Band of Outsiders: A Conversation between Reservoir Dogs Director Quentin Tarantino and In the Soup Director Alexandre Rockwell
The following conversation between directors Quentin Tarantino and Alexandre Rockwell was published in Filmmaker‘s Winter, 1993 issue, as these films hit commercial release. It is being reprinted today, as Reservoir Dogs celebrates the 30th anniversary of its premiere at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.
Friendship, loyalty, and honor–all are classic film themes which, ironically, can sometimes be hard qualities to find in the world of filmmaking. For every film that beats the odds and manages to get made, independent or otherwise, there are a hundred shattered deals, broken promises, and crushed filmmakers left in the shadows.
This year two filmmakers managed to surmount the obstacles and create works in which the themes mentioned above linger with particular resonance. Alexandre Rockwell has been making independent features for years but In the Soup, recently released by Triton, is his breakthrough picture. (An earlier feature, Sons, is due for release in early 1993). Bound to warm the heart of any struggling independent filmmaker, Rockwell uses the swarmy, hilarious desperation of film fundraising, and the unexpected human relationships the process can produce, as the organizing principle for his engaging, character-based comedy.
Quentin Tarantino, whose first feature Reservoir Dogs is currently in release for Miramax, looks similarly for honor in unexpected places: a mortuary cum garage being used as a bullpen by a group of bloody, beaten gangsters. On the surface, the films are quite different but Rockwell and Tarantino spotted enough in their shared experiences and themes to sit down together and trade war stories. — Scott Macaulay
Tarantino: My budget was $1.3 million and they gave us $200,000 more after we were through editing for the lab and sound mix. What was your budget?
Rockwell: It was about $800,000 but it was discovered as we made [the film], though. I wanted to get the ball rolling because I was tired of waiting to make a movie so I was just gonna start shooting with whatever I had.
Tarantino: But how much did you have when you started?
Rockwell: About $15,000. It was an interim thing until some foreign money came in. I started bankrolling it by borrowing money from people and then hopefully reimbursing them, which never happened. Hopefully that will happen down the line. I wanted to get the momentum going. It always came down to “do you want this shot bad enough that you’re gonna pay for it yourself.” And I can’t say no. It’s so weird cause you can think of a shot that might not even be that important. But if you have that little voice in back of you saying, “Are you fucking compromising because you don’t have enough money?” Man, fuck that, do it… What I was struck by in your film was the acting, the ensemble of people. With me, I had a lot of rehearsal time. Did you spend a lot of time rehearsing?
Tarantino: Yeah, I had two weeks of rehearsal straight.
Rockwell: Was that paid for or was it just something you did?
Tarantino: It was the last two week of pre-production. We had to pay the actors for it, but SAG’s got a fairly decent rate for that and they were all into the idea. I looked at it like they were two weeks completely well spent because when it came time to shoot these things – bang, we were ready to go.
Rockwell: That’s how we were too. We had spent three weeks rehearsing but we also spent three weeks hanging out in my apartment and playing ping pong, getting to know each other.
Tarantino: It was important. It completely bonded the dogs together. We were the dogs when we finished. It gave me an immense amount of confidence. I just knew that if I could keep this film in focus, I had a good movie. If worse came to worse and I drew a blank or something, I could shoot it in a standard TV, boring, over the shoulder-two shot-master and I’d have a good scene. ’Cause these guys were good.
Rockwell: I think that with a lot of young directors, that’s where they get insecure when they show up and they’ve got these heavy actors like a Seymour Cassel or a Harvey Keitel. But rehearsal is so great because –
Tarantino: –you get all of that out of the system. Good actors don’t intimidate me. Because no matter how hard you work, they’re only going to be so good. People say, “You know that opening scene in your movie? Was that improvised?” To me, my stuff sounds written, not in a bad way, but it’s a good compliment to the actors that they made it sound real. But to me, your stuff sounds improvised.
Rockwell: I would pay you that compliment as well. What I did is–rehearsals are the last draft of the film. I wanted a playful quality between Steve [Buscemi] and Seymour, and in the rehearsals we got a lot of magical stuff. So I would take those lines and put them in the script. I write for people I know. I know Jenny [Beals], Steve and Seymour, so I know the kinds of things they say. There’s a big misinterpretation with Cassavettes, that his stuff was improvised. The actors rehearsed and they were prepared. Cassavettes was one of my heroes, so working with Seymour brought up all that Cassavettes stuff. One of the things he said after the film was, “Alex, like John, you’re a good audience.” I think that’s the key for a director sometimes. Actors really want that. So many directors don’t give actors any feedback.
Tarantino: When you get on a professional movie set, there’s actually so little for you to do as a director because you’ve got all these different people taking care of everything for you. The one person you’ve got to actually deal with is the actor. No one is going to deal with the actors but you.
Rockwell: You find a rhythm of a film in your actors. You’re right, because that’s one of my beefs. You know that trend in Hollywood, “Let anybody direct, we don’t need auteurs anymore.” People get freaked out by that but in the Hollywood system, that’s fucking normal, man! The bottom line is that there really aren’t that many directors because ultimately, you’re right, they surround themselves with great d.p.s, with all these kind of people. So they just kind of sit back and hang out at craft services or look at a video assist. Whereas a low-budget film, you’re forced to deal with your actors because you have to be right there, you have to be part of everything.
Tarantino: I didn’t have a video assist when I did this movie nor did I want one because I didn’t want to run the risk of being buried in the monitor. For me, it’s very important to be, boom, right there with the camera.
Rockwell: I used a video assist a couple of times on In the Soup and I saw right away, man, that the video assists start directing the film.
Tarantino: Oh, you better believe it.
Rockwell: Because when you say cut, all of a sudden everybody–the d.p., the actors if you let them–gathers around that fucking thing and it’s no longer “I think the take is good.” When you say, “Cut,” the attention has to be on the director. The actors should trust you and say, “What’d you think?” But if you use the video assist, the video assist starts directing the movie.
Tarantino: You’re a hundred-percent right. When I do have a video assist, I won’t have a playback!
Rockwell: Once or twice I was wrong and I thought this take was better than that one–it didn’t happen all the time–but the thing was, once in a while it happened and when I was wrong and was proven wrong by the fucking video thing, credibility goes down about five thousand notches.
Tarantino: The way you designed your script is similar to a script that I wrote called True Romance. I designed [it] to have to characters that will take you from the beginning of the movie until the end of the movie but they keep meeting people all along the way. When they meet those people, the movie almost becomes about them. In the Soup seemed very much like that. Did you write it that way on purpose, to get a bunch of cool guest stars to come in?
Rockwell: I wanted to do a partly autobiographical film. Hopefully at the end of the film, you realize that all those events made the man, made Steve who he is. I wanted to have all these events happen to him, kind of like a novel. It really gets under my skin when I hear critics say the film is a shaggy-dog tale that goes off in different directions that never tie up.
Tarantino: It’s not about tying up.
Rockwell: No, it’s not. It’s about events affecting the whole, the arc of the film. The shooting of it was a gas because we’d run out of energy all the fucking time and then we’d bring in a Will Patton for a day and all of a sudden we’d get a charge from that guy or, for example, we’d bring in the old man, like Sully, for a day.
Tarantino: See, when they’re on, it becomes their movie for a bit.
Rockwell: That was the idea. Because, see, [the Steve Buscemi character] is a filmmaker and he’s seeing these characters and their possibilities and it’s affecting him because he has his head in the stars. He wants to make a great movie, right, when the whole idea of the film is that his world is what he has to look at–who he meets, the guy he buys cigarettes from in the corner store. That guy can change his life. That is the thing I am probably most happy with in the film. You don’t have time for that usually. But the structure of the film was set up in such a way that I knew the beginning, the middle, and the end. It’s like a road movie. You can stop off at a gas station and a guy can give you his life story. I also want to have fun when making a movie and people excite me. That scene with Sully, we reinvented the scene as we worked it. That scene innately could be a very sad and tragic scene and there is an element of sadness in it. But [Sully] started laughing at one point during the scene and then I knew I had gold. I look for those unexpected moments.
I want to ask you something. What I really loved about Reservoir Dogs is that it was almost like [the characters] were in a spaceship in that garage and you dealt with a huge universe. That’s a good idea when conceiving of low-budget films. You have to work with your strengths and your strengths are your actors. Was that part of your original concept, knowing you didn’t have a whole lot of money, to center it in one location like that?
Tarantino: I wrote the film to be done for like $30,000, 16mm–like what Nick Gomez did with Laws of Gravity, that’s what I was going to do with this movie. I wasn’t going to have Harvey Keitel or anybody like that. It would be me and some friends of mine. And the script takes place in a warehouse but I never thought I’d be able to get a warehouse. I figured it was going to be in somebody’s body shop. We got the money to do it like a real movie. So I’m going to the L.A. County Film Office where they’ve got zillions of folders for warehouses and I’m going through them and every place was so boring it was making me rethink this warehouse idea. I was thinking, I’m going to have to shoot this in black or white for it to look like anything. Anyway, while I was there, this guy was putting together a folder and he said, “I’ve got something that could be a warehouse.” And he showed me this mortuary that he was the agent on. And the garage of this mortuary was perfect. It wasn’t as big as a warehouse. It was a big garage and it gave us enough room to move around, to do any shot that I wanted, dolly shots, 360s, whatever. I could do all that stuff but it wasn’t so much room that the actors could ever retreat and get into opposite corners.
Rockwell: It was a perfectly designed space for the story. In a weird way, what we’re saying is that there are advantages in low-budget filmmaking in conception. It’s almost like a backhanded comment but yours is a bit of a bigger-budget film that looks like a low-budget film. I mean, it is a low-budget film but you have the concept. An intimacy you can get with a low-budget film.
Tarantino: Nick Gomez and I did a TV show together in Canada and they said, “Well, you had a fortune compared to what he had.” Yeah, compared to what Nick had for Laws of Gravity, I had a fortune. But, it doesn’t work out that way. Because he only had $38,000, he shot it guerrilla style. Because we had more money, we couldn’t do it guerrilla style. We had to do it like a regular movie, shoot where we had a full crew, like thirty people. We had trailers and all that stuff. We had to play the game without having enough money to play the game.
Rockwell: So it brought the same constraints on you?
Tarantino: Yeah. The pluses we had with more money–we could afford better sound, all the way down the line. We had the extra $10,000 to shoot scope. We could afford to get a few little songs.
Rockwell: I think people should become addicted to constraints because it keeps you honest, it keeps you real. That’s why a lot of filmmakers who’ve made lower-budget films who go to make bigger-budget films get lost. They lost their thing. That’s why Werner Herzog goes off into jungles and shit–he creates his obstacles, no matter how much money he’s got.
Tarantino: It’s funny, though. Especially if you’re dealing with action. Action equals days. You need the days to pull off an action sequence. The way we’re able to do this on Dogs, on a thirty-day schedule, I went through the whole film and could pretty much figure out… I said, “look, I need three days to do the opening sequence, the scene in the pancake house with everybody talking. But, I can do this scene in a half a day.” And I was right.
Rockwell: Had you ever made films before to get a sense of how much time you’d need?
Tarantino: Yeah, I’d shot a 16mm feature for like three years that ended up becoming guitar picks because I couldn’t do anything with it. That film was like my film school because I never went to film school. I couldn’t even afford to process the footage. So after three years I finally saw what I had. And I was financing it from a minimum-wage job in a video store. When I actually saw the footage, I realized that I couldn’t do anything with it. But I learned during this time what to do, how to nail a scene.
Rockwell: That’s important for filmmakers to know. It’s not like, pop! In the Soup! Pop! Reservoir Dogs. These things come from making a fuckload of mistakes before you get that film. Directors shouldn’t get depressed. They should shoot film and don’t get fucking depressed if it’s terrible.
Tarantino: That Robert Rodriguez guy, who did El Mariachi, said something smart in Toronto. He said that he’d been making films on home video since he was a little kid and then he goes to film school and realizes that all these film buffs had never made a movie before. They just loved movies. So they go out and spend $1,000 on their student film and it doesn’t work and they get discouraged and say “I guess I’m just not a director.” But they never really gave themselves a chance.
Rockwell: For years I put film school down because the last thing I wanted to learn was rules, like you can’t cut 180 degrees around. Why the fuck can’t you do that?
Tarantino: People all the time were saying to me on that 16mm set, people who went to film school, “Quentin, you’ve got to learn the rules before you can break them.”
Rockwell: Which is bullshit. That’s what kicked my ass about Reservoir Dogs. You threw out all the rules. When I watched it, I didn’t know what the fuck next was going to happen. But you were definitely telling me a story. You construct your whole [film] around an event you never see and you also start with the ending. I really responded to that. It kept me off center but it also kept me watching and interested. I heard you once talk about a novelistic approach…
Tarantino: These days, everything is “Keep the plot moving. If it doesn’t keep the plot moving, it’s got to go.” What does that mean?
Rockwell: That’s retarded 101 filmmaking. That’s why I’m glad I didn’t go to film school.
Tarantino: It’s like that Syd Field crap… When I started this shoot, I wouldn’t have been able to tell my d.p., Andre, “Well, I want a 352 lens for this shot.” I could describe to him what I want. After a while, I could say, “No, we need to be a little closer, let’s try the forty.” I picked it up. So many people are so intimidated because they don’t know all the answers.
Rockwell: Sam Fuller said to me [on the set of Sons], “Listen kid, if you’ve got it up here [in your head], you can put it up there [on the screen].” There’s a real truth in that. That’s why you have cameramen and actors. You’ve got to trust those people. I think Hitchcock hurt a lot of people by saying how the shooting process was something he couldn’t stand. He loved writing the script and the shooting was just some awkward stage he went through. That’s misleading. That’s what Brando did for actors–fucked them up. The bottom line is that you’ve got to enjoy the actual “doing of it” because that’s how you’re going to learn.
Tarantino: I gave Terry Gilliam a special thank you in this movie. I met him at the Sundance workshop. I asked him a question and he said something which should be obvious but him saying it made it achievable. I said, “Mr. Gilliam, you have a vision that carries over in every single movie that you do. How do you achieve that special vision in each one of your different movies?” And he said, “I have the vision in my head and all I have to do is hire a good cinematographer, good production designer, good costume designers and my job is to articulate that vision to them. After I’ve articulated it, they take it and go to the moon with it.”
Rockwell: Talking about people for credits and stuff–try to find mentors, people who’ve done it, and talk to them. Like Cassavettes was a big guy to me. Here’s a guy who is dying, literally, calling me and saying “What the fuck are you complaining about, man, you’d be robbing banks or you’d be in Reservoir Dogs [laughs] if you weren’t making movies. So just make ’em and save me a seat in the front row.” And it’s true. I wouldn’t be doing any other thing in the darkest moment of In the Soup, when I owed all this money. Those are the kind of fucking struggles that make you feel alive.
Tarantino: I actually enjoy shooting. I laugh my ass off, there’s so much funny stuff happening. You’ve got this camaraderie. You’re never more alive. I always go to bed excited and happy. I always enjoy the rushes the next day.
Rockwell: I was thinking that we should talk about influences at some point. You might not feel this way, but I feel a real camaraderie with you and your work. A lot of people might see In the Soup and Reservoir Dogs and on the surface see nothing to do with one another but I see a lot in common with these two movies. There’s no one star, they’re about people, loyalty, friendships, betrayal. I don’t know if they have common influences or not.
Tarantino: I have a list of a zillion directors that have influenced me. People say, “Did you go to film school and I say, no, I went to films.”
Rockwell: That’s what I did. I saw three films a day for my formative years. I never went to film school. We’re like a sum total of our film influences. Whether it’s the Three Stooges and Tarkovsky or, with you, some creature film from the black lagoon and Jean Pierre Melville.
Tarantino: I’ve been influenced by European art films and the French New Wave. At the same time I’ve been equally influenced by the New World exploitation films of the ’70s. And the blaxploitation films of AIP, the Pam Grier films, the early Roger Corman directed movies. I love them both. And I like the merging of the two. I described Reservoir Dogs as a genre-based art film. Those are the ones of the New Wave I like most–the Jean Pierre Melville gangster films or when the New Wave guys took on the genres. Band à Part–Band of Outsiders–is my favorite Godard film.
Rockwell: Right there is a common ground. I chose to make my film in black and white purely because of Godard and the New Wave. There’s a freshness in those movies. All of a sudden some one will turn to the camera and start counting or do a dance step. The cha cha scene in my film comes right out of that stuff.
Tarantino: Hal Hartley does that big time. He does a total tribute to Band à Part, that little dance number they do in that café [in Simple Men].
Rockwell: Or in The Unbelievable Truth where they keep repeating that line. That’s very Godard.
Tarantino: Give me three directors that are overall influences on your work and two directors that particularly influenced In the Soup?
Rockwell: Biggest influences? Cassavettes, Fellini, the early Fellini films, and Godard. The guys that I can never see their films enough. The most influential filmmakers on In the Soup–Godard. I watched Breathless and Band à Part with my d.p. And Melville, believe it or not, I watched Bob the Gambler. And then, I don’t know who directed them, the Three Stooges–
Tarantino: Oh, Jules White.
Rockwell: Jules White, the Three Stooges were like the other big influence. I really wanted to get a film that has an energy of invention. You never know when Curly is going to start eating a table…
Tarantino: …drink kerosene, get hit in the head with a pick axe. I’ve always had the theory that Jason from the Friday the 13th movies is Curly because they both wear a jump suit most of the time. They have the same old stocky build. They’re both bald headed. And, they’re both completely indestructible.
Rockwell: Jason’s an unappreciated comic actor. He’s trying to make a comedy in a horror movie and no one is getting it. What about you?
Tarantino: Probably DePalma, Hawkes, and Godard–early Godard, not that stuff he does now.
Rockwell: Do you think that any of those directors have similarities?
Tarantino: I think Hawkes is completely into his own thing. Early DePalma is very much influenced by Godard, [DePalma’s] early New York stuff, the New York New Wave–him, Jim McBride, John Cassavettes, Shirley Clarke. Then DePalma became something else when he went to Hollywood and I love that too. I learned different things from all three. What I learned from Hawkes is how to constantly entertain an audience, constantly keep them engaged. He was a storyteller. Not plot plot plot. Story! And he knew how to make characters that were totally engaging. DePalma taught me cinema. To me, he’s the most cinematic director there is. And Godard taught me invention. To me, early Godard was like the Bob Dylan of movies. There was a sense of creation and playfulness. He really gave forth the idea that if you loved movies enough, you could make a good one. The people that influenced this movie in particular… I really took my cue from Jean Pierre Melville, his crime thrillers in the ’50s. And John Woo and his cohorts in Hong Kong. I like the idea of working in a genre almost to reinvent it, to stretch it out of shape. Sergio Leone, when he did the spaghetti westerns, created something there was never before. Melville did the same thing with crime films. John Woo, through sheer genius, is basically doing that with crime films again.
Rockwell: What’s in your future? Independent films or work in Hollywood?
Tarantino: There’s three roads you can walk down. The hardest one to walk is the middle road which is the one I want to walk. You don’t want to walk the complete Hollywood road where you turn into a hack, into Richard Donner. Nobody wants to turn into Richard Donner. But if you make those arthouse films constantly, that’s just as equally a bad road because you wind up crawling up your own ass.
Rockwell: And you get supported for climbing up you own ass.
Tarantino: I don’t think good movies come out of either one of those two [paths]. The road to walk is that middle road where you’re just making your movies for either a bigger audience or a smaller audience depending on the movie. I do have ambivalence about it but I’m not that worried. I’m spoiled. I’m either going to make the movie I want to make or I’m not going to make it. But I don’t think it’s as hard as everybody makes it sound. The next movie I’m doing through Jersey Films, Danny Devito’s company, with Tri-Star. Now the budget we want for that movie is six million. That’s a big budget for me but that’s a low budget for Tr-Star. Now, the thing is, I think I could shoot this movie for fifteen million and it would still be profitable but six million, I know it will be profitable. I want every one of my movies to do well. If a situation comes along where my aesthetic and a commercial aesthetic go together, then go for it.
Rockwell: Your films, your stories, can work in that system. With me, it’s a little more tricky. It’s not as commercial.
Tarantino: My stuff, when you say it’s more commercial–I have my people do and say things in my story that make it less commercial. People say about the violence in my movie, “Did you do that to make it more commercial?” The violence in my movie makes it non-commercial, takes it out of the mainstream.
Rockwell: At the same time, it gives a bone for certain producted-oriented people to chew on. Not that you’re doing it consciously but there are certain ingredients that the system allows people more freedom with.
Tarantino: When I started shooting Dogs, I was completely confident with the script, the structure. Did you think that In the Soup was there on the page?
Rockwell: When I write, it’s more like a map for a trip I want to take. Like I’ll say, “I want to go to Tibet so I’ll take this road.” But it wouldn’t mean shit if you just looked at a map. I’m not that good a writer. I’m a better filmmaker than I am a writer. I wrote the script very fast but a lot of stuff grew out of the rehearsals.
Tarantino: I can walk in anybody’s office and throw down the script and say: “This I what the movie is going to be. If you like this, you’ll like the movie. And if you don’t like this, you won’t like the movie.” How do you deal with people when people don’t get your scripts because it’s not really there to get?
Rockwell: That’s one of the reasons I have a hard time dealing with Hollywood because I’m not very good at that.
Tarantino: Would you do somebody else’s script if it was something you really dug?
Rockwell: I would but it would have to be someone I know. Like I would maybe do one of your scripts if you let the pussycat out more–less machine gun, more pussycat. How did that quote happen?
Tarantino: You introduced me to Sam Fuller and we were talking about doing this film where you do a segment and I do a segment and you said, “I don’t want Quentin on my set.” Sam Fuller aid, “He’ll be okay on your set. He won’t say anything. He’s a pussycat… A pussycat with a machine gun!”
Rockwell: Have you ever noticed that when cutting a film, it’s a lot easier to cut characters than story? I lifted entire characters out of my movie.
Tarantino: Oddly enough, the scene that we cut out of Dogs was a character that just didn’t work. It was the only female character in the whole movie that actually had a part.
Rockwell: Oh man, you shoulda stuck her back in to silence those Scorsese freaks, calling you a midget Scorsese.
Tarantino: Maybe in the Criterion version.