FILMMAKER FLASHBACK: SUMMER, 1994
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was our Summer, 1994 cover. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. I didn’t go to Cannes and saw the film with only a few other people a couple of weeks later at the Magno screening room. I completely loved it, wanted it for the cover, but, for reasons I can’t remember, we couldn’t get an interview with Quentin. Nor could we get good original art. So, we commissioned a cover from Mark Zingarelli , interviewed the producers (Lawrence Bender and Stacy Sher), and got the great critic, author and poet Geoffrey O’Brien to write an appreciation of the film that considered its ties to, well, pulp fiction.
Cornell Woolrich and Frederic Brown were writers who mined the gray zone between supernatural or (in Brown’s case) extraterrestrial horror on the one hand and criminal violence and madness on the other: Woolrich with the humorless intensity of the true paranoid, Brown with a sort of spaced-out whimsy that might have sprung from the brain of an alcoholic reporter steeped in chess and Lewis Carroll. Both dealt heavily in the realm of improbable coincidences and cruel cosmic jokes, a realm which Pulp Fiction makes its own.
Just how deeply Woolrich’s I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me vision has permeated noir mythology is evident from a partial list of the films based on his work, including Rear Window, The Leopard Man, The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Phantom Lady, I Married a Shadow, and Maxwell Shane’s poetic quickie, Fear in the Night (1947). Brown’s work has not been so fortunate – only Gerd Oswald’s inimitably sleazy Anita Ekberg vehicle, Screaming Mimi, springs to mind – but the diabolically engineered plot twists of his novels The Far Cry (1951), The Wench is Dead (1955), The Murderers (1961), and his masterpiece, Knock Three-One-Two (1951), show a clear affinity with the crisscrossing and recursive narrative lines in Pulp Fiction.
Tarantino does not exactly dabble in the supernatural, but he bends space and time in ingenious ways and goes so far as to broach the possibility of divine intervention. Horror movies provide a constant reference point – Uma Thurman’s eleventh-hour resurrection might have been lifted from The Evil Dead, and the sadists into whose clutches Bruce Willis falls have in their arsenal a chainsaw that would have done Tobe Hooper proud. In any event, we are clued early on that we have entered a fantastic world when – in a visual gimmick worthy of Frank Tashlin – the hand gesture by which Uma Thurman signs the squareness she hopes John Travolta will avoid is transformed momentarily into a glittering rectangle.
The twist endings of Woolrich and Brown tended to have the effect of a trap snapping shut: the door slams and there’s no way out, the nightmare turns out to be real, the hope of rescue is revealed as an optical illusion. The irony of Tarantino’s creation is that its twist endings are all upbeat, in each case re-routing a descent into living hell toward an unexpectedly happy ending. If Pulp Fiction is not quite “the feel-good movie of the year,” it nonetheless imparts a kind of sweet relief, the relief a hostage might feel at being permitted to live another day.
Also in this issue, Paula Bernstein interviewed David O. Russell, who was debuting with Spanking the Monkey. Russell had had a brief deal at New Line to make the movie; it wound up not happening there and he raised the money privately. Fine Line, New Line’s arthouse division, then bought the film. He offered this advice to filmmakers:
The main thing I’d want to tell the Filmmaker audience is, when you’re outside there in the cold, you think, “if only I had a deal at New Line, things would be great.” Well, we had a deal at New Line and it didn’t solve any of our problems. You just get a whole other set of problems, and we didn’t solve them. That’s why we were back on the street. New Line optioned the film for like a three-month period or something. All of the sudden, how are they going to justify their budget? So, they have to get big casting. Can you get big casting when you’re a no-name director with controversial material? No. We got the best casting director in Hollywood to help us, David Rubin, who cast for The Addams Family and The Firm. He’s done major pictures and he was on our side. He loved the script and he was helping us for practically nothing, but we could not get the casting New Line required. New Line basically asked us to do the impossible. Plus, you have to go through multiple rewrites with executives which is also sort of torturous. But I’d say we benefited from those rewrites. We didn’t keep them per se, but there’s always an idea or two that comes up.
Finally, producers Anthony Bregman (Synecdoche, New York, and The Extra Man, among many others) and Mary Jane Skalski (among her credits, The Visitor), who were both part of Good Machine, wrote a piece called “The Myth of the Seven Thousand Dollar Film.” This was our necessary corrective to all the mainstream press hailing Robert Rodriguez for making El Mariachi for seven thousand bucks. In the article, Bregman and Skalski walked filmmakers through the delivery process, detailing the items that cause that seven grand to escalate rapidly. And, you know what? Even though this article is 15+ years old, it’s still an informative read. Yes, many of the delivery items have changed, but the imposing nature of the process is the same. Here’s how they opened:
If you’re like most low-budget filmmakers, the word “deliverables” probably ranks somewhere at the very bottom of your List of Major Concerns, below “Outline my next film” and above “Pay back Uncle Mort’s $1,000 loan.” And rightly so; when you’re consumed with worries about scraping together cash to buy stock or about getting through the mix before the festival screening, what’s the point of worrying about abstract future concerns like E&O Insurance, Chain of Title documentation, and internegative checkprints?
But unlike Uncle Mort, deliverables will come back to haunt the unsuspecting independent filmmaker like a hidden line item threatening to dwarf the rest of the production budget. As producer James Schamus says, “When you’ve finished your film, you’re just about halfway through.” In other words, after the rude awakening of deliverables, you might find yourself crawling back to Uncle Mort to beg him for another $30,000 to $80,000 to provide you with the means to actually sell and jrelease what used to be your miraculously produced no-budget film.
Creation of deliverables is a huge and consuming process that accompanies any film lucky enough to get any level of sales or distribution. From the distributor’s perspective, a timely and high-quality delivery is the backbone of a film’s release. But from the producer’s perspective, delivery can make the difference between a film’s profitability and further debt. And for the low and no-budget filmmaker who has already plumbed the depths of fundraising and charity, the creation of deliverables can be a desperate struggle.