“You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris…?”
Quentin Tarantino . 1993
A week after the opening of the 1994 Cannes film festival - nine days after Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president, there was a three days early screening that-never-happened of the main US entry we’d all been waiting for. I remember it well.. I wore beige, the director (the world’s most famous ex-video store clerk) wore black, the film wore black and blue. And a load of red.
Pulp Fiction was
a great night out!
As I reported in the UK’s Film Review: “Not ultra-violent. Sparkling dialogue. Surprise twists. Needs tighter editing. It can’t beat [Kieslowski’s] Red but surely Samuel L Jackson is Best Actor now…Travolta’s ass is saved (no more talking babies for this baby). Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Harvey Keitel, Eric Stoltz are right on their particular buttons and Tarantino proves he can direct women, too: Uma Thurman is splendiferous, Maria de Medeiros represents Europe superbly. Chris Walked has the monologue of the decade.”
Jury chief Clint Eastwood agreed. Slowly.
“And the Palme d’Or [pause] goes to [pause] Pulp Fiction.” Cut to Quentin hand-slapping his producer, Mr Miramax, Harvey Weinstein. Cut to Sam, John, Bruce, Maria hugging and kissing. Cut to a contented Clint. He can quit smilin’ ’n’ start squintin’ again. Game over.
A great gnashing of teeth was soon heard from as far away as TriStar Picture on the US West Coast. Despite having made his fame with Reservoir Dogs at Sundance and Cannes two year earlier, TriStar chickened out of its deal with Tarantino. Miramax leapt in to pick it up. Result: the year’s third R-rated money-maker after the Fox double-whammy of True Lies and Speed.
Indeed, our favourite critic - the late Roger Ebert - went to far as to call this “comedy about blood, guts, violence, strange sex, drugs, fixed fights, dead body disposal, leather freaks, and a wristwatch that makes a dark journey down through the generations…. the most influential film of the decade.
“Like Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction is constructed in such a nonlinear way that you could see it a dozen times and not be able to remember what comes next. It doubles back on itself, telling several interlocking stories about characters who inhabit a world of crime and intrigue, triple-crosses and loud desperation… But it isn't the structure that makes Pulp Fiction a great film. Its greatness comes from its marriage of vividly original characters with a series of vivid and half-fanciful events and from the dialogue. The dialogue is the foundation of everything else. Tarantino's dialogue is not simply whimsical. There is a method behind it…”
(Then, as if any further proof was required, he added: “There is not a single line in Pearl Harbor you would want to quote with anything but derision.”)
To help deliver the F-word 265 times, QT booked such reservoir chiens as Lawrence Bender, Steve, Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Robert Ruth. He had a choice of two roles for some actors, three for his favourites - Patricia Arquette, Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp, Charles S Dutton, Bridget Fonda, Sean Penn, Lili Taylor. And even four for Sam Jackson and Gary Oldman.
“Cute” (QT, you see) also saw… oh everyone… Sisters Patricia and Rosanna Arquette… brothers and sisters John and Joan Cusack, Michael and Virginia Madsen… hot Euro ladies Emmanuelle Béart, Béatrice Dalle, Julie Delpy, Irène Jacob… and out of their graves: William Hurt, Christopher Jones, Michael Parks and Jason Patric.
He’d even noticed the remarkable James Gandolfini, five years before The Sopranos began. Not difficult after Jim’s Virgil in Tony Scott’s version of the QT script, True Romance.
There was even room for lookalikes of Hopalong Cassidy, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Ricky Nelson, Ed Sullivan, Mamie Van Doren at the 50s’ theme joint, Jackrabbit Slim's. (“I don't see Jayne Mansfield, she must have the night off or something.”) Steve Buscemi only had time to be a Buddy Holly waiter. “How would you like that? Burnt to a crisp or bloody as hell?”
Some of these people auditioned, some tested - some passed. No shame in that. Even Tarantino would passed on the rôle of Lance - and indeed on an entire film in 2008 (Kill Shot, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt) not fancying a second Elmore Leonard story so soon after Jackie Brown). Besides, he had a date to Kill Bill.
Vincent Vega . “Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go home and have a heart attack… ” Vincent was originally written with Michael Madsen exclusively in mind. Worried about a bad guy image, Madsen was against reprising Vic Vega, aka Reservoir’s Mr. Blonde. And so, Travolta was re-born as Vic’s bro, Vincent. In a decision he still rues, Madsen made the dreary Wyatt Earp instead: “Three hours of nausea.” QT was so annoyed, he would not talk to Madsen for nearly ten years until Kill Bill and suggesting a Reservoir prequel, with Madsen and Travolta as the brothers Vega. (They were too old to play young).
Tarantino always has taste. He next wanted James Gandolfini… He had already made five films with Travolta, from Get Shorty, 1994, to The Taking of Pelham, 1 2 3, 2008. They were old, friends from way back when… Travolta Sr used to sell tyres to Gandolfini Sr.
Then, Bruce Willis’ showed interest in the QT scenario. “That made us legit,” said Tarantino. “Reservoir Dogs did fantastic internationally, so everyone was waiting for my new movie. And then when it was my new movie with Bruce Willis, they went apeshit.”
Willis had (obviously) lusted after Vincent Vega but that was now reserved for Travolta (even though nobody else wanted him). So, QT made his sole deviation from his wish list and made Willis the boxer Butch Coolidge – first promised to Matt Dillon.
Once he heard that Madsen was out, Daniel Day-Lewis supposedly chased after Vega (normally, he’d rather cobble shoes) and ran into a brick wall called Tarantino. He insisted on Travolta, even though the word came down from upon high:…
“The entire cast is approved…
except for Travolta.”
John was so cold, said Tarantino’s agent Mike Simpson, “he was less than zero.” After the rough cut, Harvey joked: “I’m so glad I had the idea to cast Travolta.”
Studio suits wanted William Hurt or Sean Penn (dancing?), while QT also chewed over Alec Baldwin, Andy Garcia, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jason Patric, Denzel Washington. He even toyed with the notion of Jules and Vincent being a pair of English dudes - Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. (Oh, joy!). Roth, as we saw, won another rôle.
Jules Winnfield . “C’mon, let's get into character… ” Earlier in the 90’s, Quentin wanted to film Luke Cage: Hero for Hire with Laurence Fishburne - but opted to make pulp some other fiction. Naturally, he still wanted to go with Fishburne. As Jules. Or… Charles S Dutton, Samuel L Jackson, Eddie Murphy. No matter their track records, everyone had to read - and Jackson buried ’em all , improvising a riff on Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of the evil men...” That actually had less to do with Ezekiel than the Shi’ichi Chiba movie Karate Kiba/The Bodyguard, 1976. (Chiba, of course, turned up in Kill Bill).
Then, Jackson heard the impossible. He was losing out to some unknown called Paul Calderon. Now that, as Jules says in the movie, is some fucked-up repugnant shit… Sam wasn’t about to cave. He flew back to LA to re-audition, to make Jules his own. The legend goes that Sam was in such a snit, he scared the bejabbers out of Team Tarantino. He was further pissed off by forever being told: “I love your work, Mr. Fishburne.” “He doesn’t know who I am?” yelled Sam. “I was kind of like, fuck it. At that point I really didn’t care.” Eyes popping, he munched a burger, sipped a shake, continues the legend. “He was the guy you see in the movie,” said producer Lawrence Bender. “He said: ‘Do you think you’re going to give this part to somebody else? I’m going to blow you motherfuckers away.”
Poor Calderon was (barely) compensated with a bit as bartender Paul, aka English Bob.
Butch Coolidge . “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead... ” When still an up and coming boxer, Butch had been QTtailored for Matt Dillon. “I love it,” he said, “Let me sleep on it.” QT hit the roof at that, according to his agent. Mike Simpson. “He’s out. If he can’t tell me face-to-face that he wants to be in the movie… ”
Mickey Rourke was the obvious choice once Butch was no longer up and coming but beat-up, broken-down and headed to Palookaville. Rourke’s testosterone-drenched ego (not to say masochism) had led him into a disastrous return to boxing, resulting in five nose jobs, a one broken hand and a couple of concussions. “I didn’t read it. I had a fight in Kansas at the time and I was really nervous.”
“I know, I know,” said Rourke.
“I was stupid.”
Meantime, Harvey Keitel had persuaded his pal, Reservoir fan Bruce Wllis, to join the project (his very name make it take off!; a repeat of Keitel’s affect on Reservoir Dogs when he came aboad as star and producer). Although he wanted Vega (reserved for Travolta, said QT, or no film!), Bruce was delighted to be Butch - “I’m American, honey. Our names don't mean shit.” Roger Avary wrote most of the Butch/Fabienne story, and, “really another movie,” asmy Film Review report noticed, “destroying this one’s chronology. But, hey, Willis is working for once.”
Left out of the ring, as Wllis toiled for 18 days, were: Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and, briefly (lazily) Sylvester Stallone,
Marcellus Wallace . “I’ma get medieval on your ass...” Ving Rhames took the gangster chief from Charles S Dutton, Sam Jackson and The Star of The Mack in 1972, Max Julien.
Jackson told Vanity Fair that Julien refused due to the rape scene. “Max Julien wasn't going to do that. He’s the Mack. He’s Goldie. He’s like: No, I don't think my fans want to see that.”
Sid Haig, another Tarantino favourite, also refused. “It’s too TV.” (No, Tarantino did not understand that, either). It has since been alleged that because he passed, Tarantino played a joke on him - by having his casting director tell Sid’s agent that Sid was booked for Mr Stonesipher in Django Unchained. When he wasn’t. Owch!
What? Oh, yeah, what was in the Wallace briefcase. His heart? His soul? His balls? His gold ? Rather like what Luis Bunuel said about the unseen contents of the mystery box shown to Catherine Deneuve in his Belle de Jour, 1966, the Tarantino reponse was: “Whatever you want it to be.”
Mia Wallace . “Now I wanna dance, I wanna win. I want that trophy, so dance good...” While talking to her about being Yolanda, Tarantino immediately switched Uma Thurman to the gangster’s wife, Mia, dancing to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell - instead of (take a deep breath) Jennifer Anniston, Patricia and Rosanna Arquette, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Phoebe Cates, Joan Cusack, Beatrice Dalle (New York director Abel Ferrara used her first in America in The Blackout, 1997), Geena Davis (once again thisclose to a great role), Bridget Fonda (saved for Jackie Brown), Darryl Hannah, Holly Hunter, Jennifer Jason Leigh (kept for The Hateful Eight), atwful 8), Virginia Madsen (Michael’s sister, they were being chased for incestuous siblings in This World, Then The Fireworks!), Michelle Pfeiffer, Isabella Rossellini, Meg Ryan (she waited another decade before changing her nice girl image with In The Cut), Annabella Sciorra, Lili Taylor, Meg Tilly, Marisa Tomei, Jeanne (Basic Instinct) Triplehorn, Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard and Robin Wright.
Oh, and Brigitte Nielsen. Except she would have eaten Travolta alive and spat out the gristle. Of which there was a lot. According to her manager, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has to pass, to her due Seinfeld TV schedule. And, another TV star, Jennifer Aniston, narrowly lost the rôle according, this time, to QT, himself.
Sole Brit in the loop was Vanessa Redgrave’s delicious daughter, Joely Richardson. She confessed her audition was “horribly embarrassing. I made such a fool of myself.” And Quentin? “He was terribly kind about it all.”
QT liked Anniston and Cusack,
loved Pfeiffer, but adored Thurman
She proved a hard sell, however. He only convinced her to accept by reading nearly his entire script over the phone. Mia ignited his artistic love affair with Uma. He next waited out her pregnancy to make Kill Bill.
“Cute” also called Hannah back for Bill - as Elle Driver, based on Christina Lindberg in the first Swedish movie banned in Sweden. Thriller - en grym film 1974. Eyepatch and all.
And so, Uma danced with John. Memorably. Again. The same dance was already unforgettable - move for move - from Barbara Steele and Mario Pisu in Fellini's 1963 classic 8½. QT didn’t only watch Asian movies.
Yolanda . “I love you, Pumpkin...” Patricia Arquette, Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Holly Hunter, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Meg Ryan Lili Taylor, Marisa Tomei were in the mix for… well, Bonnie to Tim Roth’s Clyde. They rob restaurants. And book-end the dynamite movie. Tarantino also met and fell heavily for Uma Thurman… as Amanda Plummer honeyed.
Pumpkin . “I love you too, Honey Bunny...” QT’s usual suspects were back for Yolanda’s Clyde: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Gary Oldman, Christian Slater, Eric Stoltz
Jody . “And I wear a stud in my tongue… It‘s a sex thing. It helps fellatio…” Pam Grier first met her greatest fan when Tarantino asked her to audition. "When I entered his office, my posters were everywhere. I suspected he'd put them up just to impress me but I soon discovered he knew all my films by heart." She’s mentioned in his Reservoir Dogs and True Romance scripts and he based the Pulp Fiction night nurse, Bonnie, on her 1972 Coffy. Her audition was great. (What else?) So why didn’t become Lance’s wife? Quite simply because QT realised his error. There was no way Pam effing Grier could be pushed around the way Jody was.
He promised Pam Grier something better.
And kept his word. He always does. (Or so I’m told).
He adapted Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch for her as Jackie Brown in 1997. “A miracle,” said she. Not totally, but close.
Also seen: Angel Aviles (from Desperado), Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Beals, friend and future lover Sofa Coppola, Tyra Ferrell (White Men Can’t Jump), Kathy Griffin (she became… Herself), Jasmine Guy (Cats Don’t Dance), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lili Taylor and Blade’s N’Bushe Wright.
The Arquette sisters were again seen for a rôle. Rosanna won. Another sibling, Robert - credited as Alexis, the transgendered woman he would became - was the Fourth Man bursting out of Brett’s bathroom.
Lance . “You’re going to give her an injection of adrenaline directly to her heart. But she's got, uh, breastplate...?” There was a rumour, allegedly traced back to Courtney Love, that Tarantino wanted Love and her husband, Kurt Cobain, to be Jody and Lance. “Never met him,” snapped Quentin. Unlike… Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Sam Jackson, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Bill Paxton, Eric Stoltz. Another candidate was… Tarantino. Eric Stoltz finally explained the needle stabbing.
Jimmie . “Did you notice a sign out in front of my house that said ‘Dead Nigger Storage’…?” Although able to write roles specifically for Jackson, Keitel, Madsen, Roth, Travolta, Walken - and Amanda Plummer - Tarantino had no idea which rôle he had written for himself. Or, at least, which one he should play. Given that his thespian talents never came close the highs of his writer-directing, ’tis a pity he wanted to risk an acting rôle at all. Yet there he was, undecided about… Jimmie or Lance? Had to be Jimmie so that QT could be behind the camera, physically directing as Lance dealt with Mia’s overdose… Just as pal Robert Rodriguez helmed some of Cute’s Jimmie scenes.
Several TriStar executives had voted Gary Oldman due to his similar role in the QT-scripted True Romance, 1993. Steve Buscemi was First Reserve. But what can you do when The Boss takes your part? Unless you can know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy…
Zed . “Bring out the Gimp…” A TV Jesse James, handsome Christopher Jones had a short, ten film career based on looks rather than talent - including AIP’s Wild in the Streets, Three in the Attic, and Ryan’s Daughter, directed by David Lean, no less, in 1969. Tarantino twice attempted to coax Jones back into movies, but after two breakdowns (following the deaths of close chums Jim Morrison and Sharon Tate), numerous affairs, wives, paintings, he was not into being one of the pulp whelps. Peter Greene got the gig. Who? Exactly! Now you know why Jones passed.
Fabienne . “On a woman, a pot belly is very sexy...” QT thought French - Emmanuelle Béart, Julie Delpy – and Swiss Irène Jacob - but went Portugese with Maria de Medeiros. Jacob passed to head another stunner, Pulp’s biggest rival for the Cannes Palme d’Or, Polish director Krysztof Kieeslowski’s amazing French entry, Tois coleurs: Rouge
The Wolf . “That's thirty minutes away. I'll be there in ten... ” Winston Wolf was always meant for Harvey but… Alec Baldwin, Warren Beatty (QT’s first choice to head Kill Bill), Danny DeVito, Charles S Dutton, Sam Jackson, Michael Keaton, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken were mulled over
Captain Koons . “And now, little man, I give the watch to you.… ” Who could resist a three minute monologue written by QT? Robert De Niro (kept for Jackie Brown), William Devane, Charles S Dutton, Sam Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Al Pacino, Michael Parks (called back for Kill Bill and Django Unchained), Sean Penn, William Petersen. Chris Walken won. And did his stuff on the last day of shooting. Apart, of course, fyrom young Butch and his Mom, Walken never met any of the cast. Not even at Cannes, where he was a no-show.
The last word goes to Roger Ebert. “Quentin Tarantino is the Jerry Lee Lewis of cinema, a pounding performer who doesn't care if he tears up the piano, as long as everybody is rocking.”
“…. They call it a Royale with cheese.”