Indie Cinema Heroes: Tarantino

In 1992, the hottest ticket at the Sundance Film Festival was Reservoir Dogs, made by a then unknown director named Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino became inspired by the success of Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers in the mid-1980s. Unlike Jarmusch, the 1980s indie leader who has shown contempt for catering to the mass public, Tarantino is a natural-born entertainer whose work is more dazzling than consequential. For inspiration, Reservoir Dogs drew more on old movies than on real life, but as self-conscious as the film was, it still boasted a clever script and superlative performances by an all-star cast.

In a few years, Tarantino has evolved from an unemployed actor-director working in a video store to the hottest American filmmaker. He has become a crucial figure, replacing Martin Scorsese as a role model for young indie directors. Like Scorsese, Tarantino is a cineaste who knows movies inside out and is deeply committed to the medium. Unlike Scorsese, though, Tarantino didn't go to film school, instead getting his education in a video store.
Tarantino planned on using the money he received for his first writing job–Rutger Hauer's thriller Past Midnight–combined with what money his friend-producer Lawrence Bender had on his credit cards to make Reservoir Dogs guerrilla-style for $30,000. But after reading the script, Bender felt it had potential. “I told him I could raise real money for this,” Bender recalled. “But he said, 'No way man.'” Eventually, Tarantino relented and gave Bender a two-month option on his script to find a backer. Fantasizing about the dream cast for their yet-to-be-made movie, the first actor to be mentioned by both was Harvey Keitel.

Bender's acting teacher, who knew Keitel, agreed to deliver the screenplay to him. The strategy worked: Keitel fell in love with the script and his involvement changed everything. “Suddenly,” Bender recalled, “we weren't two guys peddling a script around town, now we had Harvey Keitel.” With Keitel in the cast, Live Entertainment, a division of Carolco, committed a budget of $1.5 million. Things came easy after that. Keitel put up his own money to fly Tarantino and Bender to New York, where they assembled a top-notch cast that included Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Lawrence Tierney, and Steve Buscemi. With no further financial worries, Reservoir Dogs was finished in time for Sundance, where it began its conquest of the festival circuit.

Reservoir Dogs swept through Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto like a “brush fire.” Distributors who saw the film at Sundance were worried that it would end up with an NC-17 rating–its graphic violence drove many viewers out of the theater. That particular fear didn't materialize, though eventually the violence worked against the film's broader acceptance. Reservoir Dogs left Sundance without winning any awards, but it became the festival's most-talked about movie, and Miramax decided to distribute it. Over the course of that year, Tarantino turned up at festival after festival, lavished with praise by intellectual critics for making the hottest indie of the year.

Tarantino and Miramax milked the festival circuit before going public. When the movie finally opened, it played only for a few weeks despite critical support, confirming initial fears that it was too violent. Miramax's sparse marketing resulted in a modest box-office gross of $1 million. The movie was rereleased after the success of Tarantino's second feature, Pulp Fiction, but even then failed to generate box-office excitement.

Lack of commercial appeal didn't stop Reservoir Dogs from attaining cult status within the industry. Most of the press didn't focus on the movie, or its issues, but on Tarantino as a self-taught auteur. In the end, Tarantino didn't promote Reservoir Dogs, Reservoir Dogs promoted him. Tarantino quickly rose from obscurity, and the fact that the film didn't do well didn't matter. It created enough of a stir to give Tarantino the clout to make his next film, Pulp Fiction, with larger budget ($8 million) and high-caliber cast.

Nihilistically cool and vastly diverting, Pulp Fiction won the Cannes' Palme d'Or and went on to become one of the most commercially successful indies ever. Naysayers and skeptics rushed to label Tarantino as flavor of the year, though he proved them wrong and sustained the brilliance of his two instant classics with a third one, Jackie Brown (1997), which garnered decent reviews and respectable box-office takes.

Was Tarantino just lucky, the right director at the right time Was he too talented not to be noticed Tarantino was fortunate in one respect–his first film was embraced by cerebral critics as well as a national publicity machine starved for new heroes. Many indie directors resented the enormous publicity Tarantino continues to receive, as they resented Miramax's aggressive marketing campaign which garnered Pulp Fiction over $100 million box- office grosses and seven Oscar nominations, including best picture. But Tarantino's artistic accomplishments shouldn't be underestimated because of the hype he generates as a media-created celeb.