WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Quentin Tarantino decamped to Amsterdam in March 1992, using the city as a European base for his promotion duties on Reservoir Dogs. Holed up in a flat without a telephone, he hung out in hash bars by night and gorged on obscure French gangster films by day. Not surprisingly, the latter bled into the screenplay he’d been paid a cool $1 million by Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films to produce. “The plan was to write a crime anthology,” the large-chinned helmer remembers. “But when I sat down, I saw there was much more gold there. It would be neat to have three separate stories, but have the same characters floating in and out.”
Brutal, funny and with a wonderfully skewed narrative, the resulting script was indeed “neat”. As he did in Dogs, Tarantino humanised fundamentally unlikeable characters with frothy, smart-mouthed dialogue on everything from TV programmes to hamburgers. Rearranging the chronology meant a supporting character from one tale could become the hero of the next, and a guy you’d seen riddled with bullets previously could return from the grave without so much as a scratch on him. “I read it straight through, which normally I don’t do,” remembers Samuel L Jackson. “Then I took a breath and I read it again, which I never do. Just to make sure it was true. It was the best script I’d ever read.” “When I read it, I was laughing my head off,” adds DeVito. “I thought, ‘Either this is brilliant, or I’m the sickest man you ever met in your life!’”
It wasn’t long before the word got out. Bruce Willis altered the production schedules of two other movies to secure his part as Butch, the wily slugger whose plan to rip off gang boss Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) takes what can only be described as a peculiar turn. Uma Thurman reportedly won the role of gang moll Mia Wallace on the basis of her feet – pretty crucial given the role a foot massage plays in the story – while Dogs veteran Harvey Keitel happily returned to play ‘The Wolf’, whom Tarantino had conceived with him in mind. Only Michael Madsen was immune to the director’s blandishments, turning down the role of Vincent Vega (the brother of his ear-amputating nutter in Dogs) in favour of one in Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp.
After Madsen passed, Tarantino briefly considered Daniel Day-Lewis for Vega before offering him to one of his favourite actors. Not everyone was convinced. “You can get anyone in the world,” said producer Lawrence Bender. “Why do you want John Travolta?”
Bender wasn’t the only one asking the question. The faded star of Grease and Saturday Night Fever was colder than Siberia, reduced to playing second fiddle to a talking baby (voiced, coincidentally, by Willis) in the Look Who’s Talking series. “John has a lot of baggage,” admits Tarantino. “But I cast him because he’s a terrific actor, not some trash icon.” To say the role saved his career is an understatement. Dominating the screen with a louche, winning performance that slyly nodded to his own iconography, most notably in the delicious dance-off at Jack Rabbit Slim’s that found him twisting his booty to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’, Travolta made the biggest comeback since Lazarus and scooped an Oscar nomination for his trouble. “Quentin will always be my guardian angel,” says the actor.
Made for just $8 million, Pulp Fiction premiered at Cannes in May 1994, where it snaffled the Palme d’Or out from under the nose of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s swansong Three Colours Red. (The announcement was met with outraged boos; Tarantino responded by flipping the finger at his detractors.) Raking in over $100 million in the US alone, the film went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards; in the event it won just one, a Best Screenplay gong the director had to grudgingly share with Roger Avary. (Jackson’s reaction to losing out to Martin Landau in the Supporting Actor category – a clearly visible “Shit!” – has since entered Oscar folklore.)
No matter though: by the end of the year, Pulp had become an international phenomenon, its influence felt in music and advertising, television and literature. Its true legacy, though, is in the movies that it made possible. Would Bryan Singer, Danny Boyle and PT Anderson have careers now had Tarantino not laid the groundwork for their deeply personal style of cutting-edge filmmaking?
Okay, so Pulp also spawned a less-welcome deluge of jive-talking imitators, not to mention kick-starting Quentin’s mercifully brief acting career. The proof of its success, however, lies in the fact that, 12 years after his intricately woven saga of scumbags, junkies and unlikely heroes, it’s still as fresh and staggeringly original as the day it first roared on to the big screen. The reasons are legion, from the pitch-perfect cast and the pumping soundtrack to the brilliant, intricate narrative. In the end, though, it all comes down to the dialogue: smart, funky and endlessly, magnificently quotable: “Bring out the gimp”; “Zed’s dead”; “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass”; “Cold shit to say to a motherfucker before I pop a cap in his ass”; “I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger...” (giving Ezekiel the kind of pop-culture notoriety usually reserved for The Beatles).
“I don’t want my films to be disposable,” said Tarantino just after his flick’s UK release. “I hope they last for hundreds of years. That’s the thing that’s great about film. I can make one and all the critics say, ‘It sucks!’ But if you’ve made a good film and nobody got it at the time it came out, history will be the ultimate test and you’ll get recognised. Five years, 10 years, 25 years from now, it will find its audience if it’s good.” No such worries for Pulp Fiction, which we confidently predict will still be finding an audience long after its creator has gone the way of Vincent Vega.