QUENTIN TARANTINO: INTERVIEWS
Everyone who is absorbed by cinema has a favorite video store employee to interact with during rentals, someone embarrassingly overqualified to be there, yet whose $6 an hour salary cannot dim the energy and spirit for non-stop discourse about film, film, all types of film, whether European auteurist masterpieces, Hollywood genre works, or Hong Kong kung-fu.
Quentin Tarantino, 28, was exactly that appealing person, when he arrived in January 1992 at the Sundance Film Festival. He was a California-raised, self-proclaimed "film geek" with five intense years behind the counter at Manhattan Beach's Video Archives, where he devoured countless movies, gabbed endlessly about them, and developed a game plan about making them himself. Now he'd struck gold with the premiere at Park City of his first feature, Reservoir Dogs, with credits as actor-writer-director.
In February 1992, Tarantino talked briefly to David J. Fox of the Los Angeles Times, admitting that his Sundance visit had been "the first time I was ever in snow." And when Reservoir Dogs went to Cannes in May 1992, he went too, an initial voyage to Europe. He conversed with Camille Nevers of France's film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, identifying himself as "first and foremost a film fanatic," and offering a list of admirations, from Nicholas Ray to Mario Bava to Sergio Leone.
Back in America in August-September 1992, Tarantino accompanied Reservoir Dogs to both the Montreal and Toronto Film Festivals, in anticipation of the October opening in the USA. Everyone who encountered Tarantino that late summer recalls the most approachable and affable of filmmakers. Post-Cannes, he was buoyed to be in the spotlight, and having an irrepressibly jolly time sounding off with journalists and critics about not only cinema in general--just as he'd done at Video Archives--but about his movie.
Those who sat down for a formal interview with "Quentin" (he was hardly "Mr. Tarantino"), afterward walked away satisfied, and satiated. This young filmmaker answered all questions colorfully, knowledgeably, and without inhibition. His theme when explaining his work was that he has tried to free himself in terms of time, story structure, introducing characters, utilizing flashbacks, using literature as a model without constraints: J.D. Salinger's Glass family tales, the hardboiled books of Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, and Jim Thompson. (He also enjoyed TV: The Partridge Family and Baywatch!)
He was so fresh, so unconceited, a now 29-year-old mensch. And he capped his several weeks of one-and-one talks by being the charismatic center of a wildly entertaining press conference at the Toronto World Film Festival, where he was flanked by Reservoir Dogs' actors Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, and Tim Roth.
The text of the press conference, September 16,1992, is printed here for the first time, as well as an unpublished interview with critic Peter Brunette, conducted at the Montreal World Film Festival. In the press-conference discussion, Tarantino revealed how he rehearsed the actors for Reservoir Dogs, how they staged for themselves the jewel robbery that never occurs on screen. And as he would do in many interviews, Tarantino balked at explaining the meaning of the film's title, saying "...it's more of a mood title than anything else. It's just the right title, don't ask me why."
With Brunette, Tarantino talked of structuring Reservoir Dogs as a dark gallows comedy ("I like the idea that the audience is laughing and that, BOOM, the next minute there is blood on the walls."), and of his unabashed romance with American pop and junk-food culture. ("There's something very lovely in that, though I'm maybe saying it's very lovely because it's my culture. It's me!")
As Tarantino recalled for Brunette his first visit to Europe, something amazing occurred: he described his experience at a Paris McDonald's in similar words to those he would place into the mouth of John Travolta's well-traveled gangster, Vincent Vega, in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino said, "...and they don't call it a Quarter Pounder because they have the metric system there: Le Royale with cheese! They don't know what a fucking Quarter Pounder is!"
It's possible that Tarantino's "Quarter Pounder" observation was never to be repeated in another interview. Virtually in every Q&A, even with the most mundane journalist, Tarantino will press energetically into new territory. Though I only interviewed him for twenty minutes or so at the 1992 Montreal Film Festival, he confided to me a favorite bed-time dream that I've never found mentioned elsewhere, of attending a party at the home of director Howard Hawks, along with guests Robert Mitchum and John Wayne.
Tarantino was so friendly and ingenuous that I had no problem asking him for a great favor. He was coming soon to Boston, where I teach, to meet with local press before the Reservoir Dogs opening. I'd learned of his love for French New Wave filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville.
"Is there any chance that you could drop by my Boston University course on the French New Wave and say a few words?" I asked him in Toronto. "Sure," he obliged. And so it was that a week later, he strolled into BU. It was September 1992, and I said (how could I forget?): "Class, this is Quentin Tarantino. You don't know yet who he is, because his film hasn't played Boston. But you will: it's a great first feature." The students stared at him: he looked cool ( a favorite Tarantino word), even if they had to take my word for his talent.
"Quentin has come to talk to us about French New Wave cinema. Quentin..." And away he went! I'd asked for a few minutes, he gave a generous hour-and-half, a gleeful soliloquy about the wonders of the Nouvelle Vague, not only about the films the directors had made (he knew that stuff forwards and backwards) but about their writings in the magazine, Cahiers du Cinema. I remember him paraphrasing Godard in Cahiers enraptured by a war picture of Douglas Sirk: "What a great title: A Time to Love and a Time to Die! And any film with a title that great must be...a great film!"
What was most impressive was that Tarantino didn't speak at all about Reservoir Dogs. His heart and soul were in Paris in the 1960s; and we at Boston University were too mesmerized to remember to videotape this one-time happening. How momentous for this high-school dropout? Tarantino, informed me, that this was the first college class he had ever addressed.
(Robert-Patton Spruill is a young African-American filmmaker from Boston who made the feature, Squeeze, released in 1997 by Miramax Films. "When people ask me what attending Boston University was like," he says, "I tell them that Quentin Tarantino came to my class the first week that I started there in graduate school.)
September 1992 was also, in the French magazine, Positif, the occasion of the first published "career" interview with Tarantino, a long discussion of his film-saturated childhood, his pre-Reservoir Dogs try to make a feature film, My Best Friend's Birthday, and his attempts to direct himself two long-ago-written screenplays, True Romance and Natural Born Killers. Also, Tarantino mapped out his screenwriting methods and detailed how he works with his cinematographer, Andrzej Sekula.
(This far-reaching English-language Q&A profile, translated into French for Positif by the interviewers, Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret, returns to English via the original tape transcripts for this book.)
In October 1992, Reservoir Dogs opened theatrically in the US. It was not a breakaway hit: that happened when it was issued on video some months later. But America's best critics wrote at length about it, praising Tarantino's precocious talents, his cheeky dialogue, his deftness with genre, but sometimes raising objections to the film's seeming embrace of the violence within it.
A prime example of such an article is Ella Taylor's October 22,1992, column in the LA Weekly, combining a generally enthusiastic review and a Tarantino interview, but concluding with a sharp rebuke for Reservoir Dogs' torture-by-straight razor scene, labeling it an exercise in "spurious, sadistic manipulation... pure gratuity, without mercy for the viewer."
Tarantino's answer (and in this he has been remarkably constant interview after interview), is to dismiss such criticisms completely. Screen violence is not the same as real-life violence, which Tarantino insists he abhors. But he thoroughly enjoys watching well-turned violence in movies, and he also likes staging violent scenes. Violence in cinema is, for Tarantino, a matter of taste, just as some people like or dislike dance movies, or stupid comedies.
As for shirking social responsibility, Tarantino claims that he has only artistic responsibility, to be true to his characters. If they are cold-blooded killers, so be it.
In 1993, True Romance was released, directed by Tony Scott, from the Tarantino screenplay. Approving Scott's adaptation, Tarantino joined a publicity junket in Los Angeles, and there continued the sustained defense of his murder-prone protagonists. "One of the things that I really like about the character of Clarence is that when he kills, it's without apology," reported the Boston Phoenix's Peter Keough.
Tarantino's most extended explication of his screenplays--Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers-- was in a May 1993 dialogue with Interview Executive Editor, Graham Fuller, printed first in the British anthology, Projections 3 in 1994, and reprinted here.
"To me, violence is a totally aesthetic subject," Tarantino said to Fuller, but this time he qualified his stubborn disregard for the ethical implications of his work. "I'm not trying to preach any kind of morals or get any kind of message across, but for all the wildness that happens in my movies, I think that they usually lead to a moral conclusion."
Meanwhile, Tarantino was writing, then shooting Pulp Fiction, which had its world premiere in May 1994 at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Palm D'Or. By this occasion, Tarantino had become so incredibly popular that his interviews couldn't help to be restricted. The wide-open days of Reservoir Dogs were over, probably forever. Many journalists at Cannes were marched in for five to ten minutes, hardly time to learn substantial things about the movie. Luckily, there were exceptions.
Early on, he sat down with the LA Weekly's Manohla Dargis and plotted for her the process of the movie-making. Tarantino's own narrative, edited and organized by Dargis, came out in the May 1994 Sight and Sound. As he had done for Reservoir Dogs, he cooperated with Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret for a Pulp Fiction discussion, in Positif, eventually published in November 1994. (For purposes of this book, the originally-in-English interview, translated into French, was put back into English from the French by Boston University film professor, T. Jefferson Kline.)
A West Coast journalist, Joshua Mooney, was actually on the set for a bit of the Pulp Fiction shooting, a scoop, and his profile of Tarantino came out in the August 1994 Movieline. But the most in-depth conversation about what occurs on screen in Pulp Fiction, happily reprinted here, was with Gavin Smith for the July-August 1994 Film Comment. Additionally, Smith managed some canny questions about issues still unresolved about Reservoir Dogs.
Pulp Fiction opened in the US in October 1994, to rousing reviews and excellent box office, and virtually every American newspaper had a Tarantino interview. For this book, these have been narrowed to several in-depth conversations including an obligatory at-home visit wi e filmmaker(Hilary DeVries in the Los Angeles Times, David Wild in Rolling Stone).
At a lavish New York press junket, Tarantino offered his most provocative defense yet for his thesis that violence in his films is unharmful, "aesthetic." As quoted by Gary Susman in the Boston Phoenix, Tarantino opined, "I don't think anyone in Rwanda has seen any of my movies, and yet they've machete'd 500,000 people to death there."
It was a confident time for Tarantino, a time to stretch out. He and his cowriter Roger Avary, and his producer, Lawrence Bender, did a three-way conversation with Godfrey Cheshire in the September 1994 Interview; and Tarantino and director Robert Zameckis had a mutual-admiration society dialogue in the Los Angeles Times March 26,1995. (Tarantino, as it turned out, really liked Zameckis's Forrest Gump.). Also, he got to goof around on screen with a guest appearance in the movie, Sleep With Me, offering an absurdist monologue regarding the homosexual subtext of the movie Top Gun.
It was to Peter Biskind in Premiere that Tarantino looked ahead also to his next project, the four-part Four Rooms, interconnected stories taking place in a grand hotel. He'd write and direct one part, and the other three would be done by his director friends, Roberto Rodriguez, Allison Anders, and Alexandre Rockwell.
Some months later, again with Biskind, Tarantino and the three others submitted to a group interview, shortly before Four Rooms was to premiere at the Toronto World Film Festival. Read between the lines: the film was in trouble, even as the quartet were putting on a brash, jokey front. And for the first time ever, Tarantino sounded bruised and burned. He had been unhappy about the reviews for his acting in Rodriguez's feature, Desperado. Every critic, he felt, was saying, "We're sick of this guy. We don't want to see his face anymore."
Tarantino overexposed in the media. The new "fall guy."
Then, disaster at the Toronto Fest in September 1995. (I was in the much-disappointed Closing Night crowd.) The Anders and Rockwell sections were despised by all, the Rodriguez story generally approved. Tarantino's story, though not exactly embraced, fell somewhere in the middle. Four Rooms played a couple of weeks theatrically in Fall 1995, then disappeared from the screen.
Tarantino, as far I can determine, did no interviews at all about Four Rooms, shaken by its instant failure. That's a pity: his section of the film could be served well by his commentary about it, beginning with an elucidation of how it is an homage to the Hollywood comedies (The Bellboy, especially) of Jerry Lewis.
Several days prior to the Four Rooms screening at Toronto, I reintroduced myself to Tarantino, asking if he would care to give another lecture at Boston University. "Thanks," he said politely, "but I'm going to take a long vacation."
However, three months later, Tarantino was back in the public eye. At the beginning of 1996, he was feeling revitalized acting for his friend, Roberto Rodriguez, in the western horror film, From Dusk till Dawn. The script was by Tarantino, too, so he agreed to magazine interviews plugging it.
He seemed to have recaptured much of his old pop-culture spirit for a breezy, agreeably informal profile in in Axcess, speaking with Don Gibalevich, in which he rhapsodized about favorite recent Hong Kong action films. But even amidst fun teasing his From Dusk Till Dawn co-star, Juliette Lewis, for a twin interview with Mim Udovitch for Details, Tarantino suddenly veered to his new discontent being a media star.
"It's funny," he confessed, "because the thing that I find really bizarre when I read interviews with myself is I start getting ridiculously self-conscious about just being me....(N)o one can deal with that kind of self-consciousness, and all of a sudden you're afraid to be who you are."
In a telling interview with Village Voice critic, Jim Hoberman, in the January 1996 US, Tarantino unburdened himself of built-up discontents. Three biographies had come out about him which, he felt, were unnecessarily bone-picking by the various writers: "If they want their careers to be talking bad about me-well, have a nice career." He'd had a major breakup with his screenwriting partner, Roger Avary, "and not to get too melodramatic about it, but I've never been more betrayed by anybody I was close to." And his acting appearances, he felt, continued to be treated dismissively by the press. However, he would continue performing, even "if critics look at it like a celebrity turn."
Finally, he had tired at last of being stereotyped as a film freak, and of the misconception "that I just completely live my life through movies--like that's the only thing I relate to. It's not true! I feel I've lived a life more than most of the people I bump into."
How to clear his head? "I'm going on a sabbatical," Tarantino avowed. "Read books, reacquaint myself with friends, just have a good time."
Tarantino proved true to his pledge. Except for a small role in Spike Lee's Girl 6, he stayed out of the spotlight for most of 1996 and 1997, and he maintained a closed set in 1997 for the making of Jackie Brown. When he talked, it was only to a very old and trusted friend in Entertainment@Home: to his old boss of Video Archives, Lance Lawson.
How ironic that the once-most-extroverted of filmmakers was alluded to this way on the cover of the May 1997 Entertainment @Home: "Where in the world is Quentin Tarantino? Exclusive Interview with the Reclusive Director of Pulp Fiction."
As with future books in the Interviews with Film Directors series, the interviews are reprinted untouched and unedited. Though the form dictated by the series leads to a certain amount of repetition, Tarantino is one of those "artistic" people who says even the same things in oddly different ways. And these interviews are chosen out of many because, of course, they are the most insightful, learned, unusual ones.
Acknowledgments. Thanks for their kind help on this book to David Bartholomew, Mark Bazer, Courtney Beliveau, Peter Biskind, Gerry Byrne, Michel Ciment, David Chute, Barbara Davis, Walter Donahue, Matt Drewein, Graham Fuller, Peter Keough, T. Jefferson Kline, Robin MacDonald, Michele Maheux, Howie Movshovitz, Lupe Salazar, Gary Susman, Sheila Trevitt, Josh Vallee, Bumble Ward.
Special thanks to my close friend, Peter Brunette, general editor of the University Press of Mississippi's Conversations with Filmmakers series, for allowing me this book of interviews with Quentin Tarantino, and to Seetha Srinivasan, Editor-in-Chief of the University Press of Mississippi, and to Kathy Greenberg, for their gracious editorial guidance.
Finally, thanks to my assistant editor, Jenn Sutkowski, for her many hours of diligent work. And a special dedication to Karen Schmeer, editor extraordinaire and my sweet companion.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 1, 1997
QUENTIN TARANTINO: INTERVIEWS
ADDED TO THE INTRODUCTION
Tarantino stayed true to a new resolve to step away the spotlight by running a totally closed set for the shooting of Jackie Brown. Journalists and TV crews were kept away. During post-production, Tarantino made room for only one talk, an interview with Lynn Hirschberg for a special November 16,1997, film issue of The New York Times Magazine. The piece called "The Man Who Changed Everything" featured a thoughtful, sedate, matured Tarantino, moved at last, as he certainly deserved, to a "palatial mansion in the Hollywood Hills."
He talked, of course, of the upcoming Jackie Brown and, revealingly, of how the Samuel Jackson character in the movie,Ordell, a violent and homicidal African-American con man, was actually very autobiographical. "If I hadn't wanted to make movies, I would have ended up as Ordell," he told Hirschberg. "I wouldn't have been a postman or worked in 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 gone to jail."
On another note, Tarantino complained with justification that the American press had always sought to talk to him, yet treated him badly for this very accessibility, calling him "a master of self-promotion." Tarantino noted, "...I didn't do anything different from what an actor does. I didn't do one more interview than an actor does."
But the stage was set for a quiet release of Jackie Brown by its once-chatterbox filmmaker. Tarantino appeared on a few TV talk shows, but newspapers and magazines had to make do with interviews with the actors, especially Pam Grier. Seemingly the only occasion that Tarantino discussed the movie with a gathering of press was at an LA junket several weeks before Jackie Brown opened on Christmas Day,1997.
The Boston Phoenix's Peter Keough was there to record Tarantino's remarks. And it's with that occasion where this volume of interviews concludes, at the eve of Jackie Brown.