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.
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.”
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“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.”
You can read the whole Vanity Fair article here !