This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we discuss True Romance.
Before Quentin Tarantino was a hotshot Hollywood maverick, he was a cinephile and a video store clerk who dreamed of making his own motion pictures someday. To make this dream a reality, he tried to sell scripts in order to raise cash and boost his own profile in the process. But the movie business is a tough nut to crack, and for a long time, he struggled to get his foot in the door.
The budding filmmaker’s luck changed in the early ’90s, however, when he found himself on the set of The Last Boy Scout and managed to convince director Tony Scott to read two screenplays which he wrote — Reservoir Dogs and True Romance. The deal was that if Scott wanted to direct one of them, he could. As it turned out, though, Scott just so happened to love both scripts and struggled to pick just one. After failing to convince Tarantino to part ways with two of his babies, Scott chose True Romance. The rest is history.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, True Romance follows Clarence (Christian Slater), a reclusive comic book store employee who’s obsessed with Elvis Presley and kung fu movies, and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a call girl who gets paid by Clarence’s boss to show him a good time on his birthday night. Later, after the pair get it on after a Sonny Chiba movie marathon, Alabama tearfully tells Clarence the truth about her profession and confesses her love to him. Her feelings are reciprocated, and the pair get married.
Unfortunately, there’s the matter of Alabama’s white Rastafarian pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman), to deal with. They won’t ever be free unless he releases her from their arrangement. So, after receiving some advice from an apparition of Elvis himself, Clarence kills Drexl and takes off with bags full of cocaine which he assumes are his wife’s clothes and belongings. Upon discovering the drugs, later on, the pair head for Los Angeles to sell the narcotics and make enough money to live the good life. All they have to do is survive against cops, gangsters, and bigwig Hollywood directors along the way.
Like most Tarantino stories, True Romance is heavily indebted to the movies that inspired him. This one was his ode to lovers-on-the-lam movies. Terrence Malick’s Badlands was especially influential, all the way down to the “You’re So Cool” theme by Hans Zimmer recreating Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer.” And in a way, True Romance feels like its spiritual successor given their undeniable similarities.
Still, True Romance is so much more than a loving homage to crime yarns about lovers on the run. This movie remains Tarantino’s most autobiographical to date, and because of this, there’s a sentimental sheen to proceedings that works in the film’s favor.
Clarence was Tarantino’s fictional stand-in, and the film’s central idea of nobodies going to L.A. in pursuit of a better tomorrow is something he could relate to when he wrote the screenplay. Sure, Tarantino probably didn’t get tangled up with mobsters when he was a mere mortal video store clerk, but he understood that if he wanted to see his dream become a reality, making it in L.A. was the key to success.
Clarence and Alabama are also the most heartfelt characters Tarantino has ever written. That said, if he directed the movie himself, he wouldn’t have shown the duo the same warmth and affection that Scott did. Except for the relationship between Pam Grier and Robert Forster’s characters in Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s films don’t tend to include elements that are primarily designed to tug at our heartstrings.
Scott, meanwhile, was a more commercially-minded filmmaker who wasn’t above accentuating True Romance‘s unabashedly romantic potential. While the film contains more than its fair share of brutally harrowing moments, for the most part, it’s a colorful, upbeat affair that retains an optimistic energy throughout. He makes Clarence and Alabama fight for their happy ending, and when it arrives, it’s a satisfying conclusion to their arduous journey. Under the supervision of Tarantino, though, True Romance would have been a much different movie.
Despite remaining reasonably loyal to the original script, Scott wasn’t a big fan of its non-linear storytelling approach or its bleak ending. If Tarantino had his way, Clarence would have died. He wanted to make the audience root for true love then take it away. Fortunately, Scott decided to make the narrative more straightforward and end things on a happier note. As he told Maxim, “I just fell in love with these two characters and didn’t want to see them die. I wanted them together.”
Scott’s love for the characters was understandable. Clarence and Alabama are so likable and easy to root for. Who doesn’t love seeing underdogs fall in love and take on the big, bad world together? Killing either of them would have been to the film’s detriment — even Tarantino has acknowledged that Scott’s changes to the script were better.
Of course, love tends to be more convincing when it’s the real thing. Much like their characters in the movie, Slater and Arquette instantly fell head over heels for each other on set. “It was love at first sight,” Slater recalled. “But working with Patricia was tricky because I was in a relationship. We both made attempts to be professional, but at that age it was difficult.” This factor, along with the undeniable talent of both performers, is what makes their characters so compelling.
All of these elements combined make True Romance a heartwarming love story that can be enjoyed time and time again. Tarantino’s vision was too warped for characters this special, and thanks to Scott being a big softy at heart, Clarence and Alabama will live happily ever after in our hearts and imaginations.