TARANTINO’S “JACKIE BROWN” |
Discussed by Aaron Katz, Brendan McFadden, Ben Stambler and David Lowery
When Aaron Katz (director) and Brendan McFadden (producer) opened their first feature, Dance Party USA, I ran an interview with them on my blog. A little over a year later, on the eve of the theatrical release of their second feature, Quiet City, we sat down for a second conversation. This time, Brendan suggested that, instead of directly discussing the film at hand, we take up the reigns of the old ‘Watching Movies With…’ feature in the New York Times and talk about a movie we all had fond memories of and see what sort of commentary it dredged up. We chose Whit Stillman’s The Last Days Of Disco, which inspired much nostalgia, many tangents and the realization that we all had a mutual love for the late ’90s high school comedy Can’t Hardly Wait.
Now, as Katz ad McFadden prepare for the bow of their third feature, Cold Weather, at SXSW, we called each other up for another chat. This time, we were joined by the film’s co-producer Ben Stambler.
The film we chose to discuss was Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. — David Lowery
DAVID LOWERY: I watched the film last Wednesday, and then I was watching the extra features on a flight yesterday and the flight attendant came by and tapped me on the shoulder; I took my headphones off, and he said to me “That’s such a great movie! Max Cherry, what a guy!”
AARON KATZ: I wonder if it’s particularly popular among flight attendants.
LOWERY: I hadn’t seen the film since it was in theaters. I have a bad habit of watching films in theaters and then never seeing them again. It was really great to go revisit it and confirm that Tarantino did in fact make that movie before the Kill Bills and Inglourious Basterds.
BRENDAN MCFADDEN: Ben, when did you see it last?
BEN STAMBLER: I can hardly even really remember. It must have been film school, but I don’t remember it playing there, so I’m confused as to when I actually saw it. I have the memory of seeing it in a theater, but you know me and my memory. It could have been another movie.
KATZ: Or it could have been last week.
MCFADDEN: The last time I saw it in full was in the theater. I might have caught five-minute segments on TV since then.
KATZ: I saw it in the theater when it first came out. I actually remember really specifically —I saw it in this theater that doesn’t exist anymore. I remember I went to it by myself and was really excited — I had read a lot about it. And I remember what I had read about it was that it was so restrained, that it was so unlike what we were expecting him to make. And I remember that I told people at the time that I thought it was really great and strange and mature—keeping in mind that I was sixteen or seventeen—but secretly I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t more action packed.
LOWERY: That it wasn’t Kill Bill.
MCFADDEN: We all probably saw Pulp Fiction around the same time in our lives, and I remember that it was part of a year of moviegoing in 1994 when I started really going to movies by myself. I think I snuck into it, and it was a pretty seminal event. I think maybe we even talked about this last time…
LOWERY: Yeah, we did! I think we all snuck into it because we were all underage.
MCFADDEN: I think Pulp Fiction, like his other movies, is mostly about this visceral thrill you get when you’re watching it, you know?
LOWERY: Movies with a capital “M.”
MCFADDEN: Yeah, but I do think what’s interesting about Jackie Brown is that it doesn’t provide those same visceral thrills, and it works in kind of a different way.
LOWERY: It does. I recall reading a recent interview with Tarantino where he said that Jackie Brown was his “old man movie.” He made a film about characters older than him, and it was a mature and understated work. It got me thinking about that desire for filmmakers of that age—of our age—to deal with literal maturity. Aaron, I know you’ve written your old man script, and I know I’ve written mine, and I’m just curious what the appeal of making a film about the golden years, instead of quote-unquote writing what you know?
KATZ: I think maybe it’s just exploring something different. I think maybe the script you’re referring to is my California-in-the-70s script. I don’t actually remember what got me started writing that, but one of the things that got me really interested in it was writing something not about people my age. Maybe it’s that people in their late 20s or early 30s start to get interested in exploring things beyond themselves and empathize with people who are coming from different points of view or different walks of life.
LOWERY: I think at that age you sort of start to project towards what you’ll be like at that age and what you’ll be dealing with, and for better or worse, you’re almost trying to take care of it advance.
STAMBLER: I was saying to Katz the other day, with this movie you come away with a much greater sense of who the characters are, and there’s a great impact to the stakes later on. Robert DeNiro has maybe two paragraphs of dialogue in the entire movie, and yet you feel something when he’s killed. There’s sort of almost an element of those movies that parallels the movies that we’ve done or Aaron’s done — just letting the characters talk and letting there be some tangible value to it, even if it doesn’t directly relate to the plot.
LOWERY: There is wall-to-wall dialogue in the film, and when it comes down to it, the plot takes up very little of the actual movie. But it has a — I hesitate to say restraint, which it does have — but there’s this lack of urgency. It doesn’t feel like he’s showing off here. It’s really interesting to see that he’s capable of it, and I wonder if Tarantino is even aware of it, or if he really has said all he has to say in that style. It’s so easy to take someone like Tarantino, who’s such a character, and put these limits on him, but then you see something like this, with such a breadth of consideration and empathy, and it expands your understanding of what his capabilities are.
MCFADDEN: I think that knowing Tarantino as a persona, you can usually hear him writing that dialogue. There’s some of that in Jackie Brown, but, especially with Robert Forster, it’s all pretty ordinary. It doesn’t sound very written. Of all his movies, it’s the one where ordinary life slips in the most, and I think that’s what gives it the most emotional resonance for me.
LOWERY: I mean, it takes place almost entirely in this low-rent shopping mall, and these ugly little parts of Los Angeles. There’s none of the gloss that his films have now, but there’s a warmth to it, this texture…
KATZ: I appreciate that it’s not condescending. It’s a low-rent shopping mall — strip malls are things that could be portrayed in a very over-the-top way, but instead it’s a great portrait of California. There are a lot of movies shot in California, but very few that actually feel like it is to be in California. It’s in a slightly different world, but it also reminds me of how The Big Lebowski captured California really well. I’ve never lived in California, but I’ve spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, and I feel both films really capture what it’s like to be on the street there, or driving past a shopping mall in late afternoon.
LOWERY: The way the light hits the stucco walls.
MCFADDEN: I think he has a lot of affection for LA.
LOWERY: Speaking of filmmakers’ hometown cities, Cold Weather takes place in Portland. Aaron, was it nice to go back there to shoot something again for the first time since Dance Party USA?
KATZ: Yeah, it was really nice to capture what I feel is the real feeling of Portland. Dance Party kind of captures Portland, but since it takes place during the summer it doesn’t remind me of what it’s like in Portland, or what it felt like to grow up there. But I think Cold Weather does, and that was one of the main things that we wanted to do it — to have the location of the film play a really big part, and have it be specific to Portland, rather than having Portland just standing in for Anytown, USA.
MCFADDEN: It struck me as soon as we got there how much different an experience it was going to be from Dance Party. During the different season, and in a much different part of Portland. It just seemed like a different world.
LOWERY: So you make Dance Party USA, and then you make Quiet City, which premiered three years ago. When you were thinking about your next project, how conscious were you of other people’s expectations and your body of work as a whole?
KATZ: Um…I actually never before this second thought about the body of work as a whole, but I do think it’s fun to confound people’s expectations. But also, in writing, I have a hard time designing what I’m going to do by choice. I typically will get an idea and start writing on it, and maybe the first three ideas, I’ll write ten or twenty pages on and they’ll never go anywhere and I’ll move on. But the one of them, all of a sudden, does take, and I’ll keep writing on that. So there’s not that much choice involved. It’s whatever feels like it has momentum, and whatever I feel excited about. The script I’m working on right now is really different — it’s a period, 1920’s thing — and I haven’t even considered how it might be possible to make it. But I’ve been having a lot of fun writing it.
MCFADDEN: You were sort of talking about having this idea of who Tarantino is and the kind of movies he makes, and I think that generally, we tend to think that way about filmmakers based on what we’ve seen them do. I think we’re probably all somewhat conscious of not making any overt left turns simply to confound someone’s expectations, but as Aaron said, I think there’s some satisfaction in surprising people, and doing something different ourselves.
STAMBLER: Dance Party was like, “Hey, let’s make a movie, because no one has anything else to do.” Quiet City was “No one else is going to finance our movies, we can do this now, let’s just go ahead and do it.” I think we had less of a desire on this project to just toil away and borrow money from parents to get it made. So we were excited about it, and Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy were interested in it and ended up finding some money and helping us get it made. But it was still in that realm of: this is a movie we can make with a limited amount of resources, and because we have friends from film school, and a lot of the stuff, whether it was people’s time or the way they were willing to live during production, would be unacceptable on a quote-unquote Real Movie. I think the thing we’d all like to reach is being able to reward your friends for working on a movie instead of asking favors of them, and to have a production that’s still fun and exciting but not necessarily some sort of endurance test. A Fear Factor thing. Which is fun, but you don’t want to have that be the case over and over again.
MCFADDEN: One of the reasons we wanted to find at least a little bit of money was so that we could pay our friends. So they wouldn’t be losing money to be there.
LOWERY: You reach a point where you can’t ask people to work for free. You only have so many free credits you can cash in with your friends.
MCFADDEN: I kind of forgot how funny Michael Keaton is.
LOWERY: He’s great —and then he played the same character again in Out Of Sight.
MCFADDEN: Which was another movie — what, that was 1998? That’s the Soderbergh film I’ve most enjoyed.
KATZ: That’s another one I’d like to revisit. I saw it on VHS…
MCFADDEN: I saw it in the dollar theater.
LOWERY: I was a projectionist at the time, so I saw all these movies the night before they opened at 2 AM.
MCFADDEN: I think in high school and the beginning of college, we had some friends who worked at the theater, and I remember it being a lot of fun to go to those employee screenings and watch stuff. Sometimes just terrible stuff.
LOWERY: Watching Jackie Brown reminded me of screening the print of Supernova, that space movie that Robert Forster did right afterwards. His big budget follow-up after his career was re-launched.
KATZ: I was trying to remember what he did after that, after getting an Oscar nomination….
LOWERY: He was in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho and Human Nature, that Michel Gondry movie. Mulholland Drive, he was in that. He’s always in small parts in films by good directors.
MCFADDEN: I think the only thing I’d seen in ever was Medium Cool, and he played a much different sort of character, just by virtue of being younger and more vigorous.
KATZ: He’s so amazingly unvigorous in Jackie Brown. He’s so even keeled –
LOWERY: He pulls his pants up over his belly and he goes to see movies by himself in the afternoon.
MCFADDEN: Aside from being the most ordinary guy I’ve seen in a Tarantino movie, he’s just a sweet character. The whole relationship he has with Jackie Brown is almost like a sweet crush…
LOWERY: It’s funny, because my memory of the movie is not the way it actually ends. I remembered it with them kissing, but not her leaving while he’s on the phone. That ending is so great — that lingering shot of her face, which she really nails. It’s just fantastic.
KATZ: It’s interesting with this movie, as well as a few others that I used to not like that much as a seventeen or eighteen year old but I’ve had a chance to rewatch — I actually remember them differently. I remember them being different, and not just my perception of them being different. I remember I watched The Conversation when I was fifteen or sixteen and thought it was really boring. For a long time, I had all these memories of what it was like, and then saw it again towards the end of college and couldn’t believe I had ever thought it was stupid. It’s interesting how strongly you can feel something, especially when you’re in high school, and then totally feel the opposite just a few years later. Ten years later — I guess that’s a lot of time in someone’s life, but it’s not really that much time.
MCFADDEN: Well, like you were saying, my memory of Jackie Brown is that they got together at the end in a much more definite way. That was sort of the payoff. But really, the way it ends is almost like he’s just happy to have had the chance to spend some time with her for a while. Which is nice and more interesting than the way we remember it.
LOWERY: But I saw it when I was sixteen and a total romantic, so of course I remembered it through those rose colored glasses. Whatever life experience I’ve gained since then has allowed me to look at it, I don’t know, with a little more wisdom. And on that subject, we were talking earlier about trying to confound expectations, and while it’s fun to do that, I think it’s even more fun to just let yourself grow as a filmmaker. And you’ll just naturally make something that’s different than what people might expect and also very much a piece of you, as an artist, and what they expect from you in that regard. So gradually, even if they’re expecting Pulp Fiction 2 and they get Jackie Brown, they’ll realize that this is made by someone who’s worth watching and talented at what they’re doing and is progressing in their medium of choice. And that’s really, really exciting. So it was great to go back and watch Jackie Brown, and imagine myself, having been so shaken up by the earthquake that was Pulp Fiction at the age of fourteen, watching Jackie Brown at sixteen and realizing that this is what he’s chosen to make, and how am I going to deal with that? And that’s sort of how you grow.
KATZ: I think that part of my desire to surprise people is that — how do I phrase this — we all have interests in making a lot of different kinds of movies. And there’s been a lot of expectation that we can only make one kind of movie, and people are very eager to put Quiet City and Dance Party USA in a certain category…
STAMBLER: I think that expectation holds true for many directors’ trajectories. One you have a palette defined, very rarely do people deviate from it.
MCFADDEN: I think it’s frustrating sometimes that people only know you by the movies you’ve made. There was an article I was reading about Boaz Yakin, who made A Price Above Rubies and Fresh, and he was talking about all the projects he had that he couldn’t get off the ground. And he was really frustrated because people only knew him for Remember The Titans. And that often is something you run into, especially when you need money and a substantial amount of it. I think we all just want to make movies, and you don’t want to wait ten years to make your feature.
LOWERY: That’s the worst thing anyone could do, wait ten years to make their feature. A terrible idea.
MCFADDEN: I think filmmakers end up falling into a couple of camps. You either are somebody who really wants to make movies and enjoys doing it and if there’s an opportunity to make one, you’re going to go out and do it. Or you’re dead set on making this one particular movie in this particular way, and you’re not going to budge, even if it takes you ten years to do it. In the first group, there are people who are smart enough or lucky enough to be able to make movies continually but choose projects that they want, like Soderbergh or someone of that ilk who’s making movies left and right.
KATZ: I think the thing that interests me more than anything else is exploring the relationships between people in a truthful way, and why they do the things they do. To me, it’s just really exciting to try to do that in different circumstances, different genres, different types of people, different periods. Whether it’s a Western or a medieval move or a heist movie or a movie set in the future, it’s the people and trying to find out why they’re doing what they’re doing as honestly as possible. Affection for characters is one of the most important things — that’s one of the throughlines in movies I like.
MCFADDEN: We shot Cold Weather in the spring of 2009, and it was really the summer and part of the Fall we were working on it every day. And then, as I’m sure you know, the final part of the process, where you have one or two things left to do, seems to get extended forever.
KATZ: For us, Quiet City was a short, intense journey. Writing it to deciding to make it to making it to premiering it all happened in about six months, or even less actually, whereas this one has been a really long process. Maybe not too long compared to bigger movies, but for us a really long process that had a lot of focus on detail and getting everything right. We’ve been living with the movie in our own heads and focusing on these little details of sound and color, so it’s going to be great to sit down and just watch the movie.
STAMBLER: I would add, and it’s something that’s probably too big of a subject to even get into now, that one of the most bizarre things about making a movie is that 99.9 percent of the time, you work on this thing and you never really deal with an audience of more than three people stuffed in an editing room. It’s really a solitary experience. For me, as I become more cynical and picky, I have fewer and fewer experiences of being in a theater and having an amazing, organic and visceral experience with a large audience. And that can be one of the most exciting things about film, and that’s also one of the most difficult leaps to make with a movie you’ve been making. To take something that’s almost like a secret and show it to a bunch of people and see how they react. That’s the weird thing about Jackie Brown that occurred to me as I was watching it — I have no memory of what it was like at all to see it in a theater, but obviously it’s different. You forget how much it influences you — how weird it feels when, say, someone laughs when Bridget Fonda is shot. That’s why it’s such a unique art form — if it’s something that people just watch at home, it’s a different thing.
KATZ: I think that’s in part why I want to make movies. Because I love having that experience as an audience member, and I want to make movies that I’d want to experience in that way.
LOWERY: Have you guys turned in your tape to SXSW yet?
LOWERY: This time last year, I was madly in the sound mix stage. So you’re way ahead of where I was.
KATZ: Yeah, it was a real relief to turn over the tape and sit back and think, “That was that.”