Wes Craven was not stuck in the middle during a screening of Reservoir Dogs 25 years ago; the late horror maestro apparently walked out of Quentin Tarantino’s explosive debut during the film’s centerpiece torture scene.
That, at least, is how it happened according to Tarantino himself, who reunited with cast members Harvey Keitel (Mr. White), Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink), Tim Roth (Mr. Orange), and Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde) at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday night for an anniversary screening of Reservoir Dogs.
“There was all this talk, the next day about the torture scene,” Tarantino said about how the film was received after its first screening at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992. In the sequence, Madsen’s Mr. Blonde tortures a police officer while Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays on the soundtrack. The scene, which cuts away from the most violent part (when Mr. Blonde cuts off the cop’s ear), became a “big, big thing” after its Sundance debut, according to Tarantino, who remembered discussing it at the time with Buscemi.
“Steve, he comes to me and he goes, ‘Quentin, did you hear what everyone is saying? They’re saying the torture scene ruins the movie!'” Tarantino said. “And I go, ‘What are they talking about? It’s the best thing in the f—ing movie! Did you see how many people walked out? That’s the sh–!'”
As Tarantino recalled, he spent the better part of 1992 traveling Reservoir Dogs around the world to various film festivals. At each stop, he would count how many walkouts occurred (the high, he said, was 33). But when Tarantino arrived at Spain’s Sitges Film Festival in October of that year, he expected a more forgiving crowd.
“They showed Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, which was just drowned in zombie guts and brains,” Tarantino said of the Sitges Film Festival, which specializes in fantasy and horror films. “Finally I’ve got an audience that won’t walk out. I even joked about that in the opening introduction for the movie.”
He was wrong. “Five people walked out of that audience, including Wes Craven,” Tarantino said. “The f—ing 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.”
Tarantino and Madsen said they rehearsed the concept of the torture scene many times, but Madsen didn’t perform his memorable dance until the day of shooting.
“You never made me do it in rehearsal because I was so intimidated by it. I didn’t know what to do,” Madsen recalled. “In the script, it said, ‘Mr. Blonde maniacally dances around.’ I remember specifically that’s what it said. And I kept thinking, ‘What the f— does that mean? Mick Jagger?'”
Tarantino said the entire scene was done in three takes, but Madsen’s dance occurred during the first.
“I didn’t know what the hell to do. I heard that music and I said, ‘Oh f—, I better do something,'” Madsen said. “I remember thinking about Jimmy Cagney. I remember this weird little thing he did in a movie I saw. He did this crazy little dance thing and it just popped into my head at the last second. That’s where it came from.”
In the 25 years since the debut of Reservoir Dogs, the torture scene has remained one of Tarantino’s most famous. Unsurprisingly, it still follows Madsen around to this day as well.
“I went to Michigan to open up this theater. They were going to name it for Michael Madsen. And I thought it was great,” Madsen recalled. “They sent me a memo of what I was supposed to do and it said, ‘First we’ll announce the naming of the theater and then Michael Madsen will come out doing the Mr. Blonde dance.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God! There is no way I’m going to do that.’ I started imagining myself at 80 years old, someone asking me to do the Mr. Blonde dance. It’s been following me around forever.”