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Mia Wallace
Mia Wallace in "Pulp Fiction"

The dA-Zed guide to Quentin Tarantino

Think you know everything about the fast-talking firebrand? Bet you didn’t know all this…

More than 20 years after the release of his debut film Reservoir DogsQuentin Tarantino remains one of American cinema’s most distinctive and influential voices. With the release of his next feature The Hateful Eight fast approaching – either his eighth or ninth film, depending on how you're counting – we've created a guide to the life and movies of the ostentatious, fast-talking director.


The key element that unites Tarantino’s movies isn’t any of his stylistic idiosyncrasies or his exuberant filmmaking techniques but the way he seizes the transgressive narrative potential of accidents. Demonstrating little interest in the idea of a hero’s journey, and divorced from the need to sustain a straight line of character development, he’s happy to construct a film as a procession of sequences. Accordingly, his characters are surrendered to the consequences of bizarre chance: life or death can depend on holding three fingers up the wrong way, a bump in the road while pointing a gun, a misplaced shoe, or the inopportune popping of a toaster.


Tarantino’s earliest act of cinematic appropriation came with the naming of A Band Apart, the production company he founded with Lawrence Bender in 1991. Much like when he would later take Reservoir Dogs’ title from a mangling of the Louis Malle film Au revoir les enfants, the company's name was adapted from Jean-Luc Godard’s French new wave film, Bande à part. Godard's film would be raided by the director again a few years later, when its famed “Madison dance” scene would provide the inspiration for John Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing the twist in Pulp Fiction


In addition to his magpie tendency to craft films from rock and roll, surf music, bits of old movies, soul and half-remembered television programmes, Tarantino is an advocate for world cinema that might otherwise struggle to find an audience. In 1994, he created Rolling Thunder, a distribution company dedicated to foreign and independent films. Unfortunately, Rolling Thunder lasted only a few years before it folded, but in that time they secured the American release of films including Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express and Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine.


A deadly former assassin seeks murderous revenge against the group that betrayed her. Her first task: admin. In a typically sly touch, Kill Bill's The Bride uses a notepad to produce a tidy list of her five targets, as if she might somehow forget. The director's penchant for numbered groupings is one of his most reliable tics: Kill Bill also features the the “Crazy 88” Yakuza gang, while Mia Wallace’s failed TV pilot in Pulp Fiction concerns the “Fox Force Five”. The cousin of his fondness for character nicknames, this predilection has since grown to encompass an entire film: The Hateful Eight. It’s better than the foot fetish, at least.


 “Let me tell you what Like a Virgin's about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song, it’s a metaphor for big dicks.” Given his talent for self-promotion – surely the equal of his filmmaking abilities – it’s fitting that the very first voice heard in a Quentin Tarantino film is the man himself. As Mr Brown in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino delivers an attention-grabbing, instantly notorious monologue on the meaning behind the Madonna song. After seeing the film in 1992, the singer asked to meet with the director. He unsurprisingly couldn’t resist asking if his theory was correct. Signing his copy of the Erotica album, she gave her answer: “To Quentin. It’s not about dick, it’s about love. Madonna.”


If you think the idea of a cereal cafe is taking things a bit far, spare a thought for those dark days of the 1990s: from Seinfeld to non-linear crime anthologies, the decade was wall-to-wall breakfast cereal references. With his glimpses of the 70s era Fruit Brute in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino was no exception. The philosophy behind its inclusion, at least, was decent: a noted opponent of product placement, the director peppers his films with fake brands like Red Apple cigarettes and Big Kahuna burgers. Fruit Brute’s frosted fruit taste and lime-flavoured marshmallows made the cut because the product was discontinued in 1982.


Years before Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino made his screen debut as one of several Elvis impersonators on an episode of The Golden Girls. “I was the best of the bunch,” he’s claimed since, with admirably perverse pride. “The others were all the Vegas Elvis. I was the Sun Records Elvis, the hillbilly cat.” While his priority was filmmaking, performing was clearly always a competing interest: it’s notable that although he never went to film school, he did take acting classes. Early in his career there was a period where it seemed liked Tarantino might actually try to pursue acting seriously, but since his significant (self-written) part in From Dusk till Dawn his on-screen appearances have been mostly limited to small roles in his own movies and occasional cameos. These days it’s more likely for him to yell at Kermit in a Muppet TV movie than to co-star with George Clooney.


Beating Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG by several years, Tarantino adapted beloved author Roald Dahl’s work for the cinema way back in 1995. The results, however, were less than successful. An anthology comedy based around a bellhop played by Tim Roth, Four Rooms was a collaboration between Tarantino and fellow independent filmmakers Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell. His directed segment was “The Man from Hollywood”, an adaptation of a Dahl short story boasting an uncredited turn from Bruce Willis. Coming a year after Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms was considered a significant disappointment, but ultimately it's as patchy as any other portmanteau film.


“You don’t need technology for poetry,” Tarantino replied in a recent interview when asked if he still writes by hand. During the process of pulling together his screenplay for Pulp Fiction, the filmmaker enlisted the help of Linda Chen, a friend who happened to be a typist. She later described the process: “His handwriting is atrocious. He’s a functional illiterate. I was averaging about 9,000 grammatical errors per page. After I would correct them, he would try to put back the errors, because he liked them.” Tarantino's enjoyment of poor spelling would reach its culmination years later when he decided to give his long-gestating WWII epic the spellcheck-baiting title of Inglourious Basterds.


Of all of the ghostly alternate renditions of existing films, perhaps the most tantalising is the version of Casino Royale that Tarantino wanted to write and direct after finishing Kill Bill: a period black-and-white thriller starring Pierce Brosnan and adapted closely from Ian Fleming's original novel. While the eventual Martin Campbell-directed Casino Royale became the creative apogee of the Bond series, the thought of what would have been remains alluring. “That wouldn’t have been just throwing my hat in the franchise ring,” Tarantino said recently, “that would have been subversion on a massive level, if I could have subverted Bond.”


When asked what was the best film that had been made since joining the film industry, Tarantino had the answer ready to hand: Battle Royale (2000), Kinji Fukasaku’s savage and provocative drama about a class of Japanese high school students forced to wage war on one another. “If there’s any movie that’s been made since I’ve been making movies that I wish I had made, it’s that one.” Of course, Tarantino said this in 2009, so there's a chance that Battle Royale has since been usurped by Philomena. Or maybe not.


The eclectic, often baffling choices that Tarantino includes in his annual best-of-year lists demonstrate that figuring out what movies you appreciate is a complicated business: his 2013 cohort included thoughtful gems like Frances Ha and Afternoon Delight alongside head-scratchers like Kick-Ass 2 and This Is the End. Given that he’s explicitly built a career out of having unconventional, out-there tastes, it seems strange to express judgement when he articulates some of them. Inevitably, your personal mileage for Tarantino’s work will vary also: if you once found him overrated, perhaps you now find him underrated, or maybe you think Jackie Brown is less ambitious but more rewarding, or that Death Proof is his most subversive, daring, meaningful film. If there’s any lesson to be found in the career of Quentin Tarantino, it’s that it’s okay to like what you like.


In a medium as collaborative as cinema, it’s understandable that there aren’t a substantial number of filmmakers who are both the director and sole writer of everything they make. Tarantino remains a notable exception: give or take the occasional Robert Rodriguez team-up, he’s employed the credit “Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino” for his entire career. The director discussed this stance in a recent interview: “Right away, I presented myself as not a director for hire. I’m not going to sit at home and read these scripts you send me. I’m going to write my own.” This desire for total control wasn’t immediately apparent to studios after the breakthrough success of Reservoir Dogs, however: among the projects offered to him were the soon-to-be-massive-hits Men in Black and Speed. Sticking to his guns, Tarantino turned them all down for a project of his own. It was called Pulp Fiction.


The lingering cinema-set scenes of Inglourious Basterds and True Romance provide evidence where none was needed that the cinephilia that defines Tarantino’s work covers movie theatres as well as the films they screen. After nearly three decades of frequenting the New Beverly in Los Angeles, including several years of keeping the family-run cinema afloat with monthly donations, Tarantino bought the venue outright after it was threatened with closure. Describing the cinema as being his charity, his role as landlord mostly involves letting the family get on with things, occasional programming suggestions and being evangelical: “As long as I’m alive, and as long as I’m rich, the New Beverly will be there, showing double features in 35mm.”


The Open Road is an enigmatic document that’s possibly the basis for much of Tarantino's early work. As it has never been read and the two key men involved in its creation have said different things about it at different times, it’s hard to ascertain its contents definitively. The general consensus is that Tarantino’s friend and video store colleague Roger Avary wrote an unfinished screenplay called The Open Road, which Tarantino then took on and expanded to mammoth proportions, before giving up and cannibalising parts of the story for his screenplays True Romance and Natural Born Killers. Elements may have also made their way into Pulp Fiction and Avary’s directorial debut Killing Zoe. Or perhaps they didn’t. Unless someone can persuade Tarantino to dig out several hundred pages of illegible notebook pages we remain in the dark, which is probably for the best.


Pam Grier is fantastic in Jackie Brown and it's shameful that she hasn't been cast in more things since. That’s all for P.


Considering the heady collision of influences that makes up every scene he’s ever written, it seems entirely appropriate that Tarantino’s name would also be culturally entangled. His mother Connie named him after two starkly different things at once: the blacksmith Quint Asper portrayed by Burt Reynolds in the TV western Gunsmoke, and two characters (Quentin Compson and his niece Miss Quentin) from William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury. It would be quite possible for someone reading far too much into the subject to view this mix of cultural sources as revealing.


Tarantino’s preoccupation with revenge narratives has borne unexpected fruit in the second part of his career, as his films have pursued bloody vengeance on behalf of historically oppressed groups. His main tool for this objective is his muse and primary subject: cinema. Even in his films which are less explicitly about its power to overcome oppress – lest we forget, Inglourious Basterds is about an alliance of film projectionists, critics and actors who destroy Hitler in a movie theatre – he employs apostatised genres and pop culture sampling to achieve the same ends. As The Bride in Kill Bill drives her car against a rear projection, she addresses the audience: “When I woke up, I went on what the movie advertisements referred to as a roaring rampage of revenge. I roared and I rampaged and I got bloody satisfaction.” Her words could have been uttered by the protagonists of every film that Tarantino has made since.


Tarantino’s most important colleague was not one of his regular actors, nor a producer or cinematographer, but his long-time editor Sally Menke. Described by the filmmaker as his “only truly genuine collaborator,” Menke’s contribution to his first seven features can’t be overstated: she was as crucial to Tarantino as Thema Schoonmaker is to Scorsese or Michael Kahn is to Spielberg. Their fond working relationship could be witnessed in the “Hello Sally” reels of Tarantino’s later films, where cast and crew members were sweetly encouraged by the director to share greetings in an attempt to make her smile. Tragically, Menke died in 2010 of heat-related causes while walking with her dog. While editing Django Unchained, the first film made after her death, Tarantino put a sign up on his Avid editing equipment: WWSD?


For the first half of his career at least, there’s a strong possibility that any major narrative event in a Tarantino movie will take place in a restaurant, car or bathroom. In the case of Pulp Fiction, it’s the latter that is the most interesting. While rapid internet conversation dwells needlessly on the mysterious contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase (spoiler: it’s a light bulb), a far more potent question is why violent misfortune befalls Vincent Vega any time he enters a toilet. Without fail, he returns from each visit to find calamity: a robbery in progress, his boss’ wife overdosing on heroin, a boxer with a hunger for pop tarts and access to a machine pistol. What’s that about?


Tarantino stands among his peers as one of the final remaining holdouts against digital filmmaking. He fervently defends not just the idea of shooting movies on celluloid but projecting them that way as well: “By losing film projection we’ve already ceded too much ground to the barbarians,” he declared at the first screening of footage from The Hateful Eight. In his latest attempt to bolster celluloid, he’s announced that The Hateful Eight will only be shown in “glorious 70mm” for the opening fortnight of its American theatrical release. In addition, it is also the first film in almost 50 years to be shot in the super wide Ultra Panavision format, shot with the same camera lenses that were used on Ben-Hur. For those blessed few who get unreasonably excited by aspect ratios, this is rather exciting news.


Before his filmmaking career took off, Tarantino’s longest, most significant job was at Video Archives, a video rental shop in a strip mall in Manhattan Beach. Customers from that era describe him as brimming with enthusiasm to share the weird and wonderful films he loved. It’s rare for a director to be defined by the job they had before they started making movies, but at his core, Tarantino is still that video shop clerk, trying to turn on the world to his tastes. Describing Video Archives as his college experience, he now looks back gratefully, but after half a decade he’d become stifled: “22 is about the time when you should be working in a video store. Five years later is when I started feeling like a loser.” It was time to make a leap.


Films speeding towards production lose actors all the time, but the newsification of pop culture and the high-profile nature of the average Tarantino film means that his casting problems regularly make headlines. Scheduling problems stopped Adam Sandler and Simon Pegg from appearing in Inglourious Basterds and Sacha Baron Cohen, Jonah Hill and Joseph Gordon-Levit from appearing in Django Unchained (Hill made a cameo as “Bag Head #2”), while on the less logistical front creative issues meant Warren Beatty stepped away from the titular role in Kill Bill and Will Smith pulled out of playing the lead in Django Unchained, making the valid point that for some reason the role was smaller than Christoph Waltz’s Dr Schultz.


Tarantino’s side career as television director was over before it could really begin. Two years after helming a well-received episode of ER, he was barred by the Directors Guild of America from directing an instalment of The X-Files about a man being controlled by his possessive Jodie Foster-voiced tattoo. He wouldn’t return to the medium for a decade, when he devised the story for and directed a two-part episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Picking one of his previous ideas out of a (Kangol?) hat, the episode concerns a member of the cast being buried alive.


In the foreign country that is the past – specifically, the 1997 bit of the past – boy band North & South formed when its members replied to an advert on Teletext. Like a proto-S Club 7, the group was created specifically to star in their own CBBC sitcom, No Sweat. After the minor hit of their debut single, “I'm A Man Not A Boy”, they ran into trouble with their follow-up “Tarantino's New Star,” which peaked at number 18 and promptly sank without trace. Through some dastardly fluke, the song somehow managed to simultaneously steal the tunes of both “Video Killed the Radio Star” and Yazoo’s “Only You.” 17 years later, it's still impossible to figure out what exactly the lyrics have to do with the cinema of Quentin Tarantino. Weirdly, no interviewer has ever asked the film-maker for his opinion on the ill-conceived tribute.


Unlike Pulp Fiction, this guide isn’t presented out of order. If it was then by rights these words would appear somewhere around the letter Q: out of the seven sequences that make up Pulp Fiction's narrative, the final one chronologically – “The Gold Watch” – shows up two thirds of the way into the movie. Jules, Winston Wolfe and a no-longer-dead Vincent Vega rumble on for another 38 minutes or so, but the audience has already seen the ending: Butch has had the single weirdest day of his life, somehow made it out alive, stolen a chopper from a sociopath called Zed and is ready to ride away with his girlfriend Fabienne. “Who's Zed?”, she asks. “Zed's dead baby, Zed's dead.”