Study Guide

Reservoir Dogs Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Quentin Tarantino

    Every Dog Has His Day

    Quentin Tarantino was both the writer and director of Reservoir Dogs, which was his debut into the world of film (unless you count working at Video Archives as the movie business). In fact, Reservoir Dogs was conceived when he was still working there: He was a high school dropout and a self-proclaimed film geek. From these obscure beginnings, he skyrocketed to fame and fortune, picking up Oscar directing nominations and screenwriting wins for Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained. Not too shabby.

    Originally, Tarantino was just going to shoot the Reservoir Dogs movie with his friends, including the producer Lawrence Bender, on the infinitesimally small budget of just $30,000. (That was probably the weekly catering budget for War of the Worlds.)

    Then Harvey Keitel (the actor who plays Mr. White) somehow got hold of the script (apparently through the wife of Bender's acting class instructor) and became interested, ultimately starring in the film and securing a $1.5 million budget. Then Tarantino actually hired real actors (he really wanted to play Mr. Pink himself but Steve Buscemi was just too awesome) and started making the film with a real staff of professionals, including a paramedic hired just to make sure Orange's blood loss was realistic.

    There Will Be Blood

    Tarantino's first venture turned out to be quite a success (we are Shmooping it after all) and he's since gone on to direct many more equally bloody and shocking films—just check out this list of Tarantino body counts.

    Next on his plate was the cult classic Pulp Fiction, which actually has a lot of crossover references from Reservoir Dogs. Who knew that Vic Vega (Dogs) and Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction) were brothers? This was followed by Jackie Brown, two volumes of Kill Bill, Death Proof, Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained. When the majority of a director's work consists of movies that everyone who's anyone has seen, you know the man has skills. Oh, and then there are those Oscars for screenwriting and Golden Globes and BAFTAs…

    When your name becomes synonymous with over-the-top violence, there's bound to be some controversy involved. Tarantino doesn't think there's a connection between gun violence in movies and real world shootings, although due to the nature of his films, it's no wonder he's a prominent target when it comes to critiquing violence in entertainment media (source).

    The thing about the violence in this film, and in all Tarantino films, is that it's sickeningly realistic. Mr. Orange, dying slowly from a gut wound, is soaked in blood from the neck down, saturating the floor of the funeral home. He's not dying bravely or stoically; he's terrified, moaning, passing in and out of consciousness, and wanting someone to hold him. There's no melodrama whatsoever in all the shooting. It's just sudden and shocking.

    The question to think about as you're watching the film is whether this violence is gratuitous or unnecessary. Tarantino thinks every instance of violence is essential to the plot—what's your take?

    Obsessed

    It's easy to picture a young film-obsessed Tarantino hunched over the counter at Video Archives watching and re-watching the countless movies. He's the kind of person who got into making films because he was so enamored with his experience as a viewer, and his experience in the store gave him a broad and deep knowledge of cinema.

    Tarantino's a big fan of genre movies. From horror to spaghetti western to Blaxploitation, he doesn't just recreate genres, but adds his own twist to them or even purposefully subverts them. Reservoir Dogs is a classic example of this. It comes straight out of the heist movie genre.

    In fact, as he mentions in an interview (see our "Best of the Web" section), he was putting together a shelf of heist movies in Video Archives when he realized that there hadn't been a good heist movie released in a while. So he decided to make one, but Reservoir Dogs isn't just your typical heist movie, namely because the heist is never actually shown. Head over to our "Production" and "Genre" sections to get all the details.

  • Production Studio

    LIVE Entertainment

    LIVE Entertainment is, ironically, the production company responsible for the movie where basically everyone dies.

    Although, to be fair, they were originally called "International Video Entertainment" and added the "L" presumably just for kicks. Before that, they were previously known as Family Home Entertainment, but when they produced Reservoir Dogs their name was revoked when too many parents complained about their children having nightmares about their ears being chopped off.

    That's not entirely true. Originally, though, in the early '80s, LIVE Entertainment was in the revolutionary home movie industry. It was revolutionary because VHS had only become more widely available in the '70s. Before then, if you didn't catch something in theaters you'd either have to go without seeing it or wait for thirty years to download it illegally on the internet.

    In the early '90s, LIVE branched out into the film distribution business and hooked up with the young Quentin Tarantino for his debut film, Reservoir Dogs. LIVE went on to produce other controversial, bleak films like Requiem for a Dream and Blair Witch Project. (LIVE indeed, eh?)

    Lawrence Bender was the producer and actor (he had a cameo, taking a page out of Tarantino's book, as one of the cops chasing down Mr. Pink). Bender has since produced almost all of Tarantino's films and had a hand in a number of other award-winning productions like the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, starring everybody's favorite Vice President, Al Gore.

    Bender was going to produce Reservoir Dogs with a low budget using some of Tarantino's friends as actors until they hit the big time and were able to get some funding (about $1.5 million) from LIVE… most of which was spent on fake blood.

  • Production Design

    Budget Boom

    Tarantino was originally planning on filming the movie with his friend Lawrence Bender and a $30,000 dollar budget in 16mm film (which is a cheap kind of film not normally used in theaters). Then when Harvey Keitel got interested, the budget got a big boost all the way up to $1.5 million. What you might be thinking is, "Dang, that's a lot more money," but what you should be thinking is, "Dang, that's still not much money." Filming movies ain't cheap, so to work within the budget (and the timeline the budget enforced) Tarantino had to cut a few corners.

    First up: the heist. One of the most famous things about Reservoir Dogs is that you don't actually see the heist itself; the movie isn't about that. Also, while the final decision was in part an artistic one, initially it was simply a lack of money that lead Tarantino to not include what would have seemed to be the most critical part of the film. Really, then, the small budget drove the entire course of Reservoir Dog's narrative.

    There are other things that the budget impacted as well. Take Mr. Blonde's car, for instance. The car was filmed in the scene where they extract Marvin from the trunk outside the funeral home. They were going to have to rent a car, but Michael Madsen (Blonde) said they could use his car to do the shot. Apparently, he still has that car today (source).

    Nice Guy Eddie's suit is also a borrowed prop. Chris Penn, who plays Eddie, said he owned the suit and that it actually wasn't too far off from what he used to wear at the time. In fact, the suits they wore were provided free of charge by an American crime film enthusiast. Steve Buscemi, who played Pink, actually wore his own black jeans in the place of slacks (source).

    You know that nice blue-walled apartment interior used for some of Orange's scenes? Instead of spending money renting an actual apartment, they simply used some of the upper rooms in the funeral home where they were filming other scenes. They splashed some paint on the walls to spruce it up a little bit and voila, a nice little apartment that you would never know was the top story of a morgue. Yes, the funeral home was actually a morgue… that was dressed up a bit to look even more morgue-ish.

  • Music (Score)

    Or Lack Thereof

    There is no score. Not a single orchestral track—and there is a very limited number of original songs performed by the band Bedlam for the film. Whether this was an aesthetic choice made by Tarantino or a consequence of a tiny budget (or perhaps both), the tracks used in Reservoir Dogs certainly give it a unique feel.

    The delightfully "Dylan-esque, pop, bubblegum" music (as K-Billy's calls it) that was so popular in the 70s gives the film its atmosphere. The audience and characters alike vibe with K-Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies weekend.

    With tracks like "Little Green Bag" by The George Barker Selection to officially introduce our main characters as they walk together in suits, or Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling," which gives us some great "hooga-chakkas" as we ride along first with cops and then the criminal gang to the meeting, we know we're in for a good time.

    Except—we're not.

    Joe Tex's "I Gotcha" plays as our protagonists violently kick a tied policeman at the warehouse. Suddenly, the sweet 70s sounds are paired with some ugly violence...which is unsettling.

    And then, when Blonde is left alone with the cop, the track "Stuck in the Middle with You" by Steelers Wheel starts playing. Blonde goes from dancing and singing along to slicing the cop's ear off.

    Yeah.

    Tarantino has said he "found that the music was a terrific counterpoint to the action on screen." While most composers and directors try to fit the tone of the score to the tone of the narrative and action of the film, Tarantino breaks the rule to create violence that draws attention to itself in an unnerving way.

    As the credits roll, right after that bloodbath of a standoff, we get perhaps the lightest, most whimsical track yet, Harry Nilsson's "Coconut." It almost feels like a palate cleanser, but in some ways it mocks the audience's ability to dismiss all the chaos and violence they witnessed and immediately walk out of the theater to resume their daily lives as if nothing happened.

  • Fandoms

    Whenever a successful director with a unique style of movie making appears on the scene, a cult following is sure to arise. There's all sort of random fandom-ness; you can go check out a lot of it in our "Best of the Web" section for plenty of image mash-ups and video parodies and stuff like that. Of course there's also the scholarly attention that Tarantino's style has attracted, with critics analyzing his vulgar language, excessive violence, camera angles, and all the other Tarantino-errific flourishes.

    More than that, his films have a very dedicated fan base: a group of people totally obsessed with his work. These people are the reason the term "cult classic" exists and they're the reason that essentially all of Tarantino's films fall into that category.

    We've got to highlight one amazing example of fandom taken to the next level, taking Tarantino material and remixing and repurposing it for a different kind of entertainment medium. We're talking about the Reservoir Dogs Band, a Dutch and Belgian group that tours Europe playing songs from every Tarantino flick, including the song Tarantino himself made famous, Little Green Bag. Each of the members takes on a pseudonym or two from the movies and they play clips from the film while on stage, just for maximum authenticity.