Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes: 'Pulp Fiction'

This Joint Is Hoppin': At Jack Rabbit Slim's, Quentin Tarantino's surreal diner, grit bumps up against nostalgia

The logo over the door says ''The next best thing to a time machine.'' Dead ringers for Ed Sullivan and Marilyn Monroe greet you. A diminutive bellboy — reminiscent of the one who called for Philip Morris four decades ago — leads you to your table (an exact replica of a '56 Chrysler New Yorker), where a Buddy Holly look-alike takes your order. You might ask yourself — as does Pulp Fiction hit man Vincent Vega (John Travolta) — ''What the f--- is this place?'' And your date — were she Uma Thurman's Mia — would reply, ''This is Jack Rabbit Slim's. An Elvis man should love it.''

A unique juxtaposition of the surreal and the gritty, the fantasy diner has become the most buzzed-about set in any movie this year. It's a place where hit men, gangsters' molls, and L.A.'s grunge chic meet to eat — and are served by the likes of James Dean, Marilyn, Zorro, and Mamie Van Doren. According to David Wasco, Pulp Fiction's production designer, director Quentin Tarantino ''wanted something that'd be dreamier than a Planet Hollywood or Hard Rock Cafe. He wanted it to be this eye-popping thing in the beginning of the movie that the audience would try to ferret out and go to in L.A. The city was one of the characters in the film — even though it's the underbelly.''

Tarantino's script (cowritten with Roger Avery) described the eatery simply as ''a '50s diner with '50s icons as waiters and waitresses,'' says Wasco. ''He told me to just run with it'' — and to make it, adds the designer, ''strange, woozy, like the '50s on heroin.'' Or, as Vincent puts it, Jack Rabbit Slim's is ''like a wax museum with a pulse.''

The diner, codesigned by Wasco and Jacek Lisiewicz (of the cutting-edge Los ! Angeles firm Arkhos-Tekton, Inc.), mimics a 1950s type of whimsical architecture indigenous to Southern California, variously called Post World War II Optimism, Lunar Modern, or Atomic Age. (One of the best-known examples is the original Googie's coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard, which sat next to Schwab's Drugstore.) ''There was this optimism and growth when the war ended,'' Wasco explains. ''That's when it was a great time to be in Los Angeles.''

Slim's, which took a 75-person staff nine weeks to plan and build, cost a paltry $75,000. ''That's unheard-of in Hollywood, considering what we got out of it,'' says Wasco.

Tarantino instructed Wasco to watch 1968's Speedway, with Elvis Presley, and Howard Hawks' Red Line 7000 (1965). The design team also looked at the diners in American Graffiti and Grease. ''Those were Quentin's references,'' says Wasco. ''He's influenced by other movies, but he puts his own twist on them.''

Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, the film's set decorator and the designer's wife, confirms that Tarantino is ''a big fan'' of old B movies: ''They were very low- budget but very sensational,'' she says. ''The visuals of Hollywood are important to him. There's a history of early California that's instantly recognizable to a lot of people in Hollywood — it goes from television shows like CHiPs to Sam Arkoff's films in the '50s.''

Of Slim's, she adds: ''We were trying to make it bigger and more dynamic than anyone would have ever seen. It's hyperrealistic, it tips into the cartoon realm — it's psychedelic.'' *

Originally posted Nov 18, 1994 Published in issue #249 Nov 18, 1994 Order article reprints