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Quentin Tarantino: The Madman of Movie Mayhem

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The clerk Christian Slater played in True Romance was based on Tarantino's younger days living near the Los Angeles airport. "All day long he just sees people taking off and leaving," says Tarantino. "And he's going nowhere. I'm not that guy anymore. That guy is someone who's never had a girlfriend, he's very inexperienced and naive. He's only had failure in his life." In the hands of director Tony Scott (who also happened to direct Top Gun), the film became a hyperviolent but highly romantic theme-park ride. "Tony did a great job," he says admiringly. "The movie was really cool. Of course, the whole thing was bizarre for me to see – like watching a big-budget feature of your home movies."

Admiring would not be the word to describe Tarantino's feelings regarding what became of his Natural Born Killers screenplay, which Oliver Stone ultimately chose to substantially rework with his collaborators. Tarantino declined script credit, taking responsibility only inasmuch as the movie was based on a story by him. In fact, bringing up Natural Born Killers is the single easiest way to quiet this otherwise affable chatterbox. Asked if he has seen the film, Tarantino turns strangely silent.

"No," he says finally.

According to Tarantino, he was invited to a preview screening of Killers but declined, saying he would catch it in the theater. "It's just kind of out there, and it doesn't have anything to do with me," he says after being coaxed to elaborate. "I think people pretty much know that I have distanced myself from the film. I don't think I'll get much credit, and I don't think I'll get much blame. I'm definitely not looking for either. If you like it, then that's Oliver. If you don't like it, that's Oliver, too."

In fact, the release date of Pulp Fiction – a film substantially closer to his heart – was pushed back by Tarantino, producer Lawrence Bender and Miramax Films partly to distance it from Killers. "At first we were going to open it in August, which is the perfect time for sleepers," he says. "Then we heard Killers was coming out in August, and at first my attitude was, fuck it, let's open it the same day. But in the end, I don't want that association. I could just see all those double reviews in Rolling Stone, Time and Newsweek. You know, a photo from it next to a photo from Pulp. We'd be forever linked."

Pulp Fiction began with a 500-page first draft. For Tarantino "the only strange thing about writing Pulp was that for once, I knew what I was writing was going to get made," he says. "It's not so ethereal anymore. And if it's going to be made, it ought to be worth making. That's a harsh magnifying glass." Certainly, Tarantino bit off a lot with the intricately plotted Pulp, a film he early on described as "an anthology about a community of crooks." In writing Pulp Fiction, he says he was influenced by the writings of J.D. Salinger: "When you read his Glass family stories, they all eventually add up to one big story. That was the biggest example for me." Some writer pals advised Tarantino that he might have difficulty following up his Dogs debut. "Callie Khouri, who wrote Thelma and Louise, and Richard LaGravenese, who wrote Fisher King, both told me I was going to have trouble writing the next one," he recalls. "Fortunately, it really wasn't that difficult."

Even having the Pulp script put in turnaround by TriStar ended up helping Tarantino to make the film for a lean $8 million at Miramax – part of the reason the movie's already out of the red in presales. "I enjoyed making Pulp even more than Dogs because this time I sort of knew what I was doing," Tarantino says. "Back when we were making Dogs, Lawrence and I used to joke that we were the least experienced guys on the set. Because we were. This time around, we'd been there and done that, which made the whole thing a lot more fun." Tarantino has nothing but raves for all the cast, including Keitel, who makes a dramatic appearance – alongside Tarantino – as the Wolf, a resourceful Mr. Fix-It. This seems to be typecasting, since Keitel proved a savior when he helped kick start Tarantino's career by signing up to be a reservoir dog.

To hear Tarantino tell it, the hardest part since Pulp is getting down to work with all the Hollywood distractions. "A lot of young directors get a little success and turn into phone junkies," he says with a slight tone of disgust. "All they do is talk. My attitude is, fuck all these phone calls, forget all these meetings, you have work to do! Eighty percent of the people calling you in this business, their job is to make phone calls all day. But that's not our job."

On a sunny hollywood afternoon, Quentin Tarantino is in his natural habitat: the movies. Lately, making movies can get in the way of watching them, but this isn't one of those days. This afternoon he's one of the few nonsenior citizens attending a lunchtime screening of Mad Love at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. "I think most of the people here must have seen it when it came out in 1935," he says, checking out the crowd.

Mad Love – later adapted as The Hands of Orlac – is a nicely twisted Karl Freund film starring Peter Lorre as a crazed physician who's driven by love to undertake some rather misguided surgery. Tarantino is psyched to finally see it. Somehow he has always missed the film, but he's already well versed in its lore. "The director was the cinematographer of Metropolis," he explains excitedly. "And in Pauline Kael's famous essay 'Raising Kane,' she claims that this was the movie cinematographer Gregg Toland did before Citizen Kane to try things out for Kane later." With that, he sits back and smiles as the theater darkens.

After the movie lets out, Tarantino walks out into a blindingly sunny L.A. day. Over lunch at nearby Johnnie's, a no-frills diner that served as a Reservoir Dogs location, he's asked if it's unusual for him to be coming out of a film in the middle of a beautiful day. "Not at all," he says. "I go to movies whenever I can. I mean, I've done a few interviews where people have said they want to hang out with me on an average day and do what I do. And I always think they're waiting for me to take them horseback riding or something. They've definitely got the wrong guy. I go to movies, sometimes more than once a day, and I watch TV with friends. Occasionally, I go to coffee shops. That and I work. That's what I do."

This state of affairs is not a recent development. It has pretty much been the same routine since Tarantino grew up in L.A.'s South Bay in the shadow of the Los Angeles International Airport. His parents had already split when a 2-year-old Quentin and his mother, Connie, moved west from Knoxville, Tenn., where she had been a student. According to Connie, who later remarried, Quentin was already demonstrating an insatiable appetite for movies. "Some people describe me as a permissive mother," she says. "I took Quentin to every movie I saw. I didn't censor his material." Soon, the young auteur's bedroom was begining to resemble his current apartment. "I kept a pretty tight rein on Quentin in the rest of the house," she says, laughing.

"My mother worked very hard to supply me with a nice house to live in," Tarantino recalls. "We lived in Harbor City, which is middle class but a little rough." Connie describes the area as upper middle class – "even if that doesn't fit in with the rags-to-riches story some people want to tell about him." But she adds that "even early on, Quentin was drawn to some rough neighborhoods." The attraction, it goes without saying, was the movies.

Young Quentin – who both mother and son agree hated school – had found his refuge. "See, Harbor City's positioned between Torrance, which is an OK neighborhood, and Carson, which is rougher," he explains. "I spent a lot of my time in Carson because that's where the Carson Twin Cinema was. That was the theater that showed all the kung fu movies and the Allied International movies like The Van. The first time I met Danny DeVito, I said, 'Oh, yeah, Danny, you were in The Van and Pom-Pom Girls.' There was also the Del Amo Mall theater, where all the real Hollywood stuff played, and I went there, too. Basically, I spent my life at the movies.

"I grew up going to the grind houses and to the art houses and loving them both equally," Tarantino adds. "That sort of defines my aesthetic. I mean, it's not like I'm some arty guy just getting off on myself. I think studios are afraid of one thing, and that is someone's going to make a boring movie. My stuff may not be obvious, but it's not esoteric, either. I'll never write a movie about sheep herders contemplating God and life."

Tarantino broke into movies professionally as a teenager by ushering porn watchers at the Pussycat Theater in Torrance. He'd already tried his hand at writing his first screenplay, penning something called Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit. At 22 – around the time he started shooting a never-completed 16mm film called My Best Friend's Birthday – he got a much more satisfying and educational job working at Video Archives, a relatively small operation that Tarantino proudly calls "the best video store in the Los Angeles area." It was there that he met up with like-minded movie freaks such as fellow clerk Roger Avary, for whose recent directorial debut, Killing Zoe, Tarantino served as an executive producer. "Now Video Archives is like LA.'s answer to the Cahiers du Cinéma," Tarantino says with a laugh. "At William Morris they'll be telling agents, 'You've gotta check out the scene at that video store.'

"I basically lived there for years," he continues. "We'd get off work, close up the store, then sit around and watch movies all night. Other times Roger, our friend Scott and I would take a Friday and plot things out so we could see all four new movies we were interested in. We always took whatever we got paid and put in right back into the industry."

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