Say you've been recognized as a revolutionary director of post-modern cinema. Lionized for redefining the independent movie spirit. And canonized for turning a quirky little film made for just $8 million into a worldwide box-office phenomenon that took in an astounding $213 million. What could you possibly do for a really cool follow-up? That's the dilemma that's been facing Quentin Tarantino, whose 1994 Pulp Fiction jabbed a spike into the art of film noir and established him as a big kahuna in Hollywood. But instead of writing another original screenplay, Tarantino has staked his reputation on a different approach: he has acquired rights to a best-selling crime novel from the hot author of Get Shorty and adapted it around the retro-hip personae of the ultimate 1970s blaxploitation babe, Pam Grier.
Shooting on Jackie Brown--an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's 1992 Rum Punch--was scheduled to wrap just last Friday in Los Angeles. But already fans are circulating bootleg scripts and creating unofficial Websites on the Internet, including one with a countdown clock ticking off the seconds until the planned Christmas holiday release.
Like Pulp Fiction and his 1992 debut, Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino's latest film is populated with jive-talking killers and other lowlifes. The plot revolves around a streetwise flight attendant, played by Grier, who double- and triple-crosses a gun dealer (Samuel L. Jackson) despite interference from an ex-con (Robert De Niro) and a stoned-out beach bunny (Bridget Fonda) who bounces between the two men. Filled with Tarantino-lingo overkill (the N word is reportedly used 10 times in the first scene alone), the film mixes ultra-violence with the director's usual pop-culture references and hip humor. "At the very least, you'll have a really good laugh at these characters' expense," says Fonda.
But, if all goes well, not at Tarantino's. The director made numerous stumbles in the wake of Pulp Fiction, including an embarrassing guest-host gig on Saturday Night Live, a series of awkward acting efforts, and participation in the flop 1995 anthology Four Rooms. Although the 1996 horror flick From Dusk Till Dawn (directed by pal Robert Rodriguez), which Tarantino wrote, produced and appeared in, was a moderate hit, speculation whirled in the industry about whether his directing career had stalled. Miramax provided a jump start by buying the rights to four Leonard novels for him.
A longtime Leonard fan--as a teenager he was busted for boosting a copy of The Switch from a bookstore--Tarantino chose to film Rum Punch first. But he not only retitled the story, he also moved its location from Florida to California and changed the main character from a Caucasian to an African American. Phoning Leonard earlier this year, Tarantino confessed that he had been hesitant to call because of the alterations. But Leonard, who praises the young auteur's understanding of criminals and casually realistic dialogue, says he told him, "You're the filmmaker--use what you want and make your movie."
If Tarantino was nervous, he appears to have recovered. When people on the set fouled up, they were serenaded with a chorus of Happy Birthday instead of being chastised with an uncomfortable silence. To break up the long shoots, Tarantino staged antics like "Skirt Day," on which men were encouraged to wear dainty frocks (he wore a kilt), and gave weekly wrap parties, including one raging bonfire dance in which Tarantino, his girlfriend (actress Mira Sorvino) and crew members boogied after midnight to the sound tracks from his previous films.
Back in Hollywood, Tarantino supporters are doing their part to soften expectations. "Pulp Fiction's cultural resonance may never be duplicated," says indie-film booster and International Creative Management agent Robert Newman, "but can people still have a marvelous time at a Quentin Tarantino movie? Why not? It's like saying the Rolling Stones did Sympathy for the Devil, so they can't do anything as groundbreaking again." As the Stones and Tarantino both might say, let it bleed.
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