FILM / Crimes and misdemeanours: Quentin Tarantino doesn't lie like he used to, thanks to his spectacular debut, Reservoir Dogs. The director puts the record straight for Sheila Johnston
Friday 18 December 1992
Tarantino's gift for profligacy with the truth has stood him in good stead: he later sold four screenplays, two of which are being filmed (Tony Scott's True Romance and Natural Born Killers, which Oliver Stone has bought and may direct). More importantly he has now written, acted in and directed one of last year's most spectacular and highly praised first films, Reservoir Dogs. He may have tempted fate with the title (which is never explained) but no one has been calling it a dog.
It is a variant on the trusty heist-gone- wrong story (Tarantino says he was fired up by The Killing, Stanley Kubrick's classic of the genre), in which seven anonymous professional hoods band together to pull off a bank robbery. When the job goes wrong and a squealer is suspected, the men gather at a deserted warehouse to fly at each other's throats in a bitter post-mortem.
In the film Tarantino was sharp, sleek and menacing in the gangsters' uniform of Blues Brothers black suit, bootlace tie and shades. But he admits to being 'more of a goofy guy in life', where he sports bad hair, a big grin, the slight stoop of those who are self-conscious about their height and a jawline you could toboggan down. One of his co-stars, Chris Penn, said: 'When I first met him, I didn't think he could direct traffic.' But you quickly detect an unassailable self-confidence, which would seem arrogant if it weren't laced with an ingenuous golly-gosh enthusiasm. Like his characters he has a propensity for long, high-velocity monologues punctuated with 'that's funny]' or 'it was really cool]'.
He doesn't exactly come from Hollywood royalty: his father, whom he never knew, was Italian, his mother half-Irish, half-Cherokee. 'She was 16 years old when she had me, and on the TV show Gunsmoke Burt Reynolds played a half- breed Indian called Quint. She had a crush on him and so she named me Quentin.' At least it was a name to conjure with. He never went to film school or scriptwriting classes, and honed his love of movies in the modern equivalent of a cinematheque, a video store, where he earned minimum wages for five years.
He toiled away at his screenplays, finally selling one and planning to direct Reservoir Dogs on the proceeds. That was to be a grainy, shoestring production, until the script was sent to Harvey Keitel, whose support (he is credited as a co-producer) attracted a beefier budget and some of America's best character actors: the cast also includes Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney and an impeccably transatlantic-accented Tim Roth.
In their reviews of Reservoir Dogs US critics have compared Tarantino to Mamet for his fast, funny, obscene dialogue and to Scorsese for his exuberant cameraplay. And, like their work, his film firmly inhabits the territory of the red- blooded blue-collar American male. The Washington Post called it a 'testosterone meltdown' - while you see the odd woman for a second or two, screaming, or being shot, it's mainly an eight-man character piece.
Much of the film consists of long verbal arias; we barely see the heist. But it is also being hotly attacked for its violence (a reputation that the UK distributors, judging by the blood-splattered posters beginning to erupt around Wardour Street, are clearly keen to promote). 'This is a gruesome movie,' sniffed one US studio executive reputedly. 'I wouldn't take my wife to see it.' Another described it as 'socially unredeemable'. And earlier this week on Film 92 Barry Norman called it 'as violent a film as I've seen in years'.
Let's see: one man bleeds slowly to death in the course of the movie, and there are certainly shoot-outs - but a good many fewer than your average Lethal Weapon. Nobody's stomach gets blown away, as happens in Death Becomes Her, and nobody has his head set on fire and then doused in kerosene, as seen in the PG-rated Home Alone 2. Tarantino doesn't even show the central act of sadism, the slicing off of a policeman's ear (his camera chooses that moment to poodle off on its own along an empty wall and linger on a corner of the room). In America, however, audience walk-outs have been common during that scene.
'You could get the impression from the press that I had made one of the most violent movies ever,' Tarantino says. 'But if you go to any video store, nine out of 10 films in the action-adventure or horror section will be more graphic than mine. It's a weird misconception, but there's no way I could ever take it other than as a compliment, because what people are reacting to is not the stuff on screen but the explosive mood of the film. I mean, even when nothing is going on you're preparing yourself for something to happen. All this talk about how controversial the movie is - it's, like, just this talkfest. It's just a bunch of people talking to each other all the time.
'I write dialogue in a very moment-to- moment way, just as actors improvise. I never concern myself with the idea of themes and subtexts, because I know that if the characters are real, they're gonna bring a whole warehouse - all right? - of subtext. So I get them talking to each other, and they're off and running and I'm like a reporter just jotting it down. They're living and breathing; they've got a heartbeat, and I'm not part of it. They're always surprising me.
'People will say, how did you come up with the torture scene? I really didn't know Mr Blonde (the ear-slicer) was gonna pull out a razor,' he says with a note of regret and disappointment as though talking about a delinquent child. 'That was the truth of his character. I would be lying if I went back after he did that and said: we've gotta get rid of that, because some people might not like it.'
Part of the reaction might be down to the fact that Tarantino has put the violence into real time, not movie time. His characters are not just picked off like ducks on a shooting range. The man who bleeds to death takes the whole movie to do it. While a cop is being mutilated and drenched in gasoline we mosey through several verses of the Seventies hit 'Stuck in the Middle with You' (which many viewers may consider to be a more insidious form of torture). 'I didn't want to use the serious stuff like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath or Marvin Gaye, I wanted to use early, sugary, bubblegum stuff,' he says of his soundtrack. 'I know those songs don't get a lot of respect, and I can understand why, but I love them because they're my childhood. It's actually a kind of important period, because that was probably the last time you'd hear a song on the radio and go out and buy the 45. Around '75 everything became album-oriented, and that was the last time that just little tunes would be around.
'And that music is great, it gives the movie this weird, popsy personality, makes you laugh a little bit, though the bounciness of the song makes that scene more disturbing. My only misgiving about all this is that it's scaring people off seeing the movie,' says Tarantino, who may at least console himself with the certain knowledge that he shouldn't have to make up any more fake film credits.
'Reservoir Dogs' opens on 8 January
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