“OK, ramblers - let's get rambling.”
UK director Tony Scott (Ridley’s brother) somehow got his hands on two sparkling scripts by a totally unknown video store clerk called Quentin Tarantino. They were Reservoir Dogs and True Romance - and wanted to make Dogs. No, no, no, said Tarantino, Dogs is mine, my directing debut. (He would play the anti-tipping Mr Pink with his producer pal, Lawrence Bender, as Nice Guy Eddie). OK, said Scott, snapping up Romance for $50,000 - immediately ear-marked for the budget of QT’s planned 16mm, guerilla-style Dogs, well suited to their company… named after the Jean-Luc Godard movie, A Band Apart.
In a small, factory town like Hollywood, word gets out about a hot script. Next to arrive was the Two-Lane Blacktop director Monte Hellman… He actually typed Tarantino’s hand-written script for him on a computer. He also suggested a trip to Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute in June 1991 where Tarantino shot test scenes - playing Mr White opposite Steve Buscemi's Mr Pink - and received advice from Terry Gilliam and Hellman.
Gilliam was pleased to be thanked in the credits. Hellman wanted much more. He wanted to direct. Instead he was invited aboard as an executive producer of the Dog Eats Dog production.
Bender then gave the script to the wife of his drama coach and she passed it on to Harvey Keitel - and he wanted in!
“At first I wanted to play all the characters,” he recalled. “A number of them attracted me. We dragged on for about four months about which character I’d be playing. I began to ask Quentin to shift around certain monologues I liked to one character. Then, I caught myself. What the hell am I doing here? I’m going to ruin the script. I told Quentin to go back to the original script and I’d pick out a part, no switching anything.”
The Keitel involvement enabled the guys to raise a $1.5m budget. The same way that Bruce Willis’ name would help collect a budget for the much pricier Pulp Fiction two years later.
“At one point, Quentin was going to drop out,” recalled Harvey, “because we had run out of money. I said I didn’t want to do it without Quentin directing.” The actor put up the cash for plane tickets for Tarantino and Bender to fly to New York to see actors and hired a casting director to help them out. He took them to dinner at the Russian Tea Room. That’s where Bender said: “Look, at this point, you’ve been so much help, we’d like to make you a co-producer on the movie.” And that’s when Harvey said: “Lawrence, it’s about fucking time. What took you so long?”
Keitel decided upon Mr White… Suddenly, the casting became more earnest. And as one line cut from the movie put it:
“Who cares what your name is?
Mr Pink, Mr Purple, Mr Pussy, Mr Piss...”
Mr White . Quentin discovered Steve Buscemi “looking like real criminal” in a test for a Neil Simon movie. “He quite naturally knew of my work because he knows every actor alive,” said Buscemi, a director himself by 1996. He played for Mr White at Sundance and was offered Mr Orange or Nice Guy Eddie - and held out for Mr Pink as Mr White went, obviously, to the man helping to set up the movie.
Mr Orange/Freddy Newandyke . Samuel L-for-Leroy Jackson made full use of his first LA job in 1991 (Roger Donaldson's White Sands), to attend as many auditions as his agent could line up. Thus, he met Quentin Tarantino. Not that he knew who Quentin Tarantino was. No one did. The audition was for Dogs - the birth of a vibrant,. New, young superstar auteur.
This should have been the first of
many Tarantino movies
for Sam The Wham Jackson
Everything sounded promising. Sam was to read with Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel. Class! Except, he found himself with a substitute pair of “horrible dudes.” They kept over-acting, forgetting their lines and guffawing about it. In short, they were so awful, they even managed to make the struggling Sam look bad. “My agent and manager tell me that my expectations of everybody else being as prepared as I am is my biggest problem,” he told Jada Yuan in New York magazine.
And Orange went to Tim Roth. Or, as Vincent Gallo called him, “that filthy mini-dwarf no-talent Brit”!
It was not until seeing the movie at the Sundance Film Festival months later, that Sam discovered the two deadbeat actors had been… Tarantino and his producer Lawrence Bender. SLJ congratulated QT on his Dogs.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I remember you. How’d you like the guy who got your part?’? Sam gave it to him straight. “You would have had a better movie with me in it.”? “Don’t worry, ” said QT. “I’m wriitng something for you.”
A fortnight later, a brown paper package was delivered to Sam. With a charming note. “If you show this script to anyone, we’ll show up at your door next week and kill you.”
That was Pulp Fiction, that was. Which brought Sam stardom (at 46) and an Oscar nomination… and five more QT films, including narrating Inglorious Basterds. “Quentin didn’t believe I could learn enough French to be the other black guy - I woulda figured it out!” Adding in his three Star Wars appearances and a nine-picture deal with Marvel as Nick Fury, Guinness World Records named Sam as the highest-grossing actor ever.
Mr Blonde/Vic Vega . Tim Roth was chosen although Tarantino originally wanted him for Mr Blonde… or Mr Pink. George Clooney and Matt Dillon were rejected as out of kilter with the other actors’ chemistry. (Tarantino had been impressed by Clooney in Red Surf ; and the actor loves to say he simply made a hash of his audition). Keitel suggested Christopher Walken and he was announced. only to be lost in the budget shuffle. He would turnup with great monologues in other Tarantino scripts. Monte Hellman nominated Michael Madsen (from Hellman's Iguana) as the psychopath who hacks off a cop’s ear to ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’. Madsen knew the territory. He had already tied a victim to chair and slashed his throat in Kill Me Again.
Mr Blonde, aka Vic Vega, is brother of John Travolta’s Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction and for some time Tarantino toyed with the notion of a movie about the early days of the murderous siblings. But they were too old to play young…
Mr Pink . When they first met some years later, James Woods shocked Tarantino by saying he’d always wanted to meet him. “I thought you didn’t like me.” Why? “I wrote Mr Pink for you and you turned it down.” What? “We made you an offer five times, man. Twice to one agent, three times to the other agent.” When? “They said you didn’t like the script.” Woods went ballistic. “The agency never told me. I want that as a matter of record. I never fucking knew - because they didn’t want me to do a movie for 50-grand. They wanted me doing some piece of shit in Europe for $3m or something.” CAA denied Woods’ story but another LAgent bit the dust and Woods ordered his new agents at ICM, that he wanted to hear about every offer.
Tarantino was not that upset. He had really created Pink for himself. Michael Madsen was seen (and became Mr Blonde), Tom Sizemore auditioned (“six times”), Vincent Gallo refused it. Dennis Hopper was invited by both Tarantino and Keitel “but I was not free.” He did it later in Boiling Point, 1993, as Mr Red Hair.
Refusing all other colours, Steve Buscemi held out for Pink.
“Whoever gets the role,”
Tarantino told Buscemi,
“has gotta take it from me!”
Buscemi did just that.
Helped by the producers who warned Quentin off taking such a big role in his helming debut. He settled for Mr Brown). “I know he really wanted to play Mr Pink,” said Buscemi. “I was lucky to get it. I don’t think it will ever happen again!”
Joe Cabot . Legendary Hollywood oddball Timothy Carey (East of Eden, Paths Of Glory) topped Tarantino’s lists of influences for his cinematic breakthrough but was rejected as the veteran gruff-ass in the opening scene in Uncle Bob’s Pancake House. (The film remains dedicated to Carey).
Carey said that Keitel vetoed him. “Quentin had done a terrific script with my name on the top - ‘inspiration by Timothy Carey’! Harvey Keitel didn’t want me on the show. He was afraid - I could tell when I walked in. He had the right to say yea or nay to any actor. Larry Tierney got the part. Larry’s a good friend of mine. He called me up later and kinda apologised.”
Next up - the case of Robert Forster… After 25 years of Hollywood indifference, of “junky, dopey TV things” and instant video movies, since his hot 60s’ days of Reflections In A Golden Eye and Medium Cool, Forster auditioned as Joe… When Tarantino first sold True Romance to a friend of the actor, QT said: “Make sure that the Coccotti role goes to Robert Forster.” “I’d never met this guy, but he’d written this role for me! Well, the picture eventually got taken away from my friend. Tony Scott made it and Christopher Walken did a beautiful job of that role.”
Director and actor finally met up during the Reservoir readings. “Quentin sees me as this old codger who’s been around a long time.” Forster told me in Cannes. “As it was, he gave the role to the right guy. Later on I read for their From Dusk Till Dawn because Quentin wanted to make good on his desire to use me. That didn’t work out... Then, he shows up where I have breakfast and tosses me a script: 'Read this and we'll talk' Jackie Brown! You're looking at the guy who’s got a real job and a career again. Quentin’s doing for Pam Grier and me what he did for John Travolta. Putting us back in business!” Bob was Oscar-nominated for his Jackie Brown comeback, 1997,
Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel was seen but, finally, Joe became the notorious Hollywood boozer and brawler Lawrence Tierney, as tough off-screen (scaring Team Seinfled) as he was as Dillinger, 1945, or Claire Trevor’s brutal lover in Born To Kill, 1947. He had trouble remembering his dialogue. He almost came to blows several times with Tarantino and with Madsen leading to a new line for Mr White:
“I need you cool...
Are you cool?”
Nice Guy Eddie Cabot . Armed with and a 16mm camera, Tarantino was planning the film with a bunch of friends, including his producing partner Lawrence Bender - who was going to play Nice Guy Eddie. Steve Buscemi was considered later. Chris Penn played it… and escaped the climatic carnage. The fans have been arguing about this ever since as in… OK, if Eddie whacked Mr White, who gunned down Joe, who shot Mr Orange - who the hell pranged Eddie?
It was five years before Chris Penn explained all. Kinda. “I don’t know if Quentin’s gonna like me giving this away. Too late now, He never told me not to.” So ? “Nobody shot Nice Guy Eddie.” What? “It was a mistake… Harvey Keitel was supposed to shoot Lawrence Tierney, then shoot me, then get squibbed. But what happened was the squib on Harvey went right off after he shot Lawrence, so he went down, but my squib went off anyway, so I went down. So, basically nobody shot Nice Guy Eddie…. Quentin said ‘You know what? It’ll be the biggest controversy of the film. We’re leaving it.’ He was definitely right…"
Holdaway . Randy Brooks beat two future Pulp Fiction star turns to Mr Orange's undercover contact - Sam Jackson and Ving Rhames.
Clooney, Hopper, Jackson, Rhames, Sizemore, Walken, etc, also went on to other Tarantino scripts.
Presenting QT with a Lumiere career award for his career at the Lumiere festival in October 2013 at Lyon - in the French city where film-making was born – Keitel looked at Tarantino in the audience and said he “always felt we were sort of made for each other, nothing could keep us apart. Had he been a girl maybe we could have gotten married and settled down… The thing about reading his script… it’s like reading a great novel, or hearing a great piece of music or seeing a great painting. Somehow the dynamic inside you is changed and you know it’s been changed and you know you have to follow that work.. Quentin is us and we are him. Everybody has talent, but this guy did it.“
And the title?
Oh yes, the title...
That stems from the legendary days in the 80s when Quentin Tarantino was becoming the world’s most famous video-clerk at Video Archives on North Sepulveda Boulevard at Manhattan Beach. His scenario was influenced by a lifetime of VHS cassettes ,DVDs and Blue Rays… In particular, Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong thriller, Lung fu fong wan/City on Fire, 1987, and Joseph Sargent’s Taking of Pelham, 1, 2, 3 (Robert Shaw was Mr Blue in 1974). Between the two, Paul Auster’s 1986 short story, Ghosts, had private eye Blue (trained by Brown) paid by White to follow Black. Tarantino built his title from his love of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, , 1971, coupled with the way Quentin’s French mangled Au revoir les enfants as “that Reservoir movie”!