Tonight: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Therman and Bruce Willis in Quentin Tarantino’s ground breaking Pulp Fiction.
The first part of what became tonight’s film was written by Roger Avary in 1990.
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary intended this to be one part of a trilogy, inspired by the three-part anthology film Black Sabbath made in 1963 by Italian film maker Mario Bava.
The Tarantino-Avary project was originally titled Black Mask, after the seminal, hardboiled crime fiction magazine of the ‘20s and ‘30s.
The initial Tarantino screenplay was produced as Reservoir Dogs, which he directed in what would be his directorial debut.
Avary’s screenplay, titled Pandemonium Reigns, would form the basis for the “Gold Watch” story line of Pulp Fiction.
With Reservoir Dogs completed, Tarantino turned his full attention to the notion of a trilogy film, with characters floating in and out of each story depending on their importance.
The Pulp Fiction screenplay was completed in January, 1993.
Tarantino and his producer, Lawrence Bender, took the script to Jersey Films, the production company run by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher.
Before even seeing Reservoir Dogs, Jersey had attempted to sign Tarantino for his next film.
Ultimately, a development deal worth around a million dollars had been struck. Jersey Films had a distribution and “first look” deal with Columbia Tri-Star, which optioned the property.
But in June, 1993, the studio put the screenplay in turn around.
According to a studio executive, Tri-Star Chief Mike Medavoy found it “too demented.”
There were suggestions that Tri-Star was resistant to backing a film featuring a heroin-user.
But Tri-Star’s objections were more fundamental—concerning the film’s unusual structure.
The studio executive concluded: “This is the worst thing ever written. It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive. It’s too long, violent and unfilmable.
So Bender took the screenplay next to Miramax, the formerly independent studio that had recently been acquired by Disney.
Harvey Weinstein—the co-chairman of Miramax—was intrigued by the script and picked it up.
So Pulp Fiction was the first Miramax property to get a green light after the Disney acquisition, with a budget set at $8.5 million.
The film went into production on September 20 and wrapped on November 30, 1993.
John Travolta played the part of Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction only because Michael Madsen—who appeared as “Vic Vega” in Reservoir Dogs—chose to appear in Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp instead.
Madsen was still rueing his decision a decade later.
Harvey Weinstein wanted Daniel Day-Lewis for the Vega role.
Travolta accepted a bargain rate for his services—sources claim either $100,000 or $140,000—but the film’s success resurrected his career.
Tarantino actually wrote the Samuel L. Jackson role with him in mind, but he almost blew it in the audition, being overshadowed by Paul Calderon.
Jackson had treated the first audition as little more than a reading.
Harvey Weinstein convinced Jackson to audition a second time and he nailed it.
Miramax favored Holly Hunter or Meg Ryan as the female lead, but Tarantino wanted Uma Thurman.
She dominated most of the film’s promotional material and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but took little advantage of her newfound fame, choosing to do no big-budget films for the next three years after this one.
Thurman would later star in Tarantino’s two Kill Bill movies.
Bruce Willis was still a major star, but he had been a box-office disappointment in recent films. He took the role in Pulp Fiction for little money, but reaped the benefits of new respect as an actor and several million dollars in his profit participation when the picture proved a box office hit. In conceiving the character, Tarantino said, “I wanted him to be like Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955). I wanted him to be a bully and a jerk.”
Willis wanted the Travolta role, but settled for the lesser part.
Harvey Keitel’s role was written for him. He had starred in Reservoir Dogs and was instrumental in getting the picture produced.
Tarantino said, “Harvey had been my favorite actor since I was 16 years old.”
Pulp Fiction began shooting on September 20 and wrapped on November 30, 1993.
The film premiered in May, 1994 at the Cannes Film Festival and caused a sensation. It earned the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize.
The first review in the U.S., in Variety, called Pulp Fiction “…a spectacularly entertaining piece of pop culture…a startling, massive success.”
It opened the New York Film Festival in late September.
The N.Y. Times proclaimed: “Tarantino has come up with a work of such depth, wit and blazing originality that it places him in the front ranks of American film makers.”
The picture went into general release in the U.S. on October 14, 1994.
The response of major American reviewers was enthusiastic.
Roger Ebert wrote, in the Chicago Sun-Times: “Pulp Fiction is so well written in a scruffy, fanzine way that you want to rub noses in it—the noses of those zombie writers who take ‘screenwriting’ classes that teach them the formulas for ‘hit films.’”
Time magazine announced: “It towers over the year’s other movies as majestically and menacingly as a gang lord at pre-school.
“It dares Hollywood films to be this smart about going this far. If good directors accept Tarantino’s implicit challenge, the movie theater could again be a place to live in.”
“You get intoxicated by it,” said Entertainment Weekly. “High on the rediscovery of how pleasurable a movie can be. We’re not sure we’ve ever encountered a film maker who combined discipline and control with sheer wild-ass joy the way Tarantino does.”
Pulp Fiction earned seven Academy Award nominations.
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Travolta), Best Supporting Actor (Jackson), Best Supporting Actress (Thurman), Best Screenplay and Best Film Editing.
Tarantino and Avary took home Oscars for the Best Original Screenplay.
The film that cost $8.5 million earned $108 million in the U.S. and $213 million worldwide.
A blockbuster that influenced the very nature of moviemaking.
So now–from 1994—
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.