Prepare to feel very, very old indeed — twenty years ago today, on October 23rd 1992, “Reservoir Dogs” was released in theaters, introducing the world to a 29-year-old video store clerk turned filmmaker with an encyclopaedic knowledge of film named Quentin Tarantino. But even in the months beforehand, his feature directorial debut, “Reservoir Dogs” had already started to upend the American independent film movement but with tremendously well received screenings at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto.
One of, if not the most influential films of the 1990s (not necessarily for the better, as anyone who’s sat through the many copycats and knock-offs can attest), Tarantino’s thriller — which follows the preamble to, and aftermath of, a diamond heist that turns disastrous — was a breath of fresh air, and remains a taut, hilarious and curiously moving crime classic. To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, we’ve rounded up five facts that even the most dedicated Tarantinophile may not know about his debut. Check them out below. And if you want to see it on the big screen again, it hits cinemas for one night only in December.
1. “Reservoir Dogs” technically isn’t the first Tarantino movie to be produced.
It’s inarguable that “Reservoir Dogs” was the script and film that exploded Tarantino onto the world scene. But it’s not quite the first film with the Tarantino touch. Relatively well-known is the fact that Tarantino co-wrote and directed “My Best Friend’s Birthday” in the late 1980s, while still working at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach. Working from a short script by co-worker Craig Hamann (and with “Pulp Fiction” collaborator, and fellow video shop employee Roger Avary also assisting), Tarantino helped to expand it into a full 80 page script, as well as acting in it alongside Hamann, and directing the micro-budgeted feature. Mostly free of genre tropes (Tarantino told Charlie Rose in 2010 that it was a “Martin and Lewis” sort of thing), the black-and-white picture sees Tarantino as Clarence, who’s looking to do something for his best friend’s birthday. Tarantino has confessed that he thinks the film was badly directed, but fortunately for him it’s barely been seen — almost half of it was destroyed in a lab fire, and it’s only seen the light of day in incomplete form at film festivals, although elements of the story were recycled in other scripts, most notably “True Romance.” Much less well known is “Past Midnight,” a potboiler of a thriller starring Rutger Hauer, Natasha Richardson, Clancy Brown and a young Paul Giamatti. Tarantino worked at the company CineTel for a time, who specialized in cheapo direct-to-video type pictures (“976-Evil” might be their most well-known work, which say something about the rest of it), and on the DVD commentary for “True Romance,” Tarantino says that part of his job involved “page-one rewrites” on their scripts. His contribution was significant enough to “Past Midnight” (which involves Hauer as a man released from prison after being framed for the murder of his wife, with Richardson as his social worker) that associate producer Catalaine Knell offered to split her credit with him, giving Tarantino his first screen credit outside of Dolph Lundgren‘s workout video, on which he was a production assistant. The film actually screened at the American Film Market and the Vancouver International Film Festival in October 1991, a few months before “Reservoir Dogs” premiered at Sundance, although it ultimately skipped theaters, and aired on the USA Network in December 1992, before making it to video in 1993.
2. Terry Gilliam and Monte Hellman advised Tarantino at the Sundance Institute, and Tony Scott wanted to direct the film.
Tarantino’s original plan was to make “Reservoir Dogs” on a minimal budget on 16mm film, using friends in the cast, with himself playing Mr. Pink and regular producer Lawrence Bender as Nice Guy Eddie. Tarantino was introduced to the late Tony Scott in 1990 by a mutual friend, one of the director’s employees, and Scott read both “True Romance” and “Reservoir Dogs.” Originally, Scott wanted to make “Reservoir Dogs,” but was told by Tarantino that he’d earmarked it for his own full directorial debut. Scott ended up buying the “True Romance” script for $50,000, which Tarantino planned to use to make “Reservoir Dogs.” However, Bender’s acting teacher’s wife was a friend of Harvey Keitel, and gave him the script. Keitel became interested, and ended up attaching himself to produce and star as Mr. White, enabling Tarantino and Bender to raise as much as $1.5 million for the budget. As a result, the young writer-director was accepted into the Sundance Institute in 1991 (see photo), and travelled there with actors including Steve Buscemi to perform scenes from the script in front of advisers including Terry Gilliam and “Two-Lane Blacktop” helmer Monte Hellman. Gilliam is, as a result, thanked in the credits, while Hellman was so impressed that he attached himself as an executive-producer to the film.
3. George Clooney, James Woods and Vincent Gallo were among those who auditioned for the film.
Thanks to that $1.5 million budget, and the kudos that came with Harvey Keitel‘s name, Tarantino was able to attract a fairly impressive cast given the meager budget – indie stalwart Steve Buscemi, British actor Tim Roth (who’d already starred in projects for Peter Greenaway, Robert Altman and Stephen Frears, among others) Chris “brother of Sean” Penn and Michael Madsen, who’d just wrapped “Thelma & Louise” and “The Doors.” But the tales of those who read the film but didn’t end up doing it are just as legendary. Most famous is that of James Woods, who was made a number of offers for a part in the script by Tarantino, none of which the actor’s agent ever told his client about. Legend has it that Woods fired his agent when he found out; he said that wasn’t the case in one recent interview, but suggests that he certainly wasn’t happy about it. Vincent Gallo claimed in a 1998 interview with the Buffalo News that he’d been offered the role of Mr. Pink back in the day, while Buscemi says that his friend Seymour Cassel auditioned for the film alongside him as well. There’s also a number of other actors who tried out who’d later end up working with the director. Tarantino had been impressed by a young actor in a movie named “Red Surf” called George Clooney, and asked him in to read for a role, though says that he ultimately wasn’t cast because of the chemistry with other actors (Clooney jokes that he botched the audition). Robert Forster, meanwhile, who went on to revive his career with “Jackie Brown,” told us last year that he’d auditioned to play Joe Cabot in the film, but that Tarantino always intended to cast Lawrence Tierney. Cult actor Timothy Carey (“Paths Of Glory,” “East Of Eden“) also read for the same role, but claims that Keitel vetoed his casting, saying in an interview, “He’d done a terrific script with my name on the top — inspiration by Timothy Carey. Harvey Keitel didn’t want me on the show. He was afraid — I could tell when I walked in. He had the right to say yea or nay to any actor. Larry Tierney got the part. Larry’s a good friend of mine, and he called me up later and kind of apologized.” There are also unconfirmed reports that Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Walken auditioned for and/or turned down the project.
4. As it turns out, a faulty squib shot Nice Guy Eddie
On release, the film became an instant cult hit of a rare kind, inspiring furious debate over its violence, language and pop culture references (Madonna herself weighed in, sending Tarantino a signed record of “Like A Virgin” that said: “To Quentin. It’s not about dick, it’s about love. Madonna”). And perhaps the biggest arguments revolved around the question of who delivers a hot lead sandwich to Chris Penn‘s Nice Guy Eddie in the final shootout. It’s clear that Joe Cabot shoots Mr. Orange, that Eddie shoots Mr. White, and that Mr. White shoots Joe, but it’s unclear how Eddie gets a bullet, and cinephiles furiously debated over their own theories. Finally, in 1996, Chris Penn set the record straight himself. “Nobody shot nice guy Eddie. It was a mistake. What was supposed to happen – and I don’t know if Quentin’s gonna like me giving this away, but it’s too late now, he never told me not to – was Harvey Keitel was supposed to shoot Lawrence Tierney, then shoot me, then get squibbed. But what happened was the squib on Harvey went right off after he shot Lawrence, so he went down, but my squib went off anyway, so I went down. So, basically nobody shot Nice Guy Eddie. Quentin said ‘You know what? It’ll be the biggest controversy of the film. We’re leaving it.’ He was definitely right…”
5. The film went on to inspire various stage versions (including one directed by an 18-year-old Michael Fassbender), as well as a video game.
One of the most common criticisms of the film from its naysayers is that its limited use of locales and lengthy dialogue scenes make it feel more like a filmed stage play than an actual movie. And indeed, various aspiring drama students and resting actors over the years have decided to close the circle and adapt Tarantino’s script for the theater. It’s tough to work out what was the earliest adaptation, but judging by the timeline, one of the first must have been directed by future Tarantino collaborator Michael Fassbender. The Irish-German actor told WENN in 2009 that he staged a version in his own town of Killarney around 1995, only a few years after the film’s release. “I was 18 and I played Mr. Pink and I directed it as well. It was pure naivete and enthusiasm but a good lesson to learn by doing. I basically didn’t know what I was getting myself into and there were plenty of hitches. We lost our Mr. Orange about two weeks before we were opening, so I had to recast that. Then an 18-year-old giving directions to actors in their 20s; there were plenty of hiccups along the way. We also had problems finding a charity that would take our money – nobody wanted to be associated with ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ So, in the end, we had to go with a private charity and basically keep it anonymous. It’s funny that nobody wanted our money. I guess there was so much hype about the film at the time and it was so controversial.” It’s also been something of a staple at the Edinburgh Festival for over a decade, while there have been recent productions in Chicago, Denver and Panama. Most high-profile of all was Jason Reitman‘s stage reading earlier this year with an all-black cast, including Laurence Fishburne as Mr. White, Terrence Howard as Mr. Blonde, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Mr. Orange, Anthony Mackie as Mr. Pink and Anthony Anderson as Nice Guy Eddie. The film also inspired a poor-quality semi-official video-game in 2006 for the Playstation 2 and XBox, which sees Michael Madsen reprise his voice role, but no other cast members. The game was banned in Australia for its violence.