At the time of this writing, the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is in full swing in Park City, Utah. One of the things Sundance is known for is helping to launch the careers of talented young filmmakers. Among this prestigious list of talent was a filmmaker whose style, interests and background were slightly different from what the Sundance crowd was used to. Now, 25 years after his Sundance debut, it is easy to look at Quentin Tarantino as the acclaimed two-time Academy Award winning writer, director and pop art sociologist that he is now. However, this was not the norm. Though Tarantino was a wunderkind, it took time, much hard work, and setbacks before he became as ubiquitous as the Pulp Fiction posters that plaster dormitory walls. Here is my version of his fabled road to iconoclasm.
Quentin Tarantino was born in 1963. From a very young age he had an insatiable appetite for what was on the screen. As he put in it in a 1994 interview, “Some kids enjoy sports more, some kids enjoy this or that more, I always was into film.” At the age of 15 he left high school and developed an interest in acting that eventually led him to taking classes run by actor James Best (best known for playing Sheriff Roscoe Tanner on Dukes of Hazzard). It is here that he would learn how to coach actors through scenes. In 1985 Tarantino would start to frequent a video rental store called Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, California. One of the early adopters of the “home video boom,” they had an impressive selection of movies, which immediately attracted Tarantino. This is where he would meet future collaborator Roger Avary who helped pen Pulp Fiction. While Avary was initially off put by Tarantino’s brash enthusiasm, they soon became good friends. Avary gave Tarantino a job at Video Archives—a fond experience for Tarantino, “Until I became a director it was the best job I ever had.”
During this time, Tarantino’s urge to start making movies grew and he enlisted the help of Craig Hamann, a friend from the James Best School of Acting, and some co-workers from Video Archives to make a movie. The movie was his short film debut, My Best Friend’s Birthday, a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis style movie about two friends who work at the radio station KBLY. This radio station would turn up as a kind of character in Reservoir Dogs. Clarence (played by Tarantino) wants to throw a big 30th birthday party at a local bar for his reluctant friend Micky (Hamann). Hi-jinks ensue and Murphy’s Law takes effect. The movie took three years to make and cost five thousand dollars. To add insult to injury almost half the movie was lost in a film processing fire. The film has its merits though. You can clearly see Tarantino working out some staples of his early career and his career as a whole. Rockabilly, slick dark suits and skinny ties, pop culture references, zany sudden surprises and crackling dialogue—you get a hint of all these things in the opening scene.
Tarantino looked at the movie as a learning experience and was anxious to work at the next level. He took some time to hone his writing skills and penned the screenplays to 1993’s True Romance and 1994’s Natural Born Killers. Both were tough sells at the time, due to strong language and the graphic nature of the material. Cathryn James, Tarantino’s personal manager at the time explained, “Most of them were so offended by the violence and vulgarity in the material that they couldn’t see beyond it.”
Eventually True Romance sold for Writers Guild minimum (30,000 dollars at the time), for which Tarantino would take the money and make a movie. As he put it, “Shoot it in 12 days, 30,000 dollars, 16mm, black and white, you know, starring some friends, and I will have a movie made and finished.” He had the framework for a ‘heist movie gone wrong’ floating around in his head for a while, so he sat down and fleshed out what became the script for Reservoir Dogs.
Reservoir Dogs pulled influences from all of Tarantino’s favorite movies. He used the look of the bad guys and protagonists of the films The Pope of Greenwich Village and John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow II. The idea for code-named crooks came from The Taking of Pelham 123. While some of the basic idea of a heist ending in carnage comes from Rififi, the biggest influence on the film was Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Tarantino loved the idea of a movie where the plan succeeds but the criminals are still doomed. Another unique quality about the writing would become a staple of Tarantino’s films throughout his career: a soundtrack planned and written into the script. “One of the things I do when I am starting a movie, when I’m writing a movie or when I have an idea for a film is, I go through my record collection and just start playing songs, trying to find the personality of the movie, find the spirit of the movie.” For the personality of Reservoir Dogs, he wanted a distinctly 70s sound but did not want it to be too heavy. He wanted the catchy pop tunes he grew up listening to to paint the aural landscape, most notably Stealers Wheel “Stuck In The Middle With You” which was actually written into the script.
Tarantino decided to show his script to a few of his close friends including producer Lawrence Bender who after reading it decided the movie needed a proper budget. As he recounts, “I flipped over it. It was an extraordinary piece of writing, and look you gotta give me some time. I think I can raise some real money for this movie.” Tarantino was reluctant but eventually gave in with the stipulation that he was directing the picture and that Bender had 2 months to find financing before he took his $30,000 and made it himself. Though the script was met with hostility for the same reasons as True Romance and Natural Born Killers, it found its way into the lap of famed counterculture and “New Hollywood” director Monte Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop). Hellman loved the script and wanted to discuss directing the movie. Tarantino, set on not relinquishing directing duties, but also not one to turn down a meeting with a film legend, cautiously took the meeting. After hearing Tarantino talk about film and his vision for Reservoir Dogs, Hellman decided that Tarantino was indeed the right man for the job. Hellman figured his best course of action would be to just help get the film off the ground.
Bender and Tarantino started approaching small, low budget studios like New Line and Cannon Films, and even talked to prolific producer Dino de Laurentiis. After some disheartening responses, Live Entertainment (a mostly direct-to-video studio) showed interest in making the film with Tarantino at the helm. Live Entertainment had a short list of actors to appear in the film to give Tarantino the funding he needed. On this list was Harvey Keitel, famous for working with directors Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Nicolas Roeg. Bender’s acting coach Lilly Parker passed the script to Keitel who agreed to do the movie immediately after reading it. “All of a sudden we weren’t just a couple of kids with a film, with a script anymore. We actually had Harvey Keitel,” Tarantino would later state. Live Entertainment gave the production a $1.3 million budget.
Keitel’s influence and connections helped with casting the rest of the film. He was able to fly Bender and Tarantino to New York and put the word out to his colleagues about the movie. Many actors who would go on to have big careers—like Vincent Gallo, George Clooney and Robert Forster—all reportedly auditioned. Steve Buscemi, who at this point had most notably been in a couple of Coen Brothers movies, was awarded the role of Mr. Pink (a part Tarantino himself originally planned to play). The rest of the cast included some of Tarantino’s idols, like 40s and 50s tough guy and “B movie” regular Lawrence Tierney (Born to Kill, Dillinger) and writer of the books No Beast So Fierce and Animal Factory, Eddie Bunker, whose writing influenced the way the characters spoke in Reservoir Dogs, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, and Tim Roth (a relative unknown at the time) rounded out the cast.
Shortly before the film was scheduled to shoot, Tarantino was invited to the Sundance Institute in 1991, a workshop for filmmakers to get feedback from industry professionals and try out ideas and techniques before they begin production. This was Tarantino’s chance to get some real practice behind the camera. “I wanted to experiment on my first scene, with long takes. I didn’t want to do coverage, I wanted to stream a bunch of long takes together and see how it would work. This was really the first time since I kind of got a little bit of sense about what I was doing that I had a camera bag in my hand again.” The first group ravaged Tarantino for the audacity in his camera placement and movement. The second group included Stanley Donen, Volker Schloendorff, Robert Estrin, and veteran director and Monty Python alum, Terry Gilliam. Gilliam loved what Tarantino was doing, even if he thought his technique was a little raw. Gilliam remembers,“The camera literally would not keep still. He was everywhere—down people’s backs and up people’s noses. It was just marvelous.” This positive reaction and guidance is why Gilliam is thanked in the credits of the film.
With cast and crew collected and constructive criticism taken, production on Reservoir Dogs began in earnest. The movie had some hardships right from the outset. The warehouse in which the movie was shot had little ventilation and the weather in L.A. got up to over 100 degrees at that time of the year. The (in?)famous “Stuck In The Middle With You” scene was difficult to shoot due to the blistering heat (the prosthetic ear featured in the scene kept melting) and the content involved. Tarantino kept things professional but fun. The shoot wrapped up with only minor incident and everyone felt like they had done something good. Tim Roth summed the experience up thusly, “Quentin’s the glue that kept us all together and it’s not like corny shit that most actors say when they’re asked by journalists. But it’s fucking true. Never felt like that before.”
Reservoir Dogs was met with a mix of walkouts and acclaim in initial screenings, and at its 1992 Sundance premiere the festival did its best to prepare the audience for what they were about to see by having the program notes read:
“Reservoir Dogs is a furious nuclear reaction of violence and intrigue. Its ensemble cast unites the genre’s established legends (Keitel and Tierney) with notable rising new talent. Tarantino’s eclectic and outrageous vision mixes clothing from the fifties and music from the seventies with modern references, such as a hilarious discussion on the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” Inspired by Kubrick’s The Killing, Reservoir Dogs is best described as Jim Thompson meets Samuel Beckett—a fusion of pulp drama, black humor and the existentialist void by a talented young filmmaker.”
The film won no awards or prizes but it did garner attention and praise from the press due to its graphic nature, and more crucially, its bold style. Tarantino was not shy about sharing his thoughts when pressured to answer questions about the violence in the movie. He responded to criticism of the “Stuck in the Middle with You” scene by saying ‘I didn’t do that scene just to say, “Boy, I’m going to have a boner when this thing comes out.”’
After getting distribution from Miramax, the movie became available to the public and critics who were sharp yet intrigued by the film. Roger Ebert opened his review by saying “Now that we know Quentin Tarantino can make a movie like “Reservoir Dogs,” it’s time for him to move on and make a better one.” Vincent Canby at the New York Times was more positive with the glowing statement, “Reservoir Dogs moves swiftly and with complete confidence toward a climax that matches “Hamlet‘s” both in terms of the body count and the sudden, unexpected just desserts. It has a seriously wild ending, and though far from upbeat, it satisfies. Its dimensions are not exactly those of Greek tragedy. “Reservoir Dogs” is skeptically contemporary. Mr. Tarantino has a fervid imagination, but he also has the strength and talent to control it.”
Sundance brought success for Tarantino and helped launch his career into the mainstream, resulting in the high status we see him in today. 25 years after its Sundance premiere, Reservoir Dogs continues to make its mark on the cinematic landscape, and in 2017 it continues to be a blast to watch.
Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs screens at IU Cinema on January 26 and 27 at 7:00 p.m. as part of the International Arthouse Series. IU Cinema previously showed Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in 2012 and offered a Midnight Movie screening of Grindhouse directed by Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie in 2011.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.