Blood Lust Snicker Snicker
in Wide Screen
On March 17, 1994 I visited writer/director Quentin Tarantino at the Los Angeles house where he was editing his new film, Pulp Fiction, a trilogy of stories set in contemporary Hollywood whose cast includes John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, and Christopher Walken. While his staff had lunch, we talked and took pictures.
DENNIS HOPPER: I heard one story, I don’t know how true it is, that you started out in a video store.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: Yeah, uh huh. Well, it’s funny. Actu-ally I started out as an actor. I studied acting for six years—for three years with the actor James Best, then for three years with Alan Garfield. That’s been my only formal training. I never went to film school or anything like that. And then—I was right at the point, after studying acting for years and years and years, when it comes time to actually go out and start trying to get a career—I suddenly realized that I really wanted to be a filmmaker, because I really was very different from all the kids in my acting class. I was always focused on the movies, I knew a lot about them and that was always my love. They all wanted to work with Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino—and I would have loved to work with them too—but what I really wanted was to work with the directors. I wanted to work with Francis Ford Coppola. I wanted to work with Brian De Palma and I would have learned Italian to work with Dario Argento.
So at a certain point I kind of realized that I didn’t want to just appear in movies. I wanted the movies to be mine. And so right when I should have started trying to get an acting career going, I completely changed focus. In the meantime, the only thing I could do was get a job at this video store because of my knowledge of movies. And it ended up being like my college, all right. It’s not that I learned so much about movies when I was there—they hired me because I was, you know, a movie geek—but it stopped me from having to work for a living, basically. I could just work at this place and talk about movies all day long and recommend movies all day long. And I got really comfortable. Too comfort-able, as a matter of fact. It actually ruined me forever having any real job because it just became like a big clubhouse.
DH: Where was this?
QT: In Manhattan Beach.
DH: How long were you there? How old are you now?
QT: I’m thirty-one. And I think I was twenty-two when I first started working there. But I got my college experience at that video store, you know. Not because I learned so much—I don’t think you learn that much in college—it’s the experience that matters. You’re kind of breaking away and hanging out with a group of people, doing everything together and just screwing off.
DH: And you had access to all those films.
QT: Yeah, oh, that was the terrific part about it. I’d seen a lot of them already, but the thing was that I could watch them over and over again. We had a big-screen TV and we watched films all day long in the store. And I’d always put on stuff that I wasn’t supposed to put on—you weren’t supposed to put on stuff that had nudity or a lot of swear words, you know. But I was watching Fingers in the store. And Ms. 45, and wild stuff, Roger Corman women-in-prison movies. People would say, “What’s this?” “Oh, that’s Pam Grier.”
Also, because I knew a lot about films and everything, if I wanted to see something, I would buy it. I’ve been collecting videos since videos came out. And so my collection was able to completely enlarge.
DH: So Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, all those Japanese films, did you already have a knowledge of them?
QT: Yeah. Most of the stuff I already had a knowledge of before, but I was able to completely indulge myself. And more important than that, I kind of fancied myself the Pauline Kael of the store. People would come in and I would kind of hold court with them. Eventually—and this was great for the first three years, and a major drag the last two years—people would come in and just say, “What do I want to see today, Quentin?” And I’d walk them through it: “Well, this is Straight Time, it’s with Dustin Hoffman, it’s one of the greatest crime movies ever made,” and so on.
I remember—this is really weird—I created a following for Eric Rohmer in Manhattan Beach and the South Bay area. We had all of his films on video. So people would come up to me with Pauline at the Beach, or something—because they had those sexy boxes, you know—and ask, “How is this?” And I would feel I had to indoctrinate them on Eric Rohmer. “Well, he’s a director you have to get used to. The thing is, actually, I like his films.” “Well, are they comedy or are they drama?” “Well, they’re not dramas, they’re comedies but they’re not really very funny, all right? You watch them and they’re just lightly amusing, you know? You might smile once an hour, you know? But you have to see one of them, and if you kind of like that one, then you should see his other ones, but you need to see one to see if you like it.” The same with Bresson.
DH: Or Satyajit Ray.
QT: Yeah, exactly. But in particular with Eric Rohmer. So I noticed that they’d rent Full Moon in Paris or Pauline at the Beach, and then they’d come back and get another one. And, pretty soon, all of our Rohmer movies were doing really, really well. But I could never rent them without giving that preamble. Because if they didn’t know what to expect, it’s conceivable that somebody just renting something for that Saturday afternoon would think, “What the hell is this?” and flip it off.
DH: I was trying to think about this phenomenon that’s happen-ing now—at least I see it happening—the new wave of violence in movies. I was thinking of names for it last night. And I thought of “Blood Lust Snicker Snicker in Wide Screen.” I don’t really know what to call it, but you know what I mean. Could you expound on that a little? What do you think is happening right now? I see you as the forerunner of this. And certainly Sean Penn’s films fall into this category.
QT: And Roger Avary’s Killing Zoe.
DH: The one you produced? Right, exactly. I mean, there seem to be a lot of them. Even the El Mariachi’s. It’s almost like a school of young filmmakers who are all doing this on their own. It’s like the Abstract Expressionists—they didn’t all get together and say, “Hey, let’s paint abstractly.” It was the next step on the ladder of evolution, and it’s obviously coming out of the history of film and society and into a new thing. It’s not film noir.
QT: No, it’s not. I mean, I’ve thought a lot about this because it was so weird. It was like when I came out with Reservoir Dogs in ’92, there just happened to be kind of an explosion of this kind of movie. I mean, I’m doing Dogs and Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel are doing Man Bites Dog at the same time, a complete planet away, each of us not knowing that the other one exists. Yet now we’re both finished and I was at more festivals with Man Bites Dog than any other film.
DH: It was at the Yubari Festival in Japan.
QT: Oh, yeah, but before that I was at four different festivals with it and it was something amazing. I mean, the films were polar opposites, they were different, but they fit into the same thing.
Apparently when Sergio Leone came out with his spaghetti westerns, they were very criticized for their violence. And his re-sponse at the time was something to the effect of, “Well, you know, I get that a lot in America but, oddly enough, Italians don’t mind it. You see, Italians tend to laugh at violence. They don’t take vio-lence seriously.”
Now, actually, the only people in America that take that at-titude are black people. They don’t let the violence affect them at all.
DH: Well, some of us others too…
QT: Yeah. But that’s not the largest percentage. They can hoot and they can holler, you know, and kind of enjoy it for its own sake.
DH: How did you and Roger Avary meet?
QT: He worked at the video store with me. And he wrote the “Gold Watch” story in Pulp Fiction.
DH: Yes, oh, he did? That’s incredible.
QT: Well, we co-wrote it. I wrote that monologue. But the whole boxer story was Roger’s original idea.
I’ve never gotten that analytical about it myself, but, in a way—and this might be too pretentious—what we’re reacting to in our movies is the fact that we see a lot of action films and we like them and we respond to them, but more often than not we’re disappointed by them. They stop too short. And when I say they stop too short, I don’t mean in terms of gore. I could care less about that—and they’re pretty sufficient when it comes to that. But they stop too short in terms of balls, or even brutality, when the characters would in truth be brutal.
Oddly enough, novels don’t fall short. If Charles Willeford or Elmore Leonard or Jim Thompson decides that the truth of the character should be that he blows a guy away even when he doesn’t have a gun in his hand just because he’s mad at him—if that’s the truth of where he’s coming from, that’s the truth of where he’s coming from. And I kind of get off on that, because I’ve been starved for it for the last ten years.
So when we get a chance to make our films, we don’t want to wimp out; we don’t want to disappoint ourselves. We’ve got a chance to make the movie that we’ve always been wanting to see and haven’t been able to—except for a few stray examples. And almost all of those stray examples weren’t recognized at the time. I’m always fighting to defend them. Blue Velvet was completely rec-ognized and people looked up to that 100 percent. But, as far as I’m concerned, King of New York is better than GoodFellas. That is about as pure a vision as you’re going to imagine. I mean, that’s exactly what Abel Ferrara wanted to do his entire career. It has the polish and the artistry of a pure vision and, at the same time, it’s just full on out action. When I see stuff like that, my response isn’t to go, “ooh,” my response is to laugh out loud.
It’s like when Roger showed me the rough cut of Killing Zoe and I just howled through the whole damn movie. Until he doesn’t want us to howl anymore—all the stuff with the old lady, when he’s got the gun in her mouth, that’s kind of funny, leading up to the point when he actually kills her, and that’s not funny at all.
So when I see extreme violence in movies—or like, forget vio-lence, brutality, all right, in movies—when it’s done the way we’re doing it, I tend to find it funny.
DH: Yes, yes.
QT: I think it’s humorous, but it’s not all one big joke. I want the work to have complexity. So it’s hah-hah-hah, hah-hah-hah, hah-hah-hah, until I don’t want you to laugh at all.
DH: So it’s hah-hah-hah, ouch.
QT: Yes, exactly. And then you might even have to think about why you were laughing. And then I want to try to get you to start laughing again. The thing that I am really proud of in the torture scene in Dogs with Mr. Blonde, Michael Madsen, is the fact that it’s truly funny up until the point that he cuts the cop’s ear off. While he’s up there doing that little dance to “Stuck in the Middle With You,” I pretty much defy anybody to watch and not enjoy it. He’s enjoyable at it, you know?
DH: Oh, yeah.
QT: He’s cool. And then when he starts cutting the ear off, that’s not played for laughs. The cop’s pain is not played like one big joke, it’s played for real. And then after that when he makes a joke, when he starts talking in the ear, that gets you laughing again. So now you’ve got his coolness and his dance, the joke of talking into the ear and the cop’s pain, they’re all tied up together. And that’s why I think that scene caused such a sensation, because you don’t know how you’re supposed to feel when you see it.
DH: I saw it in Paris. Julian Schnabel took me to see it. He said, “You’ve got to see this movie.” And Harvey Keitel had sent the script at one point for me to be in it.
QT: Right, to play Mr. Pink.
DH: I know. I loved it and I wanted to do it, but I had to do something else. So I went to see it with Julian, and it was wild seeing it in Paris, being an American, watching the film with the French. They were reacting and it was wonderful—and packed.
QT: It did great there. They totally got it. And it was like fun for me because when it comes to Dogs, in particular, the filmmaker that most inspired me was Jean-Pierre Melville.
DH: Oh, yeah.
QT: That’s why a lot of us guys just like responded so much to the cinema coming out of Hong Kong—because they didn’t have the rules and the bullshit that we were seeing in American action films. Boom, they’d just go for it, you know.
It’s like I keep using the movie Patriot Games as an example of an uptight American action movie: It’s supposed to be a revenge movie, all right, and as far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to make a revenge movie, you’ve got to let the hero get revenge. There’s a purity in that. You can moralize after the fact all you want, but people paid seven dollars to see it. So you set it up and the lead guy gets screwed over. And then, you want to see him kill the bad guys—with his bare hands, if possible. They’ve got to pay for their sins. Now, if you want to, like, deal with morality after that, that’s fine, but you’ve got to give me what I paid for. If you’re going to invite me to a dance, you’ve gotta let me dance.
But the thing that is very unique, I mean, that is very indica-tive of American films, in Patriot Games, is the fact that the bad guy actually had a legitimate reason to want revenge against Harrison Ford. He caused the death of his brother. So he actually had a legitimate reason to create a vendetta against him. But the studio was so scared that we would even identify with the bad guy that much—to the point of understanding his actions—that they turned him into a psychopath. I never thought that he was a psychopath, and it took legitimacy away from what he was doing.
Then he bothers Harrison Ford so much that now Harrison Ford wants revenge. So you’ve got these two guys who both want revenge, which is an interesting place to be. But then they get into this stupid fight on this boat, and they do the thing that my friends and I despised the most: Harrison Ford hits the guy and he falls on an anchor and it kills him. And it’s like you can hear a committee thinking about this and saying, “Well, he killed him with his own hands, but he didn’t really mean to kill him, you know, so he can go back to his family, and his daughter, and his wife and still be an okay guy. He caused the death but it was kind of accidental.” And as far as I’m concerned, the minute you kill your bad guy by having him fall on something, you should go to movie jail, all right. You’ve broken the law of good cinema. So I think that that is a pretty good analogy for where some of these new, relentlessly violent movies are coming from.
DH: Right. Well, there’s a long history of these films. But they’re taking a new approach and I’m very happy about it. What was that film I saw the other night with Gary Oldman?
QT: Oh, Romeo is Bleeding.
DH: I laughed straight through that movie, I loved it. I came out of the theater and I said, “Man, this is entertainment. If this film doesn’t make it, I’m in deep shit.” And I loved your movie the other night, your new film, Pulp Fiction. I mean, when Travolta is talking to the kid in the back seat, and then just blows his head off…it’s outrageous. All the acting and the switches and the changes in the writing are just so wonderful.
QT: I guess if you’re going to draw a parallel to the kind of com-edy that’s coming out in Pulp Fiction, I guess it’s actually not very dissimilar to Monty Python—except that it’s ridiculous in a more realistic way. You know, in The Holy Grail when the guy says, “Do you want to fight about it?” and the other guy cuts off his left arm, and the first guy still says, “Fight me,” so he cuts off his right arm. And he still says, “Come on, it’s a mere flesh wound, fight me, you coward!” So he cuts him in half and he still says, “Yeah I’ll fight you, I’ll take you on.”
DH: It has all that, but then it has a reality to it that takes you to another place where you say, you know, this does really happen on some level, somewhere.
QT: See, to me, that’s where the humor comes in, in particular in the third story in the movie. It deals with the reality of, okay they’ve accidentally shot this guy in this car, and now the car’s covered with blood. They’ve got to deal with that. They’re going to get picked up by the cops. They’re in the Valley and the cops are all over the place there.
DH: They’ve got to get the brains and the blood out of the car—Harvey Keitel comes to do the clean-up, and they throw a party because they only have forty minutes to get it cleaned up.
QT: Before his wife comes home.
DH: Well, I feel that right now you’re one of the top five young filmmakers. You remind me a lot of Francis [Ford Coppola] when he was young and excited and writing and creating. It was great to act your words, man.
QT: Well, as far as I’m concerned, you know, you and Chris [Walken] together in that scene in True Romance, that should go into a time capsule for future generations to look at.
I remember after Roger typed up True Romance for me, and we knew you lived in Venice, and we knew your house, we drove by a couple of times and we thought about…. Well, we were too embarrassed by the idea of knocking on the door and putting it in your hands and saying, “Hey, would you like to direct this?”
So we talked about the idea of just like throwing it at your house.
DH: Well, if you have any more of those—throw ’em. (Laughter.)
QT: One of your performances that’s one of my favorites—it’s a wacky, kooky performance—is in The Glory Stompers. I loved you in that. You know, that is the beginning of you as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet right there.
DH: Glory Stompers is the American International Pictures movie which, actually, I ended up directing. That was my first directorial job because the director had a nervous breakdown.
QT: No, really? I’m a big biker movie fan anyway. But The Glory Stompers is really cool, because it looks like you’re improvising it throughout the whole thing.
DH: Oh, yeah. I drove the guy to a nervous breakdown and then I took over the picture.
QT: You have this one line that’s just so fucking funny in it: when you’re fighting this guy, you beat him up, and then you look around and say, “Anybody else got anything else to say? Turn it on, man, just turn it on.” (Laughter.)
DH: Well, thank you, man, because I know you’re right in the middle of editing.
QT: No, this was my break. I’m honored that you wanted to do this.