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Enfant Tarantino

Hollywood’s hottest whizz-kid proves decisively that there’s more to him than mere pulp fiction…

Although I’ve met Quentin Tarantino during three different phases of his career, one thing never changes – Quentin Tarantino. He’s always an unstoppable chatterbox, adorably geeky, and he has an annoying habit of punctuating every sentence with “All right, all right?”

At a luncheon on the French Riviera four years ago, Joe Public meandered past our table without batting an eyelid at Quentin. Even though Reservoir Dogs had attracted a cult following, it’s writer/director was still anonymous. Less than a year later we met at a screening in London (where he presented his favourite movie of all time – a rather bizarre Frankenstein piece). Quentin had to be smuggled in and out of the cinema to avoid being ripped to shreds by thousands of screaming fans. Other movie-makers such as Steven Spielberg might be as famous, but it’s unprecedented for a director to be treated by fans in the same way that they hound mega movie stars.

Today when I meet with the 33-year-old director at the Dorchester Hotel in London, the public’s perception has shifted yet again. He’s no longer a demigod who can do no wrong. He’s made some dodgy acting appearances in the past few years and participated in the flop collaboration Four Rooms. A question mark now hangs over his head: was Tarantino just a two-hit wonder?

The answer, quite simply, is no. Tarantino can still deliver the goods. Check out his latest offering – the crime caper Jackie Brown, based on the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch. As we’ve come to expect he’s rounded up yet another cool hip squad – Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Pam Grier, Bridget Fonda and Robert Forster.

Although Tarantino might be the coolest film-maker of his generation, the man himself is the unhippest dude you’ll ever meet. He’s kind of odd looking, with a goofy smile underlined by a pointy chin. He’s a little shorter than you’d expect, and his upper thighs are thicker than baobab trees. Other than that – and having the mind of a genius – he’s quite normal, really.

His thoughts cruise faster than a Porsche at full throttle, and occasionally collide as recklessly as dodgem cars at a fairground – leaving him spluttering and stuttering as he struggles to decide which sentence to complete first. He then talks even faster to express every simple idea and you worry that he might just spin out of control, like Clarke Kent in a phone book.

But then he’d transform into Superman, and to many of his fans – Tarantino is just that. He’s their superhero who pioneered a brave new form of movie-making, ingeniously constructing films in a way which effortlessly weaves characters and plot lines together.

“I call it novelist-esque,” he explains. “I write movies like other people write books.”

He’s also a rather prolific writer, having also penned From Dusk Till Dawn, Natural Born Killers and True Romance. He loved what director Tony Scott did with the latter but hated what Oliver Stone did to Killers and insisted that his name be taken off the screenplay credits. And late last year he was arrested for punching a Killers producer who’d publicly badmouthed him. Charges were later dropped.

To Tarantino’s contenders he’s a villain, the culprit responsible for the fresh wave of violent films. He scoffs at the accusations.

“I don’t feel I have any moral responsibility because in real life I have very strong anti-violence views. Violence is a very moral, sad and tragic issue in real life. However, in the movies it can be a lot of fun. The movies are the movies. In real life a shark attacking people is tragedy. It’s horrible. But I go to see Jaws and I love seeing those shark attacks. It’s very exciting. But hey, I’m in favor of shark attacks, all right?”

He’s just as quick to bow out of accepting any praise for being the revolutionary leader than others have copied.

“I was a distinct voice that came out, but a lot of films came out that shared that similar voice, all right? And I don’t think a lot of them were conscious attempts to write like me. It just so happens their scriptwriters share a similar voice to mine.

“I believe artistically like-minded people tend to come up at the same time. There’s something about creativity that it’s in the air, if that makes any sense. Like with the expressionist painters – a whole bunch of painters didn’t sit around and say, ‘Hey, let’s start painting expressionist stuff today.’ It was just in the air. So I don’t think it’s fair to say people copy me. Basically you’re in a tough spot if you share the same voice as mine and you’re trying to make gangster movies.”

With a little more coaxing, Tarantino concedes that some writers might have been influenced by his style but insists “it’s not thievery.” John Cusack’s Grosse Point Blank springs to mind.

“It’s like he didn’t steal anything from me, but I think at one point when they were writing the script, they said to each other, ‘OK, let’s do a movie about Mr Blond'” – from Reservoir Dogs – “‘going to his high school reunion.’

“Some people have pointed out to me that even average movies such as Bad Boys with Will Smith have copied me by having scenes with gangsters talking about TV shows and pop culture things. But I’m not saying I’m the first guy to do that. Elmore Leonard did it all the time in his novels and that was a key influence for me.

“I have double-edged feelings now about those talking scenes because already people say that’s all I do. Too much is made out of that. You know I did the rewrite on Crimson Tide with a couple of other writers and most of the dialogue used was all mine, yet the critics would review it and say: ‘Quentin wrote the Star Treck reference.’ And I was like: ‘Oh man, all my writing has just been reduced to that.'”

He laughs, swigs at a glass of water and then readdresses the issue of whether his films pioneered the way for other violent movies.

“Well, Seven and Pulp Fiction couldn’t be more different, but you could make a case that Reservoir Dogs and Pulp blazed a trail that allowed Seven to be accepted. Seven wasn’t as shocking as it might have been if it had come out in a vacuum. But that is not me taking any credit for Seven whatsoever,” he insists.

“The craziest thing is that now I’ve made Jackie Brown the critics are saying, ‘How odd – a Quentin Tarantino film without violence.’ I’m like: ‘What? Three people are shot!’ And the only thing these critics talked about when Reservoir Dogs came out was the violence when there was even less in that. It’s very funny.

Quentin Tarantino and Pam Grier
Tarantino and his Jackie Brown star Pam Grier on set.

“But I think one of the reasons why Reservoir Dogs was considered as violent as it was, was because violence was almost like another character in the room. So although you saw only a few moments of it, there was a tension throughout the film knowing that any moment it could break out. On second viewing of the film, people are shocked at how little violence there is and see how funny the film actually is. I’m very proud of that movie. I love that movie!”

This time around, with Jackie Brown, Quentin’s getting misunderstood by more than just a few white folk for his choice of music during seduction scenes – black funk music from the ’70s.

“I never realized it before but whites expect violins during romantic scenes, so they hear like Natural High and they think I’m trying to make a love scene funny! Meanwhile anyone who grew up around black American music, as I did, know how much these tracks mean. Natural High takes you back, bam, like that,” he grins, clicking his fingers as seductively as Tarantino can. “People made babies to that song and so those of us who loved that music – we immediately identify it as romantic.”

He clicks his fingers again and breaks out into a horrendous rendition of Natural High, providing that he’d be a pauper if he had to sing for his supper… which fortunately he doesn’t. In fact, Tarantino could fling his director’s cap into the San Antonio wind and never work another day. But, like all great achievers, he’s driven to accomplish more in his career.

“Yeah, because of Pulp Fiction I don’t financially have to make more movies,” he agrees. Pulp made a cool $213-million. “However, there are four things I want to do in my life: I want to live a good and happy life; I want to write; I want to direct; I want to act.” He laughs at himself. “Now I live a good life when I’m working, but part of that good life is not having to work the whole time. That’s what poor people do! OK, that’s what I did when I didn’t have a dime. I always had to work so I could pay my rent. So I worked all the damn time when I was young. Now I want to enjoy a higher quality of life.”

When he worked as a rental clerk in a Californian video store, he never dreamed that one day he’d become as famous as the stars he now directs. It’s an honor that comes with its requisite pitfalls. No sooner had Quentin become a celebrity than his long-lost dad (who ran off before he was born) reared his ugly head. Quentin declined an invitation to meet him. Success has also detrimentally affected his everyday life.

“Part of this human being wants to walk around and be n my own head from time to time. That’s how I solve problems. I take a walk and I’m just thinking, being on my own psychoanalyst. And then I don’t really want to stop and shake your hand or have a picture taken. Hang on, that’s wrong. I don’t mind shaking hands and everyone’s positive. It’s just I’m not going out to meet people – I need to walk and think. And it’s also tiresome when you go out with your girlfriend and you’re trying to have a romantic time and you don’t want to deal with anything else.”

Surprisingly, Tarantino gets recognized far more frequently than his Oscar-winning girlfriend Mira Sorvino (who, incidentally, has gone on record as saying they “have a fantastic sex life”). Quentin gently touches his silver identity bracelet, engraved with the letter “Q&M” and explains, “Mira’s not recognized simply because she’s a chameleon. She changes her hair color and looks like someone completely different. That’s one of her gifts as an actor.”

It’s a quality Tarantino strives for in his acting. “And it will happen in time,” he promises earnestly. He seems oblivious to the fact that his acting is ridiculed, although after performing in all his previous films he features only as the voice of Jackie’s answering machine in Jackie Brown.

Tarantino might be a prime contender for the world’s worst actor award, but he’s extraordinarily talented at coaxing brilliant performances from other Thespians. His secret, he reckons, is that he’s a movie horticulturalist (a word he has great difficulty pronouncing).

“An actor is the gardener and his performance is the garden, and I am a horticultural expert. I create a situation for the gardener to make his garden grow.”

Perhaps he’ll hone his acting talents during the following few months threading the stage on Broadway in New York, a venture he’s impatient to begin.

“I started out in community theater doing that for two or three years,” he says, drumming his fingers excitedly on the table. “It was the first thing I ever did as an artist outside of my bedroom, so I love going back on stage.” His eyes are alight, his body twisting enthusiastically as he reminisces abut the old days, and you can tell he’s still a little in awe of his own achievements.

And that’s what Tarantino’s enduring charm is. Part of him will always remain that geeky school kid who acted his heart out in front of his bedroom mirror and dreamed of meeting the stars.

PERSONALITY April 17 1998

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