It’s fairly typical for a film director to develop a celebrated partnership with an actor: Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro come to mind, along with John Ford and John Wayne, or Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Then there are the notable director-muse relationships: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, as well as Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren.
Much more unusual are ongoing successful producer-director alliances, since these are the positions in the filmmaking process most likely to become adversarial: producers have money, and directors spend it. And, unless their creative visions remain in synch over several projects and many years, the relationship may succeed for one or two films, but rarely over extended periods of time. As they say: Every circle has only one center.
Even more unusual? When a partnership between a director and producer becomes so successful, and their visions so compatible, that the pair redefine an entire genre of storytelling. Case in point: When Reservoir Dogs hit the film festival circuit in early 1992, few could have anticipated that the tightly-wound heist picture would launch a series of collaborations between director Quentin Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender that would very nearly become a genre unto itself — colorful characters, stylish dialogue, and intense flashes of hyperviolence punctuated by some of the best soundtracks on film since the brat-pack 1980s.
Or, put another way: What could more define these disparate qualities than that seminal moment in which Michael Madsen dances around a gangster hideout, singing Stealer Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You” into his policeman hostage’s amputated ear?
But if Reservoir Dogs was the windup, its follow-up, Pulp Fiction, was the pitch, the swing, the home run, and the victory lap all in one. When one reviewer from the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, MN, heralded it as “blazingly original”, the phrase so perfectly summed up its impact that film commentators have been stealing it ever since (seriously, Google it; you’ll see).
The film, which won the prestigious Palm d’Or (best picture) award at the Cannes Film Festival, also gave rise to a resurgence in Elmore Leonard crime novel adaptations, and not even Tarantino, Lawrence Bender nor their actors were immune: Pulp Fiction’s John Travolta went on to star in Get Shorty and its sequel, Be Cool; Out Of Sight’s George Clooney had played Tarantino’s onscreen brother in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (produced by Bender, along with the sequels); and both Bender and Tarantino adapted Leonard’s Rum Punch as the Pam Grier comeback vehicle Jackie Brown, which earned the noted blaxploitation actress a Golden Globe nomination.
Jackie Brown also gave Quentin Tarantino and Lawrence Bender access to Hollywood heavyweight Robert De Niro, who had made his bones in crime films like Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather saga, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables and a string of Martin Scorsese projects, including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. That De Niro would sign on to a project from such relative newcomers demonstrated to Hollywood that it was time for a fresh, postmodern version of crime storytelling — a Noveau Noir. As Vincent Vega might say: “That’s a bold statement.”
Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown comprise a trilogy that defined and then expanded the borders of this new genre, so it’s instructive to look at what each film brought to the table.
Perhaps one of the best examples of modern street-hustle film production, Reservoir Dogs anticipates its own low budget right from the screenwriting when Tarantino set nearly its entire story in a small, abandoned warehouse, a fact that almost certainly streamlined its ability to acquire financing. Its story is part of a sub-genre of crime films — the “heist movie” — but with a twist: you never actually see the heist.
Instead, in what would become a signature of Tarantino’s storytelling, he introduces us to the characters through snappy, pop-culture dialogue, which has virtually nothing to do with the plot, but which draws the characters so distinctly that it’s as if they had been painted with their own trademark colors. Surprise! Tarantino tags them with their own code-name colors. He even gives himself the moniker “Mr. Brown” — the first of his many self-directed cameos and supporting roles — and then kills himself off early in the story. (Lawrence Bender also appears in cameo, as a police officer chasing Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink; Bender would later establish a different ongoing cameo role throughout his films, playing “Long-Haired Yuppie Scum”.)
The tale of Reservoir Dogs’s inception is itself now part of Hollywood lore. Tarantino wrote the script while working at a video store in the Los Angeles suburb Manhattan Beach, and intended to shoot it with friends for $30,000 on 16mm black-and-white film — but Bender first gave the script to his acting teacher, who then gave it to Harvey Keitel, a fellow member of the Actors Studio. Keitel — already know for such crime classics as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver — liked it so much that he offered to attach his name to the screenplay as a producer, to help it acquire funding. One-point-five million dollars later, Tarantino and Bender had the project off the ground. Keitel also helped arrange for a casting session in New York City, which led to their collaborations with Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth.
The narrative also draws upon Tarantino’s love of genre filmmaking, and establishes many of the signature trademarks that would appear in his later work. The spaghetti western Django — a familiar name to Tarantino fans — inspired the scene in which Madsen tortures his police hostage in a chair; and color-coding the main crooks was a technique first seen in the classic 1974 hostage drama The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three. The flashbacks that frame the storytelling in Reservoir Dogs would later evolve into the time-shifting, non-linear plotting that Tarantino used to great success in Pulp Fiction. And, of course, there’s the Mexican standoff, which we’d see again in Pulp Fiction, but which made its greatest impact as a movie poster image here.
Another image from one of Reservoir Dogs’s posters, of the robbers’ slow-motion stroll down an alley while backdropped by the George Baker tune “Little Green Man”, has become one of the most imitated sequences in modern cinema — made all the more remarkable by the fact that the characters are literally doing nothing except walking for more than a minute. But it’s these simple, ordinary passages that make the film’s incidents of sudden, ruthless brutality all the more shocking.
How shocking? Well, when the severed-ear scene first screened at a horror movie festival, celebrated fright film director Wes Craven famously walked out on it, as did blood-and-gore makeup specialist Rick Baker. That’s right: The man who brought us Freddy Krueger and a young Johnny Depp turning into a fountain of cascading blood was too unnerved by this movie to finish viewing it. Baker said the filmmakers should take that as a complement: it’s one thing to make a girl’s head spin around in The Exorcist, but quite another to evoke such undeniable realism that you’d rather be watching a horror movie.
The film’s name, by the way, bears surprisingly little to do with the story; it’s not much more than an inside joke, from when a customer at the video store where Tarantino worked requested the famous French movie Au Revoir Les Enfants — and mispronounced the first words as “reservoir”. Which brings us to...
This time the title pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Pulp Fiction not only reinvigorated the crime genre for moviegoers, but it helped establish permanent careers for Lawrence Bender and Quentin Tarantino, along with talents like Samuel L. Jackson, Ving Rhames and Tim Roth — to say nothing of resurrecting the bankability of 1970s superstar icon John Travolta, and providing Christopher Walken with perhaps the most celebrated cameo in modern moviemaking.
The 1994 film also crashed the party at countless awards ceremonies, earning the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, along with Academy Award nominations for Travolta and Jackson (Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively), an Oscar nom for Best Picture (lost to Forrest Gump, alas), and a statue win in the original screenplay category for Tarantino. It likewise appeared on many critics’ Top-10 lists for the year — often at the top — and in 2008, Entertainment Weekly named it the single best motion picture of the past 25 years. In 2013, the Library Of Congress selected it for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry, recognizing its “cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance”.
Beyond its lengthy list of accolades, however, the movie also represented a cultural phenomenon that transformed numerous aspects of media and popular culture. Because it came up through the independent film circuit, it mostly played in art houses rather than multiplex chain theaters, providing a massive financial jolt to the indie film world. (It earned a stunning $214 million, off a budget of less than $9 million.) Its soundtrack re-introduced the public to epic recordings from surf king Dick Dale and soul/funk masters like Al Greene and Kool & The Gang, and it left viewers repeating lines like “Look at the big brain on Brett” and “Royale With Cheese” — among its other less printable quotations. In other words, you know you’ve made an impression when people leave the theater, grab a Bible, and flip to see whether there’s actually an Ezekiel 25:17. (There isn’t — but you looked, yeah?)
It’s this dialogue that over time has become most associated with Tarantino; like its Reservoir Dogs predecessor, Pulp Fiction invests an unusual amount of screen time on casual conversations between the characters, punctuated by moments of violence made all the more extreme by the fact that a minute ago people had been talking about the Metric system or whether to put mayonnaise on French fries. It’s through this dialogue that we become acquainted with the characters: Vincent is an Elvis man, Jackson’s Jules has a vegetarian girlfriend and gives his mother foot massages. These facts seem unimportant, until the characters make life-altering decisions — such as whether to walk the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu — and it’s at these points that they don’t need to explain themselves, because we already know who they are.
Pulp Fiction also confirmed many small, signature details that would appear in other Lawrence Bender-Quentin Tarantino flicks, such as Red Apple cigarettes, Big Kahuna burgers, or a pair of hit-man brothers named Vega. Despite that they all seem to exist in the same universe, however, the films also embrace their anachronisms: Pulp Fiction’s Jimmy just happens to look like Mr. Brown from Reservoir Dogs, and Reservoir’s Mr. White bears a striking resemblance to Marsellus Wallace’s fixer Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction. But no anachronism is more meta than the onscreen discussion in Reservoir Dogs of actress Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown badassery; which leads us to...
Adapted from the Elmore Leonard crime novel Rum Punch, 1997's Jackie Brown turned the expectations of Tarantino acolytes on their heads, by eschewing the filmmaking flash of Pulp Fiction in exchange for a smoldering, slow-burn drama that earned him an entirely new choir of converts. By casting blaxploitation icon Pam Grier in the title role — alongside former Hollywood mainstay Robert Forster, whom studios had relegated to the B-movie circuit for many years — Tarantino and Lawrence Bender smartly encouraged a generation of older fans to invest in this new style of crime fiction.
The effort paid off: Jackie Brown grossed $75 million on a budget of $12 million, even though again the film played primarily on art house screens. Forster received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, while Grier received nominations for Best Actress from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, and Samuel L. Jackson — this time playing the villain, Ordell Robbie, with the year’s most memorable goatee — earned a Golden Globe nomination as well. Even the much-adapted book author praised the screenplay, declaring it the best script from the 26 adaptations of his work to date.
Because it derives from a pre-existing novel, Jackie Brown makes more limited use of the time-shifting seen in Bender and Tarantino’s previous works, but this time the technique plays a more direct role in revealing the plot itself. And, in many ways, the story is a metaphor for Grier’s professional life: while referencing her previous works (Jackie Brown’s movie poster resembles both Grier’s Coffy and Foxy Brown, and numerous musical cues are lifted from both films), the title role likewise gave rebirth to her career — she received her own late-1990s television series, the Showtime dramedy Linc’s, and fans most recently saw her play the grandmother on the blockbuster hit NBC series This Is Us.
Such a result likely could not have pleased Tarantino more — when Grier first auditioned for Jackie Brown, she saw the director had posters of her previous work on the walls of his office. She asked if he had put those up for her, and he answered: No... he had actually considered taking them down before she arrived, so that she wouldn’t think he was trying to impress her.
Lawrence Bender and Quentin Tarantino certainly have no need to impress anyone: they’ve both received massive accolades independent of each other — Tarantino won an Oscar for the screenplay to Django Unchained, while Bender has received an Academy Award Best Picture nomination for Good Will Hunting, and another film that he produced, the Al Gore environmental clarion An Inconvenient Truth, took home the statue for Best Documentary.
But it’s their partnership that actually transformed a genre, and fans of their creative alliance now hope they’ll team up for another chapter in their crime collaborations. Will we finally find out what was in that damn Pulp Fiction briefcase? One thing’s for sure: it was probably not a Royale With Cheese.