‘Pulp Fiction’ 25: What It Was Like at Cannes When the World First Saw Tarantino’s Masterpiece

Tarantino's ninth film, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," is competing at Cannes, 25 years after his second, Palme d'Or-winner "Pulp Fiction."
Turner Willis de Medeiros Travol Actress Kathleen Turner, at center, poses with cast and crew members of the film "Pulp Fiction" at the 47th Cannes Film Festival in France, . From left to right: actor Bruce Willis; actress Maria de Medeiros; actor John Travolta; Turner; director Quentin Tarantino; actor Samuel L. Jackson; and producer Lawrence BenderCANNES PULP FICTION 1994, CANNES, France
The "Pulp Fiction" team at the Cannes Film Festival
Gilbert Tourte/AP/REX/Shutterstock

After taking Sundance by storm with his uber-violent debut feature “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992, two years later the 31-year-old Quentin Tarantino hit the Cannes Film Festival in May with his tour-de-force neo-noir “Pulp Fiction,” which was entered in Competition.

I was knocked out like everyone else by this bravado exercise in cinema style, from the casting of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as wordsmith hitmen to Ving Rhames and Uma Thurman as a gangster and his moll to Bruce Willis as Butch the boxer. It’s hard to remember that these roles boosted all their careers, and it’s hard to quantify the impact this violent hardboiled comedy had on hosts of imitators to come.

But the career that truly exploded was high-school dropout Tarantino, whose film school was clerking at an L.A. video store. At Cannes, for my upcoming Entertainment Weekly feature, I whipped out my Sony tape recorder as we stretched our legs on adjoining chaise lounges on the Carlton Beach and talked about how he made his movie. He was young and enthusiastic, rattling off multiple influences, from Jean-Luc Godard and John Woo to Wyatt Earp.

The festival began with the French railing that the Americans didn’t send enough important films or stars; it ended with an American movie snatching the Palme d’Or: “Pulp Fiction” was the first stateside film to capture the prize since the Coens’ “Barton Fink” in 1991.

“Pulp Fiction” earned raves, and when it opened the New York Film Festival, it sent one diabetic into a faint when Thurman’s bad-girl gets a humongous hypodermic needle in the chest. “Is there a doctor in the house?” Tarantino loved it.

The Cannes Film Festival 1994 Pulp Fiction John Travolta & Quentin TarantinoThe Cannes Film Festival
John Travolta and Quentin Tarantino at the Cannes Film FestivalAlan Davidson/REX/Shutterstock

I followed my Cannes interview with an L.A. visit to Tarantino’s $1200-month apartment on Crescent Heights Boulevard (his red Geo Metro was parked outside), crammed with 70s board games, blaxploitation posters and collectible lunch boxes as well as a real Samurai sword. Six months into promoting “Pulp Fiction,” he was already anxious about getting his next ideas onto yellow legal pads, “driving into the fog,” he said. His plan was to hang onto his freedom via modest budgets.

The $8.5 million “Pulp Fiction” hit big enough — making $212 million worldwide, plus earning Tarantino two Oscar nominations (out of seven) and an Original Screenplay win — to score Tarantino (via his long-time patron, distributor Harvey Weinstein) higher and higher budgets, partly because his movies play well all over the world.

Tarantino has returned to Cannes many times, sometimes as a spectator (we memorably hung out into the wee hours one night with Tim Robbins and Marina Zenovich at the Hotel du Cap), others as a competitor (“Inglourious Basterds” and “Death Proof”), and as the head of the 2004 jury that awarded the Palme d’Or to “Fahrenheit 911.” Only when Weinstein left the scene did Tarantino make a deal with a studio head, Sony’s Tom Rothman, to back his next movie, a show business story set in 1969, with a $95-million budget.

Once Upon a Time in HollywoodSony Pictures

The 2019 Cannes Competition entry “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is Tarantino’s ninth out of a possible ten films, and has generated more excitement than anything else in the festival. Tarantino and his stars Brad Pitt, who starred in Tarantino’s last Cannes entry a decade ago, “Inglourious Basterds,” Leonardo DiCaprio (“Django Unchained”) and Margot Robbie, playing her first role for the director (Sharon Tate), are adding much-needed star wattage to the festival as they walk the red carpet for the 35 mm world premiere at the Grand Theatre Lumiere Tuesday night, which will be followed by a glittering rooftop after-party at the Hotel Marriott.

The press have been struggling to land limited interview spots over the next few days. Stay tuned for our coverage.

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