'Pulp Fiction,' A to Z

Tarantino's tale of chatty hit man criminals turns 20 today, and we're celebrating with a look at the film from Adrenaline to Zed

John Travolta  Samuel L. Jackson Pulp Fiction
Mirimax Films/Courtesy Everett Collection
John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in 'Pulp Fiction.'
By |

Twenty years ago today, Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein unveiled the filmmaker’s sophomore movie — an ambitious anthology of crime stories, all interconnected and metatextualized — at a late Saturday night screening at the Cannes Film Festival. A little over three hours later, as the crowd staggered out of the Palais des Festivals, they knew they had an audience favorite on their hands. Soon, they would be able to add Palme d’Or winner, Best Picture Oscar nominee, the first indie film to break the $100 million mark, a gamechanger and a modern classic to the list.

Surf Music and Seventies Soul: The Songs of 'Pulp Fiction'

Rather than sending Pulp Fiction some fine china or a platinum band for its 20th anniversary gift, we’ve decided to do something a little different: an A-to-Z tour of the movie’s best-known moments, key players, inside-joke flotsam and jetsam, and more. It’s far from comprehensive, but like a Big Kahuna Burger for breakfast, we’re convinced this alphabetical breakdown makes for a tasty meal.

A: Adrenaline Used to revive Mia via intracardiac injection when she snorts a snoot full of Vincent’s heroin, mistaking it for cocaine. It’s also what’s coursing your body as you watch this movie, notably during the scene in question. (See also syringe.)

Amsterdam Dutch capital of the Netherlands where Vincent has just returned from; renowned for its liberal attitude toward drug use and “hash bars” where you can spark up to your heart — and lungs’ — content. (Mia Wallace has been known to chill out there occasionally as well.) Like much of Europe, the city is full of “little things” that make it different from America. (See also Royale With Cheese.)

Roger Avary Underrated director, screenwriter and a friend of Tarantino’s from their Video Archives days. The two collaborated on the screenplay for Pulp Fiction while Tarantino was holed up in Amsterdam, writing the script. Avary’s own script for a film called Pandemonium Reigns, in which a boxer double-crosses a gangster and tries to retrieve a beloved watch, formed the backbone of the “Gold Watch” chapter; Tarantino bought the script and incorporated elements into the movie, earning Avary a “Story by” instead of  “Written by” co-credit. This credit later became the source of friction and a temporary falling out between the two. Taking the stage with Tarantino to accept the 1994 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Avary thanked his wife and then abruptly excused himself to go pee. Also directed Killing Zoe, a heist film produced by Tarantino.

B: Bad Motherfucker The phrase that graces Jules’ wallet — an accurate description of the man who owns it.

Big Brain Something you should really check out on Brett, a young man who apparently wasn’t using said large cerebrum when he got involved in a shady — but good-intentioned — deal with Marsellus Wallace. (See also briefcase.

Blueberry Pancakes The preferred breakfast of Fabienne when she’s about to go on the lam with her beloved Butch. (See also Butch.) Reluctantly, she settled for buttermilk pancakes.

The Bonnie Situation How Jules describes the pickle he and Vincent find themselves in after accidentally blowing the head off of their associate, Marvin. Knowing that driving around in a blood- and brain-splattered car is not a good idea, they stop by Jules’ friend Jimmy’s house in Toluca Lake to figure out a plan of action. Jimmy — played by the director — wants them out of the house before his wife Bonnie, a registered nurse working the night shift, comes home and divorces him. (He does not want to get divorced.) Thankfully, the Wolf is on the way. (See also Winston the Wolf.)

Briefcase The MacGuffin that fuels several chapters of Pulp Fiction; little is known about the contents of this briefcase except that you get to it via a 666 lock-combination; it produces an unearthly glow when opened; it’s “beautiful”; and Marsellus wants it. The glowing aspect was borrowed from “the Great Whatsit” used in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Several theories have sprouted over the years as to what is in there: the Holy Grail, Marsellus’ soul, the original ending of The Magnificent Ambersons, a guide to every single movie reference Tarantino makes in the movie, etc. Tarantino has yet to confirm any of these guesstimations. 

Butch Having met Tarantino at a BBQ through Harvey Keitel, avowed Reservoir Dogs superfan Bruce Willis let the hot young director know that he’d be up for playing any part in Tarantino’s new film, especially since the Die Hard star knew the script was dynamite. The result was Butch Coolidge, Willis’ boxer who takes on a so-so opponent in the ring (if his fellow pugilist was a better fighter, maybe he’d still be breathing) an unforgiving gangster kingpin, and the two biggest hillbilly sodomy enthusiasts ever to run a pawn shop. (See also pawn shop.) The casting was mutually beneficial: Willis’ participation allowed Miramax to presell foreign rights to the film, and the role helped resuscitate the star’s career. No offense to John McClane, David Dunn or David Addison Jr., but Butch may be the movie star’s single best performance to date.  

C: Captain Koons A Vietnam veteran who spent five years with Butch Coolidge’s dad in a Viet Cong P.O.W. camp. Having promised he’d pass along a family heirloom — a wristwatch — to Major Coolidge’s son if the major didn’t make it home, Koons personally delivers the timepiece to the boy upon his return to the States. He also delivers one of the film’s funniest and most touching monologues, made all the more memorable by Christopher Walken and his singularly offbeat cadence. 

Chevy Malibu Vincent Vega’s ride of choice — as well as Tarantino’s, as it’s his car (purchased with his Natural Born Killers script money) that Vega is driving. The vintage 1964 vehicle was stolen from the set; it was recovered in Oakland in 2013.

Chopper Zed’s ride of choice (see also Zed). Not a motorcycle, though tell that to Fabienne. (See also Fabienne.)

Dick Dale Legendary surf guitarist whose song “Misirlou” plays over the film’s opening credits. The instrumental ditty immediately establishes the movie’s retrofitted idea of cool and reminds you that Tarantino and his music supervisors/consultants had impeccable taste when it came to choosing the sound track. (Though the filmmaker has said that Dale’s tune was a suggestion made by fellow director Allison Anders.) In Jason Bailey’s book on the movie, Tarantino compares the track to a spaghetti Western theme — dig those horns! — and is quoted as saying, “It just says you’re watching an epic…it throws down a gauntlet that the movie now has to live up to.” If you were around in late 1994, you heard this song blasting out of car stereos, hip brunch places and barroom jukeboxes ad infinitum.

Disco The temperature that comes after “warm” and “hot” when you’re searching for something.

Divine Intervention A moment in which a deity and/or deities (God, Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah, Sergio Leone) makes his/her/their presence felt by personally interjecting him/her/themselves into the activities of mere mortals. Jules believes one such moment occurs when a gentleman with a “hand cannon” (see also Alexis Arquette) starts blasting, and neither he nor Vincent is harmed. Whether this is due to the properties of whatever is in that briefcase (a popular theory — see also Briefcase) or because the Lord whom Jules keeps referencing (see also Ezkiel 25:17) intervenes is currently unknown. Suffice to say, it’s enough to set the jheri-curled hit man on a righteous, non-murdering-people path. 

Dusty Springfield British singer whose album Dusty in Memphis is a must-own. “Billy Ray was a preacher’s son/And when his daddy would visit, he’d come along….”

E: Esmeralda Villalobos Tarantino saw a 30-minute short film named Curdled that featured Angela Jones as a cleaner similar to Winston the Wolf (see also Winston the Wolf). He was such a fan that he cast Jones and used a variation on the short's character — also named Esmeralda Villalobos — for the cabdriver who drives Butch back to his motel after the fight (see also Butch). Tarantino also executive-produced a 1996 feature-length take on the short. 

Ezekiel 25:17 If you heard this, it meant your ass.

F: Fabienne Butch’s girlfriend, lover of pot bellies and “oral pleasure,” blueberry pancake aficionado and forgetter of sentimentally-valued watches. She’s played by Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros, who was Anaïs Nin in the eroto-lit biopic Henry and June (1990) — co-starring fellow Pulp alumna Uma Thurman. (See also Uma.)

$5 Milkshakes Exquisite but expensive milkshakes served at Jackrabbit Slim’s. (See also Jackrabbit Slim’s.) They’re allegedly pretty fucking good, despite the fact they don’t have bourbon in them or nuthin’, and are said to complement a Durward Kirby burger or a Douglas Sirk steak.

A Flock of Seagulls A popular 1980s New Wave band, fronted by Michael Score — a singer with distinct haircut characterized by a coiff that resembled a waterfall. Also: the nickname of Brett’s similarly drooped-bangs roommate.

Fonzie The nickname of Arthur Fonzerelli and the epitome of cool; also, what everyone in the Hawthorne Grill, especially Yolanda/Honey Bunny, needs to be. (See also Hawthorne Grill and Yolanda.)

Foot Massages A popular intimacy in Tarantino’s world of smooth-talking criminals; it’s what allegedly gets Tony Rocky-Horror thrown out a window (see also Tony Rocky Horror) and what Jules is apparently the master of (he won’t be tickling or nothing). They all mean something, even if one acts like they don’t — which doesn’t mean they’re in the same ballpark as sticking your tongue in the holiest of holies.

Fox Force Five A crack team of foxy female assassins and the name of Mia’s failed pilot. Which is a pity, as we’d totally have watched her rock horrible, vaudeville-era jokes week after week. 

G: Garcon The French word for “boy” and not, as many may have previously surmised, “waiter.”

 

The Gimp The gentleman responsible for the oddest, most WTF moment in Pulp Fiction. Sleeps in a trunk in the basement of Maynard and Zed’s pawn shop; has a predilection for leather bondage gear and lending (im)moral support to his masters’ less-than-savory carnal activities. We’d like to think that, in his off-hours, he’s the CEO of a software company in Venice Beach or manages a Coffee Bean somewhere around La Brea.

'Get the Gimp': Breaking Down 'Pulp Fiction's Most Notorious Scene

The Gold Watch See Captain Koons.

H: Hawthorne Grill The diner that features prominently in the beginning and end of Pulp Fiction — the place where Honey Bunny and Pumpkin decide to start ripping off coffee shops, where Jules decides to tell Vincent that he’s out of “the life,” and where all of their lives briefly intersect. This restaurant, located in the city of Hawthorne in L.A.’s South Bay region, has since been torn down. 

Honey Bunny See Yolanda.

I: Inglewood The neighborhood that Jules calls home, at least prior to deciding to wander the earth like Caine from Kung Fu. (See also Divine Intervention, Kung Fu.)

J: Jackrabbit Slims The ultimate homage-to-the-1950s diner — a wax museum with a pulse, a surly Buddy Holly-esque waiter, lots of celebrity lookalikes and, of course, a dance contest. Constructed inside of a Culver City warehouse and taking up roughly 25,000 square feet, this movie-mad restaurant was the film’s biggest set (it was also the site of the film’s wrap party). The racetrack-like décor was Quentin’s homage to Howard Hawks’ Red Line 7000 (1965). We recommend the milkshakes. 

Jheri Curl The oft-retold story is that Tarantino asked for an afro wig for Samuel L. Jackson to wear, as a tip of the cap to the great blaxploitation heroes of the Seventies. The wigmaster accidentally picked up a jheri-curl wig for Jackson, the actor convinced Quentin to let him keep it by invoking N.W.A. (several of whom sported the J.C. ‘do) and the rest is screen-hairstyle history. 

Jules Winfield A bad motherfucker, a gentleman who’s been known to break people’s concentration, a quoter of biblical verses, a hater of swine (see Pork) and a professional hit man — at least, until a miracle turns him around and he decides to try harder to be the shepherd. Samuel L. Jackson had done extraordinary work before, as anyone who remembered him from his supporting roles in Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Menace II Society could attest. But Jules made him a star. Almost overnight, the actor went from that guy you saw in that thing once to Samuel L. “AND YOU WILL KNOW MY NAME IS THE LORD!” Jackson.

"Jungle Boogie" The 1973 Kool & the Gang song that plays over the famous “Royale With Cheese” dialogue; the fact that the band’s song “Celebration,” and not this funky-as-all-get-out tune, is the de facto choice for wedding receptions is a genuine crime.

K: Kahuna Burger Technically, it’s the Big Kahuna Burger — but regardless, it is a tasty burger. Along with Red Apple Cigarettes, Tarantino’s fake chain of Hawaiian-style fast-food restaurants has taken on a life of its own, gracing several of friend-of-Quentin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’s movies and, recently, faking out a lot of Austin, Texas, locals who saw what appeared to be an actual Big Kahuna Burger restaurant. (It was merely a set, however, for the From Dusk to Dawn TV show on Rodriguez’s El Rey Network.)

Kung Fu A TV show that ran from 1972 and 1975, about a monk named Kwai Chang Caine who wanders the Earth and, on occasion, kicks ass using the titular martial art. It was originally designed as a star vehicle for Bruce Lee (though this fact has been disputed over the years) and starred David Carradine, who would later play “Bill” in the Kill Bill films. Tarantino was a fan of the show growing up — as was Jules Winfield, we can assume, since Caine serves as the inspiration for the ex-killer’s post-miracle lifestyle.

L: Lance Rumor has it that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was asked by Tarantino to play the party of the film’s resident bathrobe model/breakfast-cereal aficionado/heroin dealer (Courtney Love herself said as much in a 2011 GQ oral history about the making of Nevermind). It’s hard to picture anyone playing La Clede Avenue’s primo purveyor of street drugs, however, besides Eric Stoltz, who finds just the right pitch between amiably stonerish and uptight. Just don’t talk about dope on a land-line or bring some poop-butt to his house late at night, please?

M: Marsellus and Mia Wallace He’s a gangster who calls shots, fixes prizefights and does not like a number of things (people who cross him, being hit by Hondas, rapin’ hillbilly motherfuckers); she’s a former actress with a love of jet-black Lulu-Brooks bobs, dance contests and cocaine. Together, they make up the first couple of the greater Los Angeles criminal underworld. We would have loved to been a fly on the wall of their first date.

Medieval What some known associates of Mr. Wallace will get on your ass should you decide to bugger him in your pawn shop’s basement. We do not recommend the latter, by the way.

Miramax Named after their parents (Miriam and Max), Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s film distribution/production company had already made a name for itself as smart, savvy purveyors of independent and foreign movies prior to hooking up with Tarantino. The story is that Harvey was handed the thick Pulp Fiction script as he was catching a plane to Martha’s Vineyard, where he was set to vacation. He then read the script on the plane, excitedly calling his Head of Production Richard Gladstein numerous times before he landed, demanding that they get the property ASAP. After Pulp Fiction became the first indie to cross the $100 million box-office threshold and started garnering Oscar nominations, Harvey began referring to Miramax as the “House That Quentin Built.”

Modesty Blaise A British comic strip created by writer Peter O’Donnell and artist Jim Holdaway in 1963; filmgoers may remember the 1966 film of the same name, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Monica Vitti. Why is it included here, you ask? Our friend Vincent Vega is reading an anthologized collection of the strips when he’s on the can in the Hawthorne Diner and later (or earlier, depending on how you process the film’s chronology) in the loo at Butch’s place. We’ll take a 10% commission on all of your future trivia-game winnings from this, thank you.

N: Nine minutes, 37 Seconds How long it takes the Wolf to get from the swank party he is at to Jimmy’s house in Toluca Lake, estimated to be 30 minutes away. Because he is that good, people. (See also Winston the Wolf.)

O: Oak The type of furniture that Winston himself prefers in his bedroom. You might say he’s an “oak man.”

 

P: Palme d’Or The highest award given at the Cannes Film Festival, and the prize that Tarantino & co. walked away with the year that Pulp Fiction played in competition on the Croisette. When the director walked up on stage to collect the prestigious award, a woman from the crowd yelled out “Scandale!” Tarantino flipped her the bird.

Read Peter Travers' Original Review of 'Pulp Fiction'

Pawn Shop According to the good folks at Merriam-Webster, it’s a storefront run by a person (or persons) who lends money in exchange for personal property that can be sold if said money is not returned within a certain time. On occasion, sodomy enthusiasts from the Appalachians who like to construct sex dungeons in their basements may run one of these.

Pork Meat that comes from a filthy, repugnant animal that doesn’t know any better than to not root around in its own feces. Still, bacon does taste go-od.

Pot bellies What Fabienne would have if she could, because they look so sexy on women. (Not “oafish,” like they do on males.)

Pumpkin The partner, in life and in crime, of Honey Bunny (see Yolanda). Would like to get out of the liquor-store robbing life, would not necessarily be opposed to robbing a coffee shop.

Q: Quentin Former video-store clerk. Film fanatic. Oscar winner. Considered by many to be one of the most influential American directors of the past 20 years. Not a bad writer.  

R: Red Apple Cigarettes The cigarette of choice in the Tarantinoverse. Taste that sweet tobacco flavor!

Royale With Cheese What they call a “quarter-pounder with cheese” in a Parisian McDonalds. Still no word on what a Euro-Whopper is referred to as.

S: Samurai Sword What you should grab if you find yourself in a pawn shop (see Pawn Shop) and need to rescue the criminal kingpin who previously wanted to murder you in your home. Seriously, if given the choice between one of these and, say, a hammer, a baseball bat or a chainsaw, you should go for the bushido blade.

Syringe Something you fill full of adrenaline and plunge into someone’s heart if they’ve overdosed on heroin. During Pulp Fiction’s opening-night screening at the New York Film Festival, a gentleman actually fainted during the intense syringe sequence; the lights were brought up, a doctor was summoned, and after several minutes, the screening resumed. 

T: Tony Rocky Horror A.K.A. Antoine Rockamora, an African-American/Samoan gent who used to be in the employ of Marsellus Wallace. Accounts differ on what, exactly, caused his dismissal from said employment; what is agreed upon, however, is that his tenure ended with a long fall through an enclosed, greenhouse-like garden. 

Travolta All of Pulp Fiction's main cast members got a significant career bump from being in Tarantino's film, but none more so than the former Vinnie Barbarino. A huge fan of Saturday Night Fever icon — Tarantino once said that Travolta's work in Blow Out (1981) was "one of my favorite performances of all time" — the writer-director originally met with him to discuss a potential role in From Dusk Till Dawn. After hanging out with Travolta, however, he was convinced that the actor would be perfect for the part of hit man/heroin user/inopportune-moment bathroom user Vincent Vega. (The role was originally written with Reservoir Dogs' Michael Madsen in mind.) The star of Look Who's Talking was in a bit of slump, however, and Harvey Weinstein was dead-set on casting anybody but Travolta in the role. He finally relented, Travolta got the part, and gave the performance of a lifetime — one so good that we don't even mind the fact that it allowed him to eventually make Battlefield Earth. His contribution to the movie can't be underestimated.

U: Uma Ms. Thurman, the actress who gave Mia Wallace (see also Marsellus and Mia Wallace) her allure and her penchant for witty banter, was not Tarantino's first choice to play the gangster's wife; she wasn't even on his short list, by all accounts. But her agent, Jay Moloney, set up a dinner meeting for the two, and the director and star hit it off. She not only got the part but has since become the closest thing he has to a muse — see the Kill Bill films. 

Urge Overkill A Chicago-based Nineties band who perfected a certain lounge-lizard, alt-rock hipster persona and provided the cover of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" for the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. It's now impossible to hear their funky, keening breakdown on the song and not think of someone in a black wig OD-ing on brown dope.

V: Vincent Vega The business partner and pal of Jules Winfield (see also Jules Winfield); a fan of bacon, bad Euro-sleaze hair styles, British comic strips (see also Modesty Blaise) and riding the proverbial white horse; not a fan of brusqueness ("A please would be nice"), boxers or borrowed beachwear. He's also responsible for one of the most unexpected early "exits" from a movie since Janet Leigh took a shower in Psycho. 

Ving Rhames A character actor blessed with a basso profundo voice who, prior to Pulp Fiction, was probably best known for brief roles in TV series like Miami Vice and The Equalizer. Marsellus Wallace (see also Marsellus and Mia Wallace) changed all that, however; he will now forever be remembered as the man who will get medieval on your ass. We're thankful to Pulp Fiction for many things, but allowing a talent like Rhames to go on and have the career he deserves (the Mission Impossible movies, Bringing Out the Dead, that Don King biopic on HBO) is near the top of our list. 

W: Weinstein brothers  See also Miramax.

Winston the Wolf  The most professional fixer/cleaner in the business when it comes to disposing of inconvenient dead bodies; also the single best dressed character in Pulp Fiction (sorry, Lance) and apparently a management model for independent filmmakers. Many fans have pointed to the similarity between Winston and Harvey Keitel's part in Point of No Return, the 1993 American remake of Luc Besson's French thriller La Femme Nikita. We like to think that Winston has a much better bedside manner than his earlier counterpart.

X: Alexis Arquette We're aware this may be stretching it a bit alphabetically, but this transgender actress deserves a shout-out regardless. Her role is small but crucial: She is the person who comes out of the bathroom in Brett's apartment with the "hand cannon" blazing, yet somehow manages to hit neither Jules nor Vincent. (See also Divine Intervention.) She's also the sister of Rosanna Arquette, who plays Jody, Lance's wife.

Y: Yolanda The Christian name of Honey Bunny, sweetheart and fellow robber of Pumpkin (see also Pumpkin). One fourth of the climactic stand-off that takes place in the Hawthorne Grill (see also Hawthorne Grill). Ruthless when it comes to crowd control, not-so-great when her lover is threatened with a gun.

Z: Zed “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.”