The Legacy of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof

Only a handful of directors knows how just to catch the attention of people like Quentin Tarantino. No doubt, he is good at doing things right. Considered as an exploitation film that stroked the sensibilities of genre nerds, the theatrical release of the double-feature throwback experiment is seen to both confuse and alienate the general moviegoing public at the same time.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse was released on April 6, 2007. The directors made an intentional affectation that got many unsuspecting patrons unhappy. The saw the nicks and scratches in the film as damaging. As a result, the confidence of the filmmaking duo began to wane when disappointments from general disinterest and the resulting box office came filing in.

While some may consider the gritty, 70s-style exploitation flick to be one of Tarantino’s purest movies, there is a good number of viewers who are still wondering where his contribution was. When credits of “Planet Terror” – Rodriguez’s lead film – starts to roll, these were the people who pulled on their coats and obliviously left the theater all because they felt deceived.

Up to this very moment, the film –Death Proof – still carries along a raging debate with lots of disapprovals from the viewing public. Even as a major part of the filmmaker’s broader legacy which was meant to serve as a standalone entertainment, the film generally appears to be a far more contentious piece.

While some may find it hard to gauge the lasting effect of the movie, a good number of fans – both the obsessive and casual ones – consider the 2007 American exploitation film as the worst effort of the director by a wide margin.

You can read all of Quentin Tarantino’s Screenplays here.

Death Proof: The Film

Under the collective title “Grindhouse,” the film – Death Proof – was theatrically released as part of a double feature with Planet Terror which was directed by Robert Rodriguez. Basically, it was aimed at recreating the experience of viewing the double features of exploitation film in a grindhouse theater. Though released as part of a double feature in the US, the film got a separate release outside the shores of its home country.

Quentin Tarantino both wrote and directed the film which stars Zoe Bell, Mary Elizabeth, Tracie Thoms, Sydney Poitier, Rose McGowan, Jordan Ladd, Vanessa Ferlito, Rosario Dawson, and Kurt Russell. In the film, Zoe Bell played herself as stuntwoman while Kurt Russell starred as the stuntman. The film pays homage to the muscle car, exploitation, and slasher films of the 1970s. During the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Death proof was seen to be in the main competition for the Palme d’Or.

Death Proof: Behind the Scenes

Quentin Tarantino was inspired by the way stunt cars were “death-proof” by stuntmen so their drivers could be able to survive horrific collisions and high-speed crashes. It was this fascination that led to the production of the creation of a slasher film that features an upset stuntman with a “death-proof” car which he uses to stalk and kill sexy women.

Apart from women-in-prison films, Tarantino was looking to do a more rigid film. That was when he came up with the idea of using the structure of a slasher film to create something strict that people will love. According to Robert Rodriguez who helped title the movie, the film was simple and straightforward.

In Tarantino’s earlier film – Kill Bill– he had featured stuntwoman Zoe Bell as a stunt double for Uma Thurman and was stunned by her performance. Initially, he thought her role to be a cameo one but it later turned out to be her first on-screen acting. Zoe Bell on her part never understood the enormousness of her role until her name was featured on the film posters opposite other characters like Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson, and Kurt Russell.

Based on the stuntwoman herself, Bell was selected to play the character, Zoe. In order to make the film look more like the typical 1970 movies shown in grindhouse theaters, the filmmakers sought to employ various unconventional techniques to reflect the style. One way they could do this was to intentionally damage the film. Throughout the feature, the film looked it was in bad shape. This is evident in the hilarious switch in title when the title ‘Quentin Tarantino’s Thunderbolt’ was abruptly replaced by a title card with an inexpertly emblazoned inscription – ‘Death Proof’ – across the screen.

The leading female role was written by Tarantino himself. Basically, he sought to create a kind of a loving homage cinematic sub-culture that many find difficult to comprehend. Viewers who are not used to the “grindhouse” cinema phenomena found it difficult to understand how the film was set out. Both in its look and feel, the film went out of its way to imitate the style of exploitation cinema that was popular in the late 60’s and 70’s.

It would appear that a vast majority of mainstream audiences didn’t find the film at all amusing. This alone led to the major criticisms leveled at it. In the first place, the film is not meant to be taken very seriously. Rather, it was purposed to be a pastiche or a parody of the class of movies a greater percentage of viewers wouldn’t want to see. But in terms of content, theme, and plot, it tends to be highly controversial and little in the way of conventional film logic.

The original idea was to pastiche two films and relay them at drive-in movie theaters as a double feature. As they move from state to state, theater owners will just have to take up the role of the filmmakers to re-cut and re-edit both films. This is the explanation for the appearance of a severely depreciating film stock, the switch between black and white and color, the sloppy editing and the purposeful mistakes in continuity.

Death Proof: The Critics

In a bid to appeal to the obsessive-type movie aficionado who are capable of appreciating the joke and getting the references, the filmmakers try to create a focused adoption of shoddy film-making which is in no wise sloppy as some may see it. To this end, it becomes quite difficult to see what people may be criticizing. A greater number of people would be reluctant to consider sevral semi-unclear movies that influenced the film as they will not actually expect it to keep them enthralled and entertained.

While the rest of Tarantino’s works have received wide praise, Proof’s merits have suffered derisive sarcasm. During a roundtable interview with a Hollywood reporter in 2012, Tarantino was quick to state that he felt the film stains his credit thereby regarding as the lowest point of quality that can be accepted from him.

However, come to look at it, the film seems to contain certain features that can rarely be found in any of his works. Tarantino’s film is such a personal work that’s got his fetishes, self-indulgence, influences, and interests at work. No doubt, everything here including the heavy flaws contributes immensely to the body of work displayed in the film.

Obviously, the movie is the palpable result of the most exciting auteur in cinema. It can be said to be a film writ in his largest, loudest letters. While some critics may see Death Proof as a remake of some cheapie slasher exploitation flicks, others can freely say it is the ecstatic fantasy daydream of the maker after night binging on girl gang.

Apart from Tarantino, there would only be a few people that admire the exploitation in the film. As a matter of fact, most of the features in Death Proof were no classics. Referencing to “vanishing point” is just unheard of. An average moviegoer must have never come across such things as “SwitchBlade Sisters.” No doubt, the movie is unbearably talky.

As part of the pastiche, Tarantino and his crew deliberately insert continuous dialogue that makes it sound chit-chatty with endless gabbing. Those who accustomed with this will find it difficult to understand that the action was deliberate. This was basically done to conserve the budgetary production of the film and at the same time, reference the downside to genuine seventies Grindhouse flick.

Death Proof: The Raves

Outside the meaningless girl talk and the ponderous lulls that can even be forborne, there are still some interesting features in the movie that cannot be overlooked. As a matter of fact, it is hard to deny that the vehicle stunts exhibited in the film are impressive. No doubt, Sally Menke did a beautiful job there! One absolute shocker that cannot be by-passed is the spectacular crash. This remarkable moment alone requires both a ‘pause and replay’ action.

The Jackie Chan factor was fully observed here when Zoe Bell heightened the tension with a sense of actual danger while performing her own stunts. Along with an admirably old-school precision, the climactic cat-and-mouse car chase proved very pristine. As an actress and stuntwoman, Zoe Bell never found the role of playing herself any challenging. Thanks to a sympathetic advantage, she found so easy to showcase her bubbly personality.

Also, the remaining casting is ideal. At first ominous and then pathetic, the renascent Kurt Russell showcases his fatherly charm and charisma into something extra ordinary. He deftly navigates through his role with tonal hairpin turns that are only typical with him. Even Mickey Rourke would have found this role to be quite challenging to handle. No doubt, the twisted ex-stuntman Mike did a great job getting off on chasing pretty women off the road.

Tarantino seeks to upgrade the Mike to the status of a near-immortal by making him literally untouchable especially when he’s in that death-proof car of his. In fact, Stuntman Mike was so elevated that he could not be killed by anyone except in the hands of another stuntman. But in this scenario, there was a stuntwoman.

In a bid to evoke the typical nature of the film’s location – Austin, Death Proof features a soundtrack packed with southern-flavored obscurities which are also part of the director’s favorite. Long before joining the industry, Tarantino has been working as a musical ‘curator.’ So, he knows just how to bring his least-gimmicky and most consistently listenable tune selections into the mix. Just so you know, the director wrote all the song titles used in the movie. As a huge part of all of his films, Quentin Tarantino was able to get his personal 45 collections into the jukebox in the Texas Chili Parlor.

Tarantino is famous for monkeying with his movies’ timeline. But unlike his other movies, Death Proof is the only film that runs in chronological order. Here, he had no choice but to skip the trickery features such as the flashbacks so as to perfectly get aligned with the down-low style of Death Proof. Littered with his personal touches, Tarantino does well to recycle “Death Proof” from thriller materials and stock horror.

Death Proof: Final Thoughts

Towards the end of the film, an amusing but unanticipated change-up occurred when the girls gained superiority over the nefarious Stuntman Mike. This alone is capable of bringing a soothing relief on the face of every aficionado praying for an imminent escape for the girls. No doubt, the girls in tight t-shirts, the other characters, the music, and the colorful iconography added to constructive nature of the movie. All these made it look like a joyous, darkly comic romp.

Apart from attempting to turn its audience on to a whole new world of cult Japanese cinema, Death Proof fully demonstrates to its audience the great use of movement, color, texture, and tone employed by the filmmaker. Nevertheless, the film is meant as a piece of entertainment. The final scene of the movie was shot near the Neverland Ranch, at the entrance to Midland School just on Figueroa Mountain Road.

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Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs

In terms of American independent film, there is Before RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), and After RESERVOR DOGS.  Director Quentin Tarantino’s feature debut was a truly paradigm-shattering event, single-handedly turning a sleepy Utah ski town into something of a promised land for aspiring filmmakers the world over.  No one quite knew what to make of its razor-sharp wit and unflinching violence, but they knew that a forceful new voice had just descended with a vengeance on the complacent Hollywood system.  It’s hard not to speak in hyperbolic terms when discussing Tarantino—the man’s style and subject matter practically begs for it.

RESERVOIR DOGS has often been voted as one of, if not the best independent films of all time.  As a hard-boiled gangster/crime picture, it wears its influences on its sleeve, but then proceeds to upend every expectation in the book like a bull in a china shop.  Despite multiple viewings, it will still grip its audiences with gritted teeth and clenched knuckles like it did the first time.

I was a senior in high school when I familiarized myself with Tarantino, having casually heard how PULP FICTION (1994) was such an incredible film throughout my life.  It wasn’t until I watched my first Tarantino film, 2004’s KILL BILL VOLUME 1 in theaters that I was compelled to visit his back catalog.  On a whim, I snatched up both DVDs of PULP FICTION and RESERVOIR DOGS, with only the faintest idea of what I was getting myself into.

While his later films would sprawl out to broader scales, RESERVOIR DOGS tells a very tight, very compact story that could easily be translated into live theatre (and has, on multiple occasions).  Five common criminals team up to stage a simple diamond heist, only for it to go horribly wrong.  The dazed and confused criminals rendezvous in an industrial warehouse on the fringes of town, trying to make sense of what happened.  As they argue and debate amongst themselves, they slowly realize that there’s a rat, or worse—an undercover cop—in their midst.  But figuring out the identity of the rat won’t be so easy, with tempers flaring and unexpected loyalty defections that raise the stakes to Shakespearean proportions.

You can read all of Quentin Tarantino’s Screenplays here.

Tarantino got his break off of RESERVOIR DOGS simply by the strength of his crackerjack script.  Through some personal connections, the screenplay winded up in the hands of character actor and frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator, Harvey Keitel.  Upon reading Tarantino’s script, Keitel immediately called up the young aspiring director and asked to take part in it.  Keitel’s participation proved instrumental, bringing in $1.5 million in financing and serious name recognition for a film that Tarantino had initially envisioned shooting with his friends for $30,000.  Coupled with the opportunity to workshop his script in-depth at the Sundance Institute’s Directing Labs, Tarantino was able to come to set on the first day with all the tools he needed to deliver a knockout film.

Tarantino has always had an impeccable eye for casting, and the ensemble he collected for RESERVOIR DOGS is filled with unconventional, yet incredibly inspired choices.  The aforementioned Mr. Keitel experienced a late-career resurgence as a result of his performance as Mr. White, the tough yet tender thug at the center of the story.  Tim Roth, as Mr. Orange, is convincing as both a dangerous criminal and a cocky undercover cop.  Roth’s performance is superlatively dynamic despite spending the majority of his screen time lying in a pool of blood.

Michael Madsen plays one of the film’s most terrifying characters, a smooth and squinty-eyed career criminal with a volatile sadistic streak—Mr. Blonde, real name Vic Vega.  Madsen’s too-cool-for-school performance results in a simple torture sequence becoming one of cinema’s most profoundly disturbing moments.  Mr. Blonde is a sick fuck, taking great pleasure in torturing a cop by cutting off his ear and soaking him in gasoline, only for his own amusement.

Steve Buscemi plays Mr. Pink, a squirrelly, self-deluded member of the team.  Tarantino initially wanted to play the part of Mr. Pink, but Buscemi’s energetic, bug-eyed audition convinced him otherwise.  Buscemi’s performance is incredibly memorable, with his argument for why he doesn’t tip waitresses in the opening diner scene being one of the most iconic moments in the movie.  Veteran character actor Lawrence Tierney plays the gang’s curmudgeonly fat-cat boss, Joe Cabot, with a tough, yet paternal flair.  Rounding out the cast is the late Chris Penn as Nice Guy Eddie, Joe Cabot’s vindictive rich-prick son.

As Tarantino’s first, true professional work, RESERVOIR DOGS looks slick and polished, with none of the amateur-looking roughness that plagued his first attempt, MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY (1987).  The first film to be produced with his frequent production partner, Lawrence Bender, RESERVOIR DOGS puts every cent of its $1.5 million budget on the screen.  For his first time working with 35mm film, Tarantino chooses the inherently-cinematic 2.35:1 aspect ratio to create dynamic wide compositions and infuse the maximum amount of style.  Cinematographer Andrjez Sekula gives the film a mid-80’s Technicolor patina comprised of washed out colors to complement Tarantino’s “Valley burnout” aesthetic.  The muted color palette also makes the bold splashes of crimson blood all the more jarring and visceral.

I’ve written before about how Tarantino educated himself on filmmaking primarily by the voracious consumption of films, so it’s interesting to see how he uses the camera when he has the financial resources to be creative.  For the most part, RESERVOIR DOGS assumes a somewhat formalist style, preferring wide compositions and deliberate, smooth dolly movements.  This is interspersed with jarring handheld work, especially in the use of long tracking shots—a technique that would later become one component of Tarantino’s signature style.  For instance, there’s a moment halfway through the film when Mr. Blonde interrupts the torture of his captive to retrieve a gas can from his car outside.  The camera follows Michael Madsen as he steps outside, grabs the canister, and returns inside in one continuous shot.  While admittedly simple visually, this technique is incredibly complicated to pull off in one long take—there’s exposure switches and focus pulling to worry about, not to mention the fact that film is designed in two different color temperatures (daylight and interior), and can’t exactly be switched out mid-take.  Techniques like this require a competent, steady hand that fundamentally understands the nature of film-based acquisition.  RESERVOIR DOGS is full of these understated, incredibly complicated visual flourishes. For a first-time director with no formal film education to effortlessly do this time and time again, with style and grace to boot, is truly an astonishing thing to behold.

Tarantino’s mastery of the craft on his first time at bat also extends to the film’s sonic aspects, specifically the music.  The director eschewed the use of a conventional composer or score, opting instead to create a rockabilly musical landscape of old 70’s rock songs.   This conceit is incorporated into his self-contained universe, as the broadcast content of Tarantino’s fictional, recurring radio station K-Billy.  Tarantino’s eclectic taste in music is responsible for perhaps the film’s most infamous, enduring scene—who can easily forget the uneasy juxtaposition of watching a man’s ear hacked off while the jaunty rhythm of Stealer Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You” bounces along the soundtrack?  As a developing filmmaker myself, Tarantino was a huge influence in the sense that his style exposed the unlimited possibilities of inspired and unexpected musical selections.

RESERVOIR DOGS put Tarantino’s bold, take-no-prisoners style on the map.  It suddenly became very cool in mainstream entertainment to find creative combinations of wit and profanity, to play up violence to an almost-cartoonish degree, or to make left-field pop culture references.  When Tarantino used his crucial opening minutes to ramble at length about the true meaning of Madonna’s song, “Like A Virgin”, he jumpstarted the era of self-referential pop culture that gave us the likes of Joss Whedon and Wes Craven’s SCREAM (1996).  As an interesting little aside, the characters mention Pam Grier at one point, who would later go on to start for Tarantino in his third feature, JACKIE BROWN (1997).

Other elements of Tarantino’s distinct style make their first appearance here in his filmography.  He incorporates a nonlinear storytelling structure, a chronological conceit that withholds key information for maximum dramatic impact, courtesy of Tarantino’s most valuable collaborator: the late editor Sally Menke.  His penchant for twisting his characters’ motivations into Mexican Standoff scenarios manifests itself quite literally in the climax of RESERVOIR DOGS, an occurrence that accurately reflects the uncertain loyalties and hidden intentions of its characters.  Other, lesser Tarantino-esque tropes also pop up throughout, like extended sequences set in bathrooms or diners.

Tarantino, along with Generation X contemporary Kevin Smith, were two of Sundance’s first high-profile breakout filmmakers.  RESERVOIR DOGS was a game-changing picture, with its release launching the career of one of cinema’s most audacious, divisive characters.  All those years of watching countless films, hacking away at his old scripts, and good-old-fashioned networking had finally coalesced into a directorial style that was comprised of everything that came before it, yet completely unlike anything that had ever been seen.

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Quentin Tarantino Screenplays (Download)

What can be said about Quentin Tarantino the screenwriter that hasn’t been said before? QT has, easily, one of the most unique and singular voice in the history of cinema. You may love him or hate him but you will remember him. Reading his screenplays is a masterclass in dialog, structure, and rhythm.

When you are done reading take a listen to iTunes #1 Screenwriting Podcast The Bulletproof Screenwriting Podcast. Listen to some sample episodes below.

Also check out: Quentin Tarantino’s Micro-Budget First Feature Film: My Best Friend’s Birthday

NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1990)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

TRUE ROMANCE (1992)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

PULP FICTION (1994)

**Won the Oscar** Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

FOUR ROOMS (1995)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, A. Anders, A. Rockwell – Read the screenplay!

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

JACKIE BROWN (1997)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

KILL BILL VOLUME 1 (2003)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay! 

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KILL BILL VOLUME 2 (2004)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

GRINDHOUSE: DEATH PROOF (2007)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

**Won the Oscar** Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – Read the screenplay!

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino – COMING SOON

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