Pulp Fiction: Breaking Down Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece
In 1994, pulp fiction became the first independent film to gross more than $200 million. Over two decades later, the American neo-noir crime black comedy film is still Quentin Tarantinos’ finest work, a movie that changed modern cinema. So what went into the making of the movie that now has a permanent place on the must-watch list?
Back in 1992, producer, Lawrence Bender, and TriStar Pictures, invested $900,000 in a project which would prove to be the film which revived John Travolta’s career and make stars of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman. Before all of this happened, 30-year-old Quentin Tarantino sat in a one-room apartment without a phone, pouring himself into reorganizing a script about a community of criminals on the peripheral of Los Angeles. The screenplay was in bits and pieces, hundreds of pages had yet to be put together to make sense.
“It was about going over it one last time and then giving it to the typist, Linda Chen, who was an excellent friend of mine,” says Tarantino. “She helped me.”
The two had met while Linda was a struggling typist and script consultant for Robert Towne.
“Quentin was fascinated by the way I worked with Towne and his team,” says Linda. “It began with calls where he was just reading pages to me,” she goes on.
But it soon turned into her picking out an endless list of grammatical errors. The script was late, the producer and TriStar Pictures pressed for its delivery which was already late. They had a feeling of $900,000 going down the drain.
Quentin finished the screenplay in May 1993. On its release, Pulp Fiction was coined as “a high point in a low age” by Stanley Crouch in the Los Angeles Time. Owen Gleiberman stated that it was “nothing less than the reinvention of mainstream American cinema.”
What baffled most was how Tarantino, without any formal training, had managed to create ripples in the film world. As the movie grossed $214 million worldwide, these thoughts were made public.
“It must be hard to believe that Mr. Tarantino, a mostly self-taught, mostly untested talent who spent his formative years working in a video store, has come up with a work of such depth, wit and blazing originality that it places him in the front ranks of American filmmakers,” said Janet Maslin in The New York Times.
Initially, no one seemed to be wanting to back Tarantino. He was untested, unknown and unschooled. One potential buyer offered to mortgage his house only if he could direct the film. But producer Bender was acquainted with actor Harvey Keitel who was mesmerized with the script.
“I got stuck. I couldn’t speak about it. I just wanted to sit with it, which I did for many days until I called Lawrence Bender.”
Keitel signing up for the lead role helped them raise a portion of the money needed to produce the movie while Tarantino took on the role of a director.
On remembering his early days when he flew off to Amsterdam to out his head to it Quentin reminisces,
“I just had this cool writing existence,” he says.
“I didn’t have to worry about money. Through luck and happenstance, I found an apartment to rent right off a canal. I would get up and walk around Amsterdam, and then drink 12 cups of coffee, spending my entire morning writing.”
Writing the script meant a huge deal and was the source of some ties going awry. Before the production, Roger Avary who contributed the central scene of the film (about the boxer), left Quentin’s apartment in Amsterdam after a mind wrecking session of writing and putting scenes in a sequential order.
Tabloids reported later that once the production of the film had begun, Avary had openly expressed how he had been betrayed when he found out that Tarantino had acquired legal help in materializing his desire of taking credit in the form of “Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino” being said and put down in print.
Amid all the drama, Mike Medavoy recalls going through the script of which he then felt skeptic about. Over excessive violence had been under debate at The White House earlier where he had spent a weekend. After coming to the conclusion that Hollywood needs to cut down on the violence and at least address it, contributing to a movie where a man’s brain is shot out wasn’t on top of Medavoy’s list, to say the least. But the film was passed by every major studio. The script went through a lot of big fish including Harvey Weinstein.
Two hours after being handed the 159-page script while rushing to catch a flight, he had read through the first scene and called the guy who had handed him the piece of brilliance, Richard Gladstein. The first scene is fucking brilliant. Does it stay this good?’ He asked. An hour later, he called back again, this time frustrated and exasperated.
“Are you guys crazy?” he screamed. “You just killed off the main character in the middle of the movie!”
But as he got to the end of it and off the plane there was the only thing he knew; this film was going to be made whether it bothered some people’s sensibilities or not.
The script was finally sent to the actors. A few days later, Tarantino and John Travolta met in his apartment. Travolta was suffering, he had long vanished from the in the scene at Hollywood and had barely any hope of reviving himself to his former glory. As Tarantino opened the door, Travolta looked at him and said, ‘O.K., let me describe your apartment to you.
Your bathroom has this kind of tile and da-da-da-da. The reason I know this is, this is the apartment that I lived in when I first moved to Hollywood. This is the condo I got Welcome Back, Kotter. It was a strange moment for Travolta. ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ had been the film that had picked him up from the ground and led him to taste stardom.
Years afterward, he stood at the same apartment, rejected by Hollywood, wondering about this small ray of the sunshine that might get him back up. This besides the fact that he had doubts about the role after taking movies such as Grease.
“I’ve never played a drug addict on-screen. Do I want to shoot up and kill people?” he asked Tarantino.
But the problems had not yet ended. Harvey Weinstein was ready to take on any actor on board but Travolta. A long late night call and a 15-second deadline later, Weinstein had given in.
Bruce Willis was the next addition to the almost developed masterpiece. Willis had seen and loved Reservoir Dogs. He became interested in working with young Tarantino. This wasn’t much long after Die Hard but working with Tarantino at this point meant a significant reduction in his $5 million fees. But he immediately said yes to the film.
Uma Thurman was cast as the beautiful wife of a husky crime boss. Some sources say that she was the only one Tarantino met personally while casting. 23-year-old Uma was cynical about the violence laced script where her crime boss husband suffers in the most horrifying way. But after hours of discussion, Tarantino was successful in making his muse for what would be many hit films in the future, agree.
After Samuel Jackson’s casting, the actors prepared for their roles. It wasn’t an easy task either. But putting together the script, getting it out to the right people and then assembling the cast had not deterred Tarantino’s will. For Travolta’s role, he set him up for some ‘training.’
“I said, ‘There is no way I’m going to do heroin, so I’ve got to spend some time with addicts to do this,” says Travolta.
“Quentin set me up with a white-collar addict. Then I set myself up with a street user, and I spent a few days with these guys and took notes.”
Thurman had her share of hard work. Snorting sugar and using drugs and guns was an unknown concept to her. At the Oscars of 1995, the filmmakers, actors, and actresses got together to celebrate the award for best original screenplay. The winners were Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary. The two hugged on stage.
All said and done; this was just the beginning of Tarantino’s lifer in Hollywood. During his thank you speech he had said,
“I think this is probably the only award I am going to win here tonight.”
Forrest Gump had taken the night, but Quentin Tarantino had just begun. He would take on many award nights as we would all later see.
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If you liked Reservoir Dogs: Breaking Down Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece? take a listen to:
Top 10 Quentin Tarantino Interviews – On Screenwriting & Filmmaking
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