enthusiasm for movies,” recalls Dennis Humbert, a co-owner of Video Archives.
After five years, Tarantino left Video Archives to take a job in Cinetel, a small Hollywood production company, where he finished writing “Reservoir Dogs” and, more important, met Bender, an actor and aspiring producer. Using Bender’s contacts from acting school, the two were able to get “Reservoir Dogs” to Harvey Keitel, who had a history of working in venturesome films. After Keitel agreed to star (he also has a cameo appearance in “Pulp Fiction”), Bender was able to raise the $1.5 million for Tarantino’s debut film.
Today, Tarantino makes almost that much as a director. Although he lives relatively modestly in his apartment--"I like this place,” he says defensively. “It reminds me of an apartment in Paris"--and drives his tiny Geo Metro, the car he first bought after he sold “True Romance,” he has acquired a few trappings of success. He works out with a private trainer now, more freely indulges his insatiable appetite for acquiring books and videos, and he has begun to travel, not just to film festivals where his work is screened but also for pleasure, such as the four-day trip he took to Ireland this summer with Sweeney, a non-romantic friendship, they both say.
“Quentin kept saying this is like being in a Merchant Ivory movie,” the actress says. “I think it really opened his eyes to different kind of lifestyles he might lead.”
Perhaps most significant, Tarantino says he has no immediate plans for his next movie. Other than a brief segment he will direct in “The Four Runes"--a Miramax-produced collaboration that also features the work of directors Allison Anders and Alex Rockwell, two of Tarantino’s close colleagues--he plans on spending the year in relative repose, riding his new mountain bike and acting in other people’s movies while he waits “for that organic idea for my next film” to germinate.
“That’s the lamest thing about making a movie, because you don’t have a personal life,” Tarantino says. “Right now I just want to totally chill, and maybe in, like seven months, I’ll have any idea for my next movie.”
Meanwhile, he can be seen in cameos in two small movies, the upcoming “Sleep With Me” and “Destiny Turns on the Radio,” which begins filming this fall. “I have the coolest part,” he says, speaking almost as much about himself as his role. “I play Destiny."*