The man who changed everything
'Pulp Fiction' made him the most talked-about director of the Nineties. Then he went quiet. Here, Lynn Hirschberg finds out what Quentin Tarantino has been up to
Sunday 23 November 1997
Piled on the living-room floor are videocassettes of scenes from Tarantino's new movie, Jackie Brown, which is scheduled to open in the US on Christmas Day. Based on the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown stars the Seventies blaxploitation icon Pam Grier as an air- stewardess embroiled in an elaborate money-laundering/drug-pushing/gun-running scheme. The film also stars Samuel L Jackson, Robert De Niro and Robert Forster, who is best known in America, if he is known at all, for playing Banyon in the NBC show of that name during the Seventies. "That's one of the best things about Pulp Fiction being successful," Tarantino says. "It gives you the power to cast Robert Forster."
Beyond casting, Pulp Fiction really changed everything. The movie, a critical and commercial hit (grossing $250 million worldwide), established Miramax as a mini-studio, jump-started John Travolta's ailing career, re-ignited a sort of independent spirit among film-makers and made a star out of Tarantino. At first he appeared to be a type: the video geek who lived and breathed movies, classing them in his own way (a-bunch-of-guys- on-a-mission movies, revenge movies, two-guys-and-a-girl movies, etc) and savouring them. (He would show prospective girlfriends Rio Bravo, and if they didn't like it, their days were probably numbered.) But Tarantino was not as childlike as his movie-nerd image might have suggested. He not only studied movies, he studied the careers of directors and producers, and he knew what to expect and what he wanted. His goal was simple: Tarantino was interested in posterity, a body of work that would endure.
Pulp Fiction made Tarantino famous in a particular kind of way. He seemed brilliant and accessible - through the movie, he tapped into the collective unconscious that is pop culture. Thirty-four now, hip but not intimidating, Tarantino could be that cool pal you always wanted. He has created a world and the audience wants to live there.
"People think they know me," Tarantino says. They honk at him when he drives. They follow him down the streets of LA with posters and photos to sign. When he drinks in a bar, a steady stream of fans approach his table. "Thank you," he'll say, taking a girl's hand. "You're so nice."
The fame brought to him by Pulp Fiction, and then his wish to act in movies as well as direct, has created something of a journalistic backlash in the last two years. "They want four more Pulp Fiction's," says Tarantino, who has no intention of pleasing anyone but himself. "But why would that be interesting?" Instead, Jackie Brown, which was shot in the South Bay, Tarantino's childhood turf in Los Angeles, is more of a character study than a pop opera. "It's a quiet film," Tarantino says, smiling. "But my idea of quiet may not be anyone else's."
Q: Do you think movies are getting worse?
A: No. I've never thought that. There's always enough good movies that come out at the end of the year to justify everything - studio-wise and independents. If you can get one masterpiece a year, do you have any right to expect more than that? We're talking about a masterpiece that will live on for all time. And sometimes you get two or three or four. If you get one, that's enough.
Q: Three years ago, you were the one. 'Pulp Fiction' was a huge success, and it changed the world of independent film-making. How did that affect you?
A: I think I was mentally prepared for success. I always thought that, through a body of work, I'd get to a place where I'd be respected. My work would matter, and I'd have my place in film history. I always figured I would make a splash. I just didn't think I'd get to where I wanted to go in two movies. But I always wanted success. And the more success you have, the more power you have. I don't need to talk a hot actor into doing my movie to get my movie made. And that's true power - if you don't need Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise to say "Yes" to your movie to do it. Which isn't to say I wouldn't want those guys, but it would be my choice. I want me to be enough. That's the power I have. But it happened very quickly, and that was a surprise. I became an adjective sooner than I thought I was going to.
Q: An adjective?
A: Every third script out there is described as "Tarantino-esque".
Q: Right after 'Pulp Fiction', you acted in the 'Tarantino-esque' 'Destiny Turns On the Radio', and then in 'Four Rooms'. People went crazy. I think that the public felt you shouldn't act, that you should just direct.
A: The main thing people took shots at was that I didn't make another movie right away. And I'm never going to be the director that makes a movie a year. I don't see how to do that and live a life.
Q: Did that backlash get to you?
A: I don't think it has any effect on my work, but it's sort of affected my life. Journalists can't conceive that the things they wrote in movie magazines don't really affect my life. I was made fun of and kicked around a little. I learned pretty early on to stop reading that stuff.
Q: But you felt that the press was critical to the success of 'Pulp Fiction'?
A: That's true. The reason I'm popular outside America is because I spent a solid year overseas with Reservoir Dogs doing the talk shows and interviews. I would arrive in a country unknown and I would leave known. So when it came time to sell Pulp Fiction, they knew exactly who I was. I walk in Tokyo and they recognise me. In Communist countries and everything. We showed Pulp Fiction in China. The government sanctioned it, and I've never seen a more enthusiastic response. When I went to introduce the movie, it was more like a rock concert than a movie. It was like freedom, a night of freedom.
But as far as America is concerned, I did the talk shows and magazine articles and profiles and all, and people started writing that "Quentin Tarantino is a master of self-promotion." That was a big thing: master of self-promotion. And I didn't do anything different than an actor does. I didn't do one more interview than an actor does. I just did the publicity rounds.
Q: Do you think it was crucial to the success of the movie?
A: Nah. That much press doesn't really sell a proportionate number of tickets, but it does make you famous. I actually don't think that this article or that article sells a ticket. But they do make you famous. You could take 30 per cent of my fame away and I'd be just fine. It's not that I don't want to be famous, but 30 per cent less would be great. I used to like to walk and be in my own head, and I can't really do that now. If I was trying to pick up a girl every night, it would be the greatest thing in the world, but I'm not. That's really easy now, but I don't want to do that.
Q: Did Miramax ever put pressure on you to get back to work?
A: Never, never, never, never, never.
Q: You're seen as Mr Indie Guy Success Story, but you actually wrote 'Pulp Fiction' for a major studio, Tri-Star.
A: They said "No" right away, so there was no problem. And Harvey Weinstein of Miramax got it like, bam! - in the second breath. Tri-Star never saw it until I was finished with it. It said on it, "Last Draft". They knew, This is it. I said, "This is what I'm prepared to make."
Q: Were you worried they'd say 'Yes'?
A: What I was worried about was that they wouldn't be into it and they'd do it anyway because it was so cheap. But they were scared of it. And they didn't think it was going to be funny. Mike Medavoy, the head of Tri-Star then, was the guy who put the kibosh on it. He actually had just come back from Washington, where Clinton had done this big thing about how Hollywood has to be more responsible and all this stuff. He'd just come back and we threw Pulp Fiction in his lap. I was very disillusioned when he turned it down because I thought he was a studio guy with guts and he was just scared of the material. At the same time, I have to give him a little credit for some honesty. He didn't lie. He answered questions I'd always wanted to know.
Q: Like what?
A: Well, they knew they weren't going to be able to control me. They had to buy me hook, line and sinker or forget it. It said on there, "Last Draft" - they knew I wasn't going to change it. But I gave him a cast list. It read like, for, say, the role of Pumpkin, "This role will be offered to Tim Roth" - who ultimately played it. "If Tim Roth turns it down, this role will be offered to the next person on the list and so on." There were no maybes about it. It was how it is. And Medavoy read the list, and we had a meeting about it and he goes: "Tim Roth is a very fine actor, but Johnny Depp is also on your list. I would rather offer the part to Johnny Depp. And if he turns it down, we should go to Christian Slater. That would be my order."
And then I got to ask him the question I'd always been dying to ask. I said, "Do you actually think that Johnny Depp, in the role of Pumpkin, who's only in the last scene and the first scene, do you actually think that would mean a dollar's worth of difference at the box office?" And he goes, "It won't mean a dime, but it will make me feel better."
There's nothing else to be said after that. That says it all. I don't want to make movies that way. But that doesn't make Medavoy a crooked bastard. It makes him very honest.
Q: Tri-Star had paid you a million dollars for that script. Weren't you nervous about breaking the deal?
A: No. I had heard all the stories about projects sitting on the shelf. There was every chance, in fact, in all likelihood, a studio would not want to make Pulp Fiction. If any studio would have done it, it would have been Tri-Star. Mike Medavoy had run Orion, which functioned like an independent.
Q: You and Miramax sort of grew up together.
A: Oh, yeah - I'm their Mickey Mouse. I always joke with them that three years ago, at any major event or anything - like, if all the studio people had Thanksgiving - Miramax would have had to sit at the kids table. Now, not only is Miramax sitting at the big table, but everyone's watching what they're eating.
Q: Do the big studios ever tempt you?
A: After Reservoir Dogs, I got a ton of offers from actors with production companies. And some things came my way. Speed was offered to me. Speed was originally supposed to be an independent-type action film. It's hard to believe that now, but they used Reservoir Dogs and Bad Lieutenant as examples of the direction they were headed. It was supposed to be the same market. Then the other real big movie offered to me was Men in Black. I never even read it.
If I'd been offered Accidental Hero [starring Dustin Hoffman], I would have done it. That would have been my Capra movie. It would have been smaller. I would have cast Travolta. The screenwriter, David Peoples, wrote a great script. Stephen Frears, the director, took Accidental Hero as a job - I can tell. The movie is hitting its head on the ceiling of his talent, where the script wants to go to the moon. I've seen that a few times now.
Q: Do you think studios mess up movies?
A: No. It's totally the director. I've never gone through the whole big- studio experience, but ... I have. That's a lie. Miramax is a studio. There are no two ways about it.
Q: But people are crazy about Miramax.
A: When Pulp Fiction came out, I didn't realise the resentment toward Miramax throughout the industry. When the movie came out, there was a big think piece published in Variety questioning the sense of Miramax releasing what is definitely viewed as an "art film" so wide - a thousand screens. How foolish they were. And that they were overspending on advertising.
Then, if you remember, we were in 1,100 cinemas, and The Specialist, starring Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone, was in, like, 2,300 cinemas. We were No 1 and no one believed it. And then, come Week Two, we killed them. At the end of the day, the studios don't like these intruders coming into the business. In a weird way, Harvey and Bob Weinstein kind of remind the studios where they all started. They're the real Warner Brothers. I call them the Brothers Weinstein. The BWs.
Q: Do you still think about budget?
A: Yes. Jackie Brown only cost $12 million. You can't lose. You absolutely, positively can't lose. And you don't have to compromise. After Reservoir Dogs, all the studios thought: Wow - that's a good film. This guy is a very exciting film-maker. And you could tell they were thinking, if we match this guy with more commercial subject matter, he can bat it out of the park. And they'd be right, by the way. At one point, it was a major consideration for Scorsese to do Dick Tracy. And that's right up his alley. If I used bigger actors, made action movies, I wouldn't be selling out. De Palma did not sell out when he did The Untouchables - it was a marriage made in heaven. And I love Mission: Impossible. To me, that's a $100 million movie made with the integrity of an artist. And the more I've seen it, the more I love it. I own a print of it. If I go and do The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I'm going to make it with Warner Brothers. That's what Warner Brothers does. That would be the logical place. But not because I'm standing on a stepladder reaching for commerciality. I don't have to prove anything as far as audience is concerned.
Q: Your confidence is impressive, but neither 'Reservoir Dogs' nor 'True Romance', which you wrote the script for, was a hit. Didn't you ever worry?
A: During preproduction on Pulp Fiction, True Romance came out and didn't do well. That scared me. I thought, "Maybe there isn't a big audience for what it is that I do." But the example that gave me confidence was Jane Campion. That year, she had her big breakout hit with The Piano. There was nothing to suggest in her previous work that she would ever find a large audience. But her doing what she does with the right film and the right story did find that audience. And now there are these insane $100 million expectations on Jackie Brown, which is a smaller, character- based movie with a female lead. Well, I'm not in this for a couple of movies. I'm in this for a lifetime.
Q: Do you watch movies while you're shooting?
A: During Jackie Brown, I would watch one side of the laser disk for Carlito's Way. My cinematographer and I watched two movies: Hickey and Boggs, which was directed by Robert Culp and was shot in the Seventies - it's a really good movie. And then we watched They All Laughed, by Peter Bogdanovich. Both were perfect for Jackie Brown. They All Laughed is a masterpiece, I think. It captures a fairy-tale New York. It makes New York look like Paris in the Twenties. It makes you want to live there. And we kind of used it. And then we watched Straight Time, one of the best LA crime movies ever. But I wanted Jackie Brown to look more like a movie than that. Straight Time is too gritty.
Q: How about casting the movie?
A: You actually have to cast your own movie. By that I mean, on Reservoir Dogs, they wanted us to cast a bunch of made-for-video actors, a bunch of semi-on-the-rise B-level guys thrown together without any thought of whether they would work well together. They wanted us to use these medium names on the rise. We wouldn't do it.
The hardest part to give up in Jackie Brown was Ordell, who is played by Samuel L Jackson. I was Ordell. It was so easy to write Ordell. I was Ordell for the year I was writing the script. I had to really work hard in letting go of Ordell and letting Sam play him and not being a jerk about stuff. Sam was him for 10 weeks; I was Ordell for 52 weeks.
Ordell was all my mentors as a young man growing up. Ordell was who I could have been. It was interesting writing the film because that all kind of came back to me, and that persona of who I could have been at 17 if I didn't have artistic ambitions. That was it. If I hadn't wanted to make movies, I would have ended up as Ordell. I wouldn't have been a postman or worked at the phone company or been a salesman or a guy selling gold by the inch. I would have been involved with one scam after another. I would have done something that I would have gone to jail for. But I picked my path. And luckily, I was able to deal with all those things about me through my work.
Q: And Robert De Niro is in the movie. Lately, it seems, his talent is taken for granted.
A: Definitely. De Niro's work in Heat is amazing. And he's amazing in Casino. He was robbed of a nomination on either of those films. De Niro is a major supporter of me acting. We're going to do a movie together.
Critics have taken pot-shots at me for acting. I don't think they think I'm as serious about acting as I am. But I have had nothing but support from other actors. So who am I going to listen to? Am I going to listen to a critic or Robert De Niro? Am I going to listen to a critic or Nicolas Cage?
Q: Nic Cage is about to play Superman. Which superhero would you want to be?
A: That's a tough one ... [long pause] I think I'd be Luke Cage, the black superhero. Nic Cage took his name from Luke Cage. Luke Cage was a blaxploitation comic-book hero. He's my favourite character. Luke Cage was framed for heroin possession and he was in jail, and a doctor did an experiment on him and he busts out of jail and he ends up with super-strength. The doctor's chemical bath gave him steel-hard skin. His skin is bullet-proof. He changed his name and rented himself out: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Everyone thinks he's dead, but he's always on the run. He's a superhero version of Shaft. He's a great character.
Q: You've always had a great love of mainstream, pop stuff. You're like a collector.
A: I don't believe in elitism. I don't think the audience is this dumb person lower than me. I am the audience.
Q: Do you ever think about how you would change the movie business?
A: Well, I have a big problem with the stars getting $20 million. I think it's just greed, it's a greed that will ultimately kill the business.
Q: Do you say that to John Travolta, who gets $20 million a picture?
A: I have said that to him. He says, "That's the going price." And I understand that. If I was going on the market, and the going price for directors is $6 million, I could get $10 million with the right project. And I would start to care about kicking it up.
But I don't want to. It's not right. My hero when it comes to taking care of himself and owning his stuff is Clint Eastwood. That's who I pattern my business after. He takes short money when he works for Warner Brothers, brings the movies in for a price and, goddamn it, when they make money, he gets paid. He's my hero.
Q: Do you ever get scared? Are you always in such a doubt-free zone?
A: Why should I be scared? You do the work and that's what is important. It sounds big, but I've built my whole career on courage. This whole thing is about when I'm an old man and I'm not doing anything anymore. It ain't about the moment. I'm not making films for right now - I'm making films for 40 years from now.
Copyright 'New York Times Magazine' 1997.
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