I love Sundance so much, I only wish I could have gone during the height of the ‘90s indie movie boom. This year, Sundance gave me a chance to relive the 1992 festival with a 25th anniversary screening of Reservoir Dogs. There’s probably no way to recapture the feeling of discovering that movie for the first time and wondering, “Who is this guy?” But Quentin Tarantino, producer Lawrence Bender and Mr. Blonde himself, Michael Madsen were there for a Q&A after the film, which by the way looks incredible on the new 35mm print they struck. Here are highlights of the Reservoir Dogs 25th anniversary Q&A at the Sundance Film Festival.
Quentin Tarantino Marvels At Reservoir Dogs’ Brevity
“I can’t believe I made a movie that short,” Tarantino said. “I’m watching the movie, next thing I know it’s the fucking torture scene. Shit, that’s 45 minutes. What’s going on?”
Quentin Tarantino Notices 2 Things For The First Time In Reservoir Dogs
“I was actually panicked for a second when I was watching the 360 around the table because I saw this big antenna thing sticking out,” Tarantion said. “I go, ‘Was there a fucking walkie left on the god damn breakfast table?’ I realized it was Nice Guy Eddie’s brick phone. But there’s an ugly fan behind Mr. Blue which I never noticed before. What the fuck is that ugly fan doing there?”
Quentin Tarantino Remembers The Sundance Directing Lab
“The lab was just amazing,” Tarantino said. “With the possible exception of Lawrence, frankly one of the things that was great about the lab was it was the first time anyone had ever taken me seriously when it came to what it is I wanted to do. Lawrence read my scripts, True Romance, Natural Born Killers and this one so he took me seriously but no one else had ever really taken me seriously before. I don’t know if I took myself seriously.
“At the Sundance lab, they did. They took us really seriously. I couldn’t believe how altruistic it was. There was a whole bunch of us there and there was a whole lot of other people working and their whole point was to just help us. And not even have a finished film, just to help us get better at what we were trying to do, help us refine our aesthetic, help us achieve what we wanted to achieve. That was one of the things they always said: ‘We want you to get out of this what you want to get out of this.’ Now that’s what they said. That’s not always what they practiced, all right, but that’s what they said.”
Sundance Didn’t Quite Understand Reservoir Dogs
“One of the things that ended up happening and it ended up being an interesting thing, frankly a bit of a trial by fire, is you would go to the lab and a whole bunch of famous resources people would show up,” Tarantino said. “They’d be there for a week, they’d look at your work and they’d comment on it and then a new group would come in. I’d never really shot anything before and I really liked the idea of long takes so I wanted to experiment with doing a series of long takes. So that’s what I did and I was pretty happy with what I pulled off.
“I showed it to the resource people and they didn’t like it at all. They thought I was shooting long takes because I didn’t understand that you’re supposed to have cuts. Like I just didn’t know what the fuck I was doing at all. I remember Anne Coates who was the editor of Lawrence of Arabia was one of the people. ‘Quentin, I like your shots. There just wasn’t enough of them.’ Then I’m like, ‘Well, Godard…’ ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all like Godard. No.’”
Sundance Predicted Tarantino Would Be Fired For The Ear Scene
“One guy in particular, a cinematographer said, ‘I liked your script. This scene horrifies me and terrifies me. The thing that’s the scariest is you’re going to go make this movie and if you do this, they will fire you,’” Tarantino shared. “I was already scared about being fired because people like me don’t get movies. You get fired from movies.”
By the time he was on set, Tarantino was still spooked. “I’m talking to Lawrence about my anxiety. He goes, “Quentin, they want you to do a good movie. They don’t want to fire you. We’re past that stage. They want you to knock it out of the park.’ Just as I’m starting to calm down, another friend of ours gets his dream movie going and he gets fired in a week and a half.”
Bender added, “Quentin’s of course pacing. Just like Tim Roth in the movie.”
In his defense, Tarantino countered, “I didn’t do it like that.”
The 1992 Indie Circuit Was Legendary
“’92 was kind of considered a watershed year for Sundance because it was one of those things where a whole bunch of movies came out of Sundance,” Tarantino said. “There was ours, there was In The Soup and Waterdance and Gregg Araki’s movie The Living End, Swoon. I proceeded o go on the film festival circuit for the whole next year, all over the world. The Sao Paulo Film Festival, Boston, Italy, this weird festival they used to have in Avignon, France. Most of that year was actually with a lot of the same movies that opened at Sundance that year.
“In fact, there were so many good independent movies that got a lot of attention that some of them weren’t even accepted in Sundance that year. It’s kind of how Slamdance came about because they were saying, ‘Man, Laws of Gravity couldn’t even get into Sundance in ’92. If we had Laws of Gravity, that’d be great.’ Gas, Food, Lodging director Allison Anders and Alex Rockwell, we all got to know each other. We’d see each other on the film festival circuit. Strictly Ballroom didn’t play here but was at one festival after another with me. It was like going around the world together. So it seemed like a real camaraderie.
“I, in my naivety, thought that me and all these directors would be making movies for the next 25 years. Not all of them have been able to, even the ones that had tremendous success, weren’t able to keep a 25 year career going. That’s just the way it is. It’s hard to do something like that. It’s not really the deal actually. You work for as long as you can. When it’s over, it’s over. It was a very exciting time. It did feel like we were all part of a collective and a movement. Particularly, I felt it when we went to foreign festivals. Every eight years there’s a new hot spot in cinema where something really exciting is going on. Maybe it’s Korea at a certain point. Maybe it’s Hong Kong at a certain point. During that time in the early ‘90s, it was American independent cinema was the hot cinema of the world. That’s what the festivals were looking for.”
Michael Madsen Wanted To Play Mr. Pink In Reservoir Dogs
“I had done a picture with Harvey Keitel called Thelma & Louise,” Madsen said. “Harvey and I got really close but my scenes with him in that film were pretty much cut out. When I found out that he was going to play Mr. White, I wanted to have as much time on screen with him as I could. Quentin of course wanted me for Mr. Blonde and I actually tried to convince him to let me play Mr. Pink. He let me come and audition for him for Mr. Pink.
“[Tarantino]’s standing there in the corner. Harvey was on a towel with bare feet. I remember that for some weird reason. Quentin let me do scenes of Mr. Pink. I thought I was pretty good. He just calmly let me do it. When I was finished, he goes, ‘Are you done?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘You’re not Mr. Pink.’ I think later that day, Lawrence calls me up on the phone and goes, ‘Listen, Michael, Quentin really wants you for Mr. Blonde. You’re either Mr. Blonde or you’re not in the movie.’ So I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m Mr. Blonde.’ Thank God. It’s one of the greatest roles I ever had in my whole career.”
No, Michael Madsen Won’t Do The Mr. Blonde For You
“It comes up all the time,” Madsen said. “I just did a big thing in Chicago. It was like An Evening With Michael Madsen. At one point I said, ‘What am I supposed to talk about?’ They said, ‘We’ll send you a little script to tell you how the evening is going to go.’ I read it and it was kind of interesting. It was rather easy to do. At one point it said, ‘And then Michael comes out doing the Mr. Blonde dance.’ I’m like, ‘Wait a second. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to do the Mr. Blonde dance. It would be really sad if I come out and do that. Besides that, if Quentin heard about that, he probably would kill me.’ So I leave it sacred but it is kind of weird that it does come up all the time.
“The funny thing is, I didn’t know how to dance, which is pretty obvious. He never made me do the dance in rehearsal. I never actually did do it until he was rolling. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I guess the pressure of knowing in my brain that I had to do something, I don’t know where it came from but I stood out and I started doing that thing. I didn’t hear anyone say cut, so…”
Everyone Who Auditioned For Mr. Blonde Was Stuck In The Middle
“We had these big Mr. Blonde auditions where we would have actors come in and do the torture scene,” Tarantino said. “I even told the actors they didn’t have to use ‘Stuck In The Middle With You.’ They could use anything they wanted for the audition. Almost everybody picked ‘Stuck In The Middle With You.’ The very first time an actor brought in a cassette tape player and hit play and ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ started playing and they started doing the scene, that was as close to seeing the movie before we made it as we ever got. I had never seen my scenes with a piece of music that came into my head before.”
Sundance Taught Tarantino Subtext Work
“Jon Amiel, who did the BBC Singing Detective, literally said, ‘So Quentin, have you done your subtext work?’ I go, ‘What’s that?’ He goes, ‘Ah, see, you think you know everything because you wrote it but you don’t know everything.’ I was far from a professional writer so I didn’t know what he was talking about. He explained, ‘Well, subtext work is when you write down what is the subtext going on inside of a given scene?’ I go, oh, well, actually hat sounds kind of fun. That sounds interesting.
“So I got back to my cabin, took a piece of paper and I picked one scene. I picked the scene where Mr. White brings Mr. Orange into the warehouse. Basically, I wrote down okay, what does Mr. White want from this scene and what does Mr. Orange want from this scene and what do I want the audience to take away from this scene? That would sound very basic. What does Mr. Orange want? Well, he’s dying. He wants to be taken to a hospital. Just even writing down the obvious opened up different avenues, different thoughts. You think you’re writing one line and you write three and four. All of a sudden you’re writing other things.
“All of a sudden I started realizing oh wow, this is kind of a father/son story. Isn’t it interesting about the fact that throughout the whole piece Mr. White keeps telling Mr. Orange, ‘Wait for Joe. Wait for Joe. Wait for Joe. When Joe gets here, he’s going to take care of everything.’ Well, when Joe gets there, he comes there to kill Mr. Orange. The whole interesting thing at the end, which I hadn’t thought about frankly, was that Mr. White is kind of almost a de facto son character for Joe and Mr. Orange is a de facto son character for Mr. White. In the end, Mr. White has to choose between his father and his son and he chooses his son but he’s wrong but he’s wrong for all the right reasons. All that started to come to me.
“So I finished it and I go, ‘Oh wow, that was a really interesting exercise. I never want to do this ever again.’ The reason I say that is because I didn’t need to know all that. I didn’t need to know it was a father/son story as I started the piece. The idea is that the tree is big, the tree is strong, the tree has roots, they go underneath the ground. I need to know that there’s roots down there but I don’t need to know what those roots are before I do the piece. I need to just deal with the reality of the drama. What brings them in the room, what keeps them in the room, what stops them from leaving the room. That’s what I need to deal with. Now when the movie’s all over, I can go dig into the roots and see what it is I actually did. That’s fun, that’s cool and that’s creative but that’s not really for the stage. I proved that there were roots there so I didn’t have to look for them anymore.”
Quentin Tarantino On his Acting In Reservoir Dogs
“I think I did the Madonna speech pretty good.”