Graeme Tuckett is a contributing writer for Stuff to Watch.
OPINION: There’s an astonishing list of films that are taking a hard look at their 30th birthdays right now.
If we could jump in our trash-powered DeLorean and tour the studios of Hollywood, Pinewood, Broken Hill and Auckland in 1993, we would find that Once Were Warriors, Leon, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, Natural Born Killers, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Speed were all in production, ready for a 1994 release.
But of all the roster of films that were rolling in 1993, one would do the most to change what a blockbuster could look like and sound like. That film was Quentin Tarantino’s audacious trash epic Pulp Fiction.
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In 1993, Tarantino was as hot as any director with only one release to their name could be. His debut, Reservoir Dogs had been a modest financial success. But the word of mouth for the film was immense and Tarantino was hugely sought after.
Tarantino had sold his script for True Romance for US$50,000 to finance Reservoir Dogs. And that film had gone onto cult-smashdom and critical acclaim. Of all the films with Tarantino’s name anywhere on them, True Romance and Jackie Brown are my favourites by miles.
All of which pointed to Tarantino being able to secure a deal and a budget for anything he dropped on the table. And that film was to be Pulp Fiction. Tarantino had hit on the idea of a three-story omnibus years before, while he was still king of the nerds at a Los Angeles video store.
One would be a story about a boxer who refuses to throw a fight. One would be about two hitmen assigned to take a mob boss’s wife out for the night. And the third would be about a jewellery heist going horribly wrong. It was that third idea that became Reservoir Dogs. And now, Tarantino was ready to have another look at the original three-story idea. Which of course meant flying to Amsterdam for three months and then barely leaving his hotel. It’s a long story.
What emerged from the maelstrom was a handwritten epic that was eventually typed up to 159 pages. And then the trouble began.
Although everybody wanted “Tarantino’s next film”, no-one was expecting…this. The film broke all the rules, featured explicit drug use, male rape, astonishing amounts of violence and a technique of weaving three films into an interlinked narrative that scared the studios stupid. Would an audience be able to follow it?
At the time, there wasn’t even a star attached to the project. Harvey Keitel was on board, but he was hardly a household name. And Tarantino was insisting on John Travolta in a lead role. At the time, Travolta was a Hollywood punchline and a terrible warning about the dangers of being in one too many lousy children’s movies.
But, all of that is history. Pulp Fiction went on gross more than US$200m from a budget of under US$9m. It would make stars of Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson, revive John Travolta’s career forever and would – of course – help to create a monster who would go on to become the highest-profile sexual predator in Hollywood for decades.
Pulp Fiction is a moment in the zeitgeist. It is a brash, brattish and unprecedented film that changed everyone who touched it. Love it – or hate it – it’s on Netflix right now.