Lions Gate Films Home Entertainment
Lions Gate Films Home Entertainment

14 Colorful Facts About Reservoir Dogs

Lions Gate Films Home Entertainment
Lions Gate Films Home Entertainment

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 exactly 25 years ago today. 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.

Additional sources:
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

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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