Hollywood’s Violent Visionary: How Controversy and Critical Acclaim Fueled Quentin Tarantino
Few film directors have racked up as many superlatives as Quentin Tarantino.
And we're not just talking about awards — although he has won two Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, two BAFTA Awards and the Palme d'Or, and has been nominated for an Emmy and a Grammy.
In 2005, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich has called him "the single most influential director of his generation."
Tarantino has done this as a Hollywood minimalist. In a career that’s spanned close to 30 years, he has only directed eight feature-length films, a pace of one film every three or four years. His movies are marked with violence, dark comedy, nonlinear storylines and killer soundtracks. And, more often than not, Samuel L. Jackson, who has appeared in six of Tarantino's films.
Tarantino turned 55 in March and has said he plans to retire at 60, meaning that he has one or maybe two films left to direct before he focuses on other writing projects. One of those films, his first based on true events, is already in production.
He’s the Only Child of a Short-Lived Marriage
Tarantino is the only child of Connie McHugh and Tony Tarantino. He was named after Quint Asper, Burt Reynolds' character in the CBS series “Gunsmoke.”
His mother was traveling in Los Angeles when she met his father, a law student, and they quickly married. Just as quickly they divorced, as McHugh left Los Angeles to move back with her parents in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In 1966, when Tarantino was a year old, McHugh moved her son back to California, settling in the South Bay section of Los Angeles, where he would grow up.
After McHugh married musician Curtis Zastoupil, the family moved to Torrance. Zastoupil took Tarantino to see movies whenever he could, and, with his mother's consent, many of the films he saw as a young child had adult themes and content.
Among the early films he remembers seeing are “Carnal Knowledge” and “Deliverance.”
“Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit”
McHugh and Zastoupil divorced in 1973, and Tarantino was sent to live with his grandparents for a short time in Tennessee after his mother was misdiagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. His mother's third marriage lasted eight years, and that stepfather also took Tarantino to see films.
Tarantino wrote his first screenplay, “Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit,” when he was 14. The screenplay was based on “Smokey and The Bandit.” It was about a pizza thief.
When he was 15, he was grounded for most of the summer after he got caught shoplifting Elmore Leonard's novel “The Switch” from Kmart.
His only reprieve from the punishment was to go to Torrance Community Theater, where he performed in plays, including “Two Plus Two Makes Sex” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
His First Job in Film
Tarantino dropped out of school by the time he was 16, and he lied about his age to get a job as an usher at the Pussycat Theatre, a porn theater in Torrance.
He also started taking acting classes at the James Best Theatre Company, where he reportedly met many of the people who would later appear in his films.
The 1980s were marked with the odd jobs and bit roles of an aspiring actor. He was one of a group of Elvis impersonators in an episode of “The Golden Girls.” He worked with Craig Hamann, who he had met at James Best, on “My Best Friend's Birthday,” a film project they eventually abandoned.
He also worked as an aerospace industry recruiter and, perhaps most famously, as a clerk at a video store in Manhattan Beach. One of his regular customers at Video Archives was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” actor Danny Strong.
“He was such a movie buff,” Strong said. “He had so much knowledge of films that he would try to get people to watch really cool movies.”
The Tarantino Film You Never Saw
In 1987 he resurrected and shot “My Best Friend's Birthday” after meeting and getting encouragement from Hollywood producer Lawrence Bender at a party. During editing, however, the final reel of the film was destroyed during a lab fire.
Later, the screenplay would be the basis for “True Romance.” By the time the film was released, however, Tarantino was already a burgeoning Hollywood player.
In addition to writing the screenplays for “From Dusk To Dawn” and “Natural Born Killers,” he had written and directed “Reservoir Dogs” and was at work on his breakthrough film, “Pulp Fiction.”
His Big Break: “Reservoir Dogs”
“Reservoir Dogs” was an immediate hit when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.
Tarantino wrote the script in a little over the three weeks, and Bender helped him secure financing. Harvey Keitel also helped finance it and played a prominent role in the film.
The success came with controversy. As “Reservoir Dogs” was being crowned the greatest independent movie of all time, Tarantino disavowed the final version of “Natural Born Killers” in an interview. The screenplay had been originally optioned by Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher. When Tarantino didn't like how he was portrayed in “Killer Instinct,” Hamsher's “tell all“ book about the film, he reportedly assaulted Murphy in the AGO restaurant in West Hollywood. Murphy sued Tarantino for $5 million. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
But “Reservoir Dogs” had established Tarantino's bona fides. He was offered a slew of projects, including “Speed” and “Men In Black,” but turned them all down.
Instead, he went to Amsterdam to finish work on the script for “Pulp Fiction.”
Royale With Cheese
Tarantino and Roger Avary, who contributed to the story, received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for “Pulp Fiction.” He was also nominated for Best Director and the film received five other nominations, including for Best Picture. The film was also a commercial success, having grossed more than $200 million to date.
The years immediately following the runaway success of “Pulp Fiction” were marked by a series of side projects for Tarantino. The script he wrote for Robert Rodriguez's “From Dusk Till Dawn” got a lukewarm receptions from critics, but quickly developed a cult following. He directed the fourth segment of “Four Rooms,” and made acting appearances in “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “Desperado” and “Destiny Turns on the Radio.”
Paging Elmore Leonard, Again
Tarantino's third movie, “Jackie Brown,” was released in 1997. The adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel “Rum Punch” paid tribute to blaxploitation films and was a comeback performance for stars Pam Greer and Robert Forster.
Leonard called it the best of the 26 films that had been adapted from his books.
“Kill Bill” 1, 2 … and 3?
When his next film came in at a running time of four hours, Tarantino split “Kill Bill” into volumes 1 and 2. The films were released in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Tarantino based the film on a character called the Bride that Uma Thurman had developed while filming “Pulp Fiction.”
In early 2018, Thurman told The New York Times that Tarantino had ignored her account of being sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. She also said she had sustained permanent injuries in her neck and knees during a crash in the filming of “Kill Bill.” She said Tarantino had insisted she perform her own stunt. Tarantino apologized and gave Thurman the footage of the crash.
In 2009, Tarantino started teasing in interviews that he would film a third “Kill Bill” that would be set 10 years after the second volume ended, to give the Bride and her daughter a “period of peace.” By 2012, however, he said the third installment of the franchise was “probably not going to happen.”
“Inglourious Basterds” Brings Unprecedented Success
Tarantino's biggest commercial successes came back-to-back.
After its release in 2008, “Inglourious Basterds” quickly became the highest-grossing film of his career. The film depicts a group of Jewish-American guerrilla soldiers in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
“Django” Beats “Inglourious”
The record set by “Inglourious Basterds” lasted three years, when it was surpassed by 2012's “Django Unchained,” which told the story of a former slave in 1858.
Tarantino conceived “Django” as a spaghetti western set in the Deep South.
He’s no Stranger to Controversy
During an interview to coincide with the release of “Django,” Tarantino was asked about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings and whether or not there was a link between on-screen and real-life violence.
Tarantino was infuriated and abruptly ended the interview, saying, “I refuse your question. I’m not your slave and you’re not my master. You can’t make me dance to your tune. I'm not a monkey.”
“I think it's disrespectful to [the] memory of those who died to talk about movies,” Tarantino has said when asked about gun violence. “Obviously the issue is gun control and mental health.”
Other controversies have arisen in his filmmaking career. Director Spike Lee has questioned Tarantino's use of racial epithets in his scripts, and in 2018, a 2003 clip of Tarantino on the Howard Stern Show resurfaced. In it, Tarantino defended director Roman Polanski while disparaging the under-aged girl Polanski was accused of raping in 1973. He described her as a “party girl” who “wanted to have it.”
Tarantino apologized after the clip was recirculated in 2018.
Examining His Relationship With Harvey Weinstein
As news broke of Harvey Weinstein's sexual improprieties in 2017, Tarantino said in an interview that he knew about the allegations since the mid-1990s.
His then-girlfriend told Tarantino about her experience with Weinstein. When Tarantino confronted the producer, Weinstein apologized. Uma Thurman also claimed that Tarantino had ignored her allegation of a sexual assault at the hands of Weinstein.
“What I did was marginalize the incidents,” Tarantino said in October 2017. “I knew enough to do more than I did.”
What’s Next for Tarantino?
In 2014, Tarantino said he would retire after his 10th film. Tarantino has started casting for his ninth film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which will chronicle the Charles Manson murders. The film would be the first by Tarantino based on true events.
Again, he’s drawn controversy for casting Emile Hirsch, who accepted a plea deal as a result of choking a woman in a club. Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie are among the sprawling cast.
Tarantino has been rumored to be considering other projects. One would resurrect the Vega brothers – Michael Madsen would reprise his role of Vic Vega from “Reservoir Dogs” and John Travolta would reprise his role as Vince from “Pulp Fiction.”
In 2007, the age of the actors coupled with their on-screen deaths in the films prompted Tarantino to say the film was “kind of unlikely now.”
Tarantino has long been rumored to be considering a remake of the film based on Bret Easton Ellis's “Less Than Zero.” He has also said he would like to direct a science fiction film. In November 2017, he and J.J. Abrams pitched an idea for a “Star Trek” film that Abrams would produce and Tarantino would direct.