So you thought Quentin Tarantino was just a film director.
Well, maybe in America he is. Here in Britain, he’s much, much more.
On a flying visit to London that ended this week, Tarantino confirmed his credentials as (a) a pop culture icon, (b) a tastemaker and (c) a celebrity whose public appearances generate the sort of frenzy usually reserved for rock stars.
His name seemed to be on the lips of half the British population as he arrived at the government-funded National Film Theatre for an onstage interview, coinciding with a season of his favorite movies. The NFT is usually the haunt of bookish, serious-minded cineastes, but this occasion was different.
“We had 3,000 applications for tickets from members alone,” said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for the NFT. “From early December onward, the phones didn’t stop ringing. Every other call was people asking for Tarantino tickets.”
The main NFT theater, capacity 450, was packed, but another 162 people in a smaller adjacent theater saw the interview and question-and-answer session on video screens.
But the most extreme scenes of Tarantino-mania were seen at the NFT bookshop, where the director signed copies of his screenplays “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “True Romance” for adoring fans.
“It was a 20-minute book signing after the interview, and he got through about 100 people,” said Robinson. “But he could have signed for 500. There was complete hysteria from fans who were unable to get their books signed.”
Angela Smith of Faber & Faber, the London publishers of Tarantino’s screenplays, described the scenes in the bookshop as “astonishing. One young woman became completely hysterical and had to be removed.”
Tarantino fans started lining up outside the NFT 10 hours before the interview session. They included a wide cross-section of people, Robinson noted: “There were young and old, men and women. It wasn’t just geeky teen-agers by any means.
“We’re accustomed to hosting celebrities at the NFT, but no one here can remember anything like this. We’ve been having these interviews onstage since 1981, and Robert Redford didn’t attract this intensity of following. Nor did Warren Beatty. Or Gloria Swanson.”
Tarantino worked the crowds assiduously. Robinson said that most interview subjects at the NFT only turn up for the two-hour session, which usually forms part of a retrospective of their films. “But Quentin insisted on staying on, being around and personally introducing five of his favorite films from the season.”
Among his choices were Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” and “Rio Bravo”; John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and “Assault on Precinct 13"; Douglas Sirk’s “Magnificent Obsession” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” and “Band of Outsiders.”
Tarantino passed up the chance to be a presenter at the Evening Standard Film Awards, which honors British actors and filmmakers, to stay at the NFT Sunday evening and introduce another of his favorite films, Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
His popularity at the dais is nearly matched by his popularity in bookstores. Angela Smith reported that the screenplay of “Pulp Fiction” has sold 55,000 copies since it was published in October, making it the best-selling screenplay in British publishing history. Last week it was No. 9 on one national paperback fiction best-seller list.
The screenplay of Tarantino’s first movie, “Reservoir Dogs,” has sold more than 30,000 since being published in November. His script “True Romance,” which was directed by Tony Scott, was published by Faber & Faber only last week and has already sold 12,000 copies. (Faber & Faber’s previous best-selling screenplay was “The Singing Detective” by the late Dennis Potter, which sold 32,000 copies.)
“The ‘Pulp Fiction’ screenplay is a phenomenon,” said Smith. “When it was published, it was reviewed in serious newspapers and magazines as if it were a fiction book. That never happened before.”
Despite the adulation, Tarantino nonetheless turned down all requests for British press interviews. “I think he feels he may becoming overexposed,” said Michelle Sewell of Buena Vista, the British distributors of “Pulp Fiction.”
Despite no interviews, the more cerebral newspapers here have devoted hundreds of column inches to theorizing about Tarantino’s talent and celebrity. Even his social engagements have been reported on breathlessly, including dinners with European directors Luc Besson and Bernardo Bertolucci.
“He might only have made two films, but he touches a nerve of popular taste in this country,” said Robinson, adding that the NFT hoped to lure Tarantino back to host its 1997 retrospective of Howard Hawks.
“Directors don’t get mobbed often. But Tarantino’s broken the mold--he’s become almost like a rock star.”