EVERY now and then a movie comes out of nowhere, made on the cheap, and becomes a classic.
Initially a cult classic, and then a proper classic.
Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, is such a movie. His other work — stuff like Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Django Unchained — is great, but nothing touches Pulp Fiction. How many times have you seen it? Exactly. It never loses its juice. And all linked together by Marvin, the character who has just three lines before getting shot in the face in a moving car.
Made for $8m and running for two-and-a-half hours, Pulp Fiction took $108m at the US box office. (Globally it made $214m). Five dollar shakes at Jackrabbit Slim’s, Big Kahuna burgers, Royales with cheese — and that’s just the food, an homage to classic American junk, consumed to a soundtrack of classic American retro. But Pulp Fiction was never just a nostalgia movie; this was no souped-up version of Grease. Not with guns blowing Marvin’s brains out all over Jules’s Afro, not with Mia being stabbed in the heart with an outsize hypodermic full of adrenaline after her accidental heroin overdose, not with the graphic rape of her crime boss husband Marcellus Wallace. No, this was pure original Tarantino; fast, clever, funny, bloody, and a very long way from Danny and Sandy at the drive-in.
Pulp Fiction was a rollicking movie, zipping in and out of linear story-telling like nothing before. Your jaw clangs when Butch shoots Vince; the movie’s chronology demands full attention. Ironically Vincent Vega resurrected the career of John Travolta, who played Danny Zuko in Grease and Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. Casting Travolta was genius. Cinema audiences everywhere already had a connection to him, an expectation; he duly obliged in the dance scene with Uma Thurman, even through his heroin haze. The scene, however, was a reference not to Saturday Night Fever, but to the 1964 Luc Godard film Band A Parte.
The film is thick with cultural reference — Tarantino, a movie obsessive, layers the script with nod after nod to cinema, bands, actors, and television shows. The list, carefully compiled by online obsessives, is extensive. In turn, aspects of Pulp Fiction have bled into wider culture. Banksy made a work depicting Jules and Vince (Samuel L Jackson and Travolta) wielding not silver hand guns (“we should have shotguns”) but bananas. The year after the film’s 1994 release, Sydney Mardi Gras featured a glut of drag queens dressed as Mia (Thurman) with giant pretend syringes protruding from their breast bones. All in the best possible taste.
Pulp Fiction almost didn’t get made. None of the major studios would touch it. Yet the script, written by Tarantino and Roger Avary, was genius; actors reported barely having to learn their lines, so natural was the dialogue. The only studio boss who saw its potential was Harvey Weinstein of Disney-owned Miramax, who couldn’t get his hands on it quickly enough; with one condition — no John Travolta.
“John Travolta was at that time as cold as they get,” his agent Mike Simpson told Vanity Fair recently. “He was less than zero.” Weinstein wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to play Vincent Vega, or Sean Penn or William Hurt. Then Bruce Willis, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, got his hands on the script and wanted the Vince Vega part. So did Day-Lewis. But Tarantino would not budge, and it went to Travolta, who was perfect — lardier than in his youth, lank haired, heroin-eyed, still a brilliant dancer. Vincent Vega became the greatest role of his career — Tarantino understood cultural reference and audience connection was more visceral and powerful than mere stardom.
The role of women in Pulp Fiction is patchy at best, and Uma Thurman wasn’t too sure it was a good choice for her. She was 23, and worried about some of the scenes.
“[Tarantino] wasn’t this revered demigod auteur that he has grown into. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, because I was worried about the Gimp stuff,” she recalls to Vanity Fair. “We had very memorable, long discussions about male rape versus female rape. No one could believe I even hesitated in any way. Neither can I, in hindsight.” She was also worried about her dancing, but had Travolta as her teacher.
And Bruce Willis gave the movie star power, in his role as Butch the boxer with his annoying girlfriend Fabienne, the one who favoured oral pleasure and gigantic breakfasts. The only problem was that Tarantino had promised the Butch role to Matt Dillon. But Dillon made the mistake of reading the script and telling Tarantino that while he loved it, he wanted to “sleep on it” before confirming that he would take the part. Tarantino took umbrage and withdrew his offer. So the part went to Willis, and everyone was happy (apart from Dillon, presumably).
“Once I got Bruce Willis, Harvey [Weinstein] got his big movie star, and we were all good,” Tarantino told Vanity Fair. “Bruce Willis made us legit. Reservoir Dogs did fantastic internationally, so everyone was waiting for my new movie. And then when it was my new movie with Bruce Willis, they went apeshit.”
Arguably the most memorable character is that of Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L Jackson. His quasi-preacher rantings, terrifying humour, and spiritual awakening — not to mention the brain-spattered Afro — made for the movie’s best lines, which can’t be reproduced here as they are too sweary.
Remember the Big Kahuna burger scene? That came from real life. Jackson thought the part of Jules was his, and was annoyed to discover there was another actor also in the running; he flew to LA to audition again, and was feeling “sort of angry, pissed [off], tired”. When he arrived, clutching a takeaway burger and fizzy drink, there was nobody to greet him except a studio minion who mistook him for the actor Laurence Fishburne. Not good.
“In comes Sam with a burger in his hand and a drink in the other hand and stinking like fast food,” remembers producer Richard Gladstein for Vanity Fair. “Me and Quentin and Lawrence [Bender, the other producer] were sitting on the couch, and he walked in and just started sipping that shake and biting that burger and looking at all of us. I was scared shitless. I thought that this guy was going to shoot a gun right through my head. His eyes were popping out of his head. And he just stole the part.” Bender thought so, too: “He was the guy you see in the movie. He said, ‘Do you think you’re going to give this part to somebody else? I’m going to blow you motherfuckers away.’”
Which of course he did.
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