Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was such a game-changer for independent film, with such a rabid fan base and so much writing about its production and impact (PLUG PLUG PLUG), you might assume there would be no new stories left to tell at last night’s Tribeca Film Festival retrospective event, which followed a 25th anniversary screening with a discussion featuring Tarantino and stars Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen. But you would be wrong.
For example: the almost-casting of Samuel L. Jackson has become part of Reservoir Dogs’ legend (and Pulp Fiction’s). But he wasn’t the only actor of note who didn’t make the cut. “Tom Waits came in and read!” Tarantino recalled. “I had Tom Waits read the Madonna speech, just so I could hear Tom Waits say that speech. And he gave me, other than Harvey, one of the first like, profound compliments on the script. He was like – “ and he switched to a pretty damned decent invocation of Waits’s signature gravel voice – “’Ahhh, script’s great. It’s poetry!’ No one had ever called my work poetic before. By a poet no less! That felt pretty good.”
And there’s the quickie casting trip to New York, which star and co-producer Keitel financed himself, since his broke director (and his producer Lawrence Bender) couldn’t afford to fly out to read New York actors. That story is known; your correspondent hadn’t heard about the trip out. “We had one weekend,” Taranino explained, “and Harvey paid for me and Lawrence to fly to New York. Harvey was in first class, we were in coach.”
“Baggage was full,” Keitel chimed in.
“We actually met in the middle to have a drink or kind of a talk with Harvey in the middle of the flight. And Harvey goes, ‘Yeah, y’know, I guess in a perfect world, there’d be no such thing as first class. But uh, since there is, I’m gonna fly in it!'”
Tarantino and his cast also chatted about the film’s main talking point, from its Sundance premiere forward: Madsen’s torturing-the-cop scene. “There was all this talk, the next day and the next two days, about the torture scene. It became this big, big thing,” Tarantino said. “And Steve came to me and said, ‘Quentin, have you heard what everyone’s saying? They’re saying the torture scene ruins the movie!’ And I go, ‘What are you talkin’ about, it’s the best thing in the fuckin’ movie! You see how many people walked out? That’s the shit!”
In fact, those walk-outs became a bit of a sport for Tarantino, as he spent the year after Sundance “going around planet earth on the film festival circuit with the movie.” And when he hit the road, “I started counting the walkouts during the torture scene. Thirty-three was the largest walkout. But I thought at the Sitges horror film festival – and they’d shown Peter Jackson’s first movie, Dead Alive, which was just drowning in zombie blood and guts – I thought, ‘Finally I’ve got an audience that won’t walk out.’ And I even joked about that in the introduction to the movie. Five people walk out of that audience – including Wes Craven. The fucking guy who did Last House on the Left walked out?!”
For his part, Madsen recalls hesitation about the scene – but not because of its (mostly implied) violence. “In the script, it said, ‘Mr. Blonde maniacally dances around,’” Madsen laughed. “I remember specifically that’s what it said. And I kept thinking, What the fuck does that mean? Like Mick Jagger, or…”
The film itself, after a quarter century, holds up: the dialogue still crackles, the frantic, run-and-gun action beats still sing, and the screenplay innovations still dazzle (let us praise the Russian nesting doll quality of “the commode story,” a fictional story inside a flashback inside a flashback). If some of it is more noticeably #problematic these days, it’s also worth noting how much of the film is an indictment of bristling masculinity, focusing as it does on the tenuous toughness of its subjects, who growl things like “You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize” and “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?” and would sooner shoot each other than give an inch.
Those little touches are what separates Reservoir Dogs from so many of the generic action movies of its era (and the scores of rip-offs that came in its wake). “I didn’t want Reservoir Dogs to be a straight-to-video genre movie,” he explained. “I wanted it to play at the Laemmle’s and all the art houses. I wanted it to be a genre-based art film like Blood Simple.”
Part of that, he said, was achieved by casting art-house mainstays like Buscemi and Roth alongside tough guys Keitel and Madsen. For Roth, it was nothing less than a transformative experience. “The thing is, those films, you kind of put them in your back pocket and carry on through life,” he said wistfully. “So what happened with me, with this film – and why it was both enjoyable and nerve-racking watching it tonight – was it actually was a complete shift in my life. We did seven weeks with rehearsals, for me that was my commitment. And then you step back, and then you pray that it’s gonna be as good as this. It just completely turned my life on its head.”
Tarantino had a similarly memorable experience – before a foot of film was shot. “One of my favorite memories of it didn’t involve the making of the movie,” he said. “We had finished rehearsal. Harvey decided to have a cast dinner at his house in Malibu. And I was living in Glendale, with my mom, at the time. So if you’re from California, you know you can just take Sunset Boulevard all the way down to Malibu, it’s a long drive but it’s a cool drive. So I’m at Harvey’s place, and we’re all sitting around, and we really like each other now – we’ve had our rehearsal. We’re sitting there, and we’re having a great time, and I really realized that gosh, a lot of the pressure was off my shoulders cinematically; these guys were so perfect in their parts, they were so vibing with each other, they so understood the material. And I was like, fuck, if I can just keep this movie in focus, I’ve got a movie. Anything else I bring to it will just be frosting, but the cake is here, it’s these guys. I remember that night, getting in my car and just taking that drive all the way from Malibu to Glendale, never getting off Sunset, all the little winding roads.
“That was the happiest moment of life. This thing that I had thought about for so long – not just Reservoir Dogs, just making movies in general – it was like… This might just work out.”
The Tribeca Film Festival ends Sunday. “Reservoir Dogs” is currently streaming on Netflix. It will play New York’s Film Forum, in a new 35mm print, from May 19 through June 1. Photos credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire