Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits a film this column has already covered but with a different track… this time we’re listening to Quentin Tarantino talk True Romance.
True Romance is arguably a top five Quentin Tarantino movie and one of only three films he wrote but didn’t direct. It’s recently been remastered and released in 4K UltraHD with old supplements ported over. A rewatch reveals it to be a film that holds up remarkably well with a cast that still manages to impress, and the commentary tracks are equally worth enjoying. Nine years ago we gave a listen to director Tony Scott’s commentary track, but today we’re revisiting it with the writer.
Keep reading to see what I heard on Tarantino’s commentary for True Romance!
True Romance (1993)
Commentator: Quentin Tarantino (writer)
1. This “was the first script I ever wrote,” he says before clarifying that he wrote several others before this, “but I never finished any of them.” He never made it past page thirty with the others, but this was the first time he found himself fully enamored with his story and characters. “I had a story to tell, and I wasn’t just trying to a screenplay in order to make a movie.”
2. He mentions another script called The Open Road — his “great American novel” — that at least in handwritten form, numbered over five-hundred pages. It was reportedly split in some fashion to become both True Romance and Natural Born Killers, but he makes no mention of that here.
3. The opening dialogue where Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) says he’d fuck Elvis was lifted from a monologue in Tarantino’s short “My Best Friend’s Birthday” (1987).
4. His aim with this script was to get it made along the lines of how the Coen Brothers produced Blood Simple (1984) — by finding financing from doctors and dentists. He spent five years trying to go that route to no avail. “If you had met me during those five years, just know that I would have sold you this script for a bargain basement price just to prove to myself that I was a writer.”
5. The Street Fighter (1974) was the first film to receive an X-rating for violence in the U.S.
6. While people dig his writer’s “voice” now, he recalls being told early on that he “was doing it wrong” when it came to the proper way to write a script.
7. The questions that Clarence asks Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette) in the diner are essentially taken from the Playboy centerfold questionnaires.
8. The diner sequence originally included a second half with Alabama telling a story about having amnesia and no memory of who she is or where she’s been. He doesn’t blame director Tony Scott for ignoring it.
9. Tarantino’s dream casting while writing the script was Robert Carradine as Clarence and Joan Cusack as Alabama.
10. He refers to the script/film as “autobiographical” numerous times while adding that he never had a girlfriend and was never chased around by thugs looking for their stolen drugs. “It’s like watching some weird home movies of my former self.”
11. The film is pretty much a direct adaptation of Tarantino’s script aside from the ending change and some structural shifts. Like some of his own directorial efforts, the script originally followed a non-linear structure.
12. A scene from A Better Tomorrow II (1987) is in the film, but the script originally specified Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976).
13. It wasn’t specified in the script that Elvis (Val Kilmer) would never really be seen all that clearly, and he was worried that the actor would be upset by Scott’s choice. He heard later that Kilmer loved it.
14. They also were unsure they could get the rights to use Elvis’ likeness from Lisa Marie Presley, so they just referred to him as Mentor in the credits. Years later, Tarantino got to watch the film sitting next to Lisa Marie, “but I think she liked it.”
15. When he finally sold the script — for $33,000 — it was originally going to be directed by Bill Lustig (Maniac Cop, 1988), but “he wasn’t ready to take this leap.”
16. A small “exploitation” studio called CineTel Films hired Tarantino to do dialogue touch-ups on scripts they were producing — “they were actually page one rewrites” — and the head of development introduced him to Scott. They hit it off, and he let Scott read his new script for Reservoir Dogs which the director immediately wanted to make. Tarantino said no as he was hoping to direct it himself, so he offered Scott the scripts for both True Romance and Natural Born Killers instead.
17. He is a huge fan of Scott’s Revenge (1990) which is the correct response to that film.
18. Tarantino adds notes in his script signifying music cues, and Scott ignored all but one of them — Burl Ives’ “A Little Bitty Tear.”
19. He didn’t visit the set at all as his opinion is that writers shouldn’t be unless they commit in a big way and remain there every day.
20. “I think the case can be made that this scene is too good,” he says regarding the infamous “Sicilian scene.” He’s not a fan of Christopher Walken‘s “you’re a cantaloupe” improvisation, but this scene is the first time he stops talking to simply enjoy the brilliance of Scott, Walken, and Dennis Hopper. He recommends Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1964) for people interested in the whole history of Moors/Sicilians.
21. Brad Pitt‘s Floyd is Tarantino’s take on all the roommates he had to suffer through before finding success. Floyd’s the closest thing he’s written to a mere sketch of a character, and he credits Pitt with taking that nothing on the page and making it so memorable.
22. Tarantino wants to make it clear that the elements he includes in his films are never meant to be taken ironically. Violence, pop culture references, dialogue beats — “I mean it.”
23. The scene where Virgil (James Gandolfini) beats the tar out of Alabama was heavily trimmed by the MPAA, and Tarantino recalls how they were less concerned with her being beaten than they were with her fighting back. “She’s too animalistic,” they complained.
24. True Romance is Tarantino’s mom’s favorite film of his.
25. One of the things he doesn’t like about the film is the unrealistic aspect of the framed posters on Dick (Michael Rapaport) and Floyd’s walls. These two are far too broke to afford so much framing, and he thinks they feel like movie choices that don’t fit the characters.
26. The Coming Home in a Body Bag 2 “dailies” playing in the producer’s hotel suite is helicopter footage from Platoon (1986).
27. Tarantino was a true film lover in the 80s and grew to despise the Academy for being too stuffy, but his opinion changed in the 90s. Coincidentally, Pulp Fiction (1994) was nominated for two Oscars and won one for his script.
28. He wants to make it clear that he didn’t ripoff “Mexican standoffs” from John Woo and other Hong Kong filmmakers. This script was finished in 1987 — he’s sure of the date because after completing it he went to see Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance which opened in September 1987 — and by that time he hadn’t seen any Hong Kong films aside from the old-school martial arts movies. “Mexican standoffs are as much mine as they are anybody else’s.”
29. “Now, the closest thing I ever came to a Mexican standoff was about the end. He wanted to change the ending, and I remember coming to him, very impassioned, and saying ‘Tony, don’t change the ending! Not for commercial bullshit reasons! You’re the man that made Revenge, and I love Revenge so much, and she dies in the end of Revenge, and it’s what makes the movie so romantic.’ Tony was able to combat me very passionately on his own points and said ‘Quentin, I am not doing it to make it a Hollywood movie. I am not doing it to try and turn it into something it’s not. I want to do it. It’s not for commercial reasons. I want to do it because I love these two kids, and I want to see them get away.’ I wanted to be tough, but I don’t know what it is about Tony Scott but I am a complete pussycat in his hands, and he could probably talk me into doing anything. Now I gotta say, I think Tony’s ending is better for the movie Tony made.”
30. He credits Scott with doing what a director should with the adaptation and make it their own. Clarence dying in the script makes sense to Tarantino, but Scott’s film is far more successful as a fairy tale of sorts meaning Clarence needed to live. “If I had made the movie he would have died. It would have been the same script but it would have been different. And in mine I think it would have worked. But in his, no, in his I think he was right.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“When you try to make a movie, I don’t know if you’ll have anything worth showing for it, but you’ll know how to make a movie.”
“I’m all over my scripts.”
“When you finish a piece of work, you should almost be embarrassed by it a little bit, because you are just revealing yourself.”
“I’m incredibly moved by my perception of myself.”
“It was important that Clarence be a minimum-wage kid.”
“Now it’s okay to say you like Tony Scott, but in the early 90s people used to put him down.”
“Scripts you write are like girlfriends. There’s the girls you marry and the girls you don’t.”
“This is the most single autobiographical scene I’ve ever written, not that any of this happened or anything.”
“Obviously, I love Mexican standoffs.”
“Half the reason I wanted to be famous was so I could say my opinions people would appreciate them.”
“I’m a big fan of Bruce Lee.”
“I believe great artists don’t do homages, they steal. Neophytes do homages.”
It’s a damn shame that Tarantino doesn’t do more commentary tracks as they’re both highly entertaining and filled with interesting details. True Romance remains a fantastic film, and he’s right that it’s more of a Scott movie than a Tarantino one. Fans should make time to rewatch with both commentary tracks — there’s even another with Slater and Arquette — and if you haven’t picked it up yet the new 4K UltraHD release from Arrow Video is just perfection.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.