A 1991 interview with the 'Reservoir Dogs' helmer
In late 1991, Quentin Tarantino was a virtually unknown screenwriter who had just directed a feature, “Reservoir Dogs,” that would soon launch him as one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation.
At that time, current Variety exec editor-features Steven Gaydos was a freelance journalist who interviewed the fledgling auteur on the Highland Park, Calif., “Dogs” set and at the Coach and Horses pub in Hollywood — resulting in the first two published interviews (Location Update magazine and L.A. Style) with Tarantino. The director was headed to Sundance, with the L.A. Style piece predicting his eventual triumph there, although no one had seen the film yet.
Neither story really captured the range of Tarantino’s ambitions, and the full interview that Gaydos conducted at the Coach and Horses never ran in its entirety — until now.
Tarantino’s vision, enthusiasm and fearlessness that his fans adore are evident here, at the beginning of his career.
Q: You had been writing some lower-budget indie films.
A: I don’t consider myself a writer; I consider myself a filmmaker who writes stuff for himself to do. About three years ago, I wrote a script that I tried to get off the ground by using a limited partnership; it never worked out. Then I wrote another film that I wanted to get off the ground the same way, but with less money — $500,000 or something. And after working on it for a year and a half, out of frustration I made “Reservoir Dogs.” …
Since I consider myself a filmmaker, not a writer, and I haven’t made one in a while, I feel I don’t exist. I just gotta put film through the camera. So that was my intention when I wrote “Reservoir Dogs.” …
I basically started making a living through the film industry about a year and a half ago. A friend of mine, Scott Spiegel — he wrote “Evil Dead II” and “The Rookie” — was getting offers to write this little horror film. He couldn’t do it and he liked my stuff — up until this time I didn’t write professionally, I just had these two original scripts — and he started saying, “Look, if you want somebody good, call Quentin,” and all of a sudden I was sending out sample scripts to people and eventually I got hired a by a special-effects (company) that wanted to start making movies. They read my stuff and they dug it. I was able to quit my job. And that was two years ago.
(Tarantino by this time had also recently signed with William Morris.)
Q: When you sit back and reflect on what has been going on in your life in the last nine months, what amazes you or excites you?
A: It’s funny because I always knew I was going to do this, even when it was at its worst — you always have your moments of self-doubt. Basically I always knew I was eventually gonna be making a movie.
Q: Based on what?
A: That was my job; I never created any fallback system. I just couldn’t imagine not doing it. At times I thought I would be wasting my time because I didn’t know, but I always knew that I would sooner or later be in this position.
Q: What about the last nine months?
A: Now it’s funny because people come up to me all the time and say, “Aren’t you excited about this and that?” but a lot of this is just dealing with it, so you don’t have a reflective moment, except for maybe 10 minutes before you fall asleep. …
Remember when I said I considered myself a filmmaker but I hadn’t made a film so I didn’t exist? I was talking to a buddy of mine like yesterday and he was in the same position I was in, and I was like, “Wow, I have now made a film. I have done it. I am now a filmmaker. I’m not talking about it anymore, I have done it, it’s a done deal.” I think I’ll have my big-time reflection when I finish editing, because right now I’m getting all geared up for the rest of the shoot.
Q: You don’t have a fear about acting, directing, writing a movie. You don’t seem like you’re worried about what to do next.
A: I think about that, too, but I don’t let it stop me because it is in your mind. Yeah, I get scared, I get real scared that I’m gonna screw up or I won’t pull it off, but I don’t let it stop me. It’s just something I share with myself, and then I have no fear and then everything works out. I think that comes from acting; before you go onstage you get scared, but once you push through that you are fine.
Q: At what age did you want to start acting?
A: I wanted to be an actor since I was 2. I studied acting at professional acting schools till I was about 17.
Q: Growing up in L.A., what were the movies and the moviemakers that got you excited as a kid?
A: Brian De Palma was my favorite. The guys that made me want to become a director were Brian De Palma, Sergio Leone and Howard Hawks. All three very different styles. But De Palma was my big-time hero. I never went to film school, so watching Sergio Leone movies religiously was sort of like a film school. They taught me how to manipulate people in and out of a frame, movement of the camera and the use of music in movies.
Q: When did you decide to pursue directing and not acting?
A: Basically when I got to 21 I realized I wanted to be a director and not an actor. I started making my own movie. It was a film called “My Best Friend’s Birthday” and it originally started out on Super 8. Then this film director, Fred Olen Ray, and I met. I wanted to ask him how you get something like this off the ground — because he had made a bunch of movies — and in the course of this conversation he told me he had a 16mm camera and so I borrowed it. So all of a sudden our Super 8 movie became a 16mm movie and so we started shooting it. And we were like, “Hey, let’s make a feature,” all my friends were like, “Hey, sure, let’s do it.” I was financing this from working for minimum wage at a videostore — Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, best video store in L.A.
Q: So you made this film?
A: I worked on the film for almost three years, trying to put it together, and then I started getting pretty depressed because the stuff we had done four months ago was really good and the stuff we did the first week was awful. I was totally embarrassed. So I was like, OK, I don’t have a movie here, this is not “She’s Gotta Have It,” but I learned a lot doing this. This was my film school. I think taking a 16mm camera and making your movie and even committing to make a feature is the best film school — cheaper than film school, too.
Q: What do you think it is about “Reservoir Dogs” and the work you created that has people excited?
A: I’m not trying to be self-promoting, but I wrote a good script. Most of the scripts that I read are awful, and this one has punch, it’s got character, it’s got an interesting structure, the dialogue is really rich.
When I think of writing a script, I think of it as a blueprint. The actors, the production designers build the house, and the script is just a blueprint for them. But when I wrote it, I wanted it to be very readable. I never wrote a pulp novel and I’ve always wanted to, so “Reservoir Dogs” was kinda like my novel.
The main thing about this or my other scripts is that it is not trying to be everything to everybody. It is what it is. You either like it or you don’t. For all the people who like “Reservoir Dogs” there are a lot that can’t stand it. And that’s OK, that’s great as a matter of fact. Because it’s not “Pretty Woman,” it’s not trying to cover the basics for every member of the audience.
Q: There are 8 million screenwriters in Hollywood; what made the difference with you?
A: I’ll tell you what made the difference. The difference is that I did not try to sell it, I went out to make it. If I would have sold it, it would have been sent to people and they would have said, “This is a little that, and this is a little this.” That made all the difference.