"Trial By Fire:" 25 Years Later, Quentin Tarantino Looks Back on How Reservoir Dogs Tested Him at Sundance

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A fervent audience crowded the Eccles Theater to witness one of American Independent cinema’s most widely acclaimed enfant terribles return to the festival that served as his launching pad for an enviable career in moviemaking.

A quarter of a century after Reservoir Dogs set a new standard for originality and reinvention, Quentin Tarantino looked back at the film’s inextricable relationship with the Sundance Institute and the crucial moment in film history he was a part of due to his debut’s overwhelmingly positive reception. Producer Lawrence Bender and actor Michael Madsen, who played the now iconic role of Mr. Blonde, shared the stage with the movie buff turned master director.

Casual and eager to engage his legion of fans, Tarantino dished out on the experience of being part of the Sundance Labs; being confronted with screenwriting techniques that were not part of his toolbox; his not-so-unlikely goal of making one of the best heist films ever back then; and realizing his most recent works surpass his first feature in runtime ambitions.  The film was screened from a new 4K 35mm print created by Miramax for the Sundance Collection at UCLA.

On Watching His Debut Feature 25 Years Later

I’m definitely at peace with who I was 25 years ago, but I can’t believe I made a movie that short. It’s like all of a sudden I’m watching the movie and next thing I know there is the fucking torture scene. It’s like, “Shit! That’s 45 minutes what’s going on here.” I was actually panicked for a second when I was watching the 360 around the table because I saw this big antenna sticking out and I go, “Was there a fucking walkie left on the goddamn breakfast table?” And then I realized it was Nice Guy Eddie’s brick phone. It’s like, “There is a fucking walkie on the fucking table!,” but there wasn’t. There is an ugly fan behind Mr. Blue, which I never noticed before, what the fuck is that ugly fan doing there?

Producer Lawrence Bender, Michael Madsen and Quentin Tarantino at the Reservoir Dogs screening at Sundance 2017. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute. Photograph by Azikiwe Aboagye

On What Drew Him to Do A Heist Film as a First-Time Moviemaker

When you are a filmmaker and you haven’t made a film, part of the thing you want to do is you want to make a movie. I think most people’s first movie that they ever do is less a movie onto itself and more just [that] they need to make a movie. That’s the reason they do everything, is to make a movie. But the reason I kind of fell onto this story was that I liked crime films, I liked stuff like that.

I remember I used to work at a video store and we would have this one little bookshelf right by the counter that was special and we would change it every week or so. We would highlight something that week, it would be either a director’s work, and like if a director died we’d put a bunch of their movies there, or if an actor died we would a bunch of their movies there. People didn’t even have to die, if we just like a director we would put his movies there, or an actor. We’d picked different genres from time to time, part of my job was to come up with different genres, and all of a sudden one day I thought of ‘heist films,’ I thought, “Oh that’ll be a neat idea.”

I went through the store and picked up all the heist films that we had, so Topkapi was there. The Killing wasn’t on video at time, but Rififi was, so Rififi was there. Treasure of the Four Crowns was there, things like that. I put all these heist films there, and I remember just kind of looking at the different boxes right next to each other, and I go, “Huh, a heist story, that’s kind of cool.” We are talking about 1988 or ’89: “Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in a long time. That’s a really cool genre.” I always knew that I liked working in genre, but I liked working in sub-genre, like a genre inside of a genre. I thought a heist film was a really cool idea.

You know, let’s say you want to do a Western, specially for your film, saying you are gonna do one of the greatest Westerns ever made, well that’s kind of a tall order. If you are saying you are making on of the greatest gangster movies ever made for your first movie, well that’s kind of a tall order. But, you know, heist film; if I do a good one conceivably it can be in the top six or something. If they do a book heist films they might include us in it, and have our picture in it and talk about us a little bit. That was kind of where it came. Then I came up with the idea of Mr. Blonde, Mr. Orange, and all that kind of shit, and I thought that was a really neat idea, that sounded king of neo-noir a little bit, that existential tough guy kind of thing. Then the rest, as they say, is history.

On Being Part of the Sundance Labs

The lab was amazing. With the possible exception of Lawrence, one of the great things about the lab is that it was the first time that anyone had ever taken me seriously when it came to what it is I wanted to do. Lawrence read my scripts, he read True Romance, he read Natural Born Killers and he read this one, but no one else had ever really taken me seriously before. I don’t know if I would have taken myself seriously, but at the Sundance Lab they did. I couldn’t believe how altruistic it was. There were a whole bunch of us there and a lot of other people working and their point was to help us, and not even to have a finished film, but just to help us get better at what we were trying to do, help us refine our aesthetic, help us achieve what we wanted to achieve. That was one of the things they always said: “We want you to get out of this what you want to get out of this.” That’s what they said. That’s not always what they practiced, alright? But that’s what they said.

One of the things that ended up happening, and it ended up being a bit of a trial by fire, is that a bunch of famous resource people would show up, and they’d be there for a week and they’d look at your work and they’d comment on it, and then another group would come in. I’d never shot anything before and I liked the idea of long takes, so I wanted to experiment with doing a series of long takes and so that’s what I did. They didn’t like it all. They thought I was shooting long takes because I didn’t understand that you were supposed to have cuts, like I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing at all. I remember Anne Coates, who was the editor of Lawrence of Arabia, was actually one of these people, and she said, “Quentin, I like your shots, there just weren’t enough of them,” then I’m like, “Well, you know Godard,” and she was like, “Yeah, yeah, we all like Godard, but no.” One guy in particular, a cinematographer, said, “I like your script, this scene horrifies and terrifies me. And the thing that’s the scariest is you are gonna make this movie, and if you do this, they will fire you!” I was already scared about being fired because people like me don’t get movies, but you get fired from movies.

They were pretty tough on me. I got out of that meeting, and it’s Sundance, so I took a walk in the woods all by myself and thought about it all. They were really rough, and I was like, ‘Well, they said some interesting things but I like my scene and they told me to experiment, and this was an experiment. It wasn’t a finished scene, it was an experiment, and so I liked it even if they didn’t. I’m going to look at it again, but I liked it even if they didn’t.’ Jon Amiel who did The Singing Detective deliberately said to me, ‘So Quentin, have you done your subtext work,’ and I go, ‘What’s that?’ Then he goes, ‘Ah! See, you think you know everything because you wrote it, but you don’t everything.’ I was far from a professional writer so I didn’t know what he was talking about, this is during that rough that, they are talking to me about this, that, and the other, and he goes, ‘Subtext work is when you write down what is the subtext going on inside of the given scene,’ and I said, ‘Oh, actually that sounds kind of fun. That sounds interesting.’

After I got through my walk in the woods I got back to my cabin, I took a piece of paper, and I picked one scene. I picked the scene where Mr. White brings Mr. Orange into the warehouse, and basically I wrote down, “OK, what does Mr. White want from this scene and what does Mr. Orange want from this scene, and what do I want the audience to take away from this scene?” Now, that sounds very basic: “What does Mr. Orange want?” Well, he is dying and wants to be taken to a hospital, but just even writing down the obvious opened up different avenues and different thoughts, and so you think you are writing one line and you write three and four, and all of a sudden you are writing other things. All of a sudden I started realizing, “Oh wow, this is kind of a father-son story. Isn’t it interesting that throughout the whole piece, Mr. White keeps telling Mr. Orange, “Wait for Joe, wait for Joe, when Joe gets here he is gonna take care of everything'”? When Joe gets there, he comes there to kill Mr. Orange. The interesting thing at the end is that Mr. White is a de facto son character for Joe, and Mr. Orange is a de facto son character for Mr. White, and at the end Mr. White has to choose between his father and his son. He chooses his son, but he’s wrong, but he’s wrong for all the right reasons. All that started to come to me. I finished it and I go, “Wow that was a really interesting exercise, I never wanna do this ever again.”

The reason I say is that is because I didn’t need to know all that. I didn’t need to know it was a father-son story as I started the piece. The idea is that the tree is big, the tree is strong, the tree has roots, and they go underneath the ground. I need to know that there are roots down there, but I don’t need to know what those roots are before I do the piece. I need to just deal with the reality of the drama: what brings them in the room, what keeps them in the room, what stops them from leaving the room. That’s what I need to deal with. Now, when the movie is all over, now I can go and dig into the roots and see what it is I actually did. That’s fun, cool and creative, but that’s not really for the stage. The roots were there. I proved that the roots were there, so I didn’t have to look for them anymore.

On the Fear of Getting Fired from His Dream Movie

When we got the green light to do this movie this was literally my dream coming true, and I kept waiting to wake up. I thought me getting fired would be the wakeup. [When] talking to Lawrence about it and showing my anxiety, he goes, “Quentin, they want you to do a good movie. They don’t want to fire you. We are past that stage. They want you to knock it out of the park.” Just as I’m starting to calm down, another friend of ours gets his dream movie going, and he gets fired in a week and a half. It was absolutely horrible. Just as Lawrence finally got me to calm down seeing the sense in the fact that they don’t just want to get rid off me.

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1 Comment

  1. Francisco Ibarra

    February 6, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Fascinating stuff! Always interesting to see Tarantino talk about his origins and this seems especially honest. It also seems like the Sundance Labs was his personal film school. Really goes to show how many different ways you can get your foot into the door of the industry.

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