Quentin Tarantino jumps up from the table, throws his whiskey in my face, slams me against a wall…
Well, no, not exactly. He didn’t literally jump up from the table, throw whiskey in my face, or slam me against a wall—but he did accidentally spill a bottle of fizzy water in my lap. So I’m suing him for $5 million.
Other than that, lunch with the battling auteur turns out to be a decidedly docile affair. Despite his recent penchant for punching out producers in L.A. restaurants (for which he really is being sued for $5 million), the 34-year-old bad boy of independent cinema seems to have mellowed recently. Even his new movie, the twisty caper comedy Jackie Brown, which Miramax is opening Christmas Day, sounds like it’s been decaffeinated, at least compared to the so-hip-it-hurt mayhem Tarantino unleashed in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and 1994’s Pulp Fiction.
”It’s a love story,” the director says of the long-awaited Pulp follow-up. ”A love story with older people and an older sensibility.”
It’s also the first film Tarantino has adapted entirely from someone else’s material—Rum Punch, the 1992 best-seller by Get Shorty author Elmore Leonard. And while it does bear certain unmistakable Tarantinoisms—dialogue peppered with pop-culture references, corkscrew twists in the chronology, a killer ’70s soundtrack—some hardcore fans may be alarmed by its shocking lack of violence (only four murders in the entire movie) and its kinder, gentler story line. Even Tarantino calls it the least Tarantino-esque film he’s made so far.
Pam Grier, the director’s latest ’70s career restoration project (see story on page 32), stars as the title character, a 44-year-old flight attendant who gets caught smuggling drugs and gun money for a sleazy, rinky-dink arms dealer, played by Pulp’s Samuel L. Jackson. Robert De Niro has a small role as Jackson’s none-too-bright ex-con sidekick, Bridget Fonda plays Jackson’s beach-bunny girlfriend, and Michael Keaton is an ATF agent trying to squeeze Jackie into ratting for the government. As Jackie’s love interest, there’s Robert Forster, yet another acting refugee from the 1970s (Avalanche, The Black Hole), playing a fiftysomething bail bondsman who helps the heroine scam her way out of her jam.
”It’s definitely not Pulp Fiction II,” Tarantino says during lunch in West Hollywood earlier this month, where he’s been editing Jackie all fall. Suffering from the sniffles and exhausted from the last-minute push to finish the film, he seems more subdued than his usual speed-talking, hyper-gesticulating self—at least for the moment. ”We screened it in Seattle, and people were like, ‘This is not what we thought it would be.’ But I felt I’d gone about as far as I could with my signature shooting style, so this one is at a lower volume than Pulp. It’s not an epic, it’s not an opera. It’s a character study. I knew I didn’t want to go bigger than Pulp, so I went underneath it.”
Bigger than Pulp is something of an oxymoron. No independent film this decade has had more impact, spawned more imitations, or raked in more cash ($210 million worldwide). Pulp’s box office breakthrough, which helped trigger the ’90s indie phenom, turned Miramax into a major player, saved John Travolta from talking-dog movies, and even managed to give Bruce Willis a touch of art-house class. And, of course, it elevated Tarantino into geek god-dom, making him the idol of thousands of goateed film students and video-store clerks around the globe.