“I can’t believe I made a movie that short,” cackled Quentin Tarantino following the 25th Anniversary Screening of Reservoir Dogs at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Returning to Park City a quarter-century after the premiere that launched his career, Tarantino was joined by co-star Michael Madsen and producer Lawrence Bender for a predictably boisterous Q&A. Some edited highlights:
On how it all got started…
I used to work at a video store and there was this shelf just by the counter, and we would change it every week or so. We would highlight something that week, like if a director died we’d put a bunch of their movies up there or if an actor died we’d put a bunch of their movies up there. Or people didn’t even have to die, if we liked someone we’d put up their movies. And we picked different genres from time to time. Part of my job was to come up with different genres and one day I thought of heist films. I thought that’d be a neat idea. So I went through the store and picked up all the heist films we had. So Topkapi was there, and The Killing wasn’t out on video at that time, but Rififi was and Rififi was there. Treasure Of The Four Crowns… you know, things like that.
So I put all these heist films up there and I remember like just looking at the different boxes next to each other and I go, “Wow, a heist story. That’s kinda cool, you know?” We’re talking about ’88 or ’89 or so, and I’m like, “I haven’t seen one of those in a long time. That’s a really cool sub-genre.” I like working in sub-genre. Like a genre inside of a genre. Say if you want to do a Western –especially for your first film– saying you’re gonna do one of the greatest Westerns ever made? Well, that’s kind of a tall order. If you say you’re gonna make one of the greatest gangster movies ever made for your first film? Well, that’s kind of a tall order.
But a heist film? If I do a good one, conceivably it could be in the top six. If they do a book on heist films they might include us in it, you know? Maybe have our picture in it and talk about us a little bit. So that was where it came from… and the rest, as they say, is history.
What a lot of people don’t know is that Dogs was workshopped in the Director’s Lab at the nonprofit Sundance Institute, where every summer established filmmakers visit to mentor up-and-coming talents. If you’ve ever wondered why they’re thanked in the closing credits, Terry Gilliam and Monte Hellman were just two of the directors who worked with Tarantino shortly before he shot Reservoir Dogs.
The Lab was just amazing. With the possible exception of Lawrence [Bender] nobody had ever taken me seriously when it came to what it is that I wanted to do. I don’t know if I would have taken myself seriously. But at the Sundance Lab they did. They took us really seriously. I couldn’t believe how altruistic it was. Their whole point was to just help us. And not even to help us have a finished film – just to help us get better at what we were trying to do. Help us to refine our aesthetic. Help us to achieve what we wanted to achieve.
Now that was one of the things they always said: “We want you to get out of this what you want to get out of this.” That’s what they said, but it’s not always what they practiced. One of the things that ended up being frankly a bit of a trial-by-fire is you’d go to The Lab and a whole bunch of famous Resource People would show up, and they’d be there for a week. They’d look at your work, and they’d comment on it and then they’d F.O. and another group would come in.
I’d never really shot anything before and I’d really liked the idea of long takes. I wanted to experiment with doing a series of long takes, and so that’s what I did. I was pretty happy with what I pulled off, and then I showed it to the Resource People and they didn’t like it at all. They thought I was shooting long takes because I didn’t understand that you’re supposed to have cuts. Like I just didn’t know what the fuck I was doing at all! I remember Anne Coates – who was the editor of Lawrence Of Arabia – she was one of the people and she said, “Quentin, I like your shots. There just aren’t enough of them.”
They really were pretty tough on me. I got out of that meeting and it’s Sundance in summer, so I took a walk in the woods by myself. And I thought about it all. They were really, really rough. And I was like, “Well they said some interesting things, but I like my scene.” They told me to experiment, and this was an experiment. It wasn’t a finished scene, it was an experiment. I liked it even if they didn’t.
The director Jon Amiel –who did Sommersby and The Singing Detective, the BBC production of it– he asked, “Quentin, have you done your subtext work?” And I go, what’s that? And he says, “Ah, see. You think you know everything about your script because you wrote it, but you don’t know anything.” I was far from a professional writer, so I didn’t know what he was talking about.
So he explained –and this is during that rough time– subtext work is when you write down what is the subtext going on inside of a given scene. So after I got through with my walk in the woods I got back to my cabin, and I took a piece of paper and I picked one scene. I picked the scene when Mr. White brings Mr. Orange into the warehouse. And so basically I wrote down: “What does Mr. White want from this scene? And what does Mr. Orange want from this scene? And what do I want the audience to take away from this scene?”
Now that sounds very basic. What does Mr. Orange want? Well, he’s dying. He wants to be taken to a hospital. But just even writing down the obvious opened up different avenues, different thoughts. So you think you’re writing one line then you write three and four and you’re writing other things. And all of the sudden I started realizing, “Oh wow, this is kind of a father-son story!”
The whole interesting thing at the end – which I hadn’t thought about, frankly – that Mr. White is almost a de facto son character for Joe and Mr. Orange has become a de facto son character for Mr. White and at the end Mr. White has to choose between his father and his son, and he chooses his son but he’s wrong – he’s wrong for all the right reasons. All that started coming to me, so I finished it and thought, “Oh wow, that was a really interesting exercise. And I never want to do this ever again.”
The reason I say that is because I didn’t need to know all that. I didn’t need to know it was a father-son story. The idea is that the tree is big, the tree is strong, the tree has roots, they go underneath the ground. I need to know that there’s roots down there but I don’t need to know what those roots are. I just need to deal with the reality of the drama. What brings them in the room, what keeps them in the room, what stops them from leaving the room. That’s what I need to deal with.
Now when the movie’s all over, now I can go and dig into the roots and see what it is I actually did and that’s fun and that’s cool and that’s creative, but that’s not really for the stage.
So does Mr. Pink get away with the diamonds in the end?
If I wanted you to know I would have told you in the movie. Same thing with the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, by the way. I’m not being an asshole.