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by Harlan Kennedy


The Man was in Cannes. You could tell from the buzz in the air. Everything was a little hip and rocking, a little wild and wired.

The Man was in Cannes and suddenly it didn’t seem an arty French festival any more. Where the heck were we? Had we been teleported? Was Cannes now Los Angeles? Was the Croisette Hollywood Boulevard? Had the Salle Debussy turned into the Salle De Pussy, a stripjoint/grindhouse with a sideline in auteur masterclasses?

As for Thierry Frémaux, the festival's Délégué Général, who had invited Tarantino, and who was up on stage wearing tenue de soiree at three in the afternoon, he was obviously Mr Black.

We the audience were in the pink. We were blissing out from the moment QT loped down the aisle, ascended the platform, bumped fists with Frémaux and sat down opposite the show's moderator-interviewer Michel Ciment, editor of the French film mag Positif. (‘Frog One' as he is known to those au courant with the French critics hierarchy and with FRENCH CONNECTION II).

As soon as The Man started talking, we leaned forward like a Mexican tsunami. Wearing a leather jacket and black pants, with hair slicked back from that bullet-brow replicated as a bulge by the pugilist chin, Tarantino began by recalling - voice boppy with emphasis and with frequent use of a colourful four-letter F-word – 'film' – his apprenticeship as a video-store assistant in Manhattan Beach (south Los Angeles) and his calling-card short movies.

"I had access to all these great films and terrific directors and I got inspired and wanted to see all their movies," he said of his video-geek days. "De Palma, Scorsese, Leone, Hawks. De Palma was like my +rock god!+  And I was a TV Guide junkie, I'd go through the TV listings over and over, I'd catch whatever would complete my ‘list’ of Fuller, Aldrich, Sirk, Bava, Romero, Argento."

It was acting he took up before directing; or perhaps acting was a back door into the real job. "I had a teacher in LA, James Best, who'd been a bit part movie actor – he was in Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR – and he taught me all about camera technique. LA was a TV town. Every young actor had to make the most of the three seconds of fame he got, every so often, in bit parts on the small screen. So we had to know all about what the camera did and could do in that tiny frame of time."

He already trusted his untaught instincts as a screenwriter. "'Writing class'? I don't even know what the hell that +is+!" As a young film buff he would watch movies and write down entire scenes from memory. "I'd fill in the bits I couldn't remember with my own stuff. I remember adding a whole new monologue to MARTY and when I handed out the scene in acting class people said, 'What a great speech. I don't remember it from the film.'"  

At weekends Tarantino ankled out to shoot his own short films. "You could get cheap-rate equipment rental Friday to Sunday." The short stuff became longer, culminating in a project called RESERVOIR DOGS. The DOGS got financing and got onto the production floor, though not till they had been heeled and trained at a Sundance Institute workshop. Let’s rewrite that: not till Sundance had +tried+ to heel and train them.

“I had already shot the opening scene of RESERVOIR DOGS, the guys talking around the table, and all these expert directors at Sundance just hated it. They hated the French New Wave-style long uninterrupted take with the camera circling the table and disappearing behind characters' backs. 'We all like Godard, but…' Anne Coates the editor, who won an Oscar for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, said, 'I like your shots, but there aren't enough of them'.

“Well, I thought, ‘Fuck!’ The next day a new bunch of guest teachers came in, including Terry Gilliam and Volker Schlondorff, and they loved it. They said, 'Great!' That made up my mind about my future. I thought, people are gonna really like me or really not like me. +Fucking get used to it!+" (Laughter and applause).

Being certain about his directing instincts, if not his job security, was a cinch after Sundance. "We had two weeks rehearsal on DOGS. Right through pre-production I expected to be fired, 'cos I thought, this is too good to be true! I had my own cameras, my own set, my own movie. But we ‘became’ the dogs, the crew and cast and I. The other actors and Harvey (Keitel) wouldn't have +allowed+ me to be fired.

"As an actor I knew what was best for me as a director. Doing the round-table scene I was supposed to put a stand-in in my chair so I could look through the camera. I said to myself, 'Fuck that, I'm not getting up from this table. This is where I can control the scene. I can gauge the equilibrium."

Two clips from RESERVOIR DOGS, including its opening scene, are flung up on the Salle Debussy screen, followed by a scene – you can guess which one – from PULP FICTION.

"The 'Royale with Cheese'! That came out of my trip to Europe. I hadn't been out of Los Angeles in years. So when we'd done RESERVOIR DOGS I said I'm going to Europe. I travelled around – Cannes, Paris, Amsterdam – writing PULP FICTION. And I looked around and I put pop culture and food under a mental microscope. The shtik about hamburgers came out of this idea to make a set-piece, a dialogue set-piece, out of culture shock, out of an American's disorientation in Europe."

Another talismanic scene is thrown onto the Debussy screen. Vincent (John Travolta) enters the gilded lair of Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman). He wanders about amid the modernist chic, waiting for her to appear for their evening out, a bemused bull on his best behaviour in a china shop.

“I wrote that sequence when I was 24, with nothing around it. Literally, the way the guy comes in, ‘Son of a preacher man’ playing on the soundtrack while he’s stuck there waiting for her to emerge. I didn’t have the CCTV cameras, I added them later. And the intercom too, so that you have this idea of a cat playing with a mouse.”

Music. How important is that? Tarantino is famous for mixing the known and old – his personal faves from pop, rock, jazz, soul, blues - instead of using an original score.

“I’ve never used a composer.” This topic lights the Tarantino touchpaper. “I’ve never used a composer. I’d just think, ‘Who the +fuck+ is this guy coming in and throwing his +shit+ over my movie?’ Morricone, John Barry, Bacharach…I just don’t have to deal with any of them.

“I love music composed for films as long as they’re other people’s films. Before video, if you loved a movie you’d get the soundtrack album and sit back and ‘remember’ the movie. It was what you had instead of a videocassette or DVD. And sometimes – like in recalling the dialogue – I’d forget the film itself and invent entire sequences to the music.”

Tarantino gets a question about casting. Does he write for actors? Was Uma Thurman always to be Mia Wallace? “No. I wrote the role in KILL BILL for her: she was involved in the scripting and helped and made suggestions for the film. But in PULP FICTION, no. If it had been Isabella Rossellini as Mia I’d have made the character Italian, if it had been Alfre Woodard I’d have made her black…..”

KILL BILL was the start of Tarantino’s grindhouse phase. He wanted the film to look down and dirty, like a midnight movie that had been around the projector a few thousand times. “I said to my crew and cameraman, ‘We’re gonna fuck it up the way it should be fucked up.’ I wanted to make KILL BILL to look shitty, like a dupe of a dupe of a dupe. When it comes to technology I go backwards. It’s lower, lower, lower tech all the time.

“The same with the car scenes in GRINDHOUSE. And by the way I really prefer the French title BOULEVARD DE L’AMOUR!” To laughter, Tarantino gives the word a kitsch guttural roll - “a-mooorrgh”. “CGI has completely ruined car chases. The first time I saw a CGI car crash I thought, ‘+What the fucking crap is this??+’

“With KILL BILL and DEATH PROOF I wanted to throw my hat in the ring with the great action directors. I like the idea of these different touchstones of cinema – the car chase, the big fight – and of putting your own stamp on them.”

He took the directing tasks on KILL BILL so seriously he bowed out of playing a key role in it. “I was going to play the martial arts teacher Pi Mei. I rehearsed and prepared, we spent three months at a training facility, I was really going through pain, they stretch the shit out of you. The producers wanted me to play the part, but the action scenes were becoming more and more demanding on me as director. I said finally, ‘No, I can’t do this. I can’t play this guy and deliver you two good action movies.’”

Two good action ‘volumes.’ “Why ‘Volume 1’ and ‘Volume 2’ of KILL BILL? I tend to think of myself as a novelist who does movies rather than a director.” If that sounds pompous, Tarantino quickly de-italicises the seriousness. “At the end of the day the number one thing I’m doing is forging a new kind of comedy. I’m trying to get you to laugh at things that aren’t usually fun.”

The fun is winning out right now in his output. Just draw a trajectory from RESERVOIR DOGS (semi-serious) to DEATH PROOF (hootenanny hoot).

“I have two different universes going on in my films. PULP FICTION and RESERVOIR DOGS are realer than realer, though fun too. Then there are my movie-movies, like KILL BILL and DEATH PROOF. They’re the kind of films that Jules and Vincent and my other characters in my other films would go see!”

Maybe - then again maybe Tarantino does himself a disfavour. There aren’t any of his films (give or take the somnolent JACKIE BROWN) that Jules and Vincent wouldn’t happily go see, nor the rest of us.

You’re the man, Quentin, who made trash intellectual and pulp fiction pop. You’re the man who put the mod into postmodern. You’re the man from America fully entitled to give us Europeans a masterclass on the avant-garde.

You’re the man who – heck, let’s call a thing by its simple rap. You are, like we said, in a word or in a breath, The Man.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved