Study Guide

Pulp Fiction Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Quentin Tarantino

    By now, most movie fans are familiar with Quentin Tarantino, the self-professed high school dropout, obsessive movie geek, and world's most legendary video store employee. Tarantino lived and breathed movies at Video Archives outside of L.A., and could always be counted on to draw from his bottomless movie knowledge to steer customers to the perfect film.

    If you've been living under a rock, now's when we tell you that Tarantino is a little controversial. Depending on you who ask, he's either a film auteur genius who puts an original and brilliant personal stamp on everything he does…or a rip-off artist who's never done anything really new, "delving into disreputable genres and trolling through the bottom drawers of schlock" (source).

    We'll focus on the genius.

    Tarantino got his start in the business with a small film in 1987 that served as the basis for his screenplay for True Romance. But he stormed into movie audiences' consciousness with 1992's Reservoir Dogs, the bloody story of a diamond heist gone seriously wrong. It was a modest box office success, but critics loved it. Hollywood beckoned, but the director had other ideas: he moved to Amsterdam to work on his screenplay for his next film. That film would become Pulp Fiction.

    After Pulp Fiction's release and monster success, Tarantino became a household name. The guy went on to direct wildly successful films like Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained, all of which were huge critical and box office smashes. He was the embodiment of cool, and everyone wanted to work with him. It gave him enormous freedom in writing and directing his own projects and pitching in on others when he felt like it.

    Good thing, because he's famously obsessive and perfectionistic.

    An Actor's Director

    Tarantino has acted in a lot of his movies and has some appreciation for the craft. But what sets him apart, according to the actors who work with him, is his unbelievably deep knowledge of films. Frederick Zoller, who worked with Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, said "He remembers everything; he has the brain of an elephant. He can tell you who was the supporting actor in a 1930s Czechoslovakian B-movie" (source). He'll know what he's looking for based on the zillion movies he's familiar with and use that to help the actors get to that place.

    There Will Be Blood

    It's Quentin's universe. We're just living in it.

    According to The Quentin Tarantino Archives, this universe is "comprised of most of the basic laws of our world, although it is a heightened movie version" (source). And nothing in this universe is more heightened than violence—a hallmark of most of Tarantino's films. He's been criticized for anesthetizing violence, i.e. presenting it in a stylized way so the full impact of the violence is diminished. He's been accused of glamorizing violence and therefore encouraging it.

    Tarantino is pretty touchy about this subject. He says he has a lot of problems with real-life violence but none at all with movie violence, and that he's said everything he has to say about it: "The bottom line is I'm not responsible for what some person does after they see a movie. I have one responsibility. My responsibility is to make characters and to be as true to them as I possibly can" (source).

    Still, check out the body counts. (Apparently someone had the time to do that.)

  • Screenwriter

    Roger Avary

    Assuming you've seen a movie in the last twenty years, you know who Quentin Tarantino is. But you might not be so familiar with Roger Avary.

    Avary worked with Lance Lawson, owner of the famous California video rental store Video Archives. He helped write the initial database for the store that eventually became a well-known hangout of the hardcore movie lovers of the area. While working at Video Archives, Avary met a fellow movie geek named Quentin Tarantino, and the two hit it off and became friends, eventually beginning to think about making their own movies together instead of obsessing over other people's.

    The two set out to write a three-part crime movie which never fully manifested. Tarantino's script was revised and eventually transformed into Reservoir Dogs while Avary's was sidelined for the time being. After Reservoir Dogs' release, the friends got together again to write a Black Mask movie, titled after the crime/detective magazine. Avary met Tarantino in Amsterdam where he was working on the script as well as touring the European film circuit with Reservoir Dogs. (That sheds some light on Vincent Vega's stay in Amsterdam and all the funny, anecdotal things he shares with Jules.)

    Avary's original script was the origin of the Gold Watch story, and some of Avary's scenes originally written for Tarantino's True Romance screenplay found their way into The Bonnie Situation (the miraculous misses and Marvin's death scenes). Avary was originally credited as a co-writer, but Tarantino wanted to advertise the movie as "written and directed by" himself and convinced Avary to just take the credit for "story by."

    Avary got some prankster revenge by paying a cameraman at the Oscars $500 to black out Quentin's face if they won, since he knew that's where the cameras would go. If you watch the broadcast, you'll see the screen go black for a couple of seconds after the winners are announced, and then the shot goes right to Avary's face as he heads up to receive the award.

    Zing.

    Both Avary and Tarantino have stayed in the movie business since Pulp Fiction. You might know Avary for some of his adaptations like Rules of Attraction, Silent Hill, and the beloved, fully animated, and incredibly source-accurate, Beowulf. Tarantino went on to write films like Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and the multi-Oscar-winning Django Unchained, films known for their unusual take on violence and brilliant, quirky dialogue.

  • Production Studio

    A Band Apart

    After their debut success with Reservoir Dogs, director Quentin Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender did what any two newly acclaimed movie professionals would do: they started their own production company. The company was called A Band Apart, although what the band is apart from is still unclear.

    Jk, it's very clear. It's actually a play on the movie Bande à part, meaning "band of outsiders", which was the title of a Jean-Luc Godard crime film. It was a big influence on Tarantino and was his original inspiration for the twist contest scene—which was apparently not just an excuse to have Travolta reprise his Saturday Night Fever role.

    A Band Apart produced all of Quentin's films up though Inglourious Basterds in 2009, despite the company being dissolved in 2005. A Band Apart was also responsible for a handful of other late '90s and early 2000s productions, including Good Will Hunting. The company isn't just Tarantino and Bender, though. Other members include returning Tarantino actor and Buddy Holly impersonator Steve Buscemi, writer/directors Tim Burton and Daren Aronofsky, and rapper with no apparent ties to anyone else, Andre 3000.

    Jersey Films, a company co-founded by Michael Shamburg and Danny DeVito (before he changed his name to Frank and bought a bar), provided a first look at the script and shopped it to Tri-Star pictures, who ultimately turned it down because of the heroin scenes.

    Sorry, heroin scenes.

    Then DeVito showed the script to Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, who loved it and gave the filmmakers a budget of $8 million and change. Weinstein insisted the script be kept under lock and key. When it went out to the actors, it came with a message: "If you show this to anybody, two guys from Jersey [Films] will come and break your legs" (source).

    Sounds about right.

    Once Weinstein convinced Bruce Willis to sign on, he made back his $8.5 million by selling the foreign rights for $11 million. He continued to heavily promote the film, flying the whole cast over to the Cannes Film Festival in May, 1994, where people went nuts seeing Travolta and Willis and where the film took the grand prize, the Palme D'Or.

  • Production Design

    Getting On Track

    The film was shot on 70 sets and locations, beginning with the restaurant scene, shot at the Hawthorne Grill in an L.A. suburb. Tarantino shot the movie with very slow film—the slowest Kodak made—to give the movie more clarity and texture. As a result, he had to use extremely bright lighting in the indoor scenes, which made some of the sets unbearably hot. "Each one of [the lights] is like the power of the sun," he explains. "We thought the lights were going to crack the glass in the diner, it was so hot." (Source)

    When it comes to shooting a movie, Tarantino has some signature moves. That's not to say he's doing anything completely new, but you don't have to be a pioneer to make something your own.

    Take the long tracking shot, for example. There's the scene with Butch as he carefully approaches his apartment complex. We follow behind him as he walks through the empty backlot, carefully scanning for anything out of the ordinary. It's a prelude, as many of these kinds of shots are, to a burst of violence.

    But maybe more interesting is the long take with Jules and Vincent approaching Brett's apartment. We follow them out of the car and up the elevator as they talk about Mia and her pilot and the alleged foot massage. They get out of the elevator and we continue to track in front of them as they walk up the stairs toward the apartment. When they get to the door, we pause with them and Jules asks the time. He finds it's too early so they pass the door and have a conversation in the hall. We watch the conversation but don't follow them. The camera turns, staying by the door, and it's now as if we're overhearing their conversation. Finally they walk back toward the camera and knock on the door.

    Is this shot used to change the level of intimacy of their conversation, shifting the audience from participant to a removed observer? Perhaps; but it might also be that the camera's drawing our attention toward the un-entered door. The conversation's just a warm up for the main event and the camera knows that it's reached its final destination and stays put as Jules and Vincent wander off.

    During the scene of Mia's overdose, Tarantino switches to a hand-held camera to give a better sense of the intensity and chaos of the scene. There are quicker edits and close-ups of Mia's face, and Tarantino draws out the scene for maximum tension. Then he cuts away to a reaction shot as Vincent, Jody, and Lance all suddenly jump back, freaked out, as Mia bolts upright, needle sticking out of her chest. (Source)

    Other classic Tarantino moves; the trunk shot (looking up from the trunk at Vincent and Jules looking down at their guns); and the corpse POV (Marsellus looking up from the ground after being run down by Butch's car). Check out his other films—they're in almost all of them.

  • Music (Score)

    A '60s Sampling

    Like Reservoir Dogsthe Pulp Fiction soundtrack has no original scoring and only a handful of songs unique to the film.

    Instead, it relies mostly on Tarantino doing what he does best: picking out a sampler platter of American music from an older era. In the case of Pulp Fiction, he picked the rock-n-surf music of the 1960s for the backdrop of a film that's clearly a '90s story…and doesn't have a whole lot of surfing.

    But the music isn't supposed to function as a literal callback to those times or culture. Instead, it's just the feeling—the sort of 'too cool for school' vibe that each of our big-personality characters give off—that the soundtrack is supposed to reflect.

    Tarantino has even compared his scoring of Pulp Fiction to classic Ennio Morricone western scores—which, knowing that Tarantino was influenced by Spaghetti Westerns when making this film, makes a lot of sense.

    To understand how electronic '60s rock sounds western, let's have a listen to some of the tracks. The film opens with Dick Dale's take on "Misirlou," a song which itself has quite a storied past, starting out as a Middle Eastern erotic folk song and ending up as what you're listening to now (you're listening to it, right?).

    Anyway, it certainly isn't hard to imagine the electric guitar riffs replaced by something more acoustic to give us a classic western action scene feel: horses galloping, outlaws pouring from the hills…you get the idea.

    If you want the rest of the soundtrack you can check it out here. But it's safe to say there are plenty of other songs in the same western-esque vein, like The Centurion's "Bullwinkle Part II," the slow reflection of Urge Overkill's "You'll be a Woman Soon," and the abrasive horns of The Revels' "Comanche."

    Oh, and let's not forget some of the slower, jazzier '50s tracks…because it would be a crime not to mention "You Never Can Tell" by Chuck Berry (which is difficult to listen to without picturing Vincent and Mia's twisting and sliding).

  • Fandoms

    There are plenty of fan sites featuring all the Pulp Fiction info you didn't even know you needed, and with even more crazy fan theories about what exactly is in that briefcase and why Vincent Vega is Jesus.

    Pulp Fiction attained a kind of cult status upon its release and fans have been trying to figure it out ever since. Because so much of what happens in the film is ambiguous, it leaves room for lots of interpretation, and that's exactly the kind of stuff that cult films are made of.

    The film has a Facebook page, talking action figures (even Jimmie), and a Reddit community. You wouldn't believe some of the theories that fans are deeply committed to and and the incredible detail they go into to support them.

    But it's not just a cult classic for the cinephiles; it also got tons of ink from film critics. There are endless scholarly articles about the movie's representation of values, cinematography, thematic relevance, postmodernity…the list goes on. The point is that viewers, despite distributors initially being scared of the films violent nature, really got into Pulp Fiction on many levels. But, uh, some people got into it more than others. And while pulp fiction fans have their own conventions, Pulp Fiction fans don't. They'll have to settle for these.