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

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On Seeing His Writing Come to Life for the First Time  

In the script it said, “Turn on the radio. K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s is playing, and it starts playing ‘Stuck in The Middle With You.’ I actually wrote that in the script. That’s the only music cue that was written in the script. That’s all the music we ever thought we were gonna actually be able to have or even afford. We didn’t know if we couldn’t afford that frankly to tell you the truth, but it worked out. Thank you Pat Lucas from EMI, I appreciate it to this day. She is the one that worked it out for us to get “Stuck in The Middle With You,” and charged us $15,000 for our entire music budget. I had never done a film before and I wasn’t like Sam Raimi or Robert Rodriguez that had all these home movies shot. I had never really done anything.

We had these big Mr. Blonde auditions where we would have actors come in and do the torture scene. I even told the actors that they didn’t have to use “Stuck in The Middle With You,” that they could sue anything they wanted for the audition. Almost everybody did “Stuck in The Middle With You,” but the very first time that an actor brought in a cassette tape player, then hit play, and “Stuck in The Middle With You” started playing and he started doing the scene, that was as close to seeing the movie before we had made it as we ever got.

When I’m saying that, I’m not saying that the guy was magnificent doing the scene or anything, but I had never seen my scenes with a piece of music. It was always in my head before. I’d never heard that song played as a scene. That was the first time I’ve ever experienced this thing that I had in my head played out in front of me. It was like we were watching the movie, and it wasn’t even the guy’s performance, it was just hearing “Stuck in The Middle With You” while he went thorough the motions of doing the scene. It was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing. This looks fantastic. This is going to be so great,” but up until then it was just a figment of my imagination. That was the first time that I’ve actually got a bit of a cause-and-effect of what it was we were gonna do.

Tarantino at the Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute. Photograph by Calvin King

On Tricking the MPAA

I always knew I was going to be using the pan. I just shot the scene of the cut-off ear so I could show it to the MPAA, and so I could take it out later. I knew it would be a little tough to get an “R,” so I threw in all the gory stuff I could in there, just so I could take it out.

On the 1990s as a Mythical Time for American Independent Filmmaking

’92 was considered a watershed year for Sundance, because there was a whole bunch of movies that opened up at Sundance. There was ours, there was In the Soup, The Waterdance, Gregg Araki’s movie The Living End, and Swoon was that year too. Sundance was my first stop and I proceeded to go on the film festival circuit for the whole next year before the movie opened. I went from barely leaving Los Angeles County to going all over the world to the Sao Paulo Film Festival, film festivals in Boston, Italy, this weird festival they used to have in Avignon, France, and Cannes. The thing is though, I spent the whole year going on the film festival circuit and most of that year was actually with a lot of the same movies that opened up Sundance.

There were so many independent movies that got a lot of attention that some of them weren’t even accepted in Sundance that year. That’s kind of how Slamdance came about, because they were saying, “Man, Laws of Gravity couldn’t even get into Sundance in ’92. If we had Laws of Gravity that would have been great.” That was the situation. Me, Neil, Allison Anders, the director Gas Food Lodging and Alex Rockwell, we all got to know each other, we’d see each other on the festival circuit. Strictly Ballroom didn’t play here but was at one festival after another with me all the time. We were going around the world together. It seemed like a real camaraderie. I actually, in my naiveté, thought that me and all these directors would be making movies for the next 25 years.

Not all of them have been able to. Even the ones that had tremendous success weren’t able to keep a 25-year career going. That’s just the way it is. It’s hard to do something like that. It’s not really the deal, actually. You work for as long as you can, and then when it’s over it’s over. It was a very exciting time and it did feel like we were all part of a collective and a movement. Particularly, I felt that when we went to foreign festivals, because every eight years there is a new hot spot in cinema, where something really exciting is going on. Maybe it’s Korea at a certain point, maybe it’s Hong Kong at a certain point, but during that time in the early ’90s, it was American independent cinema. It was the hot cinema of the world. That was what the festivals were looking for. MM

Reservoir Dogs screened on X-date in the From the Collection program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, held in Park City, Utah.

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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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