An Oral History of ‘Pulp Fiction’

Mark Seal continues the golden age of oral history for Vanity Fair with an oral history of the making of ‘Pulp Fiction‘. All the expected people are featured, including Tarantino, Thurman, Jackson, Travolta, Willis, Harvey Weinstein, and others, including Marvin!

“Like a lot of guys who had never made films before, I was always trying to figure out how to scam my way into a feature,” Tarantino tells me. Though he was indisputably king of all movie knowledge at Video Archives, the suburban-L.A. store where he worked, in Hollywood he was a nobody. Surrounded by videos, which he watched incessantly, he hit upon an idea for recycling three of the oldest bromides in the book: “The ones you’ve seen a zillion times—the boxer who’s supposed to throw a fight and doesn’t, the Mob guy who’s supposed to take the boss’s wife out for the evening, the two hit men who come and kill these guys.” It would be “an omnibus thing,” a collection of three caper films, similar to stories by such writers as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines. “That is why I called it Pulp Fiction,” says Tarantino.

He planned to share the writing with his fellow clerk Roger Avary and another friend. Tarantino would write the first story, about the guy who takes out the crime boss’s wife. Avary’s sectioncentered on the over-the-hill boxer, who double-crosses a crime boss and then ends up rescuing him as he’s being anally raped by a hillbilly in a pawnshop.

When the third writer didn’t materialize, Tarantino had to write that story, too. Working in his mother’s house for three and a half weeks, he says, he heard a set of bizarre criminal characters speaking to him. Soon he abandoned his original idea and wrote instead a violent script about a gang of thieves and a bungled diamond heist. According to one source, he named it after Louis Malle’s 1987 film, Au Revoir les Enfants, which Tarantino playfully mispronounced as “reservoir dogs.” Scrawled across hundreds of pages, the script was unpunctuated, absolutely illegible, and undeniably great. Pulp Fiction would have to wait. Tarantino was determined to directReservoir Dogs then and there.

‘Pulp Fiction’ made Tarantino a household name, is easily the most important movie of the last 20 years, revived Travolta’s career, and is a movie I once had memorized from start to finish. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s probably approaching 100 times at this point.

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