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Before he became one of the most acclaimed and recognizable names in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino was a lowly video store clerk who absorbed films like oxygen and immersed himself in the universal language of cinema. What changed Tarantino's career trajectory was 1992's Reservoir Dogs, the writer/director's outstanding cult-favorite first film that paved the way for his excellent sophomore feature, Pulp Fiction — i.e. the revered masterpiece that launched this young filmmaker into Hollywood superstardom.
A lot has been said about the making of this beloved indie cult classic, particularly as it went from being a humble indie to an early '90s cinematic favorite. Let's explore some behind-the-scenes facts about Quentin Tarantino's celebrated introduction, Reservoir Dogs.
(This article contains spoilers from Reservoir Dogs!)
Reservoir Dogs Was Almost Made As A Play Instead Of A Movie
Even by Quentin Tarantino standards, Reservoir Dogs is a very dialogue-driven movie. While there are explosive moments of action and violence seen throughout, it's the conversations that drive the film. Tarantino is an exceptionally talented writer with a fine ear for pop culture-heavy discussions. If he wasn't so talented as a scribble, the movie wouldn't have gained as many loyal viewers as it has over the past few decades.
Sure enough, at one point, when the prospects of turning Reservoir Dogs into a movie wasn't so absolute, Tarantino debated making it a play instead. Certainly, it's easy to see how it would've translated over to the stage with relative ease — especially with the story largely centralized to one location. Alas, while Tarantino assured has a good play in him, he's a filmmaker. So, he made a film.
Mr. Blonde's Dance Scene Was Improvised
Unquestionably the most memorable scene in Reservoir Dogs comes midway through the film, when Michael Madsen, as Mr. Blonde, tortures a cop named Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), leaving him one ear lesser while also being doused in gasoline before Blonde is shot to death.
Part of what makes the scene so memorable, beyond its ear removal, is Madsen's quirky dance number to Stealer Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You." It's a scene that, while controversial, would influence Tarantino's career tremendously in the years to follow. That's why it's surprising to know that Mr. Blonde's dancing scene was improvised, according to Madsen. While the script called for him to "manically dance around," it was never clear what that meant. So, Madsen's moves were made up on the spot, and Tarantino used his first take for this dance scene.
The Title (Supposedly) Came From A Video Store Customer
Even as the movie nears its 30th anniversary, there's still no confirmed meaning for "reservoir dogs." The ambiguity plays into the film's cool factor. The audience can make up whatever meaning they want and, in their headcanon, it can be accurate. But where did Quentin Tarantino come up with the title in the first place?
This bit of trivia has often been speculated, though the writer/director reportedly came up with the movie's unknowable title thanks to a misinformed customer at Video Archives, the store where he previously worked. During his early days behind-the-counter, where the future filmmaker recommended foreign or arthouse titles to prospective customers, Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants was confused for Reservoir Dogs. The fake title stuck with Tarantino, notably as he put together his first feature film, because it sounded cool. Admittedly, it is a cool title.
The Heist Wasn't Shown For Budgetary Reasons, Though Quentin Tarantino Always Felt This Decision Was More Intriguing
While $1.2 million is certainly a large wad of cash, it's not a whole lot of money to make a movie. Especially one filled with hyper-violent beats of action like this one, you need to savor every dollar that's flung your way, which means that Reservoir Dogs needs to make budgetary restrictions.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Reservoir Dogs is that it's a heist movie without a heist. Well, there's a heist, but it happens entirely off-screen. For most filmmakers, especially first-timers, this would be a recipe for disaster. For Tarantino, it played in his favor, allowing him to play with his non-conventional storytelling format and character-driven drama. The heist wasn't shown for budgetary reasons, it would seem, but in Tarantino's eyes, he always felt this decision was much more interesting.
At one point the reason for not showing the heist might have been budgetary. But I always liked the idea of never seeing it, and I kept that. Although it's not exactly Rashomon, you do get a sense of the characters' different perspectives when they talk about what happened. For the first half, you wonder if you'll ever see the heist. In the second half, you realize the movie is about other things.
Tony Scott Originally Wanted To Direct It
Reservoir Dogs is the film that jumpstarted Quentin Tarantino's career as a premiere filmmaker, notably with the masterful Pulp Fiction following shortly thereafter. But in another universe, Tarantino didn't direct it at all.
Indeed, back in the early '90s, a young Tarantino was connected with the tragically late Tony Scott, who read his scripts for True Romance and Reservoir Dogs. While Scott eventually went on to helm the former in 1993, it was the latter that he originally sought to make. Alas, the future filmmaker was protective of Reservoir Dogs, notably as he was securing financing for this first feature. While Scott certainly did a fine job bringing True Romance to the screen (even though the Top Gun filmmaker removed the non-linear narrative format from Tarantino's script), it's hard to know if he would've topped Tarantino's own direction on his Reservoir Dogs screenplay.
Reportedly, Quentin Tarantino Wrote The Role Of Mr. Pink For Himself
Quentin Tarantino has a big head on his shoulders. The filmmaker typically isn't content to stay strictly behind-the-camera. While he doesn't cast himself into lead roles, there's usually a bit part he'll play in his films, whether it's a vocal cameo (Jackie Brown) or an extended on-camera character (Pulp Fiction), to satisfy his ego. Therefore, it's not especially surprising to learn that Mr. Pink, the character Steve Buscemi played in the film, was reportedly written with Tarantino himself in mind.
Nevertheless, after watching Buscemi's audition, Tarantino realized this role would ultimately be better serviced by the professional actor, while the filmmaker himself accepted the role of Mr. Brown instead. Indeed, while Tarantino envisions big roles for himself as an energetic screenwriter, he knows what's best for his movies as a dependable director — even the first time around.
Harvey Keitel Paid To Host NYC Casting Sessions, Which Is Where They Found Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, And Tim Roth
Harvey Keitel played a huge role in shaping Reservoir Dogs into the movie it is today. Before he became involved, Quentin Tarantino's first film was set to be a $30,000 production shot on B&W 16mm with Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender playing key roles. But Bender passed the script to his acting teacher, whose wife gave it to Keitel. He loved it so much that he signed on as a co-producer, assuring that the film garnered more funding. Thus, the budget was $1.5 million. But when Keitel suggested that Tarantino and Bender go to New York City in their casting search, they hesitated, arguing that they didn't have the funds. Therefore, Keitel paid for the NYC casting sessions, resulting in Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, and Steve Buscemi joining the picture.
The Warehouse Was Actually A Former Mortuary
Throughout the course of Reservoir Dogs' 100-minute runtime, a lot of bodies pile up. Our lead characters don't walk out of this film with their lives intact, suffice to say, and that's why it's fitting to know that the warehouse that serves as the primary backdrop for Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut isn't actually a warehouse at all but, in fact, an former mortuary.
The spacious building became a fitting backdrop for our ill-fated characters, and while it's an unconventional place to shoot a movie, it makes a great fit for this one. Plus, if you happen to know the shooting location, it's a fitting foreboding environment as well. Unfortunately, if you're looking to visit a piece of film history, you're out of luck. This abandoned building has been demolished in the years following Reservoir Dogs' quick shoot. Now, it's a parking lot.
The First Sundance Screening Was A 'Disaster'
It's always a great honor to have your independent film premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Founded in 1978, the Utah-based film-centric event is a cornerstone for some of the biggest, most exemplary indies of the past few decades, and Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut is one of the movies that helped establish this film festival as the place where careers foster and grow and young, up-and-coming filmmakers become some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Alas, while Sundance played a pivotal role in Reservoir Dogs' future success, the film's first screening was a legendary disaster. It was a complicated process bringing the film to the festival, with the final print reportedly shipped a mere three days before its first screening, and the film was plagued by a faulty projection, misbehaving lights, and a power outage at a crucial point.
According to Tarantino, part of the problem was that the theater didn't have a scope lens for the projector, so the movie didn't look right all the way through. And it got worse from there. Here's what Tarantino said:
That would be bad enough, but then it gets to the final climax, where everyone is yelling at each other in the final chapter, and all of a sudden the lights come up. And somebody realizes, 'Oh shit what's going on.' So they bring the lights down. Then finally everyone has their guns pointed on everybody else and almost, as if on purpose, as far as suspense is concerned, right at the height of that scene there's a power outage, and all the power goes out. So I was like, 'OK this is what it is like to watch your movie in public.' It was a fucking disaster.
Wes Craven Walked Out
Quentin Tarantino has been open — sometimes even possibly boastful — about the high volume of audience members who have walked out of his first film. The movie's infamous torture scene, while not as graphic as some folks might assume, isn't for the squeamish either, and it finds the theater with a few empty seats before it's over.
Notoriously among the folks who have walked out of the movie during this controversial torture scene, however, is none other than Wes Craven, the late horror director behind The Nightmare on Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes, among many other prolific titles. He ultimately decided to skedaddle before the credits rolled up on Quentin Tarantino's freshman feature, which tickled the Reservoir Dogs writer/director. While there is possibly any number of reasons why Craven stepped out of the theater during this graphic sequence, Tarantino took it with pride.
Five people walked out of that audience, including Wes Craven. The fucking guy who did Last House on the Left walked out? The guy who did Last House on the Left, my movie’s too tough for him.