The first independent film to gross more than $200 million, Pulp Fiction was a shot of adrenaline to Hollywood’s heart, reviving John Travolta’s career, making stars of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, and turning Bob and Harvey Weinstein into giants. How did Quentin Tarantino, a high-school dropout and former video-store clerk, change the face of modern cinema? Mark Seal takes the director, his producers, and his cast back in time, to 1993.
GLORY-BOUND Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Travolta in 1994, shortly after Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
In late 1992, Quentin Tarantino left Amsterdam, where he had spent three months, off and on, in a one-room apartment with no phone or fax, writing the script that would become Pulp Fiction, about a community of criminals on the fringe of Los Angeles. Written in a dozen school notebooks, which the 30-year-old Tarantino took on the plane to Los Angeles, the screenplay was a mess—hundreds of pages of indecipherable handwriting. “It was about going over it one last time and then giving it to the typist, Linda Chen, who was a really good friend of mine,” Tarantino tells me. “She really helped me.”
When Tarantino met Chen, she was working as a typist and unofficial script consultant for Robert Towne, the venerable screenwriter of, most notably, Chinatown. “Quentin was fascinated by the way I worked with Towne and his team,” she says, explaining that she “basically lived” at Towne’s condominium, typing, researching, and offering feedback in the preparation of his movie The Two Jakes. “He would ask the guys for advice, and if they were vague or disparate, he would say, ‘What did the Chink think?’ ” she recalls. “Quentin found this dynamic of genius writer and secret weapon amusing.
“It began with calls where he was just reading pages to me,” she continues. Then came more urgent calls, asking her to join him for midnight dinners. Chen always had to pick him up, since he couldn’t drive as a result of unpaid parking tickets. She knew Tarantino was a “mad genius.” He has said that his first drafts look like “the diaries of a madman,” but Chen says they’re even worse. “His handwriting is atrocious. He’s a functional illiterate. I was averaging about 9,000 grammatical errors per page. After I would correct them, he would try to put back the errors, because he liked them.”
The producer, Lawrence Bender, and TriStar Pictures, which had invested $900,000 to develop the project, were pressing Tarantino to deliver the script, which was late. Chen, who was dog-sitting for a screenwriter in his Beverly Hills home, invited Tarantino to move in. He arrived “with only the clothes on his back,” she says, and he crashed on the couch. Chen worked without pay on the condition that Tarantino would rabbit-sit Honey Bunny, her pet, when she went on location. (Tarantino refused, and the rabbit later died; Tarantino named the character in Pulp Fiction played by Amanda Plummer in homage to it.)
His screenplay of 159 pages was completed in May 1993. “On the cover, Quentin had me type ‘MAY 1993 LAST DRAFT,’ which was his way of signaling that there would be no further notes or revisions at the studio’s behest,” says Chen.
“Did you ever feel like you were working on a modern cinematic masterpiece?,” I ask.
“Not at all,” she replies. However, she did go on to be the unit photographer on the film.
When Pulp Fiction thundered into theaters a year later, Stanley Crouch in the Los Angeles Times called it “a high point in a low age.” Time declared, “It hits you like a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart.” In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman said it was “nothing less than the reinvention of mainstream American cinema.”
Made for $8.5 million, it earned $214 million worldwide, making it the top-grossing independent film at the time. Roger Ebert called it “the most influential” movie of the 1990s, “so well-written in a scruffy, fanzine way that you want to rub noses in it—the noses of those zombie writers who take ‘screenwriting’ classes that teach them the formulas for ‘hit films.’ ”
Pulp Fiction resuscitated the career of John Travolta, made stars of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, gave Bruce Willis new muscle at the box office, and turned Harvey and Bob Weinstein, of Miramax, into giants of independent cinema. Harvey calls it “the first independent movie that broke all the rules. It set a new dial on the movie clock.”
“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,” wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times. “You don’t merely enter a theater to see Pulp Fiction: you go down a rabbit hole.” Jon Ronson, critic for The Independent, in England, proclaimed, “Not since the advent of Citizen Kane … has one man appeared from relative obscurity to redefine the art of movie-making.”
“I Watch Movies”
Just seven years earlier, in 1986, Tarantino was a 23-year-old part-time actor and high-school dropout, broke, without an apartment of his own, showering rarely. With no agent, he sent out scripts that never got past low-level readers. “Too vile, too vulgar, too violent” was the usual reaction, he later said. According to Quentin Tarantino, by Wensley Clarkson, his constant use of the f-word in his script True Romance caused one studio rep to write to Cathryn Jaymes, his early manager:
Dear Fucking Cathryn,
How dare you send me this fucking piece of shit. You must be out of your fucking mind. You want to know how I feel about it? Here’s your fucking piece of shit back. Fuck you.
“Like a lot of guys who had never made films before, I was always trying to figure out how to scam my way into a feature,” Tarantino tells me. Though he was indisputably king of all movie knowledge at Video Archives, the suburban-L.A. store where he worked, in Hollywood he was a nobody. Surrounded by videos, which he watched incessantly, he hit upon an idea for recycling three of the oldest bromides in the book: “The ones you’ve seen a zillion times—the boxer who’s supposed to throw a fight and doesn’t, the Mob guy who’s supposed to take the boss’s wife out for the evening, the two hit men who come and kill these guys.” It would be “an omnibus thing,” a collection of three caper films, similar to stories by such writers as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines. “That is why I called it Pulp Fiction,” says Tarantino.
He planned to share the writing with his fellow clerk Roger Avary and another friend. Tarantino would write the first story, about the guy who takes out the crime boss’s wife. Avary’s section centered on the over-the-hill boxer, who double-crosses a crime boss and then ends up rescuing him as he’s being anally raped by a hillbilly in a pawnshop.
When the third writer didn’t materialize, Tarantino had to write that story, too. Working in his mother’s house for three and a half weeks, he says, he heard a set of bizarre criminal characters speaking to him. Soon he abandoned his original idea and wrote instead a violent script about a gang of thieves and a bungled diamond heist. According to one source, he named it after Louis Malle’s 1987 film, Au Revoir les Enfants, which Tarantino playfully mispronounced as “reservoir dogs.” Scrawled across hundreds of pages, the script was unpunctuated, absolutely illegible, and undeniably great. Pulp Fiction would have to wait. Tarantino was determined to direct Reservoir Dogs then and there.
He talked to Lawrence Bender, a former tango dancer he’d recently met who had produced one low-budget horror movie, Intruder. After looking at the rough draft, Bender said, “Wow, this is extraordinary. Can you give me some time to raise some money?” Tarantino signed an agreement on a paper napkin, giving Bender two months to do it. One potential buyer was reportedly ready to mortgage his house, but only if he could direct the movie. No one seemed ready to back the untested Tarantino.
But Bender knew somebody who knew the actor Harvey Keitel, and that changed everything. Keitel meets me in a New York diner expressly because, he says, “I want your readers to know there’s great talent out there, and they should be seen and heard. We don’t have to keep repeating the same movies and sequels, ad infinitum. An example like Quentin should be a call to arms. Of course, people say, ‘Oh, so-and-so would have made it anyway.’ That’s almost like saying the world is fair, and the cream will rise to the top. That’s bullshit.”
Keitel heard about Tarantino from the theater director Lilly Parker, a colleague at the Actors Studio. “She simply said, ‘I have a screenplay I think you’re going to like,’ ” says Keitel. “I got stuck. I couldn’t speak about it. I just wanted to sit with it, which I did for a number of days, until I called Lawrence Bender.”
Soon after that, Tarantino arrived at the house Keitel was renting in Los Angeles. “I opened the door, and it was this tall, gawky-looking guy staring at me, and he says, ‘Harvey Kee -tel?’ And I said, ‘It’s Kye- tel, ’ ” the actor remembers. “And it began there. I offered him something to eat, and he ate a lot. I said, ‘How’d you come to write this script? Did you live in a tough-guy neighborhood growing up?’ He said no. I said, ‘Was anybody in your family connected with tough guys?’ He said no. I said, ‘Well, how the hell did you come to write this?’ And he said, ‘I watch movies.’ ”
Keitel signed on as a lead actor, and his commitment to the project helped raise $1.5 million to produce the movie, but, most important, he backed Tarantino as director. Reservoir Dogs, according to the Los Angeles Times, “was arguably the most talked about movie of the [1992 Sundance Film] Festival.” The article continued:
Meanwhile, Hollywood is calling Tarantino about his future. But the director, who sleeps in his old room decorated with a Bobby Sherman lunch pail and posters of such movies as Breathless, The Evil Eye, and the French poster for Dressed to Kill, isn’t answering.
“They’re offering me X movie, starring Mr. X, and I say, ‘Send it over and I’ll look at it.’ But everyone knows what I’m going to do. You see, I’m spoiled now. On Reservoir Dogs we never had a production meeting. It was kept pure. No producer ever monkeyed around with the script.
“So I have my own project and say, if you want to do it, then let’s do it. If you don’t like it, then I’ll go somewhere else.”
The project was Pulp Fiction, three intertwined crime stories set in Los Angeles. “Like the way New York is an important character in New York crime films, I would make Los Angeles an important character,” Tarantino tells me. “Then I started thinking about all of the characters overlapping The star of one story could be a small character in the second story and a supporting character in the third story and all that kind of shit.”
At the premiere of Terminator 2, in 1991, he met Stacey Sher, a young Hollywood executive who would soon become president of production at Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films. She introduced Tarantino to DeVito. “I listened to him for about 10 minutes, thinking, I may be meeting someone who talks faster than Martin Scorsese,” DeVito remembers. “I said, ‘I want to make a deal with you for your next movie, whatever it is.’ ”
“Does It Stay This Good?”
‘I had been broke my whole adult life,” Tarantino tells me. In my exploration of Tarantino’s pre- Pulp Fiction existence, I drive two hours outside of L.A. to the home of Roger Avary, his old fellow clerk and former writing partner. They were so close in those days that it was difficult to tell where one writer’s work ended and the other’s began. “It is kind of complicated, because you have to realize there was so much cross-pollination,” says Avary.
With the $50,000 he’d made on Reservoir Dogs, and the promise of $900,000 from TriStar Pictures for Pulp Fiction, Tarantino, who had never really left Los Angeles County, packed a suitcase with lurid crime novels and flew off to write the screenplay in the land of legalized marijuana and prostitution.
“We always said, ‘I want to get Amsterdamed!’ ” says Avary. Tarantino, however, insists that he went to Amsterdam strictly to write. “It was all about living in another country,” he says. He bought school notebooks and declared about one of them, like a modern-day Hemingway, “This is the notebook in which I am going to write Pulp Fiction. ”
“I just had this cool writing existence,” he continues. “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 like 12 cups of coffee, spending my entire morning writing.”
He had filled several notebooks by the time of the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, where Reservoir Dogs was screened at midnight, out of competition. It had already caught the attention of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who would distribute it as a Miramax movie. “That screening set up Quentin Tarantino as a Cannes director,” says Richard Gladstein, the film’s executive producer, who arranged the screening and would later become head of production at Miramax Films.
After the festival, Tarantino, Stacey Sher, and Roger Avary drove to Amsterdam, where they stayed in Tarantino’s one-room apartment. “By the time I left Amsterdam, I had heard pretty much the whole first act,” says Sher. “He and Roger were working on the second act.” Avary adds, “We basically took all the scenes we had ever written and just laid them out on the floor, seeing how they fit.” By the time Avary left Amsterdam, he felt he was the co-writer of Pulp Fiction, he says, and he and Tarantino had an arrangement to that effect. Then he adds, “I think so.”
Tarantino remained in Amsterdam, doing what he’d always done with Avary’s scripts: embellishing, adding dialogue. “He didn’t write the script,” Tarantino says today. Yes, Avary contributed the story about the boxer, which is the centerpiece of the movie, and Tarantino reportedly paid him $25,000 for it. But that was only a launching pad, around which Tarantino created the script.
After production on the movie began, Avary reportedly received a call from Tarantino’s attorney, demanding that he accept a “story by” instead of a co-writer credit, so that Tarantino could say, “Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.” According to Down and Dirty Pictures, by Peter Biskind, Avary was insulted and refused to sign away his co-writing credit. Tarantino told him that if he didn’t accept the “story by” credit, Tarantino would write his section out of the script and Avary would get nothing. Eventually Avary signed for a share of the film’s profits, though he was quoted in Biskind’s book as saying that he felt betrayed. Today Avary says he doesn’t recall any of this.
All that was a lifetime ago. Just after midnight on January 13, 2008, Avary, by then an established writer and director in his own right ( Killing Zoe, Beowulf ), lost control of his Mercedes and crashed into a telephone pole. One passenger, an Italian friend, was killed, and Avary’s wife sustained injuries. Pleading guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, Avary was sentenced to a year. Today, he says, he is at peace with his collaborator and his credit. “I love the movie. I’m delighted with my contribution. That is enough. And I love Quentin. He’s like a brother.”
‘A script arrived at my house, the title page read Pulp Fiction, and I loved it,” says Danny DeVito. DeVito had a first-look deal with TriStar. “I had just spent a weekend at the White House, and there was a lot of talk that there was too much violence on the screen, and Hollywood should address it,” says former TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy. “So I read the script, which I liked a lot, and there was one scene that is really extremely violent, where they shoot someone in the back of the car and there are pieces of his brain splattered all over. The director and I had a discussion, and I said, ‘That is really over the top, and you’re going to get blowback.’ He said, ‘But it’s funny!’ It turned out he was right. The audience thought it was funny, and it did not get the blowback I thought it would get.” However, TriStar passed on making the movie.
“ Every major studio passed,” says Lawrence Bender. Then, says DeVito, “I gave it to the king, Harvey Weinstein.”
It went through Richard Gladstein, who was now at Miramax. Weinstein, who had recently merged Miramax with Disney in an $80 million deal, was walking out of his L.A. office on his way to catch a plane for a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard when Gladstein handed him the script. “What is this, the fucking telephone book?,” Weinstein asked him when he saw that it was 159 pages, the normal being 115. He lugged the script to the plane, however.
“He called me two hours later and said, ‘The first scene is fucking brilliant. Does it stay this good?’ ” remembers Gladstein. He called again an hour later, having read to the point where the main character, the hit man Vincent Vega, is shot and killed. “Are you guys crazy?” he yelled. “You just killed off the main character in the middle of the movie!”
“Just keep reading,” said Gladstein. “And Harvey says, ‘ Start negotiating! ’ So I did, and he called back shortly thereafter and said, ‘Are you closed yet?’ I said, ‘I’m into it.’ Harvey said, ‘Hurry up! We’re making this movie.’ ”
Disney may have seemed an unlikely match for Pulp Fiction, but Weinstein had the final say. “As for [then chairman] Jeffrey Katzenberg, that was the first test of what I call autonomy with Jeffrey,” says Weinstein. “When I signed my contract with Disney selling Miramax, with us still running the company, I wrote the word ‘autonomy’ on every page, because I had heard that Jeffrey was notorious for not giving it. When I read the Pulp Fiction script, I went to him and said, ‘Even though I have the right to make this, I want to clear it with you.’ He read it and said, ‘Easy on the heroin scene, if you can, but that is one of the best scripts I have ever read. Even though you don’t need it, I am giving you my blessing.’ ”
The script was sent out to actors with the warning “If you show this to anybody, two guys from Jersey [Films] will come and break your legs.”