10 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Pulp Fiction’

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Over the weekend, the wonderful folks at the Tallgrass Film Festival (the annual Wichita, Kansas fest that we’ve previously described as one of the best under-the-radar film fests in the country) were kind enough to fly in your film editor for their excellent weekend of movies, interactivity, and Midwestern hospitality. I was there for a 35mm screening of Pulp Fiction, tied to the release of my book Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece . They also brought in Ronnie Yeskel, Pulp’s casting director, and Karyn Rachtman, the film’s music supervisor, for a post-movie Q&A which I had the pleasure of moderating. In the course of that discussion, I learned a few new things about the movie (which turned 19 last week), and confirmed a few of the more interesting rumors about its production.

Tarantino had been waiting to use “You Never Can Tell” in a movie for a long, long time.

“I was very close with Quentin’s mother for a while,” Rachtman said, and she came to the set on the day they were shooting the Jack Rabbit Slim’s Twist Contest. When she heard Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” she interrogated Rachtman: “‘Why did Quentin choose this song?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ She said, ‘I used to listen to this song all the time when I was pregnant with him.’”

Tarantino’s musical tastes are even more obscure than you might think.

“Before I got the script,” Rachtman explained, “Quentin was writing it, and said, ‘I just want you to know, I’ve been writing, and I’ve been writing to these songs, and I want you to see which of these songs you can get.’ And he gave me a list of these handwritten songs, and I could not find one of them. Because he made up titles for songs, and he spelled so bad — he could not spell.” Figuring out which songs were which, by deciphering Tarantino’s fake names and clues, became “detective work” for the music supervisor, “and then finally going through his apartment and going through his record collection… and I got the script after that, just so he knew he could have the songs he was writing to.”

The cast could have been very different.

“It was so different from Reservoir Dogs,” explained Yeskel, who also worked as casting director on that film. “Everybody wanted to get in on this. We were invited to go into the top talent agencies, which were CAA, William Morris, Endeavor, ICM, UTA, and we would go in for what they called a ‘pitch meeting.’ And what that meant was, they would pitch their top clients. So we would go into these meetings, which was just so different from Dogs because nobody called me on Dogs! But on Pulp Fiction, we’d go in and even if they weren’t right, they were pitching Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman and Bruce, Bruce Willis — just the biggest names in the business that you could imagine. And we’re sitting there in these rooms with all these suits, and they all look alike, and we’re like kids in a candy store. We couldn’t believe they were pitching these people to us.”

Samuel L. Jackson almost lost the role of Jules.

Tarantino wrote the role of Jules for Jackson, who had auditioned (but wasn’t cast) in Reservoir Dogs, but, according to Yeskel, “Sam Jackson came in to read it and he sucked. He thought he had the role, so he didn’t put any effort into reading it. And he didn’t get the role. And we sent to Quentin to New York, and he read a lot of actors in New York, including the bartender [‘My name’s Paul, and this shit’s between ya’al’], Paul Calderón. And I thought he was brilliant. And it turned out that Sam wanted to come back in and read. So one Sunday we flew Paul out, we brought Sam back in — we were over at Sony studios — and we read. They both read, and they both were equally great. And they gave it to Sam.”

John Travolta’s big comeback almost didn’t happen.

“John wasn’t supposed to do this movie, it was Michael Madsen who had the role,” Yeskel told me — which means Madsen would have perhaps been playing his own brother (Vincent Vega shares the surname of Madsen’s Reservoir Dogs character). “And then Michael wasn’t available [he did Wyatt Earp instead], and so he asked John Travolta to do it.” Miramax head Harvey Weinstein wasn’t wild about that bit of casting though — he pushed hard for Daniel Day-Lewis to play the role.

The role of Mia was in very high demand.

“Meg Ryan came in,” Yeskel remembered, which would have made for quite a different take on the role. “I remember Isabella Rossellini came in, and oh, she was fantastic. She had this light around her. I wanted to run up to her after she read and just say, ‘Will you be my friend?’ She was just so lovely. So a lot of women came in, but then he chose Uma.” Initially, he hadn’t even considered her for the role; it was only after her agent went around the filmmaker and set the meeting up through Tarantino’s manager that he saw her for the part.

Matt Dillon was offered the role of Butch.

Before Tarantino met Bruce Willis (at a barbeque at Harvey Keitel’s — like ya do) he had offered the role to Matt Dillon, then hot again after the success of Drugstore Cowboy. Dillon asked for some time to think on it; Tarantino met Willis while Dillon was considering the role, and ended up going with him. “I’m sure Matt Dillon has lost many things because he takes forever to read,” Yeskel shrugged, and noted that Willis (and his people) wanted to be in Pulp Fiction so badly that he got another film to change its shooting dates so he could be in the film.

Marcellus Wallace was almost raped to “My Sharona.”

When it came time to score the notorious pawn-shop basement scene, Tarantino’s first choice wasn’t “Comanche,” the ominous song by the Revels that made the final cut. He’d had his eye on the Knack’s “My Sharona” (he thought it had a good sodomy beat), but he lost the song to another Jersey Films production that Rachtman was music supervisor for, which came out earlier that year. “I chose ‘My Sharona’ for Reality Bites, and I think Quentin decided he did not want ‘My Sharona’ because it was in Reality Bites… He was probably pissed, because he was thinking of it, and they used it another film.”

“Flowers on the Wall” was a very late addition to the soundtrack.

When Butch drives away from retrieving his gold watch and killing Vincent, there wasn’t originally a song on the radio. “And he’s like, ‘What do you think should go here,’ like on the set that day,” Rachtman recalled. “And because it’s a visual vocal — meaning that he sings it on camera, we can’t just switch it out with another song. We’re gonna have to pay for it if we wanna keep that scene.” Put on the spot, Rachtman suggested either the Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall” or Faron Young’s “Hello Walls.” Tarantino chose “Flowers,” Rachtman hurried off to secure it, and soon enough, Bruce Willis was smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo.

The mystery Malibu key-er, unveiled!

This one didn’t come up at the Q&A — it’s just something I learned while researching the book that’s pretty interesting. In the movie, Vincent despairs to drug dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz) that some “dickless piece of shit” keyed his car, but we never find out who did the deed. The screenplay, which contains (as most do) scenes that didn’t make the final cut, suggests an answer: it describes Vincent arriving in his Malibu at the strip club for his meeting with Marsellus, and parking it right next to Butch and Fabienne’s Honda — raising the possibility that the car was keyed by Butch (with whom Vincent would have just had the “you ain’t my friend, palooka” confrontation).

Thanks again to Ronnie Yeskel and Karyn Rachtman for talking with me, and to Tallgrass for making it happen.