Film: Much more Mr Nice Guy

Has the king of screen violence gone soft? No, says Cameron Docherty. It's just that he has nothing left to prove to us

Quentin Tarantino was elated - well, about as elated as a tormented scriptwriter-director can get. After weeks of waiting, Robert De Niro called to confirm he would appear in Jackie Brown, Tarantino's new film about an air stewardess embroiled in an elaborate money-laundering/drugpushing/gun- running scheme involving bank robbers, FBI agents and a jail bondsman. Jubilant, he called his mother to tell her the good news. "Son, that's wonderful," she replied. "But the acting jobs just aren't coming, huh?"

Tarantino tells this story with a wry smile, proving he has a sense of humour about himself. The fame brought to him as the director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and then his wish to act in movies and avoid getting behind the camera, created something of a media backlash in the last two years.

"They wanted four more Pulp Fictions," says Tarantino, who has no intention of pleasing anyone but himself. "But why would that be interesting?" Instead, he passed on several notable studio movies and wrote the screenplay for Jackie Brown, which is more a character study than a pop opera. "It's a quiet film," he says, smiling. "But my idea of quiet may not be everyone else's. Sitting at the bar of the Chateau Marmont, a steady stream of fans approach to compliment him on Jackie Brown. "Thank you," he says, slightly embarrassed. Thirty-four now, hip but not intimidating, he's matured into the cool pal you always wanted. He has created a world and the audience wants to live there.

"After Pulp Fiction I got a ton of offers," he says, ordering a beer. "Speed was offered to me. Speed was originally supposed to be an independent 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 big movie offered to me was Men in Black. I never even read it."

Instead of rushing Jackie Brown into production after Miramax greenlighted the project, Tarantino waited for the right actors to become available. With his encyclopediac knowledge of cinema, he dipped into his 1970s memory bank to pluck two actors - Pam Grier and Robert Forster (who was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award) - from virtual obscurity. "That's one of the best things about Pulp Fiction being successful," Tarantino says. "It gives you the power to cast Robert Forster."

He then began assembling a group of talent that only directors of the magnitude of Kubrick, Scorcese and Allen could conjure up.

Samuel L Jackson, who'd been down the Tarantino road before in Pulp Fiction, signed on alongside stellar supporting players like De Niro, Michael Keaton and Bridget Fonda. The hardest part to cast in Jackie Brown was Ordell, who is played by Samuel Jackson," maintains Tarantino. "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. 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. 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 through my work."

Tarantino's rise from the streets of a third-world LA suburb to a palatial mansion in the Hollywood Hills is the type of story that could only happen in, well, Hollywood. As a teenager he appeared to be a video geek who lived and breathed movies, classifying 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 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: he was interested in posterity, a body of work that would endure.

"I think I was mentally prepared for success," he says. "I always thought that through a body of work, I'd got 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 never imagined it would happen after two movies."

Having played a large hand in bringing Travolta back to the fore in Pulp Fiction, a $250 million hit that propelled the 1970s icon back into the limelight, Tarantino is surprisingly critical of the way his friend and other stars have hiked their salaries to $20 million and beyond.

"I think it's just greed, it's greed that will ultimately kill the business," he says angrily. "I have said that to John. 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."

He shrugs. "But I don't want to. It's not right," he adds. "My hero, when it comes to taking care of himself and owning his stuff, is Clint Eastwood. That's who I pattern my entire business after. He takes short money when he works for Warner Brothers, brings the movies in for a price and, goddam it, when they make money, he gets paid. He's my hero."

ls it true, I asked, that at a time when the average cost of a studio picture has rocketed past $50 million, he managed to bring Jackie Brown in for just $12 million? Tarantino nods his head. "Jackie Brown only cost $12 million," he says slowly, reiterating his belief that studio movies have spiralled out of control in their production and marketing costs. "It's obscene, totally outrageous," he adds.

Yet, despite his disdain for the studio system and his reputation as an independent film maker, Tarantino intends to focus his attention on big budget action movies in the not-too-distant future - and no, he doesn't believe he's selling his soul to the Devil. Listen to Tarantino, the auteur, putting the case forward for him directing studio movies.

"After Reservoir Dogs, all the studios thought: wow - that's a good film. This guy is a very exciting film maker," he says. "And you could tell they were thinking, if we match this guy with more commercial subject matter, he can bat it out the park. He smiles. "And they'd be right, by the way.

"At one point it was a major consideration for Scorcese 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 loved Mission: Impossible. To me, that's a $100 million movie made with the integrity of an artist.

"If I go and do The Man From UNCLE, which I've been offered, I'm going to make it with Warner Brothers. That's the type of movie Warner Brothers does. That would be the logical place. But not because I'm standing on a stepladder reaching for commerciality. I feel I don't have anything to prove as far as the audience is concerned anymore."

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