The director of 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Reservoir Dogs' guns the engine on screen violence and twisted wit
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.' "
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."
"Quentin was always a great talker," Avary recalls. "The only difference now is that everybody's listening." At first there was some tension between the two. "We were a little competitive about who knew more about movies," says Avary. "Eventually, though, we realized that despite being very different people, we had the exact same tastes. It was kismet." Avary – who contributed to the story of Pulp Fiction – sees himself and Tarantino as part of a whole new out-of-the-stores-and-onto-the-screens movement. "Film schools have become completely franchised," Avary says. "There's a fresh generation of filmmakers, and they're coming out of the video stores. All of us have the advantage of a data base of thousands of movies."
Unsurprisingly, then, a few naysaying critics have called Tarantino's work derivative. Some saw Reservoir Dogs as borrowing heavily from earlier movies, including Kubrick's The Killing. "Generally, I've been treated really well by the press," says Tarantino, who still regrets that famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael – "one of my biggest influences, my Kingsfield," he calls her – retired before Reservoir Dogs came out. "But a few critics have said, ironically enough, that Dogs felt like a film-school movie – that it's a film more about movies than about life experiences. I don't agree. I think one of the strengths of the film is that it is realistic. It does give you a glimpse into the criminal life. But I also like the idea of my films commenting on film itself. A lot of directors I love have done that." Suddenly, Tarantino grins wildly. "And the fact of the matter is, the shots I actually did rip off no one has caught yet.
"Part of the fun of making movies is that you're on ground that's been covered before," he says, "and you can use that as a jumping-off point for all the weird places you want to go. I'm trying to make a combination of a movie movie and a real movie. I want to make movie movies with real consequences."
One real consequence of the artful brutality that has marked the movies Tarantino has made thus far is the reputation it has earned him – like Peckinpah before him – as the thinking-man's poet of violence. Some audiences still may be having flashbacks to the ear-amputation scene in Reservoir Dogs, which Tarantino – a pop-music lover of extremely catholic tastes – played out to the cheerful strains of Stealers Wheel's '70s classic "Stuck in the Middle With You."
"It never bothered me when people walked out," Tarantino says. "It just meant that scene worked. Go to a video store and nine out of 10 films in the action-adventure section are more graphic than mine. But I'm not interested in making a cartoon. I'm interested in making the violence real."
Still, when Tarantino showed the film early on at a horror festival in Spain – where it followed a splatterfest called Brain Dead – he figured that he had found an audience that wouldn't be thrown by the sadism on display. "So we show the movie, and, like, 15 people walk out during the torture, including [cult horror director] Wes Craven and [horror special-effects artist] Rick Baker," says Tarantino. "Wes Craven – the guy who directed Last House on the Left, for God's sakes – walked out of my movie. Stuart Gordon – the guy who did Re-Animator – was one of the judges, and he was burying his head in his hands. It was hysterical." Tarantino later ran into Baker, who told him: "Quentin, I walked out of your movie, but I want you to take it as a compliment. See, we all deal in fantasy. There's no such thing as werewolves or vampires. You're dealing with real-life violence, and I can't deal with it."
Pulp Fiction offers no shortage of scenes for its exhausted but exhilarated audience to talk about on the way out, including that memorable male-on-male S&M rape scene. "Well, Deliverance did it," he says. "American Me did it, too. There's like three butt-fucking scenes in American Me. That's definitely the one to beat in that particular category!"
As it turned out, nobody beat Pulp Fiction at Cannes. The victory of the Palme d'Or surprised many observers but not Tarantino himself. "I thought it was in the realm of possibility," he says, smiling. "Basically, it was like no one knew about our movie, then it was like boom! It's like people who really shouldn't know what the Palme d'Or is, they all of a sudden knew that I won. I guess it's sort of like sex, lies and videotape just coming out of nowhere. After Cannes was over, I went to Paris to chill out. Let me tell you, when you win the Palme d'Or, don't go to Paris to chill out. Cannes is their Oscars, so everyone was coming up saying, "You're the American who won the big award.' "
Today, Tarantino – who doesn't have a girlfriend at the moment and who has apparently failed to develop the habit of having torrid affairs with his actresses – says that he wants to take a break. "I've got to take some time to have a life," he says. But a few weeks later, word comes that Tarantino's going back to work. In October he'll star as Jimmy Destiny in director Jack Baran's Las Vegas-set Destiny Turns On the Radio. After that, he'll direct one segment of an anthology movie called Four Rooms, which will also call on the talents of Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell and Robert Rodriguez.
Tarantino, who was thanked by Kurt Cobain in the liner notes for In Utero, seems to be on the verge of turning into a cinematic slacker icon. But his mother – who is boycotting Natural Born Killers out of respect for her son – says success hasn't spoiled him yet: "No, I haven't seen any change in Quentin. He's just as self-confident as he's always been."
In terms of the long run, Tarantino explains that he simply wants to stay on the treacherous career path that he has set for himself. "When you look at a career in Hollywood, it seems like there's two roads," he says as he sits back happily among the meaningful clutter of his home. "There's the studio-hack career or the art-film career. They're both dangerous roads. Nobody wants to turn into a hack. But the art-film trip is just as bad because you get lost and start disappearing up your own ass. But there is another road, I think, where the budgets of your film depend on what type of movie you're making, where you're making a movie you really want to make and that someone might really want to see.
"All I have to do is stay on that road."
This story is from the November 3rd, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.