What Quentin Does
LOS ANGELES -- Quentin Tarantino walks into a roomful of journalists, carrying a microcassette recorder. He sets it on the table at which he'll sit for interviews and hits "record." I wonder whether this is his insurance policy against a media that has been sometimes less than kind to him during the three years since Pulp Fiction made him a star.But Tarantino's motives are not so mistrustful. He's merely gathering material for an article he's writing for Film Comment magazine about movie-media junkets. Still, there's more than a little defensiveness in his voice when he addresses criticisms of his productivity."All this time there's all these articles, 'What's Quentin doing, what's Quentin doing, what's Quentin doing, when's Quentin going to do something else?" he says with his customary rapidity, hands occasionally flapping like distressed birds. He's wearing a golf-style cap, just like a character in his new film and, on his right hand, a silver ring with the anarchy symbol. "Well, Quentin was writing." He laughs. "Quentin was doing what Quentin does."What Quentin's done now is Jackie Brown, his follow-up to Pulp and the 1992 cult hit Reservoir Dogs. The new film, which opens Christmas Day, stars Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson and former blaxploitation superstar Pam Grier as an airline stewardess involved in a gun-running scheme. Admittedly, it's a tonal departure from his earlier work. But for someone of Tarantino's celebrity, and coming on the heels of so many questions about his ability, Jackie Brown just might carry the burden of a filmmaker's artistic reputation.I have a talent for writing black characters because they are me. These characters are me, and I know the truth of me, and I'm writing me. -- Quentin TarantinoYou don't have to listen too hard to hear the sound of commercial expectations for Jackie Brown being lowered. "This is a modest movie," says Lawrence Bender, who's produced all three Tarantino films. "We never thought that we were gonna make Pulp Fiction 2 ... It ain't gonna make the numbers Pulp Fiction made."But far from being concerned about box-office returns -- "I don't have to prove anything as far as audience is concerned," he says in a recent interview -- Tarantino, 34, seems resolute to go his own way. That's something he's done since dropping out of his Los Angeles-area high school at age 15 and beginning to pursue his childhood love of acting. He got his cinematic education watching thousands of films, many of them at the now-famous (and now-defunct) Video Archives, the Hermosa Beach rental emporium where he worked in the '80s, and developing his idiosyncratic affinity for both Hong Kong action films and the works of French New Wavers such as Jean Luc Godard. With hopes of directing, he started writing screenplays; while he's often described as a video clerk turned instant Hollywood hotshot, Tarantino quit Video Archives in the late '80s -- two years before he shot Reservoir Dogs -- after a producer expressed interest in an early script of his, True Romance.In 1990, with no screenplays yet sold, Tarantino wrote Dogs, and didn't quit shopping it around until he got a deal that would let him direct, too. Persistence paid off: Dogs, with its dynamic visuals, casual violence and intriguingly fractured story-line, caused a stir at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and gained a loyal underground following. Posters of its black-suited, skinny-necktied hoods were taped to college dorm walls across the nation.Then things happened fast. True Romance finally got made, Oliver Stone picked up his script for Natural Born Killers, and Tarantino signed a $900,000 deal to write a follow-up. Pulp Fiction won Best Picture at Cannes in 1994, and for an encore covered its tight-fisted $8 million budget ... the weekend it was released. Like Dogs, Pulp juiced audiences with lurid, film noir-ish scenarios enacted by hyperverbal characters who shared (and thoroughly inhabited) the audience's pop-culture frame of reference. And it won Tarantino and former Video Archives comrade Roger Avary an Oscar for their original screenplay.Tarantino became a celebrity, talk-show-and-glossy-magazine division. Overexposure made backlash inevitable, and he didn't help matters in 1995 by acting in one critical and commercial flop (Destiny Turns On The Radio) and directing a segment of another (Four Rooms). Even critics who disliked Dogs or Pulp admitted they had kick; now, some observers were branding the self-confirmed, inveterate borrower of cinematic images and situations a two-trick pony -- a movie geek who'd run out of ways to rip off better films.Worst of all, Tarantino wasn't coming up with anything to stem the criticism. With one exception, he hadn't written anything new that had become a feature film since 1990. Admittedly, the exception, Pulp, was a sizable one. It earned more than $200 million worldwide and, along with Dogs, inspired countless imitators and sent movie executives looking for the next big fresh-but-cheap thing. It was an interesting situation: producers out hunting for the next Quentin Tarantino, and young filmmakers trying to be him. But three years after Pulp Fiction, no one's yet managed the trick. Not even, until now, Quentin Tarantino himself.The way I pick the music is, I'm always looking for the rhythm of my movie as I'm writing it. That's how I determine I'm going to do a film, if I can find the right music, 'cause that tells me the rhythm of the piece. -- Quentin TarantinoA three-year layoff from features is rare for most successful directors, and practically unheard of for one as hot as the post-Pulp Tarantino. But though the hiatus led people to question both his talent and his staying power, Tarantino says it was necessary."It was kind of weird how people made kind of a big deal about that," he says. "I'll never be Woody Allen or Spike Lee that like does a movie a year. I never want to resent the process ... I'm happiest when I'm shooting too, but I don't want to shoot every day. I don't need to shoot all the time. If I invest a year in a movie, I want a year back in return, of living life."While Jackie Brown marks his first time directing an adaptation (albeit his own) of another writer's work, the film is close to Tarantino's heart. Elmore Leonard, who wrote Rum Punch, the novel on which the film is based, is a seminal influence on Tarantino. What's more, Tarantino's adaptation switched the name and race of the book's central character expressly to make room for another of his idols, actress Pam Grier, best known for her kick-ass early '70s film roles in Coffy and Foxy Brown. Jackie is in many ways a homage to the blaxploitation genre, and its soulful soundtrack reflects the film's slower pace. "That's the rhythm this movie plays at," says Tarantino.Adapting someone else's work, he says, helped him grow creatively: "It's very good to get out of your head for a change and put your head and what you have to give in someone else's universe." It also forestalls pigeonholing. "I want each of my films to be individual, to be different, and to be special unto themselves," he says, his forefinger batting the table-edge. "I don't want the next Quentin Tarantino movie, I want the new Quentin Tarantino movie."Most importantly, he wants to be in it for the long haul, to be judged on a body of work, not two or three films. I ask him what he knows now that he didn't know while making Pulp Fiction. "After the second film, the mystery is gone," he says. "I know my job. You have a confidence everything is going to work out."Sidebar OneCast Party -- Why Actors Love Quentin TarantinoLOS ANGELES -- You have to admit Quentin Tarantino has a way with actors. His first film, Reservoir Dogs (1992), helped make stars out of Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi, and in Pulp Fiction (1994) he coaxed a career-best performance out of action lunk Bruce Willis. Pulp also miraculously revived the career of John Travolta; Tarantino's new film, Jackie Brown, could do the same for long-neglected veterans Pam Grier and Robert Forsyth.Tarantino, an aspiring actor since childhood, started writing so he'd have bits to perform, and gave himself small parts in both Dogs and Pulp. Some of his film roles were slagged, but as George Clooney's co-star in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), he won at least one fan: director Leonard Foglia, who recruited the filmmaker to play a psycho in next year's Broadway revival of Wait Until Dark. Tarantino hand-picks his performers. "Casting really needs to be special," Tarantino says. "If it's not 100 percent pure, then you've got some kink in your armor at some point in your movie." The director's empathy is evident to actors. They love the dialogue-heavy parts he writes, and he rewards them with two weeks of rehearsal before filming begins, something Samuel L. Jackson (Ordell in Jackie Brown) says is unheard-of in the show-up-and-shoot world of commercial filmmaking.Lawrence Bender, producer of all three of Tarantino's films, points out that Tarantino -- like all good "actors' directors" -- watches performances in person, not on a video monitor. "It's almost like a parent and a child, where it allows the child to be able to go and play and feel creative because he knows that the parent's going to have proper boundaries," says Bender. "Actors really feel a trust."Grier, playing her first starring role in years, says Tarantino helped her enact a difficult scene on a day when her pet dog was dying. "He helped me through it because he's so human and he understands," says Grier. "He made everbody feel like they'd come to work and he'd be there for them." The Jackie Brown set was kept light, with cast and crew serenading line-flubbers with verses of "Happy Birthday."Forsyth recalls spending seven hours at Tarantino's house one Saturday, reading for the Max Cherry role in Jackie Brown while Tarantino read all the other parts. "This guy makes the actor feel he has every bit of his confidence," says Forsyth. In phone scenes, Forsyth says, Tarantino amazed him by always having the appropriate actor on the other end of the line, as opposed to the usual dead silence. "That's the perfect way to do it," says Forsyth, adding, "That's the first time in my career anybody ever did it that way."Sidebar TwoSamuel L. JacksonAfter a string of roles including a drug addict in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991) and Jules, the philosophical hit man in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), Samuel L. Jackson has become one of the most respected -- and busiest -- actors in Hollywood. This year, he's starred in the Kevin Reynolds drama 187 and Kasi Lemmons' independent hit Eve's Bayou, which he also co-produced. He was interviewed recently in Los Angeles while promoting his latest film, Tarantino's Jackie Brown, which co-stars former blaxploitation superstar Pam Grier.How did the blaxploitation films of the early '70s affect you? All of a sudden there were all these black faces on screen. It made acting a viable career choice for me.What was it like working with Pam Grier? I grew up watching Pam, and I had that same kind of wide-eyed, fantasy, wish-I-had-a-girl-like-that thing. When I first met her, I was kind of awed. And then when we started to rehearse, the first thing we rehearsed was the scene in her apartment, where I have my hands around her neck and she's got the gun. We didn't have a gun in the rehearsal room, I've got my hands around her neck, she's got her hand poked in my crotch. I thought, this is not so bad. Then I realized, 'Oh, man, I'm about about to choke Coffy.'Explain your quote about Tarantino wanting to be black. His sensibility for my culture is as acute as mine is for his. In this country, everybody's taught to be like the dominant culture. So in most instances, you could ask me to portray any common white guy, and I could do that naturally because I've been taught to do that. I've been taught to speak in a certain kind of way, I've been taught the correct manners, I've been taught that the dress code is a certain thing. But nobody says, "OK, but, if you're going to go into a black situation, then you gotta learn how to chop your words in this kind of way, talk in this kind of pattern, or rhythm, you gotta put your clothes on this way or do that." Quentin has that sensibility, because he spent time dealing with that and watching it, embracing it in a very real kind of way. And it's kind of freeing for him, it's his way of being rebellious, as opposed to growing his hair long and getting tattoos.What about the heavy use of the word "nigger" in Jackie Brown? "I laughed at one point because I looked and I saw, wow, I said 'nigger' five times in one sentence. And that's hard to do. No, I don't have a problem with it. It's part of the language of this world. That's how Ordell [his character] is, that's how he thinks. It says a lot about who he is, where he came from, and probably where he's going.The biggest problem I had with the word [in Pulp Fiction] was the way [the character Tarantino played] said it when we were in his house: "Did you see a sign that said "Dead nigger storage?" Because I'm from Tennessee, that's the way I used to hear the word that was derogatory. When you say 'e-r' -- 'nigger' -- it's like, 'You don't know what you're talking about and I oughta fuck you up.' But when you hear the word 'niggah' -- 'a-h' -- that's a person that's hung out with some, or knows some, or is cool with some, or is one. It's all in the way it happens.Why don't you think the critical and commercial success of Eve's Bayou, with a black writer-director and black cast, signal a resurgence in black filmmaking? It's an anomaly. If Hollywood thought they could do that all the time, we'd see more of that, but they don't believe that. That script was passed over by a lot of people.Do you have any interest in writing or directing? Writing's a discipline, and I don't quite have the discipline to sit down and face a blank page every day and try and put something on it. Directing's a whole 'nother animal. [It] takes a little more discipline and responsiblity than I'm willing to take right now. I'm a little lazy. I kinda like going to work, hanging out in my trailer. When they say wrap I can go play golf. Directors don't get to wrap. They have to stay there, they have to watch the dailies and then you gotta go the edting room for like six months, put it together, put the music on it, do the publicity trail. If I did that, I could only do one movie that year. How much fun could that be?