Director's cut

Matching the spectacular success of Pulp Fiction has been far from easy for Hollywood's hottest director. As Quentin Tarantino prepares to slice Kill Bill - his ultra-violent martial arts epic - in two, David Thomson asks whether more will actually mean less
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If you happen to be releasing Quentin Tarantino's new movie, Kill Bill - and Harvey Weinstein and Miramax are - then you had to be happy with what happened last week. You might even have got the credit for organising it. Suddenly the world was talking about a picture - way over budget - by a director who has not made a movie in six years, and who has spent that time raising a few questions about where he might be going.

Of course, "Quentin" is still a cult figure; his absence, and the rumours attending it, have only added to that. On the internet, fanciful stories had been whirling for a week or so, generated by hero-worshipping fans, to the effect that Weinstein had better not mess with Tarantino (the way, they said, he had with Martin Scorsese on Gangs of New York). In fact, there's no hard evidence that Weinstein pressured Scorsese (not an easy job) to cut or re-cut that film. The film had problems, and Scorsese was not blind to them. The two men had talked about how to deal with them. They may have argued. And Weinstein is a forceful arguer. But this was business as usual, and in the picture business, money talks.

Tarantino is legendary for talking a different language. He is, classically, that nerd at your local video-store who will tell you the entire history of the movies if you ask an innocent question. But he is also that guy transforming his life and times (and massively enlarging the circle prepared to listen to him), because in the early 1990s he suddenly came out with two knock-out pictures, Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994).

Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or at Cannes that year. It brought the kind of attention to a young American film director such as had not been seen since the breakthroughs of Scorsese and Francis Coppola. Some said the true comparison was with Orson Welles, which means 1941 and Citizen Kane. Except that that doesn't quite fit. Citizen Kane was pretty well reviewed, but it was a box-office flop. Pulp Fiction reanimated the young movie audience in a startling way. It ended up grossing $212m worldwide, after it had cost $8m. Half of that money was generated in the US, but the picture was very big in world markets - not least in the United Kingdom, where the script of Pulp Fiction sold well enough to help sustain the estimable Faber film list for several years.

The same sort of effect was seen in the picture business. Miramax in the early Nineties was a new operation, essentially art house but with ambitions to rival the major studios. Pulp Fiction was the project that made that possible, for it generated a cash flow that carried Miramax forward by several degrees. Harvey Weinstein has not forgotten that, and I think he meant everything he said last week about Tarantino being special to Miramax. "Miramax is the house that Quentin built," said Weinstein. That's why the director was getting "carte blanche". That's what was said about Orson Welles's deal at RKO to make Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. And it meant what it said, up to a point; Welles was able to pick his subject, his script and his cast, and he got his cut of Kane released, despite the opposition of the William R Hearst empire. But after Ambersons (which the studio drastically re-cut), an unmarked card was about all Orson Welles ever got in Hollywood.

Orson Welles was 26 when Citizen Kane was released. Tarantino was 31 when Pulp Fiction opened. Those ages seem close enough to add to the comparison. Yet, in truth, Tarantino was a lot younger than Welles, and not just because of his exuberant, helter-skelter way of talking on so many television talk shows, or even his giddy taste for roller-coaster movies, violence and a world in which movies referred largely to other movies. The thing about Tarantino (born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but shipped to Los Angeles as a kid) was that formal education had been usurped by watching every film and video he could find. That's how he had actually did work as a video-store clerk in Venice, California.

Welles, even as a boy wonder, was very much a man of the world. He had travelled in Asia and Europe. He had sophisticated parents who moved in artistic circles in Chicago. School had not impressed Orson much, but he was a constant self-educator. He had read anything anyone ever mentioned. He had the wit and the nerve to say that he'd read stuff and seen things never actually encountered. He believed in knowledge and experience, and that shows in Citizen Kane which - among other things - is a remarkable, prophetic vision of politics in America, and of the country's special confusion of money and romance.

Tarantino, on the other hand, was a guy who did not always seem able to distinguish between real life and the screen's fantasy world. Ask him if he'd ever known any gangsters, and he'd reel off a list of celebrated movie hoodlums. And not see the irony. So there were people who observed his sudden success, and hoped that somehow the wild kid - so evidently full of talent - might take some time to spread his wings, to learn about the world. After all, once upon a time, there was a sentimental notion that such experience enriched artists - and anyone else, for that matter.

For a few years, life for Tarantino had been too hectic for comfort. As well as his first two films, he had done screenplays for True Romance (1993) and the story for Natural Born Killers (1994); he had apparently doctored the script for Crimson Tide (1995); he had directed part of the episodic film, Four Rooms, and he had appeared as a rather defiant actor in that film, and in Sleep With Me, Somebody to Love, Desperado, Destiny Turns on the Radio, From Dusk Till Dawn and Girl 6. He was a kind of talisman for independent movies, until it turned out that he didn't automatically carry good luck or major numbers wherever he went. He made another film, Jackie Brown, in 1997, which actually seemed like an advance - towards comedy - but which disappointed a lot of his fans because it was a little too gentle and talkative. The delighted instability of Quentin's act did go hand in hand with the violence he delivered on screen.

What happened next? It's not entirely clear, but it's possible that Tarantino reached the opinion held by many well-wishers: that some time out of the spotlight might be useful. In September 2000, when asked by The New York Times about his relative inaction, he said: "You know, in this business right now, there are a whole lot of people making movies to pay for their incredibly extravagant lifestyle. There's a whole lot of that going on. I'm not judging, but that's not why I came here, to make movies to pay for my pool. I never want to have to do that, and I don't have to do that. But you know, if you come at this as though it's a religion, as opposed to a job, then sometimes you have to keep close to God a little. That's what this last year was. It was my way of renewing myself."

So he's grown older, and as the writer-director of Pulp Fiction he was rich enough to be able to afford that without taking foolish jobs. He travelled a great deal, especially in Asia. He had relationships - one was with the actress Mira Sorvino. He says, or implies, that he kept close to God, or his gods. There are those who report that he got more acquainted with the high life and with the drugs that come so easily with success in Los Angeles. He did direct one episode of ER for television, and he had enough of the actor in him to insist on playing a villain in a Broadway revival of Wait Until Dark. The reviews were awful. And word was getting around that "renewal" was a process with enough pitfalls to change Quentin Tarantino, or to make sure that no one ever saw the exuberant kid again.

Miramax and Harvey Weinstein would have been solicitous spectators of all of this. As it was, there was a moment, back in the mid-Nineties, when Tarantino showed them his next script and the people at Miramax who read it reported that they couldn't understand what it was - except too long and too expensive. You might have thought that anything by Tarantino would have been made then, but Miramax gently told him to put this wild script away and try again.

I don't know how far that abortion was groundwork for Kill Bill, but in 2000 he was talking about new projects. One was "a tasty little noirish thriller starring Uma Thurman"; the other was "a big, epic World War II adventure". Kill Bill is plainly much closer to the former. It is a story, told in chapters, about the world's leading female assassin (played by Thurman). She is shot on her wedding day, but survives an ensuing coma and five years later goes off on the trail of revenge. (Don't mess with assassins!)

The script they filmed was said to be 200 pages, so it was always likely that the film would be more than three hours long. A lot of it was shot in China (Tarantino has, apparently, become a fervent student of martial arts movies), and there are reports that it is extremely violent.

Now the decision has been announced (by the director and distributor jointly) that Kill Bill will come out in two separate parts. The first is scheduled to open in the US on 10 October. The second opening date is not yet set. Once the fans' dismay is put aside (some could not credit that anyone would dare to interfere with Quentin's vision), the commercial questions are intriguing. For his part, Tarantino says he is happy with the arrangement, and that it is a strategy he had been thinking about himself.

I'd deduce that this film is not an organic whole, as Pulp Fiction was. That was 154 minutes long, but the winding story was so well worked out that no one would have thought to interrupt it. Kill Bill may be much closer to the narrative structure of a serial film - in which case, if the first part works at all well, the audience for the second will be ensured. So, you have two movies for, say, $30m apiece. There will have to be adjustments. The stars, Thurman and Lucy Liu, will have representatives who say that two films equals two salaries. But neither actress is exactly expensive. Meanwhile, you have two openings and just one promotion campaign.

The Matrix series has its third part coming out at Christmas, and that season will also see the third part of The Lord of the Rings, for which all the parts were shot at the same time. Are episodic films coming back? In other words, the risks of a $55m flop are now cleverly countered. And if the first film flops, still you've lost nothing - for surely the entire three-hour version would have tanked more heavily?

So, yes, I think this is a sign of caution - but it is expert marketing, exactly what you'd expect from Harvey Weinstein. And Quentin Tarantino will have learnt that you can't keep the job and the religion separate. The job and the money are religion, they are the God you want to stay on terms with.

Artistically, critically, it's not the most positive news. But nor was it encouraging to hear that Tarantino was set on a martial arts film with scenes of mass killing. He gave us great hopes. There will be enough audience glee if he offs enough people with panache. But he could find himself on video-store back shelves if that is all he's ready to settle for.