Sundance Forever: How Sundance Taught Quentin Tarantino How To Make ‘Reservoir Dogs’

As the 2017 Sundance Film Festival rolls on, all this week we’ll be looking at the films that defined Sundance, why they still matter, and where their influence can still be felt.

In 2008, Quentin Tarantino returned to Park City, Utah to serve on the Dramatic Competition jury at the Sundance Film Festival. Before awarding the jury’s top prize to the snowbound thriller Frozen River, Tarantino took a moment to address those filmmakers who wouldn’t be winning an award that evening.

Tarantino could relate: Back in 1992, his debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, created a sensation at the festival but little in the way of formal recognition. While Reservoir Dogs would go down among the most storied films to debut at Sundance, and Tarantino recognized as one of the festival’s defining success stories, Tarantino’s twisty-turny neo-noir about a robbery gone wrong was shut out of the awards that year.

“It hurt my feelings,” Tarantino later admitted to author Peter Biskind. “I was sad, I was mad. When it was over, I did a slightly less drastic version of storming out [saying] ‘F*ck all you!’”

Back at Sundance 16 years later, this time as one of the most famous and admired filmmakers in the world, the pain of that slight hadn’t worn completely off for Tarantino. Perhaps that’s why he took a moment to preemptively console the losers that night. After all, being shut out at Sundance clearly hadn’t hurt Tarantino’s career. (As Tarantino himself put it, with typical color, “I got f*ck all” at Sundance.) Maybe, the implicit message to other filmmakers seemed to be, you can follow my example.

Looking back on Reservoir Dogs’ controversial run at Sundance — the film left without a distributor, but the publicity carried Tarantino to Cannes, where he hooked up with Miramax’s Harvey and Bob Weinstein, more or less officially minting his rising stardom — it’s been widely theorized that Reservoir Dogs lost because the film didn’t square with the festival’s arthouse-approved political correctness. This is the view forwarded by Tarantino himself, who accused the jury of being “liberal in the worst sense” in his interview with Biskind.

For the record, the big winners that year at Sundance included Grand Jury prize winner In The Soup, directed by Tarantino pal Alexandre Rockwell, who was later corralled into the misbegotten anthology, Four Rooms; director Tony Drazan, who won the Filmmaker Trophy for the socially conscious Zebrahead; and The Waterdance, winner of the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Neal Jimenez.

None of those films went on to have the sort of life that Reservoir Dogs has had in pop culture. Even in the moment, Tarantino’s brash and violent (though actually not that violent) crime picture cast a long shadow. I remember hearing about Reservoir Dogs one afternoon while watching CNN’s Showbiz Today, which in the early ’90s was a kind of thinking man’s Entertainment Tonight. This was months before Reservoir Dogs entered wide release — Tarantino’s gift for gab and the film’s sensationalized sadism had already made Reservoir Dogs newsworthy. I’ll never forget that image of a sneering Harvey Keitel emptying his twin pistols into a cop car. For a budding film buff coming of age in the ’90s, this was basically the cinematic equivalent of seeing the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time.

The first time I heard about Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs was also the first mention I can recall of Sundance. While sex, lies, and videotape had caused its own media stir three years earlier, Reservoir Dogs was the sort of film that middle-school boys got excited about, thus exposing what at the time was a niche indie festival to a much different audience. Over time, Tarantino and Sundance became synonymous in the minds of many, a somewhat inaccurate perception that has nonetheless helped Sundance greatly. How many budding Tarantinos have submitted their own Reservoir Dogs-style opuses to Sundance in the hopes of his replicating his success?

No matter his disappointment at Sundance over Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has maintained good relations with the festival over the years. This might be due in part to the Sundance Institute Lab Program, a mentorship service founded by Robert Redford in 1981 in which experienced filmmakers advise young directors as they spend several weeks making a demo movie. Past participants in the Sundance Labs include Paul Thomas Anderson, Ryan Coogler, Cary Fukunaga, and, most famously, Quentin Tarantino.

When Tarantino arrived at the Sundance Lab in 1991, he had already sold his first script, Natural Born Killers. When he wrote Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s original intention was take his modest fee from Natural Born Killers and use it to make his cheap heist film on 16mm. (Reservoir Dogs wound up being made for $1.2 million.) But no matter his enthusiasm and backlog of strong material, Tarantino was still green as a filmmaker. Tarantino’s only experience as a director was spending three years in the mid-’80s on My Best Friend’s Birthday, a project he eventually deemed “embarrassing” and couldn’t bring himself to finish.

At Sundance, armed with his Reservoir Dogs script, Tarantino encountered resistance from a rotating cast of movie professionals. Tarantino’s talky screenplay was written out of sequence and he wanted to shoot long takes without any coverage. Stephen Goldblatt, a veteran cinematographer whose credits include Lethal Weapon, Batman Forever, and The Help, bluntly told Tarantino that, “If you do this in real life, they’re going to fire your ass.”

Tarantino found a more sympathetic advisor in Terry Gilliam, who at the time was in the midst of his greatest critical and commercial run of films, including Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys. Gilliam loved Tarantino’s energy and willingness to defy convention. It’s just that Tarantino, in Gilliam’s view, needed to be molded a bit.

Watching Tarantino’s Sundance demo, what’s striking is how ordinary it is. There are flashes of greatness here and there — mostly snatches of dialogue that are familiar from Reservoir Dogs. But otherwise, it’s like listening to a rehearsal tape by a band that’s still a year or two from getting a record deal. The gawkiness, the over-eagerness, the inclination to show off, even a faint whiff of desperation — all the hallmarks of on-the-make amateurism were there for Tarantino back when he was just another movie-mad amateur trying to catch a break.

“This is where, I think, the Sundance Lab was a very useful thing because he had all this energy and all his ideas, this big chance to show everything he could do, and he did it all in these short sequences,” Gilliam recalled a few years in the 1994 documentary, Quentin Tarantino: Hollywood’s Boy Wonder. “The camera was here, and there, they were everywhere, the camera wouldn’t stay still. It was wow, and you couldn’t see anything. And I think that was a very useful thing for him to get out of his system.”

Years later, Tarantino shared some invaluable advice that Gilliam gave him before he commenced with Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino wanted to know how Gilliam achieved his unique cinematic vision — while Tarantino exuded outward confidence, he worried privately that he didn’t know enough about the craft of filmmaking to be a director.

Gilliam calmed Tarantino’s fears — a director, he assured Tarantino, doesn’t have to know how to properly light a shot or which fabric to use in a costume or any of the other numerous technical details that go into making a movie. A director must instead hire the right people, and articulate what’s in his head. If you can do that, you can direct. With that, Tarantino felt ready. If he knew how to do anything, it was talking about the stories waiting to explode from his imagination. The rest is history.

Sundance Forever continues tomorrow with a look at Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. The series kicked off yesterday with a consideration of the eerie prescience of sex, lies, and videotape.