Quentin Tarantino: The Madman of Movie Mayhem

The director of 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Reservoir Dogs' guns the engine on screen violence and twisted wit

November 3, 1994
Quentin Tarantino, Issue 694
Quentin Tarantino
Ted Thai//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Quentin Tarantino, madman of movie mayhem, has a mother. How's that for a shocker? She has seen Reservoir Dogs, the 1992 heist film that made a cult sensation of her writer-director-actor son and raised the stakes on movie gore with a 10-minute torture-scene featuring the severing of an ear. "That happens to be my mother's favorite scene," says Tarantino, 31, a high-school dropout who has gone from video-store clerk to genius auteur du jour in just a few feverishly busy years. Mom has just checked out Pulp Fiction, a wildly ambitious and darkly comic crime anthology about Los Angeles lowlife that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, opened the prestigious New York Film Festival and put her son in the hot-contender line at next year's Oscars. Although the film includes shootings, stabbings, S&M, homosexual rape and a drug-overdose sequence that leaves audiences reeling, Mom doesn't flinch. Tarantino's West Hollywood, Calif., bachelor apartment is another matter. "That's not particularly my decorating style," she says with a laugh.

Chez Tarantino is hardly the sort of glitzy home in the Hills one might imagine to house a ballsy, Generation X-rated triple threat on the verge of becoming his own one-man genre. Rather the homey – OK, messy – pad looks like a kitschy pop-culture Valhalla. Movie posters, videos, laser discs, albums, fanzines, books and assorted film artifacts fill every available inch. Along with memorabilia from his own movies – including that razor used in the infamous ear-slicing scene – there's a frighteningly lifelike head of B-movie diva Barbara Steele, a pack of genuine Texas Chainsaw chili, a Zorro knife given to him by Jennifer Beals, a Robert Vaughn doll, cases by the dozen of bottled Pepsi and what is undoubtedly one of the world's most impressive collections of film- and TV-related board games.

"I've been collecting all this shit for years," says Tarantino, who is wearing a Racer X T-shirt today. "Then I finally decided I wanted to start collecting something new. At first I chose lunch boxes, but they really rape you on lunch boxes. They're just too fucking expensive. And as for dolls, well, you can't have much fun with them! You have to keep them in the box. So, I started with board games." Proudly, he shows off his collection, which he has broken down by genre. The Dukes of Hazzard, he reports, is a particularly fine game. Two of his most impressive acquisitions are Dawn of the Dead and Universe, which he claims is "the closest they ever came to an official 2001: A Space Odyssey game." The bedroom is dominated by a personal collection of tapes large enough to open a video store of one's own. The fare here ranges from art-house classics to Ma Barker's Killer Brood and a healthy number of vintage blaxploitation flicks.

You also can't help noticing the shrine to John Travolta above the ledge of Tarantino's fireplace. Certainly part of the satisfaction of making Pulp Fiction for Tarantino came from the opportunity to work with Travolta, a.k.a. Vinnie Barbarino, head Sweathog on one of Tarantino's TV faves from the '70s, Welcome Back, Kotter. The movie helps restore the 40-year-old actor's stardom to its prior luster after a string of less than challenging roles. In a film of standout performances from Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel and Tarantino himself, Travolta scores a stunning comeback as the henchman, hot dancer and heroin junkie Vincent Vega. Tarantino will happily expound for hours on the "total brilliance" of the actor's work 13 years ago in Brian De Palma's Blow Out. "John's a real sweetheart, and we became friends," he says. "I just gave John a role like the ones he used to do, and I took him seriously. But getting to know John, I can sort of see why he did all those Look Who's Talking baby movies, because that character is kind of similar to who he is in real life – he's this kind of goofy, charming kind of guy."

Travolta was similarly charmed. "I've been doing this for 20 years now, and I've never seen anyone have more fun on a movie set than Quentin," he says. "And it's contagious. You think, 'If this guy can get off as much as he does, then I definitely want to get on board this boat.' His knowledge of film is acute. His joy of film is acute. Just the pure wattage of Quentin as a human being is extraordinary. And his willingness to accept criticism as well as admiration and not get introverted by it just floors me. I'm so envious of it. I can't find his fear."

So what did Travolta make of Tarantino's deep appreciation of his past work? "How can you not respond to that?" Travolta says. "It was swiftly and clearly articulated to me what I meant to him growing up and what I meant – in certain performances – to a whole generation." Travolta lets out a small chuckle, then adds, "I realized that Quentin represents how a lot of people feel about me, only now it's OK to say it."

All this mutual admiration begs a question: When Tarantino first met with Travolta before casting him, did he mention that he had a shrine to the actor above his fireplace? "No, I didn't tell John about the shrine," Tarantino says. "But I did bring along my Vinnie Barbarino doll so he could sign it for me."

The success of Pulp Fiction tastes sweet to Tarantino. Not so long ago, the most high-profile credit this engagingly intense wanna-be could boast was playing one of three Elvis imitators on an episode of Golden Girls. He made his first splash with Reservoir Dogs, an existential heist film with an unseen heist, and returned a year later as the writer of Tony Scott's underrated True Romance. More recently, Tarantino was in the public eye for writing the story that, shall we say, evolved into Oliver Stone's controversy-raising Natural Born Killers. Somehow he even found the time to briefly help out pal Julia Sweeney (who has a cameo in Pulp Fiction) with the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't movie It's Pat.

But for all this activity, Tarantino is definitely not your average Hollywood careerist. Extremely confident yet decidedly unpretentious, he remains very much a fan – one with strong and exceedingly far-flung tastes. Talking with a Rolling Stone writer, the tall, lantern-jawed Tarantino makes a point of addressing the nonburning issue of how Perfect, a movie that starred Travolta as a Rolling Stone writer, was woefully underappreciated. He's the guy who loved Kevin Costner's megaflop Wyatt Earp. An avowed Baywatch watcher, Tarantino is happy to ponder the frankly frightening issue of David Hasselhoff's big-screen potential. He's also the rare and brave aesthete able to make the qualitative judgment that Look Who's Talking Too represents the creative apex of that cinematic Travolta trilogy.

Tarantino's pop-culture-freak status has even informed his own performances. In Reservoir Dogs he made a memorable appearance as Mr. Brown, arguing passionately with Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) over the true meaning of Madonna's "Like a Virgin." Mr. Brown insists that the lyric is "a metaphor for a big dick," while Mr. Pink rather more romantically suggests that the song is about love. For the record, Her Blondness eventually settled the matter. "Madonna liked the movie a lot, but she said I'm not right," says Tarantino. "She signed my Erotica album, 'Dear Quentin, It's about love, it's not about dick. Madonna.' " In the current Sleep With Me, Tarantino nearly steals the show with a cameo as a partygoer lecturing passionately on the homosexual subtext of Top Gun.

Even the Tarantino kitchen – with its apparent lifetime supply of Yoo Hoo prominently displayed next to a big box of Captain Crunch – suggests a sort of gleefully arrested development. But after some years where he had trouble getting arrested in Hollywood, Tarantino has established himself as a mature and much in demand talent. Still, it wasn't long ago that Tarantino was just a clerk toiling at Video Archives, a cinéaste-run video store in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "People ask me if I went to film school," he says. "And I tell them, 'No, I went to films.' "

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