What We Learned While Revisiting ‘Reservoir Dogs’ with Quentin Tarantino

On the final weekend of the Sundance Film Festival Quentin Tarantino discussed his debut film. Here’s what we learned.

On the final Friday of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, those who remained in Park City while most had left were in for a treat. To celebrate the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Quentin Tarantino would be present to introduce and discuss his debut feature Reservoir Dogs. As Tarantino first took the stage, the room went wild. One thousand, two hundred, and twenty attendees were treated to seeing one of the most widely revered directors in the flesh. After Tarantino asked those who had not seen the film to raise their hands, it became clear that about one thousand seated in the room were fans of the film, keen to revisit it in its original format on the big screen. The lights went down, and the newly struck 35mm print slid through the projector. The print looked a little soft and there was a surprising amount of dirt on this newly produced piece of celluloid being screened for the first time. Yet, when the first ‘cigarette burn’ flashed at the top right corner of the screen, the audience cheered in delight. In a flash, the one-hour-and-forty-minute long film was over. It was glorious. The film holds up beautifully after twenty-five years, and I can not think of a more rewarding cinematic experience than seeing it projected on a massive screen with a packed house. As the credits reached an end, Tarantino returned to the stage ready to reflect on one of the most celebrated films of the 1990s. Here’s what we learned:

It was just as thrilling for Tarantino to watch as it was for the audience.

“I’m definitely at peace with who I was twenty-five years ago. I can’t believe I made a movie that short. It’s like all of a sudden I’m watching the movie and next thing I know it’s the fucking torture scene. Shit, that’s like forty-five minutes. I was actually panicked for a second when I was watching the 360 around the table cause I saw this big antenna thing and I go, ‘Was there a fucking walkie left on the god damn breakfast table!? Then I realized it was Nice Guy Eddie’s brick phone.’ Like ‘It’s a fucking walkie on the fucking table!’ But there wasn’t. But there’s an ugly fan behind Mr. Blue, which I never noticed before. What the fuck is that ugly fan doing there?”

Making a heist film seemed like the perfect debut choice for a young Quentin Tarantino.

“When you’re a filmmaker and you want to make a film, part of the thing you want to do is you want to make a movie. I think most people’s first movie that they ever do is less a movie unto itself and more just ‐ they need to make a movie. That’s the reason they do everything. The reason I kind of fell onto this story, was look, I liked crime films, I liked stuff like that. I remember I used to work at a video store and there we would have this one little book shelf right by the counter and we would change it every week or so. We would highlight something that week, whether it would be a director’s work ‐ like if a director died we’d put a bunch of his movies there or if an actor died we’d put a bunch of their movies there ‐ or people didn’t even have to die. We’d pick different genres from time to time. Part of my job was to come up with different genres. All of a sudden, one day I thought of heist films. So I went through the store and picked out all the heist films that we had. Topkapi was there, The Killing wasn’t out on video at that time, but Rififi was. Rififi was there, Treasure of the Four Crowns was there; things like that. I put all these heist films there and I remember looking at the different boxes right next to each other. I remember going, “Ah, a heist story. That’s kind of cool!” We’re talking about like ’88 or ’89 or something. I thought, “Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in a long time. That’s a really cool genre!” I always knew that one, I liked working in genre, but I liked working in subgenre. Like a genre inside of a genre. I though heist films was [sic] a really cool Idea. If you want to do a Western or something, especially for your first film, saying you want to do one of the greatest Westerns ever made, well, that’s kind of a tall order. Saying you’re going to make one of the greatest gangster movies ever made for your first film, well that’s kind of a tall order. But, you know, a heist film…if I do a good one, conceivably it could be in the top six or something. If they do a book on heist films, they might include us in it, and have our picture in it and talk about us a little bit. So that was kind of where it came. Then I came up with the idea of Mr. Blonde and Mr. Orange and all that kind of shit and I thought that was a really neat idea and sounded kind of neo-noir a little bit, that kind of existential tough guy kind of thing and then the rest, as they say, is history.”

Tarantino with producer Lawrence Bender and Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde) before the screening.

Tarantino learned a lot about his characters when a producer gave him the advice to search for the subtext.

“Just writing down the obvious opened up different avenues, different thoughts, and so you think you’re writing one line and you write three, or four, and all of a sudden I started realizing, ‘Oh wow, this is kind of a father-son story.’ “Isn’t it interesting that throughout the whole piece Mr. White keeps telling Mr. Orange ‘Wait for Joe, wait for Joe and when Joe gets here he’s going to take care of everything.” Well when Joe gets there he’s come to kill Mr. Orange. And the whole interesting thing at the end, which I hadn’t thought about frankly, which is that Mr. White is kind of almost a de facto son character for Joe, and Mr. Orange has become a de facto son character for Mr. White. At the end, Mr. White has to choose between his father and his son and he chooses his son but he’s wrong, but he’s wrong for all the right reasons. All that kind of started coming to me. So I finished it and I go, ‘Oh wow, that was a really interesting exercise…I never want to do this ever again.’

Harvey Keitel has a great philosophy on flying first class.

“So Harvey’s flying in first class and we’re flying in coach, and we meet in the kitchen to talk for a second. So Harvey goes, “Sorry, this is my dime. This is like a thousand dollars so I’m not going to pay for that. You know, in a perfect world there would be no first class. But since there is, I’m gonna fly in it.”

Tarantino originally shot an extended scene of the ear cutting scene, but just to screw with the MPAA.

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

Working with Lawrence Tierney (Joe) was a nightmare.

“The worst moment on set was the last ten minutes of the last day of the first week we were shooting. Me and Larry got into a fist fight. It was more of a shoving match frankly. Harvey Keitel and Lawrence [Bender] broke it up. I fired Larry in front of everybody, the crew applauded because they’d hated him. Harvey told us to settle down and then he ran out and then Larry ran out. I took a walk around the trucks. I’d done nothing but shoot Lawrence Tierney all week long, so if I wanted to get fired, I’m going to get fired because they’re going to keep Larry. We have a week’s worth of footage. But I wasn’t going to put up with his shit. So I’m literally walking around the trailers thinking, “Well okay, you wanted to know how it’s going to end well it’s going to end this way. I guess it was nice while it lasted but I guess you’re not going to put up with shit, you’re going to go back to the video store but you’re not going to put up with shit. Aren’t you the smart guy?”

Tarantino tried to pay tribute to gangster films from around the globe.

“I was really really into gangster films. Not just American gangster films, and not just Scorsese gangster films, which is what most people thought of as gangster films back then. But I was a fan of the Jean-Pierre Melville movies, I was a fan of Hong Kong stuff, of the Yakuza films and the Fernando Di Leo Italian Mafia movies. I was a fan of all those. Well the thing that was actually really interesting was that I’m taking bits from all of them, not so much tangible bits, but just kind of like the feeling. There was this aspect of the gangsters being almost like French, like they could almost be in a Jean-Pierre Melville film. Also just the idea that if it had been a French film, it wouldn’t seem that different; it would be pretty much the same movie. If it had been done in Hong Kong, it would pretty much have been the same thing. If it had been done in Japan with Takakura Ken playing the Mr. White role, it wouldn’t have been that different. Oddly enough, all of those different countries responded to it in that way. The people in Hong Kong thought about it like they would a Hong Kong film. The people in Japan thought about it like a Japanese Yakuza film, they thought it was a tribute to Yakuza films. I ended up meeting all the great Yakuza directors when I went to Tokyo. The French loved what they saw as the Jean-Pierre Melville references.”