Pulp Fiction at 25: Influence of ‘unfilmable’ film lives on

Pulp Fiction at 25: Influence of ‘unfilmable’ film lives on

It’s 25 years since Quentin Tarantino gave us ‘Pulp Fiction’. Chris Wasser looks back at the movie no one wanted to fund, that would go on to change cinema forever.

Would contemporary cinema look the same without Pulp Fiction? 

It’s a peculiar question, but let’s be honest — it’s difficult to overstate the impact of Quentin Tarantino’s seminal and, indeed, revolutionary, crime epic.

It seems odd now that there was a time when studio executives ran a mile from the damn thing.

Initially optioned by Columbia TriStar, legend has it that the company’s former chairman, Mike Medavoy, found Tarantino’s structurally disobedient, multi-faceted screenplay about a two-day crime bender in downtown Los Angeles, “too demented” a project to back. 

According to Tarantino’s screenwriting partner, Roger Avary, the term “unfilmable” was bandied about.

Part of the ‘problem’ was, in fact, its structure. When Avary and Tarantino started work on Pulp Fiction (the title of which refers to the violent, snappy pulp magazines and crime novels of the early 20th century), the plan was to create a “trilogy film” (three stories in one, basically). 

They wanted it to be novelistic in both tone and assembly. They wanted their audience to chase the story.

Now, as an outline, or a treatment, Pulp Fiction — a blistering, blood-soaked crime epic about a mob boss, a boxer, a diner hold-up and a couple of wise-cracking, hard-boiled hitmen in search of their employer’s briefcase (the contents of which are a mystery) — works reasonably well. 

As a screenplay, however, it’s all over the shop, and we can only imagine that someone, at some point, must have wondered if Tarantino was playing the world’s worst prank on potential Hollywood backers.

The greatest irony, however, is that it was Pulp Fiction’s intricate nature — a non-linear narrative, coupled with chatty, complex characters, whose backgrounds we know next to nothing about — that would appeal most to audiences. 

Before Pulp Fiction, Tarantino, who was 29 years old, when he started work on the film, had just a single directorial credit under his belt. 

It was Reservoir Dogs, his directorial debut, that had turned some heads in the winter of 1992.

A bold, brash and disorderly heist flick with a twist, featuring Harvey Keitel (who also served as co-producer), Tim Roth and a scene-stealing Michael Madsen, Reservoir Dogs came out of nowhere. 

It was noisy, violent, funny, clever, bombastic, and it rubbed a hell of a lot of viewers up the wrong way. 

But it was also a work of sheer, magnetic brilliance, marking the arrival of a new kind of auteur — one who wasn’t so much as knocking on Hollywood’s door, but instead, huffing and puffing and blowing the goddamn house in.

Pulp Fiction at 25: Influence of ‘unfilmable’ film lives on

Looking back, it’s easy to see that Reservoir Dogs was just the warm-up. It established Tarantino, not just as a filmmaker with a voice, but as a storyteller who could create entire worlds from scratch. 

With Pulp Fiction, Tarantino dug deeper. All of which must have scared the hell out of the folks at TriStar. 

It fell, then, to producer Harvey Weinstein — with whom Tarantino would form a lucrative partnership — to cough up the coins.

It’s said that Weinstein — then, the co-chairman of Miramax Pictures — loved the screenplay, agreeing to fund the project for a not-too-shabby $8.5m. The thing is, Pulp Fiction doesn’t look like an $8.5m film.

“I wanted it to look like a $20m–$25m movie,” explained Tarantino. 

“I wanted it to look like an epic. It’s an epic in everything — in invention, in ambition, in length, in scope, in everything except the price tag.”

And then there’s that cast — an unlikely ensemble in which Hollywood has-beens (John Travolta), rising stars (Uma Thurman), acclaimed supporting players (Samuel L Jackson) and bonafide movie stars (Bruce Willis) shared equal billing and equal pay packets (Willis would share a percentage of the box-office receipts too — lucky him).

In September 1993, Tarantino began shooting his demented masterpiece. Eight months later, Weinstein flew the entire cast to Cannes, where Pulp Fiction picked up the prestigious Palme d’Or. 

Pulp Fiction at 25: Influence of ‘unfilmable’ film lives on

The rest, as they say, is history.

We’re talking seven Oscar nominations, including one win, for Best Original Screenplay. We’re talking about career breakthroughs and revivals for each of its major players (Travolta and Jackson, especially). We’re talking about a film that folks just couldn’t stop talking about.

Pulp Fiction changed everything. This brutal, nihilistic, self-referential slice of postmodern, American filmmaking, with its unconventional structure, searing dialogue, infectious surf-rock soundtrack, and stylised violence, shook things up in a way that filmgoers hadn’t yet experienced.

It was produced on a tiny budget, had real movie stars, was marketed as a blockbuster, and grossed €200m at the box office.

These things were unheard of in the world of independent cinema. Pulp Fiction broke boundaries — it started conversations about the implication of violence in movies (a question that Tarantino has always kicked against). 

And, of course, it eventually ushered in a new wave of copycat, cinematic storytellers.

On top of everything else, the main reason Pulp Fiction resonated with audiences is because it’s a cracking film — a riveting, unique, and wonderfully entertaining crime drama that is as fun to watch as it is to talk about.

“One thing that’s cool is that by breaking up the linear structure, when I watch the film with an audience, it does break [the audience’s] alpha state,” explained Tarantino.

It’s like, all of a sudden: ‘I gotta watch this…I gotta pay attention.’ You can almost feel everybody moving in their seats. It’s actually fun to watch an audience in some ways chase after a movie.

It’s easy to dismiss Tarantino — a filmmaker who has, in the 25 years since Pulp Fiction’s release, been chasing his own tail — as a one-trick pony. 

Over the course of seven subsequent pictures, Tarantino has edged dangerously close to becoming a caricature of himself. 

Disregarding the excellent Jackie Brown — Tarantino’s terrific adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch (featuring a never-better Pam Grier) — he has struggled to find a groove that fits.

For my money, Jackie Brown is his best work. It isn’t nearly as flashy or as violent a display as the others, relying more on story and character development than gratuitous bouts of cartoon violence. 

But, if we’re to judge these things by how much money they make, Jackie Brown was one of Tarantino’s least successful films — which might explain why, at the turn of the 21st century, he began to shift his attention towards cynical, cold-blooded, soulless revenge flicks (see Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained). 

The crowds flocked. He made his fortune, but lost his rhythm. The less said about 2015’s The Hateful Eight the better.

Has Tarantino misplaced his genius? Well, he doesn’t make them like he used to. In a 2013 interview with Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy (yes, the one where Tarantino ‘shut Krishnan’s butt down’), he likened his career to that of an experienced athlete.

“I think I’m still in the sweet spot — well, I hope,” said Tarantino.

Pulp Fiction at 25: Influence of ‘unfilmable’ film lives on

“Directors are like boxers, they have their time. Hopefully, I’m on the right side of my time. But, at a certain point, a boxer loses it. 

"It’s all about knowing when to hang up the gloves, or in my case, I guess, the megaphone.”

And, yet, a new Tarantino joint is almost certain to generate buzz. 

His latest, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (an epic depiction of 1960s Tinseltown, through the eyes of a struggling TV actor, who happens to live next door to Sharon Tate), premiered at Cannes in May, to rapturous reviews (it’s released here in August).

It’s Tarantino’s first film without the backing of Harvey Weinstein (the director cut ties in 2017, for obvious reasons), and features, as always, a star-studded cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie, included).

Oh, and he’s still courting controversy — he politely refused to answer a question about Robbie’s screen time at a Cannes press conference recently — a minor media squabble that was unnecessarily blown out of proportion.

Next, he’s talking about making a Star Trek film. And after that? Who knows. Our only hope is that he manages to relocate that magic of yesteryear.

To quote British film critic Mark Kermode, who’s made no secret of his frustrations with Tarantino’s career: “My problem is not that I expect the worst from Quentin. 

"My problem is that I expect the best. Because he’s demonstrated just how good he can be — and when you’ve been that good, there really is no excuse for being as bad as he’s been.”

Yep, that pretty much sums it up.

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