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Tarantinoesque: The Making of the Last Great Celebrity Director

He hosted ‘SNL,’ jousted with Spike Lee, and even starred on Broadway. Quentin Tarantino is a self-made, self-imagined auteur unlike any we’ve seen since. Just how did he do it?

Dan Evans

This week marks the release of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film. To celebrate, we’re looking back at the best of QT—the best scenes, the best stunts, the best dialogue. We’ll drill down on his extraordinary rise from video store clerk to filmmaking legend and talk to the man himself about his long career. We begin with a close look at how Tarantino first became a star behind, and then in front of the camera.

Late in the spring of 1992, Roger Ebert found himself dining on the French Riviera with Quentin Tarantino. The 29-year-old writer-director had arrived at that year’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival with Reservoir Dogs, a bloody, nervy, Madonna-riffing post-crime caper that was already a must-see on the festival circuit. But with Dogs not due in theaters for months, Tarantino was stuck in the middle between indie-world infamy and rest-of-the-world notoriety—a guy simply “happy to sit on the table on the beach and eat spaghetti,” recalled Ebert, who wound up grabbing the check.

A few years later, in 1994, the two men once again rendezvoused at Cannes. This time, the top floor of a luxury hotel had been roped off in the director’s honor, and the pasta had been swapped out for chilled lobster. Since they’d last met, Reservoir Dogs had become a word-of-mouth phenom on home video and abroad, turning the sunglasses-sporting Harvey Keitel into an unlikely college-dorm pin-up. After a year of promoting Dogs worldwide, Tarantino was back at Cannes, this time with the pop-marked neo-noir saga Pulp Fiction. As he and Ebert talked over coffee, they were interrupted by TV cameras, a needy publicist, Pulp star Bruce Willis—who was trying to corner Tarantino for lunch—and the sound of several noisy fans pounding on the hotel’s glass doors. Through it all, Ebert observed, the director “hardly noticed the storm gathering around him.”

It was merely the beginning of Tarantino’s years-long ascent, one that would turn him from chatterbox ex–video store clerk to A-list auteur. When Pulp Fiction was finally released that fall, it was sold in a variety of ways: As a John Travolta comeback flick; as a can’t-miss critics’ darling; as a movie that might possibly make you faint in the theater. But the film’s trailer made it clear how Miramax hoped Pulp would be received by moviegoers. It was, simply put, “a film by Quentin Tarantino.”

The resulting hype spree prompted some critics to compare Tarantino’s wiz-kid rise to that of Orson Welles, who’d made Citizen Kane while still in his 20s, and who was one of several directors to become marquee names in the 20th century. These were the directors who were worshiped by film students, sought out by talk-show hosts, and treated like stars in the press. By the mid-’80s, a hitmaker like Steven Spielberg was recognizable enough to land the covers of both Time and Rolling Stone in the same year. Not long afterward, Spike Lee would become a one-man brand with enough pull to guest-edit Spin magazine (a very big deal at the time).

Yet Tarantino was speed-injected into the mainstream in ways no filmmaker had ever been before, and that no writer-director les enfants has managed ever since. Over the course of his mid-to-late-’90s run, he hosted Saturday Night Live and landed a costarring role on Broadway. Nirvana gave him a special-thanks shout-out on In Utero, while NBC hired him to guest-direct a heavily hyped episode of ER, then the biggest drama on TV. And when Tarantino was spotted in public—which was often, thanks to his famously fast-moving jawline—he was mobbed by movie nerds and would-be paramours alike. “When you become famous, it’s cool,” he once said. “I can go by myself into a bar I’ve never been before, and in no time I’ll have a couple girls around me.”

Even when he did slip away for a spell, Tarantino was still firmly implanted in the culture, his work constantly being referenced or riffed upon. For years, video-store shelves were lined with titles aching to be Tarantinoesque—a catch-all term for glib, gun-crazy action tales dabbled with pop-culture asides and creaky character actors. As Tarantino himself noted: “I became an adjective sooner than I thought I was going to.”

By the summer of 1995, the culture had become so Tarantinoesque that Ebert and Gene Siskel cohosted an all-Quentin installment of At the Movies. Titled “Pulp Faction: The Tarantino Generation,” the episode was an early indicator of just how long Pulp would linger in moviegoers’ minds: At that point, the film had already played in theaters for eight months, earned more than $100 million in the U.S, and landed Tarantino his first Academy Award. Still, Siskel couldn’t help but wonder whether Tarantino was “a one-man new wave” or “just a flavor of the month.”

Even then, the answer was already clear: Tarantino wasn’t going anywhere. For the next few years, he’d reign as the most obsessed-over, most sought-out, most cool-accredited movie director in the world—much to the surprise of everybody but Tarantino himself. “I always figured I would make a splash,” he said in 1997, not long after he’d used his Pulp dough to buy a Hollywood mansion from pop star Richard Marx. “I just didn’t think I’d get to where I wanted to go in two movies. But I always wanted success.”

Tarantino’s ’90s zeit-heist wouldn’t have been possible, of course, if it weren’t for his trio of twisting, shocking big-screen L.A. stories. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and 1997’s Jackie Brown, with their middle-aged goons and throwback FM-gold soundtracks, made many of the era’s studio-churned action films feel all the more lunkish. They all arrived within a six-year stretch that also found Tarantino directing a segment in the anthology Four Rooms, and in which three of his screenplays were tackled by other filmmakers: True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and From Dusk Till Dawn.

Many of Tarantino’s scripts shared small details, dribbled out like Big Kahuna Burger crumbs, that connected them in what fans dubbed the Tarantinoverse. And at the center of it was Tarantino himself, a hyperconfident shit-talker and self-mythmaker who was just as quotable as his films. On the Monday after Pulp Fiction’s U.K. opening weekend, the BBC aired a star-filled victory lap titled Quentin Tarantino: Hollywood’s Boy Wonder. For an hour, the director lays out the backstory that would later be partly recounted to David Letterman, and within the pages of Rolling Stone: The tale of an excitable autodidact who’d mainlined films since birth, labored at a movie-geek Mecca called Video Archives, and watched his scripts languish for years before finally raising just over $1 million to make Reservoir Dogs.

It all made for an entertaining indie-success legend—but the late ’80s and early ’90s were full of lively origin stories, from Robert Townsend maxing out multiple credit cards to produce Hollywood Shuffle, to Robert Rodriguez undergoing medical-research tests to help fund El Mariachi. What set Tarantino apart from his peers—besides the obvious fact that he was a white guy who’d been anointed by a white-guy-controlled media—was the enthusiasm with which he embraced his own culture-blender persona. Tarantino treated his geek-chic fame as though it were a contest he’d won in the back pages of Entertainment Weekly. On The Jon Stewart Show, he giddily re-enacted the ear-cutting dance number from Reservoir Dogs. On his Letterman appearance, he stood up to demonstrate how Zsa Zsa Gabor’s cat character strutted in The Aristocats. And on that BBC special, he paused his VCR to analyze a scene from Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War—and later sat down with De Palma to gush over the director himself. (Tarantino, who was raised by the small screen almost as much as he was by the big one, knew what made for a good TV moment.)

Tarantino’s interviews were always entertaining, his opinions often punctuated with his go-to “all right?” as if he all he were doing was merely stating the obvious. They found him reveling in his newfound role as a highly visible cultural critic, one who could talk about movies for hours, happily espousing the virtues of everything from French New Wave to John Woo to Howard Hawks. (“When I’m getting serious about a girl, I show her Rio Bravo,he said in a dizzying, legend-burnishing 1994 Vanity Fair profile, “and she better fucking like it.”)

But he was equally ecstatic about pure pop-junk, cheering on shows like Baywatch and D-grade ’80s dramas like Perfect (he also loved Marvel comics, at a time when superheroes were still seen by many as a low-brow pursuit). When Tarantino hosted SNL, his opening monologue found him re-enacting what he called “the greatest moment in television history”: a 1970 episode of Bewitched in which a character sings a rock ’n’ roll number.

For the teens and 20-somethings who’d been couch-surfing since birth, absorbing Brady Bunch reruns and midnight movies—all the while hurling their opinions across the living-room table—Tarantino’s egalitarian geekiness made him all the more relatable. He was like the cool-kid older brother who’d let you stay up late to watch Salem’s Lot, then argue with you about how much it ruled (or how much it sucked). “People think they know me,” he said—and they kinda did.

Tarantino’s Pulp pulpit highlighted another reason he stood out from his contemporaries: He wasn’t afraid to name names. “If all you do is these little art films for 10 years for a million or two dollars, you’re going to climb up your own ass,” he said in a riotous LA Weekly feature from 1992. “I’m not ragging on other people, but after I saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me at Cannes, David Lynch has disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different.” He also dinged the likes of Gus Van Sant, Nicolas Roeg, and Oliver Stone (whose take on Natural Born Killers Tarantino despised). And he engaged in a long-running feud with Spike Lee over Tarantino’s excessive onscreen racial epithets (the dispute eventually led to its own Celebrity Deathmatch).

It was a different tack than that of Golden Age directors like Welles, who tended to not publicly chastise their peers until they were dead, or at least until they’d moved out of L.A. Even in the ’80s, when publications like Premiere and Movieline handed filmmakers bigger bullhorns with which to vent, they tended to mostly remain polite: You never heard Chris Columbus talk shit about, say, Peter Weir. Yet Tarantino didn’t care about such niceties. And even if he did, at a certain point, he became so powerful that no one dared shut him up. How would they even try? “When I walk into a room,” he said. “I always have the most point of view.”

So did his loyalists, especially online, where Tarantino and the greater Tarantinoverse were obsessively discussed. On message boards like—one of the first newsgroups devoted to a single filmmaker—moviegoers who’d been too young to study Kubrick or Fellini in real time now found themselves asking countless questions about Tarantino’s life and work: Was he really directing Titanic? What was in Marsellus’s briefcase? And, most pressingly: Now that Quentin Tarantino was a mega-celeb, what was he going to do next?

As it turned out, what Tarantino really wanted was to be an actor. (He’d studied for years before Pulp hit.) He took on a small role in an indie comedy called Destiny Turns on the Radio—and by the time it was released in early 1995, his brief appearance was all over the trailer. There was also a top-lining turn in From Dusk Till Dawn; a surprisingly charming appearance on Margaret Cho’s sitcom All-American Girl; and a role alongside Jennifer Aniston, playing a convict in a strange interactive PC game called Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair. “You must never forget with Quentin that he wanted to be an actor,” Uma Thurman would later say. “His schedule was not being dictated by being a film director.”

This frustrated supporters like Ebert, who thought Tarantino belonged behind the camera, not in front of it (“It’s not ego, Roger,” the director assured him). And it helped lead to a three-year gap between Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, one that felt like forever to his admirers, some of whom were getting annoyed with Tarantino’s public-life omnipresence. By the time Jackie arrived in Christmas 1997, there was a quietly building backlash toward the director. Five years earlier, he’d been a secret-genius nobody. Now he was dating Mira Sorvino; dealing with a lawsuit after punching a producer in a Hollywood restaurant; and building up a rando IMDb full of so-so roles in mostly not-great movies. He’d gone from cool to a bit too cool—a dangerous move in a cred-obsessed decade. “Critics and fans already have him fixed in the cross hairs, as they wait to see how he measures up to his own standards,” noted the Chicago Tribune in a pre–Jackie Brown piece titled “Gunning for Tarantino.”

Even Tarantino himself sounded like he wanted to step out of the Tarantinoverse a bit. “You could take 30 percent of my fame away and I’d be just fine,” he said that year. “I used to like to walk and be in my own head, and I can’t really do that now.”

Jackie Brown wasn’t the comedown some predicted: The movie made just enough money to keep Harvey Weinstein happy, and earned Robert Forster an Academy Award nomination. Tarantino was shut out of the Oscar race altogether—perhaps a sign of greater Q.T. fatigue within the industry. But the real career setback was still to come. In April 1998, Tarantino appeared opposite Marisa Tomei on Broadway, playing a villain in a revival of the 1966 thriller Wait Until Dark. It was stunt casting—a clear attempt to cash in on Tarantino’s notoriety—and the reviews were merciless, especially in The New York Times (“Mr. Tarantino seems menacing to nothing except possibly [the] script”).

The response left Tarantino deeply rattled. For years, the critical bullets had miraculously missed him. But the Wait Until Dark pile-on left him “traumatized,” a friend later said in Vanity Fair. “He went into a tailspin. It scared him.” Afterward, Tarantino told the magazine, he decided to retreat, spending a good amount of time smoking pot, watching schlock, and hanging with the nonfamous: “I wanted to get out of the celebrity club.”

When Tarantino returned in the early ’00s with the two Kill Bill installments—his first films in more than five years—he was still enough of a draw to land magazine covers and command an hour with Charlie Rose. But in his absence, a new New Wave of filmmakers were building up their own cults, including Christopher Nolan, Sofia Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, and Paul Thomas Anderson. None of them were going to be asked to guest-host SNL anytime soon (though some have popped up on the show via other means). But their work was scrutinized and lionized by fans nearly as much as Tarantino’s had been in the ’90s.

Around that same time, Tarantino largely pulled back from acting, save for the occasional Alias cameo, or gonzo Muppet-movie cameo. Mostly, he cast himself in his own features, all of which—with the exception of 2007’s Death Proof—have retained Pulp’s mix of commercial power and awards-season traction: Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight. And though each one has featured A-list stars, it’s Tarantino’s name that often gets the biggest treatment on the poster—as is the case with this month’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.

That movie caused a backlot frenzy when Tarantino began shopping it around in late 2017. He’d just cut ties with the Weinsteins, who’d backed him for so long, Harvey once described Miramax as “the house that Quentin built.” The Hollywood script led to a bidding war, with Warner Bros. even redecorating parts of its famed studio HQ so that it looked stuck in 1969, the year the film takes place. (Sony ultimately won out.) It was all further evidence that, at a time when nonfranchise studio films are in peril, Tarantino was still a tentpole in his own right.

Yet he’s far from the boy wonder he was in the ’90s. There’s an entire generation of filmgoers who weren’t born when Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction turned Tarantino into a world-beloved bad motherfucker. They don’t see him as a charming, big-mouthed pop savant. Instead, they view him as the middle-aged dude who endangered Thurman during a Kill Bill shoot; glibly defended Roman Polanski on Howard Stern (he later apologized); and brusquely dismissed a reporter’s question at this year’s Cannes. And for some, it’s difficult to separate Tarantino from his Hutt-like benefactors: He may have helped build the house of Miramax, but he clearly didn’t care too much about its rotting foundation.

Decades ago, Tarantino could have blown this all off with a few news-making quotes in Playboy, helped out by a loving press and a fawning fan base that was quick to defend Tarantino’s every iffy tendency. Nowadays, even those who could recite Pulp Fiction word for word in college might find themselves rolling their eyes at Tarantino’s braggadocian past interviews, if not downright cringing while watching him repeatedly invoke the N-word during Pulp Fiction’s “Bonnie Situation.” The Pulp faction of followers might still show up on opening weekend. But many of his ’90s acolytes are no doubt far more skeptical of Tarantino than they were two decades ago. (The Hateful Eight’s three-hour running time didn’t help.)

And, in the same way that Tarantino elbowed his way past the likes of Oliver Stone back in the mid-’90s, there’s a new league of beloved writer-directors who have become off-screen figures in their own right: Greta Gerwig, Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, and recent Rolling Stone cover subject Jordan Peele. They’re all part of a still-in-the-works New-ish Hollywood, one in which the borders between movie studios and streamers are increasingly irrelevant; in which social media is a primary mode of brand furnishing; and in which the dreams of a handcrafted $100 million box office smash are a thing of the past (well, mostly). Yet with so many eyes on the small screen, and with magazine profiles and talk-show turns nowhere as splashy they were in the ’90s, it’s nearly impossible for any filmmaker to be as culture-conquering as Tarantino was years ago—even Tarantino himself.

All of this leaves the now 56-year-old filmmaker in a strange place. It’s hard to describe anyone who can lure Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio into a multimillion-dollar big-studio summer movie as an outsider. But in an odd way, Tarantino’s almost back to where he was in his pre-fame, spaghetti-on-the-beach era: a guy happily out of step with the rest of the culture—and forever gunning to reshape it in his image.

Which might be what he really wanted all along. Back in the late ’90s, when Tarantino was being courted by the entire industry, he made it clear that, while notoriety was nice, his real aim was power: the leverage to make whatever film he wanted, however he wanted.

Twenty years later, he’s still got it. Who needs mega-fame when you can still woo big stars, bedazzle studio execs, and shut down the Sunset Strip? “I’m not in this for a couple of movies,” Tarantino said once upon a time, back when he ruled Hollywood. “I’m in this for a lifetime.” All right?

Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.


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