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COVER STORY : A Chat With Mr. Mayhem : Quentin Tarantino quickly acquired quite the reputation for violence. His 1992 film 'Reservoir Dogs' was a cult hit. Now comes 'Pulp Fiction.' Is he trying to outgun himself or all of Hollywood?

September 11, 1994|Hilary de Vries | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar

"All of Quentin's stuff has to do with some other movie," says Samuel Jackson, who plays a second hit man and John Travolta's partner in "Pulp Fiction." "Lots of times he'd explain a scene to us like 'We're going to start with the opening shot of "Casablanca," then go into something Sergio Leone did in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," and then finish up with kind of Wile E. Coyote thing.' It's not so much that Quentin steals but he's paying homage with his shots."

For Tarantino, however, the issue has become something other than a theoretical one. Already one film journal, Film Threat, has accused him of lifting entire scenes as well as the basic framework of "Reservoir Dogs" from an obscure Asian film, Ringo Lam's 1987 "City on Fire"--a charge that Tarantino publicly dismissed at Cannes.

Meanwhile, a dispute with Avary over the authorship of "Pulp Fiction" culminated in Tarantino paying his close friend only Writers Guild minimum while asking him to sign a waiver removing his name from any screenplay credit, permanently damaging that relationship. Avary, who has worked with Tarantino on almost all his scripts, has told friends that he will never work with him again.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 2, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 3 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Palme d'Or--A Sept. 11 article about director Quentin Tarantino incorrectly reported the number of American films that have won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. As reader Steve Barr points out, 13 American films have won or shared the honor: "Marty" (1955), "Friendly Persuasion" (1957), "MASH" (1970), "Scarecrow" (1973), "The Conversation" (1974), "Taxi Driver" (1976), "All That Jazz" (1980), "Missing" (1982), "Paris, Texas" (1984), "sex, lies and videotape" (1989), "Wild at Heart" (1990), "Barton Fink" (1991) and Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" this year.

"Roger wrote a script that I wanted to use for the middle story of "Pulp Fiction,' so I bought it from him," Tarantino says somewhat heatedly, referring to "Pandemonium Reigns." "Then I came up with all the other ideas and characters, and so I adapted his screenplay the way you would adapt a book. But having said that, I don't want Roger getting credit for (any of the actual) monologues. I wrote the monologues."

It is perhaps not a surprisingly pugnacious attitude, given that Tarantino took the hard-knocks, rather than film school, route to Hollywood. Tarantino, an only child born in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1963, moved to Los Angeles when he was 2, after his mother, Connie Zastoupil, a nurse, who was part-Cherokee, separated from Tarantino's father. "I never met my real father," he says coolly.

The two settled in Torrance, where from the very first Tarantino was something of a film buff, attending movies several times a week accompanied by his musician stepfather. By the time he was 8, Tarantino had seen films ranging from "Bambi" to "Carnal Knowledge."

Not surprisingly, he originally planned on becoming an actor. A poor, almost dysfunctional student--one story has Tarantino not learning to tell time till he was in the sixth grade--he dropped out of school after the ninth grade to study acting full time. Although he would eventually become proficient enough to land a guest shot playing an Elvis impersonator on "The Golden Girls," as well as cameo roles in his own films, Tarantino quickly realized that writing was his forte and directors were his real heroes.

Looking to create the kind of splashy, attention-grabbing script that would lure investors, he penned "True Romance," "Natural Born Killers" and "Reservoir Dogs" as somewhat flamboyant writing samples while supporting himself by working at a video rental store, the now-fabled Video Archives in Manhattan Beach.

I t was there that he first met Avary and began to establish his reputation as a walking library of film, the kind of self-described "movie geek" who knew every camera angle in all of Sergio Leone's films but who couldn't be bothered to keep his car registration current. A legendary story has Tarantino spending 10 days in L.A. County Jail when he wouldn't pay the more than $7,000 in parking fines he incurred on the chance that he might pick up some dialogue useful in his screenwriting.

"Quentin was the kind of guy who had such a limited education I don't even think he knew how to write--he printed everything--but no one could hold a candle to him when it came to his knowledge and enthusiasm for movies," recalls Dennis Humbert, a co-owner of Video Archives.

After five years, Tarantino left Video Archives to take a job in Cinetel, a small Hollywood production company, where he finished writing "Reservoir Dogs" and, more important, met Bender, an actor and aspiring producer. Using Bender's contacts from acting school, the two were able to get "Reservoir Dogs" to Harvey Keitel, who had a history of working in venturesome films. After Keitel agreed to star (he also has a cameo appearance in "Pulp Fiction"), Bender was able to raise the $1.5 million for Tarantino's debut film.

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