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Calendar Big Oscars Issue : Celluloid Heroes : Quentin Tarantino and Robert Zemeckis have been cast as the yin and yang of filmmaking. But when they talk movies, they’re brothers under the lens.

<i> Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

In 1994, it seemed, you might have been classified as either a “Forrest Gump” person or a “Pulp Fiction” person, just as once upon a time you might have been asked whether you were a Beatles person or a Stones person. This was the year’s Rorschach that presumably would determine whether you tended toward naughty or nice.

And these were the two pictures that, above all others, captured America’s adult imagination in the last year. With both sleepers-cum-smashes up for many of the same crucial Oscar categories, it was easy to posit some sort of moral competition, “Gump’s” triumph of dumb virtue being pitted against “Pulp’s” wages of venality.

Their directors, Robert Zemeckis and Quentin Tarantino, will have none of this handy polarization. They will, if prompted, point out that their pictures have as much in common as not: a hugely ironic sphere of reference; sudden, shocking shifts in tone between comedy and tragedy; a kind of epic-scale intimacy, and a sensibility steeped in the quirky dialects and rhythms of real life, but also informed by a century of all the razzle and dazzle the big screen has to offer.

With that in mind, The Times asked Tarantino and Zemeckis--real film fans as well as makers--to get together and interview each other about nothing more or less than “the movies.” They did, gladly. Tarantino showed up at Zemeckis’ office on a hot afternoon with a bottle of champagne in a bucket of ice, and Zemeckis supplied the sushi. (There were no chocolates or Royales with cheese in sight.)

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Not very long ago, Tarantino, 32, was just another young rank-and-file fan of Zemeckis, 42--and, charmingly, still acted like it; the elder director wasn’t above gushing in turn over his upstart Oscar competitor’s preternaturally accomplished auteurism. Mostly, though, these excerpts show, they unpretentiously shared some common crushes, two guys who really did (per Pauline Kael) lose it at the movies.

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Zemeckis’ and Tarantino’s conversation began with the usual what’ve-you-been-up-to’s. Tarantino mentioned that he was planning to executive-produce a picture that pal Robert Rodriguez will direct, from an old script of Tarantino’s, a vampire film to be titled “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.” Coincidentally enough, it turned out, Zemeckis also has some old bloodsuckers he’s dusting off.

Zemeckis: Actually, the very first script that I wrote with Bob Gale is being made. And it’s a vampire movie, “Bordello of Blood.”

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Tarantino: No kidding! Really?

RZ: Yeah, we’re making it as a "(Tales From the) Crypt” movie.

QT: Now, did Brian De Palma use your title? Was that a homage to you, in “Blow Out”? That’s one of the horror films that John Travolta is doing the sound on.

RZ: It wasn’t a homage; he stole it. ( amazed ) Now, do you see all that background stuff when you watch movies, or do you just see ‘em so many times. . . .

QT: I tend to notice stuff like that. And I do see ‘em a bunch of times. But actually, “Bordello of Blood” stands out. If I just saw the movie once, I would probably remember that. I always pay attention when they have a title for a nonexistent movie in a movie. Because they always have it too outlandish; it never sounds like a real title.

I thought one of the first victories I ever had in that regard was in “True Romance.” The name of the Vietnam movie that the cocaine dealer was the producer of was a thing called “Coming Home in a Body Bag.” And I thought, that’s cool! See, I’d go see that!

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RZ: Favorite movie lists are impossible for me to do.

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QT: I’ve now got it broken down to my top three. One is “Rio Bravo” . . .

RZ: I love that movie.

QT: I adore that movie. And “Taxi Driver,” and Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out,” which we were just talking about.

RZ: Really?

QT: Yeah, I love “Blow Out,” I really, really do. He’s one of my very favorite directors. I always thought that was his best movie.

One of the things that really cracks me up in that is, De Palma had been working for a while on “Prince of the City,” which he was going to do with John Travolta. And then they took it away from him and hired Sidney Lumet. And he’s got that great sequence in the middle of “Blow Out” where you find out that what Travolta did before he was a sound man was wiring people for a committee to stop corruption on the police force, and they have a flashback to it--and it’s just like DePalma got the chance to do, like, a few seconds of the material that he put together on “Prince of the City”!

But I’ve actually always said that one of my favorite movies of the ‘70s was “Used Cars” (a Zemeckis film that actually came out in 1980).

RZ: Really? Did you see it when it came out?

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QT: I saw it in a drive-in. I absolutely adored it. It’s one of my favorite comedies of the last 20 years. And when I say that, you have to understand that when you work at a video store for five years and you have a favorite comedy, you get to know the movie.

We always put on “Used Cars” and watched it as we were working. It was like putting on a record album. There’s quite a few comedies that we knew every line of dialogue. It becomes part of your vocabulary. Whenever the appropriate moment comes, you can just say, “Well, what do you want to do, put roller skates on those boys?” ( laughter )

RZ: You know, I’ve got to tell you, of all the movies that I’ve made, that’s the movie that people compliment me the most on. And when that movie came out, I was so disappointed, because it wasn’t even released in half the nation. It just dribbled out. There was no real distribution plan at the studio. But what amazes me is how many people, at the end of the decade, have seen the movie.

QT: It was so much different before video. Now some movies that didn’t do so well have entered the consciousness completely, even as little as five years later. I always had a theory that if they had ever done a sequel to “Buckaroo Banzai"--not now, but four years or so after the first release--that film could’ve done really well, because by then a lot of America knew who Buckaroo Banzai was!

I had a theory about what I hoped would happen with “Pulp Fiction.” I had had some success overseas with “Reservoir Dogs,” and people talked a lot about it, but in America it did art-house business. And then “True Romance” came out and didn’t do that well, and I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I guess what I do doesn’t get a large audience. I guess that’s that.”

But with “Pulp Fiction,” I knew we would make our money and do OK foreign-wise--but I hoped that by the time it came out, anyone even remotely inclined to like my stuff probably would have seen “Reservoir Dogs” on video after three years. I was hoping that the ticket sales when “Reservoir Dogs” came out were not a correct judgment of my audience now.

RZ: I’m in a constant conflict about having to make a movie for the big and the small screen at the same time, stylistically. So I just basically make it for the large screen. And I actually have a hard time watching videotapes at all. I can only watch laser discs now. Because it’s getting that I can’t stand . . .

QT: The pan-and-scan?

RZ: And just the degradation of the image.

QT: I feel the exact same way. Except if I’m looking at an old exploitation film that I have on videotape, that doesn’t bother me, because more than likely, when you were having the theatrical experience on that, it was with a one-light projector anyway, and a big hole in the screen. (laughter)

RZ: But you don’t get the experience of the wine bottle rolling down underneath the seats.

QT: No, you don’t have that. And you don’t have the audience going “ Yes! Punch him again! Blow his head off!” It’s funny, though, because while I’m so almost sanctimonious about the whole theatrical experience, it was after I’d made my first movie and I saw how in actual fact it’s the projectionists who have the final cut--after I had my film screwed up by lame projectionists--that I actually started really appreciating that laser disc. That there’ll be one thing that exists where all the reel changes work and the print is good and I approved the color timing on it. From beginning to end, it’s gonna be a good showing.

RZ: The other thing that I’m wondering about is, I have a 9-year-old son, and when he was really small, he would watch videotapes over and over and over again. And so do all the kids that we know. And you don’t know why they’re so infatuated with a certain cartoon or whatever it is. We all talk about how we grew up with television. But imagine if when you were 3 and 4 years old, you watched a particular movie 50 times, and nothing else, over and over again?

QT: We never had an opportunity.

RZ: Of course. No one ever did.

QT: When I worked in a video store, I heard parents complain about that, and they’d get mad at their children in the store: “You’ve seen that already! Try something new!” And I would take on the psychology of the kid. Where the children are coming from, they’re not blase about the movie experience. They’re (thinking), “Well, why should I try something that I might not like? I know I’m gonna like that !” And it actually makes me wish I could be them in a way, that you could watch a movie 14, 15 times in a row--and they laugh through it every time!

Tell me if you ever had this thought when you were a kid when you went to the movies. My dad took me to “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” We missed the first 15 minutes of it, so we stayed to see the first 15 minutes of the next show. And I remember consciously thinking to myself, “You mean, for the same price of admission, they just keep showing them over and over again? Well, when I’m an adult and I go to the movies, I’m gonna watch it four times!” It didn’t seem crazy to me, when I was a kid.

RZ: But I did that, and I remember the movie. It was “Swiss Family Robinson.”

QT: (shouting) I did it on “Swiss Family Robinson” too!

RZ: I sat all day in that movie theater and just watched it, because I thought that was the coolest way to live your life, to be shipwrecked and live in a treehouse and kill a bunch of pirates. . . . So that was the same experience, but, having the video, it’s much more extreme.

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RZ: So would you ever consider directing something you didn’t write?

QT: I’m sure I will eventually, but right now I’m just too comfortable--but I think comfortable in a good way--doing my own stuff. Was it a big deal when you finally did somebody else’s script?

RZ: No, it wasn’t a big deal. I found myself being a lot more open to other people’s suggestions. Because when someone would say, “What color should we paint that door?” and I had written it, it was like, “Well, it’s gotta be red, of course! It’s obvious!” But of course it wasn’t obvious to the department head. But when you do somebody else’s material, you say, “Well, let’s talk about this.” I found that directing other people’s scripts improved my writing.

QT: The only movie that I’ve seen in the last couple of years where I thought, “If I had been offered that screenplay, I might have done that,” was “Hero,” written by David Peoples, who did “Unforgiven.”

RZ: Huh! That’s interesting.

QT: Not that Stephen Frears did a bad job, but I would have tackled it in a different way. So far, it’s the only one, when I think back on all the films I’ve seen in the last few years, that might have made me take the bite of the apple. I don’t want to criticize the movie, but something about the cleverness of the screenplay inspired me, and I thought, “Oh, I would have gone this way with that, where he went that way.”

RZ: Right, right. Did you ever get the screenplay and read it?

QT: No, I’m dying to. I remember when I met John Milius. See, one of my favorite screenplays of all time is “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” . . .

RZ: It’s the greatest. Now there’s a movie that I would’ve made different (than the version John Huston made).

QT: I know, exactly, you can’t help but feel the movie was made with the guy’s left hand, compared to what was on the paper. But the thing is, saying it’s one of my favorite screenplays was based on the movie that I saw.

RZ: Oh, really?

QT: And then Milius told me how different it was, and then I read it, and it was just like, whoa! It’s hard for me to even look at that movie now. But yet, when I saw the movie, John’s (Milius’) voice just sung like an opera singer.

RZ: Yeah. Just like you can hear John’s voice in “Jeremiah Johnson,” it’s in there. That is a brilliant, brilliant screenplay.

The last movie where I saw the movie and had to read the screenplay was “JFK.” Because the movie was so different and exhilarating, I had to see whether this was something that was constructed in the editing room. And what was of course amazing was that it was all in the script.

QT: Speaking of “JFK,” I had a very interesting experience, because apparently, Oliver Stone’s initial idea was to have an intermission in the middle of the movie, like they used to do in the ‘60s. Then I met him and was talking to him about it: “So, you didn’t do the intermission idea.” He goes, “Yeah, if you do it, just know that you’re throwing money away , because it’s costing you major show times.”

Well, I saw it with an intermission. I saw it in Holland. And in the city of Amsterdam, every movie has an intermission. “L.A. Story,” “Camp Nowhere,” they all had intermissions in the middle--well, you hope in the middle--of them.

RZ: You ever see a movie in Mexico? They have one between every reel change!

QT: Are you serious?

RZ: Every 20 minutes they stop the movie and then vendors walk up and down and sell you stuff in the theater. ( laughter ) I never knew they put an intermission in in Amsterdam. So where’d they put it in “JFK”?

QT: They put it where I would guess would be where Oliver Stone wanted it, right in the middle. The movie was even better with an intermission. It was so terrific. The first half of the movie played, and there was this big emotional moment. It felt like a ‘60s intermission. And then you go outside, and all the people that are in the theater are drinking coffee and buying ice cream, and you’re sitting there assimilating all the information you’ve taken in for the first half of the movie. You have about 10 minutes to do that. Then you go back in, then the rest of the drama starts. I mean, it was perfect .

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QT: You actually said something in Film Comment that I wanted to talk to you about, because I totally agree with you. One of the things that I’m considering doing, of the dancing projects in my head, is the genre that I call World War II Movie--Bunch of Guys on a Mission. Thinking about intermission made me think about it, because I was watching the laser disc of “Where Eagles Dare,” which is my favorite of the Bunch-of-Guys-on-a-Mission movies.

RZ: Isn’t that the one where Clint Eastwood kills more guys than anybody else in movie history?

QT: He’s the Terminator in that movie. He has no other personality, other than that he’s killing people all the time!

RZ: Of course, the Terminator didn’t kill anybody. Well, in the second one.

QT: Just shot them in the kneecaps so they can’t walk right ever again. . . . No, Eastwood would just stand at the top of the stairs and wait for the Nazis to congregate, and then mow them down!

But it was great, because in that Film Comment article, you’re questioning: “I love that type of movie--can it still be done?” And my thinking on it is, I think so. Simply because I think there’s been so much focus on the victims of World War II--and not ignoring any of that, but that’s where we’ve been for so long--I think it could be considered a breath of fresh air to get back into that kind of adventure story where you’ve got the greatest villains ever .

RZ: Right. Well, my concern is that the Vietnam War screwed up the World War II genre, because war movies of any kind can’t be fun anymore, because war is presented, as it probably should be, as this ugly, horrible thing. Nowadays, if you did “The Dirty Dozen,” I don’t know if you could have most of the guys get killed and not have it be this heart-wrenching thing.

QT: I think you can, and I’ll tell you why. Could you make a fun movie about a famous battle in World War II or any war now? Possibly not, though you could make it an exciting movie. But could you make what we were talking about--potboiler movies? If you’re going to do a “Von Ryan’s Express” or “Great Escape” or “Guns of Navarone” kind of thing, I think it could be done. Because it’s about The Mission. So it’s not just the futility of war.

And the fatalities that happen, I actually think that’s part of the staple of the genre, that they one by one are gonna start dying. I never liked it when they all just got away scot-free at the end of it. Because you want that pain, of the ones that died and the ones that survived, and trying to figure out who that was gonna be.

I guess the way I would do it would be try to do what I’ve done with my characters and their dialogue in the crime films that I’ve done, and just try to bring that over to men in war.

RZ: Right. And have ‘em speak the way they probably really spoke, instead of saying lines like “Pipe down, you foul-ups!” (much mutual laughter)

QT: “OK, you goldbrickers!”

RZ: “C’mon you goldbrickers, let’s get a move on here! Get the lead out!”

There’s probably some obscure World War II movie that I haven’t seen, but I just devour World War II movies.

QT: Really? I didn’t know that! See, I would imagine that if I were to ask you, “Who are some of your favorite directors?,” Frank Tashlin would be who I would think would be one of your favorites. . . .

For me and my friends, you were always one of our favorite comedy directors. At one of the market research screenings that you had for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” in Redondo Beach, a friend of mine went. He’s both a cartoon fan and a comedy film fan. He’s kind of a big guy, and he was driving a moped to the theater, and he said he was in the parking lot unlocking his moped afterward, and then he recognized you. It was you and four people.

RZ: I know what this story is! Go ahead.

QT: We were such fans of your work, and he had to tell you. And he said he got on the moped and just made a beeline right toward the group of people, and here’s this crazed guy barreling toward you out of the blue at midnight, just so he could say, “Keep up the good work!” (hysterical laughter)

RZ: I thought we were gonna get killed! I remember exactly. I was standing there with my agent, doing the debriefing of the evening, and all of a sudden there’s this roar and this headlight, and I thought some disgruntled moviegoer was gonna run me over! Was that him? I remember that distinctly! I think I jumped 10 feet.

Right, right. I have a story like that. I saw one of the early previews of “Jaws” at the Dome . . .

QT: Oh really? At the Dome? Oh my God, wow.

RZ: Before it came out. And I had known Spielberg, and I was so blown away by that movie. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made. And there was so much publicity about the mechanical shark, remember? And it was just so filmic and terrifying, and I was so wildly in love with the movie, because Steven was able to create this terror without showing the shark. I loved that so much that I was nervous that, when it came time at the end to show the shark, it was going to look mechanical. And then when the shark ate Robert Shaw, it was done so brilliantly that I applauded in the theater.

Cut to the next day. I came into Steven’s office to congratulate him, and he hadn’t been there that night, but they had taped the audience reaction for him. And I was going on and on about how the movie’s great, and he said “Yeah, but I’m a little upset. When Robert Shaw got eaten by the shark, somebody was applauding! " I said, “No, that was me!” (shouting) He said, “It was you? But weren’t you sad that Robert Shaw got eaten?” I said, “Yes, I was! But it was done so great! It’s not like I had any problem with the Robert Shaw character!”

QT: (laughing) It was just, cinematically, you had to go bravo!

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By this point in the conversation, the champagne and cumulative effect of decades of moviegoing seemed to have collectively kicked in. Tarantino, who had started the meeting at a zealous pitch, was now even more in hyperdrive, and the much lower-key Zemeckis had slowly but surely taken to enthusiastically shouting much of his end of the conversation, too. Sometime deep into the mutual reverie on “Jaws,” personal assistants conspired to pull them apart. But before they did, reporter Chris Willman entered the directors’ hermetically sealed environment to ask them to comment directly on each other’s pictures, and whether they might not make a decent double-bill after all.

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Calendar: People naturally have set your movies up as points of polarization, but do you think there are points of commonality? After the Oscar nominations were announced, Quentin was quoted as saying “Gump” was comedically in the same ballpark as “Pulp.”

QT: They’ve been making such a tremendous deal about the fact that, “Oh wow, ‘Forrest Gump’ is the exact opposite of what ‘Pulp Fiction’ is,” and vice versa. But I don’t see them as being as drastically different or right and left. If you’re familiar with Bob’s work, actually there’s a tremendous amount of acid running through it. I actually think it’s a black comedy.

RZ: Well, I think that some of the black comedy and the tragedy and the irony in “Forrest Gump” is what makes it palatable to a larger segment of the audience, because it’s not a melodramatic, saccharine story. It’s balanced. It’s got very emotional and moving moments in it, and it’s got some very, very dark and fun moments in it as well.

QT: To me, when I was watching the movie, the moving moments and the touching moments, they are meant to be moving and touching, and they are. But the comedy element running through there--subversive is the wrong word--but there is a big edge to it. A movie about that guy as the No. 1 guy of America of the last 20 years has got a bite.

RZ: I think that’s why the two films have found large audiences: Because they’re not just the manipulation or moving of one emotion. And I think that’s what audiences want to experience: They don’t want to know that they’re just gonna be in a laugh riot, or that they’re just gonna see gore and nothing else. Hitchcock was always doing that. I mean, I’m not comparing us to the master, but if you look at the movies that you love, he was always releasing the tension with humor . . .

QT (to Zemeckis): OK. Now if you owned a video store, what section would you put “Forrest Gump” in?

RZ: You know what, I can’t answer that. I don’t know. Comedy? Drama? Adventure? They should have a video store section that’s unclassifiable movies.

QT: I was thinking, if I was working at the video store, I would imagine my boss would put it in the drama section, and I’d be making fun of him for doing that, saying, “People might look for it in the drama section, but you should make a stand and put it in the comedy section!”

For any video store owners out there, when “Pulp Fiction” comes out, I want it in the comedy section! If I come in and “Pulp Fiction” is in the drama section, that’ll be the last time I go into your closed-minded video store!

RZ: Well, would you put “Pulp Fiction” in the action section?

QT: There’s not that much action in it!

RZ: See, but you know, you can understand why they would put it in there--

QT: Oh, I can totally see.

RZ: --because they would think it’s like a caper movie.

QT: See, one of the things that I think about both of the two movies is the fact that, whether you like them or not--and both of our movies are movies you either embrace or you put at arm’s length--when you saw them, you saw a movie . You’ve had a night at the movies; you’ve gone this way and that way and up and down. And it wasn’t just one little tone that we’re working to get right--

RZ: --over and over and over for 90 minutes. It’s trying to weave something a little more dense. And I think that with the amount of images and information that people are bombarded by, it’s not a problem. They can assimilate this, and enjoy it. And I think that’s the level of density that modern stories have to have.

Calendar: Conversely, “Pulp” might be said to have some of the--for lack of a better term--"life-affirming” elements that most people think “Forrest Gump” stands for. Albeit in, uh, smaller doses.

RZ: Yeah, well--redemption! In its own way, it’s a redemption story.

QT: That’s not a drum that I’m necessarily trying to bang, and as a writer, I’m never out trying to get a message across. But I feel that in my heart. I never said, “I’m gonna write a redemption story.” But if I’m writing this big passel of characters and weaving it in, that’s what ended up coming out, because that’s what I really believe in.

But it is different when you don’t set your mind that that’s the tune you’re gonna play for the next two hours. All the notes end up adding up to that tune. I think it’s very meaningful that Jules (the character played by Samuel L. Jackson) comes to that. At the end of the movie, for all the talk about the film being violent and this, that and the other, the guy who actually becomes the lead character after the movie’s over with is a killer who has a religious epiphany! And it’s played straight. It’s not a big joke. That’s supposed to be meaningful--and not in a sanctimonious way.

But when you try to do it and not make fun of it but yet not be self-serious about it, some people get it, some people don’t, some people misread it--but in a way that’s kind of cool, and that’s one of the things I like about it, actually. And I think you can say the same thing about the Forrest Gump character.

RZ: Well, the way I like to describe it--I think for both movies--is, you have to bring a little something to the party.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Zemeckis have been nominated for best director Oscars for “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump,” respectively.


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