Flavor of the Month or Taste of Things to Come? October 1992
Anyone who shies away from the vivid torture sequence in writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s startling debut film, “Reservoir Dogs,” might like to know that it’s one of Quentin’s mom’s two favorite scenes.The other one is the opening credits passage, about ten minutes into the picture, during which the eight crooks whose jewel heist is about to go awry stride across the parking lot of a Los Angeles restaurant in slow motion, clad in black suits with white shirts and skinny ties, not a former altar boy in the bunch.”They all look so male,” Mrs. Tarantino is reported to have said when confronted with the poeticized ne’er-do-wells played by Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Michael Madsen, Eddie Bunker and Quentin himself.
While in the restaurant, Tarantino’s screen persona launches into a rigorous if raunchy semiotic analysis of the lyrics to Madonna’s hit song “Like A Virgin.” Buscemi then tops off the scene with a downright Cartesian exposition on why tipping waitresses is for suckers. In a just world, dialogue as funny as this would be invited to open an account in the collective memory bank along with Travis Bickle’s “You talkin’ to me?”, Dirty Harry’s “Make my day” and – hey, why not? -“Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!””Because this was the first script of mine that got made, people think that all I can write is guys talking dirty to each other, but all my other scripts have great roles for women,” Quentin, 29, says with enthusiasm. Quentin’s relationship to enthusiasm is like Rockefeller’s relationship to dough. Rich.Although calm, introspective individuals can certainly be effective directors, perpetual energy doesn’t hurt. Tarantino has been blessed with synaptic firepower and back-up batteries that hold a charge longer than the metabolic powerpacks issued to mere mortals. A born writer and rabid film buff, Tarantino can observe human behavior and mainline movies only if he’s conscious, hence he’s conscious most of the time. And yet, much of his considerable charm radiates from the fact that he always looks like he just got out of bed.
Among the directors I’ve had the pleasure of observing in person, this fearless all-purpose energy is something I’ve seen in the late Richard Brooks, in Elia Kazan and in the inimitable Sam Fuller, who just turned 80 this summer. Actually, that last adjective isn’t strictly true. Quentin can imitate Fuller, the first class B-movie director of “Shock Corridor” and “Pick-Up on South Street,” who has lived in Paris for the better part of two decades.”Sam saw my movie in Avignon and he ripped it apart for two hours,” says Quentin with glee. “It was an honor to sit at the master’s feet. He said (adopts Fuller’s trademark growl): ‘It’s a movie about failure. They’re morons. They’re bums. I like that!’ He’s harsh and then he takes you off the hook. He told me that Michael Madsen was the best psycho he’d seen in movies in 30 years!”Quentin’s Tommy-gun giggle ricochets out of his throat to complement expansive gestures and a broad grin. “Cool” is one of his favorite words, used at all times with upbeat sincerity. “This is so cool!” is how he greeted the sold-out crowd at the Cinémathèque Française in July, mere days after “Reservoir Dogs” captured the $10,000 Kodak Tournage Award at the French-American Film Workshop in Avignon, a few weeks after the film won the Raymond Chandler award at the Viareggio Festival in Italy (“It was the first time they’d ever given it to a film – it’s always gone to a book before!”) and roughly two months after “Dogs” sank its canine teeth into the cognoscenti of the Croisette at Cannes. Out in France since September 2, it opens in the United States this month and in Britain in January.
Where all things filmic are concerned, “walking encyclopedia” is the term that applies to the lanky young director. I got Quentin to stop walking long enough to sit down for a couple hours at a café on the rue de Buci. In honor of one of his most recent enthusiasms – Gaspard Noë’s short masterpiece about a horse butcher, “Carne” – Quentin ordered a horsemeat burger and held forth on how he went from working in a video shop to directing Harvey Keitel to taking his first trip to Europe. He decided to settle in Amsterdam, where he spent the first five months of this year. It was as good a place as any to work on new scripts, commute to continental film festivals and lie low before being splashed across the pages of magazines from “Interview” to “Esquire.””In L.A. they haven’t had a Howard Hawks retrospective in years. In Amsterdam they’re having an insanely comprehensive Hawks retrospective,” Tarantino had declared from the podium he shared at Cannes with fellow first-time directors Tim Robbins (“Bob Roberts”), Edward James Olmos (“American Me”), John Turturro (“Mac”), moderator Roger Ebert and elder-statesman-of-celluloid Robert Altman. Roberts, Olmos and Turturro allowed as how directing was draining, exhausting and otherwise daunting. Quentin’s reply went like this: “I loved every minute, every second, every single thing about it. I felt I was a better director than a video store clerk – and I was a great video store clerk!”
Q. Tell me about this video store you worked at.
A. It’s called “Video Archives” and their specialty is classics and foreign movies. It was my college in a way – I did all the things there that you do in college. You get together with a bunch of friends and you screw off all the time. (Laughs) Do whatever you want – which is more or less what I did for five years at “Archives.”
Q. Did you just walk in off the street?
A. Well, I did at first, as a customer. I loved the place and the owner realized how much I knew about movies and stuff that he gave me a job. It’s one of those places that’s wonderful but it puts you to sleep. Because you’re not doing what you really want to do, but it’s awfully darn close to what you really want to do. (Laughs) You can’t just be talking about movies for five years. It’s pretty cool but eventually I had to break out of there.
Q. Since you walked in the door knowing a lot about movies, how did you get to that point?
A. When you have tunnel vision, when you have very limited interests, you know, you better pick up a lot. I wasn’t interested in school. I wasn’t interested in sports. I was only interested in movies.
Q. Can you pinpoint when you realized that?
A. Probably, literally, around age 3. It’s been the one constant in my life. See, when I was a kid, I thought all adults were movie experts. Because I’d watch a film with my dad and I’d be 5 or something and he’d say (imitates voice) “Now you see that guy there? He was in the original ‘Swiss Family Robinson.’ No, not the one we saw the other day. Not the Disney one. But the one they did in the ’30s. That guy was the father.” Oh wow, you know? So I’m thinking: This is great. When you become an adult you’re gonna be able to watch all these movies and you’re gonna know who did what and everything else and you just become a movie expert because you get older. So I started working hard to start retaining that knowledge. And then, I think, somewhere around 13 or so, I realized that you don’t become a movie expert. I became a movie expert. Other people don’t.
Q. So you’re really lucky that you weren’t born in the mid-1800s because you never would have connected with your calling. Suppose you started out and you were one of these maverick guys at the beginning of silent cinema when there were no rules. Because so much of “Reservoir Dogs” is in the writing and in the structure, do you know what kinds of stories you may have told?
A. That would be so weird! Forget about the dialogue for a moment. It’s just, what I’m doing now is because I’ve assimilated so much from different movies. So, to be one of those pioneer guys, where everything they were doing was new or fresh, inventing it as they went along, that’s just really wild. I love the idea. I would love to make just a pure cinema movie. I mean, I like my dialogue but I’m for movies first and a silent movie just has to be really cinematic. Look at some of the old ones now. Look at (King Vidor’s 1928 film) “The Crowd.” Wow! Now that’s storytelling. That’s real storytelling. You’re just caught up in it.
Q. You’ve been reluctant to say what a “reservoir dog” is. If your life had taken a different turn, is there any chance that you could have turned out to be one?
A. I think I’m too smart. If I had a brush with the law I think I’d wise up fast. I spent 8 days in the county jail on traffic warrants once. If you can’t make bail they lock you up. At first I thought, “Wow, I’m going to pick up some great dialogue in here.” But then you realize what a waste of time it is. They treat you like an animal and nobody wants to be treated like an animal.
Q. Did it make you nervous to direct so many top-notch actors your first time out?
A. Good actors don’t make me nervous. Bad actors would make me nervous. This was a great ensemble. No ego at all. Tim Roth told me that if I’d made the exact same movie but cast all women instead of all men it would have been absolutely incredible. But I loved working with these guys.
Q. Is there a downside to being a “hot new director”?
A. Well, before I started to do the festival circuit I asked Sean Penn what it had been like to take his first film (“The Indian Runner”) to Cannes. And he said, “Be prepared to answer the same questions over and over and try to be polite about it.” It was really interesting the difference between the European press and the American press. One day at Cannes I had interviews only with French and Italians and they had the best film references. They’d say, “Now, your film is a story of redemption with roots in Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ and Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch.'” The next day it was all Americans and their approach was consistently “Why is your film so excessively violent?” and “Why aren’t there any roles for women?” I mean, they’re jewel thieves. Are they supposed to bring their girlfriends along on a job?
Q. Why does the story take place in LA?
A. Because I grew up in L.A. and I know it like the back of my hand. And I’m sick of gangster movies that take place in New York. I think the gangsters in L.A. are a lot more dangerous. I’d like to use L.A. like New York. You see a New York movie and they say “We’re gonna go to Flatbush Avenue” or “42nd Street” and people all over the world identify with that. I wanta say “We’re going to Little Santa Monica.”
Q. Did it help you to act one of the parts in your own film?
A. I started out as an actor. I never went to film school. I planned to do this film on a small budget in 16mm and I was going to play a bigger part. But when I got the money ($1.3 million compared to the $20,000 or so he’d been planning to spend), I thought, “What do I want this movie to do for me – make me a star?” No, I wanted it to establish me as a director. I’d like to do what Polanski does. A small part in one film. A big part in another. Straight directing in yet another.
Q. What’s up next for you as a director?
A. My next film is called “Pulp Fiction.” It’s a co-production between my company and Danny DeVito’s company.
A few weeks after we spoke, the trade papers announced that Tony Scott had begun shooting “True Romance” in Los Angeles on September 15, starring Christian Slater, Gary Oldman, Val Kilmer and Dennis Hopper. Quentin Tarantino wrote the original screenplay.
It’s probably just a matter of time before hip parents start naming their sons Quentin. And moviegoers come to know L.A. as well as they now know New York.