Okay, let’s get right on with it and (alphabetically) meet the Q&A participants....
Jason Bailey is the author of Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece (Voyageur Press, 2013). He is a graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and has written for The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, and The Village Voice. His latest book is The Ultimate Woody Allen Film Companion (Voyageur Press, 2014).
Jami Bernard is the writer of Quentin Tarantino: The Man and his Movies (Harper Perennial, 1995). The author, media consultant and film critic is a frequent guest on television and radio, including appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show and The Lynn Samuels Show, and is the founder of Barncat Publishing, which helps writers who are having trouble finishing and polishing their books. Her award-winning film reviews have appeared in the New York Post and the New York Daily News, and her articles have appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Glamour, Self, and Seventeen. She is a member and former chair of the New York Film Critics Circle as well as a member of the National Society of Film Critics. She has written several other books, including First Films: Illustrious, Obscure and Embarrassing Movie Debuts (Citadel, 1993), Total Exposure: The Movie Buff’s Guide to Celebrity Nude Scenes (Citadel, 1995), Chick Flicks: A Movie Lover’s Guide to the Movies Women Love (Citadel, 1996), and Breast Cancer, There and Back: A Woman-to-Woman Guide (Grand Central, 2009).
Wensley Clarkson is the author of Quentin Tarantino: Shooting from the Hip (Overlook Press, 1995), which has also been published under the alternate title Quentin Tarantino: The Man, the Myths and his Movies). He also wrote John Travolta: King of Cool (John Blake, 2005), Tom Cruise: Unauthorized (Hastings House, 1998) and Sting: The Secret Life of Gordon Sumner (Bradford, 1996). Most notably, the investigative journalist and television producer has written numerous true crime books, including The Railroad Killer: Tracking Down One of the Most Brutal Serial Killers in History (St Martin’s True Crime, 1999), The Good Doctor (St Martin’s True Crime, 2002), and The Mother’s Day Murder (St. Martin’s True Crime, 2013). His latest book is Cocaine Confidential: The True Stories Behind the World’s Most Notorious Narcotic (Quercus, 2014).
The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is Pulp Fiction worthy of celebration on its 20th anniversary?
Jason Bailey: It’s my humble opinion that Pulp Fiction is the starter pistol for modern cinema. Its self-conscious juxtaposition and subversion of genres, tropes, and structure presented a new way of thinking about both the act of making a movie and the act of watching one—and the coupling of that intellectual engagement with its more surface, visceral pleasures was particularly welcome after the formulaic moviemaking of the ‘80s.
Jami Bernard: Pulp Fiction was a true cultural phenomenon, in so many senses. In financial terms, it was the first “indie” film to defy commercial expectations and top $100 million at the domestic box office. There was also the way it seemed to spring from nowhere, feeling so fresh and unlike any other movie out there, even while playing with the conventions of so many known film genres. Pulp Fiction had staying power, too, the way it immediately altered the cinematic landscape, the way that audiences interacted with films, and the kind of kid who subsequently applied to film school. Twenty years later, the movie continues to exert cult appeal even though there is nothing cultish about its broad appeal and how its inside jokes (film references, for example) are wholly accessible. The overall appeal largely comes, auteur-style, from the way Quentin Tarantino was able to transfer his own idiosyncratic quirks, obsessions and pleasures onto the screen and into the zeitgeist (the “Tarantinoverse”).
Wensley Clarkson: It was a ground breaking movie, both structurally and dramatically. Tarantino’s love (and photographic memory) of other movies helps shape each of his projects, and he seems to have this uncanny ability to give the audience what they want in a way that no other director had done before him.
Coate: Can you recall your reaction to the first time you saw Pulp Fiction?
Bailey: I saw it opening night, and my immediate reaction was, “Okay, when do I have time to see it again?” (That was a Friday. I went back Sunday afternoon.) I knew I’d seen something thrilling and endlessly cool, but it did take a couple more viewings to fully process exactly how fresh and different it was, and to recognize its potential impact.
Bernard: I saw Pulp Fiction at its very first screening, at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and it was an insane, unforgettable experience, one of the few times in my life of filmgoing that I literally felt as if I were on a roller coaster, careening from one outrageous thrill (Marvin gets shot in the face by accident!) to the next (Uma Thurman bursting back to life from an adrenaline shot!). In general, critics like to see movies in quiet, cerebral circumstances, but this was a huge, shared audience experience... even though the French journalist sitting next to me clearly hated every minute of the film, while I was screaming and laughing with the sheer joy of it. I think it was the next day that [Pulp Fiction co-executive producer and Miramax co-founder] Harvey Weinstein had a lunch for the critics with all the cast members, and Harvey looked almost pale with the power of what he had on his hands, all the top critics in the world in a trance of excitement.
Clarkson: I loved it. Ironically, it felt more real than most movies even though it was really the stuff of fantasies!!! I liked the way that Tarantino had the courage to break the mold in terms of structure and how he wasn’t afraid to let his actors ramble on in a way that people do in real life. Tarantino is a master at creating his own move “world” in which anything is acceptable. The audience falls in love with horrible characters. That’s down to his writing and filmmaking. It is also a reflection of his own childhood where weird and wacky people seemed “normal” to him because he spent so much time either alone or in a movie theater.
Coate: What was the objective with your Pulp Fiction or Tarantino-themed books?
Bailey: Basically, we wanted to take the occasion of this anniversary to both celebrate the film for what it is and to recognize what made it so special and influential. So I aimed to make a book for both fans and theorists—to delve into the trivia and the making-of details and the fan art and all that fun stuff, while also giving it an intellectually-engaged close reading and analysis. My hope was that in making a book that was both full of surface pleasures and ideas, it would sort of work in the same way that the film does.
Bernard: I first met Quentin at the Toronto Film Festival when he was there for Reservoir Dogs, and he was like a puppy dog, running up to everyone to make sure they had a cassette tape of the soundtrack. With Pulp Fiction, it was clear he was going to be very famous, very fast, and I wanted to capture his beginnings before the puppy-dog-ness wore off and the trappings of fame, fortune, and sycophants set in.
Clarkson: I’m by trade a true crime writer, so the attraction to Tarantino is obvious! I wanted to tell his story in a way that reflected his own movies. I tried to match the pace and the set-ups using his real life as the “plot” so to speak. I hope it worked.
Coate: Where does Pulp Fiction rank among Quentin Tarantino’s films? Is it his best film?
Bailey: I go back and forth on this. It has become one of those movies that has been imitated (and often badly) so many times that it’s easy to devalue it, or take its influence for granted. But I think it remains his masterpiece—the movie that solidified what the Tarantino style was, and spoke most clearly with his cinematic voice.
Clarkson: I prefer Jackie Brown because I felt that it had more heart and soul in it. So I’d rate Pulp Fiction in second place in my top Tarantino list of movies. But having said that, it still stands the test of time. In fact, that’s another thing about Tarantino’s movies. They never seem to date, if you know what I mean. They are also just as entertaining each time you watch them. I find myself getting excited in anticipation of the next scene when it is approaching. It’s a nice personal way to watch movies and gives you a real connection with the story, if that makes any sense!!!
Coate: Pulp Fiction played several film festivals and opened in some international markets before opening in the United States. As well, when it did get released in the U.S. it opened “wide” (i.e. over 1,000 theaters simultaneously), which was not typical for an independent film release. In what way did this help (or hurt) the film?
Bailey: It helped not only this film but independent cinema in general, because it blurred the line between the multiplex and the arthouse, between mainstream and independent—in much the same way that the movie did. It is, after all, a weirdo two-and-a-half-hour Cannes Film Festival winner that’s also a Bruce Willis shoot-’em-up, so by releasing it as though it were only the latter, it was seen (and appreciated) by an audience that perhaps would’ve dismissed it if it’d come to them via a more traditional "platform" release.
Bernard: Before Pulp Fiction, indie films got “platform” releases, starting in one dusty arthouse in hopes of slowly building an audience. The decision to “go wide” had a lot to do with the genius of Harvey Weinstein, and clearly it was a good move. Pulp Fiction burst onto the scene, much the way it bursts into the consciousness of the viewer. In cultural terms, the success of its marketing campaign helped blur the stubborn line between what was thought of as an arthouse film (small, obscure, snobby) and a blockbuster (inflated budget, lowest-common-denominator appeal).
Clarkson: This both helped and hurt the movie, in my opinion, but it was a big test for Tarantino to be “out there” in the real world, so to speak, rather than the cozy confines of the big cities and the movie festivals. Mind you, Tarantino was helped by an amazing, highly commercial cast, wasn’t he? You have to remember that Tarantino is primarily writing movies for himself. He is the core audience and that means everyone else has a varied opinion of his films. He sets the tone. He takes the risks and sometimes a mainstream audience doesn’t always appreciate that. When Pulp Fiction got that wide release, Tarantino had to steal himself for a lot of criticism, some of which he took well and some of which he responded to like a petulant child. But so be it! With Tarantino you get what you see on the packet.
Coate: What is the legacy of Pulp Fiction?
Bailey: Huge question, and hard to answer succinctly. But I think, ultimately, its legacy is that it pulled mainstream moviemaking out of the nosedive into pre-fab formula that the ‘80s has plunged us into; for a good long while after its release, non-independent movies were a good deal smarter and more interesting than they had been (while indies recognized the value of working outside of their bubble, and using genre elements to their advantage). Now, if we could just get another one like it to shake us out of our current stupor... .
Bernard: Among other things, it helped transfer moviemaking into the hands of a new generation, for better or worse. Overall, I guess it was the cultural equivalent of shooting adrenaline into Uma Thurman’s heart: startling cinema back into wakefulness, with a zing.
Clarkson: Undoubtedly, Pulp Fiction set a precedent which few moviemakers have been able to come close to matching. In fact, I feel it is a huge mistake to try and copy what Tarantino does because he is such a unique character that you will always fail! Pulp Fiction was ground breaking in so many different ways that its legacy is a never ending story, but overall I would say it not only survives the test of time but it seems to have some magic ingredient in it which only Quentin Tarantino knows about.
Coate: Thank you, Jason, Jami and Wensley, for participating and sharing your thoughts on Pulp Fiction on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of its release.
- Michael Coate