”Is there a doctor in the house?” cried a voice from the audience. It was opening night at the New York Film Festival, and less than an hour into Pulp Fiction, pulp fact made a sudden impact: Just as Uma Thurman’s drug-addled moll took one humongous hypodermic to the heart on screen, a man passed out in the crowd. As the lights went up and tuxedoed doctors flocked to the fallen filmgoer (a diabetic in need of a Coke), Quentin Tarantino had to stifle a grin.
Pulp Fiction is packed with such guilty pleasures. Number one at the box office since its release on Oct. 14, Tarantino’s second film shoots the express track from horror to glee and back as its dauntless characters — led by hit men John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, boxer Bruce Willis, and bad girl Thurman — go about bloodying their B-movie lives.
The drumbeat of publicity for Pulp Fiction has been building for so long — since it won the Palme d’Or last May at Cannes — that you may already know what a bundle of high-contrast impulses the 31-year-old Tarantino is. You may already have read that he left school at 16 and expanded his encyclopedic knowledge of film as a clerk in a suburban L.A. video store. You may already have gleaned that the director sees himself as a writer first, or an actor first, and that he’s so talkative and sweet-spirited he’s bound to contradict himself trying to agree with you. You may have heard how appreciative Tarantino is of the entire filmmaking spectrum — from Jean-Luc Godard to John Woo to Wyatt Earp — and how he can’t stand what Oliver Stone did to his script for Natural Born Killers. You may know of Tarantino’s collections of ’70s board games and lunch boxes and may have seen the trash-culture connoisseur ebulliently show David Letterman how the Aristocats did the twist. You may have watched Letterman heap praise on Pulp Fiction five times in as many weeks as Tarantino, Travolta, Jackson, and Willis (twice) took turns as prerelease guests. And you may be thinking, Enough already. Well, sometimes, so is Quentin Tarantino.
”I want to, like, spend a year. I want to just spend some time, sleeping late, watching films, watching my video, watching my laserdisc. Hang out with my friends. Travel. And then, just kind of, like, organically find it.”
At 9:30 a.m. Tarantino is looking slightly rumpled and talking less quickly than usual as he blends an ugly potion of coffee, protein powder, and Sweet ‘n Low in his kitchen. In the midst of his six-month, fame-making promotional marathon, he’s thinking the unthinkable: sabbatical. ”I’ve talked to people in the industry, and I say I’m taking a year off, and they go, ‘How can you afford to?”’ he recounts, shifting into narrative gear. ”They don’t even get the moves.”
He follows with several hundred rapid-fire words on what it takes out of a person to make a movie, how the clock’s always ticking, how you can’t plan an evening out. For Tarantino, time to ”organically find it” means locating the next idea worth spending two years realizing even as it ruins his life. ”And the worst part is at the very beginning,” he says, ”the very, very, very beginning, when you’re kind of driving into the fog. You’re not in the fog yet, but you see the fog.”
Thus Tarantino girds himself. He’s already looking past this moment in the sun and the requirements of show business. He figures he can keep making modestly budgeted movies because, however risky his violent, speechifying concoctions may prove here, ”America is just another market.” A major name overseas since Reservoir Dogs, his 1992 directorial debut, Tarantino has been mobbed by fans in Paris and Tokyo. Tarantino says the $1.5 million Dogs — more violent and concentrated than Pulp — has earned a remarkable $7 million in video sales and $6 million from its theatrical run in the U.K. ”My attitude,” he says, hands flailing as usual, ”is, How little money can I get and still make exactly the movie I want to make? Because the less I spend the more I’ll make.”
That’s not greed talking but caution. His clothing is still strictly grunge; his car, a red Geo Metro; his shelter, a $1,200-a-month one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood that he began renting in 1993. The idea: Keep the overhead low. ”I’m trying to get away from this hit/flop horse-race mentality that Hollywood has.” But Tarantino says that thanks to foreign advances, the $8 million Pulp was in the black before it opened, and he isn’t above needling the competition. Ten days and $21 million into Pulp‘s run, he says: ”We’ll make more money for Miramax by the end of the week than The Specialist will for Warners a year from now.”