Many directors come to the world’s attention gradually and quietly over the course of a few films. Quentin Tarantino is not one of those directors. His feature debut, Reservoir Dogs, blasted Sundance audiences’ faces off in January of 1992 before doing the same in Cannes, Toronto, and at your local multiplex. Seldom has a filmmaker’s debut attracted so much controversy and acclaim, or inspired so much discussion about the meaning of “Like a Virgin.” Let’s put on our black suits and skinny ties and dive into the nitty-gritty. Don’t forget to tip your waitress!
1. IT WAS THE DARLING OF SUNDANCE 1992 ... AND THEN DIDN’T WIN ANYTHING.
Reservoir Dogs had its world premiere at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, where it was the buzziest movie on the schedule (assisted by an industry pre-screening a few weeks earlier). Quentin Tarantino later recounted how everyone kept telling him the jury awards were going to come down to either his film or one other (though people had different ideas of which other film was his main competition). And in the end? Of the eight awards given to non-documentary features, Reservoir Dogs received zero of them.
2. MOST OF IT WAS FILMED IN A MORTUARY.
The empty building where our multi-colored heroes rendezvous after the robbery was actually a disused mortuary. When Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi go to that back room to argue and wash blood off themselves, you can clearly see plastic tubes, embalming fluid, and such. It’s a fitting location to use, considering the way the movie ends.
3. TIM ROTH’S CHARACTER’S APARTMENT WAS UPSTAIRS FROM THE MORTUARY.
For a location scout, finding one building that can serve two different purposes is like hitting a home run.
4. IT WENT THROUGH SEVERAL CASTING PERMUTATIONS.
In the early stages, Tarantino was going to play Mr. Pink himself, with producer Lawrence Bender as Nice Guy Eddie. Steve Buscemi was later considered for Nice Guy Eddie, but ended up playing Mr. Pink, a role for which Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde) auditioned. Samuel L. Jackson and Ving Rhames both almost played Holdaway (the cop Tim Roth works with in flashbacks). Robert Forster, who later appeared in QT’s Jackie Brown, auditioned for the part of Joe, which went to Lawrence Tierney.
5. THERE WERE SOME UNUSUAL OFFERS FROM PRODUCERS.
While searching for producers to finance the film and save them from having to make it themselves on a minuscule budget, Tarantino and Bender fielded several offers that sounded good but had a catch to them. One producer offered $1.6 million, but only if the ending was changed so that everyone who was dead came back to life, the whole thing having been a hoax or a con of some kind. Another offered $500,000 … but only if his girlfriend could play Mr. Blonde. (Bender said it was such a bizarre idea that he and Tarantino actually considered it.)
6. MR. BLUE HAD BEEN A BANK ROBBER IN REAL LIFE.
Before he was an actor, Eddie Bunker was a criminal, spending much of the first half of his life in various correctional facilities. He went straight in 1975, at the age of 42, writing several crime novels (Tarantino was a fan), and eventually doing some acting and screenwriting. Eleven years before Reservoir Dogs, he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel with a prescient title: Little Boy Blue.
7. HARVEY KEITEL WAS THE LEAD CHARACTER IN GETTING THE FILM MADE, TOO.
When Tarantino and Bender were trying to get the project off the ground, they got a lucky break. Bender was taking an acting class from one Peter Floor, who asked the boys who their dream choice would be for the lead in Reservoir Dogs. Well, that’d be Harvey Keitel, Bender said. As it happened, Floor’s ex-wife, also an acting coach, knew Keitel from the Actors Studio in New York, and got him a copy of the script. Keitel loved it and signed on immediately as star and producer, which helped attract Chris Penn and Michael Madsen.
8. LAWRENCE TIERNEY WAS CRAZY.
This is a recurring theme in stories about Tierney (see also: his one-time guest spot as Elaine’s dad in a season two episode of Seinfeld). The legendary tough guy and frequently off-the-wagon drinker got into a heated argument with Tarantino during the first week of shooting, ending with QT firing him. (He recanted.) Other cast members talked about going out drinking with Tierney, who once ended up with his pants down outside a bar. Coincidentally, Tierney and Bunker had worked together before, kind of: they got into a fistfight in an L.A. parking lot sometime in the 1950s. (According to Bunker, Tierney didn’t recall the incident.)
9. TARANTINO GOT ENCOURAGEMENT FROM TERRY GILLIAM.
In June 1991, Tarantino took his screenplay and a few actors to the Sundance Institute’s screenplay workshop. Several of the judges were very positive about it (some weren’t), but the most encouraging was the man who’d made Time Bandits, Brazil, and (to be released a few months later) The Fisher King. Terry Gilliam’s best piece of advice to Tarantino, a first-time director, was to learn to delegate. As Tarantino later told Charlie Rose, when he asked Gilliam how to bring his vision to the screen, “he said, ‘Well, Quentin, you have to understand, as a director you don’t have to do that. Your job is to hire talented people who can do that. You hire a cinematographer who can get the kind of quality that you want … You have a talented costume designer who can give the colors that you need and the flamboyance or not that you want … Your job is articulating to them what you want on the screen.’ And then, all of a sudden, the whole mystical shaman, mystic thing that I thought directing was just went boom. And I realized I could do that … I can describe what I want. I know what’s in my head.”
10. IT WAS HOT. SO VERY, VERY HOT.
The movie was shot in July and August in Los Angeles, which is not a comfortable place to be in July and August. What’s more, it was shot inside a stuffy warehouse crammed with very hot lights. Oh, and everybody was wearing black suits. Tim Roth said it got so hot in there that the pool of fake blood he was lying in would glue him to the floor.
11. A MISTAKE LED TO ONE OF THE FILM’S MYSTERIES.
In the climactic showdown, Joe’s pointing a gun at Mr. Orange (on the floor, already dying), Mr. White is pointing a gun at Joe, and Nice Guy Eddie (Joe’s son, played by Chris Penn) is pointing a gun at Mr. White. Joe shoots Orange, White shoots Joe, Eddie shoots White … but four gunshots are heard, and everyone who wasn’t already on the ground ends up that way. So who shot Nice Guy Eddie? (You can find T-shirts asking that question.) The only logical answer, and the way it was supposed to have played out, is that Mr. White did. He shot Joe, then shot Eddie at the same time Eddie was shooting him. But according to Chris Penn, when they filmed it, the squib on Keitel’s (Mr. White’s) body went off slightly prematurely, Keitel went down as he fired his second shot (which looks like it’s still aimed at Joe), and then Penn’s squib exploded as planned. Penn noticed right away that it was ambiguous, but Tarantino decided to leave it that way.
12. WHATEVER EXPLANATION YOU’VE HEARD FOR THE TITLE PROBABLY ISN’T TRUE.
Tarantino told potential investors that “reservoir dog” was a gangster term from French films like Breathless and Bande à Parte, and that it meant “rat.” That wasn’t true; Tarantino just knew that investors would want an explanation for the title, and that they wouldn’t know those films well enough to contradict him. Later, the widely told story was that it came from Tarantino’s days working at a video store, when he recommended Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants (1987) and the customer misheard it as “reservoir dogs.” (But Tarantino expert Dale Sherman points out in his book, Quentin Tarantino FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Original Reservoir Dog, that Au revoir les enfants wasn’t available to rent until after Tarantino’s employment at the video store.) Another version of the story has Tarantino’s girlfriend recommending that movie, and QT himself mishearing it. Yet others have suggested that it was a combination of Au revoir les enfants and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). Tarantino has never given a clear, plausible explanation for the title, so quit asking him.
13. THE EAR-CUTTING SCENE INVOLVED SOME IMPROVISATION.
Kirk Baltz, who played poor Officer Marvin Nash, ad-libbed the exclamation, “I’ve got a little kid at home!” It was allegedly so shocking that Michael Madsen, who had an 18-month-old son, had to take a break to regain his composure. Madsen later did some macabre improvisation of his own, talking into the severed ear.
14. THE TORTURE SCENE WAS TOO MUCH FOR MANY VIEWERS—INCLUDING HORROR ICON WES CRAVEN.
The man who made The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street walked out of Reservoir Dogs while Officer Nash was being tortured. It was at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1992, a few weeks before the theatrical release. Craven later recalled, “When I was out in the lobby, this kid came pounding out of the shadows and said, ‘You’re Wes Craven, right?’ I said yeah, and he said, ‘And you’re leaving because you can’t take it?’ I said yeah, and he said, ‘I just scared Wes Craven!’ It was Quentin Tarantino, and I didn’t know who he was at the time. But I just don’t like watching people get tortured.” Fair enough, sir.
Interviews included in the DVD special features
Quentin Tarantino: The Pocket Essential Guide, by D.K. Holm
Quentin Tarantino FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Original Reservoir Dog, by Dale Sherman